Divorce - Keep Up With You Grandchild
( Originally Published 1952 )
The title of this chapter is, frankly, something to aim at, knowing you'll never accomplish it. Even if you start being a grandmother in the late thirties (and you can't do much better than that), by the time your grandchildren reach their teens, you will have a faintly dowagerlike quality in their eyes, if you don't seem old enough to die. You may get around as much as they do, and have as much fun (your kind of fun)—you'll still seem antiquated and they'll think it's pretty cute of you to be so lively at the ripe old age of forty-nine.
All of this is no excuse for letting yourself get stuffy, how-ever. If you seem old-fogyish and they have to be dragged in for dutiful visits, it's your own fault. For it's last year's opinions that make you both old and old-fogyish. If you keep your mind up to date, even your grandchildren will like to be with you, to say nothing of other people (which is what really counts in the end, as your grandchildren get busier and busier with lives of their own).
This is often a special problem to a widow or divorcee, since to many women the world seems to stop when marriage ends. The opinions of many men, long since buried, are still the law and the gospel to their wives, regardless of the fact that a thousand things have happened that would have changed them. It is also true, we add reluctantly, that most of us, masculine or feminine, widowed or not, have to make a definite effort to keep our minds from growing stiff even before our muscles do. It takes considerable mental agility not to be shocked when your grandchild comes home from boarding school with views slightly pink, or full of information on subjects you still don't discuss, and it's even harder not to blink an eyelash when one gets married and throws most of your standards of elegant living out of the window.
You'd better do all of these things. It might even be that the younger generation is right and you are wrong. In any case, they've got to live in a new world you won't see as much of and they'll get along a lot better if they keep in step.
The solution, if any, is to work on yourself and not on your grandchildren.
A painless place to begin, or as painless as any we know of, is your house or apartment. Stop and think for a moment of women you know whose houses are just as they were twenty years ago—the good Oriental rugs still on the floors and now slightly shabby, the good solid pieces of furniture still in their familiar places and slightly cluttered with the ac-cumulation of years, the curtains replaced, perhaps, but unchanged as to type. The chief characteristic of such a house is Age—and isn't that what you first think of when you think of the lady who lives there?
If it seems to you that we're starting at the wrong end, that if the lady had a contemporary point of view her house wouldn't look like that, we would like to point out that it works both ways—that changing her house even slightly will help change tier point of view. To many women, throwing out the Oriental rugs for which Papa paid several thou-sand dollars many years ago (when several thousand dollars bought a Lot) and which Mama slaved to preserve in all their beauty, is practically sacrilege. But the Oriental rugs (as their owners would soon discover if they tried to sell them) are not what they used to be and are giving the house a very seedy look. A plain rug, not the most expensive, but good enough and definitely not shabby, will make such a lady's living room look suddenly quite different and in-finitely more up to date and cheerful. It will also make visible to her a lot of outworn objects she hasn't really noticed in years. Or she might rearrange the furniture and knickknacks in the living room and get new curtains and slipcovers in the smartest chintz or other fabric she can find. She might even start with merely getting a new coffee table and making a different grouping of the old furniture, in front of the fireplace or the sofa. She ought to do something about her bedroom too—throw out the old four-poster (and a lot of inhibitions with it), do over her dressing table as gaily as she can, put away most of those framed photo-graphs crowding bureau and tables. A bedroom is a place to live in happily and not a storeroom for relics of the dear, departed past.
If she doesn't know where to begin, she might well get a decorator, even though she doesn't want to spend much money. Decorators are not the fancy and overelegant creatures many people seem to think they are. Many of them are very practical indeed; they don't want to change your house from antique to modern or Victorian to Spanish or the other way round; they know how to get things done better and more cheaply than you do; and they get their profits, not from you, but from the wholesale houses with which they deal. A decorator may prove to be an actual economy, rather than an extravagance (though this isn't always true and you'd better make inquiries before getting in too deep), and they throw in a lot of imagination and charm along with the new chintz and coffee table.
If you must go in for really stringent economy, we admit that you probably won't want a decorator, but you still needn't be discouraged. A lot can be done with a paintbrush and a dash of good taste. There are incredible bargains in curtains and bedspreads and whatnot every now and then, waiting to be snatched up by the watchful. The women's magazines are bursting with bright ideas for the enterprising. Perhaps that old-fashioned round table even you thought was clumsy is the very thing to have sawed in half, regardless of disrespect to Mr. Adams or Hepplewhite, and made into the two console tables you need on each side of a mantel or window. Perhaps a pair of old-fashioned vases you haven't used in years would make beautiful lamps, or the heavy, old-fashioned mirror now adding gloom to the hall could be painted dead-white and used in a bedroom with frilly white organdy. Perhaps—but you'd better find your own solutions, even though it means going to the library and studying all the home decoration magazines for the last twelve months.
In any case, if your house is so much as a shade musty, do something about it. Just the doing will make you conscious of the contemporary trend in decoration and before you get through, your point of view will be as much done over as your bedroom.
