Joan of Arc, Mary Queen of Scots, and Rebecca of the Downstairs Fours: Three women whose names evoke tales of glory and suspense. In our house Rebecca is the one who counts.
Phoebe is a Downstairs Four and Rebecca is her teacher.
Rebecca, Daniela, Fran, Lilia and Abraham are the backbone of the home team keeping the kids clean, on schedule and happy.
The Key Park, the Train Park, Washington Square, Willow Street, the Library, Scholastic and the Housing Works Bookstore are our basic geographic and cultural world. Lafayette Street where we live and they are staying is a temporary home base; Livingston Street is the increasingly fuzzily remembered, but beloved home that will soon be ready to go back to.
Phoebe, Declan and their parents, our son Jordan and daughter-in-law, Beth, have been living (camping? staying? visiting?) with us since their apartment in Brooklyn was flooded four months ago. The flood and resulting repairs brought another vast circle of new “friends” into our lives, Darren the contractor, Jeffrey the designer and then the asbestos removal team, plumbers, electricians, tile guys, installers of various necessities (stove, hanging shelves, the TV). Our moods are subject to their efforts; when they screw up we are sad; when they say something is “no problem,” we relax.
This began in early summer and Elliott and I were mostly away, out of the fray so to speak. The four of them came up to stay with us in Maine for a week in the early summer and Phoebe braved a week alone with us in August, but it was still kind of loose and unofficial—temporary.
Now we are in the thick of it. Beth’s work is in a particularly demanding phase and, try as we might, we can’t make it easier for her; Jordan’s schedule is always irregular making the logistics of school drop-off, pick-up from dance class or Fran-the-nannie’s medical emergency loom large.
So, in addition to having a life filled with additional stuff*, we have a life filled with additional people.
This morning at 7:45 Phoebe and Decky tiptoed into our room. She climbed up into our bed and helped him up. Phoebe was clutching Bunny and Decky had Ellie. The lovies are supposed to stay in their beds, but do add snuggly happiness.
Seven whispery, kicky, squirmy minutes later, Decky said, “gin-gin.”
It could be worse—he could be yearning for booze, but no, the object of his desire was Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tripping the light fantastic on YouTube. Specifically Dancing Cheek to Cheek. We watch it over and over, occasionally trying Night and Day or Fred-and-somebody-else, but nothing is as great as Fred with Ginger in the feathered dress swooping through the ceiling-less space of 1930’s films.
We are not without conflict—the six of us. Beth and I like—and dislike—very different foods. Peanut butter, raisins or chilies will make one or the other of us unhappy. Before the onslaught we never had flavored cereals or 2% milk for breakfast—and really, I prefer whole milk in my coffee. Some like their TV shows dark and creepy; others get scared. Some (guess which) seem to enjoy watching anything that involves a ball. We all like Homeland very much.
When I was mothering my young children I carried the baggage of my own mother’s conflicts and struggles in her relationship to me and my brother— just as she carried those that her own mother bore. But grandparenting seems to dilute the difficulties that we inherited from our parents and no doubt foisted on our children when they were young.
I still struggle not to become my mother.
My mother, nearing death, asked me, “Why do you call Herb Daddy and you call me Mother?” She was aware that there was a vacancy, a hole in her relationships with her children, but she could not identify and therefore could not fill it.
My mother praised us when she didn’t really believed what we did deserved praise.
“Oh, you cook such interesting food.”
And, chillingly, when I confided in her, seeking help or advice, her standard response was, “Oh, you’re so good at this (whatever it was), you’ll work it out.”
So, in revenge, or struggling for genuineness and reality, I have been slow to praise my sons—even when they deserved it. They are adults now and seem to have survived with egos more or less intact, but it could not have been easy for them.
In contrast to my harsh policy on praising my children—which I truly believe was derived from my mother’s wanton but false appreciation of my brother and me, I seem to have found the right balance with my grandchildren.
When I am with them it is truly about them, praiseworthy little creatures that they are. My emotional history doesn’t get in the way.
It seems to have taken more than one generation for me to shed my mother’s preference for looking at photographs of her family because she found it easier to relate to the record of sunny days, beaming smiles and glamorous landscapes than to struggle with who we really were and might become.
It is no struggle to be a present, loving grandmother.
* Reader, you cannot imagine the number and volume of gifts a 4-year-old’s birthday generates. I will write about the revoltingness of bracelet kits and the stickiness of plastic clay when I finish picking shiny sticky bits off the floor. ❑
Jane Barowitz lives mostly in New York and sometimes in Maine.
Photo by Annie Spratt