Anna Quindlen, NANAVILLE: Adventures in Grandparenting

Anna Quindlen, NANAVILLE: Adventures in Grandparenting

In this special weekend re-release, Zibby speaks to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and #1 New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen about Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting, a bighearted book of wisdom, wit, and insight, celebrating the love and joy of being a grandmother. Anna Quindlen talks to Zibby about all the wonderful things grandmothers have time to do and shares the parts of grandmotherhood that often go unspoken.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Anna Quindlen: Thanks, Zibby. That’s really true, isn’t it? I would give somebody a book when they had little kids and say, put that away. In five or six years, you might be able to read it.

Zibby: Maybe I should make a little time capsule box. Read Later. Welcome, new mom. Then you could just put the books inside.

Anna: That’s probably true. You could have two boxes. One box is the books that you will read over and over and over again like Goodnight Moon or Madeline so that when you’re my age you can recite them from memory. The other are grown-up books you will read when your kids are too busy to have anything to do with you anymore.

Zibby: I half read and then the other half listened to the audiobook of Nanaville. I also, like many parents out there, and grandparents, have Goodnight Moon memorized and read it every single naptime and bedtime and everything. Just hearing you read it to Arthur and hearing the words again and the sweetness of that moment, of you guys on the chair, oh, my gosh, I was in my car crying listening to this story. Thank you for that.

Anna: It is so sweet except that I can remember at a certain point when Arthur said to me, “Where is the telephone?” and when I pointed it out, he looked at me quizzically because what is the telephone in Goodnight Moon is not what he has grown up with as a telephone.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so crazy.

Anna: In Madeline, he can’t understand why twelve little girls live all together without their mommy and daddy and with Miss Clavel.

Zibby: Yes. My daughter was like, “Do I have to do that? Why are they going?” I’m like, “No, no, no.” They’re already panicking about college. I have a six-year-old, a seven-year-old, and two thirteen-year-olds. The little guys are like, “We’re just going to live here forever.” I’m like, yeah, you probably will. No, I’m kidding. I love that those books have stayed the same, though. It’s so nice that I know that my grandparents read me the same books that I can read to my kids. What else is like that that’s just so generational and constant when everything else in the world changes so much?

Anna: The one thing that I really love is a number of the books that I read Arthur are actually physical copies that I read to Quin, Chris, and Maria when they were young. At this point, they look like a middle school ate lunch on them. They’re really a wreck. The fact that they are the same copies is so talismanic to me. I can almost feel myself reading them to my own kids at the same time that I’m reading them to my grandchildren.

Zibby: That’s so special. My mother has a lot of the books she read to us that she reads to my kids. When I go over there and see them, it brings it all back for me. Then suddenly, you’re that little kid again. What am I doing with these kids who are taller than I am? I don’t know how it all happens. It’s ridiculous. The great thing about hearing about grandparenting from you is that I feel like I’ve been following — not in a creepy way, but because you’ve been writing about your parenting, your motherhood journey from the beginning, I feel like your kids have become characters in this narrative. Now that they have had kids, everything is coming full circle with your Living Out Loud to now. For anybody else, and I’m sure there are just bazillions of people who have followed you as I have, it’s so amazing to see you go through this experience in the here and now and follow you in real time. It’s like you were an Instagram poster before Instagram or something.

Anna: Someone once — I think it was Lisa Belkin, the writer, who once wrote that I was the first mommy blogger. I must admit that when I was writing about the kids when I was doing the Life in the 30s column at The New York Times, there wasn’t a whole lot of that kind of writing going on. There was absolutely none of it going on at The New York Times. People will say to me even today, you made me feel less alone. Of course, as we all know, motherhood can be so unbelievably isolating even without a pandemic. The thing I always say back to them is, you made me feel less alone. When I was writing these columns thinking, does anyone care about this stuff? then the letters, because it was still letters then, the letters would come pouring in. I just would think, there’s a primal connection here that I need to feel every time I sit down at the computer. It really saved me in a way when I had three little kids. I used to have to pretend to have to go to the bathroom so I could have two minutes alone, which of course is a complete illusion. You’re in there for two minutes. Suddenly you hear, “Mommy, are you in there?”

