mother and her baby silhouette, isolated vector symbol
Just read a really nice essay by the fiction writer Ben Marcus about great writing — it was about short story writing, but I think it applies to great non-fiction writing, too. The best, he writes, has a “time-release feature . . . to crack open in the body days later, bleeding out inside us until we start to glow.”
It’s not that I want to HURT people with my descriptions of how it feels to be a grandmother. But I do want to affect them, and I’m not quite getting there in these little snippets.
Sometimes when I hold Peaches and gaze at her mobile, mercurial, perfect little face, when I sit on the back porch with her asleep on my shoulder and listen to her creaks and whistles, I feel a here-and-now peacefulness I don’t get much of these days. But too often I’m also thinking about whether I’m being too intrusive as a grandma, whether Peaches’s parents are enjoying themselves here in my house, whether anyone appreciates the food I’m cooking. I’m cooking so much food, so many times.
Too often, too, I’m finding myself a little wistful about Nutmeg’s happiness — not jealousy, exactly, but a kind of yearning to be right there with her and Southpaw amidst their murmured conversations, myself a young woman again but this time with a husband who is one hundred percent on board with anything I do. Not jealousy, exactly, but something unbecoming and inappropriate anyway. And, let’s face it, something that probably actually IS jut a little bit jealousy.
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Ten days in, and hanging out at the beach with Peaches and her parents has turned out to be really sweet and easy. I do hold my tongue occasionally or make myself deliberately scarce — like the previous two days, when Nutmeg’s best friend came to visit with HER brand-new baby, and I thought the two new mothers might have lots they wanted to talk about without me horning in — but generally it’s been really easy to not get on Nutmeg’s nerves at all, and she hands me Peaches to hold and cuddle at least a few times a day.
It’s amazing how slowly things move when there’s a one-month-old around, and when there’s not anything you really must do but get her and her parents enough food and enough sleep. I’m trying to get into that nothing-important-to-do rhythm, which Nutmeg and Southpaw have adopted quite successfully — though I did write a couple of short articles this past week for a little bit of money, mostly to remind myself that while Nutmeg might be on maternity leave, I’m not.
I went to free yoga on the beach a couple of times, but I ended up thinking it might have made my ailing knee (a torn meniscus compilcated by arthritis, or maybe arthritis complicated by a torn meniscus) worse instead of better. Same for bike riding, which I did a few times when we first got here and haven’t done since. I walk some, and swim the equivalent of a couple of laps when we go to the beach at the bay, but by and large exercise has not been high on the activities list. The truth is, I don’t know what HAS been high on the activities list — there are so many things I keep meaning to do, various antique-shopping excursions, going to a picture framer, that kind of thing, but the slow pace of everything here at the house makes me sort of dozey, too. Instead I just do a lot of laundry, a lot of straightening up, and a lot of collecting groceries for and then preparing dinner — for the four of us, usually, but also sometimes (like tonight) also for friends of Nutmeg’s and Southpaw’s. I don’t mind the continual flow of their friends, and their friends’ kids, because one thing I really miss about the old days when Nutmeg and Meta were teenagers is the continual flow of young people into the house. And I do want Nutmeg and Southpaw, even as adults, to keep inviting their friends to stay over, because I want them to think of this house as their home, too.
Most of all I want to keep reminding myself that these are lovely, lazy, summery days, and that I should treasure them.
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Despite my angst of a couple of days ago about whether Nutmeg was irritated with me despite my best efforts at laying low — an irritation that iDaddy insists was all in my mind — I have to admit that it’s been a really wonderful interlude, all of us together here at the beach. Nutmeg and Southpaw are easing into new parenting like a warm bath — it’s not a show, not hiding their real feelings just to make us feel better; it’s the real thing. Southpaw told Nutmeg that he hasn’t felt this relaxed and happy since their honeymoon (which wasn’t that long ago — Nutmeg was six months pregnant at the time), and it’s probably for the same reason — there’s nothing much to do except focus on each other and now, also, this glorious baby. He in particular is incredibly smitten with Peaches — it seems he could spend hours just holding her and looking at her, if the world would let him. Supposedly he’s back from paternity leave now, working from our dining room table at the beach — but often when I pass by I see that his laptop is sitting unattended, and Southpaw is upstairs again while Peaches nurses, hanging around with his little family, changing a diaper, engaging in some quality “tummy time” time.
And Nutmeg is happy, too, for much the same reason — her maternity leave lasts longer, till early September, and between now and then there’s nothing much to do but focus on the baby. When I see her at her laptop, she’s not checking in at work, she’s uploading Peaches photos or looking on Amazon for a stroller or a little tent for the beach. When I catch her reading it’s nothing more serious than a novel (though the one she chose from my bookshelf, The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, is pretty damn dark).
iDaddy and I are not quite so relaxed, largely because we’re both actually trying to get some work done during this interlude. (Well, Southpaw is, too, but the draw of Peaches is even stronger for him.) And also because we think that our role here partly is a practical one, so we’re thinking about and preparing nightly dinners for 4 more intensely than we otherwise would. But a baby really does bring a sense of balance back into the picture. And occasionally she’s hilarious, all those creaks and grimaces and flailings and yawns that a beautiful baby cycles through. Occasionally, as in this photo of Nutmeg trying her hand at nursing in public for the first time, her parents are kind of hilarious, too.
