A Temporary Insanity

"Riding into the Sunset" by Jiaren Lau / CC BY 2.0

The possibility had been gnawing at her since the first grandchild came. The new parents, daughter and husband, brought the baby home to a tiny house in a town three hundred miles away from her. Visits were short and sometimes tense. The baby didn't sleep much. Nobody slept much. The dishes sat dirty in the sink, and there were piles of laundry on the sofa. The television was on more than she liked.

It was hard to be there and hard to leave. When they pulled away from the curb, she turned her head away and and breathed hard through her nose. I just love her so much, she said to her husband. He was quiet for a moment. I remember us in those days, he replied.

The daughter's husband started nursing school and kept his old job at the equipment yard. He is a hard worker, and the daughter is, too. The day care person is wonderful but sometimes she is closed, and sometimes she is sick. Sometimes the baby is sick. I don't want you to put yourself out, the daughter assures her on the phone, the cheer not quite concealing the desperation.

She drives up to help whenever she can.

Sometimes she and the daughter let the little boy sleep in the carseat while they cruise the town looking at houses for sale. The town is a charming old college town in the Palouse country of eastern Washington, with avenues of mansions built by rich wheat farmers. They gaze at stately Queen Annes in the college neighborhood, deep front porches held up by lathed posts twined with wisteria growing from gnarled trunks. They look at sturdy ranch houses on half-acres of vegetables and dahlias, and low-slung glass-walled trophy homes facing the golf course. She can see the longing in her daughter's eyes. She remembers. Thirty-one years ago she brought this baby girl home to a dad and a big brother in a two-bedroom apartment with with one bathroom and a coin-op washer across the parking lot.

She remembers wanting her mother then. Now the daughter says, Look, that one would hold all of us. You and dad could have the west wing. You're kidding, she says. Maybe, says the daughter with a smile. But it gives her a thrill to think about it.

The possibility begins to grow, a temporary insanity. Isn't this how people did in the old days? Three generations under one roof, four adults raising the child, relief for the young working folks and care for the old ones as they get older?

She speaks her yearning to a friend. A sweet fantasy from our agrarian past, the friend says. Think about it. Do you really want to be the go-to babysitter? Do you want to live in each other's laps? She thinks about it. I'd have to set some boundaries, she says.

Boundaries! says the friend. They didn't have boundaries in the old days. Boundaries are a modern construct.

The toddler learns to recognize his grandma and grandpa, though at first he is wary. He is an intense, emotional child, a thrower of monumental tantrums. The parents try ignoring, distracting, redirecting, reasoning. They impose time out, during which the toddler continues his tantrum in the corner. They bargain. They threaten. They yell, though they try not to. They are tired all the time. She knows this and she tries not to judge. She thinks, I could be a real help here just by setting an example of consistent discipline. She does not say this, although at one difficult dinner she ventures that negotiating with a three-year-old as if he were a grown-up.... She doesn't get the thought out before the daughter blows up. What do you want me to do, beat him? She backs down in the face of the shouting. A moment later the daughter, tearful, holds both arms out and they embrace. Nothing more is said.

Sometimes she has to get out of the house. She pedals her son-in-law's bicycle through the neighborhoods, examines modest affordable houses that just need a little paint, a bit of fixing on the porch railing, someone to take the garden in hand. She peers at the flyers through the plate glass of the real-estate office. She can't stop her mind from doing the math: selling her house will yield $___ after the rest of the mortgage is paid, and if we put down, let's say, $___ on, oh, that little Craftsman (such a charming house and not too badly run down), then ....

The numbers pulse like alternating current through her brain, and she feels her breath coming shorter and quicker.

She remembers the feeling she used to get as a kid at the swimming hole, grabbing the thick knotted rope and taking a running jump, swaying out over the water, slowing into the apex of the arc, resting in that eternal weightless moment, and then the drop. She remembers the bigger kids shouting from the bank, Let go! Let go!

It is hard to leave. Always hard. There are tears, awkwardly dashed away. But at Cascade Locks she starts to smell the river-loam, St. Helen's-ash, Douglas-fir perfume of the Willamette Valley, and she inhales it gratefully for the last eighty miles home. She steps through her own front door, drops her bag, and heads out the back door to her garden. Here are her tall oaks with their green branches bending tenderly over the creek. Here are her vegetable beds feathered with carrot tops, onion sprouts like green exclamation points. What am I thinking? she asks herself. How could I leave this place?

She closes her eyes and sees the toddler's grimy grinning face and her daughter's belly just rounding with the second pregnancy. She feels an almost physical tug from the northeast, and her heart quivers like a compass needle.

