Grandmothering in the 21st Century

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?



6 thoughts on “Grandmothering in the 21st Century

  1. With no children, I’ll never be a grandma, but your post certainly has surfaced great memories of a different sort of grandparenting.

    My mother’s mother died when mom was 16, and her dad when I was about six, so one set of grandparents never was part of my life – although I still have some great memories of time spent with her father, and still have some gifts he gave me.

    On my dad’s side, it was quite different. My Dad had two sisters and four brothers, one of whom was killed in WWII. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was the center of our life. Every Sunday, we drove to their home, about 40 miles away, for Sunday dinner and “visiting”. Occasionally another aunt or uncle would be there, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone “came home”.

    Each summer I went to spend two weeks with them. I learned how to embroider tea towels, I planted batchelor buttons and zinnias, I played in the back yard and helped my grandpa with various house chores. And every afternoon I would sit in the swing and read, before setting the table for dinner and then watching tv or sitting on the porch. I looked forward to those visits all year long – they were the best part of the summer.

    It was wonderful – and I felt as close or closer to my grandparents as I did to my own folks. The point? Only that distance and a lack of constant contact don’t necessarily mitigate against closeness. Sometimes, they actually help to nurture it.

  2. It’s an odd new world we live in, isn’t it? Rick and I were talking about that recently, in light of Kevin’s internship in Atlanta. He’ll be back, but he’ll go away and (hopefully) take the wonderful Miss Molly with him, where they will be married and have children. And we will be in Michigan, with a less that ideal travel budget. And we’ll be learning the skyping and figuring out how to send fun, creative presents that will be more personal. So, I will be eager to follow you story — I may be able to learn a few hints from you!

    • I’m closely watching all my friends who are doing this now, looking to see how they handle the long distance thing. It’s not ideal, but I guess it has to be this way.

  3. My grandchildren live over a thousand miles away, too. I regret that we can’t see them more often. We do the Skype routine and they always spend Christmas with us because my DIL’s parents don’t celebrate Christmas. There are lots of visits back and forth. Yes, we usually have gifts when we arrive at their house.

    They love us and can’t wait to see us (and who wouldn’t? we bear gifts and we think they’re splendid in every way!), but I know it isn’t the same as being next door or even in the same city.

    My DIL wants very much to move to Virginia in a few years. She want’s the kids to have both sets of grandparents in their lives as they grow toward their teens. They’re only 3 and 5 now. I can’t tell you how much I wish for them to be closer.

    You will figure this out. It’s true, we will not be the grandparents we grew up with, but we’ll make it work. I promise you one thing. Your grandchildren will adore you and you them.

    • Thanks, Bella. I was hoping you’d weigh in on this, since I know you are in a similar situation. Of course, you and I are also in the middle of that sandwich thing, with the elderly parents to consider too. Oy.

      At least right now I have quite a bit of freedom to come and go, which I’m sure I’ll be taking advantage of starting in November – or even sooner!

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