Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mean Love

Over Thanksgiving, our daughter got a little taste of heaven: she spent a long weekend in our Wisconsin hometown, visiting with all four of her grandparents. Although I don't think that either my husband or I imagined that we would end up marrying an old friend from our childhoods, that's what happened, and because of that, our daughter has both sets of grandparents living less than two minutes drive away from each other.

When EJ talks about Kenosha—which she says, Ken-OH-sha, with lots of love on the "oh"—she may as well be describing Disney World; it is all magic, fun, and joy.

Given that there aren't rides, palm trees, and life-sized cartoons characters roaming the streets there, we understand that the main draw in our hometown is her grandparents. We can't blame her.

While I loved my grandparents very much, and have some sweet memories with them, I can't ever remember a time I was simply dying to visit them, or sobbing (yes, sobbing) when it was time to leave. They were loving in a way that people who survived the Great Depression and two world wars might understandably be: they wanted to impart all of their wisdom on us, admonish our faults, and help us to have the best chance we could of making ourselves into something in this world. Their life circumstances had been painful, and they hoped that if they warned us enough, made us grateful enough, or picked at our faults enough, we could learn through their experiences. They thought my brothers and I were overindulged (possible), but underworked (they had a point). Of course, we were born in the seventies, raised in the eighties, and launched out in the nineties—Dynasty and Duran Duran are not exactly at the roots of deep thinking. Somehow we ungratefully managed to make it out of that supportive, loving environment to become decent human beings who contribute to society; I think that, despite the alleged (but unproven) overindulgence, all that support and love managed to win the day (like the lyrics from a Beatles song). I take some solace in knowing that, just as those grandparents were telling us to shape up, they were needling our parents about the same things, and we all seemed to make it through without too many years in therapy.

I've told EJ a lot of stories about my family, including my grandparents. I've told her about my Nana (my dad's mom) coming over from Italy as a little girl, and how she climbed up into the mulberry bush and stained her all-new white dress the day her grandmother had brought she and her sister to town for passport photographs, requiring them to go all the way back home again to their village and try another day, no small feat. I also have told her how Nana used to come to dinner usually once a week in her big, metallic-burnt orange car, and always brought cupcakes or twinkies in a plastic bag that she would fold up into her coat pocket; my cousins can all describe those tattered plastic bags.

I've described how Grammy and Granddad (Mom's parents) would come visit us from Colorado, typically with a bunch of carefully-wrapped breakables for us. Only about a third of these items were ever things kids really enjoy, but they had been packed up so meticulously in order to make it to us safely, they always required multiple, "Thank yous" and "I love this, thank you!" as well as a formal thank you note in the mail following their departure. I've mentioned how they travelled all over the world during their retirement, always bringing back a doll for me from each country; I loved that doll collection. I've also told EJ about how, when we'd go to Colorado each summer, we'd usually take a picnic in the mountains, and Grammy would let me lie down with my head in her lap on the van ride up as I got carsick, and she'd stroke my head and rub my back to make me feel better. Once there, she was known for yelling at us for being afraid of yellow jackets, which she would grab and crush with her bare hands, the same hands that had just been used so gently to soothe me on the way up.

Yes, I have a lot of great memories with my grandparents, to be sure, but I didn't have the kind of warm, safe feelings I know that my daughter has with my folks and my inlaws. I feel so grateful that she is lucky in this regard. Growing up, my mom used to speak of how close she was with her paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother, and I always wondered how great that must feel for a kid, to have grandparents who demonstrate that they love you unconditionally, and don't let you know what you need to do better all the time, disguising some personal hang-ups or pet peeves as loving advice. Now I get the privilege of seeing EJ's grandparents extend that type of kindness to her, and it is really beautiful.

Of course, kids are honest, and they will call things as they see them. I try to be honest back. On Friday, after spending time together making my great-grandmother's cinnamon roll recipe with my Mom, and hearing me recount how Granddaddy would be mad that we hadn't pulled EJ's hair all the way up, and how Grammy would find my glazing overzealous, EJ asked,

"Mom, were your grandparents mean?"

My reply:

"Yes...well, wait. No, they weren't mean. They weren't. They just weren't always nice."

She then laughed hysterically. "They weren't nice, Papa!" she told my dad, as if the sheer idea that grandparents could be anything but nice was the silliest, craziest thing she had ever heard.

It wasn't crazy, though, it was simply what they knew how to do to love me the best that they could. Living in the world as it is now, without the financial security that I think so many of us could not do anything but take for granted when we were younger, I get it. They wanted us to understand what that kind of worry could look like, but of course, you can't understand anxiety as a 9-year old in your city's musical production of "The Sound of Music," so having your grandparents tell you five hundred times how lucky you are to have your parents drive you to rehearsals to be Marta simply does not sink in. You have to live the trouble—now that I have the fear that we might not be able to pay for our daughter's schooling, or retire when we can no longer work, I can begin to understand. No, we aren't living nearly the trouble of their time, but we are getting our own economic kick in the pants.

I sometimes think that I am hardening more like them, with cautious admonitions occasionally accompanying my "I love yous." I feel close to them as I realize this, but I also recognize that I must learn from their examples: sharing your tales of anxiety with children does not make them better able to handle stress. Hardship is its own teacher, just as perseverance is its own reward, and if you want kids to grow into people who can manage all that comes their way, filling a cheering section for them with unconditional love is a good start. Sure, provide an example, but don't tell them what they can't do, or what they need to change about themselves to make them more acceptable or enviable. The world will do this, over and over, and you aren't the world; you are family.


  1. I never thought of this, but you are right! My grandparents did similar things. Although, descending from English WASP's meant they were much more passive aggressive with their "advice."
    When Xander was seeing his therapist, I had an interesting conversation with the therapist. At one point he asked, "What is it that you want for Xander in the future?" I replied, "I want him to be happy, have a decent job, no credit card debt…"
    Therapist replied, "You have no control over those things. And he can't be happy all the time. You wouldn't want that for him because he won't learn life lessons. What I wish for my boys is that they always know I love them and I'm there for them. If they need me, they will always know I'll support them and we can work through problems together."
    I was stunned. I'd like to write more, but I have to jet! sorry

  2. Hillary, I love that idea, not of teaching your kids that everything will be okay at every moment, but that they will be okay, and you (and others) will be there to support them. Nice.

  3. The Facebook app seems to hav eaten my last 2 comments so if 3 comments pop up here I apologize. I feel the same way. Watching my kids with my parents is a revelation not just of what a big deal this relationship can be but how fun my parents can be when they're not busy working hard and worrying.

  4. You've made me think a bit about my own grandparents and how we interacted. My mom's mom was loving and sweet and grandmotherly in her own way, but my mom's dad was always pretty...cool towards me, as was my dad's dad. My dad's mom died when I was 5 but my memories of her are of loving warmth, so in my case it seemed to be the men with the "meanness". In addition to living in leaner times, both had fought in wars (one a POW), so that certainly shaped them, too. Anyway, nice food for thought, Kori. :)