The Birth of a Grandmother

I’m crunched next to the window on a flight from Montreal. Can’t help but notice the guy behind the drinks cart. He’s young and lanky, a mass of dark curls framing a heart-shaped face, totally absorbed in conversation with a couple from the Maritimes in the seat ahead of mine. I enjoy listening to strangers chat, consider it a sure sign of mental health, and find myself thinking, he’d be a good catch. Then I stop. There is no point imagining her with X or Y. She’s married and having a baby. That’s why I’m heading to Vancouver at Christmastime. Nothing to do with the virgin birth: I’m about to become a grandmother.

Nobody who knows my daughter would think of her as a rebel. She’s the cautious type, a natural pessimist who appreciates the value of a dollar. An old soul, my friend Clare used to say. I had her when I was young and unmarried, which may explain why the tensions between us resemble those between sisters separated by a big age gap. The rebel role was taken, so she cut herself a sturdy rut. Ten years as a waitress before landing a part-time job in a bank. She declared herself lucky to have a respectable job. Eight years with her first boyfriend before his desire for a child got a serious hearing. Even as the idea started making sense, she wasn’t sure she was ready for motherhood. “How about a wedding,” I suggested. “That’ll buy you a year.” So we did it, the whole nine yards of raw silk, a floor-length white suit. “I can wear it to openings,” she said. That’s the other piece of the puzzle: since early adolescence, when my daughter stopped wanting to be a hairdresser, all she has ever wanted to do is paint. Looked at one way, every particle of her life is about painting, and yet her talent and drive are so thoroughly grounded, they’re almost invisible. She’s neither temperamental nor particularly ambitious. Art is just something she does, all of the time. It is her work.

Whenever I see her after a long absence she seems smaller than I remember, although she’s taller than I am, and when we meet at Vancouver airport, heavily pregnant. It seems like an armful of something under her coat. “It,” because we don’t know the sex yet. That would be like opening your presents before Christmas, she says. Thirty years ago, I spent most of nine months convinced my baby would be a boy because the father understood women so poorly I couldn’t imagine him conceiving one. My intuition is often fierce and usually wrong.

In the airport parking lot, we head to a 10-year-old Subaru station wagon, which the parents-to-be found on Craigslist. The hood was badly damaged in a film shoot, but the motor and body are in perfect shape. My son-in-law hauls my suitcase into the trunk and tells me to sit in the front. “No, no,” I protest. “I’ll get in the back. I’ll get used to it.” As we ride toward downtown, I’m thinking, I will get used to it. Life on the periphery.

My daughter leans over the seat and shoots me a question. “What do you want to be called?” Granny. If it’s possible to roll the r, that would be nice.

Tabula rasa. One of the many great things about having kids is that for a while they believe what they’re told. Becoming a mother, you get to look at the world again from the ground up. For a decade, my desire to be a writer was ruined by the burden of a happy childhood; I thought I had nothing to write about. It all seemed so vague: warm summer days on the farm, skating ponds, pointless sibling squabbles and a few good jokes. Motherhood changed everything. Pregnant at 24, one of the many thoughts that ricocheted through my appallingly innocent mind was, well, finally, something’s happening. Deal with it. Make the best. Write about it, though I never have till now.

With virtually no parenting skills and no time to consult the literature, I embraced motherhood as a great adventure. Not a metaphorical journey at all, but a place we—myself and the unknown—were going together. I had no memory of life when I was not in school and so planned her upbringing according to the academic calendar. For the first six years, we moved every spring. After that, she spent the summers on the farm with my sister’s or brother’s families, hoards of cousins offering a boisterous experience of family life, which, as the eldest of six children, was the only kind I knew. Once, when I admonished her for not chewing her food slowly, she fired back: “Uncle Rick says, “Wolf That Food Down and Get Out!” Apparently my brother Dave used to chase them to bed with the fly swatter. Yes, that’s the childhood I remember, crowd scenes, learning by osmosis. Nothing much was expressly forbidden, though punishment did occur.

They’ve already been through a round of cramps by the time I arrive, and the due date is only a few days away so I unpack my suitcase in the spare room, thinking, “this could happen any minute now.” But it doesn’t. Instead, we spend a full ten days together, waiting, and I am overwhelmed to learn how much there is to know about childbirth. And faintly terrified, increasingly so. How did I ever manage with a cursory flip through a Penguin paperback and a few routine visits to the doctor? Obviously, I must have relied on female members of my family for information. It’s all a blur now. I have little to contribute to the subject of the day, though it doesn’t seem to matter. They’ve both attended an eight-week course, signed up to a midwife clinic, seen dozens of videos and Googled like crazy. Three dressers full of baby clothes, equipment, and gadgets await the unknown arrival.

It’s an unusually Montreal Christmas for Vancouver, one snowstorm after another. Twice a day my son-in-law shovels the car out and takes it for a test drive around the block. Pipes freeze, the upstairs tenants’ drain explodes, and nasty water falls through the kitchen roof, sending the already panicky father-to-be into near hysteria. It’s a blessing, really. Gives him something to do, and he copes very well. Christmas Eve, we open our presents. He has settled on a spa theme: creams and bath grains for me, a day-long retreat for the mother-to-be. He’s pleased to see she understands and appreciates the thought. This is their baby thumping around in herbody, taking his time, so when the incubation is over she’ll deserve to be pampered.

