The grandmothers I knew were old women who loved God and spoiled children with food and presents.
My mother’s mother – my Granny – was a petite, gray-haired woman who opened each day as if it were a Christmas gift. Her love of God gave her strength to carry the crosses of hard work, nursing a sick husband, and losing her eyesight and independence.
Before I was old enough to read, Granny taught me to sing hymns about how much Jesus loved the little children. She bought me Easter dresses and clapped the loudest at my piano recitals. I was with her when I got my first period and she nursed me with the calm efficiency of the hospital aide she used to be.
Widowed and unable to live on her own, Granny moved in with my mother and me when I was 12. A member of her congregation drove her to church twice on Sunday and on most Wednesday nights. She returned home, her blue eyes bright and her cheeks flushed, saying, “We really got the Spirit tonight!”
Nana, my Italian father’s mother, and taught me that food is love. Her house, where her five children and their families gathered for Sunday dinner, smelled like frying meatballs and fresh herbs soaking in bubbling tomato sauce. Perched on a stool at her kitchen table, I watched her roll out yards of dough and turn them into the cheese-filled raviolis that she served with her homemade sauce and meatballs.
Nana wore a black lace mantilla over her dyed red hair when she went to Mass. A statue of the Madonna and Child guarded the entrance to her driveway and a crystal rosary hung from her mahogany bed post. Granny bought me the white dress I wore for my First Communion but it was Nana who understood the sacred mystery behind the bread and wine.
Growing up in the 1960s, I imagined adulthood through the roles I gave my Barbie dolls. From time to time I would dress Barbie in her bridal ensemble. After the wedding, I put Barbie and Ken into her pink convertible and they sped off on a honeymoon getaway. My Mattel-made couple never had children. Instead they put on plays and sang in rock bands. Barbie dressed up in heels and went to the office. On her days off, she lounged in her black-and-white striped bathing suit, reading books on the beach.
Being a mother – biological, step or grand – was never on my agenda. I only half-listened when my girlhood friends and later my college roommates fantasized about getting married and having children. I wanted to travel beyond the fences of my suburban childhood, independent and curious, even if I had to do it alone.
Like so many good Catholic girls, I stopped going to church the summer I graduated from high school. On my own in my first apartment, I learned how to cook well enough to heat up fish sticks and boil water for spaghetti served with sauce out of a jar.
The year I turned 25 I realized I wasn’t a kid anymore. All around me people were getting married. I wore a collection of gaudy bridesmaid dresses and “oohed” and “aahed” on cue at one baby shower after another.
I left my newlywed friends behind and took a job with an insurance company in Manhattan. I had no time to think about making a family. I was too busy dressing up in suits and bow ties during the day and spinning on high heels with anonymous dance partners into the wee hours of the disco nights.
My next corporate job – a big promotion – brought me to Philadelphia. I was 28. A friend playing matchmaker insisted that I get together with her newly separated brother-in-law, John. After a few dinner dates John and I began spending every weekend together.
John lived with his eight-year-old son, Brian. At first, Brian and I didn’t see much of each other. He spent most weekends with his mother, and John and I could pretend we were young, carefree lovers. Occasionally, when Brian was home with his father on a Saturday, we would go to the zoo or to a movie. We’d go out to lunch and stuff ourselves with burgers and hot fudge nut sundaes. For a few hours we played family, pretending that it might just work.
After four years of dating, John and I decided it was time to “do the right thing” – as his mother suggested – and turn our weekend romance into a more legitimate relationship. When John proposed, he made it clear that he and Brian were a package deal. Although marriage and motherhood had never been on my list of things I wanted to do when I grew up, the corporate executive in me rose to the challenge. I had taken on bigger projects than this one. How hard could it be to live with two men when I worked with dozens of them all day long? Besides, I was 31, I loved John and if I were going to get married he was the one who would make it worth doing.
I took on step-motherhood like a project to be mastered. What had made me successful as a corporate manager – making plans, dispensing advice and expecting results – created a battlefield in our blended family. Instead of making friends with Brian, and letting his “real” mother and father be the parents, I interrogated him like a Cardinal at the Spanish Inquisition. I came home exhausted from a 10-hour work day and went down my checklist: Is your homework done? Did you hang up your school clothes? When are you going to take out the trash?
