My grandmother lived in a town called Mount Vernon, and for most of my early childhood I thought that meant George Washington had once been her neighbor. There was a legitimate old-world feel to her street: gabled roofs, imposing oak trees, trellises, gazebos. Her house was a Cape Cod-style with a century-old maple tree anchored near the curb. Inside, the walls were painted slate blue and the blinds always drawn, and the living room smelled of electric heat and boiled chicken and week-old fruit slowly going soft in a large wooden bowl. My mother bounced her right foot anxiously whenever she sat in the room and my father had to step outside periodically for fresh air, but even when my grandfather sat in his salmon upholstered lounge chair and trapped me between his crossed ankles, refusing to release me until I said the magic words, Open sesame, I never felt the desperate need to escape. I drew great comfort from a room where the walnuts on the end table were the same walnuts I'd seen there last year, a room where the type of holiday cards displayed on the mantel were the only evidence of the passage of time.
It did not take me long to understand that rooms were predictable but the people in them were not. My parents, relatively even-tempered in our home, were capable of anything in my grandparents' presenceirritation, laughter, indifference, anger. My grandparents, it seemed, could transform from doting elders to meddling intruders in the span of one carefully timed comment. Then my grandfather died unexpectedly the summer I was twelve, a passage I learned about weeks later when I returned from summer camp. In my memory he's a large, gentle man with a shoebrush moustache who stands at the perimeter of every room. Funny, really, since he always sat in a lounge chair in the center or in a seat at the table's head, a commanding presence in his own right, but in my mind my grandmother's personality pushes him aside. Where he was Laurel, she was Hardy. Where he was yin, she was yang.
I never had the kind of grandmother who wore aprons and spectacles and pulled warm cookies from the oven, the kind who exists more often in children's books than in real life. I didn't have the kind of grandmother I saw on television, either. She was neither as sage as Grandma Walton nor as goofy as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. You couldn't reduce her to a single dominant trait the way you could say Aunt Bee was cheerfully domestic or Maude acid-tongued. The grandmother I knew was colorful, opinionated, ubiquitous, stubborn, loving, patient, devoted, intelligent, intrusive, funny, tragic, uncontrollably obsessive, wildly superstitious, and capable of both astonishing acts of compassion and unpredictable fits of rage. She had little in common with the "New American Grandparent," of the 90s, the one who mall-walks and e-mails and moves down to Florida to remarry at seventy-five. My grandmother wore suits, but they weren't the kind you jogged in. She lived in the same house from 1952 until she died.
Because Mount Vernon was an easy thirty-minute drive from my parents' home in Spring Valley, New York, my grandmother was a staple of my childhood. I questioned her presence no more than I questioned the existence of my swing set, or of lunch. She was just, simply, there. Several days a week she crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge and showed up at our door, usually without warning, always carrying gifts. Plastic snowshakers, Lucite coin banks, those little upright metal calendars where you turned a tiny knob to change the date. She drove over during the day, while my father was at work. It was not unusual for me to come home from school and find her sitting in the kitchen with my mother, drinking coffee in her coat, or for my mother and me to return from an ice-skating lesson or shopping trip to find her parked in front of the house, listening to AM radio in her car. Only now do I realize that means all those years she never had a key.
I imagine that was because my mother knew the risks involved in giving her mother unrestricted access to our house. Whenever my grandmother baby-sat while my parents were away on vacation she immediately combed through the refrigerator and medicine cabinets, discarding all the foods she thought to be bad for us and stocking up on supplies she believed ensured good health. After my parents returned, my mother did a search of her own, pushing the containers of witch hazel to the back of our linen closet and pouring bottle after bottle of castor oil down the kitchen sink. My father watched from the background with his hands on his hips, swearing, "Goddammit, I'm never leaving that woman alone in this house again." Nobody took this seriously. We all knew that the next time my parents prepared to leave town, my grandmother would come driving up with her suitcase and a vaporizer. Despite her idiosyncracies, my parents knew there was no one they could trust with their children more.
