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Sabine Oishi: Heart to Heart | The Grandmother Thing

I have wanted to be a grandmother since my own children were small. And before that, I wanted to be a mother. And even before that, an older sister, which at the time seemed to take forever. So in retrospect it seems as if for most of my life I have wanted to be not only older, but an elder. Now that I have reached the last of my goals, I would like time to stop and allow me once more, if for the last time, to witness the fascinating unfolding of lives so intimately connected to my own.

I never took to dolls, hard celluloid bodies, flapping eyelids and not a thought in their empty heads, but increasingly craved real companions in the adventure of life, who would take the spotlight of my parents’ solicitude off of me. The closest I ever came to that utopia were the summer vacations spent in our family chalet in the Swiss mountains, which we always shared with the family of an uncle. For a long time, my cousins were the closest I came to having brothers and sisters. 

The highlight of these summers was always a weeklong visit by our grandmother, whose hardiness and vigor served her well into her late eighties. Like any true Swiss of her generation, she was not a demonstrative woman, but we never doubted her deep and sincere regards for us. To her, her five sons were princes and each and every one of her fifteen grandchildren was exceptional. She treasured and spoiled us as a group and valued us as individuals, so that to this day each of us is openly or secretly convinced that he or she was her favorite.  

Whenever our parents wanted to take a vacation, one or another grandchild was dropped off at grandmother’s house and felt lucky to be there, in sole possession of her attention. Occasionally, she’d take us along on visits to her extended family. Traveling in the comfort of her Mercedes convertible, with her chauffeur at the wheel, we would drop in for tea in one or another of the stately homes her prosperous brothers and sisters inhabited and be treated to sumptuous collations and family stories, an illustrated family history avidly consumed. Together with occasional visits to family members on my grandfather’s family, who died before I was born, these outings and stories, augmented by my father’s own recollections, gave me a sense of family connectedness and continuity.

My maternal grandmother was of a different species altogether.  For one thing, she lived in Germany and was thus not as easily accessible as my other grandmother, especially during the six years of WWII. And in contrast to my paternal grandmother, her background was anything but middle class or stable.

Both her parents had died in quick succession leaving her    orphaned at seventeen and the family penniless. Luckily, she was a talented needlewoman and established herself as a seamstress, while her older sister finished her education as a teacher. But the sisters had to quickly give up the struggle to keep the family together, placing their younger brothers and sisters with relatives or in an orphanage. At eighteen, my grandmother moved in with a young painter from Hamburg with whom she had a daughter- my mother- when not yet twenty. 

The little family, dependent for their support on a stipend doled out by my grandfather’s parents, lived an unsteady life, partly in Germany, partly in Paris. When my grandfather was killed at the Eastern Front during World War I, my grandmother had to again make a precarious living for herself and her daughter, until my mother was old enough to earn her own way, first as a typist, later as an office manager. After six years of widowhood, my grndmother married man, who had held various high positions in the German education department. By the time of my birth, he had taken early retirement to avoid having to sign a loyalty oath to the hated Nazi regime. 

For a long time, I was her only grandchild and for all practical purposes remained so. My seven-year younger sister was born during the war and did not meet our grandmother until she was four years old. When my grandparents, worn and ill from long years of deprivation arrived for their first vacations in Switzerland, my mother bent all her efforts on cosseting them. This did not sit well with my jealous sister who rejected the interlopers with every fiber of her being. Relations never really picked up from there.

This grandmother’s gifts and talents enriched my life in many ways. I had, for example, always marveled at her ability to conceptualize an original pattern, cut it freehand and sew exquisite dresses, blouses and coats entirely by hand, while I myself had gladly given up my clumsy attempts at sewing and embroidery as soon as I was out of the schoolroom. Yet when the news reached us that a second grandchild was expected, I decided out of the blue to mark the occasion with a handmade quilt, which I designed and hand-stitched to general acclaim. I dedicated it with an inward smile to my grandmother whose talent for original creations had thus surfaced totally unexpectedly.

I must leave it to the judgment of my children to decide what kind of mother I was, but beginning during their earliest childhood, I dreamt of the day when I could retire the word” no” and enjoy grandchildren, leaving all the heavy lifting to their parents.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy children are the same, but each grandchild is unique. I know ours are. They are in turn smarter, funnier,  more beautiful or more accomplished than any other grandchild in the universe, though I would be hard put to defend such claims against those of other grandparents. 

What sets them apart is the fact that they are our immortality. We have reached the last stage in our corporal existence and our time on earth shrinks at an ever more alarming speed. But it matters little, since thanks to our grandchildren we have a future. We are their bridge back to the land of ‘before’. They are the road not yet traveled.  And to be privileged to watch how each of them in their unique way tackles that road is the greatest and purest happiness.

