My daughter said it with me standing right there. “My mother,” she said, “is not a cookie-baking, babysitting grandma.”
I was startled at the description of what I am not, but I couldn’t possibly take offense. In the first place, she said it so cheerfully. In the second, what she said is so true.
I was a bread-baking-from-scratch, hands-on-up-to-my-elbows mother. But that was a long time ago. And the first years of that kind of full-throttle commitment came before I went to work. The work I’m referring to is my day after day, year after year commitment to writing.
Writing was only a guilty hobby until the aforementioned daughter, who was the younger of my children, started first grade. But in the space her absence opened for me, I decided to make my writing my work.
In those years before my children’s books had garnered much notice, writing was an ideal career for a stay-at-home mom. I was there, right there, every time my kids came through the door. I might be at the typewriter—my early books were written on a manual, portable Smith Corona typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift in 1956—but I was there.
Sometimes, inevitably, my two children and my occasional foster children resented that typewriter, though they did come to appreciate its issue.
When Peter was in sixth or seventh grade, he said to me one day, “You know, Mom. Kids at school talk to me all the time about your books.”
“What kids?” I asked.
“Oh”—and he ducked his head and blushed a bit—“girls.”
When Beth-Alison was very young, she accepted her mother-the-writer as she accepted the rest of the fabric of her life. By the time she entered junior high, though, she was beginning to resent the time I spent off in storyland.
One day in response to her complaints I said, “Do you know what your life would be like if I weren’t writing? You would be my job. Every day when you got home from school I’d be at the door waiting for you. ‘Tell me about your day.’ I’d say. ‘Tell me everything you did.’ And you would hate it!”
She grew up knowing she never wanted to be a writer. In fact, having witnessed my long, slow process with so little result, she always said she couldn’t think of a worse job. But she wanted very much to be a self-employed, working-out-of-her-home mother. And she made that happen.
They were both interesting if not always useful critics of my work, too.
Beth-Alison used to beg me to write just one best seller. “So our family will have some money.” (Their dad is an Episcopal priest. Not much money in that.) “After that,” she always promised me, “you can go back to writing what you want.”
Peter once said, “Mom, when you write about sex, you write about it like it’s no big deal. If you’d write about it like it was a big deal, every kid in school would read your books.”
I listened to them both and went on writing what is given to me to write.
By the time grandchildren arrived, my career had come to be a more complex entity. I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, traveling back and forth from Minneapolis, and traveling frequently to lecture, too.
I missed the birth of my sole granddaughter in a gaggle of grandsons because I was in Vermont when she arrived. And for their entire lives I have been, I’ll admit, a busy grandma. If not always busy out there in the world, then busy at home pecking away at my computer.
Still, I did manage to gather them up—mostly the ones who were available to me by living close—and take them to the Children’s Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra and the Arboretum and the zoo and sometimes even to the indoor amusement park at the Mall of America. (In case you have never experienced an indoor amusement park, I can tell you it fits my vision of hell perfectly.)
When each grandchild, near or far, turned nine, we went on an intergenerational Elderhostel trip.
Do you hear a note of self-justification in my voice?
Usually, though, I’ll admit I’ve been here at my desk pecking away at a keyboard.
And aware every day that this is the choice I’m making.
The grandchildren are mostly grown now, in college or launched into the world, and I love them and am intrigued by them and proud of them and sometimes just a little sad about them, as well. I know I missed a lot by not being a “cookie-baking, babysitting grandma.”
What brings up this reverie is a conversation I had recently with a writer friend who is caring for her infant grandchild a couple of days a week. “Sometimes,” I said, “I regret I didn’t do more of that.”
“Sometimes,” she replied, “I regret that I didn’t take my writing more seriously sooner, that I don’t take it seriously enough now.”
And I thought, For every choice . . . a gain, a loss.
Am I sad about the choices I’ve made? Not at all. But wouldn’t it be fine if life allowed us to have it both ways?