The sun is sinking fast now, and we’re on a completely unfamiliar road somewhere in Virginia. The exit sign promised a motel, but there’s none to be seen, and the commercial zone thins rapidly to large gated driveways—very pretty in the fading light. But the car’s engine feels wrong, like it’s gasping for air, and the “check engine” light glows orange.
Back at the convenience store, a disinterested clerk asks a second disinterested clerk where the motel is. “Uh, I think right across the street?” No it isn’t, but I thank her anyhow. Getting back in the Jeep. Thank the powers, it turns over again. What now, though? Darker every moment.
“Let’s get back on 64 and make a run to Charlottesville,” I say. “Only a few minutes. Much bigger town.”
We do, and it’s dark when we get there. No motels right by the exit. Have to turn around a couple of times, once in a driveway marked “PRIVATE PROPERTY” by a sign that looks painted in trespassers’ blood.
But then we’re on a road that seems to lead to an airport and a college. Still nothing but too much traffic and impenetrable unfamiliarity for blocks and blocks. Car wheezing. “There’s nothing here either,” says my partner. “Hang on,” I say. “There will be. There must be.” The McDonald’s burgers were hours ago. The destination is seven hours away.
The whole time, Grammy is in my head. On a family camping caravan when I was five, I was riding with her and Pop Pop when one of the men—the usual drivers in ‘67—took a wrong turn and we got separated. We found the campground just in time for a tropical storm. It was a prearranged rendezvous spot, but my parents and sister were not arriving that night. I was five. It was the first night of my life I’d spent without my mom. I bawled. Grammy held me tight and softly sang “It’ll all come out in the wash” over and over in my ear.
It did. The next day the sun came out over a glorious Floridian beach and we had a joyous reunion. And ever since, when struggle finds me, Grammy is in my head. “It’ll all come out in the wash.”
We round a corner and see not one motel, but five. “Well hah,” I say. “You got lucky,” says Partner, but I can hear the smile in it. We are soon ordering Chinese delivery and reclining on a king size bed. Right beside the motel there’s an auto service center, not an impersonal chain but an indie garage with five stars on Google for honesty and skill. Yep. It all comes out in the wash.
In 2020, almost 3 million children in the United States were living with a relative other than a parent, and a great many of those are in “grandfamilies.” About 20% of such families live in poverty; nearly half of the grandparents are over 60. Using the average cost of a nanny, grandfamily leaders provide $1,836,000,000 in childcare services in each single week of the year.
Of course, grandparents often play a role in the lives of kids who live with their parents too. How to quantify the stories and games, the patience, the unconditional adoration? The homework help, the advice drawn from many decades of life experience, the skillsets handed down? The true GDP of grandparents is unknowable.
The oldest and youngest generations have long been thrown together by life’s practicalities; it only makes sense for the parents of the parents to tend the tinies while mom and dad hunt, gather, or otherwise produce the goods, whether we’re talking about the Neolithic age, the industrial revolution, anything in between or anything that has followed. Not being in one’s physical prime is more than balanced out by patience and wisdom.
University of Utah researcher Kristen Hawkes wanted to understand why it is that women live past menopause, something that on the surface makes little evolutionary sense. (I mean, we all kinda prefer it that way, but evolution could care less.) She traveled to Tanzania and discovered that nurslings thrived in direct correlation to Grandma’s foraging skills, which freed Mom up to feed baby on demand, as did Grandma’s caring for the older kids.
When a mathematical model using this theory was put through a computer simulation, it was found that Grandma energy probably doubled the average human lifespan in under 60,000 years. (Quantify that.) Female longevity made it much, much easier to successfully raise a brood of kids who all required the extended period of care and supervision we humans are prone to, so that evolution likely began selecting for that trait.
Among the Six Nations people of the Haudenosaunee, the original residents of our oh-so-lovely region, multigenerational households were just the way it was. The whole clan lived in the longhouse, and the Clan Mother—the oldest woman—was head of the household. Among other things, she made the major decisions, gave people their names, and chose the Hodiyahnehsonh, or male leaders of the clan. (She could just as quickly demote a hoyaneh who wasn’t up to the task.)
This way of life—the whole clan under one roof in the longhouse, reverence for growing things, long winters of talk and stories—gave the Haudenosaunee the Great Law of Peace, one of the earliest known examples of democracy. The Great Law established the council system in which a hoyaneh served, and the reliance on consensus decision making.
Some say that modern representative democracy is modeled on the Great Law. Perhaps so, but we have certainly gotten far away from the principle that the Clan Mothers select, and can un-select, the leadership; perhaps that’s our problem.
For myself, I know this much: I have never yet faced a problem (and I’ve faced a handful of them) without Grammy’s voice in my ear. “It will all come out in the wash.” Her body has been gone for decades; her spirit never ceases to envelop my heart and mind, so that wherever I am, I see beauty and meet friends.