But none of this describes her relationship with me. After she died in 1996, one of my cousins was surprised by the depth of my sadness, having known my grandmother to be difficult, stubborn, and driven by crisis. I knew her in those capacities too. But when I push past the images of her standing in the middle of our living room in her coat and hat, stamping her foot and shouting "Listen to me! Would you just listen to me?" or standing on our front step, banging on the door and demanding to be let back in, I find other memories, softer ones, of times we spent together, just us two. Of her in 1981 sitting patiently outside a department store dressing room for hours, wearing her wool coat and clutching her pocketbook in her lap, while I tried on pants and sweaters for the new school year the first autumn after my mother died. Or an even earlier memory, one of my first, of her teaching me to read when I was two, afternoon after patient afternoon of alphabet flashcards on the living room sofa, sounding out the letters until I recognized each one. Ah, Beh, Cuh, Duh. Back then, she carried a black patent leather handbag stuffed beyond hope of closure with empty lipstick containers, dried-up pens, six-month-old receipts, telephone numbers scribbled on paper scraps, stray coins, unopened junk mail, lengthy notes to herself, and loose ten-dollar bills. "Grandma, your pocketbook is pregnant!" I told her when I was six, and she laughed and agreed yes, it was. As if in testimony, the next time she visited she reached into her shopping bag and pulled out a black patent leather purse for me, a miniature version of her own. She was trying to teach me about reproduction, I think, but I learned more about love.
Our relationship was easy then, an aging woman guiding a child who had not yet learned how to discriminate or to judge. Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., a child psychiatrist and the author of several books on the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren, says that part of the magic between the generations exists because children haven't yet conformed to societal ideals of youth and beauty, because they ignore signs of aging or disabilities and respond instead to a grandparent's inherent goodness. And it is true, there was a time when I loved my grandmother with a pure and simple love, before I could distinguish between acceptable behavior and objectionable behavior, before I one day understood what my parents had been complaining about for all those years. Until then, I was still my grandmother's ally, sitting knee-to-knee with her on our brick front steps after she'd once again been banished from our home. "Why do they do this to me?" she moaned. "Why?" I grasped my ankles and shrugged. Like her, I didn't know. "Maybe you shouldn't yell so loud," I suggested. Then, one day when I was eleven or twelve, she asked the same questionWhy do they do this to me?and I knew. It was the day I joined my parents on the other side of the door.
I knew, for as long as I can remember, that if I wanted to complain about my grandmother, my mother was the wrong parent to approach. In private, she might roll her eyes at her mother's obsessions or laugh at her superstitions, but she never extended an invitation for me to join in. I might have seen commiserating about my grandmother as an opportunity for my mother and me to bond, a chance for the two of us to drink coffee together at the kitchen table instead of the two of them, but my mother wouldn't tolerate my acting with such lack of respect. It was a position, I suspect, similar to the one I now take with her. I give myself license to say whatever I choose about her, but if someone else remembers her critically, or even in a slightly unfavorable light, I immediately leap to her defense.
The bonds between mother and daughter are primal, immutable, revered. Between grandmother and granddaughter they're never as direct. My grandmother, no matter how large a role she played in my childhood, was always the mother of my mother, one generation removed from me. The powerful attachment they shared was the central drama of my family, the story around which all the others revolved, often leaving me swinging my legs impatiently at the kitchen table while they reprised roles first staged long before my birth. No matter how essential a part of their lives I imagined myself to be, the intimacy between them didn't include me. I found some relief in this, knowing I was outside of that exitless loop, but I also felt excluded, aware that I was more observer than participantand oftentimes even incidentalto events that unfolded before me. As Carole Ione writes about her mother and maternal grandmother in her memoir Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, "They were caught up in their own story, and I felt like an intruder in their lives."
As contradictory as this may sound, my ability to feel close to my grandmother grew out of this distance between us. Because grandmothers and granddaughters leapfrog over the emotionally charged mother-daughter bond, it was easier for me than for my mother to overlook my grandmother's behaviors, to regard her with compassion or even indifference. Mothers and daughters own each other, with one's behaviors always feeling like a comment, a judgment, a rejection on the other. My grandmother, on the other hand, always felt like a separate entity to me. Whereas my mother was often disrupted, angered, or shaken by her mother's attempts to intrude or control, I could observe my grandmother from a distance and with a greater degree of objectivity. What I found funniest about my grandmother my mother often found troubling; what I found endearing often annoyed my mother the most.
Joy Horowitz, the author of Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story, a memoir about her two nonagenarian grandmothers, remembers how her parents considered her maternal grandmother, Pearlie, manipulative and controlling at times. "But I always thought it was a total kick, how Pearlie managed to get whatever she wanted," Horowitz recalls. "I think that when you're the child of those behaviors you can feel suffocated, but as a grandchild I thought the way she could maneuver herself through situations was a riot."
In her collection of prize-winning columns Living Out Loud, Anna Quindlen called this "the familiar dance of the generations, the minuet in which the closer we are the more difficult relations become. We are able to accept, even love, things in our grandparents that we find impossible to accept in their children, our parents. The reverse is true, too: in us they can take the joys without the responsibilities. In the family sandwich, the older people and the younger ones can recognize one another as the bread. Those in the middle are, for a time, the meat."
