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Grandparents' unconditional love felt for generations to come

For The Baltimore Sun

The doorbell rang and our three little ones went tearing down the stairs: “Nana!” they yelled. “Granddad!”

In the foyer, my mother bent to squeeze them and sing-song their names; her bracelets jingled like trilling birds. The boys doled out their awkward head-butt hugs. (Side note: Why do little boys lead with their heads?) The 6-year-old was bouncing with excitement.

I pretended to be annoyed at all the noise and commotion, but inside I was floating.

Despite the fact that my mother is not an apron-wearing, cookie-baking kind of gal, nor is my dad a “Who wants a shiny silver dollar?!” kind of guy, my parents and my children enjoy a special love affair that makes my heart glad.

I vividly remember childhood moments with my own grandparents — my grandmothers, especially.

My mother’s mother – who I call “Nannie” – in her nightgown, dancing to Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” playing on a wobbly turntable, the aroma of Skin So Soft perfuming her skin and the air. Like my own mother, her silver bangles jingled like music when she swayed, singing along while I watched in my pajamas. She called me “Button Eyes,” but it was her eyes that smiled when she looked at me.

My father’s mother – Grandma – whose bedroom mirror was framed with Scotch-taped prints of me, my siblings and cousins, our splotchy, stick figure artwork, and notes we scribbled to her on torn notebook paper. Grandma had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the world just by serving a dish of sliced bananas and chilled Dole peaches, and listening intently to all your schoolgirl troubles. “To thine own self be true,” she would often say – an adage I’ve only as an adult come to truly understand.

Their bald and unconditional love, untethered to my school performance or chore mastery, filled my young soul. Even now, at almost 45-years-old, when I call Nannie in Boston and she says, “Hiiii, Button Eyes!” I am flooded with warmth. My Grandma has been gone since 2008 and I miss her every single day, without hyperbole. But her love lives on.

I read an article recently about the tendency of maternal grandparents to be closer to their grandchildren than paternal grandparents. Apparently, this “matrilineal advantage” has something to do with the fact that daughters are closer to their own parents than to their in-laws (understandably) and are often the ones who nurture family bonds (think phone calls, gatherings, visits, etc.). Some daughters-in-law, this article said, actively seem to discourage grandparents’ involvement.

I don’t have in-laws, so I can’t speak to this dynamic personally. My husband knew his late father very little, and his mother – his best friend – died when he was a teenager.

But I would like to think, given the joy both my grandmothers gave and give to me, that I would not have fanned the flames of this “wife vs. mother-in-law” stereotype.

In fact, although I never knew my husband’s mother, I miss her presence in our children’s lives. What lessons might she have taught them? What memories might she have made for them? How much unfiltered, inexhaustible love are they missing because she isn’t here? If one grandmother is good, two would surely have been better.

An expert quoted in the article about maternal grandparents described the family as a pyramid, “with layers of love and support underneath holding up the frazzled nuclear family, the one that’s raising the next generation. When grandparents can contribute, they strengthen the pyramid; when they’re excluded, gaps result that might weaken the whole structure.”

I know this to be true. When my parents are here, and the boys are breathless with laughter at my dad’s corny jokes, and my daughter has draped herself across my mother like a body pillow, my own parenting burdens seem lighter.

Frankly, I fail as their mother from time to time: I yell. I lose my patience. I forget that it’s my turn to bring snacks to soccer.

But because they had active, present grandparents, my children will know, deep in their cells, that they were well-loved and worthy. And when it’s time for them to raise the next generation – my own grandchildren – I’ll wear jangly bracelets that sound like music, serve them peaches and bananas, and do my best to keep our family pyramid strong.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works in communications at Constellation. She and her husband have twin 8-year-old sons, a 6-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanikawhite@gmail.com. Her column appears monthly.

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