I grew up having wonderful grandparents, especially my grandmothers. One grandma provided the foundation for my spiritual life. She made religious instruction an expectation, got me singing in the choir, and really encouraged my participation in youth group. She also taught me about the value of work, hiring me to do light cleaning during the holidays so I could earn money for holiday gifts. She taught me about decency, respect, and integrity.
My other grandma was the love of my life. Gram was sweet and kind. Everything you did she marveled at; I can’t ever remember a time that she was disappointed in any of us. We blossomed when we were with Gram. When we lost her, I tried to pinpoint what it was that made her so special to us. It was that she loved us unconditionally…absolutely 100% unconditional love. If you have ever been loved that way, you don’t forget it. It touches and changes you in a way that you can’t explain. It becomes part of your soul, and it is the foundation of resilience, helping you to bounce back after disappointments and challenges. This type of love is priceless. Even decades later, we speak about Gram with reverence, and we miss her still.
I have six grandchildren, three boys and three girls. As I learned that I would become a grandmother, I really thought about how I wanted my grandchildren to view me and my role in their lives. My children and their spouses were clear that discipline would be left to them as parents. Of course, that was because they knew it all, knew it better, and I was a half-wit. As the grandkids have grown, it’s given me great pleasure to sit back smugly and listen to my kids rant and rave during their times of trial as parents. It’s been satisfying to realize that, now that they have stood in my former shoes and they need some advice, I’ve become one of the smartest women on the planet.
So, I decided that my role as “Grammy” would be a combination of the two wonderful grandmothers who helped shape my life. I am my grandchildren’s most enthusiastic cheerleader, a life guide, a confidante. I am someone who loves them unconditionally but someone who will also be honest with them. I am someone who gives them a voice but also provides other perspectives. I am someone who provides life experiences that enhance their appreciation of the wonders that surround them, and the value of all human beings.
But, as a Grammy, I figured out quickly that I’m not always the teacher…most times, I’m the student. My grandchildren have taught me some important lessons about love:
The Importance of Tradition: I do an egg hunt for the grandkids every year. Each child has his/her own color egg to find, and it’s all equal and fair. I typically put candy in some, money in others, and a few trinkets/toys in the remainder. One year, I thought I’d make it easy and just put money in them. I figured that’s what the kids really wanted anyway. So, after the egg hunt, I was getting dessert ready, and my oldest grandson came up to me. “Um, Grammy…may I speak with you privately please?” I told him I was getting dessert ready and asked if he could just speak with me as I was working. “I was a little disappointed in the egg hunt this year.” I asked why. “It was all money.” I told him that I thought that was what they wanted, but he disagreed. I asked how I could make it better next year. “Well, a few eggs should have money, a few should be candy, and a few should be toys.” The next year, I stressed about the egg hunt, but I followed his lead…and got rave reviews.
This year, we added a step-grandchild. He didn’t have the type of basket that I bought the others when they were babies. So, I spoke with my oldest grandson about it, and suggested that maybe I should change baskets for everyone. You would have thought I’d asked him to cut off his right arm; the original baskets needed to stay in place. This 12-year-old wanted his frog basket, the girls wanted their bunnies and butterflies. I chuckled about it, but then realized that these traditions have become precious memories that hold meaning about love, life, and stability. There’s no way I can change them, nor should I.
Traditions are building blocks of stability--of family--however it is defined. Grandparents play a significant role in starting and upholding traditions. They are symbols of love and continuity. Even after all these years, I still carry on traditions from my grandparents. I grew up in a poorer household, and my grandmother would take me and my brothers for new shoes at Christmas and Easter. Those outings were so special to me…I still remember vividly some of the shoes she bought me. But most of all, I still remember how special I felt during those outings…loved and valued. “Shoe shopping” is one of my grandkids’ favorite outings with me. Taking six kids for new shoes can be a bit of chaos, but it is chaos that we all love. It’s part of the experience, and it’s tradition.
The Importance of Building Memories: As grandparents, we get to spoil and indulge our grandchildren. It’s our prerogative. My dad used to fill my son’s bottle with Pepsi. When I protested, my dad told my son, in full earshot of me, “When you’re at Grampy’s house, you can have anything you want.”
