I was a college freshman at a giant state university, living on the ninth floor of a 10-story, high-rise dorm at the far corner of the campus.
My only friend was from my high school. She was one of those women who are instantly likeable to men. As she sparkled and goofed her way through every gathering, she was an instant hit. I was the dumpy, plain friend in tow, and I knew it.
I limped along during that first year, lost, not caring about academics and totally out of place. I wrote a mournful letter to my cousin, who showed it to my grandmother, old, widowed and frail. But her response was direct and absolute: “Tell Cynthia that she is my granddaughter, and there is nothing, not one thing, wrong with her.”
While this may seem to be a run-of-the-mill thing for a grandmother to say, I had not grown up with this kind of thinking, this kind of “you are mine and you are fabulous” thinking — not even from her. I’m not sure anyone had every said anything like that to me ever.
In other situations, I understand this clannish approval could take someone down less healthy paths, like denial or elitism. But for me at that point, having already struggled with illness, depression and coming-of-age traumas, her remark stood out clear and strong above my family’s murky emotional messages. This was a clear waterfall of love from her to me, a re-admittance, to the human race. I qualified. I mattered. And mattering to her meant it was time I should assume I mattered in the world.
That’s what grandmothers, all elders, have the power to do. Their position and perspective places them best to pour unconditional love, approval and understanding to children. And none of us get very far without those things.
I have learned, to my sorrow, that this straightforward giving of love is not so easy for mothers. Moms wear too many hats. We are the one who set boundaries, which by their very nature, don’t feel good. I veto playdates, make the girls clean up, let them know that skimming along on homework just isn’t good enough.
I also get tired, say the wrong thing, laugh at the wrong moment. In moments of weakness, I get selfish about my time, I let my insecurities about their futures show. My love, my intent, gets lost in the myriad daily interactions of family.
As I sadly watch my own tangled messages to my girls, I envy a grandmother’s straight path to her grandchild’s heart. I can only hope my deep love will emerge to my children later from a distance, like an impressionist painting coming into focus.
I have a golden heart pendant that I got from Gran. It could not be a more clichéd message between the generations, and it could not be more beautiful. A little pendant with a flower engraved in it, it has tooth marks on the back, from when she chewed it as a baby. This is my gift from my grandmother that I hope, as tangibly as possible, to pass on to my girls. And if I’m very, very lucky, to my grandchildren.