William Lucas Walker talks about how four strangers on a train are changing grandparenting.
Did you know September was Grandparents Month? Neither did I. And now it’s over, so if you have kids in the house and parents who are breathing, you blew it big time.
God will smite you, as he does nonobservant Jews and sex fetish bloggers. Unless you do something about it, pronto. I suggest you follow my lead, drop what you’re doing, and get those kids on the phone with Granny. Now. Even if she’s dead. It may confuse the kids, but tell them she’s listening. Because if she’s anything like mine, she is.
If you yourself are lucky enough to still have living grandparents, you’re way younger than I am and I hate you. But not enough that I want to see you smited. Hitch up your skinny jeans and call them. Tell them that due to a glitch in the Mayan calendar, this year Grandparents Month has been extended through October.
Canny Nana’s won’t be fooled. Especially if they own a Mayan calendar. If you’re dealing with one of these, she may say she knows you’ve been busy in that sweet voice of hers, but trust me, your failure to contact her by midnight on September 30 means you’re out of the will. Here’s what you do: Apologize for your outrageous neglect, atone by asking what her doctor no longer allows in her diet, then Fed-Ex it to her before 2 p.m. In bulk. Godiva chocolates, bourbon, premium crack, whatever it is, just get it in the mail. It may not restore your full inheritance, but it’ll remind her why she prefers you to her kids. And that’s worth something.
Unless they’ve had the misfortune of grand-spawning the Antichrist, I’m told that becoming a grandparent is one of the great gifts of later life. It wasn’t, however, a concept Kelly and I had ever given much thought to, especially in the early, heady days of our relationship, pre-kids. Until we met a couple of strangers. On a train.
I love presents, and on our very first Christmas together, two months after we began dating, Kelly gave me hands-down the best one I’ve ever received, saving it for last. He offered a small box. Removing the lid, I found the inside lined with cotton and dotted on either side with tiny triangles cut from green construction paper. Laying across the cotton, among the triangles were two tiny, parallel pieces of wire. I was mystified, but strove for diplomacy.
“I love it.” Then, “Give me a clue.”
“It’s a diorama.”
“A diorama. Right. I can see that.” An awkward beat.
“I’m granting your wish,” he said.
I stared at the two wires. “For … braces?”
“Okay, so art’s not my strong point,” his voice growing a tad impatient. “The wires are supposed to represent a railroad track.” He waited for me to get it.
“Right, of course … And the green triangles?”
“Trees. They’re trees, in a snowy forest.”
“Of course. Snow. The cotton.”
“Don’t you remember when you gave me that questionnaire before our first date and one of the questions was what’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do but never have, and I told you I would answer all the questions if you answered them too, and we swapped?”
It’s true. I gave him a questionnaire before our first date. I was in the middle of trying to make a baby. With my second egg donor and second surrogate. As a single man in his forties focused on becoming a father before it was too late, I had to stay on my game. I didn’t have time for a fly in the ointment, even if he was a hot fly. I needed answers.
“Do you remember what your one thing was? The thing you always wanted to do but never had?” I looked down at the not-braces-but-railroad-track wires and finally it all clicked together in my lumpy brain.
“We’re going on an overnight TRAIN TRIP??!!”
I recall jumping up and down, ornaments falling off the Christmas tree, me not caring, Kelly cleaning up the mess with a DustBuster, then me jumping up and down some more.
From the moment I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest on TV as a child, I’d found the whole idea of overnight train travel ridiculously adventurous and romantic: hideaway bunk beds, white-uniformed porters, linen-draped dining cars, and all that scenery rocketing by in the background to the orchestrations of a tense, lush score by Bernard Herrmann. Ever since, I’d wanted that.
Kelly gave it to me. A month later—minus the shared cigarettes, heterosexuality, mistaken identity plot and being shot at by Martin Landau while shimmying down Mount Rushmore on Lincoln’s nose—we were living the North by Northwest dream. Kelly had booked us passage from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, meaning I’d be seeing the Pacific Northwest for the first time and while there, meeting most of his family.
