How the Generations Before Me Inspired Me to Become the Grandmother I Am Today

“Through spoken stories and unspoken kindnesses, he’ll learn that ours is a tightly woven rope, braided together across the generations”

Nicola Gell / Getty Images
Nicola Gell / Getty Images

“It’s a healthy boy!”

I had been pacing in the hospital’s recovery room for what felt like hours when the text came through from Tony, my son-in-law, along with a photo of a seven-pound, seven-ounce, twenty-one-inch-long brown baby. After twenty long hours of labor, Laura’s doctor had made the call to perform a C-section, painfully similar to my own experience delivering her. Only one person could go with Laura into the operating room, and, of course, that was her husband.

James Anthony Balkissoon, named after my father and his father, respectively, was born at 9:11 a.m. on July 14, 2019.

I had been waiting anxiously to see for myself that Laura and James were both OK, and as I tried to distract myself by sending out copies of that first photo to countless family and friends, it began to sink in that I was now a grandmother. A grandmother!

During her pregnancy, Laura and Tony had asked me to move closer to them—into their building, in fact. Laura had been reflecting on her own childhood, and she appreciated the special role that my parents had played in providing her with a steady and consistent sense of security, unconditional love, and adventure. It was similar to the relationship I’d had with Pudden, who lived right around the corner from us in Chicago. Laura and Tony wanted that for James, and I did, too. So I moved across town into a sleek high-rise full of twenty- and thirty- somethings, one floor above Laura and Tony.

As difficult as it was for me to raise a child as a single mother, it was certainly made a lot easier by my parents. Whether I asked them to take Laura to school and pick her up, babysit when I had to work late, keep Laura overnight if I traveled on the weekend, or help out in any other conceivable way, the answer was always yes. Always. I can’t remember a time when they sounded reluctant or layered on a helping of guilt. They just showed up, gladly. I wanted to be that kind of grandparent, as well.

I look forward to passing on to James the stories of our ancestors, no doubt embellishing the funny ones as my dad always did. I want him to know about his great-great-great-great-grandfather who was born a slave in Wilmington, North Carolina, and how, after he was freed, he saved enough money to send his son to MIT. I want James to learn about his great-great-grandfather’s vision for development of public housing, thwarted by the Chicago city council, and how, five decades later, I was able to help fulfill that vision. I also want James to appreciate the powerful goodness and grace of Pudden, the comfort of her little front room, and the warmth of the delicious meals that she prepared year-round for our large extended family, a tradition continued by my mother. I want him to know the stories of my trailblazing parents growing up during Jim Crow, as well as their adventures living in Iran and traveling around the world. I’ll repeat to him our family’s unique wisdom, such as my father’s saying that sometimes the shortest distance home requires you to take the long way. Throughout his life, I’ll share with him the ways in which he reminds me of his mother at the same age, as well as stories about Laura that will make her eyes roll—and, I hope, make him squeal in delight.

Through spoken stories and unspoken kindnesses, he’ll learn that ours is a tightly woven rope, braided together across the generations, each of us with a special place in our own time, but strengthened by the wisdom, experience, and love of generations past.

From FINDING MY VOICE by Valerie Jarrett, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Embarcadero LLC.

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