Beloved first grandchild leaves home

Hannah Smolar, high school graduate. To her grandmother, "still way too young" for college - "except that she wasn't." RUTH ROVNER
Hannah Smolar, high school graduate. To her grandmother, "still way too young" for college - "except that she wasn't." RUTH ROVNER
Posted: August 24, 2012

It was 18 years ago. It was yesterday.

No matter how long I live, I will never forget the cry that rang out in the birthing suite at Pennsylvania Hospital on that October afternoon. Suddenly, there was a new inhabitant of planet Earth: my first grandchild.

Red-faced, tiny fists clenched, this baby girl was clearly expressing her displeasure at being booted out of the home that had sheltered her for nine long months. But she was ready to take on the world.

From that instant, I knew that nothing would ever be the same for me. I was now somebody's grandmother.

I was obsessed with Hannah - her skin, her downy soft yellow-white hair, her feet. I was madly, deliriously in love.

But it was love once removed. . . .

My daughter, her mother, had primacy. I had to learn to step aside and take my cues from the very person who once needed me to navigate the world for her. It was one of the most profound, most challenging lessons of grandparenting.

There would be six more babies tumbling into our lives, as our three daughters reminded us of life's longing for itself. Each one was miraculous, each one was different from all the others.

But a first grandchild, like a first child, is the unwitting training ground, and Hannah was ours. Each first with her was brand-new, each last a tad painful.

With my own daughters, there was boundless love - and also the tedium and steady drip-drip of daily life. With Hannah, it was love reborn ... without the tedium. I could easily have spent all of my days holding her.

She was a perfect companion who fit perfectly into the hollow where my shoulder meets my neck. The notion that in my arms was a creature with generations of us in her bone marrow left me breathless. And grateful. And awed.

But as fast as time gallops by for a parent, a grandchild's passages travel at warp speed.

From that first delicious laugh of infancy to those brave wobbly steps executed in tiny shoes, to Hannah's flying off into the wind on her first two-wheeler bike, every milestone came smudged with endings and beginnings - and yes, regret.

Soon, no more zipping up her snowsuits or helping her eager hands to master the profound mysteries of lacing shoes. No more silly nonsense songs with endless verses.

"Enough!" I often felt as a weary mother. "More!" I greedily demanded as a grandmother.

Hannah grew taller and surer. She needed the space to stretch and risk. She was still delighted to see us - but also caught up in her own world. It was totally, completely predictable. What the experts call a "developmental stage."

But the first time Hannah turned down an invitation to see a hit musical with her grandfather and me - sweetly, politely, but firmly, because she had other plans - I thought my heart would break.

I had a new learning curve to climb: Hannah's adolescence.

And just when she was emerging from that long tunnel, so smart, so funny, so spirited and bright, a new vocabulary was surfacing. It was full of enchanting terms like PSATs, SATs, GPAs, and came wrapped in weekend trips to survey colleges.

Say what? College was something for other people's grandchildren. Hannah was still way too young.

Except that she wasn't.

I understood when Hannah finally created a "no-college-questions" zone. Our granddaughter bulldozed her way through it all, and as she did, I discovered yet another Hannah, this one more intense, verbal, determined, focused - and yes, funny. She could even laugh at the craziness of it all, and did.

On the day the letter from her dream school was expected, she chased the mailman all the way down her suburban street, determined to get that sacred piece of mail in her hands before another moment passed.

Hannah was into Barnard!

So, starting later this month, our granddaughter will experience life in Manhattan at a storied women's college, far from the leafy suburb of Merion.

How I'll miss the easy familiarity of hearing her breathless voice on the phone when I call, and she's miraculously at home before tennis practice or after babysitting.

I can't imagine holidays without her across the table - but those holidays will undoubtedly come.

Now, along with studying linguistics and psychology, literature and the arts, Hannah is on to the most remarkable education of all: learning who she is away from her moorings.

I try to imagine how it will be for her in a cramped space with a total stranger, her roommate from across the country, and how it will be on February afternoons when the light leaves early, and the wind howls, and a paper is due in hours.

More than three decades ago, when Hannah's mother turned away from us with a brave smile and wave and left us standing without her on a grassy quad, my husband and I drove the three hours home in total silence. Neither of us had words for the experience.

I won't be there when Hannah takes that walk into her future. But on the day of her departure, I know that I'll be watching the hands of the clock, and waiting for a phone call from her mother to announce that our granddaughter is launched.

It will be a long day.

And mixed somewhere in all these jumbled feelings are my own intimations of mortality. Will I be there for the milestones yet to come with the other six grandkids? How many college graduations will I get to see? And dear Lord, how many of their weddings?

But for now, this is the milestone of the moment.

I know Hannah wants these last days of waiting to be over - and for time to stand still.

Waiting can be the hardest work in the world when you are 18, and going off to college - or a grandmother poised for the end of a glorious chapter with a first grandchild.

So I'm practicing my goodbye. I want it to be quick and sweet and without tears - for her sake. And for mine.

I'm rehearsing that final hug, hoping my heart learns what my head knows:

It's time.

And time waits for no foolish grandmother.

Sally Friedman can be reached at

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