Bits and Bites of Everyday Life -


After you say “Hello”

Thoughts on the essense of "grandmothers"

By Geneviève Hone
True North Perspective

Geneviève Hone is a grandmother, family therapist and social worker.  With her husband, Julien Mercure (also a family therapist), she has co-authored three books on couples and family life. Her home on the web is

  Painting by Julien Mercure.

“I’m heading to the park”, I announce to my husband as I do every morning that the weather is clement to old bones.

“And who are you meeting today?” he asks laughingly, knowing that my morning walk is my favorite time to converse with people from my past, present and even my future. These people are invisible to the innocent passerby, but they seem real enough to me and I do pick up quite a few ideas from what my husband teasingly calls my imaginary playmates.

“Probably grandmothers”, I answer. My friend Alberte has just written an article on the legacy of grandmothers, and her article got me to ponder the nature of “grandmother”. What defines a grandmother? What is the essence of “grandmother”?

At the park, I locate a few benches placed close together so the grandmothers can sit comfortably while tackling the big philosophical question I intend to throw at them. I then invite the grandmothers to join me. Most of them have never met in real life, but they rapidly pick up on the fact that they are all grandmothers. They start talking among themselves quite animatedly, quickly enjoying each other’s company. I have a bit of trouble getting their full attention, but finally they quiet down long enough for me to explain that I am trying to find the essence of “grandmother”. What exactly constitutes a grandmother? In response, a couple of my guests say things like: “Grandmothers give unconditional love, they are always there for their grandchildren and they would give their life to save them from danger”. But somewhat to my dismay, the others throw me a rather indifferent look as if my question makes no sense or just doesn’t interest them. I explain again what I am looking for. The group is silent. A couple of grandmothers look around distractedly, two or three yawn discretely and since yawning is contagious, they all end up yawning their jaws off, not at all discretely. Suddenly, one of the ladies, the one with the red umbrella and big sunglasses, jumps up and says: “Let’s go to a movie!” She starts walking away, and immediately the others follow, chattering and laughing their head off, leaving me behind.

I suspect that most of these grandmothers had to trudge through Philosophy 101 years ago and they have absolutely no intention of revisiting that stuff. But still, I am a little miffed by the ladies’ indifference to such an important question. I expect more collaboration from the products of my own imagination! I decide to follow the group at a distance, just to see where they will find a movie house at 10 in the morning, in Ottawa. It soon becomes apparent that nothing will stop these ladies from going to a movie at whatever time they choose! The group enters into the Village Cinema, a couple of blocks down the street, and I slip in behind them trying not to be seen.

One grandmother goes to buy tickets for the group while the others head for the popcorn and treats counter. The usher comes to inform them that the movie they wish to see is from a foreign country, that the language is Phorokanian or is it Pholazanian, that there are no subtitles due to a technical mishap, and more importantly, that the movie has started 45 minutes ago. Perhaps the ladies would like to come back this evening when they are showing “A Company of Strangers”, a lovely movie about eight lovely elderly women stranded in the wilderness? Lovely background music, lovely photography, lovely use of the English language, lovely character development. “Too much ‘lovely’”, grumbles the lady with the red umbrella. “Give me ‘challenging, intriguing, outrageous’. When I’m really old, I’ll consider doing ‘lovely’”. Another lady who so far hasn’t said a word looks the usher in the eye and says: “Young man, I have met thousands of people in my long life, and their stories had always begun way before we were introduced to each other. My own children’s stories began way before they were born. It didn’t prevent me from wanting to know them and loving them. Forty-five minutes late for a movie is nothing to worry about.” The young man looks from side to side as if hoping someone will rescue him from these strange women, but when help doesn’t materialize, he simply shrugs and opens the doors to the auditorium.

I sit in the back row observing the grandmothers as they watch the movie. They seem to understand everything as they laugh, cry, cheer, applaud or grunt in disapproval, all the while munching on their popcorn and loudly sipping their drinks. Well, who cares? They are the only ones in the room. The movie comes to an end, lights are turned on but the ladies linger for a while. They have had too much of a good time: there is no way that I’ll get philosophical thoughts out of them. This is decidedly not one of my better times with imaginary playmates, so I leave the grandmothers at the cinema entrance, and start walking home. I’ll get my answer on the “essence of grandmother” another time.

And suddenly, it hits me. Grandmothers know that our basic need as humans is connection. It is through connection that we survive as a species and that we find meaning in life. Long ago, grandmothers have come to realize that all the people they connect with will in some way remain strangers even as they get to know them well because people change continuously. Grandmothers avoid the illusion that we can completely know someone, including ourselves. What makes grandmothers special is that they are quite content in the knowledge that one cannot solve the “enigma” that is a loved one. When they say “hello” to a stranger, whoever this may be, they don’t necessarily know what they will say or do afterward. But that doesn’t worry them, at least not too much! “Not knowing” will keep them busy searching for answers… that will eventually yield more questions. To grandmothers, Life is a mystery not to be solved but contemplated. This may explain why the ladies didn’t care that the film was half over and narrated in an incomprehensible language. Thinking back at the conversation I wished to have about the “essence of grandmother”, I realize that I asked the group the wrong question. I should have asked: “What do you say after you say ‘Hello?’” And I suspect that the answer would have been a simple one: “Nothing much. Just stick around and you’ll find out. And keep saying ‘Hello’”. Oh well.

“Hello, hello” says my husband as I walk into the house. “Lunch is ready. You can tell me all about the grandmothers as we eat.” As I dig into a beautiful salad, I think to myself that this man definitely knows what to say after he’s said “hello”! I look up and say: “You know, you would make an excellent grandmother.” He bursts out laughing and says: “I don’t think this house could absorb another grandmother! Let’s stick to traditional roles, for once!”

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