Another Kind of Gift

By Angela Rossmanith
Web Exclusive – October 10, 2008

grandmother and grandchildA while ago, my little granddaughter Ella spent the night. Bedtime was a long, drawn-out affair, with lots of stories and lullabies and snuggling. Eventually fatigue won, and her eyes stayed closed long enough for sleep to take hold. I could feel her soft breath on my neck where her head rested. Slowly, gently, I lowered her onto her mattress, patted her bottom lightly when she stirred, and watched her sink into a slumber I hoped would last for a few hours.

I loved my children, and of course I still do and always will, but this love I have for my grandchild is a source of enormous wonder to me. From the moment I saw her, very new and tiny, this little girl has revealed to me a fresh dimension of life, a deepening and broadening of perspective. She has been a great and gracious gift.

What I wonder is what my gift will be to her. I’m not talking about a consciously crafted gift, one that I’ve thought about and created and formally presented. I’m not referring to the books and clothes and toys that I will inevitably give her over the coming years. In fact, it may be that I will never know what that special gift has been. Let me tell you what I mean.

When I interviewed Maggie Hamilton, publishing publicist extraordinaire, at the time that her own book Coming Home was released, she told me a number of lyrical stories, but one in particular stood out. She spent her early years in Scotland, she told me, and when she was three-years-old, her dear Scottish grandmother took her to the meadows to pick daisies.

A while later, daisies and daisy chains in hand, it was time for them to leave, but the stile to exit was nowhere in sight. “My grandmother wasn’t fussed at all,” Maggie said. “There wasn’t a hint of irritation or frustration. She simply smiled and told me the fairies had hidden the stile. She said that they were playing their usual games, and that we’d keep walking until we found it. I loved it. We kept walking and walking until finally we found the stile. “?Ah, so here is where they put it,’ my grandmother said in that lilting way of hers.”

This was no well-laid grandmotherly plan. Yet for Maggie it had a wonderful significance, and she recognizes it as part of an early immersion in a life of deep Celtic spirituality. Her grandmother’s beliefs and attitudes were steeped in that, and the little girl was exposed to its shaping influence. “I had a very rich and unusual childhood,” Maggie says now, “and my grandmother was pivotal. There was lots of talk of fairy folk and doing the best by them, and it gave me a great respect for all living things. It’s often really only later in life that you realize the gift for what it was.”

Passing comments and little stories are the stuff of grandparental wisdom. For example, a friend told me that a particular story her grandfather passed on when she was young had helped her enormously through difficult times. “He told me there was a large clock and a small one, and this small one was anxious about making it all the way around the dial. The large clock said: ?Don’t worry, all you need to do is go one tick at a time—just one tick after another. Eventually you’ll get all the way around.’ And that’s what I’ve done when things are hard. I focus on the next tick. It’s worked well for me in a whole lot of different situations.”

A visiting academic told a charming story during a recent seminar I attended. He grew up in Ireland, and when he was about seven-years-old, his father accepted a job that meant moving the family to Chicago. The little boy had heard about the hurricanes lashing the city and expressed his great anxiety to his grandmother. “Oh, it’s nothin’,” she said, “just a puff of wind, and a puff of wind can’t harm you.” Her words, he told us, were a great gift to him, because the combination of warm reassurance and airy dismissal injected in him the confidence that nothing in life was too difficult or too big for him to handle. He was repeating his grandmother’s words even now, half a century later, as a similar reassurance to his audience.

Of course, grandparents aren’t the only source of philosophical insights, but their longer life experience tends to hone any wisdom they might have. And the grandparents I know feel grateful and privileged to spend time with their child’s own child, providing a backdrop to a young life in the making.

It isn’t always the case, though, and there are stories about grandparents with an apparent disinterest in engaging with their grandchildren. When I’ve written about the joys of grandparenting before, I’m sorry to read responses that reveal a different story. “Not all kids are so lucky,” one reader wrote. “Neither of our parents is much interested in our young children. They’re waiting for them to grow up, when they can have real conversations and do things with them. Well, the day won’t come, because relationships with grandparents start early, they don’t just spring up one day when the grandparent happens to think they’re ready.”

It’s always a pity when grandparents (and parents, too) put too much emphasis on having to do things with their grandkids. It reveals a lack of appreciation for the wonders of simply spending time in each other’s company, not necessarily doing much at all: poking around in the garden, strolling around the block, bringing in the wash, planning dinner, talking about whether or not the dog should have a bath—ordinary, everyday things. These are often the things grandparents do best. And it’s during those activities that the words of wisdom will tend to flow—observant remarks and charming anecdotes that touch a children’s imagination and shape their being.

What emerges just as clearly during those times is the knowledge and wisdom that lie beyond verbal exchanges. My daughter talks to me about the things she learned from her grandmother, my mother. “Do you remember how she wore her hair up? And that when she did her hair she would throw her head down and start from the back? Then she’d lift her head quickly and pin the hair in place. When I was a teenager I did my hair up the same way. I didn’t realise then that I was doing what I’d watched my grandmother do a 100 times when I was little.”

All of us absorb from others far more than we might ever imagine. Children are particularly receptive to the subtle and not-so-subtle behavior and movements of the people around them. The filters that help to keep us adults intact in our encounters with others are not yet developed in kids. Behind calls for adults to become more childlike is the recognition that those same filters might also block opportunities for experiences of wonder and surprise.

One day, my daughter says, her own children might see her doing her hair the way her grandmother did and learn from her. In this way, personal history is passed on, wordless and embodied. Today, Ella is patting her doll to sleep and bending occasionally to kiss her on the forehead. Who knows what else she is absorbing from those of us who hold her so dear?

Angela Rossmanith has three children and two grandchildren. She is the author of several books, including When Will the Children Play? Finding Time for Childhood (Random House, 1997).