Clara was never the kind of baby who smiled at strangers. Or really anyone, for that matter. She liked a small handful of trusted family members and no one else, and she wasn’t afraid to advertise her disdain for the rest of the human population. She snubbed her grandfathers, her aunts, her uncles, unruly children, strangers and friends who stopped to coo over her, and occasionally even her own father. Even now she is a hard egg to crack, hurting lots of feelings and balking at any hug that wasn’t her idea first. Basically, you’re gonna have to earn your place in her heart. And the process is a long one.
This personality trait of my daughter’s, this reluctance to be friendly or welcoming, is difficult for me. Because to be honest, although I know she is really still so young and has a million miles to go in her development-
sometimes she just seems rude.
And I use that word, too. I tell her not to be rude. I probably shouldn’t, I’m probably speaking that into her psyche or something, but for goodness sakes. When she shrieks at her cousins and shoves their arms away after they run across the lawn to give her a welcoming hug? Well. It’s kind of rude. I’m outgoing and I hug everyone, so her attitude, completely opposite of mine, is both foreign and upsetting. I feel like I have to constantly apologize for her, especially to family members she snubs. Again, I REALIZE SHE IS A ONE YEAR OLD. I get it. But she can walk and talk and relate and this thing she does, this rude business- it bothers me.
There is one person who Clara has always been nice to, and that’s Sam’s mom Debbie. We call her Nona, the Italian word for grandmother, and Clara would follow her to the moon. My parents are wonderful and I wish my kids knew them better, but they moved to Boston shortly after Clara turned one, so she spends a lot more time with Sam’s mom and dad. And let me tell you, Debbie looks at Clara with a smile that goes all the way to her heart. When we stay at their house or they at ours, she gladly gets up with Clara and lets me sleep. They laugh together, they eat together, and genuinely enjoy their time together. I love their relationship, but there are times it baffles me.
Listen: Not only do I love her, but I like my daughter a lot. She is hilarious and spunky, full of love and so smart. I kiss those small hands of hers and just cannot believe that I get to be her mother.
But also, sometimes she drives me crazy.
She whines, she asks for the same thing in a louder and louder and louder voice again and again and again…and she is not very nice to new people, ever. What is it that prevents her Nona from seeing these traits? What is it that allows grandparents such a freedom in their love? I’ve watched my mom and dad in the same kind of relationship with all of their grandkids. My dad is way better grandpa than he ever was a dad. To me he was more teacher, pastor, authority figure. But to our kids, he is Papa. Papa who tosses them onto the couch cushions, Papa who will clap for their awful singing, Papa who will picnic with them on the grass. ‘Who is this man,’ I wondered during his last visit, when he happily sat through an entire episode of Bubble Guppies with Clara on his lap and baby Sam in his arms. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the difference I saw, and then I noticed it was the look on his face. He looked, unhurried. Like he could have sat and held my two small children as long as he needed. There was a peace in his movements with them that I didn’t recognize from my childhood, and to be honest, that I didn’t recognize in my own mothering.
Last month we took a family trip across the country. We packed a suitcase for our kids and a suitcase for ourselves, bought a new double stroller, and flew to the North Carolina sea shore. Sam’s brother Michah was getting married and asked Clara to be the flower girl. Oh, boy, we all said. She’s kind of young for that, but sure. If anything else, she’ll look cute in her little white dress and we can laugh about her bad behavior later. We spent the wedding week in a gorgeous beach house with all of our Horney family. True to form, Clara wouldn’t speak to or look at most of them, unless they ignored her or had a snack to offer. The ignoring trick works pretty well with that girl. She would love to do a song and dance and bat her eyelashes to make you like her, yes indeed. That’s fun. But if you’re her Uncle Josh and you love her with your whole heart and treat her like a princess? She will scream and cry at you like you might be a mass murderer.
(Oh, and by the way? My parents say I was exactly like this as a child. My uncles tell stories of me crying whenever they walked in a room, and I used to have grown ups doing anything it took to win my affection. What goest around cometh around, I suppose the sages would say?)
When it came time for the wedding rehearsal, I introduced Clara to the ring bearer, a little boy named Jake. I was nervous about how she was going to act around him. Would she be snobby? Would she yell at him? Would she throw a fit about walking down the aisle beside him? And he was a rowdy kid, too, so I hoped they wouldn’t fight or hit or… I don’t know. I was nervous. But lo and behold: Clara found Jake infatuating. She held his hand during most of the rehearsal, and they played together like happy kittens. And then- and then- the day of the wedding arrived. I stood in the back of the chapel with the wild ring bearer and my mischievous daughter, praying hard that they would do their jobs, or at least not break down in front of the whole crowd. They got the cue to walk down the aisle, and well well. What do you know. Clara Noelle held Jake’s hand and pranced towards the front of that church like a pint-sized angel, grinning and offering a sweet “Hi!” to everyone she passed. She was a sunbeam. And although I had absolutely nothing to do with that small moment of success, I was so proud my heart almost burst. She was nice to her new friend, she did her job, and she lit up the chapel with her blue eyes and cheeky greetings. I was so glad that her Uncle Michah and her new Aunt Kristan asked her to participate, and that they were so relaxed about what could or would happen with a 19 month old flower girl. I didn’t need to be nervous. I didn’t need to protect everyone from Clara and her moods. Because even if it hadn’t gone well, she wasn’t going to ruin a wedding by being a surly toddler.
What I began to understand on that wedding day, I think, is a gift that I can give myself as a mother. Because although I am barely ankle deep in this parenting thing, and although I am many moons away from having grandchildren, I can still give myself this gift: to see through the lens of a grandparent. To behold the peace that comes from many years of reflection. The calm of knowing this too shall pass. And you will all be better for it.
I see that peace in my father as he hugs my daughter close.
I hear that calm in the advice from my mother whenever I call her in a panic.
I watch the utter joy in Sam’s mom and dad when they talk to my kids, in the delight they take in our children’s every move.
They have all watched as the layers of pain and goodness in their own families built and built upon one another, and they know the end result. To a certain extent, they know what is to come for my children. And they are at peace.
I imagine what is best about being a grandparent is the distance you are afforded when looking at a child. No longer bound by the day to day minutia of their raising and their development, to a grandparent a child is just that. A child. A child who will eventually have all of their teeth. Who will make their own decisions. Who will stop yelling “mine” all the time, or being rude to strangers, or throwing fits in the park. A child who will fail classes and pass classes and excel in one area while forgetting another. And when a grandparent looks at their grandchildren, they not only see the joy of now, of these quickly passing moments of being little and needy, moments soaked in the intense hero-worship of mommy and daddy; they can also see the later. They know how fast the years will go. They know how hard the nights can seem. And they know that through the pain of child rearing, through the days when it’s too hard to remember that there will be a tomorrow; they know that through that pain comes a family. A family forged together by newborn cries and toddler emotions, elementary adventures and middle school misery, high school discoveries and then the foray into adulthood.
A family is being born here. A family is being made. And it is a lovely thing to watch.
A grandparent knows that.
What a gift.