The Life You Get

My granddaughter and me.

I understand that there are people who envy my present life. I live right across the street from my daughter and her family. After their parents, I was the first family member to see my grandsons, although my husband was right next to me for that initial birth, almost thirteen years ago. I retired from work to take care of the first grandchild for three years. I would’ve done the same for the next one but that plan was supplanted by Michael’s lapsed remission from his cancer. I’ll always have multiple levels of sadness about those circumstances. Currently, my son and his wife are living only a block and a half away from me. I was with them in the hospital when their baby, my only granddaughter, was born last November. Right now I’m babysitting for her half-time during the week and sometimes on weekends. I’m not sure their family will be permanent residents in my community like my daughter’s crew, so I’m spending as much time as I can with her while they’re still here. I’ve learned how to prioritize my present while I’m in it, part of my effort to lead as much of a regret-free life as possible. I still spend a considerable amount of time with all the kids. Of course none of this grandma business was part of the master plan for my life. How ironic.

My grandsons and me, a while back.

At no point in time did I ever think that the role of grandmother would dominate my daily life. I think everyone who’s known me for a long time would testify to the fact that I never, not even once, uttered a desire to have grandchildren. Nor do I think that spending time with grandchildren is better than being with my kids, like so many people say. All the fun and none of the responsibilities is I believe, the thought that prevails among those who subscribe to the grandparent life as the ultimate familial experience. I suppose that partially, I don’t feel that way because my time with the current littles isn’t just fun and games but is actually significant caregiving. For me that’s a natural choice. But additionally, my feelings about my kids could never be supplanted by anyone. They are the manifestation of the irreplaceable connection between Michael and me.

Me and my kids.

As I grew into the place when thinking about the future becomes concrete, I was scarcely thinking about becoming a parent, much less dreaming of being in the grandparent role. My fantasy adult world featured a passionate partnership, dogs, and a big library with lots of comfortable chairs to accommodate my visitors, who’d join me for animated conversations about, well, everything. Although the term “dilettante” has a somewhat negative connotation, I felt like at heart, I was that person, a dabbler, interested in a broad range of subjects, not really a master of any particular one. Everyone isn’t cut out for a laser focus on just one specific thing, or at least I don’t think so. A single clear path forward never happened for me, outside my desire to be partnered. I certainly didn’t envision changing diapers in my seventies. My mom was more that person rather than me. I couldn’t relate to her constant fascination with children which lasted her whole life. And yet here I am, with this life I got rather, than the one I dreamed. My partner died too young. I expect to miss him for as long as I’m mentally competent. But the grandchildren are still vibrant and alive, right next to me. I’ve adapted. I do think that the way I grandparent is good for me, my kids and theirs. Dabbling in these interesting little people suits my curiosity and stimulates my intellect. And I love them. I wish they had Michael in their lives as well as me. Having two full sets of grandparents would widen their world.

My paternal grandmother.
My paternal grandfather.

I started my life with one set of grandparents rather than two. My paternal grandfather died when my dad was only eight years old. Dad rarely mentioned his father or his dad’s family. I expect his memories were few and mostly painful. My dad’s grandparents and uncles were all still living when his father died. All I knew about them was that they had a steel business in Lafayette, Indiana. My grandmother approached them for financial help after her husband’s death. She was soundly rebuked. My dad remembered going to visit his dad’s family when he was little. The patriarch, his grandfather, frightened him by loudly shouting, “who is that boy?,” as he stared down at him with piercing blue eyes. I’m certain that my brother’s eyes were the only part of that old man that I’m sure was manifested in my family. Bits of information about a falling-out between my grandfather and his family seem to indicate that he was an outlier. While everyone else was involved in building a family business, he’d struck out on his own, working as a commercial photographer. My mom seemed fairly positive that he was on the verge of a significant discovery regarding double exposure when he died. Her details about dad’s family were pretty sketchy. I wish I knew more about that story. I have no idea how my grandmother survived after his death in 1930. But somehow, she and her kids did, my dad, his older sister and his younger brother. I know she died twenty-one years later when my mom was pregnant with me. I feel that her’s was an unnecessary death, a consequence of sepsis following a botched appendicitis attack. Mom told me that one day when she was pregnant with me, she was walking toward my dad shortly after his mom’s death. He looked at her and said that in keeping with family tradition, she was now carrying his mother’s name. But mom didn’t like her name, Rae, she altered it to Renee instead. And voila, I was named for that woman I never met. I will forever wonder what parts of me reflect those people I never knew, but who silently exist in the DNA that shaped me, along with my kids and theirs. A life mystery.

