My dad came into town on Wednesday to help us out with what was to be an utterly unmanageable end-of-the-week. Usually we can juggle our crazy tag-team parenting lives with just some sporadic help from babysitters, but the end of this week we knew would be impossible: days of late meetings for both of us, and on Friday a campus event I had been organizing for a good two months. We rushed around all week from deadline to deadline and when Wednesday night arrived, we breathed a collective sigh of relief: Help had arrived.
I am always so envious of parents who have extended family nearby. Not long after we bought our first house in 2002, I used to take long walks around the neighborhood, sometimes pushing L. in his stroller, other times walking with him hand-in-hand. There was a house not too far off--across the main street and then through the other half of the neighborhood--and the couple who lived there kept an amazing garden in their front yard. There were rambling paths and an iron trellis and a charming white picket gate at the front, and rows and rows of vegetables and flowers. I used to see the husband out there, bent over his plants, tugging and pulling at the weeds in the quiet and methodical way of a true gardener. He reminded me of my father, who also loves to landscape and garden, and I used to fantasize as I passed by the house that my parents indeed lived that close and that we'd only have to walk that far to see them. How amazing it would be--I used to think--to lift up the latch on that front gate and watch L. run up the front path and into that fairytale house, where grandparents awaited, with warm cookies, of course.
(I'm a day-dreamer, remember?)
But we settle instead for packed-in weekends, and occasional during-the-week help when my dad can get away on a Wednesday. It's not perfect, but I find myself always thankful that at least we are only a 5 1/2 hour drive away from family, and not a long transatlantic flight away, as my mother's parents were.
On Thursday, when I came home from work around 2:00, I found my dad seated on the couch in the family room, reading Why Should I Save Energy? to T. He was decked out in strands of Mardi Gras beads, and had a purple, feathery tiara tucked into his hair. T. looked very satisfied with herself. She was dressed up like a baby, complete with some old wrinkled pull-up she'd dug out of the depths of her closet. Then she held out her hands to me, proudly.
"Look Mama! My nails are painted!"
"Did you paint them?" I asked her.
"No! Dad-dad painted them!"
My heart melted right then and there at the image of my dad carefully painting T.'s nails, while she no doubt chattered to him all the while, her shiny hair swinging around her little face. Then I thought: Wait a minute!--my dad never painted MY nails when I was a girl. Never. He used to threaten to pull out my loose teeth when I whined about them, but I know he never polished my fingernails. And play baby? And wear Mardi Gras beads and a tiara?
No sooner had I changed my clothes and come back downstairs, than my dad disappeared upstairs to take a long nap. I didn't see him for another hour at least. When I peeked in on him before heading off to get L. from school, he was completely out, a blanket pulled all the way over his face. Kids can exhaust you, no doubt about it.
Where's MY nap? I thought, grouchily. I had rushed home after teaching back-to-back classes and sitting in a long and tedious meeting, and now I had an afternoon stretching ahead of me with more rushing around--off to pick up L. from school, then the homework battle, then house-tidying, and dinner preparation, then bedtime battles...But it hit me suddenly that all of this was exactly what must be so satisfying about being a grandparent: Sometimes you might have to sit on a couch and let yourself be dressed up from head to toe, or you might be called upon to paint tiny fingernails; you might have to read book after book after book about strange topics until your eyes spin. But in the end you know relief is always within sight. When the parents do come back to scoop up the grandkids you adore so very much, you can always sneak off upstairs for a long, long nap. Most importantly, I think, you get the chance to do all the things you rarely did with your own kids when you were that tired, often-frazzled parent yourself. Grandparenthood is the ultimate chance to do it all again--to be young again, to play again, to dive back into a child's world, with scarcely a backward glance.