Brand building through storytelling

Revealed: the secret lives of grandmothers

The book I’ve just started belongs to my 12-year-old grandson Colsen. The other night I watched him polish off the second half of it, cross-legged in my pink plush armchair. He wore a baseball cap and a look of intense concentration. When I inquired about the allure of this book, he glanced at me just long enough to say, “It’s suspenseful. It’s got werewolves and vampires.”

I’ll never share Colsen’s passion for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but werewolves and vampires aren’t much of a stretch. I don’t know if I’ll finish Eclipse, the 640-page teen best-seller by Stephenie Meyer. Still, that’s hardly the point. What I’m after is a key to my grandson’s world.

The book I’ve just finished is another one that wouldn’t be sitting on my desk today if not for Colsen. And it too is the key to a world—the hidden, uncharted place where modern grandmothers find out what it means to invest our hopes, our love and our hard-won wisdom in a child whose future is not in our hands. The self-help gurus have had their say about this life-changing new role of ours, but no one thought to ask the real experts—women like us.

GrandmotherEnter Barbara Graham—author, playwright, editor and first-time grandmother swept up on a current of primal emotion. When she couldn’t find a book that mapped the the grandmaternal journey, she set out to create one. She asked women writers to share their stories. And what boundary-breaking stories they are—by turns funny, challenging, poignant and outrageous. There’s not a platitude in the lot. If you are or expect to be a grandmother; if you’ve ever felt a surge of gratitude or a stab of resentment at your child’s grandmother; if you treasure the shoes-off, second-pot-of-coffee frankness of women sharing secrets among friends, you owe it to yourself to read Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother.

Full disclosure: I have an essay in the book (“Facebook Grandma,” excerpted this month in MORE‘s Canadian edition). When Barbara asked me to be part of her project, my first reaction was a quiver of unease—the sure sign of a must-do assignment. What did it mean that after years and years of first-person storytelling, I had never gotten anywhere close to this story? I decided to find out. If I was venturing outside my comfort zone, then surely my sister contributors were also pushing their limits.

The most compelling stories are often those that wait for their moment while the teller gathers conviction. I learned this years ago, interviewing women late at night on the phone about their wrong turns and still-unquenchable hope. Often they would muse, “You know, I’ve never shared this with anyone.” Long pause, then a question heavy with anticipation: “What did the other women say?”

When Eye of My Heart arrived in the mail last week, I didn’t read my own story first. I wanted to know what the other women said. So I began at the beginning, with Mary Pipher‘s luminous introduction, in which she observes, “As I offer my grandchildren total acceptance, I have extended more compassion toward myself. When I make a mistake or a bad choice, I have learned to ask, ‘How would I respond if Kate or A.B. did this?'” Hmmm. Must think about that.

It’s a sign of this collection’s strength that I have so many favourites. I smiled knowingly at Judith Viorst‘s take on competitive grandmas who must have the most adorable grandkids and come first in their affections. I laughed out loud at Virginia Ironside‘s discovery that her true calling is granny: “…the particular knight who was to capture my heart was not a tall, chisel-faced, nattily dressed man but rather a small, red chap with a squashed-up face, in nappies.” I loved the subversive wit of Abigail Thomas, Nana of 12 and former free spirit, barefoot in Washington Square. Asked ever so politely by her doctor if she’s had more than one sexual partner, Nana says, “Quite a few more. It was the 60s.”

Like women’s intimate conversations, Eye of My Heart tells the truth even when it hurts. Sallie Tisdale agonizes over the never-ending stream of cherished grandkids that her son and daughter-in-law cannot support. Beverly Donofrio, a teen mother whose youthful exploits were the shame of her family, recalls being beaten by her irate father. She forgave him, just barely. But not until she saw him enchant her grandson, dancing the twist on unsteady legs, could she bring herself to love her dad again.

Some women find to their sorrow that a grandchild exposes a fissure in the bond between themselves and their daughters. My mother was among those women. She died before we found a way to speak about the no-strings love she lavished on my son and the fierce, demanding passion that she gave to me—a lesser love, it seemed to me. Through an essay in Eye of My Heart, I’ve come to see us both more clearly. Jill Nelson, like my mother, was not the most easygoing, generous-hearted mom. Like my mother, she had her reasons—and discovered a new way to love when a grandson reconfigured her life. Unsurprisingly to me, Jill’s daughter resents this, with painful consequences for the whole family. I feel for the daughter. Yet I feel for Jill as well. In her eloquent, restrained account, I hear what my mother never lived to tell me.


Posted by Rona

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