The Grandpa Called Hey
“I could care less about being a grandpa.”
I made that declaration to friends during dinner when asked if I hoped our son and his wife planned to have children. Though my wife, sitting across from me, rolled her eyes, everyone else seemed amused so I let myself continue the riff. “I’m going to design a life that –”
“Come on…” Michele groaned and brought her fork down on the plate with enough force that for a moment everyone froze. “I can’t wait for them to have kids,” she continued after getting everyone’s attention. “You don’t want this little performance of yours trapping you –”
“It’s true,” I persisted. “I don’t want to be one of those gray-haired men who bore their friends with stories and pictures about –”
Michele had reached the end of her patience. Our friends knew it too and suddenly became very attentive to their broccoli.
“You’ll love being a grandfather,” she added before redirecting our dinner discussion to more agreeable topics.
That was more five years ago. Before we had two granddaughters. Michele was right. I love being a grandfather. Was she also right about how careless words might lead to unintended consequences? Had our first granddaughter, Elizabeth, mysteriously tapped into echoes from those words uttered years earlier? I wondered because even after Elizabeth turned four, she still wouldn’t call me Grandpa. I would have been pleased with other names too: Grandfather, Granddad, Papa, Gramps, or even Dada. But when she wanted my attention she said, “Hey.”
Take the day we played tag with small waves at a beach in Monterey. Elizabeth and I were chasing and running from waves, and she squealed whenever the icy waters caught her feet. After her dad joined, I stepped away because I wanted the two of them share in this moment. I watched as he lifted her above a large wave crashing on the beach and swung her above the frothy waters. She shrieked with delight. When he brought her down, she caught my eye and said, “Hey.”
“Hey.” She emphasized. When she wanted my attention, she added a second syllable.> “Hey-aaay! Come play.”
I am not picking on one incident. When calling out for Michele, or me, it was always “hey.” Never Grandma or Grandpa. Michele and I were both amused and perplexed. Amused by the creative ways used to get our attention. Perplexed because she enjoyed our company and, outside of her parents, was more comfortable with us than anyone else. We considered bringing the matter up with our son. We also thought about designing a game that Elizabeth wins by calling me Grandpa or Michele Grandma.
The mystery of Elizabeth’s preference to keep the familial out of our relationship also called up a bittersweet memory about my grandfather. When I was a year or two older than Elizabeth, my mother pleaded with my brother and me to make sure we gave our grandfather a hug when we arrived at his house. “He’s not sure you like him… I want him to know you do,” she added. At that age I was uncomfortable hugging adults. Even grandpas. I don’t know why. Of course, my brother and I complied. But my mother’s request bothered me. At first, I wondered how my grandfather, a robust and gregarious man, could be so uncertain about how I felt about him? And that initial confusion quickly morphed into feeling wrong for the way I loved him.
I don’t want Elizabeth to feel wrong for how she loves me, so Michele and I decided we were going to honor this little girl’s emerging spirit and let her discover, in her time and her way, the magic of expressing love. The world is tricky enough already with doubts and fears lurking in so many dark corners without adding more uncertainty. Maybe it’s not so easy to keep grandchildren safe from the world’s general nuttiness but the least grandparents can do is to make sure their grandchildren know they are loved, just as they are.
Oh, and one more thing, those friends from that dinner still tease me about what I said as Michele and I regale them with pictures of our gorgeous granddaughters.
Mark Shaw is a writer and management development consultant from San Jose, California. He earned a Ph.D. in Communications from Pennsylvania State University leading to a career in teaching, leadership training, and consultation on written and spoken communications for business and personal development.