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Autobiography Of An Elderly Women:
Shadow Of Age

My Mother's House

Conventions Of Age

Other People's Medicine

Compensations Of Age

Spending Of Time

Land Of Old Age

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

Young People And Old

Unspoken Words

Read More Articles About: Autobiography Of An Elderly Women

Grandmothers And Grandchildren

( Originally Published 1911 )

THE human beings that are closest to the Land of Old Age are the children.

In so many ways their limitations are ours. Margaret has to apply the same " Thou shalt nots " to Betty that she does to me. For instance, I had planned to go over for a game of backgammon with an old friend of mine, Eliza Storrs, and hadn't paid much attention to the weather , neither had my little granddaughter Betty; so each of us was making her preparations briskly when Margaret nipped us both in the bud.

Betty was easy enough to nip. All Margaret had to do with her was to tell her quite openly and frankly that today was a nasty day, quite unsuitable for a little girl to be abroad in. It was a different story with me. I was a child of a larger growth, headstrong, and hard to manage, so my daughter approached me with tact, as one must children of my sort. She opened fire craftily in this wise :

" Wasn't it awful about poor Mrs. Allen's hip?" said she. " I hear she isn't getting on at all." (Mrs. Allen fell the other day on a slippery pavement and broke her hip.) " Her daughter begged and begged her to take a carriage, but she wouldn't," my guileful daughter continued. " Imagine her feelings when her mother was brought home. They say she will always have to walk with a crutch."

Now a great many more people of Margaret's age get hurt every year than women of mine, but I didn't feel like arguing the point.

" It was just such a day. I suppose it 's silly of me, but every time you go out in bad weather since then — " says Margaret, coming to the point.

" Is it bad underfoot? " I asked.

"Awful ! " Margaret replied fervently. " People fairly skate along."

" I won't go, then," I decided.

I must say that while I see through Margaret's guile, I like to be given the semblance of choice, and so I suppose does the child who is hard to manage.

I heard Betty asking if she couldn't have some little girls to play with her, and Margaret answer that she doubted if other mothers would let their children out, so I called Betty up to me.

In ten minutes we had both forgotten the weather and everything else; we might have been the same age, so much we enjoyed each other's society.

The front door slammed, and out popped Margaret into the leg-breaking weather.

" She won't let us go out, but she goes out herself, I notice," observed Betty, with pessimism.

I did notice, and I noticed what Betty didn't, that she and I were housebound for exactly the same reasons, — since neither of us had seemed to have judgment to stay in of her own accord, Margaret, being anxious about our health, had kept us in.

Nor was this the only place that Betty and I met on common ground; each one of us was dependent, each one of us a source of anxiety to those Dearest us, each one of us ministered to with the same touching devotion. Like Betty, I had my moments of rebellion, and my efforts for liberty were as futile as hers, — more futile, indeed, for each year that passed brought with it new reasons for the reasonableness of my children's tender tyranny. I suppose it is because we are so alike that the sympathy between old people and little children is as old as the world. As I sat telling stories to Betty, I could but think how, all the world over, there were grandparents rejoicing in their grandchildren, tending them, playing with them, teaching them the old baby games that go back to the beginning of time.

Very often I echo in different words some observation of Betty's, the ignorance of childhood and the wisdom of age touch each other at more points than one. Many of the occupations and preoccupations of " grown people" like Margaret seem equally profitless to Betty and to me. We are both so far away from the rush of events that the passions and ambitions of the world trouble neither of us. I have forgotten about them, and Betty hasn't found them out, — we are on an equal footing of indifference. Even the faults of the grandparents and grandchildren are alike; some of us are as self-centred as children, and others of us have the same naοve egotism.

There is a certain exquisite flattery in our grandchildren's company. Betty loves everything I do. I seem to her witty, accomplished, and gifted. More than this, she treats me as an equal.

She is ignorant of drafts; she is not afraid all the time that I am going to tire myself out. In a word, she doesn't know that when she comes to see me she comes into the Land of Old Age.

She doesn't know that it's because I am old that I have all the time there is, while her mother has to " make time " for her. For all Betty does for me I try to repay her by indulgences of all sorts, — sometimes by forbidden indulgences. For these I get mildly scolded, but I keep right on. I have yet to hear of a boy who grew up a bad man because of the little indulgences his grandfather showered on him, nor of one who grew up a dyspeptic because of the surreptitious cookies his grandmother gave him. I am sure I am no worse a woman because my grandmother begged me off from some well-merited punishments. So I spoil my grandchildren as much as I can, which is as much as I am let.

There was a time when I wasn't allowed to spoil them at all. I hardly knew my older grandchildren as babies, for I went through, like so many other women of my generation, what I call " The Grandmother's Tragedy."

