Have you learned more about yourself since you became a grandmother? I certainly have and so has author Barbara Graham who spoke to our GaGa Sisterhood in October. Barbara is a prolific writer and the author of the anthology, Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She recently published her first novel, What Jonah Knew.
Barbara believes that grandparenting is a great pathway for self-discovery. Author Joan Didion wrote: we tell stories in order to live. When writing and telling our stories, we don’t just put them down or recreate them; we discover what we think, and feel, and what lies beneath the surface of what we already know. We learn what we didn’t know — somehow, the very act of putting pen to paper invites us to discover what’s hidden and brings it forth. In her presentation, she told us how her two most recent books evolved and what she learned about herself in the process.
The Story “Behind Eye of My Heart”
After Barbara became a grandma 16 years ago, she planned to write a memoir about her experience. Her son, daughter-in-law, and newborn granddaughter had just moved from Paris to Washington, D.C. just a few miles from Barbara and her husband. When Isabelle was two months old, Barbara’s son informed her they hated D.C. and were moving back to Paris. “Not only did they break my heart, but they also screwed up my memoir. I couldn’t write it if they lived 5,000 miles away.”
In Eye of My Heart, she describes the emotional roller coaster she experienced after Isabelle’s birth: She felt like a hopeless and pathetic love child hoping for a sign from the guy (her son.) She experienced a sense of urgency and longing to hold Isabelle. She was fuzzy on protocol and didn’t know where she belonged in the new order. She wondered how the pieces of this newly expanded family puzzle fit together.
After the new little family moved back to Paris, Barbara began unleashing her feelings on the page and was able to develop some distance from what had broken her heart and also infuriated her. She came to terms with the experience and her place in it. Reckoning with it, she realized she wasn’t in charge and didn’t get a vote. She was “on the bench” – it’s an adjustment after being a parent when you don’t feel entitled to express your feelings.
She sought wisdom for this profound life passage in books and was astonished to find nothing. She wanted to read about the complexity of grandmotherhood itself — real stories of women grappling with the role and trying to figure out just what sort of grandmother to be in the world.
She tracked down writers she loved and invited 27 of them to share their take on becoming a grandmother. Although the stories vary from heart-breaking to hilarious, they have a common thread: a love for grandchildren that knows no bounds, despite very earthly boundaries and limitations.
The Story “Behind What Jonah Knew”
Barbara’s first novel is not her personal story but it is about the bonds between mothers and sons, which is her deepest bond in life. It covers issues of loss, family trauma and reincarnation, and whether there’s any continuity of consciousness after death.
The evolution of the novel dates back to when Barbara’s editor at SELF Magazine asked her to write a story on past life regression therapy. The assignment led her to research reincarnation and children who have spontaneous memories of a previous life.
The research made her think about consciousness. Does consciousness extend beyond death? Is it not bookended by birth and death? How would that knowledge change people and affect how we live now and treat one another and the planet?
What Jonah Knew is told through the perspective of two mothers – one is the mother of Jonah, a little boy who’s having recollections, and the other mother who’s searching for her son.
Writing Your Own Story
For the final portion of Barbara’s presentation, she asked us to write for ten minutes with this writing prompt:
What’s been the most surprising and/or the most challenging aspect of being a grandmother?
For Barbara, the most challenging part has been rolling with the punches. There have been a lot of punches since that first punch of being an up-close Nonna a mile away to living on another continent. After Barbara and her husband moved to California to be near her son and two granddaughters, her son’s family moved to Italy. Two years later her son went through a painful divorce. Now her son, his ex-wife, and two granddaughters are all back in California living in two separate homes.
The real story has been about all the adjustments she’s had to make based on their choices, not hers. The main lesson for her has been making sure she has a very rich and independent life that’s separate from theirs and not contingent on what they do. Barbara has learned the importance of staying connected to her own sense of self because for a time she felt batted around and ungrounded by what they chose to do.
“While they’re part of my life and I love them dearly, my own sense of self and purpose is bigger than them. The girls are growing up and having lives of their own and while our relationships are very strong, in the natural order of life, I’ll be less essential in their daily lives.”