In my zeal to succeed as a mother, I forgot that the man and boy sharing my home did not want to be managed. They wanted to be loved and cared for.
Brian got honor roll grades and earned scholarships to a liberal arts college where he went to study music. I was proud of him and disappointed in myself. I had always worked hard for A’s in school and bonuses at work. Too late I realized that mothers are graded on a different scale, and stepmothers, well, they spend a lot of time in detention while birth parents get the credit and earn the love.
When I was 43 and Brian 24, he and his college girlfriend, Dawn, came home to visit. Standing in the kitchen they broke the news to me and John.
“We’re getting married,” Brian said.
Before I could offer the expected “Congratulations” or even pretend that I was happy for them, I blurted, “That’s fine… just don’t make me a grandmother until I’m at least 50.”
I’m not sure how I picked that number. At that point in my life, even 50 seemed too young to be a grandmother, but that gave me seven years to get ready.
John looked at me like I had cursed in church. Dawn looked at Brian, who shook his head, and laughed. He said, “We’ll see what we can do about that.”
I respected Brian that day. He matched my self-centered outburst with humor. The flexible little boy had matured into a forgiving man despite – or maybe in some way because of – what he had learned growing up with his father and with me.
Brian and Dawn had been married six years going on seven when we got the call. “Hey, you’re going to be grandparents,” Brain said.
“When’s the baby due?” I asked.
“September,” Brian said.
I did the math: It was January; my birthday was in April.
“Thanks for waiting until I turn 50!” I said.
We laughed and talked about the new family member and how the couple’s lives were going to change.
Over the next nine months, Dawn glowed and groaned as the baby grew. As soon as she knew that the baby was a boy, Dawn’s mother started buying outfits in all sizes and shades of blue. Brian’s mother hosted a baby shower and gave the couple a place to live while they saved money to buy a house.
I spent most of Dawn’s pregnancy celebrating my 50th birthday. I hiked 75 miles across England with a friend and learned how to belly dance. Occasionally, between work and play, I remembered that I was going to be a grandmother. The thought puzzled me. I was not Granny, patient and devout, sacrificing her life to serve others. I was not Nana, the matriarch of an Italian family, who watched daughters-in-law come and go, cherishing the grandchildren who remained in the tribe.
I wondered, What kind of grandmother would I be? What could I possibly give a baby that the other two grandmothers hadn’t already thought of?
By the time September arrived, I was no more ready to become a grandmother than I had been when I became a bride and a stepmother 19 years earlier. Sure that I had already flunked Motherhood 101, I dreaded becoming a grandmother and facing another failure.
A few weeks before Dawn’s due date, she invited me and John to be with her, Brian and Brian’s mother, Holly, in the birthing center during labor and delivery. John looked like a teenaged girl who had been invited to the school dance by the class nerd. Before he could say, “No, thanks…I think I’m busy that day,” I declared, “We’ll be there!”
The journalist in me was curious to get a behind-the-scenes look at the birthing center. I worked for the hospital and had written many articles about the services provided to mothers and their newborns. This would be a chance to see it all in action, especially since I had never given birth myself.
But something else pushed me into the labor room. I had been invited into the inner circle of Brian and Dawn’s life. If I was being asked to share one of their most intimate moments, perhaps I wasn’t a failure in the motherhood department after all.
Remy was born on September 12, 2004 after a long night and another day of hard labor. I watched in awe as Dawn gripped the side rails of the bed and endured each contraction like a martyr on the rack. This was a worthy cause and she was suffering so that another life could be born.
Brian paced and mumbled as he watched his wife, exposed and pushing with red, yellow and brown fluids pulsing from her body. John hid behind me, his arms wrapped around my waist.
When the obstetrician got into position on a low stool at the bottom of the bed, I reached for one of Dawn’s hands; Holly held the other.
The doctor used forceps to pull Remy from Dawn’s ripped body. The infant emerged quiet and purple. A nurse swooped him up as soon as the doctor cut the cord, and she and a respiratory therapist wiped and pumped his wrinkled body until we heard him cry. We all exhaled as he took his first screaming breath outside of the warm cocoon of his mother’s womb.
