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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

A friend of mine recently said to me, “I am so happy you’re getting the Grandma experience … It seems like a life hack to skip the parenting drama and go straight to the fun stuff!”

How true my friend’s observation is for me. I have always wanted the “mother” experience, both to be mothered and to be a mother. Family strife deprived me of being mothered from an early age, and later in life, time and technology were not on my side to become a mother myself. Or simply put, I suppose a choice was made. However, not every flower blooms as longed envisioned.

I married for the first time in my early 40s, partly because it took me a while to settle my restless nature and partly because I have, at times, been known to be persnickety. My marriage came with two young stepchildren: innocents unceremoniously tossed into the fray of adult ruckus. Sadly, my relationship with these two children eroded over time to an estrangement due in part from mistakes (made by all of us), and from not navigating the challenges of my husband’s acrimonious divorce from their mother very well. It is a long story and our hearts were broken, yet it was not a surprising outcome.

As time gave way to maturity, a reconciliation ensued with my husband’s daughter and became what we like to call our Christmas miracle. Much to our delight, a grandbaby had been born thrusting my husband into the joys of being a “Gampa.” And since then another grandchild has come along. Respectfully, I stayed in the background for an additional two years. While cheerleading them on from the sidelines, I allowed my stepdaughter to determine her readiness for our own relationship to unfold. Thus, the necessary space and the gift of time we both needed for reconnection was allowed to flourish.

Then one day an olive branch was extended and I was invited to join my husband on a visit with his daughter and her young family at our cabin. We brought our open hearts and lessons learned, and my stepdaughter and I stepped back into one another’s life with a sense of renewal, curiosity and the riches of forgiveness – life’s truest gift.

But I do not relish the label “step” for it is too vague a descriptor, too removed from the emotions of a relationship. The word marks a distance measured, it throws up a barrier. I prefer personal references, such as “my husband’s daughter,” or even better, “my cherished friend!” And she is okay with those terms, too.

However, when it came to deciding on a name that my husband’s grandchildren could call me, personal references did not seem necessary. “Gan” is an easy monosyllable that I suggested, gleaned from my own childhood memories of our neighbourhood grandmother. I have since discovered that “Gan” also means “to go” in the dialect of Northeast England. How aptly this describes my journey to go to a place I once thought unachievable.

The magnanimous gift of being welcomed as “Gan” feels like the cumulation of all I hold dear about motherhood. It is the perfect opportunity to be a giver, to express love, to be purposeful. Most women my age who have been graced with motherhood are at the stage of wanting to let go of their apron strings, the ones that bind them to responsibility and commitment. I, however, am in a place of fascination and I am learning to tie my new apron with a neat bow.

The most beautiful aspect of my new-found grand-other-hood is learning the ropes vicariously through my husband’s daughter, my cherished friend. Her approach to motherhood is so well-researched, supported and thoughtful. She is breaking through the mould of her own childhood, sifting through every aspect and keeping only the qualities that serve her and her family in ways that are meaningful, positive and healthy. I have so much to learn from her.

On a recent visit, we helped clean out their garage and tend their garden – mundane tasks that proved to be good, old-fashioned family fun as we worked together and played together. The simple act of clearing away unnecessary debris and pulling out weeds became a metaphor of love allowing for another layer of healing to grow.

Later that evening, I was able to help with the children’s evening baths and the rituals of bedtime. There is something magical that happens after the daily grime of child’s play is washed away and how the donning of a clean pair of pyjamas puts them in a truly angelic light. As I gathered up the eldest into my lap to read her several favourite bedtime stories, I leaned in and whispered into her ear, “I love you!”

She had been soothing herself by sucking on her fingers but promptly took them out of her mouth, turned her head to look at me directly and said, “You love me?”

“Yes, I do and with my whole heart!”

As my husband and I drove away from our weekend of family fun, I looked back and blew a kiss to my darling grandkids who stood watch beside their mother. A wee voice called out, “I love you, too!”

Wow, I am not sure I am deserving, but I sure do relish every ounce of our growing relationship. Grandmother, Grand-Other or simply Gan. I’ve learned that all that is required is an open heart – the possibilities are endless.

Susan Barratt lives in Comox, B.C.