We departed from L.A.’s legendary Union Station in the late morning and after unpacking in our room, spent our first hours in the parlor car, unprepared for the flabbergasting view as we rounded a bend near Santa Barbara and found ourselves traveling north on the rim of the Pacific Ocean—vast, gleaming and perfect—spilling through every window like a glorious, impossible mirage, for nearly three hours.
The next morning, Kelly’s cotton-and-construction-paper diorama sprang to life as we woke to find ourselves hurtling through a snow-covered forest in Northern California. I didn’t need a Bernard Herrmann score. I was in train heaven.
I loved our five days in Portland and getting to know Kelly’s family, especially his mom, Donna, and her mom, Kelly’s Grandma A. A tiny Italian spark plug, it was clear that Grandma A had been smitten with him since the day Donna and Kelly’s dad had adopted him and brought him home as an infant. It was soon clear that if Kelly loved me, that was all Grandma A needed. Though they’d never discussed his private life, she embraced me from that first meeting as if I were her own grandchild and continued to do so until her death six years later.
Though we had intended to fly back to Los Angeles, the Coast Starlight adventure had been so magical we cancelled our flight and decided to make our return trip by train as well.
The dining car mandated four to a table, so that night our waiter seated us across from another couple for dinner. Roughly my parents’ ages, we liked them immediately. Witty, casually glamorous and fun, they could have been Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint a few decades after the fadeout of North by Northwest.
Over a bottle of wine we learned of how they’d met and fallen in love as expats in Paris shortly after World War II. Arthur was finishing up medical school there and Carol was studying art. Like both our parents, they had raised four children, now adults.
They also, it turned out, happened to be pioneers of a movement we’d never heard of.
Back in the 1970s, in his practice as a child psychiatrist, Arthur had begun to notice the power in the unique bond shared by grandparents and grandchildren. Especially, the more time they spent together and interacted, how restorative and reparative that bond could be for both parties.
In the years that followed, Arthur and Carol virtually founded the movement for grandparents’ rights in the United States, establishing their watershed Foundation for Grandparenting and lobbying for grandparent visitation legislation. Carol proudly told us the exact date we could next catch her handsome husband on the Today show, for which he was a regular contributor, encouraging grandparents to become a more regular, vital part of their grandchildren’s lives. To this end, they’d even founded a summer camp where grandparents and grandchildren could spend weeks in the wilderness making lanyards and contracting poison ivy together.
We never met a couple like them. They were Cary and Eva Marie on a mission for good. We were riveted.
As it turned out, they’d never met a couple quite like us either.
After Arthur excused himself, Carol asked how Kelly and I had met and how we’d come to be on the train. We explained that in addition to meeting Kelly’s family, we were also taking some R&R to help us recover from the miscarriage our surrogate had suffered the month before.
“You … excuse me, what? Miscarriage … surrogate? Could you start over?” At this point Arthur returned and said, “What’d I miss?”
Carol suggested we order another—large—bottle of wine as Kelly and I brought them up-to-date on our story. Despite their vast experience with parents, children and grandchildren, they’d never heard of, much less met, two men who wanted to become parents together.
“My God,” said Arthur, “you two are pioneering your own field.”
And I guess from where they sat, as a two-weenie couple striving to have kids, we sort of were. We’d just never thought about it that way. Where they saw two men boldly going where no gays had gone before, we saw ourselves more simply as a couple of guys who wanted a family.
Yes, we needed some help to make that happen, but lucky for us, for the first time in the history of, well … ever, an unprecedented confluence of factors—shifting social mores, redrawn legal boundaries, revisions in adoption codes and advances in reproductive technology—had made a once impossible dream … not.
“You two realize you’re at the forefront of a whole new frontier in grandparenting, don’t you?” asked Arthur, growing visibly excited.
We didn’t. “You probably haven’t even thought about it in these terms, but you two are about to give your parents the greatest gift imaginable—the resurrection of their grandchildren. What a mitzvah.”
