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May 17, 2010

Barbara Graham: Grandmothers Unplugged

Posted by Anonymous

Soon after my first granddaughter, Isabelle Eva, was born, I realized that although I loved her as fiercely as if she were my own child, I had no say --- in anything. She was mine but not mine. Emphasis on the not mine. In baseball parlance, it felt a little like being demoted from the starting lineup to the bench. Though this may seem both natural and obvious, I must admit that to me it came as something of a shock. After all, I am part of a generation of boomer women who have spent decades redefining our roles as mothers, partners, and professionals --- women used to being in charge.

graham.JPGNot anymore.

I was confused about where I fit into the expanded family order. How much did the new parents want me around? How involved did I want to be? Since I’m a writer and writing and reading are how I make sense of my life, I started taking copious notes. An early entry in my journal, written before Isabelle was even brought home from the hospital: “I can feel my son and daughter-in-law forming their own separate little family unit around the baby, and I am definitely on the outside. Of course, this is perfectly normal --- so why do I feel like a pathetic fifth wheel?”

One week --- and one entire notebook --- into grandmotherhood, I decided that I would write a memoir of my first year as a nana. (I decided to call myself “Nonna,” the Italian word for grandmother, which to my ear sounded hipper and younger than “Nana,” “Grandma,” “Grammy” or, God forbid, “Bubbe.”) I also combed bookstore shelves to see who among our wonderful female authors --- so many of whom had written brilliantly about motherhood—had tackled the move up the food chain to grandmotherhood. I found enough self-help books to line a bookcase. Ditto humor books that reinforced the unfortunate stereotype of grandmothers as silly, sexless, doting ninnies. But I was stunned to find nothing literary, nothing narrative that told the real stories.

Where, I wondered, were the working women, the non-doters, the grandmothers who were raising their grandchildren --- or kept from them by angry adult children? Where were the stories of women grappling with the role itself, trying to figure out what sort of grandmother to be in a world that differs dramatically from that of our role models --- our own grandmothers? I was fired up about exploring the territory and telling my story.

Isabelle was less than two months old and I was on to my third notebook the day my son announced that his work was taking him and his family to Paris. Permanently.

Not only did I feel grief-stricken by my granddaughter’s move from my neighborhood to Europe; my book project was stalled, too. How could I possibly write a memoir of my first year as a grandmother if my grandchild lived an ocean away.

Still, there were stories that needed to be told --- and they weren’t all mine. I decided to track down writer/grandmothers whose work I love to see if they had something to say on this wonderful yet sometimes puzzling and challenging stage of life. The response was overwhelming. Novelists and memoirists such as Elizabeth Berg, Ellen Gilchrist, Judith Guest, Bharati Mukherjee, Anne Roiphe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Abigail Thomas, and Judith Viorst signed on to the project, and EYE OF MY HEART: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother was born.

In her introduction, psychologist Mary Pipher writes that the mutual affection she shares with her grandchildren continues to teach her about “pure and nearly perfect love.” It is in the gap between this purest of loves and the realities of complex human entanglements that the stories in the book are located.

And now, two little girls, thousands of miles, and nearly four years later, I think I’m finally ready to dive into that memoir.

Barbara Graham is a contributing author and editor of EYE OF MY HEART: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Peril of Being a Grandmother, which is in stores now.