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Do not mistake our sentiments. We love our grandchildren. We are happy when they arrive. And, alas, we are happy when they leave.
In anticipation of their summer arrival, months of scrubbing, painting, cleaning, hoeing and planting are needed. We live near a pond and nature intrudes whether we like it or not. Animals inhabit house and sheds while we are away. These are the unwanted visitors, leaving their tell-tale “packages,” stealing seeds, building nests, gnawing anything left from the last season. But we understand the rules of the game. We clean up.
However, being grandparents to a large brood of grandchildren tests us. It is not just the cleaning up behind the tornado of small tykes, the repairs to door knobs or neglected kayaks. It isn’t the unpulled weeds in Mr. McGregor’s garden that grow during their stay (and believe us, we solicited help!). It isn’t the omnipresent beach sand or the silver gum wrappers (they don’t chew gum at home) dropped behind the sofa. But it is the delicate balance of authority between generations.
We are not alone. Whole legions of grandparents shoulder the responsibilities of raising grandchildren. In our rights-driven era, may we propose an Alliance of Grandparents. We need help! Every other group under duress has a support group. We grandparents have no lobbying body in Washington; we have no state or local rehab programs; no self-help books; no specially dedicated Church ministry --not even any tax deductions.
A couple of readings shed light on our thinking about what has changed. One book, “The Big House,” is a nostalgic account of one family house over a century. The family, once bound together by morning sailing races or weekend tennis tournaments, is finally reduced to selling the Big House. They no longer have the staff (servants), nor the funds to keep up major repairs. Nor the energy. One pictures a spooky house shadowing craggy cliffs, all but ready to fall into the sea. We ask why no one took charge of maintenance when the staff was reduced. Why were there no weekends devoted to cleaning? Why weren’t screens repaired and window sashes replaced? Where were the helpers?
It is the modern view that vacations are to be enjoyed without work. Our offspring come like guests. Once in awhile a devoted Cinderella notices hand prints and offers to grab the Windex. But, in general, we have to plead and bribe for help with dishes or trash.
Most of our pre-arrival plans for daily rosary, a reading hour and family story time were dashed early on. The naps, games, hunts for lost sneakers and short-order lunches seemed to take up the day. Grandchildren set the agenda whether practicing the violin or splashing at the beach. When meals are over, the older children slip off to their laptops and iPods, while the young ones streak for the lawn and tag.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a careful student of American ways, observed that at the bottom of everything Americans do is love of money. We knew that. We tried paying for small jobs like removing stones from grass when they were supposed to be in the graveled walkway. One small entrepreneur placed more stones on the grass in some kind of game, but had little interest in being paid for removing them. As for bribing dishwashers, we’ve learned it is just easier to do the washing up ourselves.
Being separated by a generation reduces our role as disciplinarians. We are not up to date on the techniques practiced as discipline today. And, in fact, we are not expected to perform that role. Many grandparents have a more “hands on” role with their grandchildren given they take a direct role in rearing them. Presumably they lay-a-hand-on when needed. While moms work, many grandparents are baby sitters, meal makers, homework supervisors and recreation coaches.
Today’s generation requires enormous stimulation. They are a part of the wired world where grandparents rarely relate, nor often dare to tread. One of us recalls, as a child, watching amazed while a grandfather peeled an apple with one continuous knife stroke. Today the only apple capable of holding the grandchildren’s attention is a Macintosh of Steve Jobs’ creation.
Other grandparents we know who host their offspring report that the middle generation [that is, the parents] is also on vacation and return to the state of childhood once under their parents roofs. Their clothes are on the floor, shoes accumulate in corners, diapers pile up -- or they “need to get to the computer.”
Another grandparent reports that when his families returned one Christmas, they heard their own adult offspring -- ordinarily independent and in charge -- chime from upstairs on Christmas morn, “Did Santa Claus arrive yet? Is it time to come down yet?”
Yet another grandparent said in a quiet moment: “My grandchildren only like me because I’m rich.” While we doubt the veracity of the comment, we recognize the “banker status” of being a grandparent. More charitably, let us point out that when the computer has a glitch, the grandchildren come to the rescue. When the clock radio or VCR keeps flashing “12:00,” they can reset it in an instant. They can download photos on the computer, search the web and generally nudge us into the glories of the Google Age.
Most of all they are the entertainment. They can provide teams for games, give a violin concert or memorize a poem for recitation. We used to remind our children at family social gatherings that they were either the help or the entertainment. Ours consistently chose the latter.
P.S. This is a highly theoretical account given that we have the privilege of nine grandchildren who are exquisitely brought up, terribly well-mannered and marvelously behaved. If anyone tells them of this article, they will be struck off our Christmas card list.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.