Over the River and Through the Woods

How did my house become Grandmother’s house? And what does that mean?

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go … / Illustration by Molly Egan

I grew up with only one grandma. My mom’s mom died the year before I was born, so I don’t know what her house was like when she was in it, only the sad South Philly shell that was left, where widowed Poppy lived. But my dad’s (also widowed) mom had a big old house in Cheltenham, and while it was probably just a regular house, it always seemed exotic to me. There was a baby grand piano in the vast living room, atop an Oriental rug that seemed to stretch on forever. There were two staircases up to the second floor — a front one, and a little one hidden away in the kitchen, which made for great hide-and-seek with my siblings. There was a garage — mysterious, since our cookie-cutter­ development houses never had garages — full of ladders and paint cans and lawn mowers, and it always smelled like turpentine. Best of all, upstairs, in the bedroom that once belonged to my Aunt Phyllis and Aunt Betty, there was a dresser with a drawer that held an old-fashioned doll, gold-haired and blue-eyed, with the most cunningly made olden-days outfits stored in a miniature trunk — pinafores and gingham dresses and tiny little socks and shoes. On Sundays, when my dad brought us to visit, my little sister Jan and I couldn’t wait to take her out of the dresser and play. A doll you only got to see every other weekend was special, you know?

When I became a grandma three and a half years ago, what my house was like wasn’t a major concern. It takes so long for a baby to be able to even look around and notice its surroundings, and there’s so much for a new grandma to take in — ooh, that hair! Those eyes! Those perfect little hands! By the time Lucy was walking, though, I was thinking like a set designer. What would my audience of one like most? What were her favorite things? I combed through my kids’ long-abandoned leftovers, culling pull toys and stuffed animals and blocks, dusting them off and arranging them strategically. 

Because you want them to visit. You want their parents to bring them. You want your house to be a destination. My kids were incredibly lucky that way. My husband, Doug, grew up in a freaking Shangri-la way out in the country, with a burbling creek, a lake you could swim in, tall trees on the mountain, abandoned cabins to explore. There were fish! Hawks! Snakes! We used to head out over the river and through the woods — well, across the Turnpike — to Grandma’s every Thanksgiving when our kids were little, just like in the song. It was a five-hour drive, but it was worth it for the novelty, for our two city kiddies to be out in the land of shotguns and skinning bears. 

My daughter and her husband, alas, bought a house in a small town not much different from the one where Doug and I live now. We don’t have abandoned cabins or a lake for fishing or Turnpike stops with the lure of fast-food cheeseburgers. All we’ve got to coax Lucy and her little sister here are a pink bathtub and an array of gently used toys. At their house, you can stand in any room and say, “Hey Google, play ‘Let It Go,’” and your favorite song will come on instantly. Whereas at Mumsy and Grandpa’s, there are just weird little boxes called “radios” that you can stand in front of and scream “Play ‘Let It Go’!” at until your face turns blue, and nothing whatsoever happens­. Lucy knows. She’s tried. 

The thing about being a grandparent is, you understand those kids are gonna outlive you. That’s only right; that’s as it should be. But that fact also makes the scene-setting process more weighted. When I’m gone, I want Lucy and her sister to remember me — for there to be the equivalent of a special doll in a drawer and a piano and a rug and a garage full of mysteries. But how intentional can that process be? 

I keep reading about this “coastal grandmother” fad and wondering if that’s what I should aspire to. My sources tell me the trend is based on being “effortlessly stylish,” so the chances are pretty good I wouldn’t be able to pull it off even if I tried. It also apparently requires cutting a lot of hydrangeas, slipcovering one’s furniture in linen, and painting everything in your household white, which if you’ve ever seen a one-year-old and a three-year-old eat ice-cream sandwiches seems like a terrible idea. 

I understand the impetus, though, to bring in light and air. Old people’s homes almost always read a little sad to me. They’re full of strange smells and odd medical equipment, refrigerators bare except for Metamucil and withered bananas and expired condiments. The tabletops are lined with photographs of people in peculiar clothing; the furniture is enormous and made of dark wood. Throw open those drapery-shrouded windows and let the sea breeze in!

But that crisp, clean, linen-swathed, hydrangea-wreathed vision seems as phony to me as a grandma with a Botox-smoothed brow and dyed hair. What grandkid wants to be told 10,000 times a day to get her feet off the goddamn sofa? Our couch is a sturdy utilitarian gray. I know for a fact that you can change diapers­ on it with impunity. 

What I’ve never been able to tease out is whether it’s the houses or the old people themselves that seem so sad to me. On his visit this past summer to Canada, Pope Francis spoke regretfully of how the elderly get cast aside in modern society because “they are no longer useful.” Though he traveled in a wheelchair, he insisted that “there is a gift in being elderly,” in “abandoning oneself to the care of others.” Good for him. But you know — he’s the pope. I’ve yet to come to grips with the limitations age is more and more placing on me. 

Somewhere in the midst of the world’s long, shared pandemic dream, I noticed something weird about the skin on my arms. It wasn’t pleasingly taut anymore. Oh, I’ve never been ripped, but then again, I didn’t use to sag. Now, I do. A loose crepiness has overtaken my hands and forearms and pools up a little when I rest my elbows on my desk. Some days, I sit and look at my skin in wonder: How did it come to this?

