Still learning the role of grandmother
I'm a grandmother. Even 20 years in, it still feels weird to own that.
A part of me is continually stunned that out there in the world are seven beings who are part of me. And because I'm madly in love with all of them, my constant lament is about time. Never having enough of it with them.
They come and go in a blur, dashing in and out of our lives too soon. "Stay a while," I want to beg. But they never do. Of course, they have lives of their own.
The three "smalls," those under 10, are more likely to hang out with us because they're easily seduced, not by the pleasure of our company, but by the spoiling we do.
It's the four "bigs," one college woman (not "girl" anymore, we've been advised) and three boys all in their teens, who present the greatest challenge.
It's painful to admit that as they've drifted into adolescence, I have a vague sense that I barely know these guys. After mothering three daughters who often told me more than I really wanted to know, I'm stymied by their teenage-boy silences, their one-word answers to "So how are you?", and their tendency to be on the move even when we're together. A quick game of touch football always seems to trump my "reach out and touch souls" fantasies.
All this was swirling in my head minutes into the Philadelphia Theatre Company's current production of Amy Herzog's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play 4000 Miles.
It begins with a grandmother discovering that her 21-year-old grandson, Leo, has come calling in the middle of the night. No notice.
He has literally pedaled across the country on a bicycle he parks in the living room of her small Greenwich Village apartment. And they are suddenly roommates. It's unclear for how long.
My own fantasy about more time together - realized.
But be careful what you wish for. While Herzog's play is smart, funny, and touching, it's also a reckoning: We who are two generations removed from these grandchildren may not be their ideal roommates. Or soul mates.
Vera is old. Leo is young. And in some ways, like it or not, that chronological gulf can make grandparents and grandchildren the odd couple of relationships.
Leo is stunned that his grandmother still keeps a phone book handy. Her instinct, unlike his, is not to go directly to technology for answers to all things.
I'm with Vera. But that's hardly the main issue in this wonderfully wrought play about a generation gap that's deep and wide - and missing the intermediaries: the parents who stand between the extremes. With them, the shorthand is easier. Without them, both ends dangle.
As my own grandchildren pore over college catalogs, I am looking at over-55 communities with lots of services and realizing that in both instances, none of our respective lives will remain the same.
I mourn. They rejoice.
They are wrapped in a culture I don't understand. They wear T-shirts with weird rock-group names and of course are constantly hunched over their tech toys. I much preferred trains and trucks.
I find myself hungering for connection, but it's elusive.
"Grandma," Jonah, the family iconoclast and tell-it-like-it-is kid, recently said to me, "we don't understand each other because I'm young and you're old."
Like Vera, I sometimes find myself "losing words." I grope for details. My grandchildren think quickly and sharply. Still, some foolish, vain part of me struggles to be the energetic, hip grandmother who doesn't miss a beat.
In that regard, I think Vera does better. Life may have forgotten her, but she has not forgotten life. Or feistiness. I'm more timid with my grandchildren than she is, less likely to speak out about their choice of clothes, their personal hygiene, and definitely their sexuality - and mine. No such limits with Vera.
But like her, I'm searching for connection. For comfort. For closing the chasm.
By play's end, that chasm was narrowing. And it wasn't only words but gestures that seemed to matter. She helps him with the necktie he doesn't know how to knot. It's tender and somehow bonding.
He spills out his feelings in something he has written.
And after he has unburdened himself about a tragedy in his life, his grandmother doesn't say much.
But she does take this boy-man and cuddle him in her arms.
And maybe, just maybe, that's what traversing those real and symbolic 4,000 miles, and being a grandmother, is really all about.