Nov. 17, 2009 -- Barbara Graham has edited the book "Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother" in which women describe how the love they feel for their grandchildren differs from the love they feel for their children. They gush and talk straight about their new role in their families.
Read the excerpt below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
When Things Go Tilt
Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law. —Margaret Mead
My Gramma lobbied hard for Mom to name me something traditional, like Dagmar or Johanna. Dad vetoed that idea. Apparently Gramma forgave him, because she enjoyed a warm relationship with both my father and my mother to the end of her life. And me? Gramma loved me wholeheartedly— her love was tempered only slightly by Swedish reserve—and I adored her.
She used to ride the train halfway across the country to see us. Each time she came, we'd go out for a "grown-up lunch"— just the two of us. She loved to tell everyone that I was her favorite granddaughter. Our little joke: I was her only granddaughter, but I knew she was proud of me. Between visits, we wrote to each other. I can still picture her jagged, fountain-pen script. Unfortunately, I didn't have the sense to save her letters, and over time I've lost the sound of her voice, but never the tender tone.
Now with that background, I might seem to be a contender for a Grammy Award myself. Let me just say that I'm not holding my breath. Oh, my grandkids seem to have great affection for me. But to my son's wife, I am the dreaded abominable mother-in-law.
John, Rosie, and their daughters—Emma, thirteen, and Gracie, ten—live just ten miles away from me. For the past few years, I've gone to their house only when summoned by Emma. She's the glue that binds me to her family. A typical text message from her: GmaRUOK? Howz yr day lookin' ;-) luv em. What she's really asking is: "Gramma, would you puh- LEEZE come for me and take me somewhere with you?"
I used to fire back cheeky responses to Em's messages. I gave that up once I discovered I'm under surveillance. John monitors our text and e-mail exchanges. So these days, I word my answers carefully: lunch 2day? dbl chk w/parents! luv Gma. I'm a very cool techno-granny and a first-rate buttcoverer.
Once our get-together has been parentally sanctioned, I'm off to fetch Emma. Sadly, the longest leg of my journey is her driveway. I pull up, hoping she'll see me and come outside, but this rarely happens. I think Emma believes that by forcing me to come to the house, she can somehow be the catalyst for détente. Both she and Gracie understand that there's "a situation" with Gramma and their mother—and, therefore, with their father, too.
So, gut churning, I go to the door and ring the bell. Through the small front-door window, I see my daughter-in-law grab her coffee mug and sprint out of sight. Gracie races from the television room and usually beats Emma to the door. The moment I step into the foyer, I'm tangled in a clutch of thin, huggy arms. The girls' freshly washed hair smells like sunshine even in the House of Usher. Promising Gracie a playdate soon, I grab Emma's hand to go. Somewhere, just out of sight, Rosie clears her throat.
It hasn't always been this way. In the beginning, Rosie was warmer, friendlier. This, despite my totally screwing up her life, as she told me once in a moment of unguarded candor. When John announced that he and Rosie wanted to marry the summer after high school graduation, I suggested that they consider holding off for a while. I'd done the too- young-married thing myself—a really bad idea. "Give yourselves some time out in the world," I advised. "Grow wings!" I said brightly. They agreed to wait, and they married the following summer. I believe Rosie has never forgiven me for that lost year.
I didn't see a lot of them before they had children. I was immersed in my career. John and Rosie had jobs, too, and John was attending college at night. When we did get together, things seemed cordial.
Over time, though, Rosie morphed from a shy, insecure young woman to an insecure young woman with harder edges and a sharper tongue. She became increasingly critical of friends, neighbors, coworkers, and, sometimes, John. He usually blew it off when she said something caustic, so I took my cue from him. I remember wondering, though, what Rosie was saying about me when I was out of range. Still, I had not yet tumbled to the fact that I was squarely in her crosshairs as she watched and waited for me to disappoint her.