The baby is born, another lovely strong boy. The toddler learns to talk and becomes quite reasonable. The son-in-law finishes his nursing degree and gets a job at a hospital in a desert town only two hundred fifty miles away from her. Which is great, but oh! the town.

Oh, dear.

The town marches grimly over sagebrush flats, acres and acres of near-identical houses on grids of cutely named streets, each with its lavishly irrigated front and back lawns (in the middle of a desert!), and the neighborhoods cut up every few miles by rectilinear four-lane commercial strips, and the whole thing straining against a tangled net of freeways.

She tries to like it. She walks to the store from her daughter's house and buys groceries and carries them back in her canvas food co-op bag. She does this all the time at home. Lots of people in her town walk their groceries home in canvas food co-op bags. Some people carry their groceries home on bicycles with smug bumper stickers that say One Less Car. (In a university town, she thinks, people should at least get the grammar right.)

Here she catches curious looks from passersby. Twice she has to jump back onto the curb to let a heedless driver turn in front of her. She realizes that nobody walks in her daughter's town, and that only children and poor people ride bicycles.

She realizes she disapproves of this town and of everyone in it. Nearly everyone. She is ashamed of her disapproval.

But the daughter and her family finally have a big house, and they are thrilled. They don't mind if it looks like all the others. There are enough bedrooms for themselves and the boys, and for her and her husband when they visit. She is not unhappy to trade the old lumpy futon for a real bed. There is a rumpus room with a pool table.

While the men putter with the cars or shoot pool over beers, she and the daughter browse Wal-Mart and Costco, pushing the wire cart with the infant in his carseat and examining sofa pillows and side tables. Sometimes they leave the boys with dad and grandpa and go out for sushi, just the two of them. She loves this; she loves this.

She loves this, and the insanity comes back, and the prospect of cutting all her ties and changing her whole life makes perfect sense. What is it about a quandary that splits reality in two? She looks up quandary and finds that its etymology—fittingly—is uncertain. It may be derived from a Middle English root meaning evil, plight, peril, adversity, difficulty, or it might come from the Latin root quando, meaning when.

Neither of these satisfactorily explains the pickle she feels herself in, of being so strongly pulled in two directions that she doesn't know who she is. When she is home she is one person, the sensible cautious woman she's known her whole life, the person who has adjusted to a comfortable middle age with some resignation but mostly with gratitude; things could be worse. At her daughter's she is someone else entirely, a bolder, freer, more adventurous woman who looks to the future and sees an infinity of bright possibilities.

She doesn't know this woman very well, but she'd like to know her better.

She takes the son-in-law's bicycle out again, keeping a weather eye for clueless drivers. The houses are cheap. She finds one for sale across from the elementary school, decent-sized, three bedrooms, bigger than their own house. The price is astonishingly low. If we sold our house tomorrow, she calculates, we could buy this house outright. And it's bigger! Three bedrooms! Is it a sign from heaven?

She constructs an elaborate fantasy of the older boy walking from kindergarten to grandma's house. She welcomes him with milk and wholesome crackers, she lures him away from his video games with a jolly round of double solitaire. Or they play catch in the backyard, or ride bicycles if it's not too hot or too cold or too dusty or too windy, if they can find a place away from traffic.

She vows not to tell her daughter about the house, but she can't stop herself. Her daughter sighs and says, mom, it would be so wonderful to have you and dad here, but I know you have your own life. She tries to read her daughter's face, her sigh. Is this permission to go ahead? Or a warning not to? Maybe her daughter needs boundaries of her own.

On the long, coffee-fueled drive home the insanity swells to a tsunami in her head, and she is swept away on a foamy crest of reckless planning, endlessly elaborating on the permutations:

They could sell the house (they'd have to put in a new bathroom vanity and of course repaint inside and out and a bunch of other stuff but that's no big deal). They could buy a new house in their daughter's town. Yes it would be a cookie-cutter house but they could make it their own inside. She would rip out the damned lawn and grow raspberries with drip irrigation.

Or they could rent their house out and rent something up there, an apartment or a condo. She conjures up renters for her own house: a visiting professor, polite and accented, with an accomplished wife and adorable children. Or they could sell their house now and rent up there and bank the money. As her husband drives, she scribbles numbers on the back of her magazine, does long division, figures out a purchase price and a down payment that would put them in the sweet spot of being mortgage-free. See? It would be a good financial move!

Those boys are going to be teenagers before we know it, she tells him. It's now or never. She imagines them walking up the daughter's driveway carrying an ice cream cake for the baby's first birthday. She imagines the older boy hitting a baseball off a tee, and a couple years later, when he plucks a soaring fly out of the air and trots back to the dugout, she and her husband stand up and yell, the grandparents, rapt and loyal and present.

