I came downstairs from tucking her in and sat, immobile, wondering where wisdom laid. And I found myself wishing I could ask my Grandma Joan about it.
Joan Mead Lintner was born at the start of the last century. As I raise children at the beginning of this one, as I am confronted with parenting crises, more and more frequently I stop and ask myself "what would Joan do here?"
I raise this query when I wonder about what is appropriate, what is necessary, what is important for the lives of my children, for the well-being of my family.
When Joan was raising her children, the world was a much tougher place, and a much simpler place. The memories of The Depression were still vivid, the losses and conservation of World War II a fresh memory. People faced harder lives then: they worked harder, they played less, and there was certainly much less to play with. Children were asked to take important roles within their family: their chores, their odd jobs were not 'nice to have.' They were critical to the functioning of the family.
This is Grandma Joan at 88, with Baby Cecilie Joan Nilsen at 1 (and Uncle John Lintner)
I spend a lot of time, actually, thinking about how to make my family's life simpler. I wonder just how many toys I could give away before the kids revolted. I wonder if one dresser to contain the clothes of two small-ish girls shouldn't really be enough? I sigh as I listen to the wailing about daily tasks, and wonder if maybe I should be more draconian in these things.
I know that Joan didn't entertain many thoughts of 'all' that her children should have. She remade dresses and coats along with the best of them. She expected that one doll would be "an elegant sufficiency" for one little girl's growing up years, and it was - even when a mean little brother tossed said doll down the basement stairs and gave poor Judy some premature aging. She was thrifty *almost* to the point of cheap - my mom is still resentful over wearing her older brother's sturdy black socks with dresses.
As a parent, I certainly don't pine for harder times. It's not that I want my kids to suffer more. But is the goal of modern life that they should never experience a lack? That they should never go without what this crazy 21st century world deems to be "the basics" - ballet lessons, New Balance shoes, trips to Disney, ski vacations, and math tutors? Should I be working towards a life where I am protecting them from all pain, all genuine struggle?
A great deal of more eloquent and in-depth articles have been published on this shift in parental thinking, from always demanding winners to wondering if those ankle-biters couldn't just feel the pain of loss once in a while. The best one I've read recently is Nancy Gibb's recent piece in Time Magazine: The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting.
As a parent, I've long been uncomfortable with this culture of parenting by fear: fear of danger, fear of failing, fear of saying No to your child. I dislike reading most parenting magazines, primarily because they seem to spend so much time/column space warning us of new dangers, recently discovered 'alerts', and 'recent research' that supports what a scary place this world is for our children.
My grandma knew risk. She knew danger. And yet she pushed her four kids towards adventure, towards growth, and therefore towards maturity - all the while working hard to create a trust-worthy community from which they could tentatively try these things, and then return back to that 'nest'.
The 1940s and 1950s were a harder time, perhaps. A less emotionally evolved time, possibly. But certainly a mother's life was simpler. Quieter. There was more space for her family to think, to create, to breathe. Without romanticizing a time which I know only through warmly-remembered stories, I do want to carve out that space for my family. A quiet place, a simple place, where love and trust reign supreme, and daily we work towards working better.
My grandma died three years ago today. I have so keenly felt her absence. She was full of grace, full of wisdom, full of sass, and full of spirit. She lived fully, but also gracefully, and I am forever in her debt for creating the example of a simple life, but equally a lovely life.