Writers: Grandmothers Really Are A Gift

The intuitive senses and sentimental experiences shared by grandmothers is the focus of the new book, Eye of My Heart, edited by Barbara Graham. In this week's weekly parenting conversation, Graham is joined by two of the contributing essayists to the book — Jill Nelson and Sandra Benitez — to discuss why grandmother really are uniquely special.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, though, we're talking about moms at another stage of life, as grandmothers. Being a grandmother is no longer, if it ever was, just about baking cookies and kissing boo-boos. The decision by Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, to move to the White House to help with the care of her grandchildren, Sasha and Malia, has brought the role new prominence. So has the decision by the late Michael Jackson to name his mother, Katherine, as caretaker for his three young children. It's also reminded many people of just how important the role of grandmother can be.

And now a new book, "Eye of My Heart," features essays from 27 writers who give new insight into the joy and yes, sometimes the pain of being a grandmother today.

I'm pleased to welcome Barbara Graham, the editor of "Eye of My Heart," as well as writers Jill Nelson and Sandra Benitez, who contributed essays. Welcome ladies, moms, grandmoms, thank you all.

Ms. BARBARA GRAHAM (Editor, "Eye of My Heart"): Hi, Michel.

Ms. JILL NELSON (Writer): Thank you.

Ms. SANDRA BENITEZ (Writer): Thank you. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Barbara Graham, how did you come up with the idea for "Eye of My Heart"?

Ms. GRAHAM: Well first, as a writer, writing is how I make sense of life. I look to see, well, who had written about being a grandmother, and I could literally find nothing that told the real, true, heartbreaking, hilarious, complicated stories. And I also got a very complicated story early on in my experience as a grandmother.

MARTIN: Tell it.

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, my son and daughter-in-law moved to Washington, D.C., where I live, from overseas. I was over the moon. It was the first time I'd lived in the same city as my son in years. To make a long story short, when my new granddaughter was about six weeks old, they announced that for many reasons, it wasn't working for them to be here. They moved back overseas, and I was left as a puddle on the floor.

MARTIN: Oh, ouch.

Mr. GRAHAM: Yes.

MARTIN: You quote the anthropologist Margaret Mead in your preface, who talked about how many of her close associates had strong ties to grandparents, and you say she attributed the strong bond between grandchildren and grandparents to the fact that they were united against a common enemy, the parents - not least because the parents have all the power, don't they?

Mr. GRAHAM: Exactly, and that was the thing that I learned right away, is I could love this child fiercely, with all my heart, but I had no say in anything, where they live, how she's raised. So it is a crash course in letting go, diplomacy. If you haven't already grown up, it is challenging in so many ways that we're just not prepared for. So I have - my heart just came right out of that.

MARTIN: Well, you did have a say on who got to contribute, and a marvelous range, diversity of writers, writing about all different kinds of experiences. How did you find these writers? How did they find you?

Mr. GRAHAM: It was really intentional. I wanted to tell all those different stories that we don't usually hear, and the way I found writers were friends of friends and just some people I called out of the blue, and they were really responsive. And one writer said, this will give me a chance to really address material, painful material, that I've never looked at before.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, Jill Nelson. I admit that I sought out your essay right away because I know your work, and I thought oh, I wonder what Jill has to say about this, and it's a very poignant story. If you'd tell us a little bit about it; it is not the storybook version of what it means to be grandma.

Ms. NELSON: Not at all. My essay is really about how difficult it is to be a grandma and how for me, being a grandmother is really fraught with going over and reliving my relationship with my daughter and her perceptions of it, which -everything that happened with me and my grandson was filtered through that.

When you're a grandmother, you love in a very different way, and you love unconditionally and also without responsibility. I'm not responsible for whether my grandson does well in math or when he reads, or I know he's not going to fall off the top of the slide because I raised a child, and I know the odds are against it.

I think there's a lot of jealousy and family history, and I know Sandra talks about this in her essay, too, in different ways - but how family and history plays into this, being a grandparent, in deep ways.

MARTIN: The jealousy piece, I think, is something that you name that I'm not sure a lot of people are willing to talk about. The child, your child, who's of course now the adult, the parent, saying why didn't I get that from you? Why didn't I get the guitar? Why didn't I get this unconditional love?

Jill, was it hard to write about, was it hard to put that out there?

Ms. NELSON: It was easy to write about, it was hard to put it out there. I went back and forth, I was - I thought about publishing under a pseudonym. And then I sent the essay - before it was published - to my daughter, told Barbara it was fine and realized that this is how I always write: honestly. And to do less in terms of this important issue of being a grandmother, would really be a disservice to me, my daughter, and being a grandparent.

MARTIN: Sandra, your essay - well, Jill's essay is titled "Still in Limbo" - and Sandra, your essay, titled "The Owie Tree"…

Ms. BENITEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: …and then I stubbed my toe. What's…

Ms. BENITEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: …"The Owie Tree?" And what does it mean to you?

