Don’t Mess With Grandmothers

Ellie — I visited Seattle last week, staying a few blocks away from your parents’ townhouse. You’d changed a lot since I first saw you as a week-old newborn. For one thing, you’re smiling. Do you have any idea what undignified lengths presumably sane adults will go to to get a baby to smile? No, you probably haven’t noticed.

At 10 weeks, you’ve pretty much taken over your parents’ place with your toys and changing tables and indelible presence. You’ve also taken over much of your parents’ lives. It was such a moving experience for my to see my own daughter — whom I’ve known as a newborn, toddler, child, adolescent, and young adult — blossom into a loving and competent mother.

Over the years, I’ve always wondered when you “truly” grow up. Is it purely age, a college degree, earning your own living, marriage, or a mortgage? Nope, I think it’s taking care of another person. Your mother is now, officially, an adult.

As a grandmother, I was her backup during the day — another set of arms, another lap, a distraction when you began to cry. It was remarkable to me how quickly I slipped into this role. When we took you walking in the neighborhood, I found myself scanning the horizon for danger, ready to throw myself in front of an oncoming car, if necessary. It seemed like the purest instinct in the world.


Here we are, kiddo, just the two of us. I’m the old one on the right.


One day when we sat at a table outside a coffee shop, the sun was getting in your face. I stood there, behind your mother, shading you from the sun. There I was — a human umbrella — feeling content and useful and that all was right with the world. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else. What could be more important than shading my granddaughter’s skin?

A new grandmother: A combination of baby comforter, traffic cone, sun umbrella, and body guard/hit woman. Nobody in his right mind should mess with us.

I can’t imagine you will completely understand my perspective when/if you first read this. When you’re young, you feel like a solo adventurer, trying to break away from the (boring, repressive) world around you — your family, your outgrown friends, your backwards part of the world. You want to explore and shed old ties and make your mark. And that’s as it should be.

But, when you’re my age, you see life so differently. I am an individual, sure. But I am also a link between past and present, part of a continuum of generation after generation of women. There’s a disappointment in figuring out you aren’t as special as you thought you were (no one is); but you find great comfort and sense of place in realizing you’re a part of this vast procession of the human race.

Good grief, I’ve rambled on and on. All I really wanted to say was that I had a great time with you. Love, Coco


P.S. Wanted to check out this grandmother business with an expert, so I went to the top: David Buss, evolutionary psychologist. He wrote:

There’s a moderate size evolutionary literature on this issue.  Most centers on the importance of grandmothers. Humans turn out to be somewhat unique in the animal world in having decades of lifespan after reproduction has stopped (many post-menopause years in the case of women). So there’s what’s known as ‘the grandmother hypothesis,’ which argues that due to the heavy investment required to raise children, at some point it has been advantageous for women to shift from direct reproduction to investing in their existing children and grandchildren.

There is mixed empirical support for this, though, and there are alternative hypotheses. But that’s the one most evolutionists have focused on.  It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Huh! Just as I thought.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Brette · October 27, 2015

    Grandmother as human shield – I love the thought of that. You will be a shield for her in so many ways I am sure.

    • merr · October 27, 2015

      I concur with Brette. Lovely.

  2. Jane Boursaw · October 27, 2015

    So beautiful, Ruth. It’s true – our perspective changes as we journey through this wild thing called life. A link between past and present and future.

  3. Alexandra · October 27, 2015

    This rang so many bells. I’m living through this with my daughter’s second now. Human shield. Yup. That’s me, too.

  4. Diane · October 27, 2015

    “…scanning the horizon for danger”, how typical of us, grandmothers of beloved children. I’ve been doing that for children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and grandnieces and grandnephews for decades. It never gets old. Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing with us again. I look forward to continued reading please!

  5. Wonderful.