How do grandparents get hooked on their grandchildren and spoil them? How bad is it or is it?
In her New Year letter Margaret, my wife Young’s long-time friend, explains why she had to leave New Jersey where she had lived all her life, raising her three children, and head west: to follow her youngest daughter, her husband, and their one-year-old son Jack, who has “stolen my heart.”
It certainly rings a bell, because that’s more or less what we have done, moving east from Hawaii to be near Naomie, our then 6th and youngest new-born granddaughter. Both her parents working full time in Manhattan it made sense to terminate our second Hawaiian residence of a dozen years and come over to help with her rearing. Besides we were getting on in years, even my wife, 20 years my junior, and this might be the last opportunity to practice grandparenting, of which we had a taste with Jamie, our first granddaughter, nostalgia for which had crescendoed to an unbearable degree at times – her stayovers with us, the special room we had painstakingly furnished for her, her merry laughter, the restaurants we enjoyed, everybody gathering around her, the cutest thing in the world, our day-long trips to the amusement parks, museums, beaches, lakes. Then, in her kindergarten year, we had to pack up and move to Hawaii, too far away to do anything with her or with her younger twin sisters and two cousins.
Enlisted in our cause is Young’s mother, a 40-year-resident of Hawaii: my wife has a medical condition that limits her full-time employment and disqualifies her in one vital respect, living at her son’s house to tend to the infant waking up in the middle of the night interrupting the distance-commuters’ sleep. Not to mention our need for space, including a master bedroom suite of our own. Young’s mother, the epitome of health and energy at 88, didn’t mind, especially when promised the services of a full-time nanny and part timers for pre-midnight and weekend attendance. She goes to sleep early like 8 p.m. and is more or less awake in the small hours of the night.
In no time Naomie, half the time called Jamie by us, does to Young what Jack has done to Margaret: bewitchment.
“Oh, I miss her,” Young sighs as soon as she steps into our house, the painful separation routine still vivid in her mind when she drops Naomie off at her house 4.2 miles away from ours after picking her up at the preschool. Never directly, though, because they generally stop at a few stores, including the Palisades Park Plaza with the carousel and toy land. When they finally get to her house, she makes Young read books, a whole library of them, both English and Korean, work on puzzles, play the piano and sing with her. Gladys, the full timer, distracts her with the TV or the videos of herself Young has taken, so she can slip out but as often as not she gets caught by Naomie who runs out crying to the car.
Young tinkers a couple of hours in the kitchen preparing Naomie’s school lunch shaped into an elephant, dinosaur, horse, or something novel and imaginative, aided by Google graphics, to pass muster with Naomie who without fail demands to have her lunch box opened for inspection upon Young’s arrival at her house the next morning to take her to school.
At last, climbing into bed to sleep, Young sobs, “Oh, how I miss her!”
In the second week of February, 2019, Naomie comes over to stay with us for four nights, so her parents can take a skiing vacation by themselves in Colorado. Her 10-month old sister Naela is staying home with her great grandma, whose stay has now been automatically and indefinitely extended.
This isn’t the first time Naomie has stayed with us. Shortly after Naela’s birth the whole family had to come over for a few days while the attic was being remodeled for a live-in nanny. Absolutely to no purpose because the few they have tried out have all washed out. So this is the first time Naomie is with us by herself to be the focus of our undivided attention.
All three of us are on cloud nine. Whatever Naomie wants is hers. She pulls out all the toys from the parlor closet, brings out her table with the play dough from the study into the living room, visits the pink cloth castle with the spire in a corner of the dining room, noticing and approving the witch’s hat put on top by Young. We have fun all along. After the first dinner she even lets me brush her teeth, Young hanging over me to make sure I do a thorough job, reminding me that she was found to have three cavities on her last dental visit. I pull up her lip four times, upper and lower lip, left and right, to squeeze in the tooth brush and stroke down, first inside, then out, calculated to loosen any food particles caught between teeth, reminiscent of the precision work watch repairmen used to perform looking through a magnifying monocle over an eye. Are they tears in her eyes? Is she stoically enduring the indignity and discomfort, if not pain, of the whole operation? No, I have been extra careful not to pinch or poke. Still not sure of extricating all hiding food particles I propose to dental floss her, but Young forbids it, citing absence of the dentist’s instruction, though it seems a matter of common sense, flossing being far less traumatic than brushing. I am sure Naomie would see it my way, if explained, but who am I to argue with her majesty, my wife?