My maternal grandmother.
My maternal grandfather.

My mom’s parents were always part of my life, my grandmother surviving until I had a child of my own at age thirty. They were more like elements of my surrounding landscape rather than people who played a significant role in my development. I have almost no memories of my grandfather. Mostly I envision him sitting silently while my grandmother yelled at and scolded him. Maybe by the time I was conscious of them they’d fallen into these roles, behaving differently toward each other when they were younger. Another mystery with no answers. I remember going to my grandfather’s barber shop in the basement of Goldblatt’s department store in Chicago, swiveling around in his chair in front of the mirrors lining the wall. I remember him being in the various apartments he occupied with my grandmother, but there’s no imprint of any conversations or interactions between me and him that are lodged in my memory. Besides a wild ambulance ride with the two of them after grandpa collapsed on their kitchen floor when I was home for winter break during my freshman year of college, he might have been a piece of furniture in my world.

My grandfather with my cousin, me and my sister, somewhere in Chicago, circa 1961.

My much more vocal grandmother left a bigger impression on me than silent Sam. I can still hear her vitriolic commentary which was the constant accompaniment to the clanging of pans and squeaking of oven doors that I associate with her presence. To be fair, Rose had more than enough reasons to be gruff and angry. She was a smart woman who was illiterate. During the early part of her life with Sam, she was left to fend for herself in Europe during the first World War, losing their only child to pneumonia while Sam was busy trying to get established in the U.S. I think she knew he didn’t lead a celibate life during their years apart, but when she finally joined him, that betrayal wasn’t enough for her to throw off the traditional status of women as second-class citizens in their culture. They stayed together. She lived through multiple miscarriages, pregnancies and deaths of her children, enough sad events to embitter anyone. She yelled and complained mightily through the years. My mom, the only other surviving female member of their family, was engaged in a running verbal conflict with her for as long as I can remember. I sided with my mother and never felt the warm, fuzzy feelings a kid will often associate with a grandma. Still, I remember her marvelous cooking, the spicy chicken and her homemade gefilte fish, along with the simple fare like rye bread slathered with apricot preserves, and sweet chunks of cantaloupe. She liked plants, had a green thumb and gardened when she briefly had a yard. She bought all us kids new clothes when she visited. When my mom was hospitalized, a frequent event when I was growing up, she stayed with us. She pulled my hair into tight pigtails on the sides of my head that yanked all day. She liked to smell our necks which I understand more today than I did back then. Grandma was complicated, but I can still hear her voice, even when it was most annoying, and I think she loved me in her own brusque way. I was proud of her when after my grandfather’s death, she finally became a citizen at 78 years old, passing her test orally as she couldn’t read or write. She was tough. I think inherited at least some of her sturdy peasant strength as well as her talent with growing things. Hers is the one identifiable imprint that my grandparents made on me.

My grandma Rose with my infant daughter, 1981.

Now here I am in this unexpected life, spending big swaths of time with the youngsters. Do I wish I was still with Michael? Absolutely. We both knew that we’d never feel as if we had enough time together, even before he was sick. The part of me that is always next to him, hums along just below the surface of my daily life. In the meantime, I pour my emotions, my energy, and my intellect into these grandchildren, hoping that I’m helping them lead rich, interesting lives. I don’t know what they’ll remember about me when I’m not around. Will they wonder what pieces of them were influenced by me when they’re old enough to ponder. Who knows? Regardless, for me, I need to know that I’m making contributions to their development, that I have gifts to offer these innocents that will help them navigate their lives. And I definitely don’t want to squander this life I got, just because I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. So on I go, still wondering how I turned out to be such a grandma. As Michael would say as I dissected everything that happened, “it is what it is.” Yup.

One thought on “The Life You Get”

  1. I’m sure you are making an enormous impact on the grandkids! They adore you. I feel that Jackson doesn’t have that — he really needs it. I love you.❤️

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