The Secret Grief of Grandmothers
I step outside an Irish restaurant that's perched on the side of an old cotton gin beside Wilmington’s Cape Fear River. What catches my eye first is the utter perfection of a spring day, and then—a baby in his high chair on the patio. His grandmother sits beside him, handing him one pacifying Cheerio at a time. I kid you not—she is lit up like a Christmas tree, so great is her joy.
And I am stabbed to the quick. I remember this feeling so well I have to suck in a deep breath.
Only in my case, what I remember is a dappled autumn afternoon outside Panera, lifting my first grandchild, Andrew, high above my head, touching our foreheads together on his descent, his baby laughter filling me to bursting. I was a new grandmother. But I was also a woman bearing huge responsibilities at the time, like some over-taxed burro. When I got to spend a few hours with this baby, all that went away. I called him my piece of Godiva chocolate on a plate full of brown rice.
Lots of grandmothers would say that they didn’t intend to fall in love. They can’t trace exactly how their heart got captured. I would say that when Andrew was born, he appeared on the scene as the stranger I had always known, coming to me like a rider on horseback through a haze of snow on a wintry night. I looked in his new face and I thought: you are just who I thought you would be.
I gaze on this grandmother now, glowing beside her grandson on a restaurant patio, and I fight envy. I want to tap this woman on the shoulder and say, oh, honey, stop every single distracting thing in your hyper-responsible life and enjoy this baby.
I suspect, though, that she hears the clock ticking, too. She will turn around in the floor three times and this boy will be running track. Andrew towers above me now by five inches. We just cooked a brisket to celebrate that he’s reached six feet and now wears large men’s shoes. He is 13. It happens so fast. Soon he will pack a car for college and we will celebrate then, too. And pull out the Kleenex in private.
The odd part is that I didn’t experience waves of nostalgia with my own children. They passed from toddlers to teenagers without much reflection on my part. I was just grateful they weren’t in jail. The mothering tasks of each stage took my rapt attention and I forgot, if I ever knew, that I’d never see that little kid—or that adventurous teenager—again. The child before me would become a new person over and over, and who she used to be would get locked in the vault of memory.
So maybe that’s the bittersweet reality of being a grandparent. You know you won’t pass this way again. You know your greatest contribution is your faithfulness to pray. And you could fall on your face with gratitude that you lived long enough to greet these little strangers who turn out to be family.