My adult stepson’s tone tells me he’s repeating what his kids have been saying. They want my attention. I have not heard their words.
It’s the first night of the Brown Family Campout at the Russian River. I am sitting at a picnic table in front of my computer, working while I wait for more people to arrive, including my husband. I haven’t heard anyone say anything. I tend to block out sound when I concentrate.
Both Blade, age 9, and Ava, age 7, have soft voices, or maybe they’ve just been using soft voices because they don’t know me very well. Although I’ve been married to their grandpa for four years, I am still a bit of a stranger. Most of the year they live in Las Vegas with their mother.
I’ve never been either a mother or a grandmother, except for the years when my high school actors called me the Drama Mama. My students were teenagers and I was in my late twenties. We were a family of our own making. As the drama teacher and director, I was the head of it, but they went home to their biological parents at night.
My mother had a problem processing sound in the last years of her life, and I might have inherited that. It could be part of the reason I didn’t hear Blade and Ava. It’s more likely, though, that I didn’t hear them, much less respond, because I’m not used to being Grandma. After four years, I still don’t think of myself as Grandma, and it’s time to get over that.
I’ve heard that Grandmas take their kids to lunch and the movies. Sometimes they babysit. Sometimes they knit. Sometimes they simply listen with complete attention, while lying in a hammock or helping with the architecture of a sand castle, especially when their parents are busy multi-tasking.
Some Grandmas move slowly, but they know a lot. They’re good at baking cookies, though in our family, I leave that task to their Grandpa Richard.
When I hear Dave saying, “Grandma Lynn,” I turn around. He points to his children, sitting at the picnic table next to mine. His son, Blade is deeply absorbed in a hands-on project and his daughter, Ava, is staring right at me with piercing eyes. She has a paper in one hand and a crayon in the other. She holds up her paper to show me that she’s written something.
“Very good, Ava. Can I hear what you wrote?”
She reads me the words and I am amazed at how much she learned in the first grade. “That’s excellent, Ava,” I tell her.
“I can do more.” She returns to the paper. She wants my approval. And why shouldn’t she? That’s what Grandma’s do. They say you are wonderful. Ava never knew her biological grandma, who died 10 years ago. Besides, to a seven-year-old, Grandma mostly means old-lady-with-cookies.
When a child yells, “Mom,” in a grocery store, heads turn. Not mine. I’ve steeled myself against any feeling of loss or incompleteness when I hear those family labels.
My mom wouldn’t let us call her Mom. She preferred Mommy. She told us Mom sounded too casual; she wouldn’t let us call her Mother either. It had to be Mommy. Maybe she wanted us to stay little forever.
One day when my sister was too old to call anyone Mommy, she started calling our mother by her first name. When she said, “Benita…” our mom didn’t object. She smiled. Maybe it made her feel like she was our contemporary. Then my sister started calling our father by his nickname, Jody. He told us it wasn’t appropriate, but when he found out we were calling our mother Benita, he shook his head and let it go.
My sister said it was cool to call our parents by their first names. It made us grown up. I never heard this was disrespectful until I met my husband. I don’t remember talking about or how it’s earned with my parents. Maybe they figured we were born knowing that. Maybe it was so obvious to them that they felt we didn’t need to talk about it.
The only Grandma I knew, my father’s mother, died when I was 7. If we ever had a conversation, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember calling her anything, but when any of Richard’s grandchildren say, “Hi, Grandma,” I glow. Their honest, loving outreach makes me feel deeply connected to the whole Brown family. I am respected there. I like being Grandma, but I’m not used to the role. Maybe it’s hard for me to get used to it because I skipped motherhood and the whole domestic routine.
I know that even the most distant of Richard’s kids recognize that I make him happy and that makes them happy. I can’t quite believe that this life with no undercurrents of animosity is real. I don’t quite trust it, and I need to get over whatever fear is behind that. I know, intellectually, that this marriage is forever. I need to implant that knowledge in my heart.
Richard’s kids and grandkids feel comfortable being who they are and confident of their own self-worth. They want the same love and validation and challenges that everyone wants. I know that Richard and his first wife, Jean, raised them to be that way.
Richard is a good role model. He shows his grandkids right from wrong. He shows his kids that you don’t lose until you quit trying. He shows me that his love and forgiveness are there everyday. They are real.
The morning after Dave had to let me know that my grandkids wanted my attention, Richard and I took all the Browns out to eat. When we got home we promised to help them make cookies. We kept that promise and also took them to see Finding Dory. Richard was even going canoeing with them until common sense caught up with him. He is fit but he is also 72.
Their Grandpa Richard is reliable and fair. He has clear-cut boundaries. He knows what kids want and what they need. He’ll never have trouble hearing anyone say Grandpa, because that’s what he expects to be called. He is used to the parental role. I am getting used to it. Thank goodness he understands that it takes time.
Ava, her brother, and all of Richard’s grandchildren can train me for my new job just by being themselves. Invite us to a concert or a baseball game and I’ll be there, even if Richard and I have to come in separate cars because of our work. Ask me a question and I’ll answer it or introduce the questioner to the magic of Google. Want to come for a swim? I’ll take you to the pool as long as your parents transport you. I’m getting better at involving myself and setting up boundaries.
Late in the afternoon of our last day of camping, I was walking our dog Eddie. Jordan, age 10, was hurling rocks across the Russian River. He has quite an arm. I could see them sail across the river and hear them fall through the leaves in the trees on the other side. “Good job, Jordan,” I said.
His face glowed, which was all the thank you I needed. He went to pick up his next collection of rocks, and I turned back to Eddie, who was tugging on his leash. He wanted to go to the river, and he wanted to go right then. Though he’s a dog, he’s made it very clear that he knows he is living with grandparents, and he’s always delighted to see his grandkids, who want to walk with him, run with him, and pet, pet, pet him.
I was trying to keep him from tugging my arm off, when I thought I heard a tiny voice say, “Watch me.” Eddie had my attention. I didn’t turn around, until I heard a sweet, high voice calling, “Nana. Grandma. Watch me!” with urgency and voice projection.
I turned and there was Ava, dancing around on the grass in her swimsuit, her hair falling down her back in a loose braid and sparkling with blonde highlights in the sun. She waved. “Watch me,” she said as she did an almost hand-stand.
“That’s awesome, Ava. You’re getting really good. You and Jordan are both quite the athletes.”
She didn’t care that I had no idea how good her handstands were a week earlier. She didn’t even think of it, and neither did I in that moment. She had no idea how thrilled I was that she was asking for my attention again.
Is it possible that they might remember me when they turn 60 or 70? I remember my grandma, even though we never talked or played together. She was way shorter than my Dad, I inherited her looks, and I hope I have her longevity.
My own grandkids (how I love saying that) make me care about the world we leave them. They make me want to fight for their education and technological tools and clean water and the freedom to make choices.
They already have outstanding parents, and I want to reinforce the values of fairness and compassion I know they are learning. You see, I am falling in love with my grandkids. They don’t seem to mind if they can’t get my attention on their first try. They give me a reason to listen and hear them, and if that’s a part of the job description for Grandma, I am happy to fill the bill every time I can.
B. Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com. She’s written You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and Talent (Eternal Press), which was short-listed for a Literary Lightbox Award and won a bronze medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. She’s shopping her memoir, Never Too Late: A 62-Year-Old Goes From Wannabe to Wife with agents and publishers.