Arthur is one very lucky little boy. He has a doting grandmother he calls Nana who didn’t object when the dog's name sometimes followed quickly along after hers and granddad's, making her "Nanapopgus."
Nor did she mind thinking Arthur was saying her name then coming to understand from the direction he was looking that he really wanted her to peel him a banana.
It helps her put things into perspective. "These are useful moments when we are made to understand where we really rate in the topography of family, if we are smart enough to pay attention and humble enough to accept the verdict," says Anna Quindlen in an interview. She relates stories of her journey with Arthur, who is almost 3, in her newest book, "Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting" (Random House Publishing Group: 2019), due April 23.
"Mama means Mama. Daddy means Daddy. But Nana might just be a piece of fruit," Quindlen, 66, writes in her first piece of nonfiction since her 2012 memoir, "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake."
Grandparents mostly have a different role, she writes. "We provide color, texture, history, mythology. But we are not central."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times columnist and best-selling author chronicles her new stage of life in a charming and warmhearted look at getting to know her grandson as she learns the ropes of modern grandparenting. She brings to the task her familiar, ruminative voice as she chronicles a stage of life and a state of mind.
In some ways it's a cautionary tale, with recommendations for not-to-do behaviors that will get you sidelined, but mostly it's a paean to her first grandchild and thoughts on being a grandmother in today's changing landscape.
The average age of a grandmother these days is 50, she writes, so there are many years yet to navigate, just as there are many styles of grandparenting, some of them hands-on and 24/7 by necessity.
"Where I once commanded, now I need to ask permission. Where I once led, I have to learn to follow. For years I had strong opinions for a living. Now I need to wait until I am asked for them, and modulate them most of the time," she writes.
Her understanding of this came when she was talking to a friend about a decision her son and daughter-in-law made that she didn't like and the friend said, "Did they ask you?"
"It really was my lightbulb moment," Quindlen says. "The moment where I thought, 'This has got to be my guiding light.' " She refers to that as the moment she got "Nana religion."
Grandparents who don't modulate their behavior, who offer advice when none has been sought, sometimes get relegated to visit only on major holidays. If grandparents overstep, they're likely to get a lot of pushback.
"There's a little bit of a delicate dance here, but I've been blessed to do it with two people who are really easy in their approach to this entire relationship and that's made all the difference," she says of her son Quin and daughter-in-law Lynn. The family also includes Quindlen’s daughter, Maria, and her son Christopher and his wife, Azara.
She talks about hitting the jackpot with Lynn, with whom she has crafted a strong relationship. "I am so blessed to be able to do this, to live close by, to have Lynn so open to my involvement. I just feel really blessed," she says.
She and Pop took Mandarin lessons for a time to better share in their grandson's upbringing, although she notes the homework made her head hurt. "Maybe I will learn more, maybe not," she writes. "In the meantime, I'm speaking the Nana language of love and hoping Arthur recognizes, if not every word, then all the tones."
Quindlen says she hasn't read comments online about her writing for years now, having learned that it can be too punishing. "And reviews and comments about this book would at some level be irrelevant to me," she says. "There are only two people whose views I cared about and that was my son and my daughter-in-law, and my son had a comment that made the entire project worthwhile. When he finished reading the manuscript, which he liked very much, he said to me 'I'd forgotten some of that stuff.' And I thought, 'Well, then, my work here is done.' "
Being a grandparent offers a chance to love in a different way, she writes, "a love without the thorny crown of self-interest."
"I look at Arthur and see Arthur. It reminds you of how fraught parenting can sometimes be and how absent of that grandparenting can be, should be and often is. That's a great feeling, to just take the kid as he is, as she is."
Relationships with grandparents vary due to distance, disinclination and the fact that sometimes grandparents are still working and have busy lives, she says. "But most of the people I know have embraced this wholeheartedly. I think there's a sense of liberation you feel about being a grandparent because you have this profound connection without the ultimate responsibility.
"I don't have to worry about toilet training, I don't have to worry about school placement or reading readiness," she says. "I get all the gravy. And that's really liberating."
She sees the grandchild-grandparent relationship as them sharing a common nexus rather than them being united against a common enemy. "There's no moment more eye-opening for a little kid than when you need to explain that Pop is Daddy's daddy. It's mind-boggling, the idea that Daddy was ever a little boy…," she writes.
Grandparents tend to segue into the space not occupied by the children's mother and father, giving rise to the "persistent mythology that the job is inherently to indulge and spoil, which casts Nana not as the bad cop and not even as the good cop, but as the getaway driver."
Relationships that undermine the parents don't lead to an atmosphere of trust. "And trust is essential, not just to your relationship with your grandchildren but with their parents," she writes. While it's the nature of grandparenting to often make it up as you go, "Care must be taken and boundaries respected."
She thinks of Nanaville as a state of mind, "figuring out my rightful place in this new territory, with these new people." And she has two commandments in Nanaville: Love the grandchildren and hold your tongue.
What does she hope readers take away from their trip to Nanaville? "When I was writing the column for The Times, 'Life in the 30s,' people would say 'I feel like you're telling me the story of my life.' And I hope that for people who are already grandparents, that's how they'll feel. That they'll read the book and think, 'Yes, that's it exactly.'
“And for people who aren't yet grandparents and for people who have children of their own and who are navigating this terrain with their own parents, I hope it gives them some insight into the fact that we're imperfect people trying to negotiate a brand-new relationship and that that relationship is pretty darn divine."
Being a grandmother is not about the things you have to do, she's learned, it's about the things you want to do. "This is what we learn — that we imagine them and then they are different than our imaginings. I always realize that how I imagined Arthur didn't come close to the thrill of the reality," she writes near the end of the book.
She's learning again, this time how to be a grandmother to two grandchildren. Arthur's new sibling arrived Feb. 19, a baby girl named Ivy, and everyone is settling into their new roles. "No [crib] bumpers for the second," she writes. "I'm broken in now. That's the job of the first, to teach you the ropes.
"It’s just as thrilling as it was the first time around, but it reminds me a little bit of having my own second child," Quindlen says. "You're just more chill."
Anna Quindlen at LI LitFest
Anna Quindlen is appearing at the performance space Landmark on Main Street, 232 Main St., Port Washington, on Monday, April 22, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. as part of the Long Island LitFest. Tickets are $35 and include a hardcover copy of "Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting," from The Dolphin Bookshop, and a book signing. Her conversational partner will be Stony Brook author Judy Blundell.
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