Bigger Picture: Deborah Paul on Grandchildren

Our family is complete. I know whom I will leave behind when I’m gone.
A whimsical painting of a deer family, in happy blues and oranges, hung in the den of my childhood home. The fawn in the trio rested on its haunches, small and innocent. Because I was the youngest of my parents’ four children, Mom used to call me her “littlest reindeer.” To this day, I don’t know if I was named for the painting or the painting was named for me.

When I married, my mother handed over the artwork, which occupied a spot on a few walls in a few houses and ultimately landed in a storage closet. I have not been conscientious about commemorating my standing in the family, including my position as the youngest grandchild. Being called the “Last of the Mohicans,” another term of endearment, has grown less frequent.

And just this year, history repeated itself when my younger son and his wife welcomed their second and, I am told, final child. Harriet Sophia, named for her deceased great-grandmothers, came into the world in March. Family circumstances dictate she will likely be the last of my grandchildren. Four, I am blessed with now: a sturdy, upright, even number, the same total as my siblings and I, not too many to forget their birthdays, enough to fill all the beds at our summer lake house. Three girls, a gift from God to a mother of two sons, and one boy, who alone will carry on the family name.

Izzy (Isabella Dori, named for my mother, Dorothy) turns 8 this month. She is my original: my lovey-dove, my lovebug, my poppet, my sweet pea, my punkin pie. She, who is of slight build like me and boasts glossy long hair, is all smiles and gives tight hugs that go on forever. At her tender age, she can dance in step with Beyonce, consume five courses at Benihana, and spin a Hula Hoop for 42 minutes straight. The best part is that she loves me back and remembers howling with laughter at my dramatic reading of the nursery rhyme “Wee Willie Winkie.”

Her 5-year-old brother, Zachary, is the mischief-maker of the group and certainly the funniest. After mistakenly taking a gulp of my Diet Coke at lunch, he made a terrible face and announced, “I’m going to scream my head off and then try to forget about it.” And it is he, a reader of every retail establishment sign at the age of 3, who labeled his father’s winter cough “bronch-Costco.”

Her skin is velvet, the kind you can’t stop kissing in every soft fold of her neck.

Clara, Harriet’s 4-year-old big sister, is made of Shirley Temple golden curls and deep blue eyes, dressed old-fashioned with Peter Pan collars and Mary Jane shoes. A worrier like me, she furrows her brow and wonders if we will be safe in the parking garage, what will happen if there is a fire in our hotel. She can master any handicraft, twirls endlessly in her Rapunzel costume, and offers us the first of the muffins she and her mother have baked.

Now, finally, is Harriet, our littlest reindeer: a magical blessing. She is a warm bundle who melts in my arms like a square of chocolate on the tongue. Her skin is velvet, the kind you can’t stop kissing in every soft fold of her neck, on the bottoms of her pink, unsullied feet. A newborn is at once an addiction—who can get enough of gazing at their innocence, purity, and perfection, of inhaling their sweet smell?—and a balm that soothes the pressures of the day.

I am 68. More time has passed for me than is yet to come. If health and good fortune allow, I might be granted another decade … or two. Chances are, I won’t see who Harriet marries, what she chooses as her career, the kind of mother—or grandmother!—she becomes. But now that she is here, the deep satisfaction I feel defies the unfathomable, despairing dread of death. In the bestselling novel A Spool of Blue Thread, author Anne Tyler quotes her central character, Abby, who is growing old and forgetful, as saying to her daughter, “The trouble with dying is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.”

I’m okay with that. Our family is complete. I know whom I will leave behind when I’m gone. There is a finality to that, but not a sad one. It fills me up with tenderness, makes me grateful for the blessing of each young life, proud of what they bring to this Earth. There is an order to the four of them, with Harriet Sophia bringing up the tail end. She is the last Mohican, another in the lasts an older person must face. There will be no more new houses or better jobs or higher salaries. There will be no more lines at Disney World, high-fashion short skirts, puppies, or lactose. When the mind and the body no longer agree, concessions are made.

Robert Frost famously said everything he learned about life could be summed up in three words: “It goes on.” This is the season of the next generation—and the next after that. Try as we might, leading-edge Baby Boomers such as myself will have a harder and harder time catching up. Last spring, Clara and I trudged along the busy streets of Chicago on a cold and windy day. I tried in vain to hail a cab, until, in exasperation, Clara, not yet 5, said, “Why don’t you just get an Uber?” They know, and we do not.

It would be interesting to see which of the girls ultimately enjoy the jewelry I cherish, much of it bequeathed to me by my mother and grandmother. When Izzy coos over a pretty necklace or earrings I wear, I make a mental note: Those will be hers. I wonder whether Zachary will follow in the career footsteps of his attorney father and grandfather, whether Clara becomes a physician like both of her parents. For now, it is enough to know who they are—all four of them—and that somewhere in their hearts I might remain.

My littlest reindeer? The painting will be hers.

Email Deborah Paul here.