“Whenever I see a live slug on a piece of lettuce, I gobble it up quick before it crawls away.” I say this in a gravelly voice, my imitation of a grandmother not at all like me. “Delicious.”
“Yuck!” Matthew exclaims.
We are reading George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, which Matthew plucked from the bookshelf after dinner, as we wait for his dad, my son, to pick him up and take him home for the night.
On the first page we meet George’s Grandma, as loony a little old lady as ever existed, allowing me lots of performance space. She lectures George that he should be growing down not up, adding with a gasp, “Before it’s too late!” George, a savvy eight-year-old boy, realizes his grandmother is worried he will soon be taller than she is. When she sits, she needs a stool to rest her dangling feet. Her recipe for “growing down” is to consume all manner of insects.
Matthew studies the illustration of Grandma, with her “wicked” gaze fastened on wide-eyed George. Suspicions stir. I reproach myself for not checking the book as I usually do before a read-aloud. The next line confirms my misgivings.
“She squeezed her lips together so that her mouth became a tiny, wrinkled hole.” The illustration reveals her inked in mouth lines with no lips but creases the size of small ditches along the upper edge and a pointed nose protruding well beyond her peninsular chin.
I stop reading, offended by the exploitation of the habitually cranky, routinely peculiar, little-old-lady image that has been the go-to representation of the grandmother character for decades—in fact, centuries. I shiver, knowing how swiftly unwanted material can surface. To date, this is the only book I’ve read to Matthew with a grandmother as a key character.
Silence midway in a read-aloud always provokes Matthew to restart me by gently drumming on my arm.
Dahl’s grandma rants about what might happen if George grows up instead of down: her spooky forecast that he’ll wake up with a long tail or find himself in “dark places where dark things live and squirm and slither all over each other.” In this illustration, Grandma smiles at George in her ghoulish way, thickened age lines along the edge of her upper lip.
A frightened George, instructed to take care of his grandmother (give her medicine while his mother shops), escapes to the kitchen, slams the door behind him, and leans against it in fatigued desperation, the cliff-hanger conclusion of the first chapter.
Matthew looks up. “Another one?”
A light honk announces the arrival of his dad.
“Not tonight, but this weekend,” I promise, relieved for the time to consider my next move.
Roald Dahl had a solid tradition to build upon, one that he and others have amplified with their gleefully oppressive, peculiar-looking old lady portraits. A picture floats into my mind of an old woman in the copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales my mother read to me when I was a child. The scene is set in a bygone era. The figure, bent with age, is speaking, telling a story. She sits by a fire, surrounded by children whose rapt expressions are illuminated by the glow of the flames. The scornful phrase “old wives’ tales” entered my vocabulary around this time and mingled in my mind with the image of the Grimm Brothers’ old woman storyteller.
The bedtime story evolved from narratives told by mostly illiterate grandmothers and female servants in the kitchens where children of all ages gathered. The tales were deemed by literate male observers to be worthless and full of ignorance, an oral tradition of no value until the Frenchman Charles Perrault in the 17th century and the Brothers Grimm in Germany in the 19th century recognized social and cultural connections in these kitchen stories and recorded them for present and future consumption.
The grandmother figure as little old lady tends to be how we are represented in children’s literature today. Sometimes the grandmother figure contributes love, or charm and perhaps a touch of magic. But whether we appear as a central figure or in a minor role, we symbolize the “other” in the family group, challenged as we are by age. It is taken for granted that we are ancient-looking, either over- or underweight, hair in a bun or tucked under a kerchief. We have the constitution of a horse—unless we are dying—and either a demeanor of unrelenting orneriness, like George’s grandma, or boisterous good spirits, as in Patricia Polacco’s books about Babushka, her chunky, peppy, Polish gran.
Most disturbing, the little-old-lady image continues to impact present attitudes, especially apparent in how our experiences are (or are not) shared in print. Glimpsing the caregiver role looming in my future when baby Matthew arrived, I searched for books by other grandmothers, narratives written by my peers and those who came before me. I needed advice and support. I searched in vain. The lack of material startled me.
The old crone image surfaced, her replica readily available online. It dawned on me that the paucity of realistic, contemporary portrayals of grandmothers in children’s books is our current iteration of trivializing the little-old-lady stage of life. The gap exists not only because the subject is nurturing the young—a theme traditionally shunned in literature until recently—but also because we protagonists are not only women but old women.
I stand in the backup position in my family and am appreciated as such. When Matthew comes to visit, I plan the day around him—to the pond at the nature center on nice days or, when it rains, to the nearby aquarium. I can’t run a marathon, but my stamina and agility have allowed me to continue to keep up physically and upgrade my understanding of my role as nurturer when needed.
An orca grandmother, living in the coastal waters of Washington State, has been monitored by researchers since 1971, her age estimated at 60, give or take a decade. Her observers nicknamed her “Granny”—a diminutive term entirely inadequate to describe this incredible creature. She swims 100 miles a day and up to 800 when food supplies (mostly salmon) are short. Her knowledge makes her a most valued guide for her progeny, her long experience of ocean life a huge plus to their health and safety. Photos, taken on a sunny day, show her springing out of the water, balancing gracefully on her tail for a moment, apparently rapturous about the light and the soft breezes massaging her skin. Beneath the water she remains in constant conversation with the members of her pod, verifying that her children and grandchildren are accounted for.
I track Granny through the Orca Network. Like human females, orcas become menopausal around age 40. The difference, however, between orca and human families is that the whales are a matrilineal species. Once free from reproductive duties, the grandmothers step in not only as nurturers and protectors but also as the leaders of their pods of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The males continue to search for mates to spread their seed, the job that natural selection embeds in their DNA.
Like Granny, I forage for Matthew’s favorites. Packaged Stouffer’s lasagna, fresh strawberries, and chocolate chip cookies top his list. I don’t have to work very hard to do this and though I calculate I eat less than I used to, I still gain weight. Research suggests this is part of the selection process to assure I remain strong and sturdy to contribute to my grandchildren’s journey to maturity and eventual procreation.
Matthew’s family lives in the town next to mine. They claim they can smell when I’m cooking their favorite spaghetti sauce. I explain it’s because I only ever buy tomatoes that remind me of them. I declare I can hear when Matthew or his dad play the piano, that the melodies roll through my yard.
Granny Orca’s story is my story. The Grandmother Hypothesis proposed in 1967 maintains that the reason for female menopause among humans and orcas is that mothers are important to family child-rearing for two generations, given the decade or two it takes for progeny to mature. I’ve used up my eggs, but I’m fit and coherent. According to natural selection, I’ve been groomed to pop out a baby and then see him and his progeny through to procreation.
I skim George’s Marvelous Medicine after Matthew leaves. To the end, it proves a distinctly Roald Dahl-type fairy tale. George concocts a medicine that accidentally shrinks his grandma to nothing: a blank, a zero, a goner. The reactions of George, Mom, and Dad? They cluck their tongues for a line or two. And then, they adjust: “Ah well, I suppose it’s all for the best, really. She was a bit of a nuisance around the house.”
For Matthew, I finish Dahl’s book but follow it with an exploration of the Orca Network and the story of Granny’s family life. Life in a pod appeals to him. What might it take for me to hang around healthy and active like Granny Orca? No need to overdo it, just enough time to create the story of my grandmother life to share with others.
Since the birth of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, mothers have created a vibrant literature about the manifold challenges and satisfactions in raising children. It’s time to add stories by grandmothers to the chronicles of child-rearing and put our family role on a firm and visible footing, make art of our foibles and kinks, our ceaseless desire to care for our kids and grandkids.