What We Talk About When We Talk About Grandmas

All morning I’ve been sitting in my kitchen contemplating a switch  from my life as a writer to a more secure life of crime. I decided to Google around to see what sort of lucrative criminal trouble old women can get into and found headlines that revealed the field is dominated by grandmas. Could there be any hope for this childless woman who wants to illegally earn an extra dollar or two because having her short stories published in small literary magazines has not turned out to be as lucrative as she’d hoped, and employers think she’s too old to be hired for anything?

It’s hard to get at the truth of what we mean when we talk about grandmas and criminal activity in these news stories. Should we take the headlines literally? What about the New York Times story titled Grandmothers, Gangsters, and Gold?

Apparently gold smuggling is popular now in Japan, so the Times wrote about a group of women in their 50s and 60s who decided to give it a go. Their “ringleader” was 66. I visualized a circle of old women, each holding a gold brick and each under the thrall of a beautiful, white-maned oba-chan whose wrinkled hands held a big stack of gold bricks. I wanted to know more about her, other than the fact that she’d been a housewife, which I hope is not yet another requirement for old age crime because that’s not on my resume either.

The report gave little information, and whether or not the ringleader had actually ever put her reproductive organs toward any reproductive use in the past was never revealed. She and her gang members must be actual grandmas, though, because otherwise surely a respectable paper like the New York Times wouldn’t use the headline, Gangsters, Grandmothers, and Gold. They couldn’t possibly just be trying to be cute, right? Or make old women look cute?

I did find lots of actual grandmothers in other stories. The more I researched, the clearer it became that a woman who once reproduced a human being who then, in turn, reproduced is, first and foremost, a grandmother to the news writer’s – or at least the headline writer’s – way of thinking, no matter what else she has accomplished. All the rest of her life is beside the point.

This position centers on what’s considered a weird, even laughable, intersection between biology and crime. If the reporters could have used the Facebook emoji of the wide open, OMG mouth next to their headlines, they would have done it.

Some examples of headlines:

Grandma Robs Bank to Pay Gambling Debts

How an Ipswich Grandmother Stole $400K

Feds Say Grandma from Broward Became Largest Drug Dealer in East Tennessee

After Being Pulled Over for Driving the Wrong Way, 81 year-old Grandma Pulls Off and Leads Police on Car Chase

30 Days Jail, Probation for Racine Grandma Who Bilked Wisconsin Shares

But then I came upon news articles that called old men who were in trouble by the name “Grandpa,” as in Grandpa Bandit Linked to Syracuse Bank Robbery by FBI. The article states he was called the Grandpa Bandit “because he’s an older man who rips off banks in an unusually polite way.” All the other grandpa bandits though, often bank robbers with guns, looked just as menacing as younger men in blurry crime scene videos.

I began to understand that whether the person in question was male or female, it didn’t matter. All that it took to earn the Grandma/Grandpa headline was that the perpetrator needed to be old.

The grandma headlines, though, are fodder for a chuckle, I think, because grandmothers are supposed to be innocent, quiet, and maybe a little dim, not scheming, plotting, and clever.  (Some of those old women in Japan smuggled gold bars by taping them to the bottoms of their feet.)

Also, maybe there’s more of a stigma attached to the woman who turns to crime in old age. There’s an understanding that a guy, even an old guy, needs some extra money now and then. Or he just needs money, nothing “extra” about it, whereas the grandma needing money and feeling that she has to go out and steal some is regarded as some kind of socio-biological error.

Yet money, whether you’ve procreated or not, is of course useful to everyone. I, for example, could use some more money. Maybe I’ve already touched on that.

The grandmas found in those news stories challenge our source for the idealized grandmother, the fairy tales. The fairy tale grandmother has no guile. She is eaten by the wolf at her door; she never eats the wolf. (Picture Red Riding Hood’s grandmother chopping fresh wolf meat to fry up for Red after the child’s long journey through the woods.)

It’s a curious thing, though, because we all know grandmothers who would eat the wolf, and such grandmothers have always existed. Nevertheless, the no longer reproductive old woman is perceived to be rendered harmless by age. Woe unto her if she is not, and woe to the poor grandchildren who must read about their grandmothers in any of these headlines. The writers don’t seem concerned about that.

Sometimes I came across a headline online that mentioned the grandma factor because someone’s grandson or granddaughter posted something about them that then caught the eye of a blog or news site. Prepare to Obsess Over This Grandma’s Chic Sneaker Outfit, a photo story about a 90 year old woman showing off shoes that her granddaughter got for her, is an example. But that’s a fashion post and not news.

Even when there’s news but no crime, the grandmother element of a woman’s life may appear in a headline, whether it has any relevance to the story that follows or not, e.g., this news bulletin about someone right here in my city of Portland: Pistol Packing Grandma Starts Neighborhood Glock Block.

 The story was about a 65 year-old woman who was urging her neighbors to buy guns, as she had done, for protection. I started to worry about her possible grandchildren and all those Glockslying around at her house and the houses of those nearby, so I read every word. I never did find out if she actually has any grandchildren. I guess the writer assumed that, at 65, she must be a grandma, and anyway that term goes so shockingly well with “pistol-packing.”

Here are a few more crime-free older women who are up to things that have nothing at all to do with their being grandmothers:

 Grandmother, 70, Finishes Run Across America in Long Beach

 World’s Fittest Grandma Body Builder Just Celebrated Her 80th Birthday

 70 Year Old Grandma Takes First Roller Coaster Ride

Sometimes the grandmother component is placed in a headline only to trigger thoughts of the old-fashioned or passé.  No grandmothers actually appear in these articles. In fact, the word “grandma” usually doesn’t even show up in the body of these stories:

It’s Not Your Grandma’s Book of the Month Club

Why This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Housing Market

Not Your Grandmother’s Valentine’s Day Box of Chocolates

These Aren’t Your Grandma’s Thank You Notes

Not Your Grandma’s Civil Rights Strategy

I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not your grandma’s idea of a possibly successful criminal. It’s clear to me now that I will never grab a headline that would merit any mention of whatever my lady bits accomplished, or didn’t accomplish, in the distant past. I’ll just confess right here that they have only been used for pleasure.

Also, it appears that a lot of older women who commit crimes get caught, exactly like everybody else. This leads me to think it’s probably better if you just send me some money, rather than expect me to take any risks at this late date. Send as much as you like. Send cash or gold! I accept PayPal. This is not a scam!!


Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.

2 Replies to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Grandmas”

  1. This was highly entertaining. “For example, I could use some money”, and “Send as much as you like” just cracked me up and made my heart get really big! So many great lines in this piece (grandma goes shockingly well with pistol packing), such an overall smokin’ sweet tribute to women. Thank you for being a voice for US.

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