Bubbie’s Blog – Stardate 2020: Love, Fear and Zombies – Grandmothering in the Time of Corona

When I was a little girl, I climbed into my mother’s bed in the early mornings and snuggled up against her back. I remember feeling such a desperate love for her and also how that love was tinged with fear and sadness, as if she were somehow an evanescent, non-renewable resource. Maybe because our relationship was far from perfect. She was a single mom, raising four unruly kids without any help and working full-time. She had a bad temper and was frequently hysterical about one thing or another – raging about dishes left in the sink or cursing one of us out for eating all the eggs. She was volatile and would call us horrible names. She never apologized, but later, she would praise us for something effusively, like good diction or pretty hair. Still, I felt that she loved me and that I could talk to her about anything. I admired her intelligence and her strength. I adored her.

On more than one such morning, when I was about seven or eight years old, I told my mother that I wanted to die before she did so that I would never have to miss her. I began to cry at the thought of her dying. She comforted me by saying all the expected things…that it would be a long time before she died, that children aren’t supposed to die before their parents, etc. I asked her what happens when we die.

“Well,” my mother began thoughtfully, pausing to tuck her thick dark hair behind an ear, “I don’t believe there is any heaven or hell, but I hope that there is something. Maybe we are reincarnated. Maybe we slip into another dimension. I don’t know. No one knows.”

After she explained reincarnation and alternate dimensions to me as best she could, I wiped the tears from my eyes and snuggled closer. I asked her for a promise.

“Mama, if it’s possible, if it’s any way possible at all, will you please come visit me after you die? Like when you are a ghost, or if you come back as a cat? Will you promise me that?”

My mother is now a hearty 91 years old and has changed her mind about the afterlife. I don’t know what made her reconsider this, but she now says there is nothing after this life – we become nothing but worm food. Our consciousness does not survive our earthly bodies. And she is okay with that. She says she’s ready to die and unafraid, that she’s had a good run. I admire her courage. I don’t think I could bear it if she were fearful.

My mother was born one month before the advent of the Great Depression and often comments, “The world was shit when I came into it and it’s shit when I’m going out.” I have to laugh at this because it’s true, and my mother is not one to sugar-coat the truth. She wants only to live long enough to hold her great grandchildren one more time and to see a new administration in the White House. The first is difficult now since she lives in Georgia and her two sets of great grandchildren live in Cameroon and California respectively, and we are in the middle of a pandemic. The second is, barring unforeseen calamity, just around the corner.

Two of my mother’s great grandchildren are my grandchildren. They live a two-hour drive away from my home in Los Angeles and in the beginning of the pandemic, I was unable to see them. I couldn’t risk being exposed and then exposing my husband, who at 70 years old  is in a higher risk category than I am, at a mere 58. I was deeply depressed. I longed for them: my grandson Solly who just turned seven and my baby granddaughter, Zuzu, who is 14 months old now.

We went four months without contact, except for video calls, which are not ideal with a little kid and impossible with a baby. Zuzu would just stare at the screen and sometimes try to put it in her mouth, leaving the screen slimy with saliva, and Solly would be initially exuberant to see my face, but lose interest and abruptly run off or hang up without warning. I am trying to teach him the art of the gentle goodbye during our corona calls. I’m getting mixed results so far. During those initial months of isolation, I obsessed the whole time about all that I was missing: Solly losing teeth and learning to read, and Zuzu’s first steps and sweet- smelling baby-flesh. I missed the warm, wiggly weight of a babe in arms – the sour baby-fragrance of spit-up. I missed Solly’s sweaty-sticky embraces – him wiping his nose on my sleeve and then laughing. I missed his potty humor and funny observations. Also, I thought about how my son, Cameron and daughter-in-law, Chelsey, were trapped in a house with two small children and no respite. No play dates. No friends. No school. No Mommy and Me classes. No interaction with other human beings: the kind of isolation that invokes visions of insanity a la Stephen King’s The Shining. Chelsey has had to delay putting her fresh Masters in Social Work to use to stay home, supervise remote learning and care for the baby. She talks about how millions of women are seeing their career paths become overgrown with weeds and quotidian obligations.

When my son was finally able to convince his employer to let him work exclusively from home, our world instantly became brighter. Cameron, Chelsey, Solly, Zuzu, my husband, and I isolated for two weeks, took COVID tests, and became a pod. But, already, some damage had been done.

My relationship with Solly had been earlier cemented. I missed him, but I wasn’t worried that he would forget me. He is a Bubbie’s boy through and through. Zuzu was another story. The months of our separation were a crucial developmental and bonding time for her. When I first was able to be with them again, she cried at the sight of me as if I were a scary clown and clung to her parents. I took that as a challenge and, confident that I could overcome her aversion, employed every tactic at my disposal. Our first visit after we became a pod, I went to their house and got close to her for the first time since March without a mask on. She appraised me cooly and gave me a wide berth. I ignored her disdain at first and just grabbed and cuddled and tickled and hugged. She wasn’t having it. She arched her back and batted at me to get me away from her. It just pissed her off. I switched to bribing with toys, reading storybooks, and making funny faces. She avoided making eye contact and changed the subject by letting out a piercing scream. Finally I pulled out the big guns: Tequila. Just kidding. Sugar. I began by offering her tastes of whipped cream on my finger. Even that only got me wary acceptance of the offering and utter rejection once the goodies were gone. She even bit my finger really hard once. I thinkit was an accident.

