Love, Coco

I want my baby granddaughter to know me—but she’s 2,000 miles away and life is uncertain. So I’m writing her letters I hope she’ll read someday.

Love, Coco

First, you cry or laugh or both.

Or, at least, that’s what I did when I heard our first grandchild had been born in Seattle last August. Six-pound, 15-ounce Elizabeth Teal “Ellie” Blodgett was healthy, and our daughter and son-in-law were ecstatic.

“She’s wonderful!” our daughter said. “She has the most adorable profile! You should see it!”

Photos followed, one after another, with shrill beeps on my phone. I exclaimed loudly—that perfect face! That lovely, pink complexion!—and passed the phone to my friends Donna and Betsy. The three of us were slurping noodles at a ramen restaurant in North Austin. My husband, the new grandfather, was on a work trip in Toronto.

(That was business as usual in our family. We tend to have existential crises in restaurants, and my husband has a knack for being thousands of miles away when emotional tsunamis smack us. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he said when he called that evening.)

A first grandchild. Back in our apartment, I looked at the photos again and again, marveling. I felt much the same way I had after our daughter’s birth: sure that my life would never be the same.

Ellie and her parents lived 2,000 miles away. Even though I spent much of my time commenting on how superior Austin was to Seattle (the subversive humor! The friendliness! Willie and Robert Earl Keen!), they might stay there forever. What kind of role could I play in Ellie’s life from such a distance?

And what did I know about a good grandmother-granddaughter relationship, anyway? I’d never been close to my grandmothers. They were both care-worn and overworked and had many other grandchildren. They’d only been a distant presence in my early years.

But I’d never forgotten my friend Nancy’s description of her own grandmother. When she was in a room with her grandmother, Nancy said, she knew there was someone close who felt she was the most lovable, perfect person in the world.

I wanted to be that grandmother, even if I couldn’t always be in the room. But how?

I didn’t fit the traditional idea of a grandmother, apple-cheeked and always whipping up something divine in the kitchen. (I’m the kind of person who is routinely asked to bring wine to potluck dinners.) And I’m also not the kind of mink-swathed grandmother who could park millions in a trust fund. More importantly, who knew how much time I had left? I was 65, in evident good health. But I was also a 20-year breast cancer survivor whose parents’ evident good health had plummeted disastrously in their early 70s.

So who knew? Life could be capricious and brutal. Like everyone else, I only had the present. I might not be the traditional grandmother, but I could do what I do best: I could write.

I could write across the thousands of miles between us and all the years until Ellie could read and comprehend what I’d written to her. After all, I wanted Ellie to know me as I was now and not as I may be in some unforeseeable future.

That’s why I started to write letters to my granddaughter. I sign them “Love, Coco.”

Oct. 27, 2015

Dear Ellie,

I visited Seattle last week, staying a few blocks away from your parents’ townhouse. You’d changed a lot since I first saw you as a week-old newborn. For one thing, you’re smiling. Do you have any idea what undignified lengths presumably sane adults will go to to get a baby to smile? No, you probably haven’t noticed.

At 10 weeks, you’ve pretty much taken over your parents’ place with your toys and changing tables and indelible presence. You’ve also taken over much of your parents’ lives. It was such a moving experience to see my own daughter—whom I’ve known as a newborn, toddler, child, adolescent, and young adult—blossom into a loving and competent mother.

Over the years, I’ve always wondered when you truly grow up. Is it age, a college degree, earning your own living, marriage, or a mortgage? Nope, I think it’s taking care of another person. Your mother is now, officially, an adult.

As a grandmother, I was her backup: another set of arms, another lap, a distraction when you began to cry. When we took you for a walk in the neighborhood, I found myself scanning the horizon for danger, ready to throw myself in front of an oncoming car if necessary. It seemed like the purest instinct in the world.

One day when we sat at a table outside a coffee shop, the sun was getting in your face. I stood there, behind your mother, shading you from the sun. There I was—a human umbrella—feeling content and useful and that all was right with the world.

A new grandmother is a combination of baby comforter, traffic cone, sun umbrella, and bodyguard/hit woman. Nobody in their right mind should mess with us.

I can’t imagine you will completely understand my perspective when you first read this. When you’re young, you feel like a solo adventurer, trying to break away from the boring, repressive world around you—your family, your outgrown friends, your backward part of the world. You want to explore and shed old ties and make your mark. And that’s as it should be.

