I was sitting on my deck with my father the other day when I realized I was learning something about my dearly departed grandma that I never really knew — or maybe it was something that I just didn’t really care about until I became a working parent myself.
She had three grown children who had 13 children between them. There was always chocolate in the vegetable drawer, a few clandestine cigarettes hidden in the silverware drawer and a little whiskey to sip from time to time.
Her jokes were frequent, and often funny. I remember a doctor once asking, after she had a stroke, how she felt. Without skipping a beat, she said: “With my hands.”
She sounds like that sweet old grandma so many of us remember. But as my dad told me this week, she “earned her spurs.”
Married to a sick husband who died young, she threw out my notion that all women in the 1940s and 1950s were housewives in aprons. She took several Pittsburgh trolleys to get to the job at the phone company. She had to work swing shifts — four hours on, two hours off, four more hours on. But because the commute was so far, she had to just stay there for all 10 or so hours.
“So was there always someone home for you guys?” I asked my dad, who has two older siblings.
“Not really. I guess so?”
“Who made dinner?” I asked.
“Um, I guess we all did. I was probably about 7 or 8 at the time, so...” he said, as if that’s old enough to get a roast on the table.
(Oh, Grandma’s ailing father-in-law lived with them as well.)
“Or, actually, maybe I was too young for that. I guess she just cooked and had stuff ready for us,” dad thought out loud.
I looked out at my boys playing in the backyard, as dad and I finished glasses of wine. The little ones had eaten their pesto pasta, carrots and a dollop of ice cream already. They were enjoying a new seesaw my brother and his wife had just given us.
How did we get from grandma’s life to this relatively cushy place? What in the world could I ever be worried about? Not being home by 5:30? Not having enough time to sing songs, play games and cook a hot meal everyone likes? Thinking my boys won’t grow into good adults because I am not with them every minute?
Grandma thought about how to keep an elderly father-in-law comfortable, an ailing husband well, and three wild children happy. All while she worked far from home all day and beyond.
She always seemed a little devilish and a lot loving. But I guess I never thought of her in such a heroic light until now.
I’ve seen the surveys that say today’s working parents spend more hours with their children than previous generations. I hear about the women and men who fight for more, or any, maternity leave. We complain technology just keeps us tethered to work at all hours. And we’re bludgeoned with the idea that the moms before us did what they did so we could have all these choices.
But in talking to my dad, it dawned on me that “the balance” doesn’t determine whether someone’s a good parent, raises good children or has a happy home. Take a look at your kids. Do they seem happy? Well supported? Then I bet your crazy life and whatever “balance” you’ve cobbled together is just fine.
My grandma, your mother, his aunt, that lady’s great-grandmother — they all made it somehow. Their legacies are woven into our present just as our mothering ways will make up some of the patches of the family quilt that follows us.
Can the moms who came into your life shed light on how you parent now? Because I’m thinking, as Grandma J’s mothering years become a little clearer to me, that maybe there are some little things I can let go so the big things come into focus.