“On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.”
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Austen means it ironically, of course. A child ought not to be one of the party on every formal visit. Elinor and Marianne are irritated by the presence of children, yet these children really are the only thing to talk about, since society in their new neighborhood is so dull. Leave it to Jane Austen (in a novel not about children at all) to alert me to how I use my child to deflect attention and responsibility away from myself.
I visited my grandmother on the weekend, and while in most ways it was a better visit than usual, the things that made it better also made it worse. I never know if she knows me. I know I’m supposed to ask her if she knows who I am, but it seems insulting (in case she does) so I always just assume she knows and provide some introduction (i.e. “I brought Owen to visit you”) and hope she fills in the rest. Sometimes she is lost, in a world far away in the past. Once she was waiting for her father to take her home (from boarding school, I presume) and she was so sad, really like a young girl. Other times she seems distracted, uncertain, claiming that no one ever comes to see her. I’m not a regular visitor, certainly, but I know that my father and my uncle are there once a week at least.
Today, when I arrived, she was on her way out of her room to sit in the public area of her nursing home. We went together to find a seat. Owen found a rocking chair (to his great delight). There are always lots of ladies on that floor who seem lost. One woman kept asking me “What should I do?” and I, not having any idea, suggested that she go find a chair somewhere and sit down (since this is what the ladies seem to do around there). She was persistent (and, frankly, kind of annoying), and I saw my Nana go all white and quiet. She looked angry. She told this lady to go away. To go and find somewhere else to be. And then she turned to me and said “You can’t let her start or she won’t leave you alone.” I was hit with the realization that she has to live with this woman, that she is part of the landscape of her everyday, and that saddened me. Later, the woman came back. “I’m lost,” she said, and “Am I going to be alright? Do you think I’m going to be alright?” I could answer only with platitudes. “I think so,” I said.
Owen made friends with another woman, who was pleasant enough, but whose voice was screeching. She sat in “Owen’s” rocking chair and when she realized she’d done it, she switched seats, having to be helped up in the process. “What’s that lady’s name?” Owen asked me, so we asked her together. “It’s Mary,” she said. So Owen proceeded to serenade her with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (He’s been keen on naming everyone lately. At daycare, he asks what everyone’s name is, and if he’s forgotten, he will ask again. The other day we bumped into Melissa, who had replaced Owen’s regular teacher the week before. “Hi Owen!” she said as we were dressing to go. “I no remember that lady’s name,” said Owen. “I think it’s Melissa,” said I. “I like Melissa,” said he.)
Later, I gave Owen a snack and he climbed onto one of the chairs. His grubby shoes hadn’t made it over to the front of the chair yet, and my grandmother told him to get his shoes off the chair, sit still, and be quiet (!) It was fantastic. Here was exactly the Nana who used to reprimand me for putting my elbows on the table and asking “what?” instead of “pardon me?” At the same time, though, I was afraid that by bringing Owen I had disrupted her day. I haven’t been to see her without him since he was born. On the one hand, I assume she wants to see her great-grandchild; on the other hand, I must admit that I am bringing Owen partly because I know he will act, as Austen suggests, to give us something to talk about. It’s not like you can ask my Nana about her day. Even if she remembers it, her day has consisted of sitting in a chair, interrupted by meals.
We use Owen in a similar way when we visit Duncan’s great aunt. Duncan won’t go if Owen can’t accompany him. The thing is, cute as Owen is to us, with his serenading old ladies and begging for food (“Owen wants an Aunt Joy cookie“), ultimately, he’s just a distraction. And he allows us to escape so easily when the conversation has ground to a halt (“Owen’s tired. We’d better go.”)
I’m not saying that I shouldn’t bring Owen on these visits. There does seem to be a magnetic draw when elderly people see a small child walk through the door. But I wonder whether I am allowing his presence to overshadow everything else, and whether a quiet and receptive visit might, at least some of the time, be more to the point.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question.