Zibby: Or “Mom, Mom, I’m in the bathroom.”

Anna: How quickly we go from hoping that they will learn to say mom to hoping that they won’t say it for five minutes.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s so funny. You mentioned in your book also about the caretaking of children, the responsibility you feel for Arthur not to get hurt, for instance, when you’re — babysitting is the wrong word — nana-sitting versus how you felt about your own kids who you glibly joke about taking to the emergency room or breaking a leg or whatever happened to your own kids. That’s your responsibility. When you have your grandchild, you feel this extra layer. You referenced the child who was hit by the brick near your apartment building. I actually had the author of — he wrote a memoir.

Anna: It’s so beautiful.

Zibby: So beautiful, right?

Anna: That story, look, they’re all hostages to fortune. That’s what’s so terrifying about being a mother. If something — I’m not going to say something tragic because I can’t even wrap my mind around that. My mother died when I was a teenager. One of the ways I skated through life was that I used to think, okay, the worst thing that can ever happen to me has already happened to me. Then I had children. I realized that the second-worst thing that could ever happen to me had happened to me. I can never wrap my mind around anything really bad happening to my own kids. A trip to the emergency room, I know how to handle that. Telling one of my sons that their child got hurt on my watch, I really don’t know how to handle that. I’m hoping I never have to.

Zibby: Oh, my god, we were dog-sitting for my sister-in-law and her dog escaped out of our front gate — woosh — before we even knew what to do. Next thing you know, my husband’s racing down the street. I’m jumping in the car. We’re all screaming and whatever. To be honest, what happened is the dog just turned around and ran right back home while we were frantic on the street. My husband the whole time was just like, “Oh, my gosh, how could I tell Stephanie if something happened to Luna? I could never live with myself.” I feel like he would’ve been more upset, almost, than her for that responsibility. That’s only a dog compared to a grandchild. It’s just the pressure of that caretaking and the weight of that responsibility.

Anna: On the other hand, to get to do it is a gift. It really is.

Zibby: Not the dog-sitting. That was not a gift.

Anna: No. To get to be Nana, oh, man, it’s so, so great. To have that sense of the line of your family extending — also, both of my sons are aces fathers. It’s so hard to gauge whether you’re doing a good job when you’re a mother. One day, one of them suddenly learns how to read. You think, it’s all happening. Then two days later, one of them goes south for some reason. It’s such a long span to do a job. It’s as though you were building a house that took you thirty years to build and after thirty years you could finally say, oh, looks good. I like the kitchen. There are relatively few times when I sat there and thought, I did a good job. Still, when good things happen, part of me thinks, they were born with a lot of the raw material. I just weighed in some. When I see my two sons being these fantastic fathers, there are moments when I think I did okay.

Zibby: Aw, that’s just so nice. There’s just nothing better. I can’t even imagine my sons having kids. My little guy just said to my daughter, “You know, if we want to have babies, we’re going to have to kiss lips.” I’m like, oh, we’ve got a long way to go over here. That’s magical just to see it all full circle like that. You write in such a funny, characteristically you way about it. I love your chapter called Did They Ask You?

Anna: Uh, oh.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit about that.

Anna: It’s a pivotal moment in the book. It’s the one that most readers who are grandmothers have focused on. To make it very short, my son and his fantastic wife were going to do something with their son that I did not agree with, so I told them that I didn’t agree with it. Then they kept on with their plan to do this. Then I told them again that I didn’t agree with it. They continued with their plan. Finally, the third time, as I say in the book, Quin didn’t push back disrespectfully or in a mean fashion, but he pushed back hard. I know and respect him, and so I backed off. The next morning, I was doing my morning power walk with my friend Susan who taught my sons when they were in elementary school and is the most wonderful person. I told her this whole story thinking at the end she was going to be totally team Anna. There was a long silence. Then she said, “Did they ask you?” It was like a lightning bolt went off. I thought, that’s it. That’s the question that you always have to ask yourself when you’re a grandmother. Did they ask you? If they didn’t, just keep your mouth shut and back off. I think that sense of intrusion is what kills this relationship sometimes, and not the relationship between the nana and the grandchildren. What did Paula Span from The Times call it? A mediated relationship. This is a mediated relationship. I have this great relationship with my grandson and my granddaughter and my other grandson which could be nipped in the bud at any moment by their parents. They are the people who give me permission to have this relationship. I think when the relationship goes south, it’s because the grandparents are not respectful of the mediators. Whether they’re right or wrong doesn’t matter. Respect really matters.