After a pleasant breakfast the next morning I smile and ask Naomie to come to the bathroom and sit on the stool to brush her teeth before she changes to school clothes.
“No!” the deafening scream is so sudden and violent it takes my breath away.
“Come and take over, honey,” I plead, vanquished, only to be struck by another thunderbolt.
“You should be able to take care of that small detail,” Young roars from the balcony. “I have to pack Naomie’s stuff and change her before getting myself ready to take her to school. I’ll be down in ten minutes with her clothes.”
“Okay, Sweetie,” I turn to Naomie and cajole her, “How about flossing?” I show her how it’s done.
“No!” She is adamant.
I almost think of forcing her, because this is an emergency. Three cavities! Then with a shock I recall a replica of the scene over four decades ago with my own children, her father included, who resist all reasonable attempts to make them do something necessary though I am in a hurry to drop them off at school and hurry to the university for my class. I was still teaching then. I would have definitely resorted to force. After a sharp slap or two I would have grabbed the chin, pulled open the mouth, shoved in the brush, and rubbed roughly, not so much to remove the food deposits as a routine. How destructive such violence would have been to their little ego, if not their teeth! I am smitten with regret and guilt. Thank God they have grown up normal, productive, creative individuals, with no grudges toward me that I can tell. Now with no class to teach or compulsion to earn money, I certainly won’t repeat such criminal behavior.
Young comes on the scene and immediately sizes up the situation. Instead of flying into a passion as I have feared, she bends down and tells her to let me brush her teeth, only to be met with another unequivocal “No!”
“We’ll take you home, then. Do you want that?”
Naomie is silent.
“All right, then,” Young says, getting ready to take her to the car.
“Yes,” Naomie says.
“Go home or brush teeth?”
All hell has broken loose, the little one calling our bluff.
“Okay,” Young says. “But you are going straight to Moo-su-woon-day (Scary Place).”
It is the broom closet under the stairway to the attic, where Naomie’s mother banishes her for infractions like running around the house naked, refusing to wear her clothes after a bath, or taking forever to eat. Of course Young has never sent her there but invoked it now and then to frighten her into obedience.
“But Mommy is not home,” Naomie says confidently.
“Yeah but the Monster is there, Bad Monster, who will carry you in there,” Young growls and scowls, giving the best enactment of an enforcing monster, which impresses Naomie enough to scream, “No!”
“So not go home and brush teeth?”
Naomie nods in defeat but decides to make up for her submission. When the brushing is done and the clothes put on, she refuses to go down to the garage, and wants to keep watching the laptop at home. I have half a mind to pick her up, take her to the car, and plump her down in her seat.
“But there is a Happy Monster waiting outside to meet you, Naomie,” Young announces, looking out the window, too high for Naomie to look through. She wants to be picked up and shown, but Young suggests they go to the garage and meet him outside. Naomie follows and wants to see the Happy Monster before entering the car. Young takes her out and goes around the house to look, surprised to see him gone.
“I know,” Young explains. “He went to school first to wait for us. Let’s go and meet him there.”
Half doubtful, half credulous, Naomie enters the car and gets buckled in. At the school the first thing she asks is, “Where is the Happy Monster?” Young looks all over the parking lot and around the building to pronounce, “Oh, he must be in class with Teacher Jo Anne, waiting for you. Let’s go.” Naomie follows Young to the class to be met by a chorus of welcome, because she is popular with her peers and teachers. Young quietly leaves, unnoticed.
It’s Saturday, the day set aside for our visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Wishing to leave the house by 9:30 so as not to miss the Lunar New Year parade and other events, we sit for breakfast at 8:30 and urge Naomie to eat the pieces of beef, not just noodles, in the bowl, along with boiled vegetables and milk.
