The Time Children Spend With Grandparents Can Be Invaluable, Even When They’re Not Blood-Related
If I’m ever in the unfortunate situation of having to choose my last meal, I will choose a ham sandwich on lightly-toasted Pepperidge Farm bread and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. This is what I ate for lunch with my grandmother most afternoons when I was in grammar school. I went to St. Nicholas in the Heights section of Jersey City, which was only a few blocks away from the house where we lived–my mom, dad, brother and sister on the top floor; my grandmother and grandfather on the first floor. My grandfather died when I was eight, right around the age that I started walking to and from school myself. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny, would usually have the sandwich and tea ready for me when I got home. We’d chat about whatever was on either of our minds, and then she’d send me back to school with a quarter. There was a grocery store on the corner in between my house and school, and I’d use the quarter to pick up a bag of Wise potato chips on the way back.
Nanny wasn’t my real grandmother, but she was the only grandmother I knew. My father’s parents died before I was born. My mother’s mother died when she was 14 due to complications from gallbladder surgery. My mother’s father, with two teenage daughters, one of them with an intellectual disability, and two younger sons, knew he needed help and that his children needed a mother. He met and married Mary, whom he and my mother and her siblings called Mae, about three years later. She was an extraordinary woman. Already a professional, she worked for the International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) company in Manhattan. She became a mentor to my mother and introduced her to New York and the arts and helped her get her first job, as a personal secretary at JP Morgan. She may have never given birth to children, but certainly loved my mother and her siblings as her own.
It was the same with her grandkids. She took full advantage of our proximity to New York and would pack us and our friends in her late 70s blue Nova to take us to Liberty State Park in downtown Jersey City, and onto the ferries to Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty. It didn’t occur to me then–I figured we needed something to do in the summer and she was happy to be our chaperone–she probably had a strong sense of shared history and that was her way of introducing it to us. Like us, she was of Italian descent. Her ancestors were greeted by the same The Statue of Liberty and came through the same Ellis Island as ours did. We may not have been blood, but we came from the same blood.
She was funny, too, especially on these field trips, even though we drove her crazy. One time, she rear-ended another driver on the way back to the house. The guy got out of the car, came up to her driver’s side window and started screaming at her in Spanish. None of us knew what he was saying, but she calmly pulled a five dollar bill out of her purse and told him, in English, to go buy himself a soda. He was flummoxed and got silent. He took the money and walked back to his car.
Nanny died when I was 19, due to complications from a brain tumor. My mother, with whatever help me and my sister could provide, took care of her for as long as she could while she laid in a hospital bed in her living room. Our lunchtime ritual had stopped long ago, but her death sparked a change in my and my family’s life that in many ways we never recovered from. My mother’s family fell apart and my parents divorced. Me and my siblings went our separate ways. Looking back, it’s clear that my mother’s mood disorder, diagnosed years later along with early onset dementia, was already present.
I’ve long known that a ham sandwich on lightly-toasted Pepperidge farm bread and a cup of tea with milk and sugar would be my preferred last meal, but it’s only now that I realize why. Sure, it’s a comfort food, taking me back to those charming afternoons with Nanny. But it’s also the taste of “before.” Before estrangement. Before dementia. Before experience.
My wife and I have one-year-old twin girls that were conceived with the aid of an egg donor. Late last year, my mother-in-law moved in with us. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. She has her own room and bathroom on one side of the house, and we have built-in help in the mornings and evenings before and after work. We both save money. There are less tangible benefits, too, like the joy my mother-in-law experiences every time she walks out of her room in the morning or into the house after she gets off work and sees those two smiling faces staring back at her.
The biggest winners are my daughters, who get to spend time with Honey, as she prefers to be called, in the way I got to spend time with Nanny. Fridays belong only to them, and when they get together, there is always plenty of babbling going back and forth. Like Nanny, Honey may not be blood, but you’d never know it.
Times have changed and eating ham on lightly-toasted Pepperidge Farm white bread and following it with a bag of chips every day is no longer an acceptable lunch. Even if Honey, who’s a bit old school, disagrees. We’re somewhat lucky that the girls can’t truly eat solid food yet. But there’s a Catholic grammar school around the corner from where we live that I hope we can afford and the girls can attend in a few years. Maybe some things haven’t entirely changed.
We all have a “before” and an “after” in our lives. William Blake pointed that out in the 18th Century. I wish my daughters wouldn’t have to have an “after,” but at least I know they’re having the sweetest “before” I can imagine.