Neither my wife nor I had grandparents as meaningful presences in our lives, so we’ve been making it up as we go. And we’ve found the experience to be much different from parenting, but every bit as rich and rewarding.
Here’s a story.
Our grandson, known affectionately in grandparent shorthand as “Mister T”, has been a hard case, for himself and those around him. He’s a good guy, but the pandemic, the times, his personality, and a million other variables have driven him deep inside himself. Now, in the summer of 2022, he’s a handsome, gangling boy of fifteen who is invested in being critical and willing to go to great pains to hide himself from the world and to stand in opposition to anything that might show him as soft and vulnerable. A shrink might well be able to sort it all out, but we are not shrinks, we’re grandparents. Our task is to love unconditionally, stay out of his parents’ way, make the right touch at the right moment, and model the values we believe are important for a good and worthy life.
This summer, my wife, Louise, paid for T to go on a 10 day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada. All who have done it, from the naturalist, Sigurd Olson, up until adventurers of today, have had their lives changed by the experience of moving soundlessly through those hundreds of miles of pristine lakes and pine covered islands. I am among them.
T went, came back, and dismissed it as “terrible,” a brittle lie constructed to keep him at his desired critical distance.
Then, last night, I prevailed upon the good graces of my friend, Robert Plant, to get us VIP seats to his concert with Alison Krauss. We watched a wonderful concert from up close to the stage, and, afterwards, Robert, good man that he is, spent at least a half hour including T in conversation and giving him a level of attention that old Zep heads would give a year of their life to experience.
T took it in stride, saying little after the fact. We drove home quietly, leaving undiscussed what had been a singular evening for all of us. We knew that he would process things in his own time and way, and share when he is ready to do so.
If we were parents, we would have been upset at his emotional flatness and apparent lack of gratitude. But we are grandparents. Unlike parents, we do not have to respond to the moment. We have the luxury of planting seeds deep, far from the sunlight, knowing that they must germinate, sometimes for years or decades, before coming to flower. We know that the right touch at the right moment can unlock something in a child that will shape them forever. We operate by faith as much as by vigilance.
And so we left T to his silence. We knew he was working hard at masking his emotions, and we didn’t want to make him work any harder than he already was.
But we knew the truth. We’ve been down that road, both in our own lives and with other children, many times before.
And we had an ally — the camera.
What he tried so hard to hide, the camera caught.
So we wait, knowing that this will bear fruit in its own good time. The kid is a good guy, and “camera don’t lie.” Sometimes the richest fruits grow best in the darkness, and sometimes long patience is the greatest virtue of all.