But, when you’re my age, you see life so differently. I am an individual, sure. But I am also a link between past and present, part of a continuum of generations of women. There’s a disappointment in figuring out you aren’t as special as you thought you were, but you find great comfort and sense of place in realizing you’re a part of this vast procession of the human race.

Good grief, I’ve rambled on and on. All I really wanted to say was that I had a great time with you.

Love, Coco


love-coco-5Nov. 12, 2015

Dear Ellie,

Time for some family history, kiddo.

Nov. 9 was my mother’s birthday. She was born Charlotte Clift in Newkirk, Oklahoma, in 1924.

That was only 17 years after Oklahoma became the 46th state in the union. More important, it was only four years after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women
won the right to vote.

Finally.

Funny to bring up the issue of women’s suffrage and then immediately realize I have no idea what my mother’s mother or any of my female ancestors thought about getting the vote. I’m sure
they always voted, but did they feel they could make up their own minds? I’m not sure. In those times, not so long ago, men were thought to be stronger and smarter than women.

(Good grief—can you imagine? But these beliefs were widespread and entrenched, and they marked men’s and women’s lives for decades to come. I have many strong opinions about that, but I’ll save them for later.)

I’d love to tell you the women in my mother’s family were rabble-rousers, storming the state capitol and demanding equal rights. But they weren’t. I suspect their own lives were so demanding, they didn’t have time to think about the rest of the world.

Think of it: small-town Oklahoma in the 1920s, a few thousand people, a scattering of buildings and houses and schools and churches on the edge of the prairie. The women worked all the time, cooking, cleaning, canning, mending, minding children and babies, going to church every Sunday. They frequently died in childbirth, but effective birth control wasn’t
widely available.

In these small towns, they had paved streets, some new highways, electricity, party lines for their phones, mail, a newspaper, and telegrams. But they were so distant from the rest of the world—no TVs, computers, smartphones, or Internet. Their lives were more immediate, tangible, and local. We’d call their lives more narrow and limited, but that’s at a distance of almost a century. Who knows what our descendants will think of our lives
in 2115?

I’m stopping here—trying not to overload you with long-ago events. I originally wanted to tell you about my mother. But I ended up trying to describe the world she was born into so you could understand her better. Oddly, thinking about all of this helped me understand her better—something I failed to do in her lifetime.

Again, she was born in 1924. She was the second child and daughter brought into a society that didn’t really value girls that much—even if women had finally won the right to vote. And, in so many ways, the circumstances of a person’s birth affect the rest of her life.

Love, Coco

love-coco-2

Nov. 19, 2015

Dear Ellie,

It’s tradition to automatically criticize other generations for everything they’re doing wrong. Mostly, though, younger generations are just committing the sin of being young and inexperienced (which time remedies pretty quickly, as you’ll soon see). And older generations, you’ll find, are born into an imperfect world and can’t be blamed for everything they leave behind. Most of us just do our best.

Yes, every generation grows up in a different world. But I don’t believe human nature changes that much from generation to generation. We all want love and connection to others. We want to be noticed and appreciated. We all want to forge meaningful lives, lives that matter somehow.

That’s your great task in life: to create a meaningful life in a world that’s chaotic, troubled, and unfair—but also exciting and exhilarating and stunningly beautiful. That’s the task we’ve all had—your grandparents, your parents, and now you.

So, what’s a meaningful life, anyway? That’s a question for the ages and we all answer it in different ways. It doesn’t have to be a “big” life to be meaningful. In my later years, I’ve realized, the goal of being a decent, kind, loving human being can be more than enough.

Love, Coco

love-coco-4

Dec. 1, 2015

Dear Ellie,

Thirty-three years ago, Opa (your grandfather) and I came across a quote we really loved. “Having a baby,” it read, “is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.”

Exactly! we both exclaimed, screeching with deranged laughter. Picture us then: Sure, we were young. But our eyes were bloodshot, our faces drawn, our bodies and minds sleep-deprived. Our formerly carefree lives had disappeared, banished by a squalling, eight-pound tyrant who delighted and terrified us: your mother, our firstborn, our own personal bowling alley. You made your first visit to Texas for Thanksgiving last week. You were accompanied by your parents, your wardrobe, your pacifier, your stroller, your carseat, and enough diapers to contain a diarrhea epidemic. Babies may be small, but they don’t travel lightly.

When you were happy—when you laughed or vocalized or smiled your big, gummy smiles —we were all happy. Insanely, ridiculously happy. We fell all over ourselves with sheer delight.

