midpoint (2006-10)

Postcards from a long-distance grandmother

Far and Away

by Stephanie Piper

It’s three months since I last saw him, and now he turns his head from me and buries his face in his father’s chest. It will take hours of careful wooing to win him back, to regain his trust and be granted one of his incomparable smiles. We’ll rock and sing and play with his blocks and read his books and watch at the window for seagulls. And then we’ll be gone again.

Our 11-month-old grandson lives in a yellow house with a red door in a little town by the sea. It’s an idyllic spot with everything to recommend it: friendly neighbors, pretty walks, the bay just across the road. Its only drawback is its location. It is a thousand miles and two plane rides away from us. 

We go to him whenever we can, scrimping and saving our dollars and vacation days to patch together another visit. The intervening time seems to belong to a separate life, suspended somehow between flights to New England. Every few months, we drop out of the sky and into this child’s world and believe that he will know us, will welcome us as his own people. Eventually, he always does. But each time, it takes a little longer. Each time, it pulls a little harder at my heart.

When I was a child, both my widowed grandmothers lived an hour away. One was very old and very deaf and, though kind, seemed permanently detached. She and my mother were not close, and we didn’t see her often. Our conversations at Christmas and Easter consisted of shouted pleasantries; I often wondered if she actually remembered my name.

My other grandmother was young and full of life, a frequent, joyful presence in our house. She brought a sense of peace and order with her as subtle and pervasive as the scent of her Antilope perfume. When she stepped off the train at our suburban station on a Friday evening, the world seemed to grow lighter. Her small overnight case always held tissue-wrapped presents along with her embroidered nightgown and matching robe, but the best gift was waking up on Saturday morning and knowing she was there. The house felt safer when she was in it.

Because I saw her so often, there was no distance between us. Her face was as familiar as the faces of my parents, and her love even more certain than theirs. In the shifting emotional landscape of my childhood, she was the fixed point: steady, glowing, close. 

Struggling now with long separations from our grandchild, I wonder if it’s possible to crowd the breadth and depth of my love for him into a weekend, to fill his memory bank with enough stored images to last until the next trip. Kin knows kin, my grandmother used to say, and she was never wrong. But she also never had to ask a baby: Remember me?

I pull up his latest pictures on my computer screen. He’ll be a year old next month, and every day he seems to grow, stretch, learn more. I think of his new sounds, the “ma-ma-ma” he shouts indiscriminately, the word that sounds like dozo , Japanese for “please.” Does he remember how we danced to the Beatles’ “I Will” when he was a week old, and how we pulled him in a toboggan through the snow last Monday? Will the scent of Chanel’s “Une Fleur” remind him of the grandmother from Tennessee who drops out of the sky to see him?

I send him all the light I have. I plan for the next time. I hold him in my heart, close. For now, it has to do.