Issue 15 / Fall 2018
I was determined to be a model grandmother.
Less than two years ago, my charming but guarded and somewhat anxiety-prone son, Zach, finally married Becky, his gem of a girlfriend. And three months ago, they had their first child. When they called from the hospital, exhausted, a few hours after their last brief check-in on labor progress, they told me it was a perfect, wonderful little girl.
My relationship with Zach, now thirty, was polite but, I thought, a little too cool. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe his parents’ messy break-up left divorce splatter all over his then-teenage psyche that subsequent ex-to-ex civility did nothing to remove. (I’d asked him a few years ago. He said he guessed it would take a shrink to figure that out.) Maybe he thought I’d been too much of a hard-ass with him and his little sister during their difficult, boundary-pushing years. Maybe he just thought I was old and boring and that we had nothing in common.
There was, of course, a fourth possibility. Maybe, rather than extra-sensitive antennae, I had an overdeveloped worry gland myself; maybe I wasn’t so much picking up on subtle undercurrents as conjuring up paranoid fantasies. Maybe he was just a guy and didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. Maybe he was occupied—or preoccupied—with his start-up business, his music gigs, his softball games, his wife, his friends, and, now, his baby, and parents were not his top priority. Maybe, in other words, there was nothing wrong at all.
If there was a problem, as I was convinced there was, I thought this baby could be the solution: the path to a warmer, closer bond. I just needed to be, with Zach and Becky as with my initially aloof stepdaughter, Amelia, the epitome of unobtrusive helpfulness. I’d devised the perfect recipe too. I would be, I decided, loving and available but not needy, capable but not commanding, supportive but not intrusive.
Zach invited me to visit the three of them at the hospital. I went to Whole Foods first, searching for the apparent holy grail of grandmotherhood: the organic herbal lactation tea Becky insisted would be there. It took me half an hour to locate it. Then I bought as much bottled water as my arms could carry. Never mind my sciatica. Selfless would be my middle name.
I arrived at their private hospital room, stooped from the weight of the water, and trying not to grimace from the back pain.
Becky was surprisingly mobile and alert. Zach was animated. And the baby was crinkly and tomato-red but adorable. She was in Becky’s arms, suckling. I studied her face, stroked her spiky, black hair, and kissed the new parents on both cheeks.
“How are you both?” I asked.
“It’s been a hairy couple of days,” Zach said.
“Tell me!” I said. The details I’d gotten along the way were pretty sparse.
“Let me,” Zach said to Becky. “I mean, I know it was your labor and delivery, Becky, but I was more clearheaded so I can explain better.”
Really, Zach? I thought. Have I taught you nothing? But I didn’t go there. I smiled, let Zach fill me in on the parts he hadn’t shared by phone, and gently encouraged Becky to interject with her admittedly more limited, female perspective. It had indeed been a long, hard labor with several scary complications. The baby was now being watched carefully. Nursing was a challenge. But they were great with each other and their new infant.
I was a proud momma and grandma.
“Can I hold her?” I asked when Becky took a break from nursing.
“Can you sterilize your hands first?” Becky asked. “Over there.” She pointed at the hand sterilizer on the wall.
I did. Of course: I should have thought of that myself. I sang Happy Birthday to You—the whole song—twice to myself while I sanitized. Happy Birthday, New Baby! Happy Birthday to You! Then I reached out my arms.
“She can be fussy,” Zach warned.
“That’s okay,” I said.
“Are you sure you know how to hold her?” Zach asked.
“I think so,” I said, smiling. I’d heard about this syndrome before from several friends. I was not going to get defensive; I would go with the flow.
“Do you have her head?” Zach asked.
“I have her head,” I responded with a reassuring smile to show I was not in the least offended. I didn’t remind him that somehow, he survived to age thirty-one without major brain damage from maternal head-dropping. And that Amelia had left me alone with her babies without my contributing even one iota to the national statistics on infant mortality.
I cradled the teeny, chicken-legged person and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
The chicken squawked.
“You never kiss a newborn baby on the face!” Zach shouted.
“Really?” I asked. Another new rule since my day but no problem. They were just being earnest new parents; I understood. “Okay; sorry.”
I asked if the baby had a name. They listed a few options. One was Aria, like the operatic song. The others were equally unusual. “They’re all beautiful,” I said.
“Can you talk to my parents?” said Becky with a smile. “They hate them all.”
I smiled. “I am determined not to be that kind of mother-in-law or grandma,” I said. “This is so totally your decision!”
“I think we’ll go with Aria then,” they said. “Aria Esther.”
“That’s lovely,” I responded. I’d never heard of Aria as a name before, but her great-grandfather—my dad—had sung plenty of them in his day, and her father, Zach, sang and played guitar in a bluegrass band. “Nice musical ring.”
I was off to a good start.
A few weeks later, after Zach went back to work, Becky invited me over. With Aria nursing one hour out of every two and fussing the other, Becky was a wee bit worried about juggling child care and, say, managing her personal hygiene. Or evacuating her bowels.
Great! This was my chance to prove myself invaluable.
When I arrived, Becky was sitting on her nursing chair by the couch in the living room with Aria latched on to her otherwise completely exposed breast. “What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Becky said. “Just sit.”