From the start, the expectations a granddaughter places on a grandmother are different and, in most respects, lower than those placed on a mother. We invest mothers with awesome powers, with the ability to soothe all hurts, right all wrongs, to nurture without any concept of self. Not so the grandmother. Her, we permit to make mistakes and to fail. We feel safe in the belief that her actions, no matter how outrageous, don't make statements about our intelligence, our sanity, or our worth. When we step up to the mirror it's usually our mothers, not our grandmothers, whom we're afraid to see.
Yet this permissiveness also gives us a false sense of immunity, encouraging us to believe that the connection between granddaughter and grandmother barely matters at all. For some women, particularly those who never knew their maternal grandmothers, this may feel true. But in the lives of many others a grandmother occupies an essential role, as a primary nurturer, a confidante, a family nemesis, or the hub around which the whole wheel revolves, playing a direct and significant role in her granddaughter's emotional development.
Even though affluence and mobility have transformed the extended family system, where multiple generations live under the same roof, into extended family networks, where the generations live close by, many grandmothers have remained highly involved in the lives of their kin, offering emotional, financial, and day-to-day support. Women raised in close contact with these grandmothers often point to them as the source of their female identity, the wellspring from which many of their values, behaviors, idiosyncracies, mannerisms, desires, and fears flow.
Particularly when a grandmother functions as co-parent with the mother, the three-generational relationship can act as the backbone of the family, providing nurturing and support for all its members. This type of three-generation female family system has rapidly grown over the past twenty years, largely as a result of single motherhood and divorce. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, between 1970 and 1993 the number of children under the age of eighteen living in their grandparents' homes with their mothers, but not their fathers, present rose 98 percent.
Today, at least 1.6 million children are being raised by their grandmothers and mothers in the grandmother's home. That's about one out of every fifty children, including 6 percent of all African-American children, 3 percent of Hispanic children, and 2 percent of Caucasian children. And those figures are deceptively low, since they don't include situations where the grandmother has moved into her daughter's home, or informal arrangements where a child lives with a grandmother for part of the year. An additional one million children in the United Statesone out of 100are being raised by grandmothers with neither biological parent present, a ratio that has remained relatively stable for the past twenty-five years. For these granddaughters, a grandmother is hardly a secondary character of childhood. In many cases, she's the only mother figure they have.
When I first started writing this book, I intended to examine the relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters, to explore the types of connections that skip a generation and to discuss the impact I felt my grandmother had on me. I read books about grandparenting and aging, spoke with psychologists and sociologists, interviewed 70 women in six cities, and surveyed 186 more by mail. My findings were closely aligned with what other researchers had revealed: that women are more likely to have close relationships with maternal grandmothers than with paternal grandmothers;* that these relationships evolve in a distinct and predictable manner as both women age; that the granddaughter-grandmother relationship can absorb more ambivalence than the mother-daughter relationship; and that many women feel they have more in common with their maternal grandmothers than they do with their mothers. Nearly all of the women I interviewed had lived closer to a mother's mother than to a father's mother while growing up, saw her more often, and felt she'd had the greater influence on their lives. The connection they'd developed with their maternal grandmothers was the strongest grandchild-grandparent bond most of these women had known.
This is uniformly true in contemporary culture, with only a few notable exceptions: women from Asian families and other cultures where aging parents have traditionally been cared for by their sons' families, and rural children raised on farms, where fathers and sons often live nearby and work the land together (King and Elder, 1995).
The strongest, perhaps, but not necessarily the easiest. Most of these women, like myself, did not have grandmothers who stayed home and commandeered the oven but instead recalled women who were vibrant, nurturing, meddlesome, wise, matriarchal, highly critical, and fiercely protective of their clan. These Grandmas, Grannies, Nanas, NooNoos, Mimis, Omas, Nonnas, Savtas, Obasans, Mamacitas, Mormors, and Mamons were role models and rulers, confidantes and instigators, just as likely to be sources of conflict as pillars of support. Many of them, like my grandmother, were both.
I started writing about these types of grandmother-granddaughter relationships, but I was interrupted by a visitor I hadn't expected to see. It was my mother, who kept showing up in the stories about my grandmother. Trying to write about one without writing about the other became as futile as trying to separate the rain from the cloud. My mother's appearances quietly but forcefully reminded me that every grandmother-granddaughter relationship is connected by two mother-daughter bonds. She, I realized, was a critical part of any interaction I had with my grandmother, both of them defining the terms mother, daughter, and woman for me. The three of us, in my memory, are separate yet linked, like sequential pearls on a strand. It quickly became clear that a book about relationships between granddaughters and grandmothers, especially one about my relationship with my grandmother, had to include mothers, too.
