I grew up surrounded by grandparents and a host of greats and grands. My mother’s parents, Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa, lived on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, with white fences, feral cats and a corn silo. Pa-pa smoked a pipe and stood with me while I watched a calf being born. He taught me about lanolin by thrusting my hands in a pile of newly shorn wool and let me eat white bread with butter and sugar — a rare treat from his depression-era childhood. He survived World War II, let me ride on tractors and hated strawberry jam.
My father’s family was more urban, if the cities of central Pennsylvania can be called that. The widowed matriarchs, Nana and Mema, lived together in their later years; their home was part daycare, part refuge.
Nana was the most maternal person I’ve ever known, which made up for her weird love of ginger tabby cats and lime green clothing. She taught me to make banana bread and to love the ocean. She filled the extra freezer in her garage with boxes of popsicles that she freely shared with the neighborhood kids on summer days spent playing tag in the backyard. We listened to the 1980 presidential race results on the radio together — I cried while she made me tea.
Later, Nana moved into her own place, Mema took up residence in the first floor of a two-story brick house, and my brother and I lived upstairs. In elementary and middle school, Mema kept an eye on us after school. An Anglophile, she introduced me to Altoids and the royal family. She always wore a girdle, wrap dresses and sensible shoes. I never saw her wear pants. Her hairstyle never changed in all the years I knew her, just like the Queen, although I’m pretty sure the Queen has never been found in the basement with a knit cap on her head, waving a broom to kill a bat.
I lost Nana and Mema and Ma-Ma in my twenties. Pa-Pa died while I was on my honeymoon and with him went the last physical tether I had to the greats and grands who were such a vibrant part of my childhood. It wasn’t until I became a parent, though, that I realized the size of that loss. Little Dude‘s childhood will be radically different than mine. He won’t have the same intergenerational experiences I did. My husband’s parents died before Little Dude was born and mine live in another state. And while my parents are frequent visitors and dote on their grandson, Little Dude will never know what it feels like to be regularly surrounded by family as wrinkled and wise as he is unblemished and silly.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from exposing our children to older generations — things that go beyond learning a shared family history or forming memories of people who won’t always be with us. My grandparents were great teachers — exposing me to everything from baking to art to raising livestock. But it was their simple presence that really mattered. Being around older people made them ordinary — and that’s a good thing. There wasn’t anything strange or different about their white hair or aches and pains. Because we were close I was a part of their lives and their deaths — and that altered how I understood my own life.
My time with my grandparents changed how I related to other people, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has had that experience. Studies of intergenerational day care have found that preschoolers in those programs are more patient, more empathetic, and have more self-control than their peers in traditional preschools.
And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit when grandparents are around. I have entirely selfish reasons for wishing I had a larger extended family. Without a slew of grandparents, my husband and I lack the support system my parents enjoyed. Dropping Little Dude off at my parent’s house for a night isn’t feasible when they live four hours away, and they can’t be my emergency back-up if something happens at school or work. We can’t rely on them to help out in a pinch when we’re sick or overwhelmed or just plain exhausted.
That’s why I envy friends who complain that their in-laws live too close for comfort or that their parents drop by more often than they like. Although I agree that it’s frustrating when mom’s frequent visits involve critiques of how the grandkids are being raised, or the in-laws show up with a surprise puppy, my sympathy is always tempered with frustration. It seems to me that whatever their flaws, however irritating they may sometimes be, grandparents who live nearby are a resource, not a burden. Because of their proximity, my friends’ kids will have experiences mine never will and my friends have a layer of support that my husband and I cannot even begin to imagine. I would kill to have my parents in the same town (hell, even in the same state) for lots of reasons, not the least of which is so they could pop over for a night of babysitting. I’d put up with a lot of meddling for that. (My father likes to fix things, so there’s also a good chance that the running toilet in the powder room would be repaired before we got home.)
So there are days when I long for the network of people that used to exist before families splintered and migrated and dissipated. I don’t know if it was better, or simpler or easier, but I do know this — I would save a lot of money on babysitting (on the other hand, my Marvelous Stepson is always on call and he’s been our go-to-guy when Little Dude needs a sitter, so we do have at least one home-grown advantage).
I’ve offered to renovate our garage and turn it into an apartment for my parents. I entice them with words like “Jacuzzi tub,” “top-of-the-line appliances,” “swimming pool,” and “radiant floor heating.” I emphasize all the time they’d have with Little Dude. I hope they focus on those things instead of the fact that they would be living in a garage.
No luck so far, but I haven’t given up yet.