Zibby: Your book is also teaching me how to do a better job with my own mother and what I need to say to her. I know it was written from the point of view of a grandmother, but it’s just so helpful from this way too for me to know how she feels and how to communicate better with her about her role because of how you feel.

Anna: That really interests me, Zibby, because one of the things that came up during the writing of the book and that people ask me about a lot is, is it different when it’s your son and daughter-in-law versus your daughter? I think a lot of mothers with their sons and daughter-in-law understand that despite all the changes in society, women still handle a lot of the social intercourse that we have and that therefore if you get on the wrong side of your daughter-in-law, you may really have undercut yourself, whereas I think there may be more of a feeling that you can tell your daughter what you think without necessarily checking yourself in the same way.

Zibby: There has not been a lot of checking.

Anna: I hope your mother’s not listening.

Zibby: I was like, I am going to take this book and if somehow she hasn’t read it, I am going to put a little sticky on this section. No, she’s gotten a lot better, but it’s taken us thirteen years. I like to think I’ve broken her in for my brother and all of that. Grandparents, they also don’t arrive with a guidebook just like parents don’t.

Anna: Also, as I say in the book, I don’t think a whole lot of us think about it. In other words, you meet women all the time who say to you, I’ve always wanted to be a mom. I’ve always thought about being a mom, of having kids. They don’t really know what it’s going to consist of until they’re actually doing it, but they’ve always wanted to do it. I don’t know very many people who over a span of time have said to themselves, someday I want to be a grandmother. You’re a mom for a while. Of course, then your kids reach a certain age. You start to think, hmm. We don’t pregame it as much as we pregame motherhood. I think the role models we have for it — I say this in the book. Grandparents now are very engaged, many of them, in the lives of their grandchildren. My grandparents saw us every Sunday. They sat in the living room with a Manhattan. We passed through. The idea of my grandfather building with Legos is pretty unimaginable to me. I think the way in which people are grandparents now is so different that there really isn’t any template for people.

Zibby: I remember saying something to my dad. He said something like — this was when my older son was a toddler. “He hasn’t looked me in the eye,” or something like that. I was like, “Oh, no, Dad, you have to get on the floor with him.” He’s like, “I don’t have to do anything.” I was like, okay. It’s true. Right now, to interact with my son, that’s what you had to do to keep his attention. To your point about mothers not pregaming, when I was nineteen years old and I had my first really serious boyfriend, serious enough that my mom could meet his mom, I was nineteen, we sat down in my apartment here in New York, literally sit down, air still coming out of the cushions, and my mother leans forward and says, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be a grandmother.”

Anna: I’m assuming this is not the boyfriend who became the father of your children.

Zibby: No, it was not. This was a decade before that. Some people maybe have stronger predilections, but in general, I’m sure you are right that that is not something people think about. I feel like, also, there used to be — it just seemed like it made women feel old to be considered grandmothers. There’s this anti-agist — I don’t know. I shouldn’t put words in your mouth.

Anna: A lot of them still do. As I said in Nanaville, I met a number of women who did not let their grandchildren call them Grandma or Nana or anything like that because it made them feel old. First of all, I was astonished to discover that the average age of a grandmother in America is fifty, which I suppose a hundred years ago we thought was old but today we certainly don’t think of as old. Second of all, to have the privilege of living long enough to see your children’s children — some of the most full of life and full of brio and full of excitement people I met when I was on tour for Nanaville were the women who would come up to me and say, I’m a great-grandmother. They obviously took so much pleasure in this. We have more great-grandmothers in the United States than ever before in history in large part because of longer life expectancy. That sense of your clan heading off into the future, I think to feel negative about that is very odd because it’s so life affirming at some level. It’s your-life affirming in that you know that someday you will no longer be here. Yet all of these people that are carrying some of your DNA will just be boogeying down the road.

