Monday, May 16, 2011

Number Sixteen

My good friend Joy wrote one of the most popular -- and important -- posts to be featured on Gaddy Daddy, so it was a no-brainer to invite her back to share more of her insights on parenting.  Naturally, her new post is once again beautifully written and thought-provoking.  Thanks Joy, and to my readers: enjoy it!

When I went into labor, I packed a bag full of entirely useless things: a few of my nicer maternity outfits to wear at the hospital when guests came to visit; makeup, so I’d look my best in the first picture of me with my son; shampoo for the shower. Needless to say to anyone who has ever had a baby, I didn’t use any of these items. I did not change out of the hospital gown until I went home, and if I could have worn it on the streets of New York City and into the car, I would have. Not only did I not wear makeup in the hospital, my mascara had dried up by the time I unscrewed the cap again months later. As for the shampoo, I didn’t shower for nearly a week, and from the look of my fellow patients on the maternity ward, neither did they. I could hardly stand upright, let alone consider washing myself. And after a while, my hair was so dirty that it naturally molded itself into a ponytail on top of my head. I hardly even needed a rubber band.

I did bring one right thing, though: my grandmother’s diamond earrings. I put them on before I left for the hospital, and I wore them for nearly the entire year after my son was born. Before becoming a mother, I was a dangly-earring kind of person. Because I’m tall with a long neck, I always thought larger earrings helped balance me out. And even though I knew a newborn wouldn’t have the coordination to reach up and pull a big earring, it just seemed more practical to wear studs. I think it also occurred to me that my grandmother’s earrings might bring me some of the strength for which she was renowned.

My grandmother was not a “grandmother” in the traditional baking-cookies sense. And by that I mean that she did not like children. It wasn’t something her ten grandchildren were meant to take personally; from my mother’s reports, she hadn’t particularly liked her four daughters when they were children, either. “I think she liked me better when I got a driver’s license,” my mother has told me. “Because then I could be useful to her.”

My grandmother wasn’t a mean or neglectful mother; she just wasn’t particularly warm and cuddly. She didn’t negotiate with children; her word was the final word. My mother and her twin sister were dressed identically until they were fourteen years old, despite their different heights, appearances, and tastes. They were not allowed to have their own friends because once while my mother was on a playdate, my aunt cried for the entire time she was gone. My mother has told me many times that she would sit at the piano practicing for hours while my grandmother was in another room, presumably listening. My mother would call out, “Was that good, Mommy? Was that good?” hoping for the praise that rarely came.

My grandmother was entirely unsentimental. She thought toys were dust collectors, and when my mother and her twin sister were ten years old, she forced them to give their prized china dolls to their young niece. My cousin Marcy had no interest in dolls; she was a horse girl. My mother mourned the loss of her beloved Linda, whose lashed eyes closed when you tilted her back and who said “Mama” when you tiled her upright. My mother’s own grandmother, who was the warm and cuddly type, had made a wardrobe of clothes for Linda, which my mother packed up one day at her mother’s order, along with Linda, to give to Marcy. I can only imagine that my mother (also the warm and cuddly type) was devastated to part with Linda, and her pain was compounded when, a few weeks later, on a visit to my cousin’s house, she found Linda lying in the front yard. Linda was naked and her china face was cracked because she had been left out in the sun.

Given these and other stories about what I perceived to be my grandmother’s heartlessness (Pinky, my mother’s pink bear that went missing one day, blamed on the housekeeper; the Ginny doll, there one morning and gone when my mother returned home from school), and my own experiences with her when I was a child (which largely consisted of her coming to visit on weekends and going shopping with my mother while I was left at home with my grandfather, who chain-smoked and watched the Red Sox at top volume), I had never really sought to emulate her. But now that I have become a parent, I find myself doing just that.

My grandmother never freaked out. Ever. She rarely if ever complained. She was rock solid. My grandmother was honest. She told it like it was; she didn’t worry about other people’s feelings, even though sometimes her directness hurt people. One time it hurt me. I was riding in the car with my parents and my grandmother when I was in college. My grandmother was talking about the beauty of a cousin of mine. “My Joy is beautiful, too,” my mother said, to stroke my ego, or her own. It was meant to be a rhetorical statement, but my grandmother didn’t let it go. “No,” she said, shaking her head back and forth. “Joy has other attributes, but Rachel is the beautiful one.” She didn’t seem to realize—or care—that I was right there, in the seat behind her. My grandmother didn’t say things just to be nice. She said what she believed. To my mother, beauty is the ultimate goal. “You look like a model,” is her highest praise. To my grandmother, beauty is just one thing a person may or may not have.

When a member of the family was going through a hard time, my mother would often tell me she and her sisters had decided not to tell my grandmother, in order to spare her the worry. I always thought the energy they put into protecting my grandmother was wasted. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about us; she just didn’t express that care by agonizing.

When she was older and started experiencing health problems, I would often ask her how she was feeling. Ask my mother or me how we are feeling when we’re unwell and you’re in for a detailed explanation of our symptoms, what the specialists say, what treatments we have done and what we plan to do next, and so forth. But my grandmother never provided much detail. “I’m doing what the doctors tell me to do, dear,” she would say. And then she’d move on.

Moving on was, in my opinion, the key to her longevity. She lived into her nineties. She never had a career. She didn’t have many hobbies, although when she was younger, she had knit each of her daughters a blanket (same pattern, different colors). Ours was brown, yellow, and orange. For some reason, it always surprised me to see its red, white, and blue twin at my aunt’s house.

She wasn’t a particularly effervescent person, but she wasn’t a morose person either. She was consistent and steady. She liked what she liked: round tables at restaurants so she could see everybody; hair pulled back from the faces of her granddaughters; lipstick, both on herself and on all other women; butterscotch candies; really hot tea.

Last week I removed by grandmother’s earrings from my ears and put them back in the cloth-covered red box in which they were given to me. I replaced them with little silver circles, also studs. They were a Mothers’ Day present, and I think I’ll wear them almost every day for the next year, maybe longer. They’re more “me” than the diamonds were, really. But I’m glad I was wearing my grandmother’s diamonds when my son came into the world. He would have been her sixteenth great-grandchild (she called them her “grands”). She softened in her older age and to her grands, she was kinder and more accessible. They even called her “Grammy,” which always struck me as odd since she was really more of a “Grandma,” or even “Grandmother.” I think if she had lived to see number sixteen’s heart-melting smile, it would have melted her heart, even just a little.

My son is just about to turn one year old, and I hope as he grows I can weave some of my grandmother’s fortitude into my own parenting style. I don’t think I’ll ever make him give away his beloved stuffed dog Woof Woof, but I want to be strong for him. Unbreakable.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings!! I'm mommy to a Max too!! I found you boys on Circle of Mom's and thought I'd stop by to say hello. Your little one's too cute(must be the name)!