I confess, I don’t remember my grandparents very well. Both my grandfathers died before I was born. I did love Walt Disney’s “Grandpa Bunny.” He was the protagonist in a Little Golden Book and my ultimate image of the perfect grandfather, old, very wise and a great story teller.
As for my grandmothers, I thought they did not influence me…. until only a few days ago.
Although I grew up in the same two-family home as my maternal grandmother, she had a stroke when I was four. For one year she lived upstairs and could not speak or move. I think I feared her. I am sure her condition would be much improved if she were ill like that today.
Although I lived with her for the first four years if my life, I don’t remember her voice, her cooking or much about her looks. Or so I thought until yesterday, when I went searching for any picture I could find of her. Here’s the only one I have. She’s formally posed with the grandfather I never met.
And here is one of me taken this past March at the Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City, in front of a portrait of the 96-year-old advanced style fashion icon Iris Apfel.
Note the hats in both photos! Grandma wore hers better.
I was drawn to my hat in a garden shop in Harrogate, England. I needed another hat like a hole-in-the-head. But, I couldn’t let it go. I went back three times before I let myself/made myself buy it. Maybe it’s genetic.
And, while I hardly ever saw my father’s mother, I now see her looking back at me every day, in the mirror, as I grow older. I have an otherwise unaccountable affinity for everything Eastern European. She emigrated to the U.S. from what was then Czechoslovakia.
Ultimately, the number one grandma I knew was my own mom.
She chose to wrap her identity around grandmotherhood, as she had done with motherhood.
Once while I was grocery shopping with her, a lively Asian woman started yelling and running down the soup aisle. She hugged my mom, and “Grandma,” she said with pleasure. The next moment, an Obama look-a-like came over and also hugged my mother. “Hello, Grandma,” he said. She introduced me to her doctor. My mother’s doctor called her Grandma, as did everyone else.
We had au pairs and nannies. They called my mother Grandma, too.
I couldn’t keep these nannies long even when I wanted to. When my mother found out that any nanny had a different dream for her life, she would put her hand on the nanny’s shoulder, look her in the eye and say, “My money is on you.” That bit of encouragement launched two restaurants, a move to Australia, and a millionaire marriage and kept me on the lookout for nannies until my kids were in their teens.
When my mother-the-grandmother left me too soon at age 92, my daughter was 16 and studying at a French film school. Here is what she wrote:
I am sorry that I am not able to be with all of you today. I wish I could see my family and friends at a time like this when we all need a familiar face to comfort our eyes and to calm our thoughts. Grandma is always one of the people that helps me do that. She is there any time I need to rant about my pointless teenage worries or to discuss the real troubles on my mind. Of all the people in my life, only she has stayed a constant.
As I get older, I am slowly realizing the real personalities of all the people I have known for my entire life. Grandma is the only one whose image has been the same since I was three years old, on the couch, crying with her because we both knew that the little blue bird in the Winnie the Pooh movie was never coming back to the Hundred Acre Wood. Moments like that will stick with me forever.
The older I get, the more I learn about people: their neurotic personalities, flawed logic, and bad judgements. But she will always be in my mind as a fictional character of perfection, a kind of comic book character that appears the same in every small square but always ends up solving the mystery, killing the super villain, or making me chuckle with a silly joke. And I love giving that back to her: finding something eatable in the fridge, the perfect TV channel to leave on all night, or just the right line to make her chuckle.
Today, the most prominent thing on my mind is the fact that my grandma can see me here. On my way back from a film shoot today, I helped an old woman out of the bus. I could not help but to walk her all the way to her destination while the rest of my crew watched from inside the bus as they sped off towards our destination. She could not understand English, and I do not know French. That didn’t matter. I walked with her for two blocks; it turned out she was going to the hairdresser. I knew that walking with that woman, holding her, was me helping Grandma across the gravel driveway to the door of our house one last time. As I wandered the streets of Paris, completely lost, I knew that Grandma was there with me. I know that she guided me back to a familiar part of the city.
I love her very much. I know none of us will forget her.
Now, that’s an influential Grandma.
Now, it’s your turn. What is your grandparent story? A tribute? A memory? A wish or a regret? Writing this post has been so special for me that I urge you to reel back the years in the same way, then reel them forward again, and walk with your grandma or grandpa down whatever path you rediscover, whether writing it down, talking about it, or just letting it make you feel what it makes you feel.
Meanwhile, if you happen to have read my previous post, you know that I am about to join the club as my first grandchild will soon be born. Here I come—whoever I am.
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