Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Celebrate: My Grandmother's Birthday

Today I'm thinking of my grandmother. To celebrate I'm posting an essay I wrote about her (and my mother and me) that was published in 2010 in a small anthology that is now out of print. In the essay I recall catching "a glimpse of time," and I notice how fast it is moving. Four years later, this experience of time continues; days melt as fast as butter in a hot pan--and if anything, with three girls in my daily care, the pan seems to get hotter everyday. But something new is coming into view about time. It's not in good focus yet, but it's shape stretches over generations, and hints at what can be passed forward. I can't quite pin it down, it sounds about as loud as the trill of a humming bird, but when I listen closely, I hear it, I definitely hear it.

My Grandmother and my mother, probably 1950

My Grandmother and me, 1986

For Barbara Gilman Wattiker

My grandmother loved gardenias, Hershey bars with almonds, Joy Perfume, and tall men.  She cooked beef strogonoff, rack of lamb, and other hearty American fare every night for her husband and six children.  Six feet tall, with a flare for eclectic fashion, a deep throaty laugh, and a slim brown cigarette burning between her fingers, she stood out wherever she went.

Her eldest daughter, my mother, grows geraniums year round on the east coast.  She knows how to cook her mother's beef strogonoff and has bested her rack of lamb.  While I lived at home my mother cooked every night for my father, my brother and me.  She is tall, not as tall, swears by Manolo Blahniks, and smoked until she was into her forties.

When my mother was a Freshmen in college, my grandmother overdosed herself with sleeping pills before her two youngest children came home from school.  She was rushed to the hospital where my grandfather was chief surgeon.  She was in a coma for some time before recovering.

Over the course of my mother's life (and my own life), my grandmother tried to kill herself two more times and was hospitalized for her bipolar illness on many more occasions.  During these times my mother never hesitated to disrupt her schedule for an unplanned visit, never avoided the embarrassment of being seen in a psychiatric ward, and never acted in such a way as to make me, her eldest daughter, think that visiting my grandmother in a mental institution was odd or awkward.  She was my grandmother, and if seeing us was beneficial to her, we went.

I remember one of our visits.  My grandmother, always the gift giver, did not let the modest circumstances of her small hospital room prevent her from presenting me a gift hidden in the palm of her hand.  She handed it to me quietly, behind my mother's back, as she had done many times before.  This time, it was a hard boiled egg.  It could have just as easily been a folded hundred dollar bill.  In the car my mom and I laughed.  My mom said, "That's Noni, you can always count on her for a unique gift."

As a mother now myself, I am struck by the grace with which mother chose to embrace my mentally ill grandmother.  Having grown up under the care of a woman who was exuberant and eccentric at her best, but was negligent and unstable at her worst, it would have been easy to dwell on the disappointing and challenging aspects of their relationship.  But the fact that I grew up thinking that my Noni was nothing short of fabulous, is evidence of my mother's authentic acceptance of her mother for who she was. 

My mother consistently channeled our focus toward my grandmother's finest qualities, and transformed challenging "bipolar" moments by gently joking about them.  When my grandmother snuck expensive Italian gold rings through US customs by pinning them to her brassier, my mom said, "You can't say she doesn't have good taste." When she showed up at our house at ten in the evening in a new blue minivan that she had been living out of with her dogs, my mom said, "At least things are never dull around here,"  And I remember hearing my favorite Noni comment, "Well, she's a character alright," after my mother watched my grandmother "edit" one psyciatric ward's in-take forms before she would agree to be admitted. 

All of these soft-hearted comments helped make way for me to have a positive experience my grandmother.   Rather than shield me from who she was, my mother gave me ample opportunity to see her and make my own connection with her.  And so to me, she will always be the warm, funny woman who let me eat Hershey bars at breakfast, let me play dress up with her expensive designer hats, and frequently snuck me unpredictable gifts. 

When the time came for me to become a mother and my mother to become a grandmother, I was blind to the immensity of the effort my mom had made on behalf of my grandmother and me.  Rather than embrace my mother's effusive love for her new grand baby, I'm embarassed to say I tortured her with my short temper and exasperation.   "Mom, you CAN'T heat the bottle in the microwave."  "No mom, we DON'T turn the TV on in the afternoon."  "MOM, she's one year old, what are you DOING giving her Godiva?"  Many times, a single aggravated "Mah-ahm" communicated my pointed dissaproval. 

In the scope of things, the misteps I perceived her making were so small, so inconsequential, they hardly seem worth of judgement; yet judge them I did.

Until, one day, I woke up.  By this time my eldest daughter had turned three and my youngest had turned two.  We were on vacation in Mexico, staying in a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  It was one of our first big family trips.  We were joined by my mom, my husband's parents, and good friends of ours who had their one year old son with them.  Our days stretched out long and sweet like taffy; breakfast together in the kitchen, long afternoons taking turns playing in the pool with our girls, sunset margaritas on the deck while the "big girls" sang ring-around-the-rosy, collapsing again and again to get their new friend laughing.

As my two and three year old made their best comedic team effort, with the sun setting on the Pacific behind them, I caught a glimpse of time.  And I saw how quickly it was passing. 

Already my baby girl was more than a year older than my eldest was when we conceived her little sister.  Already they were running and laughing and making jokes.  And with my youngest girl two years old, we had a scant few baby months left in our young family's life.

That evening, I made two decisions.  I decided that we weren't done with the baby years yet and that we should consider bringing a "bonus" baby into our family. 

And I decided that there was no time left to waste nit-picking and judging my mom, who by all measures is the best grandmother I know.  From that moment on, I made a conscious decision to make way for my own daughters' fond memories of their grandmother in every way that I could.  I encouraged my mother to move out to California, which she did.  And now that she's here I try to create lots of opportunities for them to be togetether, including letting my girls have as many sleep overs at their grandmother's as they want.

A couple of weeks ago while driving my girls home from my mother's house, I asked how the sleep over was.  My oldest daughter, who is now five said, "Mom, it was AWESOME.  We had chocolate ice cream and bacon for breakfast!"

My response: "That Nonny makes a tasty breakfast!"

My mother has helped my girls amass a large collection of commercialized toys I would never buy.  When she is charge they go to bed "pretty early" by her standards--nine-thirty or, so.  And, to carry on the family love of fashion, my mother has made sure that for all occasions big and small, my girls are outfitted in get-ups that would inspire envy in Fancy Nancy.

My response to it all: "Wow, Nonny sure knows how to have a good time, doesn't she!"

This is how I've chosen to do my part to insure that the gift of grandmother love gets passed on.  This is how I've chosen to practice what my mother did so well, loving and accepting her own mother.  And while I am far from perfect, I do my best to follow in my mother's footsteps by focusing on what is wonderful and treating the rest with warm, accepting humor. 

So these days, if you come to my house, you will see that I grow geraniums and gardenias all year long, I am a sucker for an expensive, sexy pair of shoes, and with smoking way out of fashion, I pay tribute to my grandmother's and my mother's mischevious irreverence by toasting the pending arrival of baby #3 with a glass of real champagne.

PS Making a mental note to plant geraniums again this spring.  Gardenias are still doing well, I'm happy to report.


  1. What a beautiful piece. I did not know that history about your grandmother. She had a difficult life. My grandfather, who also had a very difficult life, used to talk about standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. This story reminds me of him and that saying. Thank you for sharing.

  2. She is beautiful! There is always a special bond between a daughter and her grandmother. My granny is also turning 67 this year and I want to through a surprise party for her. She has done a lot for us. She loves all of us and it is time I give her some of the things back. I will be booking one of the Chicago venues for her birthday celebration.