Ever since I gently, though through clenched teeth, explained to my mother that M and I had decided we didn’t feel comfortable with her taking the children out on her own, I know she has been working hard to “earn back her Grandma card,” as she put it. I hadn’t planned to tell her this at all — just to quietly never let it happen — but that day she had taken E2 out of the pushchair and put her down in a carpark and then turned her back on her to unload the bags into the car and, upon finishing and turning back around for her, been completely surprised to find that E2 had disappeared. We spent a frantic 30 seconds (which felt like minutes… hours… years…) running amongst cars screaming her name, and eventually found her toddling unsteadily five whole cars away. Driving home, I held my tongue for 30 minutes, making small talk while my insides swirled with molten anger, until I could stand it no longer and finally had to gather my composure and explain to her — calmly, evenly — that this sort of thing had happened too many times and that she needed to be aware that her unthinking behaviour was dangerous.
She cried at the realisation and then, over time, tried very hard to modify her behaviour. She made a great show of being exceedingly careful and never taking any chances, for which I was very grateful, and sympathetic to her obvious desperation, but which didn’t — couldn’t — actually make much difference to my feelings on the matter. The careless behaviour that causes me such unease is not anything she can ever change — it is part of who she is, essential to how she wings her way through life, part of her very make-up. She cannot really change it, any more than a butterfly could fly in a straight line instead of flutter.
There were a million things M and I needed to accomplish on the house this weekend — there are boxes to unpack, a huge chest of drawers to move from one room to another, an light switch to replace, and furniture to assemble — and so we asked my mother if she would mind taking the girls to her house for the afternoon so we could get really stuck in. Though we don’t feel comfortable with her taking them out, I am relatively comfortable with her babysitting them in the controlled environments of our house or hers. She was happy to have the girls. Yesterday, she rang me to ask what time to pick them up. “So… I could pick them up and then take them through the car wash — they love that! And then…” Her voice changed slightly, “We could go… we could go to the play area at the mall… “ She’d said it with hopefulness. And then her voiced changed again, to something more resigned, “Or would you rather I just took them back to my house?”
I paused before I answered her. I wanted to tell her to take them to the mall — I wanted to give her back her Grandma card. But then my mind flashed back to that day — only three months ago — when E2 was left to wander on her own in a carpark… and to another day when I saw E1′s curly hair bobbing away from the car as my mother turned her back on her in a carpark as well… to the way she has inadvertently downgraded E2′s allergies to “intolerances” in conversation with friends, with waiters… to the times my mum has neglected to read ingredients lists (or “read” them without putting her glasses on) before giving some new food to the girls… to the time she didn’t notice that what E2 was sucking on was a bleach bottle she’d dug out of the rubbish bin. I wanted to say yes… I wanted to… But I thought of her getting the girls out of the car on her own in that carpark, so busy in the run up to Christmas. I thought of the mall, filled with people, all the crowds, the confusion. I thought of the food, that minefield of dangerous food in the food hall, and the scraps that would be on the floor at the play area. She would have the Epi-Pen, but I’m not even confident that she remembers how to use it — and, hell, I don’t want it to come to that anyway.
“Um… ” I began, with all the lightness I could muster. “Why don’t you take them back to the house so they can see their grandad? They haven’t seen him in a while… and, besides, the mall will be so crowded this weekend!”
She saw straight through it, and we both knew the truth despite my attempt at a happy spin. “Yes… Ok,” she replied, audibly dejected.
When I opened the door today, she greeted me with a grin, saying, “I’ll be in in a minute! I’ve brought you a birdfeeder and some seed and I want to run around the back and hang it up!” She had a face like a kid — she loves doing this kind of thing for her grandkids. I smiled — the girls would be so delighted to see the birds that would come — and told her to put it in the tree that we can see from the dining room. Then I ushered both girls to window to watch Grandma fill the feeder and hang it up. She ripped open the bag and a handful of the contents arced into the air and splattered to the ground. And then as she poured, yet more of it escaped, bouncing as it spread across on the deck.
I looked at it in sudden shock. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing? Was I? I looked at the bag, upside-down in my mother’s hands, and read the label: Nut and Seed Mix for Birds… I watched in utter disbelief as my mother poured peanuts across our deck. Peanuts onto the deck of the house where her beloved grandchild lives with a life-threatening peanut allergy.
When she came back in, I thanked her for the birdfeeder, and then gently pointed out that it was probably better to buy just seed mix from now on, not mixes that contain nuts of any kind — particularly (ahem!) peanuts. “Oh!” she said, her hand covering her mouth and with a look of sudden horror on her face. “I never thought…!”
I know she hadn’t. She hadn’t thought. And for that reason, my mother will never be able soothe my fears. She is what she is — kind, loving, generous, but wholly unthinking and too often dangerous for it. And I am reminded that I must always be confident enough to trust my own gut instincts where my children are concerned.
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