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Grandmothering — Holding On, Letting Go

Four-year-old granddaughter Cassidy’s drawing of “granny’s house” with sunshine and rainbow. Photo by Sandy Robison

My two grandchildren visited me over Easter and stayed for the following week. Cassidy, 4, and Brennan, 8, are smart and good children. Our days filled with games and songs, grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate sundaes. We made trips to Walmart and bought balls, rubix cubes and nerf basketball boards. I did a dozen loads of laundry. The children fell right into the routine I like whenever they visit, quiet time at 7 p.m. Lights out, tucking in, hugs and kisses at 8. Things were, well, right about normal. But now and then lovely honey-haired Cassidy got teary and murmurred, I want mommy. And little Brennan who was 6 when his mother died, said right out of the blue one day in the car — “When daddy told me mommy died, I couldn’t stop crying.”

The line hung in the still air of the car, the heater whirring, Cassidy looking stunned. And so at that moment I remembered this week would have been Brennan and Jean’s 9th anniversary; two years back, Jean died suddenly, without warning, of pulmonary hypertension one Sunday morning at 8:22 a.m. In the shuffle and whirr of the following days, the grandmothers stepped in, I and Jean’s mother Betty who was already well into dying herself from metastasized breast cancer. Within two months she too was gone. But we held down the fort in lieu of the departed. We hugged, and put to bed, and rocked and soothed, the grandchildren along with a host of family and friends who showed up and stayed as long as they could, bless them. Until we all could stand on our own again.

And soon after Brennan found a nanny named Alison, 50-ish, mother of three grown children, ex-Army sergeant, Ali, who took over with authority, running the household, caring for children with tenderness and strength. She became a kind of grandmother. Grandmothers. They’re useful. They love you, without restriction or resentment. You can count on it. You don’t have to earn it. Grandmothers love you. It’s what they do.

My friends will say, “Being a grandmother is the great joy of my life.” “Grandmothers are lucky.” “Grandchildren fill my soul.” Mothering was the cake; grandmothering is the icing. It’s all true. Grandmothering turns out to be wondrous. We are not young or solely in charge. We are old and wiser and kinder and more patient. Sure, our backs give out and we can’t run around the park like a younger mother, but we can watch you and guard you and love you. When you come home at night, your cheeks are flushed with life and joy. You drop into dreams knowing all is well.

My grandmothers differed so much, yet both loved with enormous kindness and patience. My Forsberg grandmother, Gunhild, was tall and elegant, arty and gracious. But she was nervous too, nervous about the world, full of anxiety. When we drove in the car, she would repeat, oy yoi yoi yoi yoi. She smelled of flowers. She dressed the Nelson and Butts window for 20 years with her artistry. If I stopped to visit her during her workday when I was small, she would greet us by coming from the back somewhere dressed in a pale jade green florist coat. She would take off her gloves as she approached us. Her smile was broad and genuine. She would lean down and hug us. Then she would disappear again into the back of the store. She would return with a red or pink or white carnation and place it on our collar or into our hands. She was a delicate lady. Her drawers were filled with perfumed silks and fine jewelry, stockings and satin under garments each carefully folded. In her dresser, her room, her house, not one thing was ever out of place. The green and white dishtowel would be folded and laid next to the sink like a treasured thing. Gunhild’s gardens were full of tulips, circling her white Cape Cod house, and in the spring they were a necklace of red. In the back of the house, amongst the cool, shady flagstones grew tiny white-belled lily of the valley. They reminded me of her.

When I was 12, she gave me a bottle of Arpege for Christmas. I remember opening it and feeling all grown up in an instant. The next year she gave us matching crystal heart necklaces on gold chains. My cousin Barbara and I got the exact same gifts every year. We were the same age, and grandmother wanted no one to feel slighted.