I sat. She caught me up on the latest parent and infant struggles. Feeling just a wee bit awkward and self-conscious in the presence of my daughter-in-law’s bare nipples, I looked up, down, and around her—anywhere but straight ahead—and found, to my acute distress, an imperfection in my line of sight. I stood up again and reached over Becky’s head to helpfully pick a dead leaf off the plant hanging above her.
I am not remotely compulsive, mind you. That must have been someone else you saw straightening the pictures in random doctors’ offices or swatting her husband’s hand away as he tried to stop her from surreptitiously plucking white hairs off the black sweater of a stranger sitting in front of her at synagogue.
Unfortunately, the leaf I attempted to pluck off Zach’s and Becky’s plant was stubbornly attached to the stem. The plant came crashing down and, with it, the pot. The pot landed on its side, magically intact, on the carpet. But half the plant landed on the armrest of the chair, the other half on the sofa beside it. Soil scattered everywhere.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” I said.
“That’s all right; no worries,” said Becky with a smile that struck me as a little forced. She paused, then continued: “I’m just glad the pot didn’t land on Aria’s head.”
“Oy,” I said, cringing. “Me too!”
“The DustBuster is right over there,” Becky said, pointing. “But maybe you should put the big pieces of soil in a plastic bag first. The bags are under the kitchen sink.”
I righted the pot and reinserted the two pieces of plant. I got a bag, gathered the clumps of dirt, and deposited them inside. Then I grabbed the DustBuster with my other hand. I pushed random buttons until, with Becky’s guidance, I managed to turn the damn thing on. I pointed it at the floor and began cleaning up the dirt.
I didn’t get very far. Within seconds, like a magnet, the DustBuster, in my right hand, attracted the plastic bag, still in my left, and began sucking it up. Whoosh!
“Oh my God!” I shouted, searching in vain for the off button as the bag went further up the DustBuster cavity.
“The off button is over there,” Becky shouted over the vroom. “On top!”
I found it. I turned it off. All but the handles of the plastic bag were now stuck inside.
“Don’t worry,” said Becky wearily, still busy nursing. “I’ll take care of it later.”
“No, no; I will,” I insisted. I searched for the “open” button and, with difficulty, pulled the bottom of the DustBuster off the top.
The contents went flying out. Everywhere. This time, not just the soil that I had started cleaning up, but the cat litter and everything else that had been vacuumed up in their apartment over the past three weeks.
I surveyed the mess.
“Oh my God; I am so sorry!” I said again.
Becky said, “No problem,” but her tone of voice was more like, “Fuck.” “I’m just a little worried about the bacteria from the cat litter all over the nursing chair,” she added quietly.
“I’ll clean it up,” I promised.
“No, no, just leave it; I’ll take care of it later,” said Becky.
Uh-uh. I was not about to leave the mess I made for my still-sore and exhausted daughter-in-law to clean up in the few moments that she was not wearing her baby. I grabbed another plastic bag. I filled it with the clumps of soil. Then I grabbed the reassembled DustBuster. This time I didn’t even have to ask Becky for instruction; I remembered how to turn it on, all by myself. A breakthrough!
Unfortunately, I did not remember to take the bag of dirt out of my other hand.
Once again, the DustBuster reached for the bag and began sucking it up. Once again, I scrambled, looking in my renewed panic for the button I had just found, all the while watching the plastic bag go further and further up the nozzle.
“Oh, no,” I said after finally turning it off for the second time. “What a mess. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
Becky sighed. “Don’t worry about it,” she said wearily. Then she looked me hard in the eyes. “Now, please: just leave it alone.”
I heard her, loud and clear. But I was on a mission. “Then what can I do to help?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Becky. “Really. Nothing.”
Weeks later I was relieved to be invited back. By then Zach and Becky were both calmer parents and better slept. They were even cooking. They asked me to stay for dinner after putting Aria to bed and they offered me wine.
I am not much of a drinker; I generally don’t like the taste of alcoholic beverages. But this was white wine, and Zach said it was pretty sweet. So I let Zach pour half an inch of wine into my glass before dinner and replace it during dinner.
Did I mention I am not much of a drinker? A little bit goes a long way with me.
So after dinner, feeling unusually relaxed for me, almost as Zen as I felt after my last colonoscopy, I told Zach and Becky I was taking a class called “First Person Funny.” I said that for my first assignment, I wrote about the Disaster of the Falling Plant. I said that the premise of the piece was that I felt I needed to make up for past mistakes with Zach and prove myself a good mother as well as a good mother-in-law and grandmother.
Zach said, “You have nothing to prove.”
Becky said, “Zach’s pretty well adjusted. I don’t think you scarred him any.”
Zach said, “That’s right. I had a pretty good childhood. And who doesn’t have a difficult adolescence? I have no issues with you, Mom.”
Wow. So maybe I could relax after all.
Ariella Neulander, a retired lawyer, has attended the Unicorn Writers’ Conference, several Gotham Writers Workshops, and classes at The Writer’s Voice and the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute. She received her BA in journalism and mass communications from NYU and her JD from Columbia University. She is currently seeking representation for a recently completed novel and has begun work on a second novel. In her spare time, she enjoys working on the New York Times crosswords and playing the piano. Ariella Neulander is a pen name.