I signed the retirement-agreement contract, which required the exiting professor to give up tenure and enter a four-year sabbatical at half-pay, and wrote a prospectus of what I planned to accomplish during the four years. It was mostly writing projects. Nowhere was the real reason listed—to be a grandmother.
I wanted to enter that world of young grandchildren that is only there for a while—because it fit in this situation—because it was possible—before they are so engrossed in their activities they tell me to wait in the car. Soon they will be on with their lives and I imagine myself a backdrop, less important in their lives, as it should be. Already, I am the outsider; once in a while, an insider. I know the tightrope between, and the frustration of dealing with three young children each one going their own way. I already have felt estrangement with the oldest because of his insistence on dominating his two younger siblings. I don’t like the meanness they thrust on one another when they fight.
Sometimes I return to my house and sit by myself in the quiet. Sometimes I even feel a slight anger. I was a tenured professor. I could do what I wanted. What I eventually wanted, was to be with my grandchildren. I gave up my beloved position of 17 years, and tenure for which I had worked hard, and worried over just a few short years earlier.
I wanted to be a part of their lives because I began to see that being a grandmother was a continuity. What I couldn’t do for my children, or didn’t know to do, or was too harried, or unhappily married, I could re-do. Being a grandmother is a revision. A chance to rewrite. A privilege to add to what their mother is doing very well, though her husband travels for his work, and she is under the stress and pressure of young children, and as with current life-style a hundred activities a day. One Saturday alone is filled with soccer games, birthday parties, a multitude of errands.
I wanted a chance to be a better grandmother than mother, in an unsatisfying marriage, impatient, hurt, longing for a way out.
I wanted to provide stories for my grandchildren. “What book did you bring me, Grandma?” They ask when I return from a trip.
It is in stories, oral and written, that I have my being. On a recent sleep-over, I read six books to Libby, who had opened a 7th when I turned out the light. I want to provide stories for my grandchildren. I am buyer of books, a filler of bookshelves.
A grandmother’s story-telling is cartography. It is map-making. This is where we have been. This is where we can go because of words. Cherokee, which I do not speak, is a language like a lake with its rippling edges, the water, moving, sometimes restless, always with fish in it, mysterious, the submerged meaning, the reason for water is a holder of fish, as language is the holder of words to tell us where and how we are going. I also want to instill them with a sense of faith.
There are times with my four-year old granddaughter, Libby, especially, that I feel the concept of time space in physics. A connection back to my grandmothers born in the 1880’s. A continuum of voice, of story. A physical presence of the past that I give my granddaughter, not in words, but in essence, in connection to something larger than the two of us. It is not in words, as I said, but a sensed distillation of time in a small shape that is the moment between us.
On Fridays, sometimes, I take Libby to art lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It is where I went as a child. It is where I took my children. Afterwards, Libby and I go to Winstead’s on the Plaza for fries and a milk shake. This week, when I read her the flavors, she says, “cherry.” As she is drinking it, she tells me she likes cherry shakes, “but not a cherry in a circle.” I want to be there to receive that kind of information from her. I want to be there when she takes a risk of a shake she may not like.
At the Nelson, Libby works with clay. “It isn’t ready to bring home yet,” she tells me with a sense of importance, but she gives me a collage she made. It is a piece of black paper with fragments of colored paper glued to it, and a few crayon markings on the fragments. I like her work because I am a worker in fragments. I am separated between cultures, places, languages. I have the grandchildren’s drawings in my house and at my cabin. At my house, Libby chooses to add her collage to a paper-construction robot made by the boys, which they taped to my dining-room wall. Actually, her collage improves the robot greatly.
While she is at her art lesson, I walk through the museum. There are several of Henry Moore’s pieces at the Nelson. I identify with one in particular, Draped Seated Woman, 1957-58, because I am draped with the heavy covering of grandmother. In a note beside the sculpture, Moore wrote that he wanted to “connect the contrast in the size of the folds, here small, fine and delicate, in other places big and heavy with the form of the mountains, which are the crinkled skin of the earth.” Moore’s sculpture is a nearly life-sized woman cast in bronze, her face a wedge without features. Almost like the beak of a bird. But when I look at the folds in the drape covering the woman, I see the folds as waves on a lake.
I want to say that grandchildren make you selfless. It is all them. Their clothes. Their toys. Their furniture. Their happiness. But it is selfishness. They are mine. Mine. All mine. No one else can have them. They also are where I meet defeat in my importance/unimportance in their lives. I used to walk into class and students listened. I marked papers and gave out grades. “Do you know, grandchildren, what your grades would be for today?” I have wanted to ask.
