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It’s time to rethink the stereotypical role of grandmothers

Every now and then I have a yen to bake a poppyseed cake from a much-edited, hand-written recipe on a greasy sheet of paper. The recipe, which has been passed around for decades among family and friends, is adaptable and forgiving, as I realized when I made it a couple of years ago with my granddaughters. The twins, who were then 4, knelt on stools on either side of me, leaning precipitously close to the whirring beaters as they tried to resist dipping their fingers in the batter. After the cake went into the oven, we all waited impatiently for it to bake, so we could gobble warm, gooey slices.

A few months ago, when I decided to inculcate their little brother into the ritual, I discovered three is a crowd, especially when one of them is a two-year old, eager to shoulder aside his older sisters and claim his place at the mixing bowl as measurer-in-training. While he was busily dropping vanilla into the egg whites, my husband walked into the kitchen and was besieged by a displaced twin to perform one of his party tricks.

"Please, please, do your scary monster," she begged. Naturally, he complied. Both girls abandoned the Mixmaster and ran around the kitchen shrieking and giggling while their little brother and I spooned the batter into the pan and slipped it into the hot oven.

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The cake turned out, and we all ate it happily, including my husband, who did another star turn as the tickle monster, but I kept thinking about how grannies are often slotted into domestic roles while men are encouraged to be wild and crazy. Why do they get to have fun and eat cake? I wondered.

There's nothing new about grandmother stereotypes. Remember Little Red Riding Hood? A wolf swallows up sickly granny in her cap and nightgown and climbs into her bed to wait for the dutiful child to appear so he can gobble her up too, along with her basket of goodies. In the more benign resolutions of the tale, a friendly woodcutter cuts open the wolf, and grandmother and child emerge unscathed. Presumably granny then retires to her rocking chair and is transformed into another common stereotype – the plump, kindly old woman in her dotage, sitting with her knitting in an isolated corner of the room.

Stepmothers often get a bad rap as wicked, homicidal maniacs – Sleeping Beauty being a typical example – but I think I would rather be villainous than pushed off-stage, as though becoming a grandmother subsumes everything else in your life under a fog of irrelevance.

These thoughts came roaring back when I read some of the reactions to Hillary Clinton's effrontery in writing What Happened, her analysis of the disastrous outcome of her campaign to become the first woman to occupy the Oval Office. The Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece by Melissa Batchelor Warnke, a self-described feminist, under the headline, "Hillary, I Love You. But Please Go Away," while T.A. Frank wrote a derisive and dismissive piece in Vanity Fair under the title, "Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into The Night?" The not-so-subtle implication is that she should retreat from public life, forget trying to be POTUS, shroud her old role of FLOTUS and embrace a sedentary position as First Grandmother of the United States.

Clinton has always been a complicated and complex combination of astute policy wonk, hard-working politician, supportive mother and wife. Why should any of that change just because she is now in her late-60s?

Given current demographics, she may be around for another 25 years. Rather than asking her to shut up, we should be channelling her energy, her wisdom and her experience.

As the late, lamented Simone de Beauvoir wrote nearly 50 years ago in her epochal book, Old Age: "There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work."

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Old age is not a monolithic entity, as the American psychologist Daniel Levinson pointed out 40 years ago. His theory of adult development established several stages of human development from childhood to old age, which he defined as 65 and over. Later psychologists have rightly broken that last category into more refined distinctions, reserving real old age for those over 85.

Even that definition may be too broad to encapsulate the variety of individuals we call seniors, a group that includes not only Clinton, but Abenaki singer and documentarian Alanis Obomsawin (85), whose latest film, Our People Will Be Healed, aired at last month's Toronto International Film Festival; visionary novelist and Emmy Award-winner Margaret Atwood (77), whose novel Alias Grace is now a television series; and Judi Dench (82), the actress who has goosed the ultimate stereotype of the dour and staid grandmother in the recently released Victoria and Abdul, a film about the widowed monarch's friendship with a young Indian servant.

Early this summer The Economist published a special report on The Joys Of Living To 100, arguing that 70 really is the new 60 and if "employers, businesses and financial services adapt to make far more of such people, big economic benefits for everyone could follow." By embracing energetic and creative women, no matter their chronological age, as contemporary role models, we can reinvigorate our notion of how grandmothers should be. That way we may be able to have our cake and eat it too.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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