04/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Grandma Jones

An adorable little boy awkwardly piles groceries on the eye-level conveyor belt at the supermarket. I am supposed to be negotiating the debit machine, but instead I can't take my eyes off his little Giants outfit and mop of curly hair. The father looks at me with a degree of suspicion.

The next day, as I try to keep up with women 20 years younger than me in step aerobics class, a woman walks by with her toddler girl, an apple-cheeked cherub wearing red velvet dress shoes and jeans under her nightgown. She looks me straight in the eye and smiles radiantly. I lose track of my steps and fall hopelessly behind as I stare. A lump rises in my throat.

I want - no, I NEED - a child.

No... not my own! I'm 56 and starting to look seriously at AARP literature when it arrives in the mail. The child I want is a grandchild - and I want my daughter to have it for me.

There are just a few little problems here. Erin is not married, although she's had the same boyfriend for five years. And she's just started working as an environmental lawyer, so her priority is her career. Although she'd love to become a mother someday, she's not ready to procreate just yet.

But dear God, I am ready for her to do just that.

My entire perspective has shifted. For years I've been extremely happy with a busy social life and career, pleased that my only daily obligations are to my cats. Now, chafing terribly against all this freedom, I look forward to being slingshot out of this selfish phase and into the next one - the one that will begin when the home test stick comes up positive.

I want to be barfed on again. I want to (try to) learn to sew. I want to babysit. I want to make organic applesauce. I want to breathe in the aroma of an infant - that fresh, powdery, sweet-spring smell - and know that I'm holding my own DNA in my arms.

But first, there's the chore of trying to convince my reluctant daughter to get on board my fantasy train. I've tried various approaches - from ogling baby clothes to pointing out how many of her baby things I have kept (thereby saving her money) to suggesting names. We're watching an old TV sitcom during a recent sleepover and I pipe up: "Lucy! That's a great name isn't it?" Erin nods absently. "Better yet," I continue. "Lucy JANE..." She rolls her eyes with a tolerant smile.

This time, I tell her how toddlers are giving me the eye. "I'm not kidding," I say excitedly. "It's like they are looking... into my soul." She laughs for five minutes - "Mom, you are losing it completely!" - and tells me I need to chill out.

She stops short of calling me a complete hypocrite. After all, I've been telling Erin since she was old enough to listen that I wouldn't pay for any weddings until she was 30. I also raised her to not view marriage and family as the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Don't settle down too soon! I told her. Take your time, secure your profession, see the world, don't feel that you have to procreate...

Yes, I really said those things. But I feel it's fair to revoke one's advice if circumstances - and grandmotherly hormones - change. Because at this point, Erin has seen the world - she's traversed the USA several times, passed through something like 40 states, worked with Inuit Indians in Newfoundland, studied ecology in the Venezuelan rainforest, hiked Machu Picchu alone, stayed in castles in Perigord. You would think she'd be ready to settle down now that she's 30, but nooooo! Now she has the save-the-world bug, and is committed to working hard on saving the environment alongside her fabulous man, living with the smallest carbon footprint possible, doing charitable works.

Here I must ask: what's wrong with young people today? Where are the stories of running off to Reno to get hitched after too many shots of Patron? Having babies early and often, who are then spoiled by their grandparents? I'm not so sure I'm crazy about the 21st century. And it's a sad thing when a daughter refuses to take her mother's needs into consideration.

The word "needs" doesn't quite cover what I'm feeling. This is my first experience with the so-called biological clock, and I had no idea how deafening the alarm on that sucker could be. It wasn't even ticking faintly when I got pregnant with Erin at 25, more out of a sense of duty than desire. I'd been married since 22, and having a baby was just the next logical step of marriage, or so my immature brain dictated.

Since then, I've had several friends for whom procreation proved far more difficult than it was for me, women who ache and pine for a child in a way that is both poetic and visceral. And I've only been able to nod politely, commiserate superficially. Until now.

Primal urges have struck me, and I have the Grandma Jones. Badly. It just seems time. I mean, by the time my mother was my age, she had a four-year-old granddaughter to spoil!

But these are different times than the 70s. We're no longer in an "Ozzie and Harriet" world, and there is no set time schedule anymore. Boomers are becoming grandparents in every different decade. Some in their 40s, more in their 50s, and even in their 60s - or not at all. I can't even entertain that thought - not after seeing the joy that grandmothering brought to my own mom.

She was around 52 when Erin was born, and for 18 years spoiled her only granddaughter with the kind of tender affections she was unable to spread around to her own four children, so pulled was she in many directions. She bought seasons tickets to the ballet to support the budding ballerina, took her on trips home to Florida so Erin would know her ancestry, made her dresses out of Irish linen and lace. She cuddled her when she cried, and was the only person besides Mommy who could dry her tears.

As Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, "Shouldn't I have this?"

This change of heart has taken both Erin and me both by surprise - not to mention my friends, who know me as both independent and constantly on-the-go. Why would you want a baby in your life at this point? they ask. You have the world by the tail. Great friends, a nice life, stimulating work. Why would you want to toss all that up in the air?

It's true - these last dozen years since Erin left for college have been remarkably rich and rewarding. Pained beyond reason over the departure of my only child and best friend (ours has been an abnormally close relationship), I threw myself into reinvention. I started a literary festival and a monthly dinner for creative San Franciscans, I edited an anthology, became a newspaper columnist, and wrote a memoir. More importantly, I came to terms with my single status - and grew to adore my independence, and my quiet home.

So why indeed would I want to turn all that on its head?

Maybe it's simply because I have things running so well in my life that I want to shake them up again. Maybe it's because I know myself so well at this point that I want to give of myself to someone - and who better than a grandchild? (Right, a lover would be nice, too, but Mr. Right seems to have gotten stuck in traffic.)

Perhaps it's a way of drawing my mother back into my life, who was taken too soon by a brain tumor? When I become a grandma myself, I'll have numerous questions about everything from burping to making baby food from scratch. And I'll have to dredge up those sepia-colored memories of watching her in awe as I learned - not just about the kind of mother I wanted to be, but the kind of future grandmother.

Also, a grandchild would be an extension of Erin, who has brought me the greatest joy in my life. I could perhaps atone for my lack of parenting skills as a young mother - my lack of consistency, my flashes of temper - by becoming a world-class granny to Erin's young. And now that I see her sailing into the sunset - into the richest and busiest part of her life - perhaps I'm hoping to once again become more of an anchor.

She met the perfect man for her in law school, and theirs has been a leisurely courtship, with three years of separate living, and cohabitation in the last two. They are deeply committed, although not racing to the altar. Strong personalities both, they butt heads often. She stands up to him because she knows who she is and why she's here. And he focuses her.

I watch them together during a weekend getaway and can't get enough of their romantic dance. She teases him, fluttering like a butterfly around the nose of a bull. "I'll make breakfast if you let me smush your face while you say chubby tummy," she says, reaching for his cheeks. He pulls away, snorts with feigned irritation, and melts into a smile.

Later, my heart fills with secret joy just watching them watch TV: she stretched out like a restless puppy unconscious of the need to share space equally, he the patient backstop as she lounges against him, grasping his hand and pulling it under her arm in absent-minded intimacy. Their nurturing tenderness toward each other only stokes my inner fire. They will be fabulous parents... and I will be a spectacular grandmother.

They are in no hurry, but dear God, I am.