My dad’s mom, whose butter paddle front teeth and love of trashy novels and gangly men who tell good jokes I have apparently inherited, died when I was a sophomore in high school. Twenty-two years later, I still miss her everyday and until just a few years ago, I could remember the smell of her perfume, catching a whiff of it in the air every time I sidled past an Estee Lauder counter. Shortly after she died, I remember telling my mom that I was grateful her parents were still alive, and one afternoon when she picked me up from play practice after school, I surprised us both by declaring that I had done the math and I was sure I would have grandparents until I was comfortably in my forties. To fifteen-year-old me, forty was a lifetime away, and the thought comforted both of us and allowed me to push my grandparents’ mortality out of my mind.
I continued to visit my mom’s parents in Des Moines for holidays and in the summer for the next two decades, bargain hunting and getting pedicures with my grandmother, grocery shopping with my grandpa, and suntanning on a plastic lawn chair in their back yard, gradually folding my husband and our babies into my visits. My grandma remained impossibly glamorous with 4 closets stuffed with clothes, shoes, belts, and bags and bright red hair that earned her the theater nickname Torchie. She had an agent and did commercials and training films in addition to acting in community theater productions. She was never sick and always on the go, and she continued this lifestyle past my grandpa’s death and through the birth of all 4 of my children. She even quilted beautiful blankets for each of them and sent wonderful boxes full of handmade sweaters and hats, the picture of vitality well into her eighties and my thirties.
My own little girl at three has a magical understanding of the world. She is sure that as she grows up, I will grow down until someday I will be a baby in her tummy and then she will get to me by mother. As much as I adore this lisping, apple-cheeked explanation of a life cycle, I see her with my grandma and my own mom and with me, her skin impossibly taut and smooth, her dimpled hands unlined, her eyes wide open, and I watch her bloom while we shrink into ourselves.
My indomitable, beautiful grandmother, a woman that everyone we know calls Bomma because that is the name that I– a bossy precocious, much-adored first grandchild– gave her in 1979, had a stroke earlier this month and is recovering in the hospital, reminding me that my forties are looming and that my own time to be a child is waning. I know that I have been blessed beyond belief to be someone’s grandchild (and two people’s daughter) for so many decades, but watching my children grow up while the rest of us grow down, to borrow my daughter’s term if not her perspective, is hard. When we travel to visit her as she recovers, it will be the first time in my whole life that my large, loud extended family doesn’t gather in her living room while the youngest kids bang on the piano, the older ones play football in the yard, the twenty-somethings plan fun nights out, and everyone over thirty chats as best we can over the cacophony. I have all sorts of practical questions– should the kids come with me to the hospital? how honest should we be with them? what’s the best book about the circle of life to read to them?– as well as a host of metaphysical ones.
My son had a birthday last weekend, and we took a picture of him and his siblings on our front porch with their four vibrant, young grandparents, everyone smiling into the sun, squinting together into our future, a future where I hope to hold my own granddaughter’s fat hand in my paper-skinned, blue-roped one and fervently wish to know her at least until she, too, is just barely on the young side of forty with crow’s feet and a soft, worn-out tummy of her own.