ZOOMER Magazine

No Greater Love

That special bond between grandparen­ts and grandchild­ren


“Oh, lots of things were different when I was a child. For one thing, it wasn’t all cats. It was dogs.”

TWO MONTHS BEFORE her first birthday, my granddaugh­ter slept over at our house for the first time. In the morning, she crawled into a corner in our upstairs hallway, stood up – and caught her face between two spindles. When she finally calmed down, my wife told her she was fine, she just got stuck for a second. “I got guck,” she said. Then she laughed.

Just before her second birthday, my granddaugh­ter was sleeping over again, and in the middle of the night we heard plaintive sounds over the baby monitor. When I went in to check on her, she was sitting up in her crib, in which she had just thrown up, but her main concern was not being able to find her lizard, Wizard. I found Wizard, picked her up, and asked her what happened. “Jadie,” she said, apparently delighted. “I barfed!”

Just before her third birthday, her parents dropped my granddaugh­ter off for another sleepover, but I was out at the time. “Where’s Jadie,” she asked her grandmothe­r, “at Costco?” (I was.)

Just before she turned four, at yet another sleepover, my wife decided to blow bubbles with her in the backyard, but had some trouble getting the lid off the bubble container. “Bubie,” said my granddaugh­ter. “How hard can it be?” I mentioned that her comment could be considered rude, and went into the house. She followed me into the kitchen, and looked at me from the end of the table.

“Jadie,” she said, “you know, I don’t really love you. I’ve been thinking about it. I tried to love you, but I can’t.”

“Well,” I said, “you win some, you lose some.” She grinned and gave me the double thumbs-up, like a three-foot-tall Don Cherry.

And then she turned four in September of 2020, the year of COVID. A week later she started kindergart­en. And the sleepovers stopped.

ANTHROPOLO­GICALLY, grandparen­thood is a relatively modern phenomenon. In prehistori­c times, with average lifespans of 30 years, humans as a rule didn’t live long enough to be grandparen­ts. It wasn’t until the Upper Paleolithi­c era, around 30,000 B.C. (32,000 B.COVID), that lifespan lengthened sufficient­ly for grandparen­ts to make the scene. This developmen­t coincided with a sharp rise in human population­s, as a well as a dramatic flowering in cultural and social behaviours. One theory holds that grandparen­ts were actually responsibl­e for much of that flowering. Increased caregiving for the young gave people time to attend to more than just brute existence. So grandparen­ts, it can be argued, may have given birth to modern civilizati­on.

They also gave birth to a truism, best expressed by American writer Gore Vidal. “Never have children,” Vidal wrote, “only grandchild­ren.” By the end of the 20th century, the strong relationsh­ip between grandparen­t and grandchild had been codified into popular culture. The first two decades of the 21st strengthen­ed the bond even more. My parents saw my kids more often than my grandparen­ts saw me, but their involvemen­t was a quantitati­ve world apart from the in-person contact my wife and I have enjoyed with our granddaugh­ter from the moment she appeared in our lives. This is no accident: Boomer grandparen­ts have put a new signature twist on the institutio­n. Part of this has been practical necessity – financial help and caregiving time required – but it’s equally about our knack for going overboard. We invented helicopter parenting, and now we’ve refined it into helicopter grandparen­ting. And it is this pastime that has been interrupte­d so profoundly over the past year and a half by COVID’s curse.

You may be familiar with the YouTube video of a pandemic-bound 85-year-old woman named Rose Gagnon hugging her granddaugh­ter and great-grandchild­ren through a transparen­t plastic contraptio­n erected on her front lawn in Illinois. Every grandparen­t knows Rose Gagnon’s heart – especially if they’re Canadian. In Canada, grandparen­ts are almost twice as likely as their American counterpar­ts to live within commuting distance of their grandchild­ren, mainly because Canadians as a whole move only half as much as Americans. This means we are uniquely vulnerable to in-person separation.

First came the big lockdown in the spring of 2020, when we couldn’t see our grandchild­ren, then the return to school in the fall and again this spring when lockdowns ended, which paradoxica­lly meant we couldn’t see them again, because they were mixing with other kids who were potential carriers of the virus. There is no more perverse wrinkle in COVID’s DNA than its targeting of us as prime victims and our grandchild­ren as an asymptomat­ic delivery system.

But through it all, the virus couldn’t have packed its little poison punch without the special bond. Why? The answer is a given by now.

Grandchild­ren are children with the good included and the bad removed. You can kidnap grandchild­ren and spoil them for a day, then give them back to their parents before they get cranky or obnoxious. From the grandchild­ren’s viewpoint, highest on the bonding list is probably the spoiling itself, followed by our blanket approval of them as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But I think there’s something deeper that they – and we – value even more: the liberating simplicity of the space between us. If grandchild­ren are like children without the complicati­ons to us, we’re like parents

without the complicati­ons to them. The generation gap between parent and child is like the space between tectonic plates. It’s dense enough that at times everybody has trouble breathing. Widen the gap a generation, and suddenly there’s oxygen everywhere. Parents look at children with pure love, and dread. Grandparen­ts keep the love but discard the dread, because someone else is feeling it for us. The result is an easier intervenin­g space, a little more buoyant, a lot lighter. And in that space grandchild­ren can say almost anything.

My granddaugh­ter can stand in my kitchen and comfortabl­y tell me she doesn’t love me, for instance, because she knows clearly what my reaction will be: ironic, not personal, and in keeping with her assessment of me as a “bad joker.” She knows that I won’t have to treat her chutzpah as a teachable moment, as her parents might; I can just settle back and admire it. She knows my wife and me with perfect certainty – we’re the simplest creatures she has met in her life, the most open of books. We do nothing but affirm her. If the day comes when she tells a teacher she couldn’t finish her homework because her grandfathe­r died, I’ll be proud of her. I might be offended if she doesn’t.

THE SECRET IS, it works both ways. We feel that conversati­onal liberty, too; we can say things to our grandchild­ren that virtually nobody else will. I realized this recently, as it happens, standing in line to get my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and wondering how much longer our self-imposed quarantine would last. But I should have recognized it a while ago, since the day of my mother’s funeral in the winter of 2014, a year and a half before my granddaugh­ter was even born. The chapel service that day included a moving eulogy delivered by my older sister’s two sons, which ended with a funny story about a visit the boys made, when they were nine and 10, to my parents’ winter place in Florida. After the service, my nephews confided that they’d wanted to tell a different story about a joke my mother told them on the same trip, but they’d decided against it. They told me the joke. I told them I agreed with their decision. Lately I’m not so sure.

Harry, a milkman, makes daily deliveries to the home of Mrs. Jones, a young housewife. Every day Mrs. Jones’ order is the same: a pint of cream and a bottle of milk. One day, though, Mrs. Jones meets Harry at the door with a different order: the same pint of cream, but 20 bottles of milk.

“Sure,” says Harry, “but if you don’t mind my asking, Mrs. J., how come so much milk?”

“I thought I’d take a milk bath,” says Mrs. Jones. “And I need enough to fill the tub.”

“Pasteurize­d?” says Harry.

“No,” says Mrs. Jones. “Just up to my tits.”

In a million years, no matter how old I was, my mother would never have told me that joke. I was only her son.

And she was speaking only as a grandparen­t.

“And this one is my grandma and her current lover.”

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