The Virtual Grandmother

By Jacquelyn Mitchard | August 13, 2020

Just you wait, said my friends. Wait until your older kids have kids. You will adore being a grandmother! It’s one of the best times of your life.

Well, it isn’t, it’s not even close. But the reason why has nothing to do with the hardy, round-eyed and utterly engaging little guy born to my older son and his wife last spring. It’s that while I can look, I can barely touch. His droopy cheeks and fine brown hair, his clubby little feet are the things grannies stroke and nuzzle, but I can admire only from a distance, as Bette Midler sang. I delight in his smiles and assertive nose, and I wonder if he has that amazing scent, like new cars and new-mown grass, that can’t be replicated.

I’m a virtual grandmother, a pair of crinkly eyes above a mask, a voice that seems to emanate from the layers of cloth and plastic that cover my clothes and my hands and my hair. I wonder if he believes that everybody but his mommy and daddy looks this way.

What stands between me and Hank (short for Henry) is the virus.

The virus changes everything. The virus is the boss. We can whine and dither, but the facts are the facts.

Of course, we’re the lucky ones. My daughter-in-law didn’t get it while she was at the birthing center. Henry was born healthy and not too much the worse for wear after a long night. The customary rituals had to be suspended. There was no adoring peek through the nursery glass, no beaming teenage uncle holding an infant for the very first time, no silly bouquets with teddy bears poking out between the roses. Everything has to be wiped down with disinfectant; and even Mom’s own mother could only smile and wave through window glass.

But all those things are trivial.

The fact of the world our next generation was born into – that’s not trivial.

Just an annoyance to us, so far, it’s a tragedy for others. Brave young healthcare workers, often no older than my son and his wife, have died from the virus, putting their lives on the line to help others survive. Whole families gathered unawares for a birthday or a wedding and ended up at funerals. Grandparents who thought they had a decade or even more left to enjoy the quieter pace after a lifetime of hard work may never live to enter the memory of their children’s children. A marathoner, a firefighter, a volunteer paramedic and the single mom of two young daughters, a woman I know succumbed at the age of 52.

The virus has no respect even for its own rules.

And so, we try to take the long view, the gift of older adulthood. We try to reckon that most things pass away eventually, some never to return. We hope that’s true of COVID-19. We know that’s true of the first precious months of Hank’s life. We’re still lucky to live nearby all of our children who haven’t yet gone off to far-flung destinations. We can still have big Sunday dinners with lots of pasta instead of having to gather around the computer for a video call.

Even as my husband and I grow wistful, we also respect our son and his wife for standing firm. We envy gatherings with our daughter-in-law’s family at the lake, but even as we watch the videos they kindly provide, we observe that no one except the parents is in nuzzling distance. There is no dickering for an inch or a mile, because the virus doesn’t allow that sort of bargaining.

Pundits, especially those with nothing left to write about except the mounting toll of dead and diagnosed, speculate on whether children raised in this time will grow up less likely to reach out for contact, lonelier and more anxious.

I’m no pundit, and I have a passionate distaste for this hands-off era, but those projections sound to me like panicky poppycock. Kids who are beloved know it, and not every generation was as touchy-feely as ours is now.

Well I remember being a newborn mom, now thirty years ago, given admiring lectures by the older women in my family about cousins who let their newborns “cry it out” instead of rushing to pick them up – so that they would learn to console themselves on their own. (What an unnatural concept! Who should console themselves? When I cry, I want consolation, from my nearest if possible, but a kindly acquaintance will do in a pinch …) The older relatives admired the stalwart new mothers who got ear plugs so they wouldn’t hear their babies sobbing. I was appalled, and simply nodded, while secretly taking my own babies into the room or the bed with me so that I could soothe them every time they whimpered.

We joke that by the time we’re able to hold Hank on our laps, he’ll be too big to fit. But I feel confident that he knows that the gazes directed at him from above all those blue and yellow and red masks, the ones made of sterile paper, the ones that depict Wonder Woman, the ones that feature a skull and crossbones, are all focused on him with love and reverence.  I think he will grow up brave and wise, when we all tell him the story of his birth year and how much we longed to kiss him and just have to make up for it right now. He’ll understand that the virus was the boss of how close we could be physically back then, but that it never had a speck of influence on how close we could be emotionally. With our eyes, with our voices singing songs and repeating poems into the phone, with the sweet amused reverence that flows from the aunts and uncles and cousins in that six-foot-distanced circle, we are teaching Hank that he is the center of the universe, the first and only of his kind. The virus outflanks us at every turn, shutting down the customary rituals and privileges. But that deprivation only heightens how much we care for him. That feeling comes on fiercer and brighter with every day my grandson lives.

All babies affirm a triumph of hope over reality – maybe even over reason. As a culture, few of us probably need more children to work our fields or care for us as we falter. But there are some needs that inventions and social programs and institutions can never offer us. Hank is our high beam. The dark road is flooded with light. As all grandparents do, we ask the universe to smile on this one, to lend him the blessings of learning, to spare him war, to give him better than it gave us, more solace and more strength. For us grandparents, he is the compensation for growing old, for working hard and denying ourselves our worst temptations, so that we would live long and our time would intersect with his time. Having to go to him in protective gear and smelling not, as grandmothers should,  of spice cookies, but instead of disinfectant, that’s a price to pay, but everything precious has a price. All my friends were right in the end; I do love being a grandmother, even a virtual grandmother, even if getting into this role was harder, like getting out of a wet bathing suit.

This was a year spent in uncertainty, anxious at every turn, wondering what does the future hold?  Now we know one answer to that question: It held Hank, born during the plague year, the guarantor that among all the stressors and setbacks and snags to come, we would have some laughs. Only ninety days on earth, he already reaches out to us. He knows we are his tribe and he is the cherished one, who rules from the ground up. The virus changed almost everything about the way we live. But not this.

Copyright © 2020 Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  1. Jeannine Hunter Lazzaro on August 15, 2020 at 10:52 am

    I agree. Possibly the hardest part of this quarantine is not seeing my grandchildren. The fact that three or four months is a lot in a child’s life- is becoming even clearer to me these days. They have grown and changed so much in this time. We dropped stuff off and visited from the street. The sight of my two little grandchildren marching like soldiers, in masks at a distance so as not to make contact w myself or my husband…well, that’s an image seared into my heart.

    • Jacquelyn Mitchard on August 15, 2020 at 1:27 pm

      Jeannine, thanks for commenting. I agree with your observations–a child lives in dog years. My grandson’s month is my year; his year is my decade. I console myself thinking that this period will be noteworthy and interesting for generations to come. We will tell him the story of the year of his birth until he isn’t sure if it’s his memory or ours but in which he somehow feels famous, a light in the darkness.

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