The Universal Notebook: How to be a grandmother

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When baby Jackson, our first grandchild, arrived July 1 at 4:14 a.m., I was asleep in the back of the car in the hospital parking lot and Carolyn was in the delivery room with Hannah. She called me on my cell phone to let me know I was a grandfather.

Bleary-eyed, I stumbled out of the car and up to the dimly lit delivery room. Hannah was exhausted. Her husband, Chris, was beaming. Little Jackson, pink and naked, looked to me like a newborn Dustin Pedroia. Three nurses in blue scrubs were taking care of postpartum business. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Carolyn.

Even though she had been up all night supporting Hannah and Chris through the labor-and-delivery process, Carolyn was serene and beautiful. The way she smiled at the baby almost made me jealous. She is going to be a great grandmother, as was her mother before her.

By the time our grandson is up and about, I hope I’ll still be able to take him to a few ballgames, but Carolyn, younger and much more fit than I, will surely take him on long walks, known in the family as “forced marches,” during which she will teach him to pick berries, identify birds and flowers, and find turtles and frogs. She’ll read stories to him, as she did to our daughters, and she may even teach him to bake pies, a rare and invaluable skill for a boy.

One thing I’m sure of though: Jackson Blackburn will eventually come to understand that his Grandmother Beem is a strong, capable, accomplished woman worthy of his respect and admiration, as well as his love.

Like little Jackson, I was the firstborn of my generation the first grandchild. My own grandmothers were distinctly different people, but they both knew how to be grandmothers.

Nana Beem was a bit of a goofball, as much a buddy as a granny, a co-conspirator in the cold war against adult seriousness. She had a drawer full of jokes such as folding knives, whoopie cushions, hollow spoons and a plastic ice cube with a fly in it. She was a lousy cook, routinely turning vegetables and pastas to mush. She kept her refrigerator stocked with Popsicles and Coca-Cola. She wore slacks and smocks and orthopedic shoes for her arthritic feet. After my grandfather died, she kept pictures of Elvis and Jamie Wyeth on the mantelpiece along with the family photos. She read the lurid Boston Herald. She never learned to drive.

Good-natured and light-hearted, Nana Beem signed all her cards and letters “Love & Laughter.” And she spoke a language that sometimes seemed all her own. She would often say “neffen-heffen” when she agreed with you. German? Dutch? Not sure. And if she didn’t think something was good for you, she’d tell you it would give you “heebie jeebies and gongoolus.”

Nana Gibson was the most dignified person I ever knew. Every inch a lady, she was always impeccably dressed. She wore dresses always, never skirts and certainly not slacks. She had an erect, proper, matronly bearing. Her hair was snow white and tightly coiffed. She was a great cook and a splendid baker. She kept her freezer stocked with homemade pies that were often several years old before she baked them for us. A widow from the time I was 2, she lived alone in one of the four apartments in the house she owned on High Street in Portland. An independent woman, she sold greeting cards to supplement her retirement and rental income.

When I brought my mother a snapshot of Hannah’s baby, she said, “So that makes me a great-grandmother.” And looking over at the family photographs on the shelf, she observed that Nana Gibson would be Jackson’s great-great-grandmother and that her Grandmother Morrison would be his great-great-great grandmother. Six generations within her living memory – her grandmother, her mother, herself, Carolyn, Hannah and Jackson.

Welcome to the family, Jack. The men-folk may leave a bit to be desired, but you won’t find finer women anywhere.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.