The new grandmother

Sometimes in your daily life you forge the most unexpected and improbable bonds.

The building where I work is huge and toilets are outside the offices in the long corridors. After a certain time we get to know people – women, in this case – that you meet over and over again when you go there.

It is also the case of two very nice cleaning ladies that we usually meet there, while they are working – sometimes they have barred our access while they are doing the cleaning but then they see us and they kindly let us in, so that we are nor forced to walk back through the long corridor to the other toilets – on the opposite side of the building.

These two cleaning ladies work as a team, as I always see them together – one is around forty, with two young teenage boys; and the other one will be in her mid-late fifties, and has just become a grandmother.

I don’t know much about them as we usually only share stories about our children – as mothers do – but I know most of these women have very tough lives; usually they live in suburban areas and they have to get the public transport before dawn so that they may clean the offices before we all arrive. Maybe in the case of these two ladies it’s different, as they are there all day, while the others go out around eight in the mornings and come back at 7 in the afternoon.

Still, it is normal that after a certain time we began chatting for a few minutes when we see each other, and that’s how one day, about a year ago, the older lady told me her daughter was living in Copenhagen – the reason for this being that I was going to Copenhagen on a business trip and had mentioned that. After my return I told her I had loved the city and she told me her daughter loved it too – her daughter and son in law being among the thousands of Portuguese young people forced to emigrate due to the crisis (nowadays most Portuguese families have at least one son or daughter who is working outside Portugal, something most uncommon only a decade ago). Then one day she was smiling and her eyes were shining as she told me she was going to become a grandmother.

However different women may be, the subject of children, motherhood, babies, and all related, bring us all together and it was not different in this case – both my colleagues and I took to asking her about how her daughter was doing, and she kept us updated, proudly showing us pictures of the first ultrasound done to the unborn baby. Her happiness and enthusiasm were really contagious – and suddenly it was as if she were someone we had known for some time and we were really interested in knowing how the pregnancy was going, if her daughter was feeling well, if it was a boy or a girl…finally she proudly announced it was going to be a boy and that his name would be Vicente. From then on, of course, the baby took on a personality of his own and we always asked about little Vicente.

Months went by and one day as we asked for news she told us her daughter would be coming to stay with her for the final months of her pregnancy. Her son in law, a mechanical engineer in a multinational company, was travelling constantly, and all had agreed she would be better off with her parents. So she came and her mother, and father – were thrilled. One day her daughter, Margarida, came to see her mother and we met her – after all she heard as much about us as we about her, it seemed. She is a nice girl and I admired her spirit as, even in her last months of pregnancy, she found a temporary job and would not stay at home just doing nothing – as she might have. But she wanted to remain active and I wholeheartedly agree with her – pregnancy is not a disease, as some women seem to think – on the contrary, it is an affirmation of a healthy state.

The first day she returned after the birth of Vicente, the lady was so happy! She couldn’t stop smiling as she showed us the baby’s photos and we all agreed he was so cute…all newborn babies look very much the same, except to their parents and grandparents of course, but none of us would ever say that…there is a sort of solidarity amongst us and the usual comment is about “cuteness” – and so everybody is happy!

Then she told us the baby would be leaving with his parents for Denmark at 3 months old, the advisable age for travelling. As much as we told her there was still some time before that and she kept saying that to herself, we could see that she was already dreading that moment. As it approached she was more and more withdrawn and she told us that her husband was even worse – they had of course become so very attached to the baby and they were loath to see both their daughter – whom they felt needed their help – and the baby leave.

But – this being the case of so many Portuguese mothers and fathers, unfortunately – there came the day when they had to see their daughter and the baby off at the airport and I sympathised with them as it must have been very hard. And I imagine – with many tears, as well.

In the following weeks the lady put on a brave face – and we understood she had to do that mostly for her husband’s sake, as he was missing the baby even more than her, she told us. And they kept consoling themselves through all the new technological means that we have today so that distance may hurt a little less: Skype, Face Time, WhatsApp, etc, etc. And that way they could see little Vicente day after day and watch his progress. And counting the days for the summer holidays and the month of July to come!

Only last week, again I met this lady in the toilet, and as I was about to ask about her grandson she could not hide her happiness and she burst out “Imagine who will be arriving next Saturday?!”, and I could see she was booming. As I could not think of anything that would leave her in such a happy state but the coming of her grandson, I ventured “Don’t tell me…Vicente is coming?”, and she was all joy as she replied “Yes, yes, imagine, Margarida and the baby are coming to live with us for the next few months as my son in law will be travelling a lot to countries such as Mexico and Brazil and they would have to be by themselves for long periods – and he’d rather they stay here with us. So they will be arriving next Saturday and will be staying here until the end of August!”

I was surprised at how happy I felt about this lady! After all, I hardly know her, nor is she a friend…but I can really sympathise with her, and her palpable happiness was so contagious that I shared it. I congratulated her on such happy news and I must confess I even felt like hugging her (which I didn’t, for propriety’s sake…). We shared some brief moments of niceties (“what a fantastic surprise, I imagine how thrilled your husband must be”…) and as I was walking back down the corridor to my office, I told myself I am really a changed person, never before did I feel so empathic with other people – that I really know very little – but the fact is that now I value much more the little joys of life and, as sharing other people’s painful moments also affects me more, so does happiness in others make me feel joyous and thankful to life.

The fact is the rest of my day was made brighter by the happiness this lady had shared with me. I could not help but think of my favourite sentence: “Life is full of wonderful surprises”. Again, it was true, what a surprise she had had when her daughter had announced she would be coming this Saturday! As I write, how she will be enjoying her grandson, and how secure he must feel as his grandparents hold him with that tenderness only grandparents have…and that I know very well, as I lived many years with mine…

This is a simple story. A story of a woman like so many others, but unique, in a way. I wanted to share it, the story of this lady who will be a grandmother at a distance, but who will always strive to be as close to her grandson as possible. I know he will love her, and his Granddad, very much. He will be coming to spend his summer holidays with them and will be counting the days to come to the sunny country of his origin. And then who knows how things will turn – after all, isn’t life full of wonderful surprises?

One of them will certainly be what I will feel when I become a grandmother myself. It will still be a few years – I hope, as my boys are still too young – but I’m sure I’ll love every moment of it. As I’ve heard it defined – “to be a grandmother is like becoming a mother, but adding a sugar cube” – a sort of “sweeter motherhood”- it must really be something to look forward to.