It's possible that it would be an equally good idea to revolutionize your wardrobe. Here again, we don't mean throwing everything out and starting fresh (though we've seen some middle-aged wardrobes that deserved just that). We mean that, when you buy a new dess, you might pass by the styles you've grown into the habit of wearing. Don't look for a coat-dress if that's been your invariable choice for the last few years; don't insist on the little touch of white at the neckline that you decided was becoming in the nineteen-thirties; don't, for goodness sake, get one of those surplice "mama" dresses. What you do get doesn't need to be too-too smart. We've already said that you no longer have to struggle with the last word in high fashion. But, for once, get something that doesn't look like you, but that looks well on you. Get a smart, becoming hat as different from anything you've had recently as you can find. And when you get them, don't take them out of the closet, look at them with alarm, and put them back again. Wear them, even if you feel uncomfortable and conspicuous the first six times. (After that, if you still feel uncomfortable, you probably bought a Mistake and you'd better take a friend and go on a second shopping expedition.)
We hope that your coiffure and your figure are beyond reproach and that our next rude suggestion is not for you. But there are women whose hairdos are the ones that brought them compliments long, long ago, and who have let the pounds creep up on them year after year. Both facts make them look older; looking older makes them feel older; feeling older makes them act older; and we could go on and on.
Before we do go on, we might suggest that you always—and we mean always—dress up for your grandchildren and that, above all, you don't make the really unforgivable error of embarrassing them by looking dowdy when you visit them at boarding school or college. Don't even look any more like a grandmother than you can help. If they're fond of you, it will distress them to see you giving way at the seams, figuratively speaking, and if they're not, it will seem unattractive to them. You'll find, too, that your grand-daughter is a lot more apt to bring her new beau around if she's not afraid of catching you in a housedress and no lip-stick. Your grandson will be more likely to bring his room-mate to dinner if it's served as elegantly as to any of your contemporaries. And, if you'd planned to serve cocktails when either turns up, go right ahead. You won't fool them anyway and they enjoy tomato juice or ginger ale as much (almost) as you enjoy old-fashioneds or a martini. There is, incidentally, no better time to outdo yourself on the appetizers.
While we're on the subject of grandchildren—one of the most useful (and rewarding) things you can do is to concentrate on drawing them out. It's startlingly easy to do, if they're in their teens or their early twenties, for these are the years when most normal young people are Complete Egocentrics. Nothing really exists to them if it doesn't directly concern them. What does exist is more frightening than most older people remember. They need reassurement and they need it badly and frequently. Even more, perhaps, they need willing ears into which they can pour their problems and hopes and opinions. It is true that most of these have to do with love, or possibly pimples, or a lack of popularity, and you know that they will be entirely different six weeks in the future, but currently they're the most important things in the world, and if your grandchildren won't tell you about them at the drop of a hat, you've fallen down on your job. If, however, you treat them with the seriousness they deserve, you can not only help, but you can build a bond that will bring you pleasure the rest of your life.
Next, perhaps, comes your choice of interests, and interests can be frankly old-ladyish or as up-to-date as the latest political scandal. Some of them, such as knitting and similar handiwork, are old-ladyish only when they are practically sole interests (though most men hate to be knitted at, there being nothing so demanding of undivided attention as the Male). Do these on the side when you feel like it, but have other interests too. It's wise, and especially after fifty, to read or listen to, not only the news, but what well-informed people are saying about it, on both sides. It's unwise to confine your attention to the views of one columnist or commentator you liked and got used to some twenty years ago. It's important to work on at least one board or committee that is moving with the times and with changing conditions, though your heart may be in some praiseworthy charity that hasn't changed an iota since your mother took it up when you were in rompers. Don't give it up; it's probably doing fine work. But don't let it take all the time that you give to causes.
It's important, too, to read a few of the best-sellers every year, whether you like them or not. They're what the world likes, and if you don't like at least some of them, you're getting dated. If you enjoy music, it's a good plan to listen to at least some modern music, though you prefer Bach and Beethoven and think the modern isn't music at all. If you like to play cards, by all means learn canasta or whatever comes after it, and don't hold out for bridge when the rest of the party would rather not play it. Adjust your schedule to the hours of the world around you, when other people are involved (do as you please when they aren't); serve the food and the drinks people are currently eating and drinking; and when a mode or a manner is just more than you can bear in silence, be gay and not disgruntled when you say what you think.
If you do all of these things, no one but your grandchild will think you're Getting On, and you'll be surprised at how often even he, or she, will drop around.
But we have one final suggestion.
We think, if you try, you can still recapture that feeling that you are a very special person, which was a secret excitement within you when you were young. It may have waned with the years, and you almost certainly lost it when you found that sorrow could hurt you, as it did everyone else, and you felt alone and unwanted. But you had it once; you believed that no one else in the world was quite like you and you were right. No one ever has been quite like you, and no one can tell what your special combination of qualities might produce. You were sure, once upon a time, that you were going to do big things, or do small ones better than anyone else. The world was before you, for you to conquer.
It is still before you, and you can still conquer it. Hundreds of people, much older than you probably are, have done it. All you have lost as a person—all that matters—is faith and courage, and you can get both back with a little trying.
You can be the very special person you once dreamed of being—if you have the will and the enterprise to Start All Over.