The key to this job is to always remember that you aren't replacing anyone's grandmother. You aren't trying to be a better grandmother than the first one. For all intents and purposes, you are the grandmother, and always have been. And if you can do this, can provide this level of grandmotherliness with each family, every time, then you can make a good career out of this. Not to say that it isn't weird sometimes. Because it is. More often than not, actually, it is incredibly, undeniably weird.
I never had a family of my own. I didn't get married, couldn't see the use of it. Most of my own family is gone now, and the ones that are still around, I don't see anymore. To most people, I probably look like an old maid, buying for one, and this is perfectly fine with me. I like my privacy; if I go to bed with someone, it isn't a person who has to spend his entire life with me afterward. I like the dimensions of the space I take up, and I am happy. But it's not hard to imagine what it would have been like: husband, children, grandchildren, pictures on the mantle, visits at Christmas, a big funeral, and people who would inherit my money. You can be happy with your life and yet still see the point of one lived differently. That's why it seemed so natural when I saw this ad in the paper: "Grandmothers Wanted—No Experience Necessary."
I am an employee of Grand Stand-In, a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider. It's pretty simple. With so many new families popping up, upwardly mobile couples with new children, there is a segment of this demographic, more than you would think, who no longer have any living parents. So many of these new parents feel their children are missing out on a crucial part of their life experience, grandparents. And that's where I come in.
I currently serve as a grandmother to five families in the Southeast. Each role is different, though I specialize in the single, still-active grandmother archetype, usually the paternal grandmother, husband now deceased, quite comfortable but not rich, still pretty, fond of crafts. I am fifty-six years old but I can play younger or older depending on what is needed. The families work out the rest of the details with the company. Old photos are doctored to include my image, a backstory is created, and phone calls and visits are carefully planned. For each project, we call them fams, I am required to memorize a family history that goes back eight generations. It's difficult work, but it's fairly lucrative, nearly ten thousand a year, per family; and with Social Security going down the tubes, it's nice to have spending money. But that alone can't keep you interested. It's hard to describe the feeling you get from opening your door, the inside of your house untouched by feet other than your own for so long, and finding a little boy or girl who is so excited to see you, has thought of little else for the past few days. You feel like a movie star, all the attention. They run into your arms and shout your name, though not your real name, and you are all that they care about.
I go by Gammy, MeeMaw, Grandma Helen, Mimi, and, weirdly enough, Gammy once again. At the beginning, I had trouble responding when someone said my fam name, but you get used to it.
Tonight, while I'm writing birthday, congratulations, and first communion cards for the month, all for different families, I get a call from my family arranger, with offers of new jobs. "The first is easy," he says, "just a six-week job, a not-dead-yet, one kid."
A "not-dead-yet" is when a family purchases, in weekly installments, a phone call from a grandparent who has, still unbeknownst to the child, recently died. It allows the parents time to decide what to say to the child, how to break the news to them. It's a hundred dollars a call, no face time, but it's morbid and I try to avoid them. Still, I have a fairly easy phone schedule for this upcoming month, and it's useful to practice your voice skills, so I take it.
"The next one," he says, "is a little different than usual. We need somebody with good disconnect skills, so of course I immediately thought of you."
"Face time?" I ask.
"Lots of face time," he says. "We're looking at weekly face time."
The more face time, the more preparation required. On the plus side, it makes it easier to establish a bond with the children. It pays a lot more too.
"Okay," I tell him. "I can handle it. What makes it so different? Do I have a husband?"
"No," he says, "It's not that. It's a switch job."
A switch job means the child already knows the actual grandparent but a switch is needed due to an unforeseen death. It has to be done just right, usually with situations where the family rarely sees the grandparent. A switch job with lots of face time could be a problem. You don't want to make it worse on the child, add insult to injury.
"Let me think about it," I tell him.
"Well, think about this too," he says, and then he is quiet for three, maybe four, seconds. "She's still alive."
Excerpted from Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022