Originally published in Eye of My Heart
There are many times I’m sure I’m as lousy at grand-mothering as I’d been at mothering when I was seventeen. Take my last visit with my grandson, Zachary, age two-and-a-half. We were off on a walk in Brooklyn, where he lives, when I had to tie my shoe. My son, Jason, had warned me that if I didn’t buckle Zach in securely, he could go flying when the stroller hit a bump. And so I’d followed his instructions, even though it killed my arthritic right hand to fasten those annoying little plastic clips. Times have changed. When Jason was little I could hardly be bothered to put him in his car seat. Usually he stood next to me and when we came to a stop, I stretched my arm against his chest to keep him upright. In 1968, this was not against the law or even uncommon. Neither was sitting your kid on your lap and letting him steer.
My son knows from having me as a mother that I am not careful, cautious or always law-abiding. I don’t resent my son’s assessment, because I know that if it weren’t for the grace of God, the kindness of strangers—and standing on my head to ward off post-menopausal lapses by increasing the blood flow to my brain—I could be a disaster.
In fact, I wished Jason had given me a refresher course on applying the stroller’s brake, because since my last time out with Zach three months before, I’d forgotten how it works. So when I squatted down to tie my shoe, I didn’t apply the brake at all. The stroller rolled a few inches into a tree bed, then tipped over as Zachary, strapped in like an astronaut, screamed.
“Oh, my God,” I gasped. I couldn’t see his face, which was smashed into the tree trunk. I grabbed the carriage, praying that Zach wasn’t hurt, and saw an angry purpling welt forming on his forehead. “Oh my God, sweetheart, are you okay?” I was almost crying. “You must have been terrified. Does it hurt? Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Seeing how bad I felt, Zach tried to comfort me. “It’s okay,” he mumbled through tears. “I’m okay.”
Of course, when we returned home, I had to confess the incident to his father. Jason is a stay-at-home dad, a good one. He regarded Zach gravely, trying, I could tell, not to be too judgmental of me.
“The tree,” Zach nodded, touching his welt.
It is either an act of faith or a great achievement that my son, an epic worrier, trusts his son with me at all. But it might just be a gamble he’s willing to take now and then to get a break from fulltime childcare. For Christmas the first year of Zach’s life, he and his wife, Jessica, gave me a gift of three trips to New York, with the understanding that I would help out. It was also understood that I would babysit Zachary for ten whole days right after his first birthday, while Jase and Jess took her parents on an Alaskan cruise—their Christmas present.
It did occur to me to wonder how it happened that Jess’s parents got the cruise and I got the babysitting trips. But truly, if given the choice, I would have chosen the babysitting. I lived far away in Mexico and now live far away in a monastery in Colorado, yet I’m determined to be a regular in my grandson’s life, to experience the joy of that exuberant kid energy, to see the world fresh through his eyes.
If it weren’t for Zach my life might be entirely different. I spent the first month of his life with him, and then too soon it was time to leave. My last full day was a Sunday. We danced, my nose and lips brushing his rose-petal cheek as I sang in his ear, “Goodnight My Love,” swaying and dipping him, gliding across the floor. I’d swooned to this song, the last dance in the gym, in high school. I’d kissed men goodnight as it played on the radio. It was all so long ago, yet here again, in a different way, and sparking something alive in me.
The new love of my life fell asleep on my chest, his legs straddling my ribs as my arms cradled him, his tiny body rising and falling with my breath. By the time we awoke it was dark outside, and Zach was hungry. When Jess lifted him off my chest, my heart ached the way it had when I was a baby myself and my mother had pulled away, handed me off, left me alone.
And so I knew that once I returned home to Mexico, I was in for a marathon weep. But I did not suspect that the weeping would continue on and off for weeks, long after I’d grown accustomed to baby separation and had stopped thinking constantly of my grandson. I felt dull, foggy, flat. I had no appetite for the life I’d thought was so rich with color, interest and fun.