We had to wait a long time for this experience. But the wait was worth it. When our first, magical granddaughter was born, she looked to me at least, amazingly like our oldest daughter, her aunt. But she soon developed into her own person, delicate, alert and even at two months, when I first met her, interested in and capable of vocal dialogue. She quickly revealed a sense for the absurd, the earliest I had ever known a child to get a joke and very soon able to develop it further. 

Because her mother needed to return to work and they had not yet decided on more permanent child-care arrangements, I was asked to help bridge the gap, and for almost two months thus had the opportunity to appreciate the minutia of her development.  This time we got to spend together laid the foundation for a bond that at least for me has deepened over the years, even though we now only see her and her sister only a few times a year.

She tugs at my heartstrings for many reasons. She tickles my funny bone and we share an interest in nature and in words and story telling. Early on, I was awed by her amazingly mature and differentiated ruminations about feelings and relationships and her world in general. And at times she bears an almost uncanny resemblance to pictures of my mother at the same age and I recognize many of her vulnerabilities and strengths in this, her great-granddaughter.

She is all flowing grace, her hair long and straight like her mother’s, light skinned like her father, wiry, introspective and thin skinned. She is athletic, like her mother and also has her mother’s drive and persistence when she wants to achieve something. Her sweet, pure voice seems to come straight from heaven. Like a fine wine, she has to be sipped, not gulped. the flavor rolled around the tongue.

And then came the second gift. A curly mop of hair like her father before her, and I before him and my mother before me; skin glowing rosy over gold, sturdy limbed, with a smile that could launch a thousand ships. Tall and glowing she is already as beautiful as her mother, whose baby pictures she strongly resembles. As a young child, she was a whirlwind, all hugs and kisses, embracing you in her delight, tempestuous when upset like a summer storm. She is a perfectionist. As a toddler she didn’t get up off the floor until she was ready to not just stand up, but walk and in short order run. She also did not talk for a long time, but once she started, she soon talked in complete sentences. Her heart is as big as her smile. She pulls everyone into her enthusiastic orbit.  She is a gifted artist, and also creates clothes according to her own blueprints, just as my grandmother did. One cannot help but gulp her in one long, refreshing draught. 

And finally, unlooked for, but doubly welcome after great heartache and loss, there is our grandson. He dropped into our lives and straight into my heart as a five-months old baby, and after much turmoil became our “forever” grandson. He is his own person in every way. No way with him to try and trace lineage. He is who he is and with the help of his two wonderful mothers will hopefully become the best he can be. And that looks to be very good indeed.

I had the privilege to help out when he was first placed with our daughter and her partner and with his large, dark eyes with their impossibly long lashes and engaging smile, he charmed himself straight into my heart. Over time, I watched as he took off to explore and conquer the world, every obstacle a challenge to be mastered. With a twinkle in his eye, he marches to his own drummer. Learning doesn’t come as easily to him as it did to the girls, in part, because he is more restless and physical. But he is a good athlete and loves both summer and winter sports. Ever since he was very young, he has been gifted at making friends. He loves to eat and has developed a sophisticated palate, also starting to cook meals for himself and his mothers.  I hope to live long enough to see where he will find his niche. 

Being a grandmother, is not pure self-indulgence, however. While one gets to enjoy the grandchildren without the myriad obligations of parenthood, there are shoals to navigate. One is at the same time the parent of one parent, but a stranger to the other, and at all times an outside observer, who has to take care not to intrude into the dynamics of the core family, offering support when asked for and advice only when it’s explicitly solicited – which, in my experience, is rarely to never. 

I wonder what my grandchildren will eventually remember about their Nana. Hopefully at the very least how much she loved them. Perhaps I was also able to light a little flame that will illuminate a special talent or leave them with a feeling, the memory of an experience, a story or a gift hey continue to treasure after I am gone, and maybe one day, perhaps when they’re grandparents themselves, they will think back to our time together and begin an account of their own, “One of my  grandmothers…..”

Copyright 2022 Sabine Oishi

Headline photo: Emory University

Sabine Oishi is the co-author (with Jeanne Simons) of Behind the Mirror: The Story of a Pioneer in Autism Treatment and Her Work with Children on the Spectrum (John Hopkins, 1921). Dr. Oishi is a retired child psychologist, living in Baltimore, MD.

2 comments on “Sabine Oishi: Heart to Heart | The Grandmother Thing

  1. Loranneke
    December 8, 2022

    Such tenderness and goodness in this essay…

    Liked by 2 people

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