Zibby: That was also something you mention in your book, the tiny little characteristics that show up in your kids that you aren’t expecting from other people in your family. It’s something that just hadn’t occurred to me until I was like, I seem to have given birth to my sister-in-law. Some characteristics just come through. You’re sort of blindsided by it in a nice way.

Anna: It’s really, really interesting just to watch the whole thing. It’s been really interesting for me. My father was from a very clan-ish Irish family. My mother was from an Italian immigrant family. As compared to my other cousins who are a hundred percent Irish, we sort of were some mélange. Now I have two grandchildren who are half Chinese and half Caucasian and one grandchild who is a quarter black and then three quarters Caucasian. To see that gene pool mix is just fascinating to me. It also makes me feel a little bit full of myself because I look at the three of them think, this is America. This is what America’s going to look like. That’s kind of exciting.

Zibby: Of course, you’re such an amazing grandmother that you learned Chinese and took lessons. That’s amazing.

Anna: Well, I tried. That was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was so bad at it. I’ve maintained a few things. The funny thing is, my youngest, of course, has no Chinese heritage at all, Jake. The other night, he was getting ready for his bath. I said, “You’re going to get ,” which is Mandarin for completely naked. Then I said, “Guys, I’m sorry. I used Mandarin.” They said, “No, no, we say to him too.” Because of Chris’s older brother and Arthur and Ivy, who Chris is really close to, he’s just absorbed some of the reflexive Mandarin that we use for the kids. I’ve held onto a little bit of it, but boy was it a struggle.

Zibby: That’s a really fun thing to say. That needs to be part of our regular —

Anna: — every night.

Zibby: Why not say it?

Anna: It’s time for bath.

Zibby: One other thing I just loved about Nanaville — I know that you consider yourself a reporter first, full stop. I read what you posted recently on Facebook about, you might not have living parents, but you’ll always be a daughter. You might not work at a newspaper, but you’ll always be a reporter. You applied the mixing of all the data in with your personal story so seamlessly that it’s like you almost wouldn’t have caught it if you weren’t looking for it. It was just so seamless how you would put in statistics about grandparents like the ones you were just reciting or the average age of this or how many people with second languages, all these things that I think made the book feel even more intellectual, if you will, or informative than just the memoir in and of itself. I thought that was just so neat how you did that.

Anna: Thanks. I always feel like I need something to undergird myself. Also, this became something I was deeply interested in. The more I thought about it, the more I knew people who were doing it. I read about people who had custody of their grandchildren because of deployments overseas or drug issues or that kind of thing. It just seemed to me to be something that I had to drill down on a little deeper than my own experience to kind of abet my own experience.

Zibby: Although, it would’ve been great either way, I’m sure. You mentioned, also, in some interview I read about how this was such a pleasure to write and how some grandparents have scrapbooks, and you have a manuscript. You’re like, this is so easy. It was such a joy. How did writing this book compare to your eight thousand other books and your novels and your other stories and Short Guide to a Happy Life, all these other books? How did this one fit in with it? Also, what’s going on now that you finished this one? What’s to come?

Anna: On the one hand, it was incredibly pleasurable and, at some level, easy because anecdotes about what a little boy is doing are essentially, most of the time, kind of charming and interesting to write about. On the other hand, it was anxiety producing because the only way that I agreed to do the book was if Quin and Lynn would read it in manuscript and pass on it. Books come and go, but your kids are forever. I did not want to alienate anyone. I think because I’d already developed a knack for not saying too much or saying the wrong thing when I was writing Life in the 30s where I had to protect them myself because they couldn’t read, neither one of them had any objection to anything that I’d done. The thing that was thrilling for me was that as they were reading the manuscript, I would hear them saying, “Oh, I forgot about that. Oh, I forgot about that.” I thought if this book is, among other things, an aide-mémoire for Quin and Lynn about Arthur’s earliest years, that will have been worth the entire price of admission.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. I know. It all goes by in such a haze. It’s so hard to hang onto any of this.