After a month of this dryness, a fantasy invaded: me, as a cloistered contemplative nun. I believed I was experiencing a call to become a religious, to live outside of the world in solitude and silence. It was as though filling with love for Zachary had cracked me open enough to hear God’s call. But could God really be calling me to a monastery I would not be allowed to leave? Would God really ask me to abandon my grandson, and my son, who has no other parent but me?
I had no answer, but I did know that the longing to make God the white-hot center of a silent, spirit-focused life was like an ache shooting down the middle of me. And so I began a search for monasteries, just to see. And I actually found a Carmelite hermitage that allows me to live there as a lay member, which means I can, and do, leave to see my family.
This is not only good but necessary, for there is the matter of redemption. Back when I had Jason, I cursed and whined about my fate, and never really took to my role as a mother. During his childhood, Jason was deluded and thought this was okay. “We’re more like brother and sister than mother and son,” we sort of used to brag.
But in his twenties, Jason saw the light—or, I should say, the dark. He became angry and depressed, and for a few years he barely spoke to me. My guilt and pain drove me into the hands of God. I not only asked God to forgive me, I asked my son. We had some tearful talks and therapy sessions. Eventually he fell in love with Jessica and separated from me. As he matured, he began to understand that if he didn’t forgive me, he would be hurting himself most of all. This is not to say that in recent years I haven’t witnessed flashes of rage, or that he’s completely overcome his distrust of me. There’s always more healing to do—which is where my grandson comes in. When I heard that Jessica was pregnant, I saw the baby as a way to redeem myself. I hoped that my recurring prayer—“Please, God, open my heart; teach me to love”—would finally be answered.
Why else would a fifty-five-year-old woman who yearns for silence agree to take a one-year-old for Ten Straight Days?
I decided that even though it would be an endurance feat, I’d take Zach on the road to visit family and friends. That way, at least, I wouldn’t have to entertain him all on my own. Besides, by age one Zach was already a game traveler. He was renowned for passing out in his car seat, then waking as soon as we arrived at our destination, excited to be in a new place. My grandson is one of the lucky ones, a born extrovert and natural conversationalist. On my latest trip—that of the stroller debacle—we visited my sister in New Jersey. On our way home, as I drove along Chambers Street in Manhattan, he pointed to a golden statue on top of a building. “The Statoo of Libady,” he said. He’s familiar with this most famous of American statues because he often takes walks on the Brooklyn promenade where one can see the lady holding up her torch. “That’s not the Statue of Liberty,” I explained. “It’s a different statue.”
“Where’d the Statoo of Libady go?”
“She’s on the river. We’ll see her when we cross the Brooklyn Bridge,” I promised. But when we drove across, Zach was too low in his car seat to see, and the incident became the subject of repeated conversations. “We didn’t see the Statoo of Libady.”
“No. That was a different statue on top of the building.”
“I was too low. I couldn’t see.”
The first stop on our road trip during the Ten Straight Days was my parents’ house in Connecticut. Both are in their eighties and failing. My mother has emphysema and sits on the same spot on the sofa day and night playing solitaire and watching TV, an oxygen tube fastened to her nose. My father is less and less steady on his feet, and hasn’t been the same since his quadruple bypass a few years ago. As if that weren’t enough, he’d recently been stricken with a miserable case of the shingles. Our visit could kill them, I thought, but at least they’d go out happy. Their family is the light of their lives and seeing Zachary would make their summer.
Sure enough, the minute Zach walked into the house—walking was a new feat since they’d last seen him—color actually returned to my mother’s face and my father began a low-register chuckle that hardly stopped the whole visit.
Zach smiled and graciously submitted to kisses and hugs, then made a b-line for the stairs, which he insisted on climbing up and down one hundred and one times, with me following behind as his personal bodyguard. The thing about one-year-olds, I was remembering, is you can’t leave them alone for even a second.
“That little shit,” my mother kept saying, shaking her head. “That little shit.”
Finally I brought a box of Jason’s old toys down from the attic and dumped them in the middle of the living room floor so my parents could watch Zach play.
Here we were, my father in his reclining chair, my mother and me on the same sofa where we’d sat almost forty years ago after I’d confessed I was pregnant. I’d felt so shamed, then later, depressed, falling asleep for entire afternoons while my mother made dinner, did laundry, watched my baby son.
