Last week, I boarded an airplane that would take me to my grandmother’s memorial service, and as I stood in the aisle to my seat, I waited while a young mother juggled two babies. She had accidentally sat in the row ahead of ours and now the rightful owners were insisting on having their seats, rather than just taking hers. The young mother had a studio apartment’s worth of baby gear so it took a Herculean effort to relocate. I asked her if I could help and put my arms out for the baby.
She gratefully handed me the youngest who turned out to be 7 months old. The older child was no more than nine months older than the one in my arms, so the mother had her work cut out for her on the five hour flight from DC to Arizona. Once blankets and shoes and stuffed animals were where they needed to be, the mother and the two babies settled in the seats next to me and while we spoke only a few times, I smiled and played with the baby throughout the flight, and on a few occasions, held the youngest while the mother tended to the older child.
Memories of when my 18 year-old daughters were babies came flooding back.
The entire flight I forced myself to hold in the tears that had clogged my throat and flooded my eyes. It had been so long since I’d held a baby, and today was November 1st and my two daughters – both seniors in high school – had just applied to a handful of colleges, meeting the early action and early decision deadline. Only hours earlier, we’d hit “submit.” November 1 would demarcate a time in our family’s life that began the separation of our family unit. This time next year, two of three of my daughters would be away at college. And while we would still be a family, we would never again be a family like we’d been for the last eighteen years.
Promises were professed by my girls: to stay on the east coast, to come home for every holiday, to always keep our family unit strong. But I knew how that worked; I’d committed the ultimately family treason in moving across the country and never returning, now only seeing my family a few times a year. It happens.
Throughout the flight, I wanted to tell the young mother what many veteran moms had told me back in the day: it goes so fast, that you don’t realize it now when you’re living for nap times, and minutes seemed like hours, and hours like days, and this five hour flight across the country felt like a millennium. I wanted to tell her how it seemed like just a day ago when my husband and I had traveled with two young babies, how we bounced them on our knees until our legs cramped and our faces in their perpetual smiles felt like clay.
On one occasion I opened my phone and pulled up a recent photo of my two girls, dressed in sleek dresses for their last Homecoming dance. They’d gone from two-year old toddlers in shiny black Mary Janes with white ruffle socks to elegant high heels in slinky dresses. They were no longer cute girls or pretty teenagers; they were dazzling adults. But I never showed the mother my photo, nor did I give her the “it goes so fast” spiel as I remember internally rolling my eyes when I’d been told the same.
She would need to live the time warp herself; she would need to pass through the molasses days of babyhood until the days gave way to the flipbook of childhood, where time accelerates so fast you could almost watch your child grow from photo to photo.
My grandmother lived to be 102 years old and at her service, there was an opportunity for people to speak of their memories and reflections about this woman who was a Navy nurse and who tended to wounded soldiers from Pearl Harbor and the Aleutian Islands. At the time, she was an officer and the man she met and would soon marry, was enlisted, and because rules forbade the marrying of officers and enlisted, it was my grandmother who retired from the service, which she loved so much. She went on to a lifelong career in nursing. People who spoke on her behalf described her the same way, as ahead of her time, in holding liberal views among her conservative lifestyle being married to her second husband, a minister.
My grandmother played the organ for the church and raised a family and nursed, but what I didn’t know, what I never saw, was what everyone said about her. She questioned everything, from religion to politics to sociology. She was curious and adventurous.
How do we account for the passage of time?
Now, two days later, I sit on another airplane flying back home after having attended the memorial, and once again, I’m filled with a sense of questioning, maybe inspired by my grandmother, to account for the passage of time and how one reconciles the beginnings with middles with ends. Where does the memory stop? As a writer, and often the teacher of writing courses, I ask my students to think about where their memory stops, as if they were on a bus and their memories were bus stops. I think those stops represent the significant moments in our life.
If we can remember a moment in time, all these years later, then there must be something to it. Many of my memories stop in childhood. Psychologists say that there is no more important time than childhood and it’s no surprise that we remember those years with the greatest clarity. I remember visiting my grandmother and standing in her garden with flowering cabbage plants; I remember Christmases at her house; I remember her crystal candy dish with butter mints.
As a mother, my memories also stop in childhood, but now my daughters’ childhoods. I remember traveling from China with a one-year-old newly adopted daughter to meet the one year-old biological daughter at home. I remember placing them side by side and watching them wail. I remember their first bath together. But then we hit the “go” button and I scarcely remember – nor can I account for – where the next seventeen years went. Double strollers, two highchairs, eventually a third daughter – the years flew by. The girls turned six, twelve, and now eighteen.
My grandmother was around for all of this, as a witness to my family’s growing, and she undoubtedly had much to say about my “not-quite-twin” twins. After all, she was a twin, herself, and voiced strong opinions about how her mother forced her and her twin to dress the same and act the same, when they were entirely different. But she never said a word to me about it, other than to say what she didn’t like about her forced sameness. She allowed me to have my own experience raising same-age daughters.
I think about the young mother on my way out to the memorial, bobbling two babies and not seeing beyond the diapers and feedings. I was just there, it seems, and now I’m here, and college applications are in, and soon two/thirds of my babies will be gone. I think about my grandmother and what it was like to live 102 years, to share space with a twin all those years, to watch the generations create families of their own. I think about what it means to truly see our lives with clarity and perspective and wonder when that time will come.
Does the roller coaster ever stop, giving us time to account for the years that have passed? Or is it a blur of a ride, all the way to the end?
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Jennifer Handford is the author of DAUGHTERS FOR A TIME, a novel People magazine hailed as “a wrenching, resonant debut about infertility, cancer and adoption. Grab your hankies.” She is also the author of ACTS OF CONTRITION and THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN FLOWERS which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is the mother of three daughters, an Eleventh-grade English teacher, and an occasional essayist and blogger. Find her at www.jenniferhandford.com