February 2005

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Grandparency

It is not hard to see why grandparents love their grandchildren so much. They get all the joy that comes with having children without most of the hassles. They don’t have to be the one who takes the screaming kid out of the restaurant for a “timeout” before dinner is over. More deeply, they can sleep in blessed relief knowing they will be survived in the world by their own kin, a never-ending line of descendants as far as they are concerned (and in this way immortalized).But how do grandchildren feel about their grandparents? This is harder to answer. At first, grandparents are scary old people. Scary and nice at the same time. Mostly very, very old — and strange. Then when kids turn into teenagers, the kids are too cool for their parents and usually too cool for their grandparents, too. Teenagers are focused on themselves, their friends and the opposite sex and they usually don’t have much time for their grandparents. So it’s really 20+ years after birth before children get around to appreciating their grandparents as vibrant human beings.

Pascoes And that’s a big problem because these days families are stretching out chronologically. People are marrying later and having kids later. Then their kids are marrying later, and their kids are having kids later. That means grandparents are getting very old indeed.

In my family, I am the youngest of three children. My parents had me when they were both 33, not too old by today’s standards. When I was ten, my maternal grandmother (Edith Hill) was 75. My maternal grandfather (Fred Hill) died when my mother was 19 months old. When I was ten, my paternal grandmother (Marjorie Pascoe) was 75, and my paternal grandfather (Donald Pascoe) was 71 years old. So as I was entering my teenage years, my three living grandparents were already getting up there in age. I loved my grandparents but they were kind of an oddity to me and I approached them as if I were a shipwrecked astronaut and they were alien cultures. Related alien cultures, but still alien.

I was 17 when my Grandpa Pascoe died of a heart attack–the same day the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. The only real conversation I ever had with him was about George H.W. Bush, whom he thought was a good man, and who was Vice-President at the time. We were walking together, just the two of us, in the neighborhood where I grew up and we just happened to be walking past the home of Neil Bush. Beyond that conversation, I have a very limited firsthand understanding of who my grandfather was as a person. I know a lot about him based on his life and what my father and others have told me, but I wish I had more of that firsthand knowledge.

I was 19 when my Grandma Hill died. She was afflicted with Alzeimer’s in the last years of her life and sadly, I don’t remember ever having had a real conversation with her. As with my paternal grandfather, I know a lot about her but it is all secondhand.

HillsMy paternal grandmother was sharp as a tack until the day she died and when that day came, I was 25. By then, I was smart enough to know how important this person was and how much I needed to get to know her. I had many real conversations with her and of my four grandparents, I knew her the best.

A part of me wishes people would marry young and have kids young so this country’s generations will not be so spread out chronologically. Of course, there are many reasons why this is a bad idea. There are probably more reasons it would be bad than there are it would be good. At any rate, it’s unlikely to happen. So we have to find a way to beat this literal generation gap.

Can we encourage children to appreciate their grandparents when they are younger? That is the question. They say kids are growing up too fast these days. Usually, this is construed to be bad–sex, drugs, etc. But maybe, in this one way at least, growing up faster is good. If kids are really growing up faster, which is to say maturing faster, then maybe they will learn to appreciate their grandparents sooner.

One thing that helps a lot is proximity. One of the reasons I did not get to know my grandparents better is that for most of my life they lived elsewhere, Grandma Hill in Phoenix and Grandma and Grandpa Pascoe in Sun City. My nephew spends one day a week with my parents, his grandparents. That has to go a long way toward building a lasting bond. This leads me to point out another big problem facing families today–the fact that families are spread out across the country. The parents live in Minneapolis, one brother lives in New York, one sister lives in San Francisco, and so on. But that’s a topic for another day.

There is one other thing I would urge grandparents to do for their grandchildren. Leave a record. Write something down about your life–a full memoir or just an essay–something! Your grandchildren will treasure it when they grow up.