Senior Living: The challenge of being a new grandmother

Or is that ‘Grandma, I mean Nana, I mean Grandpa, I mean Tapa’

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Long after our granddaughters had gone back home, I found myself thinking about the stuffies.

There were 10 of them. They’d been brought along for a sleepover at our house because the girls say we have no good toys. (Guilty as charged.) What we do have, though, is a pile of costume jewelry — some of it quite swish. Much of it belonged to my mother, its provenance linked gem-by-gem to a long-ago world of banquet and dance combos at resort hotels where ladies dressed up.

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The girls had draped their small stuffed toys in all that finery, parading them out to be photographed in a variety of poses. There was a panda in pearls, and a koala whose necklace was draped around its head and over its glittering turquoise glass eye in a manner that led our granddaughter to call it The Pirate. A multicoloured unicorn had long dangly earrings hooked over its bedraggled ears, and a crystal bracelet around its neck that was surely a choking hazard. I had to remind myself that the stuffie lived only in the imagination and was in no real danger.

You’d think I’d be looking at photographs of the girls after they left because they are chapter one in the textbook of cute. But there was just something about those stuffies that stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about why.

I am a relatively new grandmother and still finding my footing. Our family is quite, shall we say, modern — blended, reconstituted and far flung. Between us, we have 12 and a half grandchildren. Some live in the city near us; others are painfully far away. Several are older and were born to another grandmother, my husband’s late and much-missed wife. Divorce and adoption are also features of our family and as a result, my son’s oldest child in Vancouver, who is four, has five grandmother-figures to keep straight. Listening to him calling for an elder (“Grandma, I mean Nana, I mean Grandpa, I mean Tapa”) reminds me of my mother, who frequently threw our pet poodle Co-co into the mix when calling the family to dinner. There were just too many names.

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All of this is to say that I often wonder how to stake my claim, to find my niche as a grandparent in the face of so much history, competition, and occasionally, flat-out confusion. Sometimes I wish we were back in the old days, when people died before they ever had grandchildren and everybody stayed in their sodden marriages rather than striking out anew. Sure, there might have been a fair amount of grieving and misery, but at least there were only two sets of grandparents.

Then again. I only had two sets of grandparents (well, one and a half as my paternal grandfather died when I was a baby). To be honest, it was nothing special. Though I know they loved us, they were preoccupied with their own concerns.

I look to books and movies for inspiration, and come up with the curmudgeonly Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, who forges a deep relationship with a step-grandson through books and fishing. (That feels hopeful, though I’d have to fish.) The grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are the opposite extreme — a wrinkled foursome who all slept in the same bed and were too tired to emerge. (Best hide all books by Roald Dahl.)

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On the non-fiction front, American broadcaster Lesley Stahl wrote a 2017 book about being a grandmother, which was too smarmy to be useful. The diversity amongst my contemporaries who are grandparents — some have daughters, a completely different universe — is such that no clear path emerges for me to follow.

So what to do? When I was a young mother, I was obsessed with doing the right thing and there were lots of rules in my home. With the wisdom (and fatigue) that comes with age, I can see the pitfalls of taking that same approach to the current crop of wee ones in my life.

“Just be yourself,” says my husband when I try to engage him in the “how to be a good grandmother” conversation. I roll my eyes at this suggestion. As if.

Yet, there is something in the stuffies that reflect his advice. I like them and everything they stand for — pastel colours, soft surfaces, cosy names — without having to think about it. I find myself instantly at home with their dancing, their pranks and perspectives. (It is particularly fun to put them in a small red bucket suspended by a string from the stairs. Hurling them through space and taking videos of that makes me giggle.)

I’m not going to be pretend I have being a grandmother figured out and that the answer lies in plush. I am sure I’ll return to this topic again. But I feel encouraged by the stuffies. Little by little, I am making my way.

— Liane Faulder writes the Life in the 60s column. [email protected]

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Originally posted 2023-10-02 14:43:45.