A Big, Big Boy

My first-born grandson, shortly after his birth

I have no explanation for my feelings about being a grandparent other than that as with so many aspects of my life, I’ve always felt outside the mainstream. My own mother was a wonderful grandmother and in general, a kid-lover extraordinaire. I can’t count the number of times when she and I would be somewhere together, in a store or a restaurant, just anywhere, and she’d say, “look at that baby – isn’t she adorable?” She would be thoroughly engaged with the little stranger, trying to make a connection, to establish contact. I would be utterly disinterested. Why on earth would I care about some cute random baby? I had more important things on my mind. I never thought as I was growing up, that I needed children in order to have a full, rich life. And grandchildren? Not even on my radar. Stating those personal facts makes me feel like a social mutant. I know that for those people who all their lives have hungered for children, and the next generation after those, I must sound like a callous, insensitive person. I’m really not. I didn’t have any judgments about those who dreamed so differently than me. But that absence of interest in kids was my truth for a long time.

I wanted a partner. When I became involved with Michael in 1971, ultimately moving in with him in 1972, I wasn’t thinking about what kind of father he might be. I was thinking about him strictly as a companion for life. I wanted to be with someone who accepted me as I was, who would be with me through whatever the world tossed at us. I never wanted to be divorced. After our four year trial period, we decided to marry. At least I did. Michael, who was opposed to institutions, went along with my desire. Then we proceeded to keep doing what we’d been doing. A few years passed. Michael really wanted to start a family. I agreed, albeit a bit uncertain. But as the process took longer than we’d thought, my interest and focus grew exponentially. By the time our daughter was born when I was past thirty, I found myself more than ready to be a mother. Michael and I’d had ten years alone – we were both prepared for the changes a baby brings to your life. Then five years later we had our son. By that time I was determined to do the best parenting job I could, having found my own kids to be the most fascinating, challenging and important interests on the planet.

I’ve never forgotten that line from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Our kids’ lives seemed to speed by, leaving flashing images in our minds that ranged from initial toddling steps to tying shoes, from waving goodbyes on the first days of kindergarten to backward looks as we drove away from college dormitories. Jumbled in were soccer goals, three-point shots and volleyball kills, along with high school debates, musical performances and spelling bees. Laughing, crying, arguing and cajoling. Miserable and hilarious vacations. And lots of graduations. Then eventually, the kids moved along into their adult worlds and life went back to just Michael and me. We didn’t suffer from empty nest syndrome. We went back to the time before we were parents and easily remembered how to be those same people with added emotional layers and some gray hair. I was content. When our daughter got married I had no aspirations for that mystical grandparent thing. I’d heard plenty over the years about how great grandparenting was, all the goodies of parenthood without any of the hassles. If there is a biological foundation to desiring the further manifestations of myself in a new generation, I must’ve missed that gene. I think my daughter would definitely back me up when I say that I never once asked her when she was going to give her dad and me a grandchild. I’d thrown myself fully into loving my two kids and didn’t believe for one second that I would ever feel anything close to those powerful emotions with any kid of theirs. If that makes me weird, so be it. I still feel that ferocious love for them, as I do for Michael.

Eventually my daughter became pregnant and I was happy for her, worried about her and everything else that comes along with that huge event. That time of my life was interesting. The baby was due in September 2010, when I was approaching the end of my 33rd year at my job. I’d worked with the same people for those decades at our small public official domain. I was the youngest of the four of us and all of them were retiring at the end of 2009. I was left with a new staff, all of whom were significantly younger than me and I was having a tough time managing the new atmosphere. I was training everyone but feeling like the proverbial fish out of water. I had enough sick time and vacation time to get me to the 35 year requirement for a full pension, but was not yet old enough for Medicare. So after some long talks, our family agreed that I would retire in October to become the grandchild’s caregiver, with my kids’ only daycare expense being the coverage of my health insurance policy which I’d use until I became Medicare-eligible. So voila. My grandson was born in mid-September and I retired in October to become a full-time babysitter when he was seven weeks old. Welcome Gabriel.

I was definitely fascinated with this new little person and so glad I could relieve my daughter of the anxiety and sadness I’d suffered when I had to leave her with this random woman called “daycare provider.” I did a lot of crying in the driveway before I managed to get myself to work in those days. My kids were comfortable knowing that absent the unpredictable, their kid was going to be loved and unequivocally cared for during their time away from him.

But being home all day with an infant was a huge adjustment for me. I was going to be spending more time with this kid than I’d spent with my own after my maternity leave ended. I was accustomed to being out of the house all day, my schedule dictated by no one but me. I’d been a full-time working woman my whole life. I was also nervous. I hadn’t taken care of a baby in well over 20 years. I wondered if I had the internal resources to adjust to these big lifestyle changes.

As a member of the “adapt or die” club, I opted for adapting. Slowly I began to find my old skills. In addition, I decided to really focus on this little boy’s daily changes, because truly, the development process is a fascinating experience. I took countless photos of him to send to my daughter and son-in-law during the day. I also kept track of any new and exciting moment in his progress in scribbled notes which evolved into an annual birthday letter. As of now there are eleven of those to be opened on his eighteenth birthday. I did the same for my kids, a delightful surprise for them to read about those early life experiences buried somewhere in their brains. When Michael came home from teaching we shared precious time together. Both of us were pretty creative, enjoying inventing amusements for little Gabriel while also enjoying ourselves. Michael had wanted so much to have the family he’d missed in his own life. I’ll always be grateful that he got the bonus of being a grandpa as well as a dad.

