Reading Anna Quindlen’s newest book, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting, made me smile from beginning to end, over and over again. She’s funny, honest, poetic, profound and so perceptive.
I’ve read a hundred books on grandparenting always hoping for one grandma to truly capture the essence of what it means to be a grandma. Anna Quindlen nails it and so eloquently.
Early on, she shares the origin of her title: Nanaville. She has whisked away her fussy infant grandson, Arthur to give his exhausted parents a break and whispers to him: “You’re going to the Nanaville Correctional Institution.” She called him Inmate no. 000000001 and as the warden, she would ultimately incarcerate him more than once during his infancy.
Then Nanaville morphed from a tiny prison to a small town, population two, which she envisions her future grandchildren thinking of as an actual place. She goes on to explain that to her, Nanaville is more a state of mind, a place she wound up inhabiting without ever knowing it was exactly what she wanted.
Becoming a nana is being a grandmother in my own way, figuring out my rightful place in this new territory, with these new people. I am the mayor of Nanaville, and I vow to carry out my duties well.
Anna is a master of metaphors, and oh so quotable.
“Grandparents, if we play it right, are dessert. Not the main course, but something very sweet, which most people really like and want a piece of.”
“Most grandparents know their grandchildren in what amounts to snapshots. Except for those who care for their grandchildren every day, we don’t see the continuous documentary loop that parents do.”
She models how to be our best grandma selves because she understands “where she really rates in the topography of the family and accepts the verdict. We grandparents are secondary characters, supporting actors. We are not the leads. Mama. Daddy. These are the bedrock. We are now the people whose names come in the smaller print in the movie credits. We provide color, texture, history, mythology. But we are not central.”
She learns that being a grandmother is not about the things you have to do. It’s about the things you want to do. “Motherhood is mainly about requirements, a roundelay of Thou shalt, shalt, shalt. Nana, unless she has become de facto Mom for some sad reason, is pretty much purely about desire.”
Bring Your Agame
She knows she has to “bring her Agame and be her best self around her grandchild, meaning be a good person and reinforce the importance of the individual. When you listen closely to what your grandchild has to say and even struggle to understand him as he learns his first language, you are not simply indulging this in the present but for the future.” Her point is that kids who grow up thinking their grandparents listen, really listen, might be willing to have a conversation with them when they become adolescents.
Anna is not only a wise Nana, she’s an empathic parent and mother-in-law. The book is partly a tribute to her son and daughter-in-law on their parenting. She describes them as a “relaxed pair.”
There are many thrilling things about being a grandmother, but one of the most thrilling for her is watching her eldest child be a first-rate parent. Being a parent is an awesome responsibility and for her it was the most transformative experience of her life. After reading her book, I would add that becoming a grandmother was an even bigger transformation for her.
Anna asked her son Quin, Arthur’s father, what surprised him most about being a father. He said: “I guess it’s how much I love him in a way I’ve never loved anyone before.” In hearing his response, she declared that “she had done her work as a parent and raised a good person.”
She thanks God she lucked out in getting a wonderful daughter-in-law whom she describes as “sane, smart, wonderful to be with and who more or less rolls with everything.” From the beginning her daughter-in-law was open to Anna’s hands-on involvement in the life of her grandson and there has been no drama between them.
Did They Ask You?
I would attribute this good fortune to Anna’s model behavior more than luck. She offers her most salient advice in this important chapter: “Did They Ask You?” She thinks this phrase should be “cross-stitched on a sampler or formatted in a continuous digital loop across the bottom of your computer screen.”
Anna credits her friend Susan with teaching her not to give unsolicited advice and describes the moment as “when I truly got nana religion.” Never talk as though your words are written on stone tablets, she warns, because those who make their opinions sound like the Ten Commandments see their grandchildren only on major holidays and in photographs.
“There are really only two commandments of Nanaville: love the grandchildren and hold your tongue. Grandparents who try to exercise their power and exert control do so at their peril, especially with parents who may already be feeling frazzled and unsure.”
“Being a good grandparent requires you to bring the past to the table and then let go of it in the face of change. It’s easy to feel defensive if your son or daughter is doing things differently than you did, as though the differences are a rebuke.” The temptation, she writes, is to see these shifts and to push back against them. Don’t. Just don’t. So much of the change our children exemplify is change for the better in ways large and small.
There are so many people giving young parents conflicting information, she laments, and telling them that they are botching what they understand is the most important job they will ever have. “They certainly don’t need Nana adding to the din. If anything, they need you telling them to ignore the naysayers and follow their gut, despite the temptation to give your opinion as an experienced parent yourself.”
Another bit of wisdom: “Parents aren’t that wild about grandparents who indulge too much, because it sometimes makes them feel one-upped or disrespected. And respecting the parents, as you can tell, is the linchpin of success in Nanaville.”
In the chapter titled “Nono’s,” she talks about grandparent names and why for some, becoming a grandparent freaks them out. Being a grandparent telegraphs aging. Whatever you may be, you are no longer the young one.
And while there are more grandparents than ever before, there are also many people for whom the role seems either elusive or impossible. Becoming a parent is frequently under your control. Becoming a grandparent is totally under the control of others and what sort of grandparent you will be permitted to be is also out of your control.
One of the most profound and beautiful statements about why she is happily a nana and not concerned about getting older is that she hopes to “leave a trace memory for her grandchildren of being coddled, kissed, attended to and loved.”
“In Nanaville there is always in the back of my mind the understanding that I am building a memory out of spare parts and that, someday, that memory will be all that’s left of me.”
As Anna anticipates the arrival of her second grandchild, a girl, she writes that “she is different now, because she knows what she is and what she’s not. She knows it’s not all about her.” Grandmothers are important but we must learn to calibrate our places carefully.
Anna Quindlen has calibrated her place exactly right: She is mayor of Nanaville.