A few years ago, something happened to most of my friends: they became grandmothers. It didn’t change who they were or how they interacted with their friends (other than an occasional inability to get together because they were on “grandma duty”) but there was a new dimension to their lives that I’ve only come to understand in the past few months now that I’m a grandmother.
I wasn’t in a hurry to join the grandmother club; after all, I’d been a late bloomer to motherhood. My younger-by-five-years sister was already a grandmother at the age I was when I had my daughter! My life has followed a gradual path from childhood into adolescence and adulthood, with each transition involving forethought, planning and no major unforeseen deviations: high school, college, career, marriage, motherhood and now grandmotherhood.
Last summer, on the same day we buried my mother-in-law’s ashes, my daughter Jessy and her husband Matt announced that they were pregnant. It was one of those circle-of-life moments -- having said goodbye to the only grandmother she’d known, Jessy was now letting me know that I would soon be a grandmother.
I remembered the miracle of growth inside me, and I relived that experience as she shared weekly phone messages with graphics comparing the size of the fetus to various cute animals. But I wasn’t really thinking about the grandma part of it until little Chet was born in February. The distance between here and Minot and the presence of a pandemic have put a few glitches in the grandmother transition, but I’m catching on.
Becoming a grandmother caused me to reflect on other grandmothers in my life. My paternal grandmother had raised 11 children, my father somewhere in the middle of that string. By the time I came along, some of the other grandchildren were already having children.
Grandma Bertina always wore dresses and her gray hair was pulled back into a small bun. She had darting black-brown eyes (Mine must’ve come from her genes), and in the middle of a story, she occasionally lapsed into German until our eyes glazed over and she caught herself. “Ach, dat’s right,” she’d say. “You don’t know da langvij,” which spurred my interest in learning “the language.”
My maternal grandmother Ella was 4-foot-11, German/Irish, spunky and smart with a subtle sense of humor. She’d been a schoolteacher before she married my grandfather, who died before I was born.
She made the best homemade baked beans I’ve ever tasted and baked them in a wood-burning iron cookstove. (Most of the family swore her beans weren’t quite as good after she traded the wood stove for an electric range.) She, too, always wore a dress, usually with a full apron over it. She’d borne three children and had a total of nine grandchildren, so I felt a bit more special to her. I was her first granddaughter and the only grandchild who became a teacher.
My mother was a very involved grandma, a second mom to my sister’s daughter, whom she took care of while my sister finished school. Mom had been a very cautious, worrisome mother, but she was more relaxed as a grandmother and more demonstrative in her love. Unfortunately, she died when my son Eric was just a baby and two years before my daughter Jessy was born.
By the time my sister became a grandmother at age 38, things had changed a lot. She didn’t wear housedresses every day or put her hair up in a bun. She did (still does) fun stuff with her grandkids -- takes them shopping, does arts and crafts with them -- more my idea of how to be a grandmother.
My closest friends are active grandmas, too -- important people in their grandkids’ lives. They read to them, take care of them whenever they can, have “sleep-overs,” play games with them, introduce them to new places and activities. During the Covid shutdown they found creative ways to Zoom with their grandkids -- did scavenger hunts, read stories to them, offered lessons. In spite of technology’s issues, it’s been a blessing for grandparents when meeting in person isn’t possible.
The grandma I want to be is active, fun, loving, involved, but not interfering. I know there’s a balance to find. I want my grandson to want to hang out with me, to learn things, to explore, to share. I want to teach him things and learn from him.
I wish my mother had lived to know my kids, but I’m glad the Grand Forks flood of 1997 brought my mother-in-law to Bemidji. Her first three grandchildren had grown up on the East Coast and she rarely saw them. Her next four grandchildren moved to the West Coast, and she rarely saw them, but as Eric and Jessy’s only grandma, she got to watch them grow up. She taught them to make lefse, went to their concerts, and did other grandma duties as needed.
Grandmothers can have an amazing impact on their grandchildren, and I’ve got some good models to learn from.
By the way, did you know that Sept. 12 is Grandparents Day? I didn’t even know there was such a day, but this year, I’m qualified.