In my fifties I’d boycotted this house after confronting my father about the time I was thirteen and he’d caught me riding in a car with boys. On that long ago night he slapped me over and over until my mother finally jumped on his back to stop him.
“So how do you feel about beating me up when I was just a kid?” I asked the day I finally got up the nerve to confront him.
“Fine,” he replied, a snotty, aggressive tone in his voice. “You deserved it.”
I called him a brute. He called me crazy. I never wanted to speak to him again. Still, because I believed in forgiveness, at least in theory, I told myself I forgave my father, I just didn’t like him—and I chose not to pretend that I did.
But a year later, when Jess was pregnant, my sister called to tell me that my father had had a mini-stroke and lost the sight in one eye for a day. “What if Dad dies and you’re still not speaking?” she asked. I wasn’t sure I’d care. Then she added, “What will happen next year after the baby’s born?”
That did it. I would not allow my grandson to be born into a family at war. I called my father to tell him I wanted to make peace for the sake of the family. But he didn’t give me a chance. “Let it go, Bev,” he said before I spoke. “Please. Just let it go.”
The plea in his voice went straight to my heart. “Okay,” I managed. “I will.”
And so a year and a half later, we sat watching Zachary kneel before his father’s old xylophone on wheels, tapping it with a wand. Ordinarily, the TV is blaring, but for some reason it wasn’t on. The radio was, though, and it was playing a catchy ad for Barbarino Pontiac: “Ba ba ba, ba ba barino. Ba ba ba, ba ba barino,” like a cheerleading chant. My father snapped his fingers and we all sang along. Zach looked up at us, grinning. Then my father rose on legs that never straighten anymore, bent his knees and reached for Zach, who dropped his xylophone wand and let his great-grandfather pull him up. My father is a great dancer. When I was a baby he Foxtrotted me to sleep and, when I was a little older, we Cha-Cha’d and Lindy’d around the kitchen. It had been decades since I’d seen my parents dance. But now my father tick-tocked his knees and pushed and pulled Zach’s hands, doing the twist. Then my mother stood and joined the boys, and I did too. The four of us danced on even after the song was over.
I was flooded with love for my dancing father, grateful to my grandson for bringing us back together.
Dancing wasn’t the only thing Zach picked up on our trip. On the car ferry across Long Island Sound to visit my friend Nancy, he developed running chops. He ran the circuit around the two massive decks every minute of the hour-and-a-half trip. When the boat finally docked, I strapped him into his car seat and he was asleep before the car left the boat. I drove a few miles, parked at the side of a road and fell asleep, too. This was only Day Three and I was afraid I might die of exhaustion.
Zach’s nap wasn’t nearly long enough, because when I stood him on his feet in Nancy’s driveway, he took one step and fell flat on his face. He cried and refused to walk. He was done with walking. He wanted to be held the rest of the day. I could have matched him tear for tear.
Is it possible to be snappish and still filled with unconditional love?
Was it possible for me to care for a child without pricks of guilt and waves of confusion? Had I agreed to Ten Straight Days out of love or guilt? And why couldn’t I tell right from wrong? For example, every time we sat at the table to eat, Zach got up and left. Was I supposed to make him stay? At the beach with an old friend, I took off his clothes and let him play naked in the sand. Would the sand get up his bum and irritate him? When we were ready to leave, I laid him down to diaper him—an activity he was not at that moment crazy about. So I handed him a clamped-shut, barnacle-covered clam, which he immediately put in his mouth. When I was done with the diaper, Zach yelped when I tried to take away the clam. “Do you think it’s okay he’s sucking on that thing?” I asked my friend, a father.
He shrugged. “Probably.”
“If this were your kid would you let him put it in his mouth?”
I got rid of the crustacean.
That night after Zach’s bath, the tub was lined with sand like incriminating evidence. Then in his jammies he sat on my lap, cozy and soft against my chest, the top of his damp head under my chin, smelling so sweet. His chubby hands rested on mine as I turned the pages of his books. Finally, I kissed my brave and trusting traveling companion goodnight and tucked him into his porta-crib at the foot of my bed. The poor little guy was beginning to look worn and waiflike, circles darkening around his eyes.
