Grandparenting is a special blessing of the bonus years

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 5, 2015

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

There’s a new twig on the family tree.  Her name is Adelyn – rhymes with Madelyn.

I now understand why so many say the greatest joy of the bonus years is grandparenting.

Adelyn arrived at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington on October 30.  Her birth was a surprise – a preemie arriving four weeks early.

Though Adelyn is certainly a blessing to us and our larger family, we can also be thankful for the many blessings Adelyn has been born into.

First and foremost, she was born in America, the land of the free, where she will have more opportunities than anywhere else in the world to become what she wants to be.

She is also blessed by her birth in a country where English – the global language of business, science, diplomacy and tourism – will be her first language.

As a preemie, she was blessed with outstanding medical care that is available for premature babies in this region.  After 10 days in the incubator, she came home last week healthy and full-throated, adding sounds never before heard in our kids’ home in their Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

But as new grandparents, Mary Sue and I also want to be a blessing to this new addition to our family.  That is a role that requires learning.

We have talked to many of our friends who are experienced grandparents.  That helped a lot.  We learned two big things from all of those discussions.  First, grandparents can play many roles – from caretaker or tutor to good buddy or treasured visitor.

However, we also learned the better part of wisdom is this: It’s the parents who really decide.  So take your cues from them.

There are also many different names for the grandparent: Grandma, Papa, Mamaw, Gramps and the like.  Though I want to be “Papa” and Mary Sue wants to be “Grandma,” the child will decide, as she begins to talk, and her pick is likely to stick.  It’s out of our hands.

We also sat in on a half-day grandparenting program at the Anne Arundel Medical Center.  It was fantastic.  We learned that 10 of the common things we practiced as parents are now considered wrong, if not immoral.  Most important was the 11th Commandment: Zip your lip and deal with the child according to the rules of the parents.

Most inspiring to me, however, has been a book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” by physician Rachel Naomi Remen.

Remen’s grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and a scholar of the mystical teachings of Judaism, called the Kabbalah, always called her by the Jewish name “Neshume-le,” which is Hebrew for “beloved little soul.”

Remen writes, “Often, when he came to visit, my grandfather would bring me a present.  They were never the sorts of things that other people brought, dolls and books and stuffed animals.  My dolls and stuffed animals have been gone for more than half a century, but many of my grandfather’s gifts are still with me.”

Remen then tells the story about one of her grandfather’s unusual gifts.  “Once he brought me a little paper cup.  I looked inside expecting something special.  It was full of dirt.  I was not allowed to play with dirt.  Disappointed, I told him this.  He smiled at me fondly.  Turning, he picked up the little teapot from my dolls’ tea set and filled it with water…[then] handed me the teapot. ‘If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen,’ he told me.”

Remen was only four years old at the time and nothing about this gift made any sense to her. “I looked at him dubiously.   He nodded with encouragement.  ‘Every day, Neshume-le,'” he said.

So, Remen promised.   Besides, she was excited to see what would happen.  Every night she dutifully watered the dirt in the cup.  But nothing happened.  At the end of the week, her grandfather visited, as usual, and she asked him if she could stop watering.  “Shaking his head no, he said, ‘Every day, Neshume-le.'”

The second week came and went.  Despite watering the dirt in the cup every day nothing changed. Remen was beginning to regret her promise.  When her grandfather came for his weekly visit, she asked if she could stop.  Shaking his head no, he said, “Every day, Neshume-le.”

Frustrated and impatient, Remen wanted to give the cup and dirt back to her grandfather.  But she didn’t.  She continued the daily watering.  When she forgot, she would get out of bed in the dark of night to water the cup.  She didn’t miss a single day.

Toward the end of the third week, Remen woke up to find two little green leaves.  They had not been there before.  “I was astonished,” she said. “Day by day they got bigger.  I could not wait to tell my grandfather, certain he would be surprised as I was.  But of course he was not.”

When he arrived for his weekly visit, her grandfather admired the little sprouts and then explained to Remen:  “Life is everywhere, Neshume-le, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places.”   Remen was delighted, declaring, “And all it needs is water, Grandpa.”

But to her surprise her grandfather balked as he touched her gently on the top of her head and said, “No, Neshume-le…All it needs is your faithfulness.”

As for our “sacred little child,” I would be thankful beyond words, if I can be a grandpa – or Papa – who is remembered by pretty little Adelyn as one who taught her any one of the virtues of this life such as faithfulness, kindness, humility or compassion.

That is my aim, no matter what she calls me.

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