As early as the third paragraph of her latest memoir, Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting, Anna Quindlen lays out its essential theme in a telling anecdote. She looks down at her newly standing first grandchild—his small hand "a pale starfish of almost no weight" resting lightly on her leg—as he softly says the word "Nana."
Quindlen melts with love—as if even more love for this, her first grandchild, her first son's first son, the one who made her a grandmother, is even possible. But then she realizes her grandson isn't "crooning" her new, cherished name. He just wants the banana to which he is pointing with his other hand.
"These are useful moments, when we are made to understand where we really rate in the topography of family," writes Quindlen. "We grandparents are secondary characters, supporting actors." The parents are the main characters: "Mama means Mama. Daddy means Daddy. But Nana just might be a piece of fruit."
There's nothing wrong with being a secondary character, Quindlen assures us. Secondary characters are important. But it is not what modern grandparents, accustomed to being in charge in the past as parents, may be used to. However, if you want to have a good relationship with the parents of your grandchildren and be happily and wholeheartedly welcomed into their new family life, it's a good idea to learn that you are now a follower, not the leader.
Among other things, this means it's best to ask permission to hold the baby or wait until the baby is offered to you. Don't just swoop in and act—especially that very first time you are introduced to the baby, and in the early weeks and months that follow.
A corollary to "hanging back" and realizing you are not in control is that it is best to not offer the new parents advice unless you are asked. Unsolicited advice, however well-meaning, can be perceived as criticism.
It could also be outdated. Yes, you raised a baby or babies, but the world has changed. For example: the prevailing modus operandi based on medical advice when Quindlen was raising her three children was to put newborns to sleep in the crib on their stomachs to prevent dangers from aspiration. Today newborns are put to sleep on their backs to lessen the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). No baby bumpers, pillows, blankets or toys are allowed in the crib, either.
Nanaville also covers the history of parenting and grandparenting, types of modern grandmothers, types of daughters-in-law, choosing a grandparent name, and having a bilingual grandchild (in Quindlen's case, English and Mandarin). Quindlen writes of the startling joy and satisfaction of watching your son become a loving and "first-rate" modern father, the thrill (especially for word lovers) of watching your grandchild acquire language ("they tend to roll the words around in their mouth like hard candy, repeat them over and over to show mastery"), and how reading to your grandchild enhances your life as well as theirs, well into both your futures. (That's no surprise from the author of How Reading Changed My Life.)
As with her previous nonfiction, Quindlen's writing is always full of heart, intelligence, and humor. She often wins the wisdom she imparts through her own errors. Her observations are always exquisitely articulated.
Quindlen acknowledges that being a grandparent, like being a parent, is not for everyone. But in her case—and maybe yours—Nanaville is "a place I wound up inhabiting without ever knowing it was what I wanted, needed or was working toward." Your children, by having children, make you a grandparent: that fate is not in your hands. But the choice of what kind of grandparent to be is. Nanaville will give you lots of ideas for being an optimal one, if that is what you want.
Nanaville is not only a good read for grandparents—it's also good for expectant and new parents to read and (hint, hint) give to their parents. Actually, Nanaville is an illuminating read for everyone, because, in the end, Quindlen is always simply and beautifully writing about life and best practices for being human.
If you want to catch Quindlen and Nanaville in the greater Philly area, she’ll be stopping at the Pearl S. Buck International Center in Perkasie, PA on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, at 7pm.
What, When, Where
Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting. By Anna Quindlen. New York: Random House, April 23, 2019. 176 pages, hardcover; $26. Available here.
The Doylestown Bookshop presents In Conversation with Anna Quindlen at the Pearl S. Buck International Center on Wednesday, May 8, at 7pm, 520 Dublin Road, Perkasie, PA. Tickets available online.
There are areas of the Pearl S. Buck House that are not easily accessible by wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Call (215) 249-0100 for more information.