I remember feeling awkward as a child when prodded by my parents to tell my gran, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Back then I felt grandmas and moms were as different as Coke and Pepsi, Apple and IBM, or Sonny and Cher. You didn’t dare confuse the two, and if you did, woe unto you.
Grandmothers, I foolishly thought, had graduated from motherhood. They were decorated veterans of a good and just war they no longer needed to fight; they’d retired after countless years of faithful service, earned the rank of professor emeriti, Motherhood Studies.
Each and every Mother’s Day I realize just how wrong I was—how much the yeoman’s work of grandmothering deserves equal praise and decoration, especially for those of us raised or co-raised by grandmothers with the passion, dedication, creativity, cultivation, and vision the best moms bring.
For most of my childhood my mom left the house early in the morning to work at flower and gift shops. This was not the June Cleaver motherhood she had imagined; it was working motherhood by necessity. Still, it left my sister and me with an unexpected boon: the power of a co-mother of force, fun, and magnitude.
In fact, Gran co-mothered a whole generation of us—the children of working parents needing to make a living. She might simply have retired the badge of motherhood, hung it up to play bridge or pinochle in her retirement years. She might have claimed as her just reward for years of service a well-deserved relocation to West Palm Beach or Santa Barbara. Everyone would have understood had she, after raising four children of her own on the farm, grandmothered by correspondence and by greeting card.
Instead she took us all in, feed us, perplexed us, inspired us, and, always, compelled us. While our parents worked to keep the lights on, Gran labored to remind us that there was something more to life than working, that getting older didn’t necessarily have to mean having less fun. While my parents spent much of their energy protecting me (from rough and tumble older cousins, from the ever-present dangers of TV, from the supposed evils of too much sugar…the list goes on) Gran mothered us into a world of full-on, go-forth engagement.
At my grandmother’s funeral, my cousin Rodney recalled one of his favorite stories of our co-mother. My parents had left for their respective work that morning with a firm admonition to Gran that she not, under any circumstances, allow me to play tackle football with my older cousins—something I wanted with my whole heart to do. Rodney recalled how Gran waited until she heard the door click to turn to me and say, “Now go out there and play!”
In my book, and in many others, grans are not mother’s helpers, mothers-once-removed, or mother’s assistants: they’re mothers of distinction. Mothers Day is a grand time to thank a grandmother (or aunt)—without the least bit of sheepishness or self-consciousness—for her years or voluntary, and often thankless, service.
In that way, and in so many others, she’s not just a mother of distinction. She’s a mother by definition.
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