Before Remy was born, Brian had asked all of the grandparents-to-be what we wanted to be called. I chose Nana. Holly had already claimed Granny. I liked Nana because it carried on my Italian Catholic heritage and it sounded softer, younger, than any of the other grandmotherly names.
“Want to hold the baby, Nana?” Brian asked. I sat in the rocking chair in the birthing room and Brian placed Remy in my arms.
I wondered as I held this seven-pound miracle, What kind grandmother will I be for you?
Remy got a baby brother for his third birthday. I was in the birthing center for a second time when Nash arrived before day break on September 12, 2007. This second boy came out fast and loud, red-face and wailing.
With both boys I glimpsed their personalities in the first hours of life. Remy is sensitive and methodical; he makes sure he knows how to do something well before jumping in and gets embarrassed when he makes a mistake. He studies a game before challenging others to play and he needed months of practice – and a helmet that I bought him – before he would let his father take the training wheels off of his first big boy bike. Nash is still loud, and he cries whenever and wherever he likes. He is obsessed with trucks and fast cars and zooms from room to room searching for the next adventure.
Because I became a mother by marriage, I never understood the bond that makes it possible for parents to overlook a tantrum or tolerate bad behavior. Watching my grandsons come into the world, I saw the miracle that takes place when a child bursts into life. It is a miracle that surpasses the blood and labor that tears a woman’s body. It is a miracle that cracks open a heart to make a place where new life can grow.
When John and I go to visit Remy and Nash, I see them waiting at the window, giggling and jumping up and down when our car pulls into the driveway.
“Nana!” they shout when I walk in the door.
Before we take a tour of the newest games and toys that line the walls of their bedrooms, I say, “Give me a hug.”
Nash reaches up as I squat down and Remy meets us in the middle where our hearts can touch. They hang on and we breathe together for one, two breaths, before they wriggle out of our three-way hug. The moment is over and, standing up, I watch them run away like frisky puppies.
When I first offered these invitations for a hug, I wondered if they accepted just to be polite. Then a friend told me, “Kids don’t hug people they don’t love.” I accept this as an article of faith, like a sacrament I can feel even when I don’t understand how it works.
Each time I prepare to see the boys I feel like I’m stepping into a pair of shoes I only wear on special occasions. I move carefully, unsure of how to walk where my Granny, my Nana and so many women have gone with ease and joy. The boys help me, though, because they like to play dress up. I watch as they put on capes, hats and masks to transform themselves into super heroes, monsters and astronauts. The first time they invited me to play, Nash gave me a rainbow-colored clown wig and funny glasses. For a few minutes, bathed in their giggles, I forgot about looking good and let them teach me how to be silly just for fun.
With three sets of grandparents, these boys need nothing and they cherish everything they have.
What can I possibly give them that they don’t already have? How will they learn about the world through my eyes?
Like the babies who are growing into little men, I am slowly growing into my brand of Nana-hood. I never get the urge to knit an afghan like the one Nana made for me. Even though I now go to Mass every Sunday, I hesitate to tell the boys about Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and the communion of saints. I don’t bake often and I forget to pull out their pictures when I have dinner with friends.
Instead, I slip notes into their piggy banks with advice they might use when they begin to care about how to make girls smile. I give them maps and point to the places where I have been and ask them where they want to go.
I read them Shel Silverstein poems and sit in the front row, cheering at their school concerts. Nash stares at the TV and Remy nods politely when I play film critic as we watch another episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. We sit hip to hip, Nash on one side, Remy on the other, as they show me how to blow up the bad guys in the video games that they play over and over again.
At the end of every visit I ask for another hug. I hold each boy close and say “I love you.” Remy always hugs back and whispers something about love. Nash often refuses to hug me. Instead, he runs away, yelling over his shoulder, “Love you, too!”
I still wonder, What kind of Nana will I be when we all grow up?
Linda Mastro lives in Easton, MD. She brings her commitment to wellness and life-enriching communication to her work as a marketing and communications professional for Compass Regional Hospice and to her private practice at On the Way Coaching. A published author, Linda co-authored the book Petite Retreats: Renewing Body, Mind, and Spirit without Leaving Home with Anna Harding.
The Spy is pleased to reproduce the following from The Delmarva Review as part of our partnership with the Eastern Shore Writers Association Education Foundation. with permission from the Review and the author, Linda Mastro.