And then into the middle of this threesome arrived my daughter, who'd been little more than a vision when this book was first conceived. Back then, I was single and childless and my grandmother was still alive. I'd begun the book to help myself sort through the affection and exasperation and sadness and guilt I'd always felt toward my grandmother, racing against the clock for answers as her mental and physical health chased each other down a steep decline. But in that respect, I ran out of time. I was only a few months into the book when my father called me at home. I have bad news, he said. It's your grandmother. I slowly sank into an armchair. Ohhhh, I said, like air escaping from a balloon. I hung up the phone and sat for a long time in my living room, staring at the floor. There was something solemn about the moment, respectful and hushed, as the steam-heat pipes hissed in the background and the cat silently padded across the hardwood floor. I thought I should be crying, even recognized the preparatory tight spot at the base of my throat, but the tears were out of reach. Instead, I felt scooped out, hollowed, emptier than I could ever remember feeling before.
How do I describe the experience, two days later, of standing alongside her grave in the light rain? Family members surrounded me, but in my memory I stand there alone. I was acutely aware that without my mother or my grandmother I was the only woman left in my direct maternal line, a matriarch without a queendom at thirty-two. But then, only a month later, came the unexpected bright pink line on the home pregnancy test my boyfriend and I bought at the local drugstore for $12.99.
The baby was, of course, a girl.
I say "of course" because I believe in the regenerative properties of nature, in the process by which old growth is replaced by new. I live in the midst of a California fire zone, where hills that are charred and black one season return the next as verdant. Who's to say it's any different in a family, with one generation's demise creating an opportunity for the arrival of the next?
Perhaps my grandmother sensed this the last time I saw her, on an autumn visit I made to her home. By that time she was living alone, predeceased by her husband and both sisters who'd later moved in, and cared for by a full-time aide. It was the last in a series of difficult, draining visits I was never quite sure were made out of obligation or out of love. Or empathy or respect or fear. As so often happened when I spent time with my grandmother, one emotion quickly tangled up in another. Compassion invited irritation, which immediately intertwined with guilt. As an adult, I'd never felt stable or consistent around her, never felt my course of action couldn't be swayed. I constantly abandoned good sense in favor of preserving peace. It wasn't until the very end of her life when I held her hand and told her stories from her past, by then our roles completely reversed, that I felt secure in my position and my response. That afternoon was the first time I could say I trusted, even liked, the person I was in her presence. But by then, it was too late. I'd spent too many years ignoring her phone calls and requests, too much time in retreat. During the last six months of her life, each time I visited she asked for my mother but claimed not to remember me.
"Hope, Grandma," I'd explain as I sat alongside her on the slate-blue couch. "I'm your granddaughter, Hope. You had three daughters. The oldest one was Marcia. Marcia's oldest daughter is named Hope." Each visit would dissolve into this perverse exchange, with me shouting "Hope!" into the hearing aid of a frail, sickly woman, like some kind of relentless command, and her insisting "Hope? I don't know any Hope."
So this last time, she surprised me when she said, seemingly apropos of nothing, "I want you to get married," with the emphasis on the you. It took me a moment to understand she was responding to a reference to my cousin's wedding I'd made a half hour before. Though my grandmother was always awake and alert when I visited, she had a tenuous grasp of the immediate. She might suddenly answer a question you'd asked six questions back, as if the synapses had finally, after a prolonged and great effort, connected for a brief moment and then separated again. Or, perhaps, as if she'd caught the question the first time but had to wade through a sea of competing distractions to reach the answer on the other side.
"I want you to get married," she said.
"Why, Grandma?" I asked, carefully, trying to hold her in the moment. "Why do you want me to get married?"
She answered in a tone that sounded annoyed to be stating the obvious. "So you can have a baby," she said.
My daughter was born one year later, almost to the day. She will grow up knowing my grandmother only through the stories she hears, which is just another way of saying she'll know her mostly through the stories I tell. Choose to tell. Already, I feel the impulse to censor myself in her presence, to share with her only the narratives that portray the women in my family as heroines, as anchors, as champions of the fold. But I do my daughter no favor by telling her an incomplete story. As much as this book is for me, to help me unravel the threads that tie me to my grandmother and my mother and examine each one, and for other women who are trying to do the same, it is also for my daughter, who will one day have to go through a similar process with me. And with the women who came before her, the ones she's never met.
I don't expect to tell my daughter, or even claim to know, exactly who my grandmother was. I just want to convey who my grandmother was to me. Perhaps it will help her understand what I come from, what shaped me, and what will therefore, inevitably, shape her. She belongs not just to me but to all the women who preceded her. Another daughter born into this chain of mothers. Sometimes I look at her upturned face, her smile so quick and so earnest, her eyes locked so intently on mine, and I think, Here is where it begins. One generation at a time.