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Gee, and here I thought we’d all been getting along so well. Nutmeg is finally at the beach with iDaddy and me, having arrived with Southpaw and the delicious Peaches two days ago ,and settling in to the two extra bedrooms we have in the front of the house. (This is exactly why we were happy to have been able to buy this house 5 years ago — for long visits from the grandbabies, who at the time were mere figments of my fevered imagination.) It felt like we had already settled into a nice routine, with iDaddy and me leaving them alone for hours on end so they could do whatever child care things they needed to do, waiting for a full hour without complaint so they could prepare for our first foray to the beach yesterday evening, making elaborate (for us) dinners and letting them head straight to bed afterward without cleaning up (even though they offer — they are sweet kids, after all), serving as eager pairs of arms to hold Peaches as she sleeps. We saw that Nutmeg and Southpaw don’t seem to ever put her down into the bassinet during the day but just walk around with her, or sit with her asleep on their chest, so when Peaches fell asleep on my chest yesterday I just sat with her and relaxed into it, for hours, even though I had work to do and even though I had to pee. Later I checked with Nutmeg and Southpaw to be sure that their hesitation to put her down isn’t out of some sort of baby-rearing philosophy, it was simply because they lovedholding her so much — so now I know that in the future if I really feel a need to put her down I can at least do so without feeling like an interfering grandma.
But today, I was made to feel as though I’m being EXPERIENCED as an interfering grandma after all. At lunch time, as they rummaged through the refrigerator, I announced which leftovers I had already pulled out for them to use to make their lunches. I wasn’t fussing around actually MAKING anything for them; I was eating my own leftover tabbouleh at the time. But Nutmeg chose that moment to tell me, supposedly good-humoredly, that I had a window of one more day, after which I was expected to know that they would have as clear a sense of the refrigerator’s inventory as I did.
As I said, it was said in supposed good humor. And I replied in a sort of good-humored way. But what the fuck? Nutmeg is not usually critical of my behavior — unless it’s something that has bugged her a whole lot more than she lets on in her supposedly good-humored comment. And here I’ve been SO restrained, SO careful about not inserting myself into their routine, SO careful not to grab Peaches from them when I feel like holding her. In fact, I’ve been so restrained that a part of me started to fret last night that maybe they worry that I’m not being grandmotherly ENOUGH.
And what I get instead is a snarky comment about my working too hard to make their lives easier by telling them what food I’ve pulled out of the fridge.
Obviously I should just let this one go, right? And be grateful that they’re here and basically glad to be, and that I get to spend a couple of hours a day cuddling an infant who’s quite wonderful to hold. What I should focus on, instead of the “stop telling us where the food is” comment, is Nutmeg’s comment from earlier today, when she marveled at my comfort holding Peaches at the breakfast table on the back porch. “All I could see from inside was you holding the newspaper,” she said. “And you looked so relaxed I was surprised to see you were actually holding a baby, too.”
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Ur-Momma would probably be horrified if she realized how often I go to school on the mistakes she made 35 years ago. I keep remembering things she did that managed to upset me when I was a new mother, and I actively try not to do those things to Nutmeg.
I’m not even sure HOW she managed to upset me so much, and so often. Back when Meta was a newborn, Ur-Momma and I lived 250 miles apart, and we only spoke by phone on Sundays. That’s a far cry from the constant connection that’s possible with Nutmeg. We live just a subway ride away from each other (okay, it’s an hour-long subway ride, but once you’re on the train it hardly matters). And whenever I’m curious about how Peaches is doing I could, theoretically, just send Nutmeg a text or an email and ask for an update.
But I resist. Partly because Nutmeg is herself so good at texting a couple of photos a day of how the baby’s doing, which helps me get my fix. (How is it, I wonder, that a one-week old infant manages to look so child-like in some of those photos? “It’s all about the open eyes,” texts Nutmeg in reply.) Partly because I don’t want to do what Ur-Momma always did — go straight to asking questions about the most worrisome things, the very things that are probably of some concern to Nutmeg and Southpaw already and that they really don’t need to hear about from me.
It’s not exactly the lesson you want to pass along to your daughter, is it? The lesson always to do the opposite of everything you once did? I hope for a better legacy for myself, to be honest. But maybe one way to get that better legacy is to take the Ur-Momma lesson to heart, and to rein myself in whenever I want, more than anything, to just have a good long chat with one of my kids.
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Not exactly beach reading, with all its dark Norwegian chill and overtones of a scary, domineering father, but nonetheless the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle is on my to-do list this summer. It’s slow going — I started several days ago and am still only up to page 57 — but already I’ve found something in it that’s noteworthy enough to want to pull out, write down, and think about.
It’s about what happens to your sense of the meaning of things as you get older, and how the ability to impose sense, or “knowledge,” has as its corollary a speeding-up of the sense of the passage of time. It’s sad, what happens to us as we solidify into adulthood, but I’m starting to think that maybe that’s what’s so wonderful about being around a child, or a grandchild — the slowing down of time again, if you allow yourself to see the world through the child’s eyes. Here’s Knausgaard’s description of what happens to your understanding of the world around you as you gain maturity (page 11, for anyone following along at home):
As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening, we are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.
I don’t think he means — at least I hope he doesn’t — that knowledge is a bad thing. I think he’s just trying to remind us that it comes at a cost. It’s that stagnation of thought and curiosity, and the paradoxical speeding up of the sense of time passing, that I’m trying to avoid in my sixties and beyond. Maybe Peaches will show me the way.
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