I can’t begin to tell you how peculiar it is to grow old. My colleague Christine Speer Lejeune wrote in August about how COVID and its attendant crises have warped our sense of time. Aging does that, too. Occurrences in the distant past seem to have happened 10 minutes ago. People pop into your head that you haven’t seen in 50 years — half a century! — and you google them and turn up … nothing. Or an obit. Or, in one sad case, a classmate who killed his wife and then himself. We sat in homeroom together, you think in disbelief. We ate lunch at the same table. I always thought you were cute.

Your body breaks down. You go from playing field hockey and tennis and volleyball every week to volleyball and pickleball, until the arthritis in your ankles is too much and it’s just volleyball, until you pop your biceps tendon and miss a whole summer’s worth of games. You toss out the buy-one-get-one-half-off coupon that comes with the new sneakers you ordered — after all, you already have two more pairs stockpiled in your closet, and really, who knows if you’ll live long enough to go through those? Cases of wine, the big or the small pack of sponges, getting a puppy — you apply the “live long enough” algorithm to so many things. Stairs become your enemy. 

So do green beans. And brussels sprouts. Your once-iron stomach turns flighty as a baby’s; that favored curry joint’s vindaloo is now too spicy, and pepperoni pizza is a dire mistake. You used to love to cook, but suddenly it’s only a chore — oh God, is it Thanksgiving already? Instead of focusing on family togetherness, you foresee only endless tasks, the shopping and chopping and polishing and baking and basting and cleanup that holidays entail. At least when I’m dead, I can sleep. 

No wonder old people’s homes seem morose. 

Lucy and her little sister Emma have two grandmas. My son-in-law Basil’s mom hardly ever gets to see them, though. She lives overseas, and visas to come to America are notoriously hard to get. He and my daughter, Marcy, are supposed to take the girls to visit this month, assuming COVID and politics and fate don’t conspire against it. My heart will travel with them — and stay in my throat until they’re home again. I sometimes think about Basil’s mom covetously — ­the exotic foreign grandma halfway around the world! But I wouldn’t trade, ever. I’m content to be mundane if access is the cost. 

More of a threat are the host of other claims on the girls’ attention. Emma can’t say much more than “Bubble!” and “Mama!” and “Yeah!” yet, but she’s fixated on Doug’s smartwatch, constantly poking and tapping to make it change colors and modes. Just wait until she’s big enough to work the iPad, not to mention Siri and Alexa and the rest of her household full of tech. How can I even dream of competing with TikTok and YouTube — with a world scientifically engineered to get a death grip on a child’s attention span? 

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame. I loved the idea of having an eccentric auntie who would sweep into my life and horrify the hoi polloi while making grand gestures — ­trips to Paris! The opera! The moon! The closest I came was my Aunt Phyllis, who worked for a ladies’ magazine in New York City and gave us gloriously extravagant Christmas gifts. Me, I’m only good for the occasional handmade Halloween costume, and even that will likely go by the wayside once the girls are old enough to have opinions on the matter. They’ll prefer the store-bought Elsa outfit, thank you very much.

Trying to figure out how to grandparent in the era of school shootings and pandemics and library book bannings makes me feel all unsettled, like the photos from the Webb telescope. Bad enough we’re screwing up this world; now I have to worry about billions of other galaxies where shit might be going equally wrong? I look at those beautiful swirling dots of multicolor light and muse on how meaningless I and the girls and our lives and our world are in the grand scheme of things. Against all that’s ever been and been taken away, gone and vanished, how important is it that two small children are unlikely to ever really know me? Still, I want so desperately for them to hold me in their memories, to preserve me beyond my time on this earth. 

Lucy and Emma have one great-grandparent­ left — Doug’s mom. She’s in her 90s, in assisted living not too far from us. Marcy is unbelievably generous with her visits there with the girls. Me, I have a hard time with the place. In one of his books, Pope Francis says that old people often “end up being stored away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hung up in the closet during the summer.” If one old person’s house is depressing, how much more so a dormitory of the aged?

Not for Lucy and Emma, though. On one of our family visits to Doug’s mom, they get rammy in the small apartment, and their Uncle Jake and I take them out into the hall. It’s long and carpeted, and it reminds me that when Jake and Marcy were babies, my dad would drive them out to the airport and let them run through its endless corridors. 

Kids can’t, it seems, run without screaming and laughing. Especially Emma, who only recently learned to walk and takes great joy in it. While Lucy runs ahead, Emma toddles after her, laughing her high, pealing laugh of delight until she keels over, gets up, and starts out laughing again. 

Slowly the sound spreads at Grandma Great’s, and all along the hallway, doors begin to open, revealing gray-haired ladies with walkers or canes who stand and watch the two tiny visitors whiz by. At first, I’m afraid the girls will be chastened — that we’ll be chastened, Jake and I too — for so much noise, so much exuberance, so much … life, here where the residents are queued up waiting for it to end. But the ladies smile indulgently, leaning on their metal exoskeletons, waving and calling: “Hello there! Hello there!” I watch them and marvel at how all of us are headed, running or limping and stumbling, toward whatever it is that bides on the other side. 

Published as “Over the River and Through the Woods” in the November 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.