I can't isolate a freeze-frame moment when things went tilt, but it happened sometime after Emma and Gracie were born. It's fair to say that my casual approach to spending time with John and Rosie spilled over to my early years as a grandparent. Though I found the girls adorable and charming, I was sidetracked by my own frenetic life. Too often, I forgot to lower my gaze to child level, and Rosie was keeping tabs. This led us from a frosty relationship into perpetual midwinter.
There's a little malt and burger joint where Emma and I like to go for lunch. Invariably, as we settle in, she lets loose a breathless whoosh of consciousness. "And then you know that unbelievably cute Adam guy I told you about, the one in my math class, I think he maybe smiled at me today, and did I tell you I have to get a new swimsuit, and I've been wondering if you think gay marriage is right or what, Gramma, and by the way did you watch American Idol last night?"Whew!
Over time I've discovered that Emma tells me things she doesn't tell her parents. She seems to trust me, and this is both scary and wonderful. Although her family closely guards its secrets, for the most part that's not Em's style. The things she reveals aren't shocking, but sometimes she steers her narrative to the parents. Dangerous territory. I've gotten pretty good at deflecting those side trips.
"Well, Gramma, wait till I tell you what Mother did yesterday!"
"Mmmm," I say.
"I'm living in a freaking prison!"
"Don't you even want to hear?"
"Hey, girl," I say, "you ready for dessert?"
"Gramma, you're not paying attention! Mother grounded me just because I didn't have my stupid science project totally, completely finished. She is so lame! I was supposed to go to Jennifer's for a sleepover! She treats me like a baby!"
I suck it up and give her my best let's-be-fair-to-your mother shot. "Well, you know, Em, your mom probably just wants you to stay out of trouble with your teacher and keep up your grades."
Emma rolls her eyes and slides down in her chair, arms folded across her chest. She sighs deeply and is silent for about ten seconds. It rarely takes longer than that for her to decide it's pointless to play the blame-the-parents game with me, so she gives it up. Temporarily.
I must confess that there are times when I'm tempted to sound off. But I know it's bad karma to encourage any line of conversation that might be perceived as parent-bashing. This self-imposed boundary generally keeps me out of trouble, except when it doesn't—because in addition to monitoring my written exchanges with Emma, John and Rosie debrief her after we spend time together. And given that my granddaughter has a flair for the dramatic, the fallout from those postprandial inquisitions sometimes yields e-blasts from John.
"What were you thinking when you told Emma this war is immoral?" (That's not what I said.)
"Em tells me you let her be a potty-mouth, which she mistakenly believes is cool." (Semi-guilty.)
"Did you really tell Em that talk radio is geared to monkey-minds?" (Um, I did.)
I feel so weighted down by the accumulation of John's accusations that I rarely rise to his bait anymore. I would like to ask him how we got to this place where he seems to reflexively assume malicious intent on my part. But that's bound to lead us to the ultra-dangerous topic of his wife. So I do not venture there.
Emma is curious, opinionated, funny, and mercurial, and I love hearing her process life out loud. She claims I'm the only one who listens to her. Big Red Flag. It implies that her parents do not listen. Worse, it's an indictment of Rosie's mother, Faye.
Grandma Faye is a gentle woman, beloved by Rosie's family. I like Faye. She's been present in the lives of our shared grandchildren from the start. I've admired and sometimes envied her. But even though I lost points with Rosie for being less attentive than Faye to the girls when they were younger, I doubt I could have won Rosie over even if I'd been granny-on-the-spot. For one thing, I'm the mother-inlaw, not the mother. But the even greater problem is that I'm me—which is to say, I'm not a bit like Faye.
Sometimes I'm slow to grasp the obvious. I didn't realize until the contest was well under way that Faye and I had been pitted against each other. That came into focus when John told me not long ago that his daughters adore me and would rather spend time with me than anyone else. Well, I thought, that's really something. Given my comparatively recent involvement with them, I'd have predicted Faye as the odds-on favorite. Hell, I'd have voted for her. But my pleasure in the girls' devotion didn't last long.