And it has been. We stayed in touch with Arthur and Carol. More than that, we became friends and have stayed friends. A year after meeting on the train, soon after Elizabeth was born, they arrived bearing gifts, including a couple of the groundbreaking books Arthur had written on grandparenting. As a thank you, Elizabeth graced them, and us, with her very first smile.
That afternoon, we confided in Arthur and Carol some of our fears. Fears that our parents might treat our daughter differently than their other grandchildren or not know how to treat her at all.
Arthur tried to allay our concerns by quoting the Foundation for Grandparenting mantra: “Every time a child is born, a grandparent is born.”
But before he could finish, Carol cut him short, something I’d never seen before.
Bill. Kelly. I understand your fears. What you’ve done is new. Some people will view it as radical, maybe even wrong. Of course your parents are afraid. Nothing in their lives or experience could have prepared them for this. They’re probably terrified. That’s their job. They might not know what to tell their friends or how to react at first. But don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s out of concern for what people might think of them. If anything, it’s coming from their fear of how the world might treat you. Because guess what? You’re still their child, and will be until the day they die. What you boys need to stay focused on is what’s truly radical here. You’ve created a life; you’ve given your parents a grandchild, a new life to share they never dreamed possible. You want to see real magic? Watch your parents’ faces the moment you place this baby girl in their arms. Trust me, she’s all the strength they’ll ever need. Arthur and I brought champagne. Shall we open it?
Of course she was right. How could she not be? She was Eva Marie Saint, for Chrissakes, in full grandparent-warrior mode. They were both right. The moment we placed our babies into the arms of our parents for the very first time, we did witness magic—the birth of six grandparents.
Over the past twelve years, our children’s Grandpops and Grandma Shirley, Mimi and Pop, and Nana and Peter have not only stepped up to the plate, they’ve each become deeply entwined in the lives of their unexpected grandchildren, who adore them all.
Vastly different as people, they come from starkly different backgrounds and lead widely divergent lives. A poll-taker might slot their grandparenting styles into roughly three distinct categories—Country, Country Club and Hippie—but the one commonality they share is the gift that makes them most valuable in the lives of our children:
They’re not us.
By just being themselves, and paying attention and listening and seeing in ways that Kelly and I can’t—because we’re parents—our folks illuminate our children. Observing from a distance, we have found ourselves constantly surprised—and grateful—as our parents introduce us to nooks and crannies of our kids that we never knew existed. In the playground of that bond shared only with a grandparent, the kids we imagine we know find ways of revealing themselves that they can’t with us, in the safety of a gaze we’re not yet wise enough to cast.
Kelly’s dad and stepmom (Grandpops and Grandma Shirley), for example, make sure our city children are fluent in such essential country pursuits as blackberry-picking, pie-baking, knitting, puzzle completion, zip-lining, TV poker and fish-gutting.
My parents (Mimi and Pop) strive to pass on our Southern heritage to their half-Yankee California grandbabes by making sure they know when to say “ma’am” and “sir” (always), how to butter a biscuit, paint in watercolor, write a thank-you note, grip a golf club and brandish a weapon of battle, whether it be a Confederate saber or a sterling silver shrimp fork.
Kelly’s gentle mom and her bearded, ponytailed boyfriend (Nana and Peter) have taken upon themselves to school our kids in appreciating such life essentials as the Grateful Dead, healing crystals, medicinal herbs and tie-dye clothing, as well as understanding the art of fire dancing and correctly deciphering the meaning of a complex upper-arm tattoo.
I defy any private school to provide a more well-rounded education.
We’ve come to adore the Grands even more watching from a distance as they adore our children in their own distinct ways. Which is why, over a three-week period from mid-August to early September, we opted for total immersion and visited all three grandmothers’ houses.
