Gram’s a crazy old bat, but she’s also pretty awesome. Although she’d never tell the Tillerman kids, she’s happy to have a second chance at raising a family, given that her kids all took off (one died in Vietnam, one went crazy and died in a mental hospital, and the other went off to college and never came back). As she tells Dicey, "I got to thinking—when it was too late—you have to reach out to people. To your family too. You can’t just let them sit there, you should put your hand out. If they slap it back, well you reach out again if you care enough" (7.151).
It was through the death of her unhappy husband that she learned how to hang on to the people who are really important. Gram says, "He wasn’t happy to be himself. And I just let him be, let him sit there, high and proud, in his life. I let the children go away from him. And from me" (7.151). She’s not a sentimental type, but she’s as happy to have the Tillerman kids in her life as they are to be in it. It’s just that she’s a wee bit hesitant to tell them as much. After all, she’s been hurt before, and letting down your guard can be painful. Gram’s struggling almost as hard to let people in as Dicey is.
She may be poor, but Gram wants to maintain her pride. She's not big on handouts or charity, and she’ll do without shoes before she’ll spend the money. After all, she’s got more important things to spend her money on now that she has four kids to feed and clothe. So it’s a testament to just how much she wants her grandchildren in her life that she breaks down and takes welfare: "When she found Gram crashing piles of dinner plates down onto the counter and then angrily scrubbing out the cupboard with a sponge, Dicey figured the welfare check had arrived again. Whenever it came, Gram was in a bad mood for at least a day" (9.132).
It's probably pretty tough to be in Gram's shoes. She's been living on her own for quite a while, all self-sufficient and stubborn-like. And suddenly she's got mouths to feed, and she needs to change her ways.
But remember, we’re all learning to reach out and accept kindness here. That's what Dicey's Song is all about. So when she tells Dicey, "You don’t go reaching out with your hand closed up" (7.165), Gram knows she has to take her own advice. That's why she accepts Mr. Lingerle’s offer of free piano lessons for Maybeth and the envelope of money he gives her when she goes to Boston. Gram’s changed enough to take her own words to heart: sometimes you have to accept help from to others to get by in the world.
No matter which way you slice her, Gram's one tough cookie. But by the time she accepts the money from Mr. Lingerle and takes Dicey to Boston, it's clear that—despite the struggle—she has learned how to be a parent again. Just like for everyone else in the novel, connecting with others hasn't come easy for Gram. But she manages to give herself a second chance, and in her, the kids find a mother figure. She's finally able to raise a second family out from under the shadow of her abusive husband. That gives her the opportunity to do quirky, awesome things like go to James's school to win back the marbles he's lost. Yeah, we don't imagine she would have done that if James's grandfather were still in the picture.
You might even say that raising Dicey and her siblings has given Gram the opportunity to redeem herself for the mistakes she made the first time around with her own kids. And that points to one of the key messages of the novel: past is not prologue, ladies and gents. Just because Gram and Dicey have had rough pasts doesn't mean they can't have bright futures—together.