Since I relaunched this blog in December 2017 a number of grandmothers have asked, “Is this also for grandmas?” Yes it is! Here’s a post I first published in 2015 about grandmothers. Enjoy.
My grandmother, Harriet Fish—always just “Gram” to me—was an extraordinary woman.
My Gramp, Frederick Fish, was a successful salesman, and Gram didn’t have to work, but she chose to work hard anyway as a national leader of the Girl Scouts. She met Gramp when they were students at Middlebury College, and married just before he shipped off to France as a pilot in the Great War. She was smart and sophisticated, a lover of poetry and hymns, strong-willed and intense as the gusts that blew in off Lake Willoughby to the porch of her homestead in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
Gram’s hair was red, though grey by the time I knew her.
I picture her now at a family barbecue, 1966. Her cream colored dress tightly fitted to her five foot four, wiry frame; her nose angular, hair pulled back, chin up, one arm planted on a hip, a cocktail in the other hand, grinning at the excellence of the day.
She adored her two children—my mom, Janet, and my aunt Lois. She especially loved her grandchildren, the five big Page boys and my three cousins. She adored us all with an unabashed pride. She’d stand amidst my six-foot-six tall brothers and look up at us as if she’d come across a forest of redwoods, and proclaim, “Isn’t this marvelous to have all you boys here today? It truly is marvelous!”
Gram was rooted firmly in her conservative outlook and Church of Christ faith. She believed in God devoutly, while my own mom (perhaps reacting to her strict upbringing, thought all religion “a bunch of hooey”). Gram’s maiden name was Myers. She’d come from a family that had immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, and there had been some conjecture that perhaps the family had been Jewish and converted to Christianity upon arrival in America, something Gram denied.
Gram was a member of the John Birch society until she had an encounter with a member who asked, “Are you Jewish?”
“No,” Gram replied.
“Well,” the man said haughtily, “You have all the attributes.”
Gram resigned her membership on the spot, disgusted by their bigotry.
When my mom had her first baby, my brother Calvin, Gram showed her the ropes with an efficiency and thoroughness worthy of a Girl Scout merit badge. Baby bathing, feeding, dressing, holding, check-check-check-check. It was the kind of crash course required for any young mother at the start of the baby boom. Good thing, because mom gave birth to five boys in a row, like a string of firecrackers, between 1948 and 1959.
Mom was thrilled when Nancy and I had our first child in 1986, a girl! It had taken a generation, but the genetic roulette wheel was finally spinning mom’s way.
We lived in a third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, way before this part of the city was cool, and certainly before we were ready to be parents.
We’d read all the parenting books, of course, and Nancy had done her share of babysitting, all of which amounted to roughly nothing as this little baby girl, this totally new thing—our beautiful Abigail—squirmed and screamed in her crib. Was she ok? Why was she making that noise? Was the baby getting the right nourishment from breastfeeding? I remember that feeling of absolute terror of not knowing, the fear that I wasn’t holding her right, that something might break.
It was horrifying to give Abigail a bath.
What if Abigail slipped from our soapy hands and went under and got water in her lungs and drowned? At night, as Abigail lay in her bassinet, I’d lay awake straining to hear her breathe, deeply worried she’d stop.
During this time our telephone became so important to us, because in the dark heart of a Brooklyn night, it was our only link to my mom in New England. The phone was our hotline for all things motherly. Nancy’s mom, Dorothy, was a help as well. But there was something about my mom’s knowledge, warmth and firmness that were especially reassuring.
Abigail, we learned, would not break so easily.
Babies had somehow survived bathing and diaper changing and all manner of sickness for millennia, and Abigail would pull through as well.
When we did manage to span the distance between Brooklyn and Northern Vermont where my mom and dad lived, Abigail was soon in my mother’s total embrace, riding mom’s hip as she stirred dinner on the stove, being tucked in and read to at night. It was as if Abigail was mom’s baby number six, the one right after me, and no time had passed at all.
Last but far from least in my grandmother chronicle is Nancy, my wife of nearly thirty years.
Nancy exemplifies a new breed of grandmother for our time. She is five foot seven, with long wavy brown hair, lively and funny and curvaceous and fit and active. She works out a lot and looks ten years younger than her age. Nancy has an extraordinary strength, and above all a belief that “everything is going to be ok.”
While others are holding their cheeks in tragic parodies of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” over the latest insurmountable worry (honestly, that’s me, I own it), Nancy just marches through it all and comes out the other side. It’s like she has her own force field. An avalanche of boulders would just bounce off her.
Nancy beams when she holds our grandkids—a wide, joyous smile, eyes lit up. “Hi,” she says, “Hiiiii.” And our grandkids beam right back. Who would not?
This past week Abigail had a meltdown.
She’d been working three days a week as a speech therapist at a school for special needs children. Henry had not been sleeping well, often waking up at two in the morning and staying awake for long stretches. In addition, his daytime naps had become a struggle because he refused to sleep on his back and would scream bloody murder for hours in protest. If he was placed on his stomach, he’d fall asleep instantly, but the pediatrician was adamant against stomach sleeping because of the danger of SIDS.
The numbing fog of sleep deprivation, coupled with the drive to excel at work and prepare for the parent teacher conferences, plus the tiny New York apartment; plus the demanding dog; and the cat that didn’t like the dog and resented the baby (to the point where it took a dump on their bed in feline protest); plus [insert worry x, y,z here] all came to a head suddenly like wires overloading a circuit and Abigail broke down in choking sobs. She felt she was doing it all wrong. She was so busy at work and so incredibly tired she was doing a billion things but none of them well. She didn’t even have time to call back her friends who left messages of support. It was all too hard, too much.
Nancy got on the phone with her and helped her through.
Everything Abigail was feeling was normal. Henry’s screaming fits were normal. Abigail herself went through a period where she refused to sleep. Abigail was actually doing a really good job. She was, in fact, a good mom. The grandmother hotline worked again, a line from one state to the next, a voice of experience to guide a daughter through the rough waters. But in a larger sense, a line that extended back to my mom, and Gram, and back through time hundreds and thousands of years, maybe to Eve herself.
Grandmothers, you see, are the glue of the world.
They are the ones who have been there, through all the pain and heartbreak and happiness. They raised their children well, and now it’s all coming back to them; the wisdom they gathered as young parents is blooming again. To love and comfort, to be strong, to gently touch a baby’s head to share a peaceful calm. Grandmas know what temperature to keep the bottle. They know the meaning of each type of crying; they can read baby poop like mystics analyzing tealeaves to foretell the onslaught or retreat of sickness; they can tell us what Google could never answer or dream or imagine.
They know, I think—all of them, every last one—from Boston to Bombay and all the lands between, that everything, every little damn thing, will be. All. Right.