As the days click by, we become convinced we’re waiting for a boy. A girl surely would be here by now; a boy is clinging to a warm, dark place. But we still don’t know his name. Names float out, get discarded or added to the list, raised and demoted. Mom favours Oskar, Dad lobbies for Isadore. I like Leo, my father’s middle name, but it goes nowhere. “Never mind,” I venture. “You can’t really know if a name works until you see the child.” They don’t believe me, I can tell. I was convinced my baby would be a boy. When I saw her, I knew her name would have something to do with Ireland, the country where I would have left her, if certain events hadn’t happened that made it possible to embark upon the adventure with a measure of confidence. Shocking to admit now, but it’s true. In my case, each step of the way to motherhood was taken with uncertainty, but at the same time, a strange settling confidence that things would work out, as they did. Every birth is to some extent a coincidence. The nature versus nurture argument rages, but the minute you see a newborn, you know him/her. A somebody, no longer an event. The name is obvious.

Christmas comes and goes, and then we’re staring at New Year’s. A second visit to the midwife clinic, talk of inducement. I rebook my return ticket for the second time. Soon it is clear that nothing as unnatural as a prod will be allowed. Some website mentions spicy food helps get things going, so we hurdle off to an Indian all-you-can eat buffet, and hope. I crawl into bed thinking, maybe time has stopped, though this is not a thought that keeps me from sleeping. When I wake up at 7, the coffee pot is already on. Labour pains started at 11 p.m. The midwife will be called at 8. I bite my tongue and froth the milk instead.

At 8:30 the midwife phones back. She says she’ll swing by the dry cleaners and be over in an hour. Earlier, in a rare forthcoming moment, my daughter had confided they were glad to have me on hand “in case anything goes wrong.” True, I’m the one who gets handed the phone in a crisis. This time, I don’t wait to be asked. I state outright that the midwife should be called back and asked to postpone fetching her dry cleaning. This is a first baby, and anything can happen.

Lordy, lordy, there is no waiting room. This is Vancouver, the Women’s Hospital. We’re taken to the Cedar Room, a large, softly-lit double suite with a walk around bathtub in one end, a high hospital bed, a guest bed, comfortable chairs, a closet and water cooler. You are allowed to bring in snacks. By the time we get there, it’s early afternoon. I’m deep into internal sweating, trying to appear calm, which isn’t that hard because there is nothing happening that would disrupt calm, no peg for anxiety. We’re all glad to get the show on the road. The midwife, two nurses and a student nurse swing into calm, collected action and the whole thing starts to resemble a thoroughly rehearsed play, as if a new cast member is gently being broken in. They’ve done this thousands of times before. There is no secret knowledge. Father and mother know their moves. I am the only one on the edge of the loop. In the back seat, so to speak. Periphery. Get used to it, I tell myself. Grrranny. La périphérique. A ring road circling the downtown core of life.

I have nothing meaningful to say about what happened after that. Giving birth is awful, a truly violent, hideously painful ordeal. Of course it all blows over when you see the little thing. But before that, it’s wicked. My sister stayed in the room with her daughter, and said it was worse than giving birth herself. I only remember one image and one mental note from my one experience. Not even an original image—it was like passing a watermelon. I do recall a note-to-self: I don’t want to hear you say this was not so bad. It is bad. I am by nature an optimist. I tend to remember the best. As per note, it was bad, but no, not worse than watching my own grown-up baby suffer so much. At one point a nurse suggested I might want to step out into the hall, as my “expression” could prove “distracting”. I took a deep breath and smiled. Once the top of a tiny dark-haired head appeared, I turned away.

Sure enough, a boy, a perfect Oskar. Fiery, clench-fisted, a little old man with a big scream, shocked by thin air but eager to flex his limbs. All boy, and badly in need of a literary middle name like Isadore to get him into the right parties.

In the few days that followed his birth I circled around the ring road many times, observing this new family from several angles. Always, of course, with one eye inward on the self, the girl I was, the woman I have become. It is easy to carve out a place in a household containing a baby. Vancouver, 2009, I mastered the slow cooker, found a new set of kitchen taps, pioneered the knack of eating in the living room. By the time it was really time to go home, leaving seemed almost impossible.

My daughter cried at the airport. “It’s only hormones, mum,” she said. Once inside the terminal, I was sorely tempted to change my ticket a third time and go back. A myriad of excuses did battle in my mind, but I kept on walking, telling myself, my husband’s waiting in Montreal. They are a happy family. She’s fragile, but she’s also strong and the man she married is not a curly-headed charmer, he’s the kind who looks ahead to a day at the spa. No wonder I didn’t recognise the ripple of gold in him until that day in the Cedar Room.

A few months later, when I meet up with them again, they’ve settled into a delicious weird routine composed of all the latest ideas and some pretty novel inventions, and it hits me that actually being a grrrrranny is something one must learn.

“Oh, don’t grow up too fast, my little darling,” I hear my daughter coo. “Are you going to grow up and leave me?”

I almost blurt out, yes he will! But I don’t. She hears the thought anyway. But our eyes don’t meet. No need to. Our Janus dance is over now. We’re a circle, both looking down at Oskar Isadore.

Marianne Ackerman is a Montreal novelist and playwright, and the editor of the Rover, an independent review of art and culture. Her new novel Piers' Desire will be published by McArthur & Co.