Anna: I know.

Zibby: What are you working on now? What’s coming next for you?

Anna: I’m working on another novel. I’m also working on a book about writing that I’m almost done. I’m working on a book about writing for civilians. It’s about how we’ve sort of lost writing. We’ve lost letters, we’ve lost journals because of the press of technology. We’re not only a country, but a species that finds new ways of doing things and then shoves the old ways aside even though the old ways have something important to them. I really feel as though writing used to be just a purview of the aristocracy and the clergy. It was siloed in that way. I feel like we’ve gone back to siloing it in some way as only writers do it. People will say to me, “I had this incredible experience.” I say, “You should write that down.” They said, “But I’m not a writer.” I think, but everybody’s a writer in the same way that everybody’s a teacher. Now, everybody’s not a classroom teacher. Everybody’s not a professional writer. Civilians have something to teach other people. They have something to say in their writing. That’s what this book is.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds great. This kind of dovetails with that question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors? I’m sure you get asked this often, but I have to ask.

Anna: It’s pretty simple, actually. You put your butt in a chair. People think that you wait for inspiration. I don’t know where inspiration lives, but she’s not coming. People think you have to have something important to write about. In this book, I go back to The Diary of Anne Frank. So much of it is ephemera about the cat, about the food, about the curtains on the windows that eventually together makes a picture of real life. I think you have to sit down and you have to begin. You will tell yourself, as I do every morning, that it’s not good. What happens sometimes is that if you write enough not good, eventually good appears. Then you can get rid of all the not-good stuff and start with that one sentence or that one paragraph that sort of took wing.

Zibby: Still, you feel like you’re sitting down and writing not good after all this ?

Anna: Terrible. Oh, gosh. Writing is a confidence exercise every day. In some ways, when you’ve been doing it for a long time, that gets harder because you think, it’s not like whatever it was I did before. Therefore, people won’t like it. One of the things I write about in the book is eventually, what you have to make your peace with is having an audience of one. That one has to be yourself. You have to trust that if you are talking successfully to yourself that there will be other people out there to whom you will be talking. That’s one of the things I learned when I was doing the Life in the 30s column when I was young and the boys were young. I kept thinking, who cares about any of this? Then the readers replied, we do. That made all the difference.

Zibby: That’s like when I post on Instagram. I’m like, I can’t be the only one who’s feeling like this. I can’t be the only exhausted mom at nine o’clock on a Saturday who wants to shoot herself right now. Not really, but there must be other people out there. It can’t just be me. Then as soon as you share it, you realize, no, everybody else is feeling exactly the same way. How nice to know that.

Anna: It’s interesting. I saw something on a website today, I can’t remember which one it was, where a mom said, I’m sorry the pandemic is ending because I don’t want to go out of the house to an office again. I don’t want to spend less time with my kids. I don’t want to wear dress-up clothes. I don’t want to wear shoes with heels again. It was kind of a cri de coeur saying the way we lived before wasn’t what it needed to be. The way we’ve been living had a lot of downsides, but it had some upsides too. I thought it was a really interesting take on what’s been going on in the world. People felt like they were trapped at home, some of them, but some of them liked what they did while they were there.

Zibby: I’m sure we’ll get a lot of very interesting reflections when this whole thing completely ends, if and when. Anyway, thank you so much. Thank you for chatting with me about your grandmothering experience and your writing and all the rest. I’ve been a fan of yours for so long. Thank you so much. It made my day.

Anna: Thank you, Zibby. I’ll be happy to sign that book for your mother if she reads it.

Zibby: Totally. Oh, my gosh, she would be so excited. I would be excited too. Thank you so much. Take care.

Anna: Thanks, Zibby. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

NANAVILLE: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen

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