Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Grandmothers, the greatest icebreakers

It’s Saturday night. I’m home, by myself. PBS is blaring on the television. I’m resting on my plastic-coated chair with my five cats, which I’ve named Paul, George, Ringo, Johnny and Ed, and I’m working on a quilt.

I look at the clock. It’s 5:03 p.m. Goodness, I missed supper. I order in – Meals on Wheels. Then I take a fiber pill. Some friends come over and we play checkers, before they need to go to bed by 6 p.m.

I then stare out my window and judge the modern world for a while. I have a glass of prune juice. Take another pill. Call all my relatives. No one answers. I leave lengthy messages on all of their phones. I get back to my chair and pet my cats, and break my wrist. I jump up in pain and bust my hip. Then I yell out for help and my jaw falls off.

Sitting in the emergency room, I couldn’t help but be led to the inevitable question that has caused me a bit of concern – am I getting old?

…Okay, of course, this was all made up. None of this happened to me. But I have visions that this is my fate. I don’t like thinking that, in time, my body will fall apart and my memory will dwindle, and I’ll be a hapless victim in this situation, having to experience this and know there’s little I can do about it.

I always thought old age only applied to people who use expressions like “macaroni ears” or “nincompoop.” But I realized something different lately – old age is relative. My concept of old back in my thumb-sucking days has shortened. Now in my late twenties, oscillating between youth and adulthood, that childhood feeling of invincibility I once had is long gone, yet I still feel the detachment of youth.

This feeling caused me to find something that would illuminate the difference between a child and an adult, and I discovered the change between the two could be discerned in one simple act – conversations.

As an adult, you take full responsibility when people talk to you or ask you a question. As a kid, you can ignore people and walk away if you’re so inclined. And no one is bothered by this. It’s perfectly normal to sit quietly and listen, or walk away to the refreshment table and hang back eating cookies and juice, and let others do the heavy word lifting. You don’t have to do a thing.

But as an adult, you carry your weight. You have to engage, discuss, and people will judge you if you walk away for cookies and juice. I know this from experience.

Parents are more than providers. They’re cheerleaders. They’re like the agents of their children, sans the 10 percent commission. If kids don’t want to talk to people, they can turn things over to the parent, who will happily represent them.

And it’s not just the parents who represent kids. It’s all members of the family. Grandparents are especially great at this.

That’s something I miss about my grandmothers. They’ve both passed away, but I never had to say a thing when they introduced me to people. They were my best agents. My mom’s mom, Grace, used to do an incredible job of representing me when I was a kid, and she did so well that all I had to do was stand there and remember to breathe, as she would encapsulate my life in mere seconds.

GRACE: “This is Brian. He’s from North Dakota. He plays piano, violin, plays basketball, and he loves to write.”

There was nothing more to be said at that point. She said it all.

That’s one reason why I wish my grandmothers were still around. My grandmothers knew me better than I knew myself. They had the benefit of time to comprehend the human condition. When I was in pain, they knew exactly what to do to heal me, both physically and emotionally. If they were still here, I know I would certainly be a better person with their help.

So when I meet people these days, I can only wish I had my grandmothers’ social skills and natural compassion. I’ve considered making my grandmother’s introduction into a t-shirt, with an arrow above it pointing up, which would spare me the redundancy of drab introductions with people.

STRANGER: Hi there! Nice to meet you! My name’s Bob! What yours?

ME (with a cookie in my mouth): Read my shirt, Bob.

I’ve tried to swiftly encapsulate my life in seconds, but I’m not able to do it the way my grandmothers were able to.

ME (to Bob’s friend): “Hi, I’m Brian. I live in North Dakota, even though I hate cold weather and I love mountains and the ocean, which I’m nowhere near. I’d travel more to see them if I could, but I drive a 1992 Toyota, which can’t get me very far and miraculously hasn’t been recalled. Ha! I like to write, and I play guitar, and my plans for the future are to someday… hey, Bob’s friend, where are you going?”

By then, Bob’s friend is off to the refreshment table for cookies and juice.

I can’t do it. I don’t have the magic my grandmothers did. Maybe in time I’ll acquire the impressive skills they seemed to exude with such ease. Maybe that’s simply something that time and patience provides.

For now I guess I’ll have to settle for a t-shirt.