Now that I'm a grandmother

By

WHEN I was a little girl in Ireland many years ago, I often spent weekends in the country with my grandmother. She was a widow. She lived in Killiney, just south of Dublin right on the Bay to which one traveled by what was known as ``the slow train.'' I used to be ushered into a second-class carriage by Mother in Dublin, and I was met in Killiney by a cab driver called Kane, who drove a very, very old horse. Both driver and horse were usually half asleep. Grandma would be waiting for me in the front hall with Bridget, the housekeeper, and an Irish terrier called Boy. ``Poor darling! You must be dead tired.'' She looked out at Kane's cab and dispirited horse with distaste. ``There you are Kane. One and sixpence, and I wish you'd feed that poor animal better. Come in, darling. Not the horse, Mary, I mean you.'' Laughter and kisses followed.

Bridget took my suitcase upstairs and I followed Grandma into the drawing room. If it was winter, a big fire was burning in the grate and later on the gas lamps would be lighted. There was no electricity in Ireland then. Upstairs we used candles or oil lamps. A tea table was laid out beside the fireplace.

We sat down and Grandma patted my shoulder and said, ``How is school, darling? I'm sure you are doing well. You're such a great reader.''

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``Miss Molyneux, our teacher, is reading `The Bride of Lammermoor' aloud to us in English class while we knit khaki scarves for the boys at the front,'' I replied, holding my hands to the fire.

It was 1916 and World War I was in full swing. In Ireland we were fast approaching the 1916 Rebellion. My father was an army doctor somewhere in France. That year I was 10 years old.

``What a beautiful idea,'' exclaimed Grandma, ``listening to a great book and doing a good deed at the same time. After supper we shall read together as usual. Let me see - how far have we got in `David Copperfield'?''

``Janet! Donkeys!'' I laughed; ``Remember David's aunt, Betsy Trot-wood?''

``What a memory you have! Well, you can read to me while I crochet. Goodness, I think you've grown taller since I saw you last, three weeks ago.''

I preened myself in front of the mirror. I wanted to be tall because the FitzMaurice-Mannings (hyphenated because they kept marrying each other from force of habit) were all tall. Grandma was of medium height and retained her slender waist and straight bearing to the end of her life. There were only a few strands of white in her brown hair, which still swung to her waist. I used to watch her doing her hair in the morning before the mirror. She held one long strand between her teeth while she coiled the other strand into a coronet on top of her head. Then the first strand was released and coiled somewhat lower down. ``I've worn my hair this way since I was 15,'' she once told me proudly.

At 6:30 we had supper in the dining room - usually scrambled eggs, our own eggs, toast, and homemade jam. Grand-ma's mysterious sister, Aunt Sophia, joined us for supper; she always wore black and an expression to match. After supper she would disappear to her room with a gloomy black cat which slept on her bed. She had had a sad life, we were told. Her husband had left her, for some unknown reason, shortly after they were married and there were no children. Grandma's only unmarried daughter, my revered Aunt Louie, lived mostly upstairs, where she had a bedroom and sitting room-cum-office. She was a writer, a labor leader, and a powerful personality. She usually worked late and had a tray brought up to her room.

Grandma and I sat up till 9 o'clock in the drawing room while the fire slowly expired. My chief delight was to drag out the family albums from the bottom of the huge bookcase and browse through them with her.

``I love that one of you, Granny.'' I pointed at a picture of her looking young and beautiful in a gray silk dress with bustle and train.

``Ah yes, I wore that dress during my honeymoon in Paris. It must have been just before the Franco-Prussian War - in '69. I remember seeing the Empress Eugenie drive down the Champs 'Ely-s'ees. She was wearing a purple dress and a bonnet with gray feathers, and her muff was made of real Parma violets. The violets were sent up to her from the south every day.''

Those weekends! I look back on them now in wonder. We had no radio, no TV, not even a gramophone. Why were we never bored? We read a lot, played card games, took long walks along the beach. And how I did enjoy those evening talks.

Now I am a grandmother myself. Everyone over 65, with a few exceptions, joins the segregated world of the ``Senior Citizens.'' A society in which older people are quietly but firmly locked outside and kept at a safe distance from younger age groups.

Though widowed for 15 years, my Irish grandmother was never left alone. Her daughter, her sister, her housekeeper stayed with her until her passing. Not so here now. Old people, for whom loneliness is the enemy, must learn to live with that enemy.

