The title for today’s blog is from a famous nursery rhyme. And if you’re familiar with it, you’ll probably know the words that follow, ‘to Grandmother’s house we go’. The idea of grandparents is one that many equate with unconditional love, warm and welcoming embraces, homemade cookies and bedtime stories. I equate mine with rejection. I’m not sure what happened when I was assigned my grandparents in this lifetime, but I think I was robbed! Maybe I drew the short straw or maybe having wonderful grandparents is an urban myth or an old wives tale, one that keeps getting perpetuated from one generation to the next.
When I grew up, until my maternal grandmother with dementia became my roommate, having a ‘grandparent sighting’ was a very rare thing. I’d heard of festive holidays when everyone would gather at their grandparent’s home. Time-honored traditions took place there. To mark the occasion, you could always count on festive displays, a bountiful meal cooked with care and love, and lots of interaction not only with grandma and grandpa, but with siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles, as well as dear friends. On Easter Sunday, in addition to church, the day consisted of coloring (boiled) eggs, Easter egg hunts, and possibly even a visit with the Easter bunny (if grandpa was up to the task). Dinner was always a spiral ham, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, fruit salad and homemade rolls. Thanksgiving was a time for crafting and baking pies. For dinner, you could always count on a massive turkey, stuffing and gravy, baked yam or sweet potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce and fluffy, hot, melt-in-your-mouth rolls. And each year, the ‘turkey’ you made when you were only 5-years old, using brown construction paper cut out in the shape of a hand and adorned with a bright red wattle, was always featured as the centerpiece on the dining room table. Christmas?
Christmas was the end-all, be-all. Just walking through the door was a multi-sensory experience. There were the hugs that nearly took your breath away. Even though you feigned embarrassment, you actually looked forward to them the most. And there were the festive lights. They were everywhere. Outside, they hung from trees and bushes, the roof and the fence. Inside, they covered nearly every square inch of the Noble Fir that stood in the center of the livingroom. Christmas songs played on the radio. There were so many that you never heard the same one twice. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” always put everyone in a light and cheery mood. “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Silent Night” would quiet the crowd, and turn the mood from celebratory to pensive. And aside from the sights and the sounds and the feelings, there were the most fantastical smells! Cinnamon and chocolate and ginger and citrus were the smells that stood out. Every possible baked good that you could imagine beckoned to you from stacks and stacks of Tupperware containers that stood on nearly every surface in the kitchen.
I just have to ask, does anyone actually experience this? Or is it just something you read in a book or watch in a movie? I don’t know if it’s even real, but that’s what I always envisioned if I’d ever spent any time with my grandparents. I just know that I never spent a single holiday with a grandparent, aside from the one that I mentioned earlier that came to live with us against her will. And memories of homemade cookies and mistletoe do not come to the forefront of my memory when I think back to those times. Anyway, I knew there were logistical problems with both sets of grandparents, so that didn’t help matters. The nearest ones (my paternal grandparents) lived 6 hours away. The other set (my maternal grandparents) lived several states away. And my stepfather’s parents were already deceased by the time he married my mom. There also was the ‘d’ word, D-I-V-O-R-C-E. My paternal grandparents were devout Catholics, so when my mom divorced my dad in the late 1960s, I think that pretty much extinguished any hope of ever having a ‘happy holiday’ together.
I so desperately wanted a relationship with a grandparent, any grandparent, that I learned to improvise. And the funny thing about being a kid is that sometimes you can get away with stuff because you simply ‘don’t know any better’, so right or wrong, I learned to make things happen. It was clear early on, after my parents divorced, that my maternal grandmother really wasn’t interested in a relationship with me, let alone my other siblings. I don’t recall phone calls or cards or any halfhearted attempt to reach out to me. I still wrote her and I still called, I still had hope. But whenever I did contact her and asked if we could get together, she would always respond with, “It’s just not a good time.” Thinking about it now, I could have taken that one of two ways. The first is that she was referencing how she would feel, if I were to come and spend time with her. That my ‘being there’ wasn’t enjoyed or appreciated. The second is that she was referring to her own personal situation, that maybe she had so much going on at the time that a visit wouldn’t have been a good idea.
Either way, I was getting in some grandma time, whether she liked it or not. Even if she didn’t need me, I needed her. You know the old saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission?” I decided to put it to use. When I put my mind to something, I generally see it through. There were 6 hours of highway driving between us, but it wasn’t anything a Greyhound ticket couldn’t solve. And I decided since anytime I ever called, I was told in so many words that I wasn’t welcome, so I stopped calling ahead. If I needed a ‘Grandma Fix’, I’d buy a ticket, walk to the bus station, board the bus, ride it for six hours until it reached the station, deboard the bus, and walk to my grandma’s house. Once I’d reach her front door, I’d put on a cheery face, and then I’d knock on the door or ring the doorbell. She was always home and she’d always answer. Of course, after asking, “Is it just you?” she would pop her head out the door and scan the driveway and the street.
I didn’t leave her a lot of options. She could either let me in or she could slam the door in my face. She must have known how desperate I was for some companionship because she never turned me away. She was always gracious and kind. That, however, made it even harder when I’d leave because knowing that she was gracious and kind and that we’d had a lovely time together, why then did she never show any interest in a relationship? I always had to be the one to ‘drop in’ and I felt a little rotten doing it, but I knew of no other way to effectively see her. The last time I spoke with her, I had just had my daughter and I wanted so much for my grandmother to meet her, but I thought rather than showing up at her doorstep, I should make a courtesy call. There was a baby involved, after all. “Not a good time,” was the response I got. It broke my heart. I thought if I had mentioned that I was bringing her great-granddaughter along that maybe, just once, she’d actually invite me over. Who couldn’t resist a beautiful little baby? But it was not to be. And it wasn’t long after that that she passed away, so she never did meet my daughter.
Man! That was quite a sobering tale. I try to keep things light but it seems like I have a tendency to have to continually achieve balance in my writing somehow, so if you notice that I post a really silly, lighthearted story, just know that a ‘downer’ will likely follow. Anyway, I just wanted all of you to know that I’m going to try and do better. I cannot imagine I could do much worse. I might have got the short straw as far as the selection of grandparents I had to choose from, but that doesn’t mean my grandchildren (if I ever have any) will have to experience the same feelings of rejection as I did. Raising children isn’t easy, but the more people involved to provide love and support will only increase the odds that they will turn out to be healthy, confident and capable humans. It takes a village. And to my ‘grandchildren-to-be’, if you’re listening, “Grandma’s here and my door’s wide open. If you ever need me, I am here for you. You will always be welcome, in my home and in my heart. And if you need a ride, please don’t take the Greyhound bus. There can be some shady characters on there. Take it from me, I know.”