"I won't see grandma and grandpa for a week," my 6-year-old granddaughter, Ryan, remarked the other day.
"Oh," I said. Ryan’s other grandparents live in Davis, an hour east of my home in San Francisco. They see Ryan and her 4-year-old sister, Maggie, a lot, just as I do. "Will you miss them?"
"Not that much," Ryan answered — wonderfully. "I'm used to it."
Let the record show that I did NOT say, "But you would miss me if you didn't see me for a whole week, right?" I have some self-control.
Meet the others
Yes, Ryan and Maggie have another set of grandparents, Bob and Barbara, which means, most pertinently, they have another grandmother. Trevor, the girls' father, is Bob and Barbara’s only child, and so Ryan and Maggie are their only grandchildren, too. Barbara is around my age. From the second she learned that Trevor's wife, my daughter, Morgan, was pregnant, she and Bob began knocking together cradles and issuing invitations to the parents-to-be such as, "Come live in our house for free!" Barbara has since bought Ryan a miniature Hummer that rides by itself, as well as a toy cell phone that the 6-year-old pulls over to the curb to answer with an annoyed expression.
So much effort to go to, I think, when the mother of the mother is the real grandmother. I read that the mother of a daughter who then gives birth to a girl is the closest kind of grandmother there is. This is so obviously true that I am amazed some days to remember that the girls have only some of my genes. Ryan, certainly, is a little replica of me, right down to the crossed eyes, straight brown hair — and tendency to interrupt people. And Maggie clearly got her left-handedness from me. I don’t see the other grandparents in them at all. Also, both Trevor and Morgan, although they are now separated, live closer to me than they do to the other grandparents.
More than backup grandparents?
The father's parents are the auxiliary grandparents, aren't they? They're kept in storage in case of need, like if I leave on a 10-year trip to Borneo, or something like that.
I do admire the pictures Barbara e-mails me of the girls enjoying her backyard turtle pond, and I send her some of my shots of the girls enjoying the playroom that used to be my spare room. Unlike some other grandparents, I like to share. (I have one friend who confides she doesn't even like the photographs that her own "other" granny takes: "They make the kid look cornfed and common," she says.)
Yet here’s the thing: Bob and Barbara are just as besotted with the girls as I am, and the same goes for their biological granddad, my ex-husband, Jim, and my husband, stepgranddad Bill. Those kids are loved up in that house, in sweltering, flat Davis, where they have their own room, and their own bikes in the garage. I can feel Bob and Barbara up there, as if on some special radio frequency, beaming at the girls, making them feel safe and loved even while their parents live apart.
I don't know if there’s a word in English to describe your relationship to your grandchild's other grandparents, but there should be, because it's clear that Barbara and I are now part of the same family.
One definition of love is that you and the other person are both looking in the same direction, and she and I truly are both looking down at these two small people. It's hard to love a child without, in some way, also loving all the other people who love her. And so I do.
I'm glad that Barbara is there, just as I'm sure she's glad I'm here. Naturally, I keep quiet, mostly, about how her role is really a distant shadow of mine. That has to be pretty obvious to everybody, anyway.
A Postscript From Columnist Adair Lara:
To readers of my snarky "other grandmother" column: Whoa! Your responses remind me of that old joke: If enough people tell you you're drunk, you'd better sit down. I, of course, was just trying to be funny, in asserting that as the mother of the mother, I am the "more important" grandmother. In reality, not only do my co-grandmother (we do need a better word for this, in English) Barbara and I not compete with each other, we're friends. (If we compete in any way, it's to see who can take and send each other more great digital photos of the kids.)
But clearly, from your responses to the column, I see that I touched a nerve with this subject. The truth is that many paternal grandparents, because they live closer to the kids or just because of family dynamics, have a larger role in their grandchildren's lives, or bask equally in the light given off by the grandkids. Thanks to the mother-daughter bond, though, and perhaps also to lingering cultural idiocies that say the mother is always the chief parent, some paternal grandparents can feel at a disadvantage. I upset many of you who may be in this camp by my appearance as a crowing, smug, mother-of-the-mother. I apologize for that. I promise that you’ll hear from me when my 29-year-old son has kids....
Reading through your responses I was struck — maybe you were, too — by how much joy and pain are mixed together in grandparenting, an enterprise in which, let's face it, we fall in love with other people's children. I hope in my future columns to assure you that even if my sense of humor should get away from me, we are on this journey together.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.