You have to understand my desperation. Zuzu is a gorgeous, succulent, irresistible little baby. And I am passionate about being a Bubbie. It is arguably the most important thing in my life (obviously my husband, kids, and dogs also rank, but, if I am honest, there is no contest. Don’t tell them I said that.) I felt that I was being deprived of the sweetest thing in life. I believed the children were missing out on one of the most important connections in their lives. I worried for the mental health of Cameron and Chelsey…going through it all without a Bubbie around. I was once of the mind that people who gushed about their grandchildren were pitiful-bores-with-no-life. But as soon as I was informed that there was a grandbaby on the way, a switch flipped. I became the most ecstatic pitiful-bore-with-no-life on earth.

My mother has been a big influence on my bubbie belief-system. She was raised primarily by her grandmother. She was a consummate grandmother to her grandchildren. Most of her rough edges had been worn smooth by the time her grandkids came along, and she was devoted to them. She never said “no” to a request to babysit, even if she had other plans or had to drive four hours round trip to pick them up. She spoiled them with her pancakes and spaghetti, took them on trips all over the country, and talked to them for hours about anything and everything. She was my bubbie role model. At various times, all four of her great-grandchildren and their parents have lived with her in her country house in Georgia. I know exactly how much she must miss them now.

I describe being a grandmother to the uninitiated like this:

Of course we love our children, but when they are little, we are young, and we’re dumb. We worry about everything. We fret that our children’s misbehavior or tantrums or deficiencies reflect negatively on us as parents and as people. When we hear our babies cry, the cortisol level in our brains skyrockets, and we think, “What’s wrong with this baby? What am I doing wrong?” But when your grandbaby cries, you stay calm — there is no ego conflict with a grandchild. You don’t expect them to mirror you. There’s less fear and anxiety, too, because you have been through all this before. If you are like me, you hear them cry and think, “Listen to that beautiful voice.” You feel. Just. Pure. Love.

Furthermore, anthropologists have long argued that grandmothers have been crucial in driving human evolution. For eons, grandmothers have helped feed and care for children before they were self-sufficient so that their mothers could have more babies. This collaboration helped increase not only the human population, but also the overall offspring survival rate. So my adoration of these little creatures is in my DNA. It’s evolutionary.

When Zuzu was born and up until the lockdown, I would hold her for hours, letting her sleep on me, greedily breathing in her redolent, fuzzy head. I rocked her and sang to her and everything was groovy – all my cycle-of-life contentment endorphins were zinging. Those missed months of hands on contact threw a hitch into my bubbie/baby bonding. Big time. Our relationship is still a work in progress, the progress part being unpredictable and irregular.

Last weekend, Zuzu let me hold her for 27 seconds before she twisted around and reached for her mama. Later that day, as she toddled down the hall, I reached for her and without missing a beat she turned on her heels and wobbled away from me at full speed. That a toddler could have such quick reflexes and dexterity was shocking and comical. The next day she pointed at me when I came into the room and yelled, “Bubbie!” She gave me an anxious smile, then grunted and clamped onto her mama’s breast to aggressively nurse.

Being a baby in the time of corona can be a mixed bag. If you’re lucky, you get to be with your family all the time. You are given tons of attention and affection. You don’t have to get dropped off at a daycare center and suffer the tragic histrionics of separation. But you also don’t get any social interaction with people outside of your home. You are taught to not go near people. The people you do see from afar usually have masks on their faces. You don’t get to make friends with other babies, steal their toys, or bite them. And your own grandmother is a stranger to you. Cameron and Chelsey worry about both of their children’s social development and maturation in this kind of environment. I fear that corona childhood will be stunting in ways we have yet to discover.

Still, I delight in just being around the grandkids, even if Zuzu remains a bit doubtful. I feel so happy in their presence, and I am even more “present”  with them than ever before. I can watch them play in a creek for hours without getting impatient and wanting to round them up and go home. I can listen to them scream at the top of their lungs and not get a headache. I can watch a zillion Marvel movies with Solly and not get bored to tears.

A few weeks ago, they all came to my house for the weekend. While mama, papa and Zuzu napped, Solly and I engaged in a two-hour game of Zombie Apocalypse, a game Solly invents on the fly. Its entire theme seems unusually perfect for our pandemic existence. We built a pillow fort, made weapons out of Legos, foraged for food (in my garden) while dodging zombie-infected people, and engaged in bloody battles. I had to remove some shrapnel from Solly’s chest and recharge his bionic hand. Solly had to amputate one of my legs, (it simply couldn’t be saved, he advised stoically) which he replaced with a remarkably realistic bionic leg. Before the pandemic, a few minutes into a game like this and I would be checking my phone for emails or going out of character to do a load of laundry. But I was all in. It was magical.

While Zuzu has not yet given me her full-throated endorsement,  she recently let me read her nine books in a row, the same ones, twice. The same day,  I left her house while she was down for a nap and when she woke up, she spent a long while toddling around the house calling my name. I am winning.

When I woke up on the bottom bunk of Solly’s bed last Sunday morning, he was cuddled in behind my back with his arm thrown over me.

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine,” I said, turning to kiss the top of his head.

“Bubbie?” he said softly, his voice quavering. “What’s going to happen when you die? I don’t want you to die. I’ll miss you so much.” He began to cry, hiding his face in my shoulder.

I comforted him by saying all the expected things…that it would be a long time before I died, that grandparents are supposed to die before their grandchildren, etc. Then I told him that if I could, if there were any way possible, I would come visit him after I died, as a ghost or a cat.

“A cat,” I imagined him thinking as I watched a little smile appear on his face. “That would be nice.”

Karen Gaul Schulman is a writer and attorney who lives in Los Angeles, California. She left her family law practice of 30 years to pursue a life of letters and play with her grandchildren. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University LA.