I played catch once with my grandfather on his front lawn in Levittown, Long Island. In my memory, that’s about it in terms of my interaction with him. Don’t remember playing cards or taking trips together or baking honey-cakes with my grandmother or talking about their past or my future. I never thought it did any lasting damage to me to miss out on the deep spiritual connection that can happen between grandparents and grandchildren. That’s just how it was in those days— few at that time had any big expectations. Still, when he passed away sometime around my 12thbirthday and my father hung a painting he did of him on the landing of the stairs, I blew a kiss to him every night for the next six years. So some part of me felt that there should be a connection and that nightly kiss was my part of the unspoken bargain.
Coming to adulthood in the turbulent late sixties, all cultural assumptions were up for grabs and parenting was certainly one of them. As Garrison Keillor has noted, in my childhood, parenting was not a verb. You fed the kids, put them to bed, put a roof over their head and mostly told them to get out of the house and play. Which we all happily did. And yes, I played catch a bit more with my Dad than my Grandfather, went on some vacation trips, played some card and board games and such, but mostly kids played with kids and adults talked to adults and on some level, it worked out just fine.
But my wife and I and all our friends were different kind of parents, much more involved in the kids’ lives on every level and it came as no surprise that all of us ended up being very different kind of grandparents as well. So when my granddaughter Zadie was about to turn 10 four days ago, of course, we were going to put out the money for two plane flights and three nights in the neighborhood Air B&B. Of course we were going to shop for some of the gifts on her list and pick up the cake and I would play the piano for the Happy Birthday song and we would snap back into our routine of card games and board games and word games in the car, a solid and still-growing repertoire. All of that would have been enough and perhaps more than some grandparents feel is their duty and/ or pleasure.
But of course, we took it further. We both made a slide show chronicling each of her ten years, created a scavenger hunt in the neighborhood for the kids she invited to her party, had two overnights with her and younger brother Malik, one watching the movie Pollyanna. I set up a first piano lesson for both of them with a Suzuki teacher and we both attended the lesson. Karen worked on potholder looms with them and I figured out four cool card tricks from a book I had gifted her that we both mastered. Normally, Karen would do an art class at her school, but things felt up in the air with the pandemic, so we both just visited both her and Malik in their classes (though I got to sing a few songs with each class). We treated them to a dinner out at a taco place and on our last afternoon, played some basketball, Karen and Zadie against Malik and I.
In the midst of it all, each had at least one meltdown that made me feel betrayed by them in the light of all we were doing for and with them. But then I remind myself that they’re 6 and 10. I also wonder if setting it up so life with the grandparents is a constant carnival with ice cream treats lowers both their resilience and gratitude. After one unpleasant explosive confrontation with Zadie over a minor moment in our Bananagrams game, I let her cool off and we walked twice around the block to have a talk. I told her the story of how little I did with my grandparents and reviewed how much effort we made to come up and celebrate her birthday with her and yes, how expensive it all was and how bad it felt to be treated the way she had just treated us. I put it in a context, asking her what she thought the job of a grandparent is. Her first response was “to have fun with the grandkids” (something my grandparents certainly never would have said!) and then later, “to love them.” I assured it her I loved her unconditionally and loved to have fun with her, but then asked what he job as a grandchild was. What’s her responsibility in creating a culture of fun? By the end, it felt like she got it, was able to sincerely apologize and we moved on to have a lovely final day.
There’s a moral in here somewhere and some of it has to do with recalibrating my own relationship, considering that fun is a good by-product, but not the goal and be clear with myself that anything I do for these kids comes from my own pleasure in expressing my love and sharing what I think is important, with no strings attached, no expectations of undying gratitude and no shock of betrayal when they behave precisely as kids do, exploding out of all proportion when it’s clear that the D that fell closer to her Bananagrams pile when she accidentally knocked into Malik’s words and his D disappeared from the word “Doctor” we all had clearly seen and was not on the floor or anywhere else we could see was clearly the same D she claimed was in her group of letters. In the child’s mind, her conviction that she had two D’s (or rather needed two D’s) overpowered any rational explanation and justified the emotional meltdown that followed. You get the idea.
Kids. You gotta love ‘em. And in spite of it all, I do!