Nana ~ 3

Grandparents ~ the stabilizing influence for a young family, in ideal circumstances.

When I was small, my grandmothers were the poles upon which our own little world depended.  Dodo, grandmother-in-town (all of two miles away, but a different world with its houses close together and its stores and churches and schools), worked some distance away and was not accessible to us except by car, and thus was the grandmother of weekly occasions.  We would gather for dinner around the small formica table in her living room, she would pay me a dime to wash the dishes afterward, and then we would re-gather around the television to watch The Lawrence Welk Show.  My plan was to grow up, style my hair in short curls, re-name myself “Peggy,” and sing on Lawrence Welk.  I have absolutely straight hair and can’t sing two notes in a row without wandering off key, so that was quite an ambitious plan.

Nana, grandmother-next-door, placed herself entirely at our disposal, and lived a quick walk from our own house,  so was the grandmother of everyday routine.  She would read to us for hours and play endlessly-running games of Old Maid and Go Fish, but she also permitted us the freedom that several acres of grass and woods and creek afforded.  If she ever worried about our safety, she did not let on.   We ran in and out of her house all day as if it were our own, and on summer evenings the adults would relax on her back porch while we children chased fireflies across the top of the hill.

Decades later, when I had three small children of my own in a city far from extended family, I would understand what it might mean to have two sets of grandparents nearby.  Kids sick, mom sick, too many places to be at once, errands to run, house to clean, time with each other?  My own parents had theirs, eager to participate and to be of assistance, and all desiring relationships with their grandchildren.  When I was a young mother and the debate over quality versus quantity parental time erupted, I knew from experience that quality was in part dependent upon quantity and the presence during the ordinary that it provides.  The grandmother who is right there, listening, even as she bakes a loaf of bread or sweeps a porch, and has the time to put everything aside for an hour of games, is the grandmother who builds a wall of security around a child and her family.

Nana ~2, part ii

Nan did lead a life of privilege, but it was not a life without pain and sorrow.

Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder.  Nan said little about that, other than an occasional reference to having accompanied her mother to Baltimore many times, where she had entrusted her care to a college classmate who had become a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins.  My dad had memories of seeing them off at the train station.  Her mother ensured that her daughter had the college education that her own parents had denied her, and maintained a gracious Victorian home on a shady street, but her illness cast a pall over the lives of her family, especially after she was widowed in her fifties.

My own grandfather suffered some sort of mental breakdown that prevented him from returning to college for his senior year, and another one less than a decade later, during the Depression.  I believe that that experience was the catalyst for annual trips to Florida.  Nan packed her family up, put what cash they had into a suitcase, and directed their travel southward, hoping that the warmth and waves would have a soothing effect.

As a young grandmother of fifty-four, my grandmother would stand in her picture window with a cup of coffee one morning and watch our car head down the hill, only to hear a thundering crash a few moments later.  Calling for an ambulance and racing down the hill and up the road in her dressing gown, she would be the one to discover the head-on collision that had already ended my mother’s life and would, a few hours later, claim my baby brother’s.  Living nearly five more decades, she would see my father widowed again, divorced, and widowed a third time, and her eldest son widowed and divorced as well.

Her presence next door (and since we lived in the country, “next door” meant that a gravel lane separated our houses on top of a hill, ours behind hers) was the saving grace in our lives in a family marred by repeated experiences of sudden loss.  We seldom spoke of what had befallen us all, but she and my grandfather were the rocks of fortitude who ensured that we all survived.

Nana ~ 2, Part i

Nana ~ my paternal grandmother, “Na-naw” to my brother and me when we were children and then “Nan” by the time we were adults, is my model for nana-hood, and the reason I have always looked forward to that role.  We were exceptionally close, pushed together by physical proximity, life circumstances, interests, and attitudes and, while she was no more perfect than I am, she was an extraordinary woman in her brilliance, her inner strength, and her graciousness.

