Overnights with Grandma
September 10, 2020 § 9 Comments
This Sunday is Grandparents’ Day, a holiday I’ve never given much thought to until this year, when I am without any living grandparents. Losing both my grandmothers in the past year hasn’t just been about mourning these loving, larger-than-life figures. With their passing, I have lost physical places as well.
My mother’s mother died in her Buffalo home, where she lived for over forty years, and where I traveled every summer from the time I was eight and my parents put me on an airplane by myself. Gockamama, as I called her, lived on the top floor of an historic building, with a grand lobby, an old-fashioned elevator, and its own name to boot. Walking into that apartment was like walking into a musty, magical era, from the antique grandfather clock which tolled every thirty minutes, to the oil painting of Napoleon which hung in the dining room. With no other buildings between her and Lake Erie, you could stand at the window, curling your toes into the plush carpet, and see all the way to Canada. It was like being wrapped in a cozy cocoon, suspended above the world.
We’d spend mornings watering her dozens of plants lining every window, then evenings watching Murder, She Wrote (I pretended to watch, while sneaking peeks at my book). I’d take bubble baths in her bathroom, with its avocado-green tile and pink fluffy towels. At breakfast, she’d sprinkle sugar on my grapefruit; for dinner, I’d request her Spaghetti Bolognese. She kept a closet shelf stocked with old toys and a cookie tin filled with my favorites: misshapen wonders made with chocolate, peanut butter, and Rice Crispies. Photos in frames covered every horizontal surface, and as I became more interested in travel myself, she would pull down photo albums and show me pictures of the Great Wall of China or Ephesus in Turkey, places I immediately longed to visit.
Walking out of that apartment for the last time, on the heels of my grandmother’s funeral, felt like leaving behind a part of me. Inside those walls, during our cherished visits, I had been my grandmother’s entire world. I had taken up space in the way only a grandchild can, each treasure of that apartment intermingled with the love she felt for me. My mother couldn’t believe the sofa cushions had become so threadbare, but when I sank into them, it felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Sara O’Leary’s endearing new picture book, Maud and Grand-Maud (Ages 3-7), about the overnight visits a young girl has with her namesake grandmother, perfectly captures, not just the singular intimacy of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but the special rituals and strong sense of place often intertwined with it. This feat is in large part owing to Kenard Pak’s delicate illustrations, whose muted tones conjure a hint of mustiness and whose washes of color exude wistfulness. It’s the kind of book you want to hold to your heart. It’s no wonder I spilled tears onto its pages the first time I shared it with my daughter.
Except for Maud and Grand-Maud, not a single other character makes an appearance in these pages; the two are each other’s whole world during their special Saturday overnights. There’s a brief moment of shyness at the beginning of every visit, when “Maud worries a little about leaving her parents on their own,” but Grand-Maud assures her they will be alright.
The first thing Maud does is change into the plaid flannel nightgown her grandmother sewed for her, made all the more special because Grand-Maud made a matching one for herself. The nightgown goes “all the way to the floor” and made my own daughter smile, remembering one her late grandmother sewed for her when she was two, using a pattern designed for a six year old because that was all she could find. (My daughter still has this nightgown and, though she can no longer get it over the head, she loves to show me how short it is on her now.)
At Grand-Maud’s house, they eat breakfast for dinner. “No matter what you like to eat for breakfast, it somehow always tastes better at suppertime.” The two eat these dinners in front of black-and-white movies on TV, because these are the things you can do when you are on an overnight with your grandmother.
Maud sleeps in the second twin bed in Grand-Maud’s room, a bed made extra special because of the “old wooden chest” beneath it, which Grand-Maud fills with a different treasure in anticipation of each of Maud’s visits. Sometimes the chest holds a new toy; other times it holds something Grand-Maud has made for Maud, “like a sweater, a pair of mittens, or some cookies to take home so the time between visits is sweeter.”
But the best treasures are the ones which give Maud hints as to who her grandmother is, to the life she once led. Maud carries in her pocket a heart-shaped stone which once belonged to Grand-Maud, and at one visit she marvels at a photograph of her grandmother atop an elephant as a young girl. “You never told me you rode on a real elephant,” Maud tells her grandmother. “You never asked,” answers Grand-Maud, an astute testament to the often one-sided relationships we have with our elders. (The single greatest tragedy inherent in the grandparent-grandchild relationship is that soon after we start seeing them through adult eyes, we have to say goodbye.) “I wasn’t Grand-Maud until you were born,” Maud’s grandmother reminds her. “Once upon a time, I was just Maud.”
At night, after Grand-Maud turns off the light, she sits on Maud’s bed and asks her questions about her own hopes and dreams. Is there anywhere safer to dream than in the comfort of a grandparent’s embrace? Maud tells her grandmother that she wants to write books with happy stories about people and cats. And seven children! Maud will have seven children and “live in a very tall house so that the children can have bunk beds that go up and up and up.” Kenard Pak devotes several fun pages to these fantastical musings.
Mostly, Maud realizes, she’d like to grow up to be Grand-Maud, waiting by the door for her granddaughter’s arrival.
Don’t we all.
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