I can echo my friends who say the same thing, trying, of course, to be jocular and liberal about it. ``No, dear, I never see my grandchildren except twice a year - at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Distance of course plays a role ... still ... I often yearn to be asked to a party where one can mingle with other age groups. It would be interesting to listen to the young actually talking to us as if we still lived in the same world. I want to hear what they are thinking.''

This is a form of segregation peculiar to modern American society. I'm told by reliable authorities that in the Far East and certainly in most of Europe, old people are still allowed to mingle with all age groups. I can vouch for Ireland. Only in America ...

Last summer I stayed for two weeks in a guest house on Martha's Vineyard. Everyone was well over 65, many of them nearer 80. Their children rented or owned houses in the vicinity, but the grandparents were not invited to stay in those houses. Occasionally they were called for and taken home for lunch or dinner. Most of the time they sat around the inn, boring each other, watching the young fry whirl by on bicycles. Their grandchildren rarely spoke to them, except maybe to say Hi or G'bye.

The exceptions to this grim rule are my Jewish friends, who do not segregate the old.

Even trying social intercourse by telephone is risky. If you don't watch out, you become a bore.

``Hi,'' answers a grandchild.

``How are you today, dear?''

``Good.''

``How is school going?''

``Good. I'll get Ma. Hey, Ma, Grandma's on the phone.''

Ma arrives, tries to be kind. But it seems she's just on the way out.

Owing to the present financial stress of the middle classes as regards expensive education, many grandparents are helping with school bills and even coming to the rescue in a clothing crisis. In fact, some of the private schools now have Grandparents' Day. Few of this endangered species attend these efforts at nonsegregation. They are not at all sure of a welcome.

Those who can afford it emigrate to Florida in great numbers, where they lead segregated lives. Those who can't afford Florida live in modest apartment buidings where the only young voices they hear come from TV programs, mostly soap operas that involve them, second-hand, in family dramas. Old age has become a form of apartheid in the USA. Even though the adored president is a grandparent, this dreadful form of generational ostracism persists.

My eldest granddaughter, always a loving child, is now married. I would have enjoyed talking with her about her numerous loves, but I seldom saw her, she lived so far away. And when I did see her, we did not have much opportunity to talk. A long, long time ago I remember talking to my grandmother about my first encounter with love. I was 17 and she was well into her 70s.

``Tell me all about him, dear.''

``Well,'' I was all wriggles and blushes, ``he goes to Trinity College and plays cricket, reads Latin and Greek, and is ambidextrous.''

``What an interesting combination! Is he well mannered and handsome?''

``I think so.'' More wriggles and giggles. ``He's having his teeth fixed. His name is Jimmy Ritchie.''

``Are they - er - nice people?''

(I knew what she meant. Are they Anglo-Irish Protestants?)

``Yes, I think so. His father is a baby doctor.''

Grandma clapped her hands. ``Perfect. You must bring him down here for Sunday lunch. We'll have a roast.''

He did come to lunch and, though he was too shy to utter a word, it was all a great success because Grandma had us play cards, I think it was gin rummy.

Grandfathers I've talked to about Old-Young Apartheid bleat about it even more sadly than grandmas. I met a grandpa the other day while out walking and he was in a very gloomy mood.

``I visited my daughter's house the other day, uninvited, I may say, and I walked into the living room. It was a Sunday afternoon and the grandchildren, five of them, were sprawled around watching some infernal ear-blasting TV program. I stood there. Nobody even said hello. Nobody even looked at me. As for standing up and offering me a chair, nothing doing. I just stood there looking at them as if they were animals in the zoo. I thought to myself - savages! Manners are a thing of the past. Just simple good manners. Then my daughter came in and laughed, poked me, and said, `Father, you must be tired. I'll drive you home.'''

After a short pause, he went on, moaning: ``I've asked the grandchildren over to my place but they never come. I see them, of course, twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's it! They certainly won't miss me when I'm gone. I've got some interesting family albums; I'm a stamp collector, and there are things I could tell them.''

He could indeed tell them a few things. He had been a well-known judge and much respected in the legal world. He had fought in World War II. He was now a widower. We walked slowly along. It was afternoon in early December and the world around us was bare and leafless. We were winter people in a winter world. Suddenly I remembered my grandmother's voice, ``After supper, dear, we'll sit by the fire and you'll read to me while I crochet. We must be near the end of `David Copperfield.'''

Yes, indeed. My companion and I were near the end of many things. That gentle, kinder world I knew once had changed.

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