Who Is the Super Granny?

You are! You don’t look like the grandmothers in the picture books your own children used to have. You don’t look like your own grandmothers or even your own mothers. And you don’t act like any of these either. You’re engaged in life, with more activities than you have time for, whether they’re related to profession or politics or passions. You’re more comfortable with rock ’n’ roll than a rocking chair, and more likely to take to haute cuisine than bake cookies. You don’t own an apron, but you’re likely to own a computer, a PDA, a cell phone, a mountain bike, or a tennis racket, and definitely multiple pairs of blue jeans. You don’t look—or for the most part, act—like anyone’s grandmother.

But with all of this, you’re thrilled to have those grandchildren and to enjoy this very special dimension of your full life. You remember what the humorist Sam Levenson once said: “Grandparents and grandchildren get along so well because they have a common enemy.” You find that you’re more patient, more involved, more interested in spending time with your grandchildren than you were with your own children at those ages. You have more time now, more money, and more perspective on what’s important in life. You’re not overwhelmed by juggling career and family, so you can freely enjoy this new generation in a way their busy parents cannot.

I often see parents talking on their cell phones while they are out with their children—walking in the street, pushing them on playground swings, or riding a bus—being more involved with the phone conversation than with the child. But I never see a grandmother opting for cell phone over child. No matter how busy we are, when we take time out from our careers and our other activities to be with our grandchildren, we know that this is an event, a precious interlude, one that we want to experience as fully as we can. We know how fast children grow up.

When I am alone with one of my five grandchildren, I often feel as if I am in a different world from my usual one, a world of the immediate present, a world in which every other activity fades into the background, a world in which I concentrate only on him or her and what he or she needs, a Zen world. It’s as if I know what I’m supposed to do: I’m carrying on an ancient tradition of grandmothering and child care, and I’m totally at peace with the world and myself.

I have no memory of giving this same kind of concentration to my own small children on a day-to-day basis. In those days, my mind was like a mosaic in the making, its neurons scattered like loose tiles. Part of me was so often somewhere else, as I would think about what I had to do or felt I had to do—the marketing, the cooking, the laundering, the chauffeuring, the cleaning, the finding of babysitters—so I could work at one part-time or freelance job after another.

Being a college-educated mother in suburban America back then meant feeling that you had to be the best at mothering and homemaking and wifeing—and at something else, too. Being a man in those days meant advancing in your career so that you could take good financial care of your family. Now, most of the young parents I know are busier than ever, with feelings of obligation to be professional-level mothers and fathers, while soaring to the top in their careers. There are, of course, multiple satisfactions in multiple roles, but as much as today’s young parents treasure their fuller participation in both home and the wider world, their job is not easy. And that’s where grandmothers come in.

My father’s mother, Dora, the only grandmother I ever knew (Sarah, my mother’s mother, whom I was named for, died before I was born), was always old to me, although at the time of my birth, she was younger than I am now. As far as I could tell, my grandmother was permanently glued to her couch, where she sat wrapped in a shawl on the warmest day. She was a sweet old lady who was always happy to see me, who smiled at me, and who told me stories about her life in the Old Country. I know that she must have left that couch from time to time during my childhood, but I have no memory of her being anywhere else until she came to my wedding and then my college graduation. I don’t see her in my mind’s eye as doing anything. She didn’t cook, she didn’t knit, she didn’t play cards, and she certainly didn’t play with me. As far as I know, she didn’t have friends and didn’t go out for fun. The only times I ever saw her were when my parents took me there or reminded me to walk a couple of blocks to go visit her. It wasn’t until after Dora died that I learned of the poetry she had written over the years and of the account of her journey to the New World. She never shared these aspects of herself with me.

My friends and I inhabit a different world. Most of us don’t even own a shawl—or if we do, it’s a chic pashmina that we’ll wear around our shoulders over a strapless dress—even sometimes when strapless is wildly inappropriate for someone of our chronological age. (As I always say, everyone has to grow old, but you can stay immature forever.) We are more likely to drive, bike, train, or fly to visit our grandchildren—even when it means taking time out from our job or other commitments—than they are to come to us. We are more mobile. And when we are with these incomparable creatures, we entertain them—and entertain ourselves—in countless ways. Yes, we tell them stories about our earlier lives, but we do so much more. We live life to the utmost, we pursue our passions, and we bring them to our grandchildren. We share ourselves and are rewarded by their interest in us. And we’re spontaneous: We may plan one thing, but then discover another possibility, and can turn on a dime when we see new horizons beckoning for ourselves and our grandchildren.

Our mobile society means that we’re less likely to live around the corner from our grandchildren, as my grandmother did with me. Two of my grandchildren are a two-hour drive away from my home on Long Island; the others are an eight-hour plane ride and a one-hour drive away in Europe. These days, grandmothering across the miles is often the norm. Still, we find ways.

Another change in society involves grandchildren who are very close to their grandmothers, because the grandmothers are raising them, for one reason or another. This nationwide trend, in rural areas as well as urban ones, has been increasing since the early 1990s, according to the United States Census Bureau. A number of organizations and websites have sprung up to help grandparents raising grandchildren, and virtually all of the activities in this book can be enjoyed by those of you involved in childrearing all over again.

In the following pages, you’ll read about some of the activities that we twenty-first-century grandmothers and our grandchildren have enjoyed the most. The ideas and the activities in this book come from grannies all over the United States and from other countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and India. These grannies told me their stories about what they do, or did, with their grandchildren, or in some cases, the grandchildren told me what they have done with their grannies. I hope that all these true stories about real people will inspire, inform, amuse, and fuel you with lots of good ideas for making memorable every moment spent with your grandkids. (Well, nearly every moment—let’s be realistic here!) For more ideas, you can go to the Resources appendix on page 203 for helpful websites.

I’m always eager to hear about more fun activities, so if you would like to share your own great grandmothering ideas, please write to me c/o Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8810.

Hoping to hear from you!

—Sally (also known as “Oma”)