I first heard about it from Eliza Storrs. How often of late years I have had occasion to think of the morning she plumped herself down in my rocking-chair. I can remember just how the corners of her pleasant mouth were drawn down, and in what a discouraged way she flapped her fan back and forth.

" It's awfully hard work learning how to be a grandmother," she complained.

" Well," thought I complacently, " if there 's one thing I shan't have to learn, it 's that. People may have to learn how to be mothers, but not how to be grandmothers."

I was very sure of my ground because I had just that minute, you might say, got to be a grandmother myself; my arms were aching for my little grandson, whom I had never seen, my oldest son's first child. I was so full of the grandmother feeling, so eager for sight of the blessed little fellow, that I couldn't believe the woman of my age existed who wa n't a ready-made, accomplished grandmother.

" It 's easy enough to be the kind of grandmother you think you ought to, but what 's hard is to be the kind of grandmother they want you to be,"

Eliza explained, flapping her fan mournfully.

I hadn't the least idea then what Eliza was talking about, so I wasn't a bit sympathetic. I wanted, indeed, to laugh, she looked so much like a fat, elderly baby herself.

At that moment a neat nurse in a cap passed the house pushing a perambulator briskly before her.

" There she is! That's the nurse !" Eliza exclaimed. " They call her a trained hospital nurse. She gets twenty-five dollars a month and her washing done, and if I'd had as big a family as Solomon I could n't begin to pretend to know one half as much about babies as that woman thinks she does who 's never had so much as half a one ! If I had my way, oh, how quickly I 'd send her flying ! "

It was my first glimpse of a condition of affairs I didn't know existed.

Eliza rose to go, and sent back to me over her shoulder, " Mark my words, that baby's head will be flat as a pancake if they don't take her up more ! "

I understood everything Eliza said soon enough. In a few weeks Ellery and Jane, the baby and the nurse, came home for a visit. That was when I learned first-hand about " The Grandmother's Tragedy." I think all grandmothers will agree that there is a certain emotion at the sight of your first grandchild that is a little different from any other. Your son who was your baby only yesterday has a little son of his own.

I felt as other grandmothers do,—that it was a pretty heavy responsibility for my son and that inexperienced little thing, his wife, to undertake, and I guessed that they probably were as gay and light-hearted about it as I was myself before my own children showed me what a grave thing it was to be a mother.

"Never mind," thought I, "I'm here, fortunately enough for them ! " I was ready to pour out on them the treasures of my own experience. But more than my desire to help them, stronger than any wish I have known for years, was my longing to hold in my arms my blessed grandbaby, — it was so long since I had held a baby of my very own.

Yet, at the same time, it seemed almost a joke that I really was old enough, so soon, to have grandchildren. I thought in my ignorance that being a grandmother meant all the pleasure of having children and none of the care. So I planned and dreamed. Then came the reality and with it " The Grandmother's Tragedy."

I found out, as Eliza Storrs found out, and as so many women of my generation have found out, that I wasn't to have anything, — neither pleasure nor responsibility. My empty, expectant arms were to remain empty. Jane's idea and the nurse's idea of a grandmother were negative; indeed, a grandmother was something to be guarded against. There was no room for a grandmother in the routine of Roger's little life. So I remained an outsider, a spectator, and a spectator who was watched to see that she didn't make herself intrusive,— did n't, with her importunate affection, make an inroad on the rules laid down for the baby.

I'm afraid I took it a little hard. It was such a disappointing way of setting out on one's career of grandparent, so different from that I had looked forward to with such eagerness. There is something so heartbreaking in feeling full of love, and then having your affection set aside gently but definitely as something nobody wanted. Besides that, I worried about the baby. How many times during those three weeks I echoed Eliza Storrs, — " Mark my words, that child's head will be as flat as a pancake." I longed to take him up, but actually did n't dare, though he was my own grandchild ! While Jane was perfectly polite about it, she was as nervous as any old hen when I was near the baby. The reason she gave for leaving him on his back hours at a time was that it made a child nervous to be disturbed, and that a child, anyway, was not a plaything.

"Perhaps," Ellery suggested once, " he likes to be played with."

" We shouldn't consider what a child likes," Jane remonstrated, and I was sure she was quoting from a medical book. " We should only think what is for his good "

So, though Roger would crow at me in the most beguiling way, Jane or the nurse was always on hand to see that we never had a word in private together.

It was hard work learning to be that kind of a grandmother ; to my way of thinking it was being no grandmother at all. But the time came when I proved my right to love Roger in my own way.

The nurse was off for an afternoon, and the baby began to cry. At first a little whimper, then a good loud roar.

From the first moment it was evident to me he had an attack of colic. Jane didn't go to him at once, but continued to sew calmly. Presently she moved him over on his side and gave him a little cold water, but he kept on yelling, of course. Jane got up and walked the floor. Then, before my very eyes, she got down a book about babies, and read in it what to do ; I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself.

