Two o’clock on a Monday afternoon. I’m on deadline, but instead of working I check my e-mail every two seconds. Then I stare at the phone, as if I can somehow shame it into ringing. I feel like I’m back in high school waiting to hear from The Guy. But this time the object of my devotion isn’t some dark-eyed bad boy; it’s my baby granddaughter, Isabelle Eva. And the guy I’m dying to hear from is her father, my son and only child, Clay.
I am 58 years old. I have been a grandmother for 12 days. I’m stunned by the swell of feeling: not the love part, which I expected, but the urgency, the hunger to hold Isabelle, to feel her body next to mine. This is love beyond reason and I’m fuzzy on protocol. I don’t know where I belong in the new order. In fact, no one seems to know how the pieces of the expanded family puzzle fit together — neither Clay nor his wife, Tamar; not Hugh, my husband and the baby’s step-grandfather; not the rest of the grandparents. We’re as clueless as a bunch of earthlings who go to sleep in their own beds and wake up on the moon.
One thing is certain — we’ve entered a new phase. One moment she wasn’t; then she was. This impossibly fragile yet lusty creature who is blood of my blood and more than my blood. Hugh and I each got to hold her soon after she was born and often in the days that followed. And since I’m the only grandmother who lives in the same city — Washington, D.C. — I took on the role of chief caterer. Ours is a family that prizes — no, actually, demands — good cooking, even in the most extreme situations.
While Tamar struggled through a difficult labor, Clay, a food photographer, required a pizza margherita from 2 Amys, the best pizza joint in town — almost as much as his wife needed an epidural. Still, after two weeks of whipping up one culinary triumph after another, I need to get out of the kitchen. It’s also time to find out how I fit in when I’m not playing top chef.
Even more important, Clay and Tamar need room to find their own way. A few days before Tamar’s parents left, Clay whispered to me over the phone: "It’s nice to have grandparents around, but we’re ready to be on our own with our baby." Though he was referring to his in-laws, I knew his comments were directed at me. Our baby — not yours.
It strikes me that not only was a new baby born 12 days ago, but a new family as well. The transition from childless couple to family of three has solidified them as a separate unit in a way that marriage alone did not. This new chapter, though natural and appropriate, feels different. What shocks me the most is that in the midst of my joy over Isabelle, faint traces of loss waft in and out of my consciousness like secondhand smoke.
When Hugh tells me to pay attention to what Clay is saying and "dial it back," I know he's right. Besides, viewed through a wider lens, I’m incredibly fortunate. Clay and Tamar decided (with no prompting from me, I swear) to move from Paris to Washington to live near us when the baby was born. This is my dream come true. What do I have to be so anxious and insecure about anyhow? (Hint: Plenty, but I don’t know that yet.)
When four o'clock rolls around and I still haven’t heard from Clay, I redirect my attention to real estate — the ideal landing pad for an obsessive mind, like a heat-seeking missile in search of an alternative target. Hah! I’ll show them, I think. I’ll rent a house on Maryland’s eastern shore for the last week of August. Clay and Tamar, desperate to escape the pea-soupy swamp of Washington, will jump at the offer to join us. Seven days of unrestricted access to Isabelle! If this is as sneaky on my part as it is generous, so be it.
I wonder if my besotted state is normal. I’m not sure, since I’m the first among my boomer friends to become a grandmother. I know my Nana adored me, but was she positively blotto? My own mother wasn’t exactly a role model in the grandmotherly love department, especially when Clay was a baby. When I called her in Manhattan from the hospital in Vancouver to tell her the news of his birth, all she said was, "Clay, what kind of a name is Clay?" And the look on her face, preserved in photographs, when she visited my common-law husband and me in our run-down farmhouse was one of undisguised horror. (Okay, so there was a dead cow lying outside in the barnyard and a multigenerational family of mice sharing our kitchen.) Still, there was a baby. My baby.
By late Tuesday morning, I start to panic. It’s been more than 36 hours since I’ve had any contact with Clay or Tamar. I decide to launch a verbal weather balloon. "Hi, just checking in," I say breezily when I get the recorded message on Clay’s cell phone. "Do you want anything from the farmers’ market?"
Food prevails, and within minutes Clay e-mails me back. Yes, he’d love some baby romaine, baby arugula, and zucchini blossoms.
Tamar is napping when I deliver the baby vegetables, and Clay asks if I’d mind holding Isabelle while he prepares dinner. Oh no, I say, I don't mind. So while he slices and dices, I rock her in my arms. This is how it works, I think, starting to grasp that being a grandmother is a lot like being a relief pitcher.
Which is how it goes during the week we spend together at the shore. They’re with her until they want to do something else, and then she’s mine. At which point I turn into a character in some kind of wacky operetta — I can’t stop singing. One of the best things about being a grandparent, I decide, is getting a free pass to act like an imbecile whenever you’re with the baby. And, as it turns out, I get to act this way a lot. Clay and Tamar take frequent walks and spend most evenings sitting out on the dock, talking. At one point I overhear them whispering about someone named Julie.
As far as I know, the only Julie they’re in touch with is the realtor who sold them their house. Lately, they’ve been complaining about the pressures — financial, practical — of maintaining it. And so I’m uneasy. I’m trying to unscramble the signals so that if and when my heart is broken, I will be prepared.
I don’t have to wait very long. And I am not prepared at all.
This is part one of author Barbara Graham's essay "Our Baby, Not Yours." Graham, a Grandparents.com columnist, is the editor of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother (Harper), which tells "the whole crazy, complicated truth about being a grandmother in today's world."
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