Even back when I was a straight married lady, I did not long to produce little creatures who looked like me. I had a womb and a husband with the requisite matching equipment, but I lacked the appetite for motherhood. Luckily he was more committed to grinding his way toward a Ph.D. than doing his bit for the future of the human race, and I preferred laboring over short stories to folding nappies and filling sippy cups. (Had those even been invented in those Dark Ages?)
Then, when I crossed the Great Divide, deserting heterosexual-land and becoming a dyke, I was relieved I had not indulged in motherhood so that I could enter unencumbered into the heightened world of Women's Movement lesbian lifestyle. Nowadays lesbians live like heterosexuals, taking straight jobs, getting married to each other where possible, and bearing and raising children. But back then we survived on unemployment checks, agitated politically, wrote poetry, had serial and sometimes simultaneous love affairs, and danced in the bars till 2 a.m., after which we went for cheeseburgers at gay restaurants in the Castro. Busy with the revolution, passionate liaisons and other adventures, we left it to the heterosexuals to birth and raise the next generation.
Not once did I regret my decision. So imagine my surprise, three decades later, to find myself walking an 8-year-old home from school and then sitting with her as we draw cats -- a baseball cat with cap and bat, wedding cats (her choice, obviously) in tux and long white dress, a yoga cat with her feet behind her neck. Then, listening to an 11-year-old towheaded boy practice his trumpet (having told him how I played trumpet in high school, and even demonstrated a few notes). Or creating a theatrical performance with the whimsical 6-year-old, who floats about like Isadora at the drop of a tutu. And finally, the 4-year-old boy who several years ago stood at my elbow, fixed me with a grave look, and announced, "You are a person, right?" Yes, I answered. And he said, touching his narrow chest, "And I am a person." Yes, I agreed. He seemed relieved.
Who am I to them? Well, I'm not exactly grandma, because my partner fills that role as their "blood"grandma, the woman who raised their parents. Mostly, I'm just plan Sandy to them. Do they care that we are both women and gay? They think it's just fine. And while I never would have asked for this, I've also realized that now, I can't imagine living without them.
I took a while to warm up to the idea of having little people who saw me as part of the family scene. When I signed onto this caravan there was just one little creature, a yellow-haired tyke who raced naked down hallways, pushing a toy stroller, and hid under the grand piano with his grandma (a lively creature herself) when it was time to disappear. I watched from the middle distance, waiting to see if I would like him.
He did seem to covet his toys, he was loudly demanding, sometimes his romps developed into crazy chimpanzee maneuvers that ended in crashes and hysterical tears. On the other hand, he looked sweet and impossibly innocent in his default mode, and now and then he gently took my hand or crawled up on my lap, or greeted me with wide-eyed delight. He was winning. Just as I felt my hockey-puck heart start to crumble at its margins, another infant appeared. Then another, and another, all of them living on a double lot in Berkeley and sharing their lives with my partner and me.
What surprises me is how, as I get closer to them, I come to see my own past differently. I suppose, had I had children of my own, all this would have arisen as they were growing up. But because I skipped that stage, when I watch older child mistreating younger, I flip back into my own youth in which my sister took her opportunities to punish me for being daddy's favorite. I shuttle back and forth from yelling encouragement to a junior acrobat bouncing on the trampoline to my own juniorhood in which I doggedly, hopelessly longed for a trampoline that never materialized. When I watch a little moppet squirm at dinner and refuse the chicken and salad, I time-travel to our dinner table in Ohio, to stare at the lurid piece of liver dominating my plate, knowing I will not leave the table until I have choked it down. I listen to a tiny boy struggling to learn words and piece together language, and I am fascinated at the work and dedication it takes to develop a human being. Watching how tenderly these grandchildren are cared for and responded to and encouraged, I feel a squoshy ball of sadness in my chest at the distance my mother kept from us kids, watching from across the room when a hug would have helped so much. And so I coach myself to step forward and pick up a fallen child, even kissing a battered knee or scraped elbow when it feels necessary. I cycle through my judgments when a kid refuses to eat the hot dog because it was sliced differently from last time or the pasta because it has pepper on it. I mope when the 11-year-old gleefully beats me at Monopoly, remembering a time in my young life when, like him, I would have gone without food and sleep for days in order to continue playing that game.
There are moments when I am touched by their concern for me. Walking home from school one day with the 11-year-old boy, I was menaced by a bicycle approaching from the back, which I did not see. Like a grown-up man, he took my arm and steered me close to him so the bike could pass. The moment was the more poignant because I remembered him so vividly as that baby racing behind a stroller down the hallway.
I never wanted children. I never thought I'd have anything approaching "maternal instinct." But it turns out this gay grandma business boils down to a simple condition. As the 4-year-old put it, "You're a person, and I'm a person." Exactly.