Parenting In Search Of: Grandmas
Our son will grow up without grandmas, but we want him to remember these wonderful women he’ll never get the chance to meet.
“Excuse me, but are you in the market for a grandson?”
This is the joke my wife and I quietly repeat to each other whenever we encounter an older woman we both like. The round, grey-haired woman with an accent so perfectly British, it might have been fake. The statuesque woman whose voice was so low and smooth, it mesmerized our little boy. The stout Italian woman who bounces him on her hip every time we visit her sons’ pizzeria.
The women take a liking to his shock of blonde hair, his clear blue eyes, or his easy demeanor. Often, they’ll come right up to Julius and start playing with him. They’ll ask him questions and he’ll respond in his babbling twenty-six-month-old language that only Emily and I can decipher.
We’ll whisper the joke to each other as we push him down the aisle of our neighborhood Trader Joe’s or as he toddles through the park near our house.
“Because we’re looking for a grandma,” the joke continues. “Ideally two, if you have a friend.”
My mother died seven years ago, before Emily and I were married and before we’d welcomed Julius into the world. Emily’s mother died over a decade ago, before I ever came into her daughter’s life.
We planned our wedding without moms. We moved into our first apartment together and later bought our first home without moms. We’ve gone through the trials that come with any long-term relationship without the wisdom of moms. We brought a child into the world without moms. At this point, we’re almost used to not having them around.
Neither Emily nor I am afraid to talk about our mothers. In fact, we remember them regularly, vocally, with joy and passion.
We recount their funniest mannerisms, their ticks and tendencies. We point out moments they would have loved: for my mother, Susie, a pink-blue sky on an October evening. For Emily’s mother, Carol, the chance to learn something new about someone.
“Now tell me,” she once said, pointing at one of Emily’s friend’s t-shirts. “What exactly is the ‘Wu-Tang Clan’? And are you a member?”
Though both women were quite different on the surface—Susie, tough-as-nails product of a rough inner city, with the soul of a fighter and the foul vocabulary to match; Carol, with a quiet and more inquisitive nature who scolded her children for saying “butt” around the house—they shared much in common. Both were master teachers with advanced degrees in education. Both prided themselves on their work in the public school system. Both were vocal and passionate advocates for civil rights and special needs students. Both adored the children that they dedicated their lives to, at home or in the classroom.
Both got cancer. Both died long before they could see their youngest child get married and bear children of their own.
Often, I’ll point out my mother to Julius in pictures, remembering one of her final requests.
“Just make sure they say my name,” she said to me in her dying weeks. “Make sure your babies know me, as best as you can show them. As long as they say my name, I’ll never be dead.”
For now, and like almost everything else within his ever-expanding cognition, the best we can show him is through names and images. He knows words and shapes, things and their places.
“This is a ball. This is a fork. That’s Susie.”
Someday soon, he’ll begin to understand more complex concepts like sharing, compassion and, of course, family.
“She was your grandmother.”
As our boy gets older, we’ll recount to him our favorite stories of his grandmas. He’ll learn of the legendary water fights my mother and I would have inside our house (much to my dad’s chagrin) and might even have the guts to try and recreate one with his own father. He’ll hear about the time Carol walked right up to Julia Child in a shopping mall and asked for clarification on one of her recipes. Or the time Susie sneaked our entire family in the service entrance of FAO Schwartz, mere days before Christmas, as a line two blocks long snaked out the front door. Or when a young niece asked Carol where exactly the conveyor belt of the airport’s baggage claim went and she simply said, “I don’t know. Let’s find out,” only to hop on and take a ride into the bowels of Philadelphia International Airport (pre-9/11, of course).
We tell these stories and we laugh because laughing usually beats crying. But we laugh because we remember vividly the women at the center of these stories. We remember their fearlessness, their accents, the mannerisms and their ticks. We see the way these women manifest in us, in our parenting styles and in our views of the world. We remember these women as the full, complex characters they were.
But to Julius, these women might be no different than Han Solo or Moana or Buzz Lightyear. They might simply be characters in a story he’s heard a million times before.
It’s easy now because he’s young. Only twenty-six months old, Julius is just beginning to discover the world around him. He has no concept of what isn’t there yet. Only twenty-six months old, he has no idea that he’ll never have grandmas.
But soon he’ll hear his friends talk about their grandmas, about the Christmas or Hanukkah gifts they got from them, about the weekends spent at grandma’s house or the family trips to visit these mysterious maternal lovecreatures that every other little child seems to have. And soon we’ll have to explain to our son why he doesn’t get to have grandmas of his own.
Perhaps this will be our first conversation with Julius about the cycle of life, about what might happen after we die and how his mom and dad try their best to embrace the fleeting nature of living. I wonder how Emily and I will approach these conversations. I wonder how they will affect our son. I wonder if they will at all.
If I could, I’d ask my mother how she handled these big talks with me when I was a boy. But our son doesn’t have a grandma I can call for advice.
So if you know anyone looking, keep us in mind. Because we’re in the market for one. Ideally two.