Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Day I Discovered My Mom Doesn’t Like Her Grandkids

I remember having a good relationship with my parents when I was growing up. We took family walks on Sundays, played board games like crazy during the summer vacations we took at lakeside cabins in New Hampshire and Vermont, and often sat around the dinner table for an hour or so after the meal was done discussing the problems of the world. For the most part, I liked hanging out with my mom and my dad.

There is no question, though, that we weren't as close as some of my friends were with their parents. My roommate in college was on the phone with her mother every night; I called home maybe a half dozen times each semester–and some of those calls were always to arrange the logistics of returning home for school breaks. My friend Tara still takes advice from her mom about everything. And even my husband, who had a very strained relationship with his father when I met him, became extremely close with his dad in the decade before his father died; they traveled back and forth often between New York (where we live) and Florida (where my father-in-law) lived, not just because Dan was managing his father’s affairs, but because they truly enjoyed each other’s company and wanted to be together as much as possible before my father-in-law succumbed to the cancer that we all knew was slowly, but inevitably killing him.

After I got married and moved away, I still enjoyed visits with my folks on a regular basis. At least four times a year they would come and visit me or Dan and I would go and stay with them, usually for a long weekend, sometimes even longer. We still went for walks around the neighborhood and we still stayed around the dinner table to talk for hours just as we did when I was a child. In time, though, all that changed.

As the birth of my first child approached, the signs that Mom didn't want to become a grandmother began to appear, but I was too busy tying up loose ends at work, too giddy at the prospect of finally having my longed for baby, and too tired from the effects of being pregnant in the heat of the summer to notice. My mother didn't insist on being present when I delivered, she didn't shower my son with gifts or attention, and when she and my dad did arrive, two weeks after my son was born, she arranged for them to spend most days enjoying the sights of Manhattan rather than admiring my baby’s bright blue eyes or the strength of his fingers as he grabbed at locks of my hair.

For my dad’s first Father’s Day as grandpa to my son, I sent a framed photo of the two of them together. In the picture, my dad was playfully holding my son in the air and sticking his tongue out at the little guy. The look in his eyes clearly reflected the kind of silliness that so many adults can’t help but express when they are around babies. It was perfect, I thought, albeit rather guiltily as I wrapped it up. I hadn't had anything of that nature to send to my mother on Mother’s Day. At the time, I thought I must have failed to photograph my mom playing with her grandson. Later, though, I realized that the camera can’t capture what isn't there.

Several months after Father’s Day, while on a visit to my parent’s house, I noticed that this photo of my dad and my son weren't among the family pictures my mom had displayed on the piano. In fact, I realized that I hadn't received any feedback about it at all (which is unusual, as both my parents pride themselves on their good manners and generally write thank you notes for all gifts, no matter how small or inconsequential). So I asked if they had received it. Something about my mother’s initial reluctance to answer the question made me persistent. Finally, she mumbled something unintelligible and went to retrieve the photo from where it had been hidden in her bedroom. She placed it on the piano where it remained for the rest of my visit–but after I left she must have gotten rid of it because I never saw it again.

The real kicker was the time that my parents came to NYC as part of a ten-day Elder Hostel trip. The night they arrived was my mother’s birthday and I planned a party for her (I baked a cake and everything!). My son was a toddler at the time and I was working long hours at a corporate job, so cleaning up the apartment, making a fancy dinner, and so forth was rather a big deal for me. The plan was that Mom and Dad would arrive in the late afternoon, check into their elder hostel lodgings and give me a call about details of getting together. Except they never called.  I left messages for them - and worried that something had happened. Finally I tracked down the leader of their trip who assured me that all was well, that they had checked in and had been on all the tours the first day. Late the next day, my mom finally called me back.

It was a misunderstanding, she said. They were really excited about all they were seeing and so had decided at the last minute to enjoy some adult conversation. After all, she laughed, she could listen to a baby babble anytime and my little one was too young to even know what was happening. And so during an extended vacation, with them staying just a 20-minute cab ride away, my parents saw grandson exactly once--when we trekked down to have dinner with them in their hostel cafeteria.

It was an eye-opening event. For a while, I was angry. What kind of grandmother doesn't want to enjoy time with her grandchildren? But over the years, as I've seen my mother ignore all three of her grandchildren while trying desperately to stay in touch with her own children, I've come to realize that it is just the little kids that she doesn't like. My oldest son is now 15 and she would like to have a relationship with him. He is handsome, smart and well-read and talks easily with adults. But he doesn't really talk with her–she never gave him much of a chance to know her and at family gatherings, he’s too busy catching up with all the people who did.

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