She didn't find the right place, or else she could n't put her mind on it, for at last she wailed out:

" Oh, what do you think is the matter ?

Oh, what do you think I ought to do ? "

" I think you had better take him up, Jane," I said gently. I was very sorry for Jane ; her outside shell of assurance and know - it - all was, after all, only a mask behind which a poor, inexperienced little mother lurked trembling.

" Take him up and lay him on his stomach over a hot-water bottle. He's got a little attack of colic."

"Thank God ! " said Jane. " I thought he might be going to have a convulsion! "

She was pale as a sheet, so I did it for her. I whisked him up, and comforted him just as if it had been only yesterday I had had my babies to look after. Jane watched me respectfully. She always lifted Roger warily as if she were afraid he would break. After that, discipline was relaxed. I had come into my own.

Hard as I thought my first experience was, I have learned since that it is nothing to the humiliation some grandmothers have undergone. I have heard of some who have been treated as if they were contagious diseases, and by their own daughters ! I hope there are not many such , it is too sad a way of being cheated out of one's birthright.

There would be fewer young mothers, I think, who mistook colic for convulsions, and looked up in books what it was their babies were crying about, if the younger generation hadn't such a contempt for our old - fashioned ways.

Germs are at the bottom of that contempt, though young mothers are learning daily that there is more to being a mother than in having the bottles well sterilized.

I for one protest against the " Thou shalt nots" that are written down for grandmothers. They will, of course, pass the way of many of the other useless " Thou shalt nots." But what good will that do my generation ? We shall have been defrauded of some of our rights as grandmothers, and our grandchildren will have been defrauded with us. There are some things I hold to be the right of all children from the very moment they are born, and one is the right of being spoiled by their grandparents ; hand in hand with that goes the right of a grandmother to spoil them.

Age lops off our interest in one thing, then another. Year by year absence and death thin the number of our friends.

Be our children never so devoted and loving, there always have been and there always will be days that have long arid places in them for people who have traveled far in the Land of Old Age.

It is no one's fault. It is a part of life, no more to be complained of than the loss of the suppleness of youth. The Land of Old Age has sparsely peopled districts. Shadows move about under the shade of trees ; they are the shadows of the people we used to love. Sometimes as we sit dozing in its tranquillity we hear sounds of footsteps that make our hearts beat ; the sound of dear voices comes to us, and then we wake up; they are only the dear echoes from the past, the reflections of the things that were.

We know that never this side of the Great Silence shall we hear them with our waking ears.

Then to us, sitting lonely and silent, come the voices of little children ; living children, and not shadows that vanish if we dare to look at them full in the face. They are our children's children, and all at once the silent country wakes up to life. We know now why the Land of Old Age is so still and empty. It is so that the children may find plenty of room there to play. To me, in all the Land of Old Age there is no dearer sight than those old people you see with little children around them. Sometimes it is an old man taking his little granddaughter out to feed the hens, or again an old woman sitting happily, a little sleeping child in her arms. Do not disturb her, for she had gone back years and years, back to her own youth, and she is dreaming that she has her own baby in her arms.

In the Land of Old Age how many songs are sung every day to little children by lips that had forgotten how to sing, for, oh, so many years ! There comes trooping to you a gay little procession of stories and games ; they stand around you clamoring to be told and sung and played for your grandchildren. They talk about children being spoiled nowadays,— what with mechanical toys and all ; I am sure that it is in the homes where there are no grandmothers to cut paper dolls or teach how to make reins on a spool-and-pin knitting-machine. My little grandsons push spools around the room, playing they are automobiles, instead of chu-chu cars.

Only last week I was called upon to make equipment for so recent a thing as the Spanish War. My boys fought the British, but I made the paper hats of just the same pattern for both generations; the swords which I forged were of two pieces of wood craftily tied together by string. My grandfather taught me how when I was a little girl.

One day soon after I had won my right to be a grandmother, I was sitting with Roger in my lap, singing him one of the baby things one croons without knowing what it is.

All at once I began to listen to myself sing, with a certain surprise, as if to some one else, and these were the foolish words I sang :

" The craw and the poosie-o !

The craw and the poosie-o !

The muckle cat got up an graat On the top of Grannie's hoosie-o."

I hadn't thought of it for years, not since I sang it to my own babies. My mother had sung it to me, and her mother to her,because back, who knows how long ago, we had a Scottish grandmother. Now all the memory of her that there is, is this old nursery rhyme, which has survived mysteriously through the changing generations. I smiled with a certain triumph to think that the women of our family would sing " The craw and the poosie-o " to their babies when all Jane's " Thou shalt nots " had been forgotten.

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