TWO O’CLOCK ON a Monday afternoon. I have a pressing deadline, but instead of focusing on work I check my e-mail every two seconds. Then I stare at the phone as if my dirty looks could shame it into ringing. But nobody’s calling, and my only e-mails on this sticky August day are from the Vitamin Shoppe and somebody called Magicklady who wants to read my Tarot cards. I feel like I’m back in high school, a hopeless love slave longing to hear from The Guy. Except this time the object of my devotion isn’t some dark-eyed bad boy; it’s my baby granddaughter, Isabelle Eva. And the guy I’m dying to hear from is her father—my son and only child—Clay.
It is the summer of 2006 and I am 58 years old. I’ve been a grandmother for 12 days. I’m stunned by the swell of feeling: not the love part, which I expected, but the urgency, the hunger to hold Isabelle, to feel her body—her spine and ribs as delicate as twigs, her heartbeat as fluttery as a hummingbird’s. This is love beyond reason, and I’m fuzzy on protocol. I don’t know where I belong in the new order. In fact, no one seems to know how the pieces of the expanded family puzzle fit together—neither Clay nor his wife, Tamar; not Hugh, my husband and the baby’s step-grandfather; not the rest of the grandparents. We’re as clueless as a bunch of earthlings who went to sleep in their own beds and woke up on the moon.
One thing is certain—we’ve entered a new phase. First there was the worry over the birth (an eleventh-hour C-section) and the health of mother and baby (perfect). This gave way to heart-stopping breathless wonder. One moment she wasn’t; then she was. Isabelle Eva. Her parents have been generous in sharing her. Hugh and I got to hold her soon after she was born and often in the days that followed. And since I’m the only grandmother who lives in the same city (Washington, D.C.), I took on the role of chief caterer. Ours is a food-obsessed family that prizes—actually, demands—good cooking, even in the most extreme situations. While Tamar struggled through labor, Clay, a food photographer, required a pizza margherita. But now, after two weeks of serving up one culinary masterpiece after another, I need to get out of the kitchen.
Even more important, Clay and Tamar need room to find their own way. A few days before Tamar’s parents left, Clay said to me over the phone, “It’s nice to have grandparents around, but we’re ready to be on our own with our baby.” Although he was referring to his in-laws, I knew his comments were directed at me. Our baby, not yours.
Not only was a baby born 12 days ago, but a family as well: their family. The transition from childless couple to a threesome has solidified them as a separate unit in a way that marriage alone did not. In the eight years since Clay and Tamar married, my exceptionally deep bond with my son has stretched yet remained strong. But this new chapter, though natural and appropriate, feels different. What shocks me the most is that in the midst of my joy over Isabelle, faint traces of loss waft in and out of my consciousness like secondhand smoke.
Even Clay feels a sense of longing. During one of our suppers, he confides his sadness that he’s unable to comfort the baby in the same way as Tamar, with her free-flowing supply of breast milk in a body that is Isabelle’s home port.
So when Hugh tells me to pay attention to what Clay is saying and “dial it back,” I know he’s right. Besides, viewed through a wider lens, I’m incredibly fortunate: Clay and Tamar decided (with no prompting from me, I swear) to move from Paris to Washington in order to live near us when the baby was born; they stayed with us for a couple of months, then found a house a mile from ours. I was thrilled and touched beyond imagining. Although we’ve traveled together for weeks at a time, the four of us haven’t lived in the same city in nearly 20 years. This is my dream come true. Hugh is right. I need to let go, the cardinal message of the Buddhist meditation I’ve been practicing for decades. What do I have to be so anxious and insecure about, anyhow? (Hint: plenty, but I don’t know that yet.)