When you were unhappy—when your brow furrowed, your mouth screwed up, and you began to bellow—we were, individually and collectively, a mess.

We must have looked strange to you—panic-stricken adults thumping and crashing around you, searching rooms, desperately seeking a pacifier, a bottle, any diversion. We bounced you on our knees, we hoisted you up high, and we made ridiculous faces we hoped would amuse you.

“Babies are so self-absorbed,” your mother, the former baby, commented dryly.

More than once, I thought about the baby-as-bowling-alley witticism. But I’m older now, more removed from the daily fray. Grandmothers, I should brag, have more of a meta view on family life.

So, here’s my two cents: Calling a new baby a bowling alley vastly understates her influence. The bowling alley phase comes and goes, finally disappearing and eventually recalled fondly.

You’re so much more. Your presence in our family’s life has shifted the ground under our feet. You’re more like an earthquake—a gentle, benevolent earthquake, but still an earthquake.

You have begun a new generation in our family. You’ve made our daughter and son-in-law parents, our son an uncle, us grandparents. You’ve changed our roles in the family and made us see one another differently. You’re our stake and our foothold in the 21st century.

That’s a lot to take in, huh? Too much pressure?

No wonder you watched all of us with wary amusement in your deep blue eyes. No wonder you fell asleep so easily. No wonder you screamed your head off now and then—just because you felt like it, just because you could.

Love, Coco

love-coco-3

Dec. 15, 2015

Dear Ellie,

Read or listen to the news today, and you will probably conclude you were born in the worst of times. Global warming! Terrorism! Fanaticism! Violence, rampant obesity, apathy, bad grammar, ignorance! We’re doomed!

It’s a full-time job to keep up with everything that’s dire and awful with the world. No wonder people spend so much time on the Internet exchanging videos of cute puppies and kittens—just to escape for a few sweet, untroubled moments.

All you have to do is look at history, though, and you realize it’s almost always been the worst of times, millennium after millennium of plagues and wars and floods and starvation. But somehow, the human race
has survived.

My own grandparents lived through the Great Depression, two horrific world wars, and a worldwide flu pandemic. Your other grandparents and I spent part of our childhoods huddled under desks at school to practice for missile attacks.

Some time, do read up about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the civilized world could have ended. Or the Berlin Crisis of 1961, ditto. We came close to oblivion both times, but somehow managed to escape it. Your grandfather draws hope from examples like that. Opa is what is called an optimist: someone who finds rainbows and pots of gold all over the damned place. He’ll look at the Cuban Missile Crisis and nod wisely, saying that—see?—human beings have an unbreakable bent toward survival. Haven’t we proven that, over and over, throughout history?

On a more everyday level, Opa is also the kind of guy who liquefied the mashed potatoes at our most recent Thanksgiving, then announced we were starting a new holiday tradition—potato soup. And wasn’t it tasty?

Similarly, a few years ago, when our upstairs air-conditioning blew and our master bath shower pan gave up the ghost, I told Opa I felt like Job. He reminded me that Job didn’t have indoor plumbing.

(Does the Job reference fall flat? If so, remind your parents Coco thinks that every child should have knowledge of the Bible, since so much of Western civilization and literature is built on it. Also, she is tired of having her erudite Biblical references greeted with puzzled looks in this family of heathens. While you’re at it, do read the King James version for its beauty and poetry.)

Anyway!

There are many points I’m trying to make here. For one, it’s great to have optimists in your midst, but you probably don’t want to trust them with the mashed potatoes two years in a row. For another, try to keep a perspective on the world. I know it’s hard to have perspective when you’re young and inexperienced, but that’s exactly why you should study history.

The world, clearly, can be a very troubling place. All you can do is the best you can, living as generously as possible, remembering (Biblical reference alert) you are your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.

Try not to despair when the news is dire. But, when you do despair, try to make it efficient. Try a bubble bath or a carbohydrate binge, then get up the next morning and start putting one foot in front of the other once more. Survival starts there.

I don’t recommend videos of kittens and puppies and baby rabbits to lift your spirits. I do recommend interacting with a 4-month-old baby on FaceTime, watching her gurgle and smile and laugh. She’ll remind you of all that’s good and hopeful in the world.

Love, Coco

Ruth Pennebaker,  JD ’76, shares her letters to Ellie here.

Illustrations by Alessandra Olanow

 

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