Ms. BENITEZ: What - well, "The Owie Tree" really exists in my grandchildren's neighborhood. And it's simply an old oak rot with big bumps, so they - looks like it has owies. But in my case too, I thought about the owies that I carried in my life from my grandparents and my parents, and also the big owie that I carried in my life, which had to do with issues of abandonment and issues of abandoning because when my children, my two sons, were in their early teens, my husband and I divorced, and the children stayed and lived with my ex-husband. And so this separation was tremendously upsetting to all of us. And so, the act of becoming a grandparent and a grandmother so late - my kids were in their 40s when they had their children - and so I saw it as an act of redemption, as a way to assuage, if you will, or even maybe heal those terrible owies that I had grown up with and visited in my life, and actually experienced in my life.

MARTIN: Why do you think it looked that way? And the same question…

Ms. BENITEZ: I think…

MARTIN: …I asked Jill is - was it hard for you to relive that - to put it out there?

Ms. NELSON: Yes, I had already written about it in a memoir that I wrote called "Bag Lady." And I had written about that. And so when the opportunity to write for Barbara came along, I knew that I wanted to write about the act of redemption that my three grandchildren offered me. And so, you know, it wasn't new material that I was writing about, but it was still painful material. And like Jill, I also showed both of my sons the essay before I gave it to Barbara. And they very heartily said yes, do it, Mom. So, I did. And I think the act of writing it down, and the act of then us maybe having the courage to put it out in the world, is very healing and a good thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Barbara Graham, the editor, and Jill Nelson and Sandra Benitez, contributors to a new book about being a grandmother called "Eye of My Heart." Barbara, is there anyone who pulled an essay back after - we just talked about for Jill and Sandra, that these were not easy things to write about or to publish, may be easier to write about, not easy, you know, to sell it or release it to the world. Was there anyone who said, you know, I really just can't?

Ms. GRAHAM: Yes, one person said, I really can't - her daughter in the process of her writing the essay was getting a divorce, and it was just really painful with the children. Two of the contributors have written under pseudonyms, one who is a grandmother raising a grandchild, and the other one who has a really difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law, who more or less bans the grandmother from seeing the kids and, you know, treats her - like them - like it's a CIA, every time she sees them, she grills them.

So, yes, as the editor of the book, I really encourage people to tell as much of the truth as they could possibly tell without endangering future relationships with their children. And even when you write the truth, you don't necessarily tell the whole truth.

I think there are places in all of our essays that we just don't go because unlike writing memoir about stuff that happened in the past, these essays are dealing with our most profound, precious relationships.

MARTIN: Jill, what about you, if you don't mind my asking? You made clear in the piece that the relationship is still fraught, to the point where you -months would go by where you would not be able to see your grandson. Your daughter just felt, I don't want to relive - whatever this stirs up for me, I don't want it.

Ms. NELSON: Right.

MARTIN: So, do you mind if I ask, how's it going now?

Ms. NELSON: It's actually going great. I have another grandson, who is 9 months old, and a 7-year-old grandson. I think the essay was really great for us because it was a - in a weird way, a neutral zone that created where we could talk. There were no voices. There was no inflection. We didn't have to be face-to-face. We could - she could just read it and respond. And I think the wonderful thing about grandparenting, as life, is that nothing is static. It's always ever changing, and the wheel has spun in my favor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Ask me in a few months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, what I wanted to ask you, Jill, is that you're a journalist as well as a writer of books and novels. And one of the things that I was curious about, one of the subjects that you engage is race. And I wondered if part, which isn't really a factor - it isn't really a factor in this particular essay. But I was - wondering is, in part, was this hard because the African-American culture kind of lifts up, you know grandma, you know, big mamma, and, you know, the center of the household, that kind of thing. And if you're not living that…

Ms. NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: …there's another element to it that you think, gee, you know, this is what I envisioned. So much of our literature, culture, pop culture, grandma is the center, and if you're…

Ms. NELSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: …not living that, it can feel really bad.

Ms. NELSON: I was aware of that. But as I said, I think my work is pretty consistently about speaking the truth out loud and not being constrained by that fear of airing dirty laundry. So I think sometimes it's about sort of being among the first people who talk about this stuff. And then everybody else says, like yeah - yeah, me too.

MARTIN: And Sandra, also the same question to you.

Ms. BENITEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: You have a very - you're one of those very interesting backgrounds that we were talking about. Your heritage is Puerto Rican and Midwestern and you lived in El Salvador, for part of your growing up. And you had these really different abuelitas. But there's also, as you told us, there was some pain there, both grands experienced abandonment of their children - did. I'm wondering whether you're going to share that with your grandchildren, who have been such a part of healing for you.