This was no over-the-river-and-through-the-woods affair. As we always strive to keep things difficult, Kelly plotted an itinerary that criss-crossed America twice and spanned nearly 9,000 miles. Our pilgrimage took us us from L.A. to South Carolina, then back to L.A., up the coast to Oregon, back down again to L.A., and back across the country again to ensure that my beautiful mother would be surrounded by as many grandchildren as possible on her 85th birthday. We may have depleted our frequent flyer account, but by the time we arrived back home, there was a message on our phone from American Airlines letting us know we had qualified for permanent resident status at Dallas-Fort Worth’s Terminal B.
The grandparents who made it worth every mile:
Grandma Shirley, for sensing our daughter’s need for independence and teaching her to drive their John Deere riding lawnmower around the property all by herself, every day, for as long as she wanted, understanding exactly how powerful it would make her feel.
Grandpops, who by trade turns complex blueprints into the product patterns carved in wood that provide the shape to bottle of shampoo, for diverting the tools of his shop to expertly craft whimsical toy daggers and swords for Ninja James. Then taking him fishing in the country, explaining why the small ones get thrown back and others—even after you’ve cut off their heads—continue to blink. (“Their nerves ain’t done yet. Or maybe they just want to keep and eye on you.”)
Mimi, for wanting to recreate—70 years later—the time she’d spent as a girl with her own grandmother. Time spent simply, swimming, cooking and shopping for clothes. An opportunity my mother used to both praise and nurture her granddaughter’s taste and evolving sense of style. I later caught them watching Julie and Julia, and smiled as I heard my mom encourage my daughter not to let the fact that she’s a child fool anyone into thinking she’s not capable of cooking her way through Julia Child.
Pop, for picking up on Elizabeth’s budding interest in science and medicine, and relaying experiences from his fifty years as a family doctor between intense nightly bouts of double solitaire. And sensing she’s restless and taking her to feed the ducks. And reminding me—as he parcels out a lifetime of wisdom to the daughter he never had—why I wanted to become a dad in the first place.
Nana, who brings back pictures and stories and gifts from her months-long backpacking journeys around the globe with Peter. Fingering handmade toys that run on imagination rather computer chips, our kids drink in the tales of their grandmother the nomad and through her meet children and villagers, farmers and artisans in places like India and Mexico and China. Places they’ll dream about tonight.
Peter, who spotted our son, unable to take his eyes off an African drum, and thought to place it in his hands. And who that night, in the raging glow of a campfire, invited our 6-year-old to join the grownup’s drum circle. Showing us a boy we’d never seen before, shed of his lifelong shy streak, his face intense and aglow, pounding his djembe to the rhythm of the flames, as if he’d been born to it.
So yes, this year we forgot that September was Grandparents Month. I imagine Arthur and Carol will be pissed, because I’m pretty sure they invented it. But if it’s any consolation, even though we didn’t know it at the time, our children were with their grandmother on Grandparents Day, because as luck would have it, this year it happened to fall on September 9, Mimi’s 85th birthday. Even on the Mayan calendar. And that’s got to count for something.
Despite the gifts they’ve collectively given our children, four of the six grandparents have never met. Impediments of geography, circumstance and health mostly like dictate that they never will. Last month, pondering this as Kelly, our kids and I sat together in the dining car of the Coast Starlight last August, drinking in the wonder of the Pacific Ocean, my eye wanders to an empty table.
I imagine two older couples, waiting to be seated. A waiter leads them to a table and they introduce themselves. It’s winter, breakfast time. The strangers exchange polite chitchat. Neither couple has ever taken the overnight train before. They should have, says the taller woman. There’s so much of America we’ve never seen. Over breakfast, the couples warm to each other over stories of their grandchildren, marveling at the coincidence that they each have a pair the same age, living in Los Angeles. Too far away, they agree, as silence settles over the table.
They glance out the window at as the train hurtles through a snow-covered forest, taking in its serene beauty. And I wonder if they’ll ever put it together, realizing that the view they share was once nothing more than a few dozen triangles of green construction paper, a box of cotton and two tiny strands of wire.
Lead photo credit: Flickr / celebdu
All other photos used with permission.