What I’ve Learned About Grandmothers

My grandma Evelyn always used to have squirty cream in her refrigerator and Breyer’s Ice Cream in her freezer. Even if she wasn’t hungry for dinner, which was often in her later years, she’d still have a bowl of ice cream with a generous flourish of whipped cream on top.  The older I get, the better that sounds to me, too.

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My grandparents’ New York of the 1930s

It’s easy to idolize people after they’re gone.  I’m sure my grandma would love to think we were all nominating her for sainthood down here on earth, immortalizing her in cloudless, pink-tinged memories.  And there are a lot of those memories to share – long Sunday picnics at her condo in the summer, comfortable afternoons spent learning how to quilt, or crochet, or bake or play Skip-Bo.  There are funny stories we share, times when she embarrassed us as teenagers or brought down the house with her New York-accented comments in public places.  We loved her dearly, and we keep her with us this way.

It’s important to remember, at least for me, that she wasn’t perfect, either.  There were times when she hurt my feelings, usually with a sharp opinion on my wardrobe or weight.  And, like most grandmas, she complained that I did not visit her often enough.  Like most kids, I ignored this annoying little reality, telling myself I did enough and that my life was very busy.

Now, years later and living in Ireland, I have seen firsthand that she was right. 

Next door to us is a lovely older woman.  She is flanked by family – her daughters visit nearly every day, bringing food, doing laundry, putting out the garbage cans.  On Fridays, they always take her out to have her hair done, and perhaps stop somewhere for tea or a pint!  Then, at least one full afternoon a week, her granddaughter comes over to visit.  Her granddaughter is young, in her twenties, but she still makes the time to just come and be with her Nana.  They sit outside or in the house together, listen to the radio, chat about anything or nothing at all.  They seem so comfortable in one another’s company, and I love how the granddaughter brings new outfits to try on for her Nana’s approval or tries to convince her that she should paint her nails.  When I observe them from a distance, it’s obvious that they are family.  These visits are not formal or awkward – they’re a part of normal life.

The next house down, there lives a couple who are a bit younger, but they have several children and many grandchildren as well.  Again, I’ve watched from afar as their teenaged grandson comes to visit several times a week, doing odd jobs in the garden or helping out around the house.  I think of how many other kids would groan over having to spend a lovely summer day bent over weeding, but this boy never seems to mind! He has friends and activities, but he loves spending time with his grandparents.

Another family on the other side of us is the same.  On occasion they have colossal arguments that everyone for several streets can hear, but they make it up quickly and they’re all back together in the garden, having a barbecue or playing with the kids, laughing and cursing and shouting in a more amiable fashion. This is yet another family that shares daily life together, even though they are spread out around the town.  It’s just that important to them that they don’t even consider a different way of life.

The same goes on for many of our neighbours and friends, and even for us.  We see Frank’s parents and siblings every week nearly, and when Frank was growing up, he spent much of his childhood eating stew and mash in his Nan’s warm kitchen here on Scarlet Crescent.

It’s a really touching way of life, and a unique dynamic that is missing in a lot of places I’ve been.  I know not all families live close, and more than that, not all families get along.  This is truly an idyllic picture that is sadly fading in the greater world around us as we move and change. Sometimes impossible challenges keep us from ever attaining these kinds of relationships.  And as we prepare to emigrate to the US in a few weeks, I feel quite keenly the impact our own changes will make on our kids’ lives when we live far away from both my family and Frank’s.

I think what I’m realizing, though, and what I’m feeling in my heart, is the importance of making the time.  It was so easy, as a teenager, and then as a college student, to come up with more “important” things to do rather than spend time with my old grandma.  I wanted to see her, of course, but on my terms.  And I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush.  Where did I have to be, really?  Those were some of the best days of my life, and hers, and I pushed away any nagging reminders that my dear grandma wasn’t going to be around forever.  So what if I’d heard the same stories 100 times?  The quality of time spent with her would not have dwindled, even if we spent the whole day watching “General Hospital.”  And though it’s trite to say it now, I would give anything to have just one more cozy afternoon in her company, pocketing fun-sized Baby Ruth’s from her coffee table and watching the sun filter through her kitchen curtains onto the strawberry-papered walls.  Even if she did comment on my weight, which she probably would. 🙂

I really hope and pray that we make our kids’ grandmas (and grandpas!!!) a priority, no matter what the hassle.  I want Evey and Shea to come spend summers here with their Kelly grandparents and discover Montana winters with the Koopmans.  I want them to KNOW each other. Being a family is really hard work, no bones about it.  And you DO have to be realistic about money, travel, and the validity of certain relationships.  But after watching my Irish neighbours, even with their own dramas and heartaches and feuds, I have learned that making a real effort to stay close to your roots is invaluable.   So often, we put our energy into digging around and finding out who our ancestors were — why don’t we put more effort into the living family tree?  You know that old quote “Nobody ever said on their deathbed they wished they’d spent more time in the office” –  I’d wager few have ever said on their deathbed “I wish I’d spent less time with my family.”

Food for thought.

Happy Birthday, Grandma Evey.  I miss you.

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