It’s a sunny weekday morning in early August at Storyland, a fairy tale, nursery rhyme, etc. theme park in Glen, New Hampshire. It’s comfortably warm, and the park is full and bustling but not overcrowded. My wife and I take a seat on a stone wall surrounding a patch of greenery in the midst of a convergence of broad paved walking paths. We are relaxed, for the most part. Going out anywhere with our food allergy-stricken daughter is a bit stressful, but this is a moment of calm. Also, we can’t see either of our children.
The aforementioned daughter, our two year-old, we left on line for the Ferris wheel with cars shaped like hot air balloons. Our son, four years old, ran off in the opposite direction to a large tent-ish structure filled with pneumatic tubes that fire foam rubber balls in a chaotic mixture of science lab and open war zone.
It’s okay, guys. They’re with their grandparents. I plopped Li’l Boo right into the eagerly waiting arms of her Grandma Maggy, my mother, and The Dude trucked off with my dad, Poppa Joe, hot on his heels. And everyone is as content as Mama and I with this arrangement.
Our adventure at Storyland was just one part of a five-day family vacation to my parents’ house in New Hampshire. Other highlights of the trip included The Dude tugging my arm as I was carrying our luggage in so he could bring me to the basement where piles of my old toys (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Batman, and more–there was even a Dick Tracy action figure!) sat waiting to be played with for the first time in twenty-five years, Li’l Boo strapping on swimmies and getting her first shot at swimming with Poppa Joe dutifully holding her afloat, story time with Grandma Maggy while I caught up with my brother who was also there with his wife and two year-old daughter, and a whole lot of me not knowing where my kids were but feeling assured that they were in good care.
The worst part of the visit? Aside from the twenty four agonizing minutes I spent dragging my out-of-shape, hasn’t-swum-since-that-semester-in-college-I-took-swimming-for-my-PE-requirement ass through nearly a half mile of open lake as part of a triathlon team with my father and brother (who ran and biked, respectively), it was leaving. My poor boy was absolutely beside himself. I usually only see him cry when he’s hurt or pissed that he got in trouble or has to take a bath; seeing him melt down in sadness like this was a fairly novel experience, and I was not into it.
But we’re not here to talk about sadness, dear reader. We’re here to talk about grandparents! Because, really, how awesome are they? They can be babysitters, playmates, advisers, and so much more. They come to visit so you and your wife can leave the kids at home and go see your favorite band play in New Jersey; they slip your kids money that they won’t know what to do with for years; they keep toys around that no one has played with in a quarter-century then act like it’s totally cool when your kids would rather climb on the hand-built wooden kayak than play with those toys. They come around for birthdays and Christmas and Thanksgiving to help add to the magic that makes those days special. And sometimes, they come around for no reason at all and bring some special-ness and extra fun to ordinary days.
I know, of course, that not all grandparents are this way. My own grandparents were not. They lived in Texas and Louisiana when I was growing up in New Jersey. We saw them once a year when we visited, and I have precious few memories of them leaving their houses or really doing anything with us, even then. Of course I loved them and never thought there was anything odd about any of this, but seeing how involved my kids’ grandparents are in contrast to my own experience, well, Ol’ Dad’s heart just swells.
And here is where I have to admit that I may have been wrong, once (but just the one time, of course). Growing up the Jersey Boy son of Louisiana natives with aunts and uncles in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and Michigan–most of whom I rarely, if ever, saw–I just always assumed that when you grow up you move away. Far away. My parents moved to New Hampshire when I was barely out of their house and still living in New Jersey, further reinforcing the idea that increased distance and independence were called for at that time in my life. My brother had, by that time, relocated to Washington, DC. When Jersey began to sour for me, it seemed only natural to leave it far behind. It’s another story for another time, I’m sure, but the only thing I couldn’t leave behind was the girl who would become my wife. And so our children were born in Kentucky, some 750 miles from their closest grandparents, and it took some convincing, and the birth of our niece just three months before our daughter, to make me believe there was anything wrong with that.
Here in Maryland, we’re still about a ninety minute drive from my in-laws in Jersey and a full day’s drive from my parents, but each of those rides used to be about ten hours longer. This also puts us closer to the kids’ wonderful aunts and uncles and their cousins, but what has surprised me in the year that we’ve been here is how happy I have been to be closer to grandparents. I really had no idea what a wonderful thing involved grandparents can be, for the kids and for us as parents. Before I had kids, I thought grandparents were either passive and uninteresting or were overbearing agents of child-spoiling. They seemed to have a role that was either outside of or somewhat counter to the functions and goals of the nuclear family. That I could call on them as helper, advisers, even partners in the raising of my children was simply not an expectation I had.
Well, friends, I have been corrected, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.