Take a moment. Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Clear your mind, center your thoughts...
Now imagine Grandma's house. Your Grandma's house. The walkway to the front door. The sound the screen door makes as you pull it open. The fragrance as you step inside. A sweet greeting, a clatter of teacups, the aroma of Sunday dinner wafting from the kitchen.
For me, you can add the excitement of a 9-year-old's Sunday adventure, rummaging through piles of National Geographics from the Twenties and Thirties, listening to tall tales told by impish uncles. A walk downtown for a five-cent Coca-Cola at the drug store soda fountain.
Was that really fifty-plus years ago? Is that reminiscence real, or imagined? Are my thoughts of Grandparents mere sepia-toned photos flickering through my memory?
And what's happened to Grandma's house for succeeding generations? What does Grandma (and Grandpa) look like today? Likely it’s a voice on the telephone, an email address, maybe a strange face on Skype…
The Internet tells me that a large percentage of grandparents live more than 200 miles from their grandkids, and that rings true. We have four grandchildren, all living 12 hours away by car. (A fifth is on the way in Alaska, but that’s another story altogether.) Because my Bride and I have more flexibility, vacation and free time available to us than our children do, we’re the ones on the move, making the trek north to Indiana four or five times a year.
It’s a struggle – my Bride and I have strong memories of What Grandparents Are Supposed To Be, and by that measure, we are miserable failures. We don’t cook Sunday dinner for the entire brood. We don’t dispense words of wisdom like precious jewels. We don’t have the time together to share our personalities, passions or perspective. We don’t nap, crochet, play cards, tell stories about our ancestors, sit in a rocking chair or stare quietly into space. At least, not yet.
We do what we can. We send birthday gifts, we’re always there for Christmas, we share two weeks during the summer (one week in the Smokies and one week at a lake in Indiana). But the idea of being an abiding presence in the lives of our grandkids doesn’t seem to be in the cards. And that brings up what I’ll call the Grandparent Paradox.
The source of the Paradox is this: as Grandparents, how do we best serve our grandchildren? Is it by uprooting to a place near the kids to provide spur-of-the-moment babysitting? Is it a regularly scheduled Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house? Is it just being available when children and grandchildren have a hole in their schedule?
Or, are grandchildren best served by Grandparents who are mobile, engaged, busy, living-life-to-the-fullest with whatever resources they have available? Living by example, so to speak, rather than by pronouncement.
One approach, the traditional If-You-Wait-For-Them-They-Will-Come; the other approach, taking the bull by the horns to Maximize-Your-Presence.
It could be that I’m putting way too much importance on the impact of Grandparents. My parent’s Grandparents resided in the same town; my Grandparents were an hour’s drive away; my children’s grandparents lived within 40 miles. I don’t think I ever had true one-on-one time with any of my Grandparents. I’m not sure they would have known what to do with me, to be honest. And maybe all of this Paradox business is just Baby Boomer’s angst … something that our generation is quite adept at generating.
I can’t help but think, though, that something did change when Baby Boomers came of age – with the opportunity of college (think low-interest student loans and tuition far below the astronomical sums required today) many moved away to pursue that education and to seek their fortunes. Add to that wanderlust the rise of divorce and of blended families and you’ll find that it’s not uncommon for kids today to have several sets of Grandparents and step-Grandparents scattered all over the country, if not the world. With the pinch of a bad economy, the stress and expense of maintaining a household and just getting time away from work, parents are likely to be limited in their mobility to visit far-flung relatives. From a kid’s perspective, Grandparents are peripheral characters anyway – what kid wants to hang with the old folks?
Of course, there is something to be said for family continuity and family lore, history and stories. But the real value of Grandparenting is in a state of flux, I think, and desperately in need of redefinition.
Taking the empirical data (my Bride is a scientist, after all) as a guide to this redefinition, here is what we see: most grown children don’t have the time to connect with their parents, let alone their Grandparents (this is especially true in blended families); they are often, in addition to keeping a career, hustling the little ones to school, sports, dance, music lessons, soccer, BFFs and so on. Therefore, seeing Grandparents for them is as much a sentence as it is an opportunity.
As a Grandparent, I think it’s best not to sit and pine, but to get out and do something that benefits the community at large. This substitutes busy-ness for what might be a more genteel and measured role as family Sage, Mentor, Counselor or Coach, but … there has to be a pinch of pragmatism thrown into the mix for sanity’s sake. For everyone involved. I don’t want to have unrealistic expectations for my children or my grandchildren about how they spend their time, or how often they need to visit. As it stands, they call when they need something. I do too. It seems to work.
So right now, I’m going to close my eyes, take a deep breath, clear my mind and center my thoughts … and imagine what I can do to be the best Person I can be.
The Grandparent part will follow…