I have always adored babies. In the street or at the supermarket, I try to make eye contact with them and get them to smile. My own children, as infants, were fascinating little creatures, so I was looking forward with great eagerness to being a grandparent. I see how my grown sons treat my mother, with love and even reverence, and, by and by, I want the same treatment for myself. Don’t we always expect life to go by the book?
I live 3000 miles away, so Zadie was three weeks old when I first got to hold her. Bliss flooded through me. When, later in the evening, her parents took her into their room and closed the door behind them, I felt lovelorn, like a rejected suitor. But they promised to let me feed her in the middle of the night for my entire visit. Night after night as I lay sleeping, my son would tap me on the shoulder. Perhaps unconsciously worried that the privilege would be revoked, I would spring up from the bedding, “like a volcano exploding,” he said. Then he would go back to bed, and I’d be alone with my darling.
Baby-rearing has changed since my own kids were infants, and Zadie slept tightly wrapped in a papoose-like swaddle. From the neck down she looked like a fat baguette. I would carefully unwrap her, and, with a wipe that emerged warm from a cunning dispenser, I would swipe her behind, the size of a peach-pit. Then I would hold her in my arms and feed her. She almost never cried, not on that visit nor the next.
The Terrible Twos
She takes one look at me and howls piteously.
But now she’s a toddler, and everything’s changed. Even though we Facetime regularly (the highlight of my week!) she does not recognize me from one visit to the next. Nor do I expect her to. I had hoped that when my son said, “Here’s grandma,” she would smile and stretch out her arms to me. Alas, she clings to him and shrieks in holy terror! For at 18 months, it is her great fear that her parents will sneak off and leave her alone with me (as has, in fact, happened on occasion). So the sight of me means she might be separated from them, and she takes one look at grandma and howls piteously. Real tears course down her little face, and the word “grandma” gets her so upset we decide to stop using it.
How to Be a Good Grandparent: Playing Hard to Get
Perhaps in a few months things might change, but for now, the only way I can spend time with her is to play hard to get. I am back in high school, using ploys I once used with boys, feigning indifference even while my heart aches. If I evince any interest in her, she will race to her mother or father, grab a leg tightly, and scream. But if I turn my back to her and play with one of her toys, she might come to my side. I have to chatter loudly as I play. I put one block on top of another and say, “Now I’m going to build a bed for the dolly so she can have a nice nap. I’m going to need a blanket to put over her, where will I find a blanket? Dolly needs a blanket. Poor dolly’s cold.”
I manage to kiss her cheek in passing.
Zadie has come up beside me now. “Where is that blanket?” I ask. Zadie picks it up from the floor. “Why there it is,” I croon. “Do you want to put it on dolly?” She drapes the blanket over the doll. I fuss with it, bringing the blanket down from its face and managing to kiss Zadie’s cheek in passing.
Life is full of surprises. I never thought I’d have to strategize to win my grandbaby’s love. My friends who have grandchildren report the happiest and easiest of relations. Yet here we are, Zadie and I, with a pile of toys in the living room and her parents in the kitchen while I plot my next move.
I once read that when given a choice, children prefer the person who plays with them to the person who feeds them, so although I sometimes give her a meal, I put more energy into being her ideal playmate: generous, surprising, and fun. I play with toys she hasn’t used in a while or play with them in a new way. Instead of putting the wooden tools back in the work-bench, I put them in with the Legos. She knows this is wrong, and she solemnly puts them back in the bench. She enjoys feeling smarter than I am, and I create situations to make this happen. I move a truck along the train track so she can take it off and put a train there instead. She seems to have forgotten her parents as she shows me how the magnetic train cars connect to each other. Now I play dumb, reminding myself once again of teenage dating scenarios when I let the guy feel like he was telling me something I didn’t know. I try to connect the two railroad cars the wrong way, so they repel each other. Zadie sets me straight, and for a while we move the train along the tracks, close to the sleeping doll. And all is well until her mother fondly asks, “Are you having a good time with your grandma?”
She enjoys feeling smarter than I am.
Grandma! Zadie hears the dreaded word! She runs for her mother and raises her arms, crying “Uppie, uppie!” She starts to whimper. Save me, save me from my grandma!
“It’s all right, little one,” says her mother. “There, there.”
I am alone with the toys again. I assess the possibilities. Will I strum her toy guitar? Or will I wear it on my head? Above all, I must not pay any attention to my heart’s desire, my adorable treasure, my Zadie. While I am yearning and burning, I must face away from her and pretend that she just doesn’t matter. Then, with any luck, I just might hear her pattering across the room to peer down at the toy in my lap.
Catherine Hiller is the author of five novels, a book of short stories, and Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir. Her new novel, The Feud, about work friends who become bitter enemies, was published in fall 2018.