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This appeared (slightly edited) in Memphis Parent Magazine, Memphis, TN, August 2009.

                          The New Grandparent    

       My stepson’s wife approached me a bit hesitantly after her own father died. “Since I miss him so much, and you aren’t my husband’s real father, would you mind terribly if I taught my kids to call you Chip instead of Grampa?”  I said that the use of my nickname would cause no problem.  Flexibility is especially important, when you haven’t had years to build a relationship.    I arrived in my wife’s family late.  She had five grown children from two prior marriages. The oldest was married, the youngest two still in college.  I had to build relationships not only with my new stepchildren, but with an increasing family of grandchildren where I hadn’t been a parent to their parents.

         We now have thirteen grandchildren,  eleven grand-nieces and nephews.  The family has scattered geographically, with grandchildren from New Hampshire to Kansas.  The nieces are as far as San Diego and Ghana, West Africa.  Maintaining closeness takes real effort.  We feel that children need all the relatives they can get. They benefit from the variety, and the sense of connectedness.  What are some tricks we have learned?   

          If you have very young children, make sure they have current pictures handy of absent relatives.  Several of our kids, when reading bedtime stories to their children, will pull out a picture and say “this book was a present from Aunt Bev and Uncle Bob,” or “Grammie Eunice and Grandpa Chip sent this book.”  When a young child sees the aunt or grandmother only rarely, this is a big help in recognition and continuity.

          We kept some of the more durable toys that were played with a generation ago. Several of the grandchildren love playing with the doll Mommy played with, or the toy car that Daddy had. But the real success has been the agreement we have with our kids that we can maintain a bigger dollhouse, and a bigger set of wooden toy trains, than any of them.  It guarantees the presence of  familiar toys that the grandchildren look forward  to playing with when they visit our house, ones that we can join them in playing with. We  get down on the floor with them to play with these - having an adult come down to to the floor, down to the child’s level, makes a huge difference in building closeness.  

       The grandchildren can buy us accessories for the dollhouse and trains, which simplifies their gift shopping, and lets the younger kids enjoy helping to pick out presents.   It also helped  reduce my income of birthday and Christmas neckties, which seemed about to become a real problem as the family grew.    Later we expanded the choices of gifts for us to include hand puppets and funny hats. We’d had a few fuzzy hand puppet animals earlier.  We often bring them along when we come on visits, and they are an important part of the feeling of continuity for the young ones we see only once or twice a year.   One toy skunk was so popular that a few nieces announced my arrival on visits joyfully with “The uncle with the skunk is here!” for several years. 

       One daughter provided us with a supply of propeller caps, which have proved immensely popular with the younger kids. The propeller hats turned out to be practical, too -- at the Zoo and similar outdoor activities, putting a brightly-colored propeller hat on each child makes it much easier to keep them together, or find the one who has wandered off.

           When grandchildren visit with grandparents or other relatives, it is important that both adults have the opportunity to interact with the children.  We divide up certain activities.  I do toy trains and blocks, my wife does dollhouses and some board games.  Each of us takes particular rhymes for bouncing younger kids on the knee.  For example,  I’ll initiate “Ride away to Boston” but if the grandchild wants more I explain that Grammie is the one in charge of “This is the way the ladies ride.”  I'll carry the kids around upside down briefly; my wife will pick them up and toss them gently onto a couch or bed.

         We realize that there can be a closeness with the “own” parent, uncle, or aunt that the new stepparent arriving in the family does not share immediately, or perhaps ever share fully except in rare cases.  My wife’s family members sometimes need a little time with her without me, and my family members sometimes want to talk to me without her involved. But usually we are able to include everyone, and we find it useful to have opportunities to build new closeness. When Eunice’s daughters were in college, they occasionally asked me, before talking with her, asking me the best tactic to get her to agree to an allowance increase or  a  rescheduled trip.  This didn’t mean I had secrets from my wife, just that she cooperated in encouraging her kids to confide in me  (and that she even rewarded it, modestly, to encourage it.)    

        A few years after the exchange at the start of this essay, several families of our kids were sitting with me and my wife in the front yard of  Karen’s house, while the collected grandchildren played something faintly resembling soccer. One of  Karen’s three boys separated from the group and came over to Karen.  “Mom,” he said, “We just found out that Chip is Gabe’s Grampa. Can he be our Grampa, too?”   Karen turned to me with a grin. “Chip”, she said, “You are now Grampa.”

Edward Ordman  

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