By: Shannon Ralph
“Seriously, Mom? Do you have to bring boatloads of sugar every time you come over?” My mother had stopped by for one of our marathon Wednesday afternoon Scrabble tournaments. As is her usual protocol, she brought “treats” for the kids. This time it was Sugar Babies and Skittles. Every time she visits, it is something different. Little Debbie snack cakes one day. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream the next. Always something sweet. Always something capable of whipping the kids into a sugar-induced frenzy just as she is ready to head out the door. My children have been trained to expect treats from their grandmother. The minute she walks in the door, Sophie will stare longingly at my mom’s purse as she announces to the room, “I’m hungry.” It doesn’t matter that she just ate lunch. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t finish her vegetables or drink all of her milk. My mom, in typical grandmotherly fashion, will usher Sophie over to fill her full of sugar to ease her “hunger”. “Such is the role of a grandmother”, she tells me, as I roll my eyes in frustration.
Despite my protests about her sugar-laced treats, I know my mother is right. Perhaps not about the cavity-causing candy, but certainly about the role of a grandmother. I love my children completely, but my job as a mother does not end there. My job is to raise my children to be capable, caring, contributing adults. I am responsible for their well-being. I am responsible for their behavior. I am responsible for shaping the people they will one day become. Grandmothers do not have these responsibilities. They are not saddled with this burden. The role of a grandmother is simply to love. That’s it. To lavish children with affection and cater to their every whim. Grandmothers do not have to worry about tooth decay. Grandmothers do not have to concern themselves with sugar levels that invite pandemonium and hysteria. Grandmothers do not have to worry about rampant childhood obesity rates or purple-drool-stained dresses or candy-matted hair. Grandmothers exist solely to love unconditionally and unabashedly. To make a child feel as though he or she is the most important person in the entire world.
My mom excels at grandmotherliness, just as her mother before her did. My mother’s mother died July 17th, 2004. Thinking back to my own childhood, my grandmother was an immutable presence. She lived just down the street from us, and I do not think a single day of my childhood went by without seeing my grandmother at least once. When my father died and my mother spent months crying herself to sleep every night, my grandmother was my constant. A short walk down the street, and I could be in the presence of someone who had an amazing ability to make all seem right in the world. Her love was complete and unconditional and unwavering. Of course, my mother’s love was unconditional as well. However, as my mother, our relationship was more complex. More convoluted. More difficult to manage at times. As my grandmother, Edna Merle Hardesty existed solely to love me. Despite having twelve children and twenty-something grandchildren, she made me feel like we were exclusive. She seemed to belong to me, and me alone. I am sure every one of her grandchildren felt the same way.
Though she has been gone for almost seven years now, I have vivid and detailed memories of my grandmother. She always smelled like White Shoulders perfume. She made the best bean soup and fried cornbread. You could almost always find a plate of cold cornbread sitting on her kitchen counter top. She bought generic Fritos from a discount box store, and they were amazing. You could not have a conversation with her while Dr. Phil was on the television. I knew better than to even try. She loved to play poker with the family. And she cheated. She had an opinion about everything and everyone. She liked nothing better than getting involved in your business. She loved the color red and wore it often. If you were ever in trouble or had a problem or a concern, grandma would tell you that she would pray a novena for you. She was big on praying to the Virgin Mary. I used to clean her entire house for her on Saturday mornings. She would pay me five dollars. Apparently, she didn’t give a rip about child labor laws. She used to cut my hair when I was a kid. Perhaps because of her failing eyesight—or more likely to keep us grandkids in line—she was infamous for nipping the ears. She would also french braid my hair so tight that I would look like I had had Botox, before Botox was all the rage, of course. She always had a pot of coffee going. When I was a kid, she used to let me finish the cold coffee in her cup. Perhaps this explains my current-day coffee obsession. She used to pick me up from school in her old brown Ford Granada grandma-mobile when my mom couldn’t pick me up. Many of my cousins don’t remember my grandma ever driving. Being the oldest granddaughter, however, I do. Her car had brown leather seats and, in my polyester Catholic school uniform pants, I would slide across the seat every time she turned a corner. No one wore seat belts back then, of course. My grandma had two amazing weeping willow trees in her back yard. My sisters and I would spend hours upon hours playing under them, pretending they were our clubhouses. My grandmother’s house was THE place to be. You could sit in grandma’s living room and see almost every member of our family within the course of a day. Visits to Kentucky have not been the same since she passed away.
The most amazing quality my grandmother possessed was simply her capacity for love. When I brought Ruanita home, my grandmother, an old Catholic woman living in small-town Kentucky, accepted her with open arms. She may not have completely understood us —I am fairly certain she had never encountered an out lesbian in her seventy-something years of life —but she never wavered for a single minute in her complete devotion to me. And that devotion immediately, and without question, extended to my family. She was never shy about hugging and kissing Ruanita and telling her she loved her. She adored my son, Lucas, and never thought of him as anything but her great-grandson. Had she lived long enough to have met my twins, she would have been head-over-heels in love with them, as well.
So that brings me back to my own mother. So what if my mother sugars up my children? So what if she caters to their every whim? So what if she spoils them rotten? I can put up with these mild annoyances in exchange for another person in this world who loves my children as unconditionally as I do. Another person who will always and forever be in their corner. On their side. One day, I hope my children will look back on their own childhood and remember their grandmother as a constant. The sugar-peddling love of their young lives. Such is the role of a grandmother, after all.