On raising a grandparent

I am quite sure, like many of her kind all over the world, my mother is chuffed about her grandparent status. She was the first person to hold Re in her arms when he was born, she is always the first grandparent to wish him on his birthday and on every other occasion (and she never runs out of them). She is now also the one he meets when he gets back home from school, the only one he will discuss homework with, or take instructions on grooming from. On his part, he will remind his grandmother about taking her medicines or “not watching shouty channels”, because “she has a new heart and has to look after it” (Re was four when my mother had her second valve replacement surgery). I want Re to make the most of it now, as I know he doesn’t have too many grandparent years left, as all four of his are in their seventies already. I had my both my grandmothers until my twenties; I don’t know if my son will be that lucky. Susanna Schrobsdorff, who is Managing Editor at TIME magazine calls it the grandparent deficit.

Every Tuesday, my mother takes Re to the local Ganesha temple and he willingly accompanies her, because he likes the elephant god, and of course the modaks that come as part of the prasad. The one time that I went along, he told me to do three pradakshinas and that I had to sit quietly on the floor for some time before I made a beeline for the prasad. “Otherwise, ganpati will think you only came for the prasad,” he explained.

My mother has had a hectic social life post her retirement and she is happy to have an arm candy for most of it. She tags Re along to her various chanting groups of fellow grandmothers: Vishnu and Lakshmi sahasranamams, haldi kumkums and various other things that ladies of a certain age congregate to do. “Will there be prasad? Then I will come,” he tells her. Re has also begun to evaluate various prasads, like “M aunty’s sheera is better than P aunty’s sheera”, and “Can I have two of these laddoos, because I really like it when it is beige and not brown like R aunty’s”

He in turn, teaches her ballroom dancing, how to walk like a princess, how to turn her saree into a gown, and all those things I could never dream of teaching her.

How a grandparent keeps it real

All around me, I constantly sense a dilution of all things traditional or ritualistic, and so it really moves me to see this grandmother-grandson duo, lighting diyas, collecting flowers to make garlands for deities, bowing down and joining hands in prayer whenever they pass by a shrine. These are things that never came naturally to me, but I am glad that it is an important part of Re’s relationship with his grandmother.

I don’t know where I stand on deities and worship. My mother is a believer, but I have always been passive about all her rituals. Although the thing about rituals is that they bring you closer to who you are and where you come from — roots that we have to try harder to hold on to than our parents did. In a mixed-culture marriage such as ours, sometimes the rituals multiply. But sometimes they divide too. And sometimes we end up culturally bankrupt, because we didn’t want to do the work. But now, with Re being integrated into it all, I feel a sense of belonging, a feeling that I have something to hold on to when things feel hopeless.

He is lucky. After all, he does get her all to himself, because she has no other grandchildren and so no one else vying for her attention. I had to compete at least with 12 other cousins for my favorite grandmother and seldom got her to myself, one-on-one. ‘Grandmother’ was always a community thing, as were grandmother stories, grandmother delicacies and grandmother lullabies. I grew up in a time when grandmothers were the default caregivers of young children, and with families multiplying ever so rapidly, my poor grandmother was always being shunted from one home to the other every few years, and I can imagine what it must have done to her. But she raised us all with the same amount of love, the same stories and the same sense of rootedness.

There is something about grandparents. And I don’t mean it in that warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned kind of way. There is all of that for sure, and some. Something also changes in the equation between you and your mother when you have a child. She becomes the equaliser in your life. And not just because she is (usually) the most non-grouchy caregiver. But more importantly, she is someone who never trivialises your troubles by saying “this too shall pass”. She may not have the answers to your convoluted problems, but she is an antidote to your pain nonetheless. And so is her rasam, in my case.

The odd thing is that my mother is still as much a mother to me, as she is grandmother to Re. She is still the one who senses from my voice on the phone when all is not well. She is still the only one who knows when I need to be left alone. Although we have our share of fights ever so often, she is still the one who gets me more than anyone else. I know that in a few years, she will be the one needing the care and I will be the caregiver and hopefully, so will Re. I didn’t choose to marry late; it’s just that it took me really long to meet a man I wanted to make a baby with. I know there are so many conflicting factors when planning a baby, but I just want to say that it’s good to take into account how much grandparent time your children will have.

And age 71, my mother is still not tired of playing mom. But I already am, and I can’t even imagine myself getting to the grandmother stage. I am constantly torn between my mother and my child trying to parent me. In fleeting moments, I do forget that I am a parent to both of them. But I am nicer to my mother now. I find myself asking her, “What else?”, “Have you eaten?” and “Did you sleep well?” I find a calming reassurance in inanities. I am becoming my mother.

(A version of this post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 24th August, 2015)

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8 thoughts on “On raising a grandparent

  1. Loved this post. My kids and my parents share such an awesome bond. Their time together daily and their routine keeps both my parents young and my kids emotionally secure. you captured it beautifully.

  2. Fabulous writing. My children have been so lucky to have had four grandparents who loved them & spent a lot of time with them, both in Dubai where we live and in India when we visited. Unfortunately both the grandfathers have passed on. My mother in law is now critically ill and has very little time left and my mother had a stroke a few years ago & lives in a senior care home. My children have loved and cherished all their grandparents, learnt from them, celebrated their differences and had a lot of fun with them. I loved reading about your mother’s relationship with Re and yours with her. My relationship with my mother has also evolved over the years from my being irritated and critical of her from time to time to now turning to her for comfort, solace and laughing together. Thank you for this beautiful article.

  3. Lalita – long-time reader but first-time commenter on your lovely blog. I’m curious as to what you think of multilingual parenting, especially in a multicultural family environment like yours. Do you encourage your son to speak your native tongue, or do you raise him primarily in English? The issue of languages has always been a point of contention between me and my partner – I speak five fluently, having picked them up as a child, while he cannot speak his own, which somehow irks me endlessly! That being said, I haven’t perceived either of us to be at any significant advantages or lack thereof in general life situations. There seem to be those who advocate speaking to children below the age of six in multiple languages if possible (before their facial muscles are fully formed and while their memory mechanism works differently), claiming that this practice enhances expression, thinking and critical reasoning skills. But I’ve also heard conflicting reports claiming that being multilingual with children can confuse them and slow down mental development. Do you take a stance on this? Every time you write about Re and his grandparents, I wonder how the communication dynamics in your family work – interestingly like with everything else, I’m sure!

  4. Lovely read !! Me too one of the lucky being for having my grandma till my early 30’s. I m not sure whether my kids will have the same luck and staying abroad, makes that worse. But whatever lil time they spend together, they enjoy it to the fullest!!!

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