As she lay dying in March 1977, Gunhild lost her mind. It was the fifth floor of the WCA Hospital. She moaned and cried for days, for weeks, mama, mama, I want to go home… She meant Sweden, of course, Varmland, Karlskoga, and her mother, Maria, who had been dead since 1946. I held her hand, sitting by her bed, but she would not be consoled. She was beyond us. After she died, we found letters to her mother, unsent, and a book of handwritten poems and old Swedish songs. She had them tucked away in one of those dresser drawers. Her death left a great stillness. I still wonder if all those years in America, she missed her mother so desperately. Recently, my cousin Barb noted how brave Gunhild must have been, despite her anxious nature, to leave her homeland and travel so far to a new land. She liked to wave a white handkerchief whenever we left her. It’s a custom we still keep.

Nothing like Gunhild, my Johnson grandmother was a sturdy Finn, quiet as Gunhild, but hardier of body and of countenance. My father liked to say, I was the only boy to go off to World War II without a kiss from his mother! He liked anecdotes and told them in images, sharp and memorable. He said he stood on the train platform one raw and white January day, his father on one side of him and his mother on the other. His father, a tall silent man, nodded into the brute wind, his pale blue eyes watering. His mother wore her fur coat, her velvet tam, and kept her handbag over her wrist. She stood with her feet balanced firmly, slightly apart, and one hand on the other. The purse in front. She looked steely-eyed into the distance. When the train came and her only son turned to go to war, she said, “You be a good boy, Raymond.” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.

I repeat this anecdote not because she was cold or unloving, but because she was strong. Martha Rosenquist, born in Finland, daughter of handsome Maurice who died at 40, stood unwavering in the wind and the cold. This is the Martha who threw stones at Russian soldiers when she was 12 on the Aland Islands. This is the Martha who came to America a girl of 14 with her widowed mother and one of her sisters to become a nanny in Lakewood where she would meet her Ben Johnson on Front Street in Lakewood one summer evening as she crossed the little white bridge over the creek in her pretty dress. This is the Martha who bore four children, each one at home, my father on the kitchen table 15 miles from nowhere way out on the Goshen Road in Harmony in the howling winter of 1921. This is the Martha who fed four children and four farm hands, Johnson brothers, three times a day, who sewed curtains and upholstered furniture with her strong hands, and never uttered a complaint.

When I was small, she saved the McCall’s Magazine cut out doll for me every month. I spent hours with her tending her violets, planting bulbs outdoors, sewing and embroidering little pink and green flowers on tablecloths and pillowcases. By the tall trellis, she tended her mighty Hollyhocks, gladioli, and rhubarb every season. I stayed in the guest room where the birds awakened me in the mornings, where she would come and take me by the hand downstairs to breakfast. I can still feel that hand in mind, firm, gentle. She made me chocolate milk and graham crackers with peanut butter. These are small things. But they are all great things, things that build us. Things that make us.

As an old woman–and she lived to be 90–Martha chuckled and laughed aloud to any story my father told when we visited. Raymond! She would laugh, bursting into laughter, her eyes gleaming. We knew Granny loved us but she never said those words. From her, I get the grit in my bones, the never quit, the sisu. From my other grandmother I see daily life as art, I touch the flowers, I write poems. I whisper oi yoi yoi when I am afraid.

Grandmothers. They love us even when we don’t earn it or deserve it. They remind us of our childhoods. We remember their touch and the hush of their presence. Grandmothers are not mothers and can’t replace mothers. When Cassidy cries for her mother, I say, I’m not your mother, darling, but I am your grandmother, and I’m right here.

We draw pictures of home when we are little, pictures that tell the stories of our hearts. Those pictures stay with us. I still smell the Arpege. I still take out Granny’s apron and touch it or hold the yellow tablecloth with its little stitched flowers in my hands.

Grandmothers trellis us. They know when to hold our hand and when to let it go. They link us to the past. We know we won’t have them forever, yet they are ever with us. They trellis us, they trellis us.

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