In the year I turned 49 I quit colouring my hair. Notwithstanding how white my hair turned out to be, I believed I looked somewhat youthful and so my new appearance did not make me feel any older. Until a lovely June day that year when I was accosted by an inebriated older man on a city street who stumbled into me saying, “Hey Grrramma, how about a coffee” (I was holding a Starbucks).
The near assault was one thing, but what I found offensive was his use of the word “Grandma,” and how it came out as an insult. I’ve never felt the same since about the sound of that word, and earlier this year when we found out we would be grandparents, I thought about how I felt about being called Grrramma.
Beyond what I wanted to be called, though, was another uncertainty — whether or not I would be a good grandmother. People have told me, and I appreciate it, that I will be a good grandmother. But what does that mean?
It depends on where you look. On Facebook or Pinterest one can see grandmothers baking exceptional seasonal creations with their grandchildren, teaching them how to sew, knit, quilt, crochet. How to plant a garden, pick berries, paint a playhouse. There are grandparents who take their grandchildren on camping trips, fishing, skiing, on holidays to exotic locations. I can’t really do any of those things.
It’s not uncommon to doubt yourself, but never in the history of humanity have there been so many ways one can compare oneself with others and be found wanting.
Expressing my concern to someone I trust, I was asked to write down my own ideas of what it means to be a good grandmother. It came with the stern admonition to stay away from Facebook. Never look on Facebook, she said.
To fulfil this task I looked to my own grandmother. Grandma Winnifred knew me before I was born and hardly a day went by in my childhood that I did not see her. She visited our place frequently, but her home was my favourite place to be. My grandmother was safe refuge from the anxieties of my uncertain world. She was calm. Soft-spoken. Even. She never raised her voice. When I was small she would read stories to me, and when I was older I would disappear into one of her cozy chairs to read on my own, content in her constant reassuring presence.
Grandma was bone-thin, tiny. She was not the kind of pillowy grandmother who would take you into her arms. Grandma was reserved — not given to emotional or physical displays of affection. But there was no other place in my world where I felt as safe, as accepted and as loved as when I was with her.
We did nothing special, and yet time spent with her was, to me, extraordinary. Walking over for weekday school lunches — she lived only two blocks from my school. Friday-night sleepovers and buttered popcorn. Saturday cartoons, maybe some homework, and buns rising on the counter. Or chocolate chip cookies — no cut-out shapes or coloured icings or fancy decorations. Sunday roast beef. Mashed potatoes. Apple pie. Cinnamon was the most exotic spice in her cupboard.
It wasn’t what we did that I remember so much as Grandma’s gift of loving presence. It wouldn’t be Facebook-worthy today, but then ours has become a performance-enhanced world. Parents and grandparents worry they are not stimulating their newborns with enough black-and-white hanging chimes, in-your-face flash cards, bracelets that jingle, and shoes that rattle when they kick. Constant comparison and resulting dissatisfaction isn’t good for us, and research is starting to confirm my suspicions about the link between deteriorating mental health and social media.
Grandma would be puzzled by our slavish attention to what others are doing. She was content to just be, and when I was with her, I was content with being myself too. It’s a gift I had forgotten about, but now that I have a grandchild it calls from within to be rediscovered.
So what about Grrramma? I have decided to break with my family’s tradition and settle on Nana. It sounds pleasing, is easy for a little one to pronounce and feels inviting. Naturally I have found a tiny T-shirt with a kitten that says, “I love my Nana.”
This nana is going to be sanctuary from artificial, unreasonable expectations, where unconditional love is assured. If I can manage that, my list of what it means to be a good grandmother will be fulfilled. If we also manage to bake edible chocolate chip cookies, it will be a bonus, but I probably won’t post them on Facebook.