Even in the early days, when I was writing at my small desk and my children were young, I felt the pull between work and children. I want also to be there for my daughter, to give her a break now and then, to help her with her load.
Now, when there is a battle of the wills, I know it is their lives that are important. Their road ahead. I step back where I could have lead the class. I could march into it, but instead I follow. What I have now is a departure from history. A center that a grandmother had. Not it is auxiliary. It is beside the family. They have their own lives. I can contribute and not get in the way. I give the reins to them. It is the new definition of grandmother because I want them to be independent and responsible for themselves. That is the new direction. I have to let go. I return to my house with relief. I can sit at my word processor and write. I can read. I can go to the lake by myself. I can get lost in my own projects, which is what I want to do for the afternoon. I can plan for my next writer’s workshop. I can pack for a trip. I can still drive. Sometimes I don’t see them for days.
My own maternal grandmother lived on a farm. We had visits there in the 1940’s when I was growing up, but I remember her as distant. Practical. Once I took a chick into the farmhouse and was petting it when she saw me, and asked what I was doing with the inference I was silly. It was a chick she later would behead with an ax for supper, when it was bigger and covered with white feathers. I remember those little Ann Boleyns of the barnyard. I have found my own beheading in giving up part of myself for my grandchildren. I want to provide that presence for my grandchildren. I want to have an awareness of themselves in the world.
Often, in the past, the Indian grandmothers named the children and had a definite authoritative role. It is something I wouldn’t think of doing with the independent daughter and daughter-in-law I have. It would cause trouble. Resentment. I feel I have information that sits at the center of the world, yet I am left with duties I have at the moment, shortening a penguin suit for my granddaughter for the current Halloween. Last year, it was white feathers I sewed back onto her chicken costume when they kept falling off. Sometimes, I also read to Libby and Charlie while they mother helps their older brother, Joseph, with his homework.
My purpose as grandmother is to cause fun to form in the daily routine, to distract from trouble, to console, to call to look up. Sometimes I am aware of the weariness children feel as they move along in school, busier all the time with homework and activities: soccer, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, art lessons and all the dancing lessons for Libby, the doctor and dentist appointments, Cub Scouts and piano lesson.
When I take Libby to gymnastics and dancing lessons, I stand at the glass watching her. She in turn, watches me to make sure I am watching what she can do. If I look away a moment, she is at the glass to get my attention back to her. I visit her pre-school. I take her on errands. I am a prop instead of the center pole. It seems to me that is the way it should be. It is worth the price.
Recently, when Charlie was sick and unable to go to a basketball game with his family, I sat with him while he cried in the misery of his illness and in being left behind. I want to commiserate when his parents are too busy. I want to be a spark, an incentive. A light. Being a grandmother is an act of prayer against the terror of the world, a grounding of faith for this solitary road. It is the times I am overwhelmed with the noise and confusion, and have to withdraw to my quiet house. I have had 25 years on my own. But I want to stand up and join the battle. I want to ignite. To call to journey. To tell them, see how the petals of the orange roses on your mother’s table are like flames.
My grandchildren are in a new world. I have to stand back and watch, as maybe my paternal grandmother saw me and remained silent. It is the separation that holds us together. I think of the secret things that will die in my world as the world of my father’s mother died with her. The other day I wanted to call the grandchildren to watch a storm, but they were watching a video when all the mystery of the natural world passed by.
I have taken Charlie to the lake with me. He is wedged between siblings, and needs a larger space at times, a space for himself. I have seen him interrupted so often by older brother and younger sister, he gets frustrated and breaks out in anger when trying to say something.
At the lake, I have a Jon boat, which is a small, brown fishing boat, though I don’t fish, with a battery operated motor. We explore the end of the cove. When the water is low, there is a rocky shelf we call Charlie’s Island. Usually it belongs to the ducks. We motor there, a trip of two minutes from my dock. We get out of the boat and walk the entire length of Charlie’s Island, four or so yards. We throw rocks in the water. They are more like pebbles. We find a walking stick. We move rocks around with the walking stick. We talk. I listen to every word he says.
Even when Charlie’s Island is underwater, we know the rocky shelf is there.
In a spirit dream, where all things are possible, I sew the fragments of pebbles into a small island. My needle penetrates the rocks. My threads hold them together.
The role of the grandmother is a rocky shelf.
Diane Glancy is professor emeritus at Macalester College. Her 2009 books are The Reason for Crows, SUNY Press, a novel of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk converted by the Jesuits, and Pushing the Bear, After the Trail of Tears, the University of Oklahoma Press, that follows her 1998 novel of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. She was the Visiting Richard Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College in the winter semesters of 2008 and 2009. This piece first appeared in Melusine's Fall 2009 issue.