"Mother," John continued, "you have a huge responsibility. You're obliged to be a role model for the girls. They think that everything you say is gospel. So here's the deal. You need to keep your political opinions, your religious opinions, all your opinions, to yourself. And you need to act your age." Whoa! Blindsided. John is essentially a kind, considerate person. I thought he'd be pleased that his children are so fond of his mother. But no. My son was channeling Rosie.
Emma sometimes channels her, too. One day we were shopping together—school clothes for her, a new backpack for me. My partner, Kenneth, and I were planning a trek in the Ozarks. As the clerk rang up my pack, Emma fixed me with her green-eyed gaze and said, "Gramma? How come you don't stay home and make cookies and knit like other grannies?"
Actually, I used to. I knit my way through my divorce, with great heart and lousy technique. I spent a lot of time unraveling my messes and starting over. Finally I gave it up. And even though I'm a better-than-average cook, it's true that I rarely bake anymore.
Grandma Faye knits. Grandma Faye bakes. Grandma Faye has been married for nearly fifty years to one man—Rosie's father. Faye believes divorce is a sin. And even though Kenneth and I have shared a home for fifteen years (sans vows), she seems to tolerate me anyway. On the other hand, when Rosie went through her brief but intense fundamentalist phase, I became her poster woman for sinners standing in need of prayer. I suspect she continues to take a dim view of my lifestyle.
Kenneth and I are a good match. We're wild about birds and other critters. We're environmental and political activists. Sometimes we stand on street corners with protest signs. My grandchildren find our behavior amusing. Rosie and John, not so much. In fact, Rosie once told me that she finds our public activism extremely offensive and that we must choose between it and the family. We choose both.
As Emma, then Gracie, moved closer to adolescence, this laissez-faire granny decided it was time to redeem herself. Thus began my era of trying too hard. I started showing up for everything: Emma's swim meets, Gracie's flute recitals, family fun nights. I bought lavish quantities of refrigerated cookie dough, magazine subscriptions, and enough paper and ribbon to gift wrap their school. I extended countless invitations to the girls to spend time with me—separately and together. We ate; we shopped; we played miniature golf; we saw movies and plays; we walked in the park. They talked; I listened. I began to get a really good handle on who my granddaughters are. We were having fun and everyone was happy!
Well, maybe not everyone.
During the era, I even attempted to thaw my relationship with Rosie. I suggested that we get together for lunch, for coffee. She pointedly sidestepped each invitation. Then, in what was to become a permanently revised tradition, John and his girls made the annual Mother's Day pilgrimage to my house without Rosie. Ditto my birthday. Rosie was boycotting me.
Even so, I showed up at one of Emma's swim meets, decked out in her school colors and carrying a little "Go Dolphins!" sign I'd made. Emma laughed and introduced me to her coach. That evening, I received another blistergram from John. He e-mailed to tell me that whatever I was trying to prove was undignified and unwanted, that I needed to back off and just be a normal grandmother.
How could my good intentions have been so misinterpreted? I felt shamed, hurt. I wept onto my keyboard. Surely things could not get worse.
It started with unanswered e-mails. Then text messages were ignored. I couldn't get a bead on what was happening. All I knew was that I hadn't heard from Emma for a while. It seemed as though she'd gone missing from me.
I decided that the most likely explanation, given her random study habits, was that she'd been grounded again. Still, we usually manage to connect, even when she's in home detention. I thought about phoning to check in with her, but that would have been a breach of our communication protocol. So I waited—until I couldn't wait anymore. I sent John a breezy, low-key e-mail. I mentioned that I hadn't heard from Em for a while, and hoped they weren't all down with the nasty flu bug that was going around.
John answered quickly: "Your radar must be pretty good. I was going to write. We've been waiting to see how things shake out. And FYI , we're not sharing this with anyone else. But you might as well know that Emma has been having a pretty rough time lately. And on Monday night, she swallowed some pills. We rushed her to the ER and it was touch-and-go for a while. We almost lost her, Mom. She's a little better now. But she's going to spend some time in the mental health unit."
I believe I may have vacated my body as I tried to grasp what I was reading. Emma! Suicide? Why didn't she tell me she was in such terrible trouble? Of course: John's girls have been trained to keep family secrets. But I'm family, aren't I?
