Did everyone else know there was a Grandparent’s Day? Apparently there is and it falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day. I may be in the minority but I was unaware of that until last week. This means, of course, I have annually insulted various grandparents for years. Marvelous. I’m certain this oversight has added to the long list of insults my mother has tallied since my daughter was born.
Admittedly, I initially (and cynically) presumed this was just another holiday created by Hallmark and other retailers to sell cards and flowers. It seemed surprising to me that they hadn’t done this sooner, really. I mean, what relationship can so easily manipulate emotions as the one we have with grandparents? Ask a lot of people about their grandmothers, for example, and they immediately start waxing poetic, describing saintly, warm, affectionate women, with open arms and large laps who rarely say no and usually bake a lot of cookies.
Out of curiosity, I did a little research, i.e. Googled it, and found out that actually my cynicism was unfounded as commercial retailers were not involved in the creation of this holiday at all. In fact, a woman, Marian McQuade, who had 43 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild is mostly credited with founding Grandparent’s Day. That many grandchildren, I guess she earned a day in her honor, maybe two or three.
Like most, I’m quite sentimental about my grandparents, but admittedly, I had to chuckle a little when I considered the improbable comparison between the quintessential Mrs. McQuade and say, my great-grandmother, who basically grandmothered (if they can have a day, I can make it a verb) everyone in our family.
When my mother was born, my great-grandmother declared she wasn’t old enough to be called grandmother and so, drawing on our Irish heritage, she went by Nanny, instead. She wasn’t a saint, not by any stretch of the imagination. She had been a beautiful woman in her youth, and she retained that beauty in her later years. But along with it came a not insignificant level of vanity, and a history of torrid indiscretions. She also projected her vanity to those around her, cringing while she told you she hoped you didn’t gain any more weight, then pouting if you left without eating homemade pie. Her bluntness was acerbic, and not always kind, and she justified almost every harsh thing she said with “Well, it’s the truth!” She could be incredibly shallow, selfish and downright mean. Even now when I look back, I’m thankful she was one of my grandparents and not my mother-in-law because I saw what she did to those poor people.
Obviously, she was not the stereotypical grandmother and, I daresay, not who someone had in mind in creating Grandparent’s Day.
To me, she was the woman who cooked my favorite meals for dinner, even if it wasn’t what anyone else in the family wanted. She took care of me when I was sick, and cursed a blue streak once when an aunt was, let’s say, less than kind to me. I repeatedly made a disaster of her kitchen playing with flour, which she begrudgingly cleaned up, but later let me do it again.
After my great-grandfather passed away, I spent the night with her almost every Saturday night for several years. I’d wake up on Sunday mornings and lay quietly in bed for a while listening to the very unique sound of pans clattering and breakfast cooking. I sat at her proverbial knee and listened to all kinds of tales about when she was young, growing up in the depression, a particular doll she got once for Christmas, county dances, World War II and probably a few stories she shouldn’t have told me. I remember funny phrases she would use, her materialistic priorities, the inflection in her laugh and how delightfully special she made me feel. We played all kinds of card games, hours of double solitaire, and dress up and bingo and decorated for Christmas.
Her vanity dictated that it was the highest treason to tell anyone how old she was. Ever. (As absurd as it sounds, I still cringe if I’m telling a story and say her age.) Try as she might though, the years caught up with her, anyway. I remember the first time we played double solitaire and I realized she couldn’t follow the game anymore… age was taking that away from us.
She was still alive when my daughter was born and when I took her to see Nanny for the first time, I was caught off guard by the sudden overwhelming emotions I felt. I have a picture of her holding my little girl, looking down at her. Nanny was so frail by then but her vanity had only slightly diminished, and she boasted with pride at how my daughter had her blue eyes. I didn’t mention that all babies have blue eyes, and that was just as well since, as it turns out, Nanny was right. My daughter’s eyes are still blue, just like hers and not like mine. Thankfully. Funny, she always told us someday we’d realize she knew everything.
One of the last times I saw her, she was in good spirits, happily watching country music videos on TV and being horrendously hateful to her nurse. She didn’t know anyone’s names anymore except those of her two immediate children. But her face still lit up if a family member came in, so there was, at least, recognition. I spent the afternoon with her, painting her fingernails and chatting about nonsense that she wasn’t really following. There was a nagging voice in my head that if I didn’t say something to tell her how much she’d meant to me, I’d regret it forever. And another voice telling me it was too late, she hadn’t even known my name in years. Finally, I decided on one simple statement that didn’t require her to remember anything specific and didn’t ask anything of her. Managing to only let my voice crack once, I said, “I want you to know, some of my favorite childhood memories are wrapped up in you.” She looked over, smiled and clearly asked, “Is that right, little one?” Yes, Nanny, that’s right.
The back bedroom at her house had three windows along one wall and four along the adjacent. On a windy day, a glorious breeze blew through that room. I’d lay on the bed, while she sat in the blue chair watching her “programs” on TV, and I’d doze off, feeling relaxed and safe, though I wouldn’t have thought to identify it as such then. I’m almost 40 now and that old house has fallen into disrepair. Since then, I’ve climbed among the Rocky Mountains, ran two marathons through San Francisco, walked cobblestone streets and crossed centuries-old bridges in Venice, run along the streets of Oxford barefoot and laughing with my best friend, looked across Paris at night from atop the Eiffel Tower and wandered through Eleventh Century monastic ruins in Ireland. I have quite literally been all over the world. And still, if I could travel anywhere at any given time, I’d choose that room on windy days, TV on in the background and her sitting beside me.
I guess I can see why they have a day.