Ranking the Grandchildren

My mother is quite clear about her order of preference for her seven grandsons. We all know that Anne’s younger son John is number one, a position I believe he claimed by saying a lot of clever things in her presence when he was a boy, statements that are permanently and liberally recorded in her diaries.

Ironically, Anne’s older son Jay originally held down the least-favorite position, a position I believed he secured by not saying enough clever things in her presence when he was a boy, as evidenced by the paucity of his quotations in her diaries. He has been supplanted at the bottom, however, by one of the younger grandsons. This new holder of the lowest rank is likely to remain entrenched there because my mother doesn’t like his behavior at all and has developed detailed fears about his future. She copes with his issues and unbearable future choices by ignoring his existence. “I try not to think about his future any more than I need to,” she has stated more than once.

I admit it is easier for me that my two sons, who live too far away to be useful to her, fall into the middle of the rankings. She has told me that they are both “good-natured,” which is nearly as good as her highest designation for other people: “so understanding.”

I’m not sure exactly which of my two is higher ranked. Parker, my elder son, has accepted the thankless task of helping her get through security at the airport, so that’s gotten him praise. And he’s quiet and polite and does well in school, so he’s right up there. But though she has also praised his ease in conversation with adults, there are some challenges to a claim to the number two spot: he doesn’t look at all like her side of the family, he never asks to hear her stories, he does not attempt to entertain her, and he is enrolled at a college she didn’t attend, where he is majoring in engineering, which she doesn’t understand and does not want to hear anything about.

Wyatt, my younger son, is athletic and amusing, providing a good source of entertaining stories that I convey to her. She was excited when a picture of him in his high-school football uniform was published in our local weekly paper. But on the other hand, he isn’t interested in directly telling her much himself or in listening to her reminisce, which marks down his value. And although he played Daddy Warbucks in the school production of Annie in fifth grade (wonderful!), he steadfastly refused her appeals to re-enact his role for her (so disappointing!). Naturally she couldn’t possibly have flown up to see him in the actual play.

My brother’s son who has Aspergers does well in school, and Mother loves any trait that she can believe shows her genetic superiority. He’s pretty quiet and sweet-natured, and even his quirky behaviors don’t happen to irritate her and risk his score. But he has not wanted to hear her stories, and while they both have fixed interests, the interests themselves do not overlap.

The youngest grandson committed a shocking misstep that permanently hurt his rank when he’d just turned two. That summer at the beach, he enjoyed pushing her walker when she wasn’t using it. While some grandmothers might think this was cute, the two-year-old’s enjoyment earned a harsh, “That’s not a toy!” from his horrified grandmother and a black mark on his permanent record. If he spent time adoringly listening to my mother, that longed-for devotion could overwrite the shocking walker-pushing incident and catapult him into the firmament next to John, the untouchable number one.

But tragically none of the grandsons has clamored to hear to her stories or put on plays for her. She thinks that’s because they’re boys. She hasn’t considered that perhaps it’s because she has shown no interest in them, never visits them and has made no effort to connect with them.

The grandsons are aware of the favoritism among their ranks and joke about it. Still, it must hurt number 6 Jay at least a little that his brother is adored while he is barely tolerated – even though he goes over to her condo to solve her many computer issues whenever she calls. Anne and I have tried to figure out the sources of her disdain for Jay. But we don’t know why. I guess he just failed to amuse her.

Well, there was one other incident. She bitterly complains about the time then-college-student Jay brought a paperback book with him to a family dinner at a restaurant, took it out of his pocket and placed it on the table during the meal. He didn’t read it or anything. He just took it out because it was uncomfortable in his pocket.

This scandalous display occurred at a meal he was invited to attend when my family and I were in town. So I was a witness, though I admit I thought nothing of it at the time – well, beyond some amazement that he could fit a book in his pocket. This wasn’t a fancy restaurant; it was a casual place with paper napkins, but she talks about it as if he’d taken off his shoes and put them on the table. The point is that Jay can do no good, just as his brother John can do no harm. If John put a book down on even the fanciest restaurant table, she would proudly comment on this delightful evidence of how much her favorite loves to read.

All of my mother’s grandchildren have only my mother for a grandmother. I feel sad that my kids have no experience of a warm and loving and helpful grandmother. I wish they had a grandmother like I had, my paternal grandmother who loved to see us and enjoyed doing things with us and for us, who never made us feel like we were any trouble at all.

