On being a postmodern grandmother
Grandmotherhood turned out to be quite different from my fantasies.
One fantasy I entertained was that I would pass along my love of reading books by reading to them at every opportunity when they were small. They enjoyed being read to as toddlers, and it didn’t matter much to me what I read to them (some kids’ books are inexpressibly silly), but as they got old enough to absorb sustained narratives, I quickly discovered that the books I had loved as a child had no appeal to them.
I loved books about dogs and horses. I still have a small collection of Albert Payson Terhune’s books about collie dogs. I adored those books. I tried to read one to a granddaughter at about the age I had been when I got hooked on them, but I could see that the slow development of the story had her eyes glazing over. I tried Swallows and Amazons, another series I enjoyed. Bored, bored, bored. When they were a little older, my Toronto grands did love Harry Potter, and they enjoyed hearing a chapter before they drifted off to sleep, but those occasions were rare, since I didn’t visit often enough to create a flow. By then, of course I wasn’t around for bedtime with my Montreal grands.
I am assured that all five grandchildren enjoy reading, but they apparently do it in private, as I have never witnessed them actually with a book in their hands. If they had a book in their hands, they would not be able to hold one of their devices, which would be tragic. So although I see their charming heads bent over and absorbed in a posture similar to reading, they are in fact only texting, visiting Instagram or TikTok. And they do this in quite a compulsive way, just as I used to be compulsive about having reading material at hand. They are literate and, thanks to their fine educations, exposed to excellent books. Perhaps when they are adults, they will belong to book clubs.
So I have come to terms with the fact that in the postmodern age, no cultural experience can be transmitted in anything resembling the more traditional modes. I am grateful that my son is an avid reader, as compulsive as I was, in fact, and my daughter enjoys reading, but as a pastime, which is fine. But obviously technology did draw a bright, digital line between my consciousness and relationship to the world around me, and my grandchildren’s.
I was 40 when I learned word processing, well into my forties when I realized email was the new mail, and at first gradually, then fanatically adopting it as the new telephone. None of my grands has ever known a time when there was no Internet of Things. It changes you. I could not speak to my paternal grandfather, because he didn’t speak English, only Yiddish. But my father spoke both perfectly. I was bored in my grandfather’s presence. I can’t say I knew him in any meaningful way. Obviously not the case with my grands. There is no iron cultural curtain between us, but there is a veil…
Another fantasy I entertained was that my granddaughters and I would enjoy long talks about life, in which I would play the starring role of wise elder, passing along essential womanly information about relationships and marriage and so forth. Needless to say, that has never happened. First, because long conversations do not happen, as when they are not playing hockey or eating their main course at the table when we are all together, they are busy with their devices.
There is no point in me making rules about these devices, as that would only cause tension, since their parents don’t mind. In any case, social patterns today are so hugely different from what went before, I have no particular advice to give them they would take seriously.
In short, I thought I would be a very actively engaged grandmother, and in reality I am remarkably passive, content (having made the decision to be content) to be a warm presence in their circle of support, intensely curious to see how they grow and what their choices are, but feeling no particular need to try to shape those decisions. Partly that is because I loathe conflict, and their parents get testy when I make “judgmental” comments. I am not so in love with my own opinions about my grandchildren that I feel it is worth tension with their parents.
I can hope that they will remain Jewishly confident, but I have no guarantee of it once they arrive on a university campus. Our planned whole-family trip to Israel two years ago was derailed by Covid, and I do not know if the circumstances will be right for this year. I was counting on that trip to cement Israel as an important pillar of their Jewish identity, because I know they will have brushes with anti-Zionism sooner or later, the kind that is ugly and antisemitic. If they are lucky, only brushes.
A salutary reminder not to impose my generation’s ideas of success on grandchildren. A good friend is deeply involved with her grandchildren, and they respect her opinions. She has very narrow and rather rigid ideas of what constitutes a smart pathway to security and happiness, which arise from our own generation’s paradigm of Jewish respectability and success. You enter a stable profession, like medicine or law or dentistry or accounting, and you are set for life. That’s not how it works anymore for many young people, but she doesn’t trust other routes, because she has seen so many of our friends’ kids who chose alternate lifestyles and off-beat gigs floundering.
One of her grandkids adores cooking, and wanted to enter the hospitality industry. Personally, I thought that was a good choice, because it would mean he could travel and always be sure of a gig. It’s a pretty secure industry. But for my friend, it didn’t have the prestige or security of a professional degree, and she did not want him to miss the university experience, forgetting that university in our day was very different from what it is today.
So she pressured him to take the L-SATS and he did, and he went to law school, and did well, and this is not a story that ends with him reproaching his grandmother for pushing him into a life where he feels constrained and unhappy. However, he did announce recently that he was “non-binary” and his new pronouns were they/them. I can see on social media that this has become an important component of his life. I can see this ending badly for him. That would not have happened if he had stuck with his true love of cooking. In busy hotel kitchens, I do not believe discussions of gender arise. So I don’t give any kind of advice about professions and so forth.
I have given up judging myself or comparing myself to other grandmothers. I console myself that when I am gone, my grandkids will – if they are interested – get to know me better through my writing. But of course that’s a big “if.”