No matter what you call them, birth grandmas are still grandmas. My surrendered daughter Megan’s daughter Chelsea visited this past week. We took a quick trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon to see Hamlet, traveled to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, got our hair cut and our nails done (mine in sparkling silver; Chelsea’s in turquoise blue). I took full advantage of the opportunity to indulge Chelsea and myself.
After all, that’s what grandmas are for – to spoil their grandchildren. Five years ago, when Chelsea and her sister Rachael visited, the airline agent joked as he issued their boarding passes, “Now that your grandma has spoiled you, she’s sending you home to your Mama.
I started to speak, to explain that they weren’t exactly my granddaughters; they were the daughters of my surrendered daughter. I caught myself – it didn’t matter a hill of beans whether I raised their mother or not – these were my granddaughters and I did in fact have every right to spoil them.
Adoptees can be hypersensitive to the grandma thing. Adoptee Jean Strauss writes in Beneath a Tall Tree that when her birthmother sent Strauss’s son a Valentine and signed it “With love from Grandma Lenore,” she threw it in the trash. Zara Phillips became enraged when her birthmother Pat signed a birthday card for one of Phillip’s children “’Grandma.’ I think, What right does she have to that title? She lost that privilege (Chasing Away the Shadows: An Adoptee’s Journey to Motherhood.) Megan cautioned me early in our relationship not to refer to myself as her children’s grandmother, that her children’s only grandmothers were her adoptive mother and her husband’s mother
Fortunately, Megan has not prevented me from having a relationship with her children. While they know I did not raise their mother, I’m grandma to them, no matter that Megan would deny me that appellation. Reunion issues – guilt, anger, grief, fear, just aren’t there. It saddens me when I hear birthmothers tell of their relinquished children barring them from their grandchildren. Children need more love, not less.
Megan’s children are being raised in her Mormon faith. I’ve been antagonistic towards the LDS Church ever since the ERA wars of the 1970’s. Still, Rachael, Chelsea, and I can talk about religion without rancor. Rachael is on a mission in Peru; I’m flattered that she placed me on her email list which is restricted to family.
I sometimes think that the dysfunction adoption causes rights itself after one generation. Because they are not forced to live the life dictated by cultural forces (your adoptive parents are your real parents) our grandchildren can return to their roots. The relationship is naturally comfortable.
A little explanation is necessary. I have two granddaughters: Kim is my daughter's kept child; Lisa was relinquished as an infant and adopted; today they are grown up and I know them both. So does that make me a "regular" grandmother, as well as a "birth" grandmother? You decide.
Kim knew me from the beginning of her life, but because Jane, the daughter I relinquished to adoption, was living in Wisconsin near the adoptive family, Kim knew my daughter's adoptive family better than she knew me, a thousand miles away in New York. When Jane, divorced and a single mother with a disability (epilepsy), proved to be unable to adequately care for Kim at five, Jane's family, the Ps (I am going to keep their name out of the blog), took Kim into their home and ipso facto became "parents" all over again. Jane for several years flitted in and out of their household, and back here with Tony and me.
During that period, Kim spent a good part of the summers with me and my husband, and I loved it. I mean, it was heaven. (Of course she had a few moments of showing me what a difficult child she could be because she knew she couldn't act up back at the Ps where she was an angel because...but that's another story.) Anyway, her visits her were a boon, and I thought, Kim will always know me as "Grandma." But there was a caveat. My daughter Jane always called me, and referred to me, as "Lorraine." Yes, Kim had another grandmother--her father's mother--but as Jane's husband was running from child support in New Jersey, his earlier family was scarce, and Kim never knew that other grandmother. Jane never met the woman. My goodness this is a complicated story, but Jane's life, and Kim's, were complicated.
Number One Grandma, and the one who provided the most "mothering" was Grandma P...and somehow the year Kim hit puberty and came for a visit, I went from "Grandma" to "Lorraine." Lorraine I was to my daughter, and no matter what she called me before, Lorraine I would be to the teenage Kim, who was now living with Jane, who had remarried.
It hurt. It hurt like hell. I wanted to be Grandma, plain and simple. It felt like such a slap in the face, such a reminder of what I could not be--just a grandma, not Lorraine, but no matter how hard I tried, that's who I was. An outsider who did not deserve to be called Grandma. I remember how upset I was, how I cried. Being demoted from "Grandma" to a first name might seem like such a small thing, but it brought up a lot of old feelings.
I tried to figure out what to do, wrote Kim a letter, which in the end I did not send. But I did tell her at one point that it hurt my feelings when she called me Lorraine; she countered that I did not seem like a "grandma" and that it felt more comfortable to her to call me Lorraine. I knew that I seemed a lot younger in spirit and activity than her other grandmother, who is only a few years older than me, but has been suffering from dementia for a several years.
I gave up. But I continued to sign my emails Gramma Lo and Kim turned that into "Glo." Which is how I sign my emails now. She calls me Lorraine, and I've accepted that. When she visits, no one doubts who she is in relationship to me.
I'd still rather be "Grandma" but hey! Kim and I have a pretty good relationship. She's off to college this year in Michigan, she's studying a combination of art (my brother is an art director, one of his daughters plans on going to art school) and English, which has been my professional field for all of my life. Despite her leaning towards art for several years, she's discovered that she's a natural writer. Without ever hearing that I am a total Francophile, Kim decided at about age eleven she wanted to study French rather than Spanish, and took four years of French in high school. Lorraine, a name chosen for me, is, of course, the name of a territory between France and Germany and is where...my heroine Joan of Arc is from. What can I say?
Lisa, the relinquished granddaughter with whom I recently reunited, calls me Lorraine. It was what she wanted to call me; maybe because of Kim's calling me that, I have no problem with it. But I did hear her, when asked how she was related to me and my husband, say that we were her grandparents. However Tony and I were talking to someone else at the time, and we did not hear what else she said, or if she explained the rest. I do know Lisa was somewhat disappointed in that she did not see facial similarities when we met (her natural mother died a few years ago), and so I was the first, and so far, only, person she has met she is related to. And yes, friends, when some of you wrote that you saw similar smiles in the two of us, I loved it. Because she is biracial, the skin color may overshadow other physical similarities. I picked up several characteristics where we are alike but I'm getting the feeling she saw fewer than I did. In general attitude towards the world, we are quite similar. I was able to give her some clothes of mine that are perfect for her, particularly one amazing Norma Kamali beaded jacket she will use performing.
One thing she did stands out in my mind. We were walking on the beach and she reached down and picked up a single flip-flop and put it it the sand so that it stuck up. "Easier for someone to find it that way," she said as an explanation. I smiled to myself. I'm always picking up the lost towel, and in the winter, glove, and putting it in an obvious place so if the owners should come back, they can easily locate it. Tony, thinks my gestures are sometimes unnecessary and he's got a more why-bother? attitude. I've returned groceries found in a parking lot, wallets found in the supermarket, moved grocery buggies out of the way, or returned one back to the store when most people leave them. This is not to say what a good person I am. For one thing, I'm always losing things and so appreciate it whenever I get them back; but what I'm talking about goes beyond that, and you know what, in my later years I recognize that my mother did the same kind of thing. And when I was a kid, I sometimes found it tiresome in her.
Oh, one last thing: Lisa has a play-writing grant right now, so that writing DNA is still alive and kicking in my progeny.
Call me one happy grandmother.