Ninety-three is a big number in most categories, but 93 years of life in the scope of this world is huge. My grandmother who stands, I’d argue, a whisper over 5 feet is one such huge wonder. So it seems sinful, given that I know this, that my toddler had yet to meet her a year and a half after his entrance into this world.
I go “home” sparingly these days. My reasons seem, to me, to be complicated, but to others, I imagine typical. In this year and a half of light and fullness that I credit to my son’s existence I’ve become more conscious of both the world that I want to exist for my son and my role in creating that world. Now I realize I have to build that world stone by stone. Whether I go to the farmer’s market or the grocery store, the consignment shops, boutiques or the mall, I lay down my stones. Whether it’s organic or local food, positive or traditional parenting, this class or that group of friends, I am still laying stones. These habits that we make turn into values that we pass on. They become both the path and the foundation that sets our children on their way.
I thought of none of these things as I “prepared” for my son. I distinctly remember the panic that ensued in our house when my husband and I realized we probably should not have been reading our pregnancy book in real time. For one thing by the time I got to the end chapter it was way too late to think of an alternative exit strategy for my son- and I did not like the sound of the normal route. For another, we realized neither one of us knew anything about child rearing. Let alone considered if we had established a mantra that could guide us and a child through life. If you told me I needed a mantra I would have started sweating; obsessed over it for a long while; wondered how I could include all perspectives so I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings; worried if it could be completely valid in all circumstances, while still saying anything meaningful. Then I would have given up, feeling like a complete failure and angry at myself for not knowing that a mantra was a prerequisite for having kids.
Don’t get me wrong, while I look back at this time as one full of hope and thoughtful choices, there were months of not thinking: months, when I had no context for decision making. Sometimes things just seemed to evolve because I was too tired to make a decision or completely unaware that I should have been making one. There were conversations with my sister, resident mother expert to yours truly, where I remember saying things like: “How long until you started to sleep again?” and “What do you mean 9 months?” There were “How do I make my son friends?” questions and “Is that normal?” questions. As well as “When do I call the doctor?” questions and “What IS that?” questions. There were articles that I didn’t read and others that I did that didn’t work. There was the ever elusive advice that all babies are different and that a mother knows best. But all of those questions and the advice – the working and nonworking kind- simply made me pay attention. I was looking at my son for evidence so I could consult the experts with what I saw and, you know, mother him right. Meanwhile I’d pray that someone could fix my inevitable mistakes.
So I watched him to gather my evidence. I started to wonder why he was doing what he was doing. Then I gushed with pride; was awed and inspired by him. It was ever so slowly that he started to rebuild my foundation. There were months of hard decision making because I wasn’t following advice or others’ examples. Often things just seemed to evolve because I didn’t know enough to have predicted the outcome. There were changes in churches and speaking up where there used to be silence. There were new habits and old habits. There was unexpected support and unexpected critics. There was much patching of stones in my foundation. That elusive advice proved well-meaning, and its grace and kindness seeped through me to my son until it covered us both because we let it.
I find my mantra is something about hope. It has a lot to do with kindness and grace as well as laughter and attention. I look at my thoughts and try to understand them. I think of my actions and know that I want to be proud and awed and inspired by them.
I stared at the road on the way to see Grandma thinking of our path to this point. She is the Grandma of “May I” not “Can I,” of popcorn always in the oven, nuts on the coffee table and an endless supply of peppermints. She was the owner of my “happy little home” under her dining table where I turned little bird salt and pepper shakers into my dancing friends. She was the maker of my second breakfast of toast and honey when I was too young to go to school. The thrower of extended family Christmas dinners when I usually got to see aunts, uncles and cousins; where I was often at the children’s table and there was usually an edible cookie tree. She introduced me to what she called “plum duff,” which I believe is actually plum jam. Well who cares what it’s called- it rocked my 5 year old world.
She was the Grandmother whose walks included hats and stone wall walking. Her kitchen always had music. It was her piano I avoided, and her old rooms in which I loved to snoop. She helped me make my first cranberry sauce and what I hoped would be my last fish. His name was Henry. He had eyes and it creeped me out. I don’t care what Grandma says I DID NOT like the salmon.
She was the home of the worst sick days. Complete with a sick pot to throw up in as well as a sick toy box-I shit you not. The toy box was not “Sick!” it was old and I think I remember a Gumby doll. TV could only be on in the afternoon and consisted mainly of Flipper. Books were everywhere, but the ones I could read consisted mostly of people named Dick and Jane.
She was also the home of the best sleep overs, where you could pick any room to sleep. She had heated blankets and ironed sheets on the beds. She cut both the crust as well as the excess hangy things off the sandwiches. Food and plates were always warmed. She always had THE BEST SMELLING SOAP. (I now know it was Neutrogena.) Her kitchen had the first step stool I ever saw, the coolest refrigerator magnets, the smallest writing on a chalk board, always seemed to be growing avocados, housed oyster crackers in the corner by the door near the key holder I remember staring at for way too long.
We threw my first tea party in her kitchen. I helped the dolls drink real tea that was mostly cream and sugar out of mini china at a small table. She instituted the first real tea time that I remember in the sun room with Grandpa and Pepperidge farm cookies. Don’t tell my mother because my tea time with her was longest lasting and also full of meaning.
She showed me where she hid the spare key behind the pipe near the back door so I’d never be locked out. She taught me strategies about keeping tissue boxes and snacks of nuts and chocolate in your car for emergencies. She passed on wisdom like, “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hold on,” and “Take a picture, put it in a drawer. No matter how bad you think you look in 10 years you think it will be great.” To these nuggets, I’ve held on tight this last year. Though to be fair she also taught me things like how you should practice doing your nails in a hurry so they always looked good no matter how fast you have to do them. That one I threw out.
To her house, I never said goodbye. I don’t know that I realized what it housed for me. She is still my New Year’s call, my across my parents’ dinner table buddy and a happy voice when I call that tells me that she loves me. This sender of college care packages, buyer of endless birthday clothes, this attender of soccer games and many school graduations- she is a forever love.
And yet, and yet, and yet, no matter how much I remember, it can’t make up for the fact that she is forgetting. So when I saw her I made sure I added lots of hugs and kisses and, “I love yous” with any teasing I made. I passed on those memories about how we used to split our potatoes while I passed ‘em. I imagine like me she’s leaning heavy on her foundation these days. I hope she remembers the stones she’s laid. I gave two hugs and I love yous before I let her leave. I thought I would cry as I watched my father drive her up my old gravel drive way on his way to take her “home”. This Grandma of mine a huge and tiny, now whispering stone in my foundation is growing old. While this is a first visit, it could also be a last. All I can say is, at least I know and am paying attention.
For my son, I’m still laying my stones. Let the love seep through them and make them flexible, for in life earthquakes will surely shake him. Let the walls climb high for floods too will one day try to overcome him and I won’t always be there to hold on to. But these little nuggets that we’re sharing, well I guess that’s how we know our way home.