Genie and I have five grandchildren. Our oldest grandchildren—Amanda (22) and Ben (20)—are our daughter Jessica’s children. They live in Europe. Our youngest three grandchildren live across the street in the small Massachusetts town where we’ve lived in the same house for the last 36 years. They belong to our youngest child, our son John. Our oldest grandchildren are the ages of most of our friend’s children. That’s because I got Genie pregnant when we were seventeen and eighteen. “I’ll pull out,” I lied to the gorgeous San Francisco hippie princess who’d miraculously stumbled into my life. By chance, she stopped by the most unlikely setting for our first meeting: the religious fundamentalist commune run by my evangelical American parents in (of all places) Switzerland.
Our eldest, daughter Jessica, had Amanda and Ben fairly young (by today’s standards) after she left New York University. Then Jessica moved to Finland with her Finish-American composer/pianist husband Dani. As I write these words in May of 2016, Ben is here for a visit. I hear hammering as he pulls up the old decking in front of our kitchen. We’re replacing the rotten boards. It’s tough to write knowing he’s out there. I hate missing even a minute of working together side by side.
By now Genie’s and my distinction between what seriously matters most and everything else has been rendered in sharply focused detail. After our son went to war, the preciousness of time with our family became painfully clear. Following three wartime deployments and an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 2004, John went to the University of Chicago, married Becky halfway through school, graduated with a degree in modern European history, and moved back in with Genie and me until they got on their feet. Fortunately, we could accommodate them. Then Lucy was born.
Lucy lived in our house until she was two years old. Then she moved across the street. To say that Lucy and I bonded is an understatement. By the time Lucy arrived I had dispensed with enough of the striving-for-success clutter in my life to really see the child in my arms. I was no longer distracted, like people at a Hollywood party who are always looking past whomever they’re talking to, for someone more important in the room that they should connect with. I gave this person my wholehearted attention. When Lucy’s little brother Jack was born the happy pattern of daily involvement with our youngest grandchildren was set. A year or two later Nora joined our tribe and turned it into the joyous exhausting riotous throng I live in the midst of today.
Instead of the overwhelming fear we’d suffered from contemplating the possible loss of our son John while he was embroiled in a misbegotten war, Genie and I were offered another chance at life. Since we are both self-employed (rather “self-unemployed” as we call it when our finances get shaky between projects) we were able to rearrange our lives to accommodate being our youngest grandchildren’s daytime caregivers while John and Becky work. Certain things became non-negotiable, like watching Lucy’s newborn face as she slept in my arms. I walked in circles around the kitchen table while holding her. I’d miss “important” meetings and leave “crucial” calls unreturned and instead play music as she slept. This lulled Lucy into a trancelike state where her breathing would slow and her body relax. My arms ached from holding her in one position for so long. As she grew, I discovered you can get tennis elbow by holding a sleeping toddler in one position across your chest, her head cupped in one hand, for an hour at a time, day after day. But I was exultant when my daughter-in-law Becky called me her hero, simply because Lucy slept in my arms after she refused naps in her crib.
Besides this ego-boosting appreciation from a young mother (always a good thing), my reward for enduring these stress-position torture naps was beyond price. Lucy’s translucent, delicately mauve-tinted eyelids would flutter in her sleep, and I was there to see this gorgeousness! I knew she could hear my heartbeat! I’ve never cried for joy over a good review of a novel of mine, or when I’ve been invited to be interviewed by Oprah or by Terri Gross and sales of some of my books have (blessedly!) spiked, let alone over a royalty check. But the sheer beauty of my undistracted closeness to this lovely child, side-by-side with me in our very own gene pool, made me tear up out of sheer gratitude.
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