I remember my mom always talking about the difference between coping with an irritable, cranky baby and then being with the ones who are easy to love. Gabriel was one of the latter. Sweetness and sensitivity oozed out of him. He was alert and responsive. As I relaxed in my new role, I just decided to do whatever felt good for me, optimistic that he would just do the same type of adapting as I was. I played him lots of music. One memorable afternoon when he was about 5 months old, I put a Leo Kottke CD into my player. That little boy laid his head against my cheek and listened to the entire album without moving. In time, I discovered Baby Einstein and all the new internet marvels that combined all kinds of music with shapes, letters, numbers and animals. But I’m a hard core rock and roller with roots in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. I found flash mobs on YouTube with music that ranged from the Blackeyed Peas to Lady Gaga to the Beatles. We listened to Ode to Joy and The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. Gabriel knew that Itzhak Perlman had a violin solo in that last one. We read books, learned to play catch and strolled through the neighborhood. We played in the backyard with toy lawnmowers, kiddie pools and hammocks. In the winter we made his first snowballs and snowmen. And he grew and he grew.

I come from what I’d call a silly ditty background. My parents sang all the time when I was growing up, classical kid songs, movie themes and lullabies. I sang them to my kids along with a mix of my favorite tunes with ridiculous lyrics tossed in for fun. One of compositions for my little companion began with “Gabriel, the big, big boy, Gabriel who’s not a toy…” followed by a string of nonsense syllables. If he had a movie about his childhood, that would be its primary song. But time moved fast. The baby became a toddler became a little boy. I took him for his first haircut, and was with him for his first dip in Lake Michigan. Michael took him to swimming lessons and practiced bike riding with him. We started having lots of questions and teachable moments. Then Michael was diagnosed with cancer in the midst of those early times. With schedule juggling and a cancer remission, I managed to get Gabriel to the fall of 2013, when at almost three, he finally went off to the same preschool his mom and uncle had attended. By this time, my daughter was pregnant again and I hoped that I would be caring for baby number two in January, 2014. Sadly, Michael’s cancer came roaring back in November, 2013, just two months after Gabriel started day care. I only had one shot at helping rear a big, big boy before turning my attention to Michael’s dire circumstances which led us on an emotional rollercoaster for the next three and a half years.

We were so lucky that our daughter and son-in-law had established their professional careers in our hometown, enabling us to all be together as we navigated Michael’s illness and be close to the growing boys. When Michael was in his healthy moments, we stuffed in as many retirement-type trips as we could. When at home, and during treatments, we spent lots of time with the kids.

From the end of January, 2017 until his death that May, Michael’s health was in a steep decline. He was hospitalized for 32 days and I stayed with him throughout that time. Our children visited often, bringing our grandsons with them. Our youngest was too small to understand much about what was happening but Gabriel was apprehensive and full of questions. He wondered whether cancer was contagious, how you got it and whether he might have it too. The big, big boy was coping with life’s biggest challenge. We were truthful with him and age-appropriate. I thought he handled himself better than many adults who might find themselves in such a painful situation.

Michael always wore a bandanna when he exercised. During chemo when he lost his hair, he found them to be useful head coverings. Michael gave Gabriel one which he wore companionably. When Michael died, I gave Gabriel Michael’s favorite which he wore in solidarity with his beloved grandpa. The big, big boy indeed. Aged six and a half.

During the past five years, my relationship with Gabriel has deepened. I can’t quite understand if we always organically shared similarities or whether it’s more about my way of nurturing him. Likely it’s a combination of both, but the truth is we get along really well.

I took him to see The Nutcracker and to ride a pony. I’ve removed slivers from his hands. We’ve always had free flowing conversations but as he’s maturing, we talk about a wide variety of issues from his personal interests, school, other kids and video games to science, conservation and mythology. During the pandemic, aside from the times I spent with both my grandsons, he wanted more grandma time. And truthfully, so did I. His company is stimulating and he’s brought out the teacher in me. We’ve done art projects, worked on geography and have regular field trips into the country to hunt for birds, deer and murmurations.

Yes, I am the grandmother. But this guy who’s now eleven is tuned into me as a human being. I remember having had a rotten morning which I shoved away when it was time for our meeting. He stepped into my car, gave me a look and said, “you seem a little gloomy. Although that’s perfectly understandable.” A unique perception from a kid who can not only feel something but can find a way to accurately communicate about it.

One day in the not-too-distant future, his social and school needs will bring this incredible unexpected gift of weekly time to an end. I’ve broached this topic with him but for now he thinks that’s impossible. I know better but I appreciate his sentiments. He tells me that he trusts me completely, that he’s learned at least one third of his knowledge from me and that he sees no reason why he’d want to give up our time. Such is the beauty of youth. He’s already towering over me and there are demands and urges coming toward him that I know about while he’s just beginning to be aware of those changes.

Last week he told me that even though he knows I’m his grandma, he also considers me a close friend. So it appears that my attitude about not being a classic grandparent has evolved in a way that suits my temperament. I don’t see that Gabriel is a more welcome alternative to my two kids who still are foremost in my heart. But what I’ve built with Gabriel wasn’t what I expected. I’m trying to work my way into something similar with his younger brother who is a different personality. Gabriel says, “look grandma, you just didn’t get to take care of him for three years as you did me, so you need different expectations.” Maybe so. But I’ll still try. That Gabriel. The big, big boy.

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