“I want strawberry and banana smoothie,” Naomie declares.
“No, you have to drink the milk first,” Young counters but, fearing revolt, changes tack. “Okay, you can drink along with milk, one sip of smoothie, then one sip of milk, okay?”
Naomie remains noncommittal. When the 4-ounce bottle with the straw stuck in it is placed before her, she grabs, sucks, and doesn’t stop, until the whole bottle is drained. We let it go and plan on putting the cup of milk to her lips as often as she takes any mouthful of the solid food, except she is back to her usual trick of holding the food in her mouth like a bird’s crop. Eventually she swallows but at a glacial speed and Young is waiting with a spoonful ready to shove in her mouth at the first sign of deflation in the cheeks. It’s going to last the whole morning at this rate.
Young brings her laptop over and plays Naomie’s favorite tunes with the videos, Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Old MacDonald, London Bridge Is Falling Down, and so on. Diverted, she starts swallowing faster. By 9:30 she finishes about half of the food laid out. The usual resistance happens about brushing her teeth but by telling her about the trip to the city she is made halfway cooperative. At 10 we are finally on our way and I am actually happy to be driving because of the special passenger, Naomie, all excitement, taking in the gliding scenery along the Parkway, despite my avowed animus against travel (see Myth of Travel, 11-10-2018, typakmusings.com).
If the start is late, the numerous errors we make on the road delay us even further. First, I think we are going to the Museum of Natural History despite Young’s mentioning the Metropolitan Museum. That’s why I’ve told Naomie that we’ll be seeing dinosaurs and mammoths. Remembering our visits there a few times with Jamie I confidently leave Hudson Parkway South at 96th and intend to turn right at either close to the park or the street before, but 96th is blocked and I have to turn left, then turn right onto 97th which only goes straight through the park.
“I have to turn right before the park but now I must cross it,” I moan.
“No, you are on the right track. Cross the park and turn right on Fifth right out of the park to the Metropolitan,” Young assures me. “Its parking garage is on Fifth at 80th.”
But even after this enlightenment I miss the museum parking entirely, not having noticed it on our previous visits by taxi or subway. I look only left, thinking that there could be no garage built on the park itself. Nor is there a garage on the east side of Fifth, either, lined with multimillion dollar residential condos. I turn left on 80th and find two garages, whose attendants of course don’t know where the museum parking per se is because people park at their garages and walk half a block to the museum. I return to the car parked at a hydrant with the hazard blinkers on to find Young on the phone talking to a human voice at the museum information. Hanging up she orders me to get back to Fifth and look right at 80th where we will see the garage.
After parking we get into the ground floor lobby, packed full with people in long lines to buy tickets. Hearing that we could go upstairs to the main lobby, Young decides to split up and, ordering me to stay in line, goes upstairs with Naomie, hoping to get the tickets quicker that way. After about 30 minutes my turn is coming up with only a couple of people ahead. I can’t buy the tickets in case Young has bought them already. In panic I call Young and the screen says, Emergency calls only. A few tries show the same results. Instead of stepping up to the counter, I leave and head for the stairs only to be told by the security to exit the building and enter by the main front entrance, unless I had tickets.
In the big lobby, milling with people, my heart sinks, the chance of running into Young and Naomie one in a thousand, maybe a million. I go to the information kiosk and ask if they can page them. They laugh and tell me to use my phone. I tell them that they should know better, calls other than emergency being blocked. Not comprehending, they tell me to try again. I dial and at least the emergency advisory does not display, though only Young’s recording comes on. After about the fifth try she answers. She is at the children’s crafts area downstairs, coloring, making paper shapes. She orders me to get the tickets and come look for them. There are dozens of machines where one gets tickets almost instantly. Why the long lines and the emergency blocking at the ground level, unbeknownst to the information one floor up? Anyway I buy one adult and one senior. Armed, I can now take indoor stairs or elevators freely and go look for my relatives.