Nan’s life was structured by privilege.  The only child of a successful businessman in a small city in southern Ohio and of his troubled wife Robin, she attended a private girls’ high school and then a Seven Sisters college, leaving a stream of academic honors in her wake.  She exemplified the tensions between family and career experienced by women long before the 1960s; her decision was to marry my grandfather on the same day on which she became a college graduate, and to return to Ohio and a life as wife of a small town grain dealer and mother to three boys.  In the second half of her life of 100 years, she often sighed over her college alumna journal, taking note of the many of her classmates who had become scientists and physicians.  Her own life was filled with three generations of children, women’s clubs, gardening, volunteering in classrooms and with Girl Scouts, “raising” monarch butterflies, maintaining a few essential friendships, and keeping up with the study of nature, art, and literature.  She made use of the latter by taking all of her grandchildren on a series of elaborate and extravagant trips ~ first within the United States, and then to Europe, Africa, and Australia ~ on which the other travelers she encountered often thought that she was a college professor.

Widowed at about eighty, she had a hip replaced and managed one more international birding trip before retiring to a quiet life, first in her home and then in an assisted living apartment.  As deafness and near blindness descended upon her, she became isolated and profoundly lonely.  Her mind never failed her, but her inability to communicate was devastating.  Like so many older people, she had to endure the gradual constriction of her life to a small circle of people she could barely understand ~ a heartbreaking end to a life always lived with others in mind and consumed by a variety of interests.

Nana ~ 1

Ch-ch-changes . . .  I am going to be a grandmother.  A destiny for which I have longed, happening not in the way I had hoped or anticipated, not in the least.  Le plus ca change . . .   .  So some of what I plan to write about is, unsurprisingly, grandmothering.  I’ll start with profiles of my own grandmothers, women who played roles of immense significance in my life.

Dodo, so called by my entire family for decades after her two-year-old first grandchild (that would have been me) mangled Dorothy when trying to imitate the adults who surrounded me, was my maternal grandmother.  Barebones of her life story:  Grew up as Dorothy Stockman in ethnic German Cincinnati.  After high school, she went to work in the five-and-dime, maybe a Woolworth’s, and quickly married the manager, twelve years her senior.  Her two children, Carol and Charlie, followed in short order.

Grandpa Felix was not a consistently stable provider.  When my mother was a teenager, the family lived on a farm outside my small hometown north of Cincinnati; I believe that he was attempting to raise goats.  (Something I myself consider when I am feeling particularly pressed.)  By the time I was small, the farm was gone; I can recall my mother taking me to visit Grandpa’s barbershop in Cincinnati.  A few years later they were back in our town ~  though, with her children grown, Dodo commuted to Cincinnati to work as a secretary.  She was probably the stable financial force in that household. During my teens, they returned to a Cincinnati suburb, where he managed apartments.  He died very suddenly at about 70; out walking their poodle one night, he sat down on a small stone wall and was gone.

Left in her late fifties with nothing but her two-family house in which Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edie lived upstairs, Dodo went to work as a saleswoman and was remarried quickly, to a widowed co-worker in the appliance store. She and her second husband, Kirk, eventually moved to a mobile home park in Clearwater, where she died of cancer in her mid-60s.

That basic outline of a woman’s life does not reflect the anguish of her life: The death of my mother and baby brother when my mother was 28.  My uncle and aunt did not have children, so for Dodo, nana-hood was my younger brother and I ~ with lives complicated by a series of stepmothers; the fact that, since she worked, Dodo was not available to us as our paternal grandmother was; and the distances created by boarding school and summer camp life. She also said little about her deep loss.  These days, having suddenly lost a young adult child myself, I understand much better how she lived the remaining eighteen or so years of her life in a state of mostly concealed interior shock and devastation.

We did spend time together — holiday occasions, week-ends here and there, a short trip to Chicago.  I lived with her and Kirk the summer between high school and college so that I could work at a nearby hotel, spent time with them at his cottage in Kentucky, and visited them in Florida on a couple of short trips.  But we had little in common, and no daughter-mother to mediate our relationship or some of the wide differences in our viewpoints and experiences.

In retrospect, especially given what I have learned the past ten years, I regret having made so little effort to uncover who Dodo really was.  I was in Florida shortly before she died, but her husband refused to tell her the truth about her illness and, being a young early-twenty-something, I had no idea how to navigate the strange adult world of bizarre secrets and words unspoken.   While Dodo was a woman of great importance in my life, she was so mostly as an example of how circumscribed a life can be.   She must have missed her daughter terribly, every day, and I’m afraid that I was a poor substitute.



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