By Janell Cleland
During a graduate course titled “Theories of Personality,” I was introduced to George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory (Kelly, 1963). He suggests that we look at our world through lenses, referred to as constructs, which we create based on our prior experiences. We use our constructs to reach out for the future in a way we can understand and predict. Our constructs are based not only on what the experience is but also on what it is not. With the birth of my first grandchild, the construct of “grandmothering” took center stage for me.
As new events are added to our past experiences, we have the opportunity to reconsider and to revise our constructs. Now was my time to revisit the origin of my constructs and to determine which tenants will form the foundation for my personal grandma vision.
I was raised in a here’s-how household: Here’s how you correctly fold a bath towel. Here’s how you correctly sit in a chair. But with only a short walk across my small, rural town, I could enter the world of my what-else grandmother. What else could you do with a bath towel? What else can you do with a chair? My here’s-how mother warned me about the dangers of raising a child who didn’t hang up and then reuse his bath towel, but lingering in my head was the vision of a bath towel wrapped around my grandma’s head as she transformed into a fortune teller predicting the future of my dolls and stuffed animals.
Our hall closet and attic were filled with never-used china and with crystal stemware and dessert plates in the original box and tissue packing from my parent’s wedding day. But just across town, one of my grandma’s favorite sayings was “Life’s too short to save the teacups.” I began drinking milk-laden coffee from delicate china teacups as soon as I could maneuver a cup. I would rush to the china cabinet to choose one – a different pattern each time. We lit the candles instead of saving them and used linen napkins with our cookies and tea because “it’s not that hard to do the wash.” We whistled while we worked because it “lightens your load.” At home, whistling wasn’t allowed: it made people nervous.
Trekking to my grandma’s house alone was a milestone in my life because she lived on the other side of the “hard road” – the only paved road in town at the time and one with more-than-usual traffic. After many trial runs with one of my parents as guide and assuring them that I would always take the very same route (never using the short cut through the village park because who knows who might lurk in the shelter), I was permitted to make the trip alone. But it wasn’t long before my grandma suggested that I might want to try alternate routes so that we could talk about the new things I observed on my different paths (she said it was our secret). I would arrive with a memorized list of observations, and we would sit on her front porch swing and reflect on my discoveries – flowers, rocks, butterflies.
Recently my sister and I cleaned our family attic after our parents’ deaths pondering what to do with the unused treasures that had been saved for special occasions that evidently never occurred. It was truly the first time that I considered the fact that my what-else grandmother had raised my here’s-how mother. Could that be possible? As a first-time grandmother, the irony of this discovery is what prompted this examination of the events that helped to formulate my constructs. My mother only traveled from Point A to Point B: alternate routes could be dangerous and were always unnecessary. I realized that my alternate-path walks to my grandmother’s house could not have been a secret in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Clearly, someone mentioned, “I saw Janell as she walked by the house today.” What did my mother really know about those meandering journeys to my grandmother’s house? What did my grandma tells her about our time together? Maybe these lives were not as separate (or as different?) as I envisioned. How conscious were the decisions that shaped the contrasting styles that nurtured a person who ultimately became both a doer and a dreamer?
As a young mother, I continued to love meandering – a trait that drove my young son crazy. When my husband and I would get in the car on a Saturday and ask if he wanted to go with us, he would ask “Are you going to meander?” Then he would reply, “I think I will go to Grandma’s.”
Now my granddaughter has a grandma who loves to meander, to reflect, and to discover but who also knows when and how to follow the rules. It’s too late to thank them in person, but the vision I have for myself as a grandma is a direct result of these two distinctly different but equally loving women in my life, and my discoveries about them came just in time to benefit their great- and their great-great granddaughter.
References: Kelly, G. A. (1963). A theory of personality: The psychology of personal constructs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Janell Cleland resides in Highwood, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago. She is a recently retired School Director for the Schuler Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports high achieving first-generation students in the their preparation for and selection of a four-year liberal arts college. Prior to this position, she was a high school reading and English teacher and administrator for thirty-four years. However, her latest, and most exciting, gig is playing with her first granddaughter and dreaming of the books they will read and the journals they will fill as they “meander” from adventure to adventure.