When I was about six years old, my maternal grandparents came to live with us. At that time, we had just moved into a brick ranch house in one of the many ubiquitous subdivisions of homes that had risen from the landscape in response to the post WWII baby boom. This house was slightly different from the majority of others in the neighborhood, in that the basement had been “finished” – meaning it was paneled and carpeted and sectioned off into three rooms, including a complete kitchen and bathroom. Although my grandparents slept upstairs in one of the three bedrooms, they spent most of their time in the basement. At least my grandmother did, for she took over that basement kitchen and ran it much like Gordon Ramsay would do. My mother was occasionally allowed to assist her with the cooking process, but the rest of us just tried to stay out of her way.
As a child, I loved having my grandparents living with us. My grandfather was an ever present source of companionship. A gentle, soft spoken man, he taught me to ride a bike and play poker, all in the same summer. He always had patience with me and my friends, and would happily drive us anywhere we wanted to go, never saying a word no matter how loud we giggled or how silly we acted. My grandmother was perpetually busy, flitting from one project to the next – cooking, sewing, gardening, cleaning. I can still see her on a hot summer day, pulling loaves of freshly baked bread from the oven and serving it up with fresh butter and tall, sweating glasses of iced tea. Yet she was the one I’d go to with a book to be read aloud, or to ask for a song to be played on the piano so I could dance or sing along. She’d also stand patiently by while I rolled out tiny pie crusts, dusting the floor with flour, in my futile attempts to mimic her stellar baking ability.
From an adult’s perspective, I see the flaws in this arrangement. My grandmother, although the picture of soft, southern serenity on the outside, was really tough as nails. She ran the house as if it were her own, thus never allowing my mother to develop her own style of domestic engineering. My grandfather took on many of my father’s rightful roles around the house, roles he had forfeited in favor of long hours spent running his successful business.
But the constant presence of loving grandparents was an astounding gift to me. And not only did I have both my grandparents with me throughout my entire childhood, my great grandmother lived right across the street! I have wonderful memories of spending Saturday nights with her, watching the Lawrence Welk Show, eating Fritos and drinking Coke.
Because my grandparents were such an integral part of my daily life – and my son’s life too, since my own parents lived around the corner from us during his entire childhood – I developed a lot of expectations about being a grandparent. I somehow took it for granted that if/when I became a grandmother, I would duplicate the role made famous by my own grandmother and mother. I would be a constant, daily presence in my grandchild’s life, always available to play games, read stories, host overnight’s, do the carpool. I’d be the lifesaver when mom and dad needed a night out or a weekend away.
I would be There with a capitol T.
But I’m beginning to realize it’s not going to be that simple.
The big difference, of course, is that my grandchild will live over 1,000 miles away. Not down the hall, not even down the street. It’s a (long!) two day car ride to Dallas, or three hours (and almost $400 a ticket!) on a plane. Pretty hard to be at someone’s beck and call under those circumstances. Even if I can manage a trip down every month or two, it’s certainly not the same as dropping by after nap time to go to the park, or running over to babysit at a moment’s notice, or coming along to doctor’s appointments and shopping trips to provide an extra pair of hands.
So how do I reconcile this picture I have in my head of what it means to be a grandmother with the reality of the kind of grandmother I’ll have to be in the 21st century? The kind who reads stories on Skype instead of snuggled in the rocking chair, or the kind of comes to stay for a few days every once in a while, bringing gifts and disrupting the daily schedule. The kind who’s an interesting, probably welcome, presence but not part of one’s life, not really.
Not the way my grandmother was for me.
Not the way I wanted to be.
It feels a little bit like reinventing the wheel, at least my family’s version of it. There are no long distance grandmothers in our family, so there are no role models to follow. But if I think about most of my friends and their grandchildren, I realize that this situation is definitely not unusual in today’s world. Of all my friends who are grandmothers, only three of them have grandchildren who are “local.”
“You just have to enjoy every second when you’re with them,” my friend G. told me. “Don’t do anything else but be present with whatever they want to do.”
It seems I’ll be blazing a new trail here in the months and years ahead, but at least I’ll have some company. We’ll just have to see where it leads.
Now tell me, all of you who are long distance grandparents, what’s your best advice?