"She's refusing to see Rosie," John wrote. "And she's asking for you. Dr. Harris says you're probably therapeutically appropriate, since you two seem to have a pretty strong connection. Rosie and I won't stand in the way if you want to go see her."
Won't stand in the way? Chances are, I'll never know what it cost him to extract permission from a furious Rosie to extend that olive branch. No doubt she would have been surprised to know that at some level I understood her anger. And John? I wanted to comfort him. I used to know how.
I wrote back: "I'm so sorry, John. Of course I'll go!" He e-mailed directions to the hospital and to Emma's unit: "You have to ring the bell. They'll let you in."
Entering a lockdown ward leaves an indelible impression. I rang the bell. I was admitted through the first door by a nurse who searched my purse and asked me if I had anything in my pockets. As the second door locked behind me, Emma came running full tilt down the long hallway and dived into my waiting arms. For such moments was the word bittersweet created.
We were ushered into a stark little room where there was nothing sharp, nothing hard, nothing breakable; where there were no drapery cords and no access to electrical outlets. There were just a few beanbag chairs and some large, well-used floor pillows.
Emma was pale. Her pupils were hugely dilated. Prescription meds, I supposed. For the first time ever, we were awkward with each other. We plopped down on the pillows and simply held hands for a while. And then Em dragged her pillow closer to mine and curled up with her head on my lap. I stroked her hair and told her how much I love her, how much I believe in her.
She looked up at me and said, "Do you, Gramma? Do you really?"
"Oh, Emma, I do."
She sighed. Her voice was nearly inaudible. "I'm always disappointing people, Gramma. I try and try and I just can't get it right. I don't fit in anywhere. I don't. And I'm just so tired." Then she began to cry.
I wrapped my arms around her.
"I hope you're not disappointed in me, Gramma," she said softly.
There are moments in life when choice of words seems especially important. "Oh, honey," I said. "I'm not disappointed in you. I'm just sad because you're having such a hard time. They'll help you here, Emma. They know how to do that. And just so you know? I'm always, always in your corner."
"I know," she whispered. We cuddled through a long stretch of silence. When a staff member announced that visiting hours were over, Emma begged me to take her with me. I promised to come back soon.
I followed up each visit with a phone call to John. I told him in a very general way how things had gone. She seemed a little down. She seemed to have more energy. She offered to show me around the unit. She seemed angry. She showed me some of her art projects. That kind of thing. He listened attentively and thanked me for calling. I began to hope that somehow we might find our way back to each other, John and I, building on this terrible time.
Last week, John and Rosie took Emma home. I haven't heard from her since. I don't know what that means exactly. Maybe her cell phone is off limits for a while. Or maybe I'm no longer therapeutically appropriate.
I vacillate between a deep suspicion that I'm being punished because Emma asked for me and wondering if I'm being totally paranoid. I may never figure that out. The official explanation cooked up for her hospitalization is "acute mononucleosis." Is there such a thing? I don't know. What I do know is that, for now at least, my granddaughter is being held in protective custody and I don't have visitation rights.
I took a chance and e-mailed John yesterday. I said I hoped everything is OK. He wrote back to say that things are complicated but somewhat better. I guess that's good. He reminded me that I'm forbidden to share what I know about Emma's situation with anyone. And so it seems I'm sucked into the secrecy, even as I'm kept at a remove. I'm trying to be patient, but I long for Emma, for Gracie. I worry about my son and even about his wife. I've thought about trying to reach out to Rosie, but that seems futile. There's nothing for me to say or do, no way to be that is acceptable to her.
Emma knows where I am, though—literally, metaphorically. We have a strong bond, even when we're not together. Still, I hope she surfaces soon. I suspect she needs all the love and reassurance she can get. How long should I wait for her to get in touch? There are no rules for this. And then it comes to me. What the hell? I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. I pull out my cell phone. "Em, RUOK? Howz yr day lookin ;-) luv, Gma."