Finding a Name for Grandmother
Anne Knight Watson
September 12, 2007
Nina was two years old and she’d never called her grandmother anything. My mother came to visit often, even though she lived a couple of hundred miles away and taught school all during the week. She wore sensible shoes and socks that folded down neatly, beige slacks, a sweater over a neatly pressed blouse.
She lived alone after my daddy died and my sister ventured through high school and left. She always seemed purposive and content as a mother. But as a grandmother with Nina she was happier and more playful. I’d never seen my sedate teacher mother sitting on the floor, but she brought Nina toys to explore, and sat with her on the floor, laughing as Nina picked up a shape and popped it into the ball with matching holes. The rest of us would sit and watch the two of them. They played a game, “If I name the shape, can you find it?” And Nina learned to discriminate between a hexagon and pentagon, playing shapes on the floor with my mother, learning the beginnings of geometry.
And Mama’s house was different, too. Whenever we came to visit, there’d be a new book, or an art project, or a clever toy on the bookshelf in my brother’s old room, which was a way of saying, “I’ve been thinking about you. I was wondering what you’d enjoy doing.” Some of them toys unseen by us as children. Fingernail polish that might be spilled on the furniture. Right there for grandchildren with lots of time spent around the kitchen table with a laughing grandmother, painting nails and talking. And barrettes and ribbons for a little girl’s hair. Dressing up and being silly, walking all over town with hair festooned with ribbons that didn’t match anything.
When my mother was with Nina, her granddaughter always had her undivided attention. I watched how she did that, concentrating her attention. I wanted to be as good a mother as she had been to me and was to Nina. Nobody really had noticed that, for Nina, her grandmother was unnamed, just a loving presence. Nina didn’t need to call her anything because her grandmother was right there; they were just talking all the time.
But when baby Frances was born, Nina became unsettled and restless. She fussed about things that hadn’t mattered before. She stomped her foot and pouted and seemed at sixes and sevens a lot of the time. She followed me around and whenever there was half a chance, she asked to have a story read to her. She loved listening to stories, and I loved reading them to her. But it was hard with two centers to the universe now. When Frances went to sleep, Nina was waking up. I sometimes wondered, when do mothers of two even go to the grocery store?
Nina began her part of understanding how to deal with it all when I read her a new book about a little boy named Alan. He found himself becoming a knee baby when a new lap baby arrived. Alan followed his mother around as she changed his baby sister’s diaper or fed her or did one more one-minute thing for Little Bee. He kept asking his mother about his grandmother, “What is Mam-mommie doing?”
His mother would answer, “She’s doing her knee bends maybe,” or “She’s putting her smell-sweet behind her ears,” or “She’s giving Sweet Potatoes and Marshmallow a bowl of milk.”
Finally Alan’s mother got it. She could see why Alan was asking about his Mam-mommie. He needed a lap to sit in. When Alan’s Mam-mommie was visiting, there were laps enough to go around. So Alan’s mama took him in her lap and hugged him and they rocked and sang and rocked and sang and rocked and sang.
And when the story finished, Nina said, “I have a mam-mommie, too.”