"I want to see something old," she said. "Really old."
Well, you’re kind of looking at it, I thought, while I dug around in my junk drawer looking for something that qualified, past the stacks of antique Hallmark cards I’ve been saving since 1976, the plastic snake my husband and I take turns randomly hiding in shoes or cupboards as a joke, and an empty box with instructions on how to use a set of earbuds I haven’t seen in two years.
It’s not like I meant to get old. It’s nice of her not to mention it every time she drops by for a visit. That’s probably because it goes with the territory since I’m her grandmother. But I used to be eight years old, just like her. Once—not that long ago, when I was twenty-five—I gave birth to her mom. I had a two and a half-year-old and a newborn back then. And then I got old.
Motherhood can do that to you.
Here’s the other thing that happens when you get old. Er. Old-er. You forget what it’s like to be in the trenches where raising kids happens. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It’s like my mom always told me. The same way you forget labor pains, child raising pain is something else you forget.
No, both of those things are bald faced lies. I remember excruciatingly what labor pain felt like, and it’s pretty much the same memory whenever I think about the fear and naiveté of raising human beings. That’s ironic. Because once the kiddos grew up and got ready to leave home, the whole “you need your space and I need you to have your space” experience felt exactly the same way it did at the close of a nine month pregnancy. I needed that kid out and living on his own. That might have been the last time the two of us ever agreed on the same thing at the same time again.
Until they grew up. And had kids of their own.
At that point, it’s really hard not to be like some of my friends—who are also old—and point and laugh while our adult children endure their own stand-offs with our practically perfect grandbabies. In a way, it seems like sweet revenge. Once upon a time, our kids tormented us, fertilized our crop of gray hairs, and stole at least eight and a half years of irreplaceable sleep.
But now, it’s their turn to grow old. “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well,” some guy named Sam Levenson said, “is they have a common enemy.” That’s completely true until it’s our turn to have the granddarlings at our house for a sleepover. And then it all comes rushing back in like the tide.
I can have unlimited patience for about, oh, let’s say three hours, laughing at all the carelessness, immature reactions and forgetfulness of toddlers and preschoolers. Every time they visit I’m thrilled to see evidence of life in our boring old grownup house again, with dolls and cars all over the floor, every sippy cup we own filling up the top rack of our dishwasher, and dress-up clothes scattered from one end of the house to the other. That’s what a great YaYa I am—right up until it’s time to gather up the kiddies and their woobies and blankets and dolls and trucks and toothbrushes and shoes and get them to put away the thousands of toys I couldn’t stop myself from buying the very moment our kids announced that we were going to become grandparents.
And then, suddenly, I run out of energy and patience and good humor at exactly the same time I realize we’re thirty minutes late leaving the house to take them home, no one has used the bathroom before we buckled them into their car seats, I can’t remember who got to sit in the zebra booster last time, and I didn’t bring a cup of water for each kid so they’d stay hydrated during our twenty minute drive across the Arabian desert we call Arizona.
And the poor kid in the middle of the backseat doesn’t have a window to call his own.
That’s the moment when I understand what my daughter saw while she stood staring at the nativity scene on our front lawn on Christmas night last week. It’s just a simple, sparkly, colorful arch representing a stable, a backdrop for its equally sparkly Mary, Joseph, and The Babe Lying In A Manger. Only, on this night, a rare winter storm had blown through, playing havoc with our precarious holy family. Joseph managed somehow to remain standing on his feet. The Christ Child was cozy in his metal manger, and the stable protected two of the three lead players in the Christmas story.
But the Madonna Mary, the Virgin Mother herself, lay face down in the mud at the feet of the baby who probably caused it all, her husband’s arm pointing somehow in her direction as if to say, “Hey! Get up! The kid is hungry again.”
My daughter, on solo duty while her firefighter husband was working, stood exhausted after loading her three little munchkins and their entire Christmas haul from Grandma and Grandpa’s house into the family car, plus an armload of leftovers from the holiday dinner. With slumping shoulders, she sighed in commiseration at the fate of the virgin matriarch who lay prostrate in our front yard.
“That,” she said, “is the picture of motherhood.” She paused before adding,
“There was no Xanax in Nazareth.”
No matter how old I get or how many times when my kids were growing up I imagined revenge arriving someday in the form of grandkids, I’ll always remember what labor and childrearing pains felt like. I just can’t bring myself to laugh when my adult kids are exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. Once a parent always a parent—it’s a solidarity even grandkids as delightful as ours can’t bust up.
I gave my daughter a big hug and a bag of chocolate. It wasn’t Xanax, but this much I know.
It was more than the Virgin Mary had.