The large coach bus pulls into Framingham station and I’m excited. I lived in this town from ages 1 to 4 and I’ve never been back. But I remember it vividly, the layout of our house, the picture window to the left of the front door where my mother combed my hair while my friend waited outside. I remember the kitchen fire, the little bus to preschool, the fall in the sandbox, which was quickly followed by my mother pouring something from a blue bottle into my eyes as I lie screaming on a table.
But this trip is not to see my extended family in the Boston area or my hometown but rather to visit my boyfriend Brian’s daughter and her husband and their two little girls, the youngest one being only 8 weeks old. They live in a town about 15 minutes away. We exit the Boston Logan airport bus, walk out to the pick up circle and find Jessica there with the new baby on board. The baby is adorable and I jump into the back seat to sit next to her, her big eyes watching me as I start speaking ‘baby’. You know, “hello, well hello sweetie, aren’t you the cutest little button, aren’t you, aren’t you? Yes you are!”
I forgot how much I love baby talk! I know it’s annoying to listen to, but babies really like it. She perks up and opens her eyes wide and starts moving her little rosebud mouth as if she is holding up her side of things. She is positively cooing, I even see a little smile start. I feel like a superhero. Back at the house now, I offer to hold her. I actually don’t know what I’m doing, it’s been 25 years since mine was a baby, but our plan to visit was accompanied by an offer to help out and do whatever they need so I can’t show any insecurity. The handoffs are a bit tricky, but then some things come back, support the head, rock back and forth, baby talk, oh and singing. The great thing about singing is that you don’t have to be good, you don’t have to know the words, in fact, you don’t even have to sing a real song, you can even just hum. Row row row your boat, merrily merrily…
I try to remember holding my own daughter when she was this small and it’s hard to picture it. I know what she looked like but I can’t see myself there again, I seem like another person. What comes through in my bones though is this memory of attachment and devotion, and responsibility. And fear. I ask Jessica when we are out walking, “Are you sure she can breathe in that carrier? Maybe check again.” And I hear myself asking other silly questions like, “she just drank one ounce from the bottle, should I try to burp her now or wait til she finishes all of it? Or half of it?” When she starts fussing and then crying, I panic that I have lost my magic touch with her, she feels my stress! I must relax, I must lower my heart rate, she’ll feel that. Yes, there we go. Baby meditation.
I see myself now as the worried parent that I often was, and how hard that must have been on my daughter. I never had that second child where you could start to ease up. I have often thought that I would enjoy grandchildren one day because I would be more relaxed this second go around. But holding this vulnerable little being now only reminds me how dangerous the world is. Maybe it won’t be so easy when it’s my own daughter’s baby I’m holding.
This visit is like a trial run for being a real grandmother. I’m only a pretend grandmother here. We are not blood. And Brian and I are not married so they want the children to call us Grandpa and Nancy. It’s strange to have a boyfriend called grandpa, which makes me wonder anew, at what age does calling someone your boyfriend sound a little ridiculous? I think it’s now, it’s when that someone can also be called grandpa. So from now on he is just Brian.
I’m not ready to be a grandmother. I think my daughter is still a few years away from having children so I’m safe for now. It feels like another level of old. I’ve already hit 60, this is the next step. I know someone can be a grandmother at 40 but it’s still generally associated with being old. As Brian says, his grandchildren are pushing us off the planet to make room for themselves. Our days here are numbered. Well that’s comforting.
During the week we are visiting, I fall in love with this new baby. And Jessica and I bond over that. As we give her a bath one day, we laugh together at her funny expressions of surprise and wonder as we take turns washing and rinsing her tiny body. Later Jessica shows me pictures she has taken of the baby, who is in the room, on her phone until her husband says, “Ok, I think you’re going a little overboard now!”
“No, not at all,” I say. I am genuinely enthralled, and I also want to support her. She should be overboard about her baby. And that’s something I imagine a mother would always share with a daughter, being crazy about the baby. But I’m not a substitute mother for Jessica. Her own mother came out for the first couple of weeks to help.
My mother was planning to come out for the first weeks to help me too, she was so excited for her first grandchild and I was so in need of her help. But she had some complications from a chronic health condition in the months leading up to the birth of my daughter and then unexpectedly died a week after she was born. My early baby days were a bittersweet mix of devastating grief and deep love and joy.
Before we leave Boston, we drive down the street my father remembers as the one we lived on in Framingham. He doesn’t remember the number and nothing looks familiar of course. It’s been almost 60 years! But I feel happy to be here like some part of my mother is still here on this street, a piece of her life. I remember her telling me once that her mother didn’t come out here to visit much and she felt a little abandoned. My grandmother was a loving woman who just had too many children, 11 in total, and my mother was the quintessential middle child. I was the oldest of five children born in six years. It sounds like utter chaos, which is what I remember a lot of growing up, but she said those baby years were the happiest years of her life.
I was the same way, despite my grief, despite my worries. I had waited a long time to have a child, I didn’t even want one until I was into my 30s. I had to fight my husband for it, then my biology and then later lost my marriage but I was wildly happy in motherhood. I used to say, ‘I love to complain.’ Meaning I loved all of it.
When I think of sharing this new baby time with my own daughter one day, I know I won’t really care about being labeled grandmother. But I wonder if it may awaken new feelings of loss. I won’t truly know what I missed until I experience it. Yet by giving my daughter what I didn’t receive from my mother, I am closing this broken circle. And the new life is what pulls us along as it sparks new love in us. There is always a way to heal.