When I find them, after going to all the wrong places, it’s 1 p.m., way past lunch time. Naomie is hungry. So we go to the cafeteria downstairs but the lines to pay for the items one places on the tray are miles long. The dining room is also full and people wait for tables to vacate. I am ready to give up, suggesting that we go out to eat and return, but Young has a better idea. We go in and find an empty table where Naomie and I wait, while Young goes back to get our lunch. Minutes pass but there is no sign of our provider. Naomie wants to go to the bathroom, which presents a real dilemma. To take our stroller, coats, bags would be giving up the hard-won table. On the other hand the stuff left behind may get stolen. Choosing the latter risk I navigate to the men’s outside the cafeteria only to stand in a line. When finally we get inside a vacated toilet, Naomie refuses to use it, saying she will wait until we get to our house. I end up taking her to the bathroom two more times and Young one time more during our lunch to the women’s thinking that may make a difference. No dice. The poor girl will hold. Such sensitivity!
After lunch we go to the Korean art room, Chinese gallery, Egyptian pavilion with the pond, etc. At the theater we line up to see a Chinese New Year lion dance. I choose to wait outside, unable to risk our stroller getting mixed up among the dozens parked, unattended. Besides I’ve seen the dance countless times. Naomie emerges well and tired, practically falling asleep. I offer to take her one more time to the bathroom but she refuses, betraying no sign of discomfort. What a feat of continence! Praying it does not damage her bladder, I eagerly second Young’s decision to head home, though we haven’t had our money’s worth. It’s 3:25 p.m. As soon as she gets into the car and buckled in, Naomie falls asleep.
As we return her to her parents, a few things cross my mind. It’s been exhausting 4 days of pure joy despite the bumps, and we already miss her. Why are we so willing to go through so much trouble for our grandchildren?
I believe our affection is an instinctual response to an aesthetic armor God puts on the young like protective coloring to disable or suspend the predatory ferocity in the adult, human or beast. Lions or wolves are known to fondle lambs or puppies. Most humans love babies, as we have confirmed time and again with Jamie and Naomie. Add to it the biological factor, our genetic torch bearers giving us biological immortality, be it only a quarter of their genetic makeup, and you have a megaton of affection.
At the same time this is extremely time sensitive. As I look at Jamie, our first granddaughter, whose name we still confuse with Naomie’s, whose earlier photos indistinguishable from the other one’s, I can’t believe she is now 21, a college sophomore, who gets A+ for a sociology paper coolly, microscopically dissecting us as the “first generation of immigrants struggling with their cultural shock in America.” I know for a fact that this brainy and stately young lady would be scandalized at the merest hint that I used to do to her what she just saw me do in passing to her much younger cousin Naomie: wipe her bottom after a toilet sitting.
Exhausted after having Naomie all to ourselves for four days we leave her at her home to wait for their parents, relieved. Upon return to our house, however, our eyes tear up at the empty bed recently vacated, leaving an imprint of her little body. We had better enjoy and spoil her as much as we can while we can, because it doesn’t last long. In fact, it ends rather quickly, when they turn kindergarten age, if not earlier, when it becomes clear to the little ones that it is their parents, no matter how uptight or strict, who have the last word on their shelter, clothing, food, what school they go to, what extracurricular lessons to take, what careers to pursue, etc. In these vital choices and commitments, whose importance begins to sink in and impress, they realize that grandparents with all their fondness, leniency, and indulgence are orbital, incidental and dispensable in a way the nuclear parents are not. Slowly they begin detaching, distancing themselves from us, the first step toward development, individuality, maturity, marriage, family, dynasty, as we walk off into the sunset, into oblivion. But that’s how it is, as it should be, no harm done, nothing to apologize for or bemoan.
Our only regret is that we will never be able to spoil those four grandchildren of ours, born between Jamie and Naomie, and Naela, Naomi’s younger sister, of whom Naomie is fiercely jealous. Whenever Young goes near her, Naomie comes around to play tackle, putting herself between them and pushing Young away. Hopefully, she will get over it in a year or two and become more tolerant of her sister, our last chance, unless their parents spring another surprise on us.