Personal Essay: Life’s Grandest Joys

Gaga was a tall, elegant woman with bright red hair who wore big feather hats and large, chunky jewelry. Gaga was my grandmother, and I have the most wonderful memories of her. A “grandmother” in the most literal sense, it wasn’t just her adornments that were grand in scale—in many ways, she was larger than life.

I’m one of my grandmother’s four granddaughters, along with my sister and two cousins, all of us around the same age. At holiday time, we girls were given free rein to dig into Gaga’s two huge closets and dress up in her clothes. She had boas and high heels; it was a young girl’s dream. We’d try on dresses and furs, all in a haze of perfume and moth balls that made up the scent of her closets. To this day, a whiff of either brings a wave of nostalgia.

We’d work up an appetite dressing up, and happily so—my grandmother’s food was delicious, right down to the blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream that ended every meal. As if every day there was Thanksgiving, I’d need to lie down in her living room after the huge meals because I had always eaten too much.

Over dinner, Gaga would tell stories about my father as a young boy. The stories were undoubtedly embellished, but they were fun and they were fabulous. Back home, my dad would inevitably say: “Oh, she made that part up!” and recount his version of her tall tale. Still, we always believed my grandmother—hers were better stories.

And there were trips, just my grandmother and the four girls. First Atlantic City, then the Caribbean, and when I was 16, a trip to Europe! It was magical, and more special than I can express.

Fabulous as Gaga was, it wasn’t until I got married and my husband’s grandmother became part of my life that I realized there is more than one type of grandma. I hadn’t known that a grandmother could be anything but formal. Spending time with Bubbe, the affectionate, all-embracing woman I came to call “yummy, delicious grandma,” was revelatory. It’s not easy being grand and cozy at the same time, and how wonderful to be able to delight in both.

I now have three granddaughters of my own. What kind of grandmother am I? Grand? Yummy? Not entirely either? A little bit of both? I think about all of this as I try to create my own rituals for Grace, Stella, and Nora. My closets aren’t full of the dress-up clothes that filled my grandmother’s. But the girls love putting on my make-up with similar delight. My food is not in the category of my grandmother’s, but I’m the cook in our house and my husband, Arnie, is the baker, and an excellent one at that. From the time the girls were able to stand on a stepladder, it has been a ritual that they help their grandpa make the whipped cream that goes with every dessert. And be it one of Arnie’s delectable cakes or my also delectable apple pie (the only baking I lay claim to in our kitchen), dessert is served at a table with place cards the girls and I make together.

And trips? Well, even if our lives don’t have the grandeur of my grandmother’s, for the past seven years, Arnie and I have taken the girls up to the same Vermont farm every summer. We do the very same things every year, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

What will the girls’ lasting memories of me be? How much of what I am to them will inform their lives one day when they are grandmothers themselves? What I do know is that the rituals we share together make memories that will stay with them forever, and are the seeds from which they’ll create their own rituals.

I know, too, that having had the luxurious experience of regular time alone with my grandmother made me want to recreate that with my own granddaughters. Grandparenthood lets you have all the joy with none of the stress. And children get to have relationships in the safety net that is family but separate from their parents. Arnie and I adore our four children. But our time alone with our grandchildren—just them, not their parents—is some of the greatest fun and delight we have.

Am I a grand grandmother? A yummy one? Am I enough fun? Too much fun? I’m Gaga and Bubbe’s granddaughter, and I’m the grandmother I was meant to be.

Sally Tannen is director of 92Y’s Parenting Center and Grandparents Center and writes New York Family’s monthly “Ask Sally” column. A mother-of-four and grandmother-of-three, she and her husband live in Manhattan. Learn more about her at 92y.org.