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Voices / Essay

From different worlds

Grandparenting in different times

Byron Stookey writes from experience: as grandparent (with his wife, Lee) to nine grandchildren.

Welcome to the Diamond Jewel, an imaginary ship my 7-year-old grandson, 5-year-old granddaughter and I sail amidst the bed covers, first thing in the morning.  Mostly, as a visiting granny, I’m a willing moon, orbiting about my son, his wife, and their children.  Aboard the Diamond Jewel, though, I’m Lefty the Cook, co-creator of extravagant exploits and narrow escapes.  At home, I write down our tales of mermaids, treasure and storms at sea, searching catalogues for illustrations.  Mailing the stories to my grandchildren, I’m full of glee.

—Elena Harap  [adapted from  a letter from Streetfeet Women]

Brattleboro

A lovely relationship. A heartwarming account. Reading it, it struck me that we do grandparenting better now than when I was a child.

Grandparents then were like parents then: relations with younger generations were more formal, roles and prerogatives more distinct. Parents shared life with their children less intimately. And grandparents, though generally loving and geographically closer, were more remote.

Now it is different. I’m tuned in to my grandchildren’s lives in a way my grandparents weren’t. We relate more as people, communicate less formally. We do things together, share a sense of humor. All that is good.

Still, I think grandparenting is overrated.

The role is still, for the most part, a set piece: one grandparent, playing it well, is rather like another. Difference in age, agility, and experience is a basic fact. We’re from different worlds. Time together can be marvelous.

But, unless the grandparent is serving as parent, the relationship is thin.

It can be different when grandchildren are older. But, even then, grandparents are wanting.

* * *

The problem is that whoever did the casting for grandparents picked the wrong people. They should have selected, instead, young aunts or uncles, godparents, or miscellaneous close family friends. Less venerable people who are:

• fond of the kids

• liked and trusted by them

• conversant in with-it language

• discreet

• unflappable

• agile enough to attempt skateboarding or three-point shots

• unembarrassing in public

• between half-again and twice the kid’s age

• trusted but not cowed by the parents

• able occasionally to spring for a treat

• seasoned by a typical youth trauma or two

• clever with things that have microchips

• droll

• very stern when needed

That’s what kids need. If this role had a proper name, maybe more would be drawn to it. The rewards are generous.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to make do.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #233 (Wednesday, December 11, 2013). This story appeared on page C3.

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