The Winter of the Great-Grandmother

All of us — sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — encircled my grandmother somberly, unsure of what more to say. Despite our presence, she seemed to stand alone.


We'd gathered after my grandfather's funeral, and now it was time to leave. At sort of a family board meeting, it was decided that my grandmother would travel with me to my home for an extended stay — everyone hoped helping me care for my infant and toddler would provide her a distraction.

Into the middle of our circle, my toddler stepped forward. Come, Muttavva, come! he chirruped, as sweetly importunate as only a two-year-old can be. No one moved. No one spoke.


Again, his tiny, insistent voice piped up: Come, Muttavva, come!


I'd told him a few minutes before that his Muttavva (great-grandmother) would accompany us, and he, not comprehending the circumstances, was delighted.


In that moment, he seemed like a thread, silken and tender, connecting past and future, youth and age. My grandmother took his hand, and they walked out of the door together.




A Poetic Play


Joseph Campbell said "the considerable mutual attraction of the very young and the very old may derive something from their common, secret knowledge that it is they, and not the busy generation between, who are concerned with a poetic play that is eternal and truly wise."


During that winter, I watched Campbell's "poetic play" unfold in front of me. Because my grandmother does not speak English, the natural and energetic connections between her and the little ones seemed clear and bright to me, undisturbed by verbal noise.


When she seemed quieter than usual, the baby cooed and gurgled at her until she laughed. When she seemed particularly sad, I saw the toddler climb into her lap and show her his toys. They seemed to access one another directly and fully, without the self-imposed barriers that hamper relationships between adults. Each seemed to know what the other needed.


Madeleine L'Engle recalls a similar scenario in The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, her memoir of caring for her ailing mother while four generations of family occupied her home. As L'Engle's mother sat in the living room, one of the little great-granddaughters felt drawn to sit at her feet while holding a book upside down and singing.


L'Engle asserts that the youngest children in the house "take her for granted exactly as she is" — referring, I think, to simple and clean acceptance, unhampered by resistance, expectation, or agenda.


Last year, a video in my Facebook feed showed a facility simultaneously caring for elderly adults and young children. It occurred to me that every face in the room, young and old, had a look of enchantment. The elders seemed to ignore their pain and loneliness as they held babies and toddlers in their laps, feeling the chubby hands reaching to their faces. And the youngsters were fully absorbed by their new friends, eager to play games and sing songs.


Despite the substantial age gap, despite differences in culture, color, and background, no one, young or old, hesitated to reach, touch, smile. In that video tableau, there was only loving presence.


Filling the Outline


The summer L'Engle describes in her memoir is a wrenching one: witnessing her mother's physical and mental decline, watching her loved one become a seeming stranger, grappling with the meaning of life and inevitability of death.


By fortunate contrast, my grandmother was healthy and full of energy during her visit to my home. Without request or expectation on my part, she cooked and cleaned and laundered and participated in the endless cycle of childcare-related tasks. As she moved briskly through the house, I witnessed my grandmother living.


I considered what I knew about my grandmother. Born in Pondicherry, India, she married young, raised six children, and fed her family (as well as a constant influx of friends and visitors) — all the while maintaining almost militant cleanliness and order in her home. My grandfather's ailing health prompted their move to the U.S. in the '80s, where they lived by rotation in the homes of their six children, all naturalized U.S. citizens.


When my grandfather died in the early aughts, my grandmother continued her home rotation in the U.S., continued her life of labor, cooking, and laundry, despite our repeated admonitions to rest and relax— which seemed only to spur her to greater activity.


During the winter of her visit to my home, as the weeks passed and as my Telugu language skills lost some rust, I spoke to her more often, more conversationally, and more casually — such a different experience from our usual brief telephone updates. I was struck by the extent to which I'd known my grandmother as a general outline, much of it related to me by others. During this extended visit, though, her outline began to fill in a bit.


From our conversations, I deduced her regret that she could not communicate more freely with the younger generations of our family — some, like me, possess limited Telugu language abilities, and others are entirely without them. Her birthplace in India had been colonized by the French, not the English, which left her with a cognitive map and early schooling in the wrong language.


As I watched her strict supervision of my kitchen, her intolerance for waste, her insistence on economy while we shopped and cooked, I imagined the strong-willed young wife and mother doing her financial part for her household and finding order in the chaos of life with a large and sociable family.


As she insisted that I inform her of the minutest details of the day's occurrences, I felt her sharp attentiveness and intelligence — and I wondered how her life would have unfolded if she'd been born at a later time. I saw humility in her clothing choices, and elegance in her aesthetic ones.


Though the outlines of my grandmother gained some texture and dimension during that time, I nevertheless realized how much I wasn't seeing. I knew I might never access her many layers of experience and narrative and history. L'Engle, in fact, pointed out this particular regret, and much of her memoir is an effort to access those layers by relating her mother's life story, as well as that of the generations preceding her mother.


Now that families have gone