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7 thoughts on “Ranking the Grandchildren

  1. Larissa - Canada

    Wow, it’s really fascinating to read about your Mom’s history with her grandchildren. It’s all about whether she feels good in their presence, not about what’s good for them. If every emotional trait can be located on a developmental spectrum, then your Mom’s emotional age would be 6 years old maybe? Not sure myself, though 7, for most kids, is when there is a big developmental jump in awareness of the outside world.

    It’s sad to read about, for sure, and I feel with you and your sons and nephews. At the same time, you’re doing a lot of good talking about this. Sunshine is the best disinfectant for sure, not just about scandals, but about problems as well. You can’t change your Mom, but you can help your sons to grow despite her not being one of their supports in life. They have to find that elsewhere, just like you have to.

    My own Dad, who was born in 1909 and passed in 2000, praised me when I knew something academically or about world history, for example. He did this for only about a year, but it really stuck with me and I used to feel so good when I knew something, like about languages, that other people didn’t. Good feelings like that are addictive and it’s taken many years for me to want to do something useful with whatever knowledge I have. Just knowing something isn’t really enough to make a success in work or family.

    His appreciation of knowledge was a bit like your Mom’s appreciation of schooling. It ranked her above other people and that’s what she looks for in her grandchildren. This trait of ignoring anything that doesn’t serve her comfort is part of HER, inborn and then probably ingrained as she grew up. It has nothing to do with you, except as a burden because she expected you to parent her, rather than the other way around.

    Please keep writing about your family. Thank you and take care,

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    1. sarahmeyernoel Post author

      I love your line that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I’m going to remember that whenever someone objects to what I write.

      Sometimes (especially in her old age), my mother seems more than a 3- or 4-year-old than a 6 year old. Her frantic demands for even the smallest things, her inability to think of more than one option for a problem, and her confidence that she is the only one who matters remind me of my kids when they were very young. I still cling to some irrational hope that there’s more there, that someday she’ll discover how to understand and care about her children. I’m not sure I’ll really confront that fantasy until she’s gone, taking any hope with her.

      My sons never expected much from my mother because they had no experience that told them they should. It would have been wonderful for them to have an involved and loving grandmother, but that isn’t what they got. I am grateful that they are kind and caring young men.

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    2. Larissa Goruk

      thank you
      your hope that she might show some caring is very human, though in all probability, she won’t
      I’m sorry to say that
      my own Dad died in January of 2000, still finding fault with me and never acknowledging either my musical talent nor the support I gave him when he called long distance to talk about his suicidal tendencies
      I listened to him without judgment
      but he considered my own depression/suicidal tendencies long ago in my youth as showing that I was less than (translated from the Ukrainian)
      his understanding about this ran on 2 tracks: the one where he never showed that side of himself to his older son and daughter, and agreed with them that I was “flaky”
      and the unconscious track where he would turn to me for support

      back in the day, when material life was harder and less secure, I guess that emotional realities were largely ignored by many people
      I am grateful to have support now for my growth and a new social consensus that empathy is so important as a value
      anyway, take care and you are not alone,

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      1. sarahmeyernoel Post author

        I don’t expect ever to stop some little trace of hope that my mother will show the kind of care I think we all expect from a parent. I just can’t let go, even as I feel grief and anger over the obliviousness she consistently shows to me.

        It’s interesting that your father confided only in one of his children. My mother has compartmentalized her children too. I’m the one who gets the calls about her emotional distress. I also try to listen without judgment and to offer calm and support. It’s some kind of relationship, right?

        Thanks for sharing your experiences. All the best to you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Taliba

    Thanks for sharing this! Because in addition to my AS father, I’m certain his mother also had AS. She basically ignored my sister and I. Even when we spent time with her, all she did was talk about her other grandchildren. And my father kept insisting that we go visit them and endure this.

    Unfortunately my mother didn’t help, as she had a substance abuse disorder. I remember getting a letter from my grandmother saying they couldn’t come to visit at Christmas, and she said that I could enjoy Christmas with the grandparents that lived near me. I was disappointed, but I thought, ‘You know what? I do have grandparents here that I like. Forget them.’ Which is the healthy thing for a child to do – not care about people who suck. But my mother flew into a rage because she was so angry that they ‘hurt her child’. Never mind the harm her substance abuse did, such as cause her to fly into rages.

    But that memory I have of responding in a healthy way, that focused on the positive things, I know that’s who I really am.

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