I remember feeling awkward as a child when prodded by my parents to tell my Gran, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Back then I felt grandmas and moms were as different as Coke and Pepsi, or Hawkeyes and Cyclones. You didn’t dare confuse the two, and woe unto you if you did.
Grandmothers, I foolishly thought, had graduated from motherhood. They were decorated veterans of a good and just war they no longer needed to fight; they’d retired after countless years of faithful service, earned the rank of professor emeriti, Motherhood Studies.
Each and every Mother’s Day I realize just how wrong I was — how much the yeoman’s work of grandmothering deserves equal praise and decoration, especially for those of us raised or co-raised by Eastern Iowa grandmothers with the passion, dedication, creativity, cultivation, and vision the best moms bring.
For most of my childhood my mom left the house early in the morning to work at flower and gift shops across Johnson and Linn County. This was not the June Cleaver motherhood she had imagined; it was working motherhood by necessity. Still, it left my sister and me with an unexpected boon: the power of a co-mother of force, fun, and magnitude.
In fact, Gran co-mothered a whole generation of us — the children of working parents needing to make a living. She might simply have retired the badge of motherhood, hung it up to play bridge or pinochle in her retirement years. She might have claimed as her just reward for years of service a well-deserved relocation to West Palm Beach or Boca Raton. Everyone would have understood had she, after raising four children of her own, grandmothered by correspondence and greeting card.
Instead she took us all in, feed us, perplexed us, inspired us, and, always, compelled us. While our parents worked to keep the propane on, Gran labored to remind us that there was something more to life than working, that getting older didn’t necessarily have to mean having less fun. While my parents spent much of their energy protecting us (from rough and tumble older cousins, from the ever-present dangers on the farm, from the supposed evils of too much sugar … the list goes on) Gran mothered us into a world of go-forth engagement.
At my grandmother’s funeral in our rural Lisbon pioneer cemetery, my cousin Rodney recalled one of his favorite stories of our co-mother. My parents had left for their respective jobs that morning with a firm admonition to Gran that she not, under any circumstances, allow me to play tackle football with my older cousins — something I wanted with my whole heart to do. Rodney recalled how Gran waited until she heard the crunch of their car tires on the gravel road to turn to me and say, “Now go out there and play!”
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In my book, and in many others, Grans are not mother’s helpers, mothers-once-removed, or mother’s assistants: they’re mothers of distinction. Mother’s Day is a grand time to thank a grandmother (or aunt) — without the least bit of sheepishness or self-consciousness — for her years of voluntary, and often thankless, service.
In that way, and in so many others, she’s not just a mother of distinction. She’s a mother by definition.
• Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh-generation Iowan and lives in rural Jones County. Comments: email@example.com