I laid down too, listening to my grandson’s breathing, thinking about God and humility. I was not perfect; it was arrogant and self-centered to think I should be. I thought about how God loves me just the way I am—so maybe I should too? It’s my own self-judgments that get in the way. I remembered how as a teenager I’d condemned myself for my poor mothering, for never knowing the right thing to do. I was almost forty years older now, and I still didn’t know. But I was trying, just as I’d always been trying—with one big difference. I believed in God now and could ask for help. And so I prayed, “God, I can’t do this without you. Please, my dear, sweet, helpful, wonderful God, give me the energy, good will, love and patience to live through this trip.”
Perhaps it was God’s hand that made Alaska cold, overcast and dreary, which drove Jess and Jase to return home two days early.
A year and a half later, at the end of my most-recent, month-long visit, I forgive myself for dying to get back home to the monastery in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where it is so silent and I am so solitary I go days without hearing or uttering a word. At my son’s house, the projection TV, the comfortable sofa, the huge refrigerator stocked with goodies—so appreciated when I arrived—have come to seem like gluttony. And I am so sick of playing with Zach’s blocks, his train set, the erector bugs and plastic animals that I’ve begun telling the truth: “I’m sorry, honey, Nana’s bored. She doesn’t want to play.”
I know who I am. I need both solitude and grandmother time. Living in solitude helps me stay centered when I visit my grandson, sometimes for a month at a time. I may fumble and bumble, snap and bark out the truth, but my heart is good and getting softer all the time.
The day before I leave, I lie awake in bed before the rest of the family rises, thinking that I should dedicate my last day to Zachary.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and Jess and Jase are having people over. I know they’d love for me to take Zach off of their hands so they can straighten up the house and cook. I say, “Come on, Zach. Let’s go for a walk.” When he says no, I’m relieved. But then I think about how love is pushing yourself and acting as if—going out of your way even when you’re tired. So, I bribe. “Come on. We’ll walk to the Brooklyn Bridge and see the Statue of Liberty. Remember—“
“I couldn’t see,” he says.
“Right. But this time you’ll be able to see. We’ll be walking instead of riding in the car. And we’ll get ice cream.”
“Okay,” he says.
“He doesn’t even like ice cream,” my son tells me.
We take his stroller, whose brake I have by this time been drilled in using correctly. But Zach wants to walk, so I hold his hand with one hand and steer the stroller with the other as we amble through Brooklyn Heights. “Hello, owl,” he says to a stone owl in a patch of front yard. He stops to pick up a big dried leaf, a stick, an acorn. When he tires of holding his treasures, we place them on the stroller seat. As we pass a small flock of pigeons on the road, Zach puffs out his chest and takes tiny strutting steps like the birds, and so I do too.
We walk all the way to Montague, where I buy him a soft serve cup of vanilla Haagen Dazs. He puckers his lips every time he pulls the spoon out of his mouth, usually with half of the ice cream still there. It takes him half an hour, but he eats every drop.
Back on the street he still doesn’t want to ride. He takes my hand and we walk, stopping at a toy store where he plays with the trains. Then we continue, on and on.
Crossing Cadman Plaza Park, almost at the bridge, he begins to ask every twenty feet or so, “Where we go now?”
I feel like crying. When I return in three or four months, he’ll probably say: Where are we now? He’ll be singing the alphabet, putting on his own shoes. I want to freeze frame this time, this age, this moment. But life isn’t like that—nothing stays the same. I am filled suddenly with the urge to pick him up and hug him, but I resist. He is on a mission. He is walking to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Two miles and nearly three hours after we began, we arrive. I hold Zach up to look at the Statue of Liberty, but he is so tired he doesn’t say a word. I set him down on his feet. He takes the leaf, the stick, the acorn, places them under the stroller seat, then climbs in. I buckle the buckle, and don’t think of my arthritic hand. In less than a minute he’s fast asleep, and I push him back home.