That’s true to a point but, as grandparents, I think it’s also important to lean more towards experiences and less towards material goods. My grandchildren have everything they need materially. I began to realize that they didn’t need more “stuff.” So, I spoke with my daughter and daughter-in-law about changes in how I wanted to deal with gift-giving occasions. Thankfully, they supported me wholeheartedly.
Birthday gifts are now experiences. Most of the time, I go with them. So, I’ve taken the girls to learn decorating from a pastry chef. We’ve gone to the summer musical theater to watch “Annie.” We’ve been to the symphony to listen to them play the score along with the movie “Home Alone.” We’ve all learned how to paint a friendly zebra. I’ve taken the boys to a favorite movie. I took one grandson and three friends to a place called Flying Spiders and let them bounce and climb and horse around until they were exhausted. After, we went to dinner. I sat at a different table, thinking that these 4th grade boys wouldn’t want me hanging out with them, that they needed and wanted some space. But my grandson insisted that I sit with them, and he pulled a chair out for me to emphasize the importance of my presence. For another outing, the dads, sons and Grammy all went to an NHL game. I know little about hockey, but the evening was memorable just because of the conversation I was privileged to be a part of.
Holiday gift-giving has also changed. Instead of crazy amounts of gifts that I choose, each child (and grown up) provides me with 4 categories of ideas: Something I want, something I need, something to wear, and something to read. Sometimes I put a monetary cap on the categories, but each person gets four gifts. Each gift is something that they’ve chosen. Not one child or grown up has been disappointed in what they’ve received. My shopping is easy to do, I can control the budget, most have forgotten what they asked for so it’s all a surprise…and I’m the best Grammy around! Both ideas build memories of love, appreciation for individual talents and attention to diverse interests.
I also started family vacations every other year. I decide on the location and invite everyone. That week of vacation is a week of exploration, new activities, conversation, family bonding…precious time together that glues us together by sharing new experiences as a family, enhancing love and building memories. My hope is that, when I’m no longer here, my grandchildren will sit around and say, “Remember when Grammy did this?” or “Remember when Grammy took us to this place?” Who could ask for a better legacy?
The Importance of Being Seen and Heard: For the past four years, I’ve had the privilege and honor of taking one of my granddaughters to school each morning. Her mom drops her off, I feed her breakfast and make sure she has what she needs as we head to school. As we drive, I listen as she tells me the latest and greatest details of her little life. We sing to the 60s and try to guess the “City of the Day” that Phlash Phelps has selected on Sirius Radio. Sometimes we review for upcoming tests, or we chat about challenging friendships. Before she gets out of the car, I wish her a day of fabulosity, friendship, fun, frolic…and then, when the clock hits 8:15, I tell her to “get out of my car, girl!” She loves it. It’s “our thing” and it’s special. And I always tell her that I love her. Recently, out of the blue, she said, “Grammy, thank you for taking me to school, and making me breakfast, and sometimes to Dunkin Donuts.” I get teary-eyed thinking about how that touched me.
One time I had my oldest grandson over to play. Suddenly, he looked up and said, “Grammy, I love you.” Even as a 12-year-old, when I come in, he comes over to hug me and to let me kiss him on his head. My youngest grandchild loves it when I pick him up. He goes to the gym with me and plays happily with the other children. When we are alone together, he knows we have our “special” thing…getting pretzels with cheese sauce.
Each one of my grandchildren love that special “alone” time with me. I learn so much during those outings. I hear about the highs and challenges of being a sibling, fun times with friends, hopes, moments of pride, what they look forward to. For those moments together, they have center stage and Grammy is their captured audience, listening, appreciating and cheering them on. How lucky am I to have this role?
So, what’s the role of being a grandparent? It’s being a student of love, plain and simple. Be open to it, give it generously, give it often, receive it gratefully. It is something that never has an end date. I am living proof of how that love lives and grows within you. In the Book of Life, grandparenting is one of the sweetest chapters.