Ms. BENITEZ: I think I will because you talking to Jill about this business of the cultures, and what our cultures look, how they look at things - think about the Latinos and how they perceive motherhood especially is, you know, the mother is the - you know in the, in our houses, they are the absolute matriarchs. And for me, then, not to live with my sons when they were teenagers was a great, enormous, owie, not only to - for me, but also a big shame to the family. And so having this relationship with my grandchildren provided a great amount of healing for all of us. And yet, when I started to write about this, I was very afraid to talk about this.

Well, at first I was afraid to talk about this - just really talk about it to anybody, that this had happened to me when my children were young. But I think I had to write about this. I felt that it was a way in which I could finally let go of that and get past it. But, you know, in my culture - because I'm half Latina and half Missourian, if you can imagine…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENITEZ: …and so this is…

MARTIN: That's not becoming so different, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's not becoming…

Ms. BENITEZ: And my grandparents also had my abuelita, my Puerto Rican grandmother, her own mother starved herself to death. And so she had that great abandonment when she was 9 years old. And so I - these were owies that had been on the family tree for many years before and sort of reverberated for me, in my own story.

MARTIN: What do your grands call you, by the way, Sandra?

Ms. BENITEZ: My grandchildren call me tata.

MARTIN: Oh, I love it.

Ms. BENITEZ: Tata, which is - it really means grandfather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENITEZ: But I waited so long to be a grandmother. And my sister, who's younger than I am, has 12 of them, and they called her tata for some reason. And so I wanted to be a tata too. It took me forever, you know, I was 65 before…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, good for you. Jill, what do your grands call you?

Ms. NELSON: Ah, the one who can talk calls me grandma.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NELSON: And I am, actually love it.

MARTIN: Barbara, what do yours call you?

Ms. GRAHAM: I'm Nona and - which happened to be really prescient because I thought it sounded kind of cool and hip, a little hipper than grandma. But now my son and daughter-in-law live in Italy with my grandchildren. So - and that's the Italian word for grandmother. So…

MARTIN: Nona?

Ms. GRAHAM: Nona.

MARTIN: Nona.

Ms. GRAHAM: So I fit right in.

MARTIN: Mine call me Mimi.

Ms. GRAHAM: Why?

MARTIN: Because they have other grandmas. So we came up with, Mimi.

Ms. GRAHAM: The whole name thing is a big, big issue among grandmothers and grandfathers. What do we call ourselves? Because there aren't too many more Bubies(ph) around, you know, it's like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRAHAM: Some of those names really aren't working anymore. So, you know, again it's the boomer, or maybe it's, you know, the boomer, narcissistic, I want to find my own perfect, particular name that doesn't make me seem old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well finally ladies, I want to ask each of you. What's the best thing about being a grandmother? And Sandra, I'll start with you.

Ms. BENITEZ: I'm able, every time I'm with my grandchildren, to be in the present moment. It's when I don't think of the past, I don't think of the present, I'm totally with them, enjoying myself and enjoying them. And it's a absolute blessing to be present to my children that way.

MARTIN: Jill, what's the best thing about being a grandma?

Ms. NELSON: Being able to love and not be responsible in the long term, to be able to just come into their lives - or have them come into mine - and have joy and love and laughter, and then give them back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Let the parents do the work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Barbara, what's the best part?

Ms. GRAHAM: The absolute joy to a degree that - I knew I would love this. But I didn't know how much I would love this. And like Sandy said, being in the present with them, you let everything else go. And that's really wonderful. It's also a great - great lessons in just letting go in life because you're not in control, and that's an ongoing lesson for me.

Ms. NELSON: And thank goodness.

Ms. GRAHAM: Yeah.

Ms. BENITEZ: Yeah.

Ms. NELSON: Some things to not be in control, boy.

Ms. GRAHAM: Exactly, but it's something to be learned, too.

Ms. NELSON: Amen.

MARTIN: Barbara Graham is an author and the editor of "Eye of My Heart." She joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Jill Nelson is a journalist and author. Her latest book, "Let's Get it On," is available now. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Sandra Benitez's most recent book is her first work of nonfiction. It's called "Bag Lady, A Memoir: The Triumphant True Story Of Loss, Illness and Recovery." It's also available now, and she joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Grandmas, tatas, nanas, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. BENITEZ: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. GRAHAM: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Now you just heard from some grandmas about the role they play in the lives of their grandchildren. So, what about you? Are you hands-on or hands-off? Do you spoil your grandchildren, or do you think the parents are just a little too loose with that discipline? We would like to hear from you, grandparents. To tell us more about what you think, you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again: 202-842-3522; please remember to leave your name. Go to npr.org, click on TELL ME MORE, and blog it out.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Eye of My Heart

27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother

by Barbara Graham and Mary Pipher

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