The next morning she wakes up in her own bed and pings her emotional circuits and finds them still charged with electricity. She thinks about her church, her friends, her volunteer work. I gathered a community around myself when I moved here, she tells herself, and I can do it again. At this she feels but prefers not to register a momentary dimming, like what happens to the lights when a tree grazes a high-voltage line.

Two weeks go by. She sits on her back porch and drinks her coffee and contemplates her garden, the way old people like to do. It's May; the lilacs are blooming and the rosebuds are starting to swell. The creek bank is lush with new growth of Indian plum and oak leaves unfurling and billows of Himalayan blackberry. The neighbor's backyard is fifteen feet away across the creek, but she can't see it through the green blanket, which makes her feel enclosed and protected.

She pictures her daughter's backyard: a rectangular patch of irrigated grass, a reef of concrete patio bleached by the desert sun, a few tough rosebushes around the fence line.

If she had to pick a totem plant, it would not be a rose or a sage or a tumbleweed. It would be a foxglove or a peony, something wet, tender-walled, fragile. Difficult to transplant. This garden, the sitting, the quiet, all give her a peace she never had when she was her daughter's age. But of course she didn't need it then, didn't want it. She was young.

She probes herself for the insane electricity. It's gone.

Yet sometimes the peace feels like a coma. Sometimes the green blanket feels like a shroud. Sometimes she wants to thrust her arms through her safe life and rip her way out. What if I die in this house? The thought fills her with dread.

The evening before another trip north, she's out checking the sprinklers when a deer peers into the yard from the creek bank. She recognizes him. He's a regular, a yearling buck with two nubbins on his forehead. Go home, she says, without conviction. The deer pauses and stares at her. She picks up a piece of gravel and throws it awkwardly. It falls short, rustling the shrubbery. The deer retreats a couple of steps. Well, are you going or staying? she asks him. He gazes back at her with his long inscrutable face.

The older grandson boils out the door when they arrive, wearing a bicycle helmet and clutching his Power Ranger. He gives them extravagant hugs and showers them with chatter. The baby toddles behind, holding his mother's hand. I'll bet you hardly recognize them, says her daughter. Yes, she replies, they're different boys every time we come.

She says this every time they come.

The older boy wants to ride bikes with grandma. They wheel wide circles in the street, she shouting at him to watch for cars, he shouting at her to watch him go so fast! Afterward they pump up his bike tires. She presses the end of the pump's hose into the fleshy web between her thumb and forefinger and says, Now push on the pump. The hose emits a farting noise, which cracks him up, which cracks her up. They do it again and again. Her daughter sticks her head through the garage door: What are you two doing? They are laughing too hard to explain. She loves this. She loves this. How can she leave?


Belonging, Culture, Family, Identity, Place, Values, Home


4 comments have been posted.

This essay speaks to all grandparents who have the luxury of considering this insanity. Which life is more fulfilling? The life of the friends and home you have established over the years of growing older (which is comfortable but is likely to change over time) or participating more actively in the life of your children and grandchildren (which may not match the ideals you imagine but which will challenge you and perhaps add another dimension to "retirement"?) You might regret either choice. Gail, and I,seem still undecided. ?

Joy Fitzpatrick | February 2015 | Coeur d'Alene,Idaho

Well said! Don't we all live with ifs and ands . . . until we finally surrender to what is . . . and trust what shall be . . .

Patricia Kowal | January 2015 | Spokane, WA

Wells describes my own teetering between my home and a new beginning, not due to grandkids, more economical. Still the same tension is so perfectly put here that I just stop at the end and breathe deep. I know this about good writing, how it can feel like the essayist saw the very insides of your own thinking - how he/she comes at you with something that approaches tenderness and humor, and you are hooked. Gail Wells has managed to do that incredible meandering that a good essay does without losing the thread. It arrived in the inbox with a certain grace. And I think it's one of the best conclusions to a piece that I've read in some time. There is no easy wrap-up, no major decision made, which is just right. The essay sent me to her website to read any essays she has there.

Melissa Madenski | January 2015 | United States

Thank you for this. I think there must be an entire generation of grandparents struggling with this exact issue. We want our lives but find that the lives of the newest generation increasingly defines our life. My mother's grandmother moved into the house with her daughter and granddaughters. Three generations were once the norm in a house. Unmarried people lived with family or in a boarding house. The multi-generation household is far enough in the past that most people think the nuclear family is "traditional." Your essay is a moving and truthful exploration of how we define home, about where and with whom we create a meaningful place to live.

Jan Priddy | January 2015 | Arch Cape, Oregon

Related Stories