CC Image: Ballet Class by Chaim Zvi on Flickr
I’m a long-distance grandma. Anyone else? To start with I thought it was only me. Plus I’m a cross-cultural grandma. My biological* grandkids are Greek and I’m, well, I’m a little bit Greek but predominantly, overwhelmingly, British in the way I talk, think and process the world.
I’ve got three Greek grandkids now, two more on the way. When my son told me that he and his wife were expecting their first child, (and my first grandchild, now nearly 6), I had some conflicting emotions. I was thrilled of course, but I have to confess I was other things too. Becoming a grandma had never been something I’d counted on, something I’d had as a goal. But it seems all the while, and despite myself, I’d had a vague, underlying picture in my mind of how it might work out if and when it happened, a picture that took shape alongside my daughter in law’s pregnancy. And this wasn’t it. A long-distance grandma, one whose language and indeed culture didn’t overlap with her children’s children, wasn’t the grandma I’d had in mind, the one I thought I was going to grow up to be.
What it boils down to is I thought I was going to be out of the loop.
“How can they feel snuggly and comfortable with your cuddles if you come and then go so fleetingly? How can you matter to each other?”
How can you build a relationship, I wondered (and I’m whispering this as it’s nothing to be proud of), with children you only see for a matter of days each year? How can they feel snuggly and comfortable with your cuddles if you come and then go so fleetingly? How can you even communicate meaningfully together if you don’t share a language? How can you matter to each other? And it gets worse. The other grandmas, the Greek ones, they were the ones that I thought would be the proper grandmas, the ones our grandkids would feel were true family.
And then I was visiting last week and we’re six years on. I was just in town for a few days and the last time was seven months ago. And I went to pick up my granddaughter from her ballet class. It’s the nicest little ballet class you could ever hope to find, in downtown Athens, just upstairs and to the right of a front door in a nondescript apartment block. And they have a brilliant policy here at this Greek dance school, which is that at the end of each class, the parents (and/or grands, uncles, aunts and whoever) are invited in and the young would-be ballerinas do a little presentation for them. It’s fab! The parents are never late for the pick-up, they get to see what their children are doing, the children get used to having an audience and to performing: it’s win, win, win and super-win.
On her first class when I was in town I’d gone to pick her up with her mum. Then on the second one I got to go alone. So I waited outside with the other mums and dads, grands, uncles and aunts, and we all chatted and joked together, and then in we went and we stood at the back of the class to be the audience. The girls (and they were all girls) were lined up in the back left corner of the room, smiling (but trying not to) with that combination of excitement, nerves, bashfulness and pride that I can even now remember so vividly from my own childhood. Hell, I feel it today if I’m ever going to give a talk in public. So we stood there and smiled excitedly too, and made eye contact with our own little precious person in that line, and let them know how proud we were of them too and how thrilled we were to be there with them now to watch them show us what they had just learned.
And the teacher explained that today they had been learning the arabesque. And that in a moment each one would dance from one corner to the other of the room and arabesque over the mat on the floor, curtsey and join us at the back until the whole class had passed in front of us. And that we would be very welcome to applaud them and to show them what a good job they were doing and just generally how awesome we thought they were.
“I found myself so moved that I ended up blubbing.”
Well that bit was going to be easy, I thought. Though actually what happened was that I found myself so moved that I ended up blubbing my way through the show. It’s even happening again now as I remember the moment and type these words. I felt so overwhelmed by the sweetness of it all as I looked on, by the eagerness and concentration of those little girls to show us this new thing that they had learned, by their determination to do it beautifully and to get it right, that when it happened I could barely see through the mist of my tears to watch them do it.
Anyway, Ellie, the teacher, pressed the start button for the music to begin and the first little girl danced across the room and curtsied and ran into her dad’s arms as we clapped and beamed (and, in my case, wept), and then the second and the third. And my little granddaughter was the last but one and I could see the tension build up in her till it was her turn to start. And then Ellie smiled at her and encouraged her forwards, just as she had for all the others, and she leapt over the mat (more long-jump than arabesque, perhaps, but did anyone care?) and stumbled a little curtsey and ran forwards and flung herself into my arms and buried her face in my neck. And I told her how wonderful she was as I squeezed her tight and how happy I was to have seen her as she danced so joyfully and beautifully at the end of her lovely lesson.
It looked so difficult! I told her. Oh, she said. It was so easy, just beyond-easy, and she laughed at how silly I was to think that.
“Why did it take me so long to cotton on? Mattering to each other isn’t something that can be measured in terms of actual time spent together.”
And I thought about how any loop I’d imagined in my earlier grandma days was indeed just that: an imaginary one, pure fantasy. There was never any loop, nor were there insiders or outsiders; just a bunch of people thrown in the mix together, rooting for each other and doing the sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward best they can.
And here’s the totally brilliant, miraculous thing. It seems – drum roll, folks – there’s no proper way to be a grandma after all! I can see your eyes rolling and hear your collective groans at the sheer obviousness of all this but I’m a late developer and a slow learner as well, so give me some slack please. Mattering to each other isn’t something that can be measured in terms of actual time spent together or the number of things you do together. It’s pretty simple really. Why did it take me so long to cotton on? If you’re lucky enough to have them, you open your heart and love your grandkids in whatever way you can. And then – and this is what is so overwhelming and incredible and magical – it seems that there are no rules or limits either for how they so astonishingly and generously love you back in return.
So my little granddaughter had her lesson and it seems that I had mine too at the ballet class last week. We’re both beginners. Who’s to say whose lesson is the toughest? As I write now, I find myself trying to craft her leap to a fearless and perfect arabesque into a metaphor for my leap to some emotional something that’s fearless and perfect too. But it’s not working. Because, as I remind myself, life and families and the myriad ways we love each other and relate to each other are clunky and messy and anything but perfect. You do it how you do it and it’s best not to have any expectations in front of you at all for how it might turn out to be. Amazingly, even if you’re a long-distance, cross-cultural grandma like me, and a clumsy slow learner to boot, it seems like it can turn out just fine.
*I’ve got two ‘adopted’ grandkids here in the UK too, but that’s another story.