Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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April 12, 2013

Blessing and a curse: Grandpa must play long-distance peek-a-boo

— — This is about a blessing and a curse. The blessing is my little granddaughter, Tillie. The curse, evidently invited by my own actions, is that she lives far away across the ocean.

While mine is a particular case, the blessings of grandchildren apply generally, but sometimes grandparents find that their luck has been diminished by the tyranny of geography. The curse is the loneliness of the long-distance grandparent.

In Pittsburgh, the collapse of the steel industry 30 years ago brought a Pied Piper, luring the region’s children away to the tune of greater opportunity elsewhere. Ever since, the concern has been to keep the Pittsburgh-born kids in the area — or to attract other people’s kids here so that those parents and grandparents might be made miserable just for a change. But whenever this subject was brought up by the civic fathers (and mothers) over the years, my reaction was to scoff. We raise kids so that they may be independent of us, I said. It matters not where they go, so long as there are good beaches and golf courses to visit.

Moving is in my family. My grandfather moved from England in the 1890s, leaving his parents behind to take a job in Japan. If his hope was to extend the British empire, the Japanese disappointed him. My guess is that the game of cricket was the sticking point.

To further the trend, my father moved away from his parents and ended up in Australia, which I then moved away from. My daughter Allison, born in Pittsburgh, decided to live my life in reverse and go to Australia, where 18 months ago she gave birth to Matilda Grace, who is called Tillie.

It turns out that all that time I was scoffing at people’s possessiveness about their children, a recording angel was at work, noting my unwise utterances and sending them off to the Divine Department of Cutting Mortals Down to Size.

The result is that I scoff no more. My daughter lives in Sydney and my son lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. If they ever meet at Thanksgiving, they can have a competition to see who has picked up the goofier accent.

Fortunately, a modern remedy is at hand. Planes are available to move grandparents — and others with less cause — to their destinations. This is easier in the case of New York City, but the trip to Australia is something else.

It is a 15-hour endurance test, measuring how cramped you can be, how long the human bladder can stand in the aisle for lavatories to be vacated and how many movies can be watched as a substitute for sleep. The flight attendants don’t even let you walk up and down the wing for a bit of exercise.

Some will argue that the computer is also a modern remedy for communing with grandchildren. But until a cuddling Skype is invented, the computer screen is a help but not a substitute.

So there’s nothing for it but to pack presents and put your mind and legs in the uptight and locked position. At the end of the trip, after all the mooing with the rest of the cattle in the economy section, you get to see the special blessing, blowing a little kiss and saying “Papa.”

It is not worth debating whether Tillie is the cutest little kid in the world, because many of you will have worthy candidates of your own. My purpose instead is only to make a few observations, sharp from jet lag and perhaps universal.

Papa thus notes that, before they even have speech, toddlers sing happy little songs to themselves — in Tillie’s case, the lyric being mostly a variation of “da-da.” To hear this is to believe that babysong is the soul’s remnant memory of the chorus in heaven, whence all babies come. We big people have just forgotten the words.

Little kids already have a desire to help others, the observant Papa also notes. Tillie has a toy kitchen from which she fetches a plastic pizza to give to anyone sitting on the sofa. She then rushes back for a plastic zucchini, and in presenting the zucchini takes back the pizza.

So it goes, giving and taking little items for long spells of playing. What does this giving and taking hint of her future? Maybe she will grow up to be the government.

But her favorite game is peek-a-boo. You can see me, no you can’t, you can see me, no you can’t. And isn’t that the blessing and the curse of long-distance grandparenting in a nutshell? Love never hides, but sometimes we can see you and sometimes we can’t.

Reg Henry is a columnist with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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