My grandmother’s name is Betty. She wears a blonde wig in a tasteful pixie cut, and much like Steve Jobs, she has a signature look: boatneck three-quarter sleeve top with capris in the summer, and turtleneck with slacks in the winter. She carries a Vera Bradley purse, which she rotates seasonally. This purse contains everything you could ever need, plus a church bulletin and a packet of tissues she’ll try to foist off on you the second you even think about sneezing.
Grandma wouldn’t admit it, but she lives for the thrill. When she was my age, she loved to party. In the only picture I have of her from that time, she’s on top of a human pyramid on the beach, drinking a beer. She denies it, says that it’s her sister, but we know better. When I took her into Boston to see Shen Yun, she pointed out her old office, then the restaurant a few doors down. “That’s where we used to go to meet the men,” she said slyly. She didn’t meet my grandfather there, though. She met him under a dock on Cape Cod, when she threw up on his shoes at a party. Classy.
If anyone deserves a party phase, though, it’s Grandma. Like many eldest daughters of her time, she became a pseudo-mother when she was a child. With four younger siblings, one of them severely developmentally disabled, it was all hands on deck in her house. She made clothes, cared for her disabled sister, took everyone to school and back, and worked. She’s never bitter when she talks about it, but it can’t have been easy.
She kept us from anything like that. Our childhoods were spent in leisure: my best memories are from Grandma’s house. My cousins and I visited at least once a week for years. It was a different world than the households our mothers ran. It was halfway to heaven: we could lie on our bellies watching Hannah Montana, eat Oreos, or do sidewalk chalk to our heart’s desire. Grandma never told us no. To this day, my mother jokes that Grandma underwent a personality transplant when my oldest cousin was born. “That is not the Ma I grew up with,” she says.
It’s true––grandmothers are totally different from mothers. Evolutionarily, grandmothers are a pickle. It doesn’t make sense for women to have a post-menopausal stage. Once they’ve stopped reproducing and their children are reared, their evolutionary purpose is complete. In a theoretical sense, all women should drop dead at sixty. Obviously, they don’t. So, anthropologists have proposed the grandmother hypothesis. Grandmothers are such a valuable resource that their care bolsters the fitness of their children and grandchildren. Having an extra pair of hands to hold the baby, for example, means that a mother can spend more time foraging.
Not everyone finds this argument compelling. Some people think it doesn’t account enough for male participation in child-rearing. Others think that all helpers make an impact, so it’s not possible to single out grandmothers. Still others argue that a long female lifespan is an artifact of the male lifespan, or even just human sociality. There are plenty of counterarguments to the grandmother hypothesis, but here’s another argument in its favor: I love my grandma.
She doesn’t just spoil me; she keeps me going. She’s my touchstone. I spend a lot of time thinking in anthropological terms. I’m constantly asking what things might mean physiologically, or how they could have come about. I’m curious about cultural practices and their context. But when it comes to my grandma, I can’t think logically. Of course, she sticks around. I need her. We have grandmothers because we don’t have a choice. We love them so much that evolution warps around them.
Your mother’s eggs were already fully formed when she was still a fetus. For a brief while, half of you was inside your grandmother. For me, I’m not sure that half ever left. Part of me will always be with her, tucked between the church bulletin and the tissues, thinking about the good old days.