We discussed with Quindlen the ways in which grandparenthood has changed her relationship with her children, her sense of self and her view of the world.
[This has been edited slightly for length and clarity]
Q. There’s a delightful story that opens the book about your grandson calling you “Nana.” But what boomer grandparents are called is a source of great discussion. Some women hate to be called “Grandma” for the connotation that “it means I’m old.” How did you decide you would be Nana?
A: That was probably the easiest part of becoming a grandmother. Nana is an anagram of my first name, and it’s also easy for a little person to say. That was very important to me. It’s been really interesting, talking about the book with other grandmothers, because it seems like a lot of them use names their grandkids came up with, in part because they could manage to say them. There are a lot of Mimis and Ninis out there for that reason, although my favorite remains a woman who told me her granddaughter named her Graham Cracker. She just went with it.
And a word about all the old stuff: I read a profile of the actress Laura Linney in which she referred to “the privilege of aging.” That’s how I feel. To quote another actor, George Burns, “Think of the alternative.” My hair is gray. My skin is slack. And I get to get out of bed every day and do the being-alive thing. The downside to that seems pretty minimal to me, especially with grandchildren in the mix.
Q. I think some mothers of sons worry that the maternal grandmother will get more time with the grandchildren than the paternal one does. That doesn’t seem to have happened in your situation. But what advice would you give for getting “Nana time”?
A: It’s a reasonable worry because there’s actually data that shows that that’s likely to happen. In most cases it’s just a different relationship, the one you have with your daughter and with your daughter-in-law. I’ve got best-case scenario here: great DIL, lives within walking distance, very laid-back about me and the kids. So, I’m no expert, but I would say one way to proceed is to ask not to visit but to help out. Hang with the baby while she goes shopping or to the gym. Bring over a Tupperware of something so she doesn’t have to cook. It’s like any other transactional relationship: maximize praise, minimize unsolicited advice, expunge criticism or anything that can be seen as criticism.
Q. You make a fascinating demographic point, one I had never really thought about, that grandparents are a relatively new phenomenon — the combination of adults living longer and children surviving childhood creating a new relationship in human history. To what extent does that color your relationship with Arthur or other grandchildren?
A: The entire relationship is colored by a sense of how lucky I am to have them, and to have them at a time when I can do so much with them. I’m a little creaky, but I can still somersault. Although that appears to be infinitely more important to me than to Arthur, who sometimes gives me the side eye as though he’s thinking, “Nana needs to get over herself and stop the performative stuff. “
Q: There’s a eureka moment in the book when you object to a parental decision your son is making and he pushes back. You recount this to a friend, and she asks the devastatingly simple question: “Did they ask you?” How have you learned to hold your tongue?
A: It certainly seems to be something that people struggle with. Over and over, readers have said to me, “I wish I had heard that when I was starting out as a grandmother.” (Or, “I wish my mother-in-law knew this.” Yow. I have found myself a secondhand witness to what are obviously some thorny family situations.)
But, you know, I think memory is the key to everything. A good teacher remembers what it’s like to be a student. A good editor remembers what it’s like to be a reporter. A good mother remembers what it’s like to be a kid. And a good grandmother remembers what it’s like to be a mother, and how uncertain and vulnerable you feel when someone hands you this boneless blob and says, “Here, make a good human!” When I think back, I wasn’t enough of a paragon to proffer certainties. I look at Arthur’s father, my eldest child, and I think, “All right, you must have done something right.” But I don’t know what, so I’m not in a position to tell him.
Q: There are parts of “Nanaville” that echo my favorite essay, “A New Roof on an Old House,” which is really a reflection on mortality and legacy. How have you rethought those issues in the wake of Arthur’s appearance in your life?
A: Oh, thanks for mentioning that one. I’m so hypercritical of my own work that I scarcely ever revisit it, but I reread that one several years ago, and it still moves me. I’ve always been terribly aware of mortality, because my mother died when she, and I, were both so young. I feel a profound sense of relief that I’ve gotten my three to their 30s without becoming motherless. I don’t know about other people, but I can’t help but look at Arthur and Ivy [his new sister] and know for a fact that there will be important passages in their lives that I will surely miss. But in the legacy department I have this ace in the hole that I didn’t realize until fairly recently. If they ever wonder who I was and what I cared about, there’s a whole shelf of my books to tell them.
Q: For me, the best part of having kids was their ability to reawaken my ability to be amazed by the world — that and to teach me things that somehow I missed, like the names of all the dinosaurs and construction equipment. How does that translate as a nana? What have you rediscovered about the world by being able to see it through Arthur’s eyes?
A: It’s invaluable for a writer. Our vision is like a razor; after a while the edge gets so dull. Caterpillars, lightning, shadows, frogs, snowstorms, dandelions — we simply forget to look. Then you hang around with a toddler and suddenly you see everything through his eyes, and you realize the magic to it all. And since seeing, really seeing, is the secret to resonant prose, your writing gets this new spark to it. It happened when I had my kids, and it’s happening again with Arthur and Ivy. There was a thunderstorm last night, and I would scarcely have registered it were Arthur not asking about it. I don’t really believe in the muse — if there is one, it lives at Toni Morrison’s house as far as I can tell — but if I have a muse, it’s a 3-year-old.