ed Barbara Else
Grandparenting with Love and Laughter
Baby boomers are heading into the golden age. Well-educated, fit and lively, they are exchanging the will to be perfect parents for the urge to be perfect grandparents. They are a different breed from their own grandparents. Plump and cheery Granny cooking up a storm in the kitchen and pipe-smoking Granddad rocking in his chair are gone. New stereotypes are emerging – the affluent, active grandparent who gives the grandchildren a high priority in a busy day or week. Supermum becomes supergran.
One thing has not changed down the generations, however, and that is the intensity of the love for a grandchild, which is something that mystifies the non-grandparent. For this reason these two books may be scoffed at by the cynical non-grandparent, but they will find an enthusiastic readership among members of the “exclusive club”, as Barbara Else puts it.
Both books explore many of the same issues. They both glow with the joy of grandparenthood. They both consider the disadvantages and the limitations of being a grandparent. Both offer advice for the inexperienced. Both discuss the politics of being a grandparent and ways of reinventing the relationship with the new parents. Nevertheless, they are quite different in approach and execution.
Barbara Else has edited Grand Stands, contributions from some of New Zealand’s most illustrious and literary grandparents. The condition is universal, but these eleven writers offer insights which less literary minds might not be able to articulate. Fiona Kidman sums up the tenor of Grand Stands when she writes, “when people become grandparents they discover … that they are not instant specks of blind tissue in a vast universe, but people who generate and regenerate …They are also reminded of what it is like to fall in love … what the primal urge was all about.”
Barbara Else in her own piece “A Rookie Grannie” refers to the “child born to carry us into the future”, but wisely looks at the family unit and not genetics in this age of the multiple family. There is also advice from several contributors on how to cope with “the fluid nature of the modern family”.
It is interesting to have the male perspective of Albert Wendt, Kevin Ireland and Chris Else. The last of these is inward-looking, dwelling at some length on his own experience as a grandchild in a relationship with an interesting twist. Albert Wendt, writing with dry humour, explores cultural differences. In Samoa the elderly are respected and revered. In cultures like New Zealand children are the focal point. He is easy-going with his grandchildren but also conscious of the expectations of his elders. Kevin Ireland writes wistfully about a grandchild who lives far away.
One very pleasing aspect is that Lauris Edmond’s lucidly expressed views were captured before her untimely death. Particularly interesting was the synthesis of her public and private life that the family arranged for her 75th birthday. The familial role of grandmother can be seen as the only identity that matters to a grandchild, but the integration of all her roles proved extremely satisfying for Lauris Edmond.
As might be expected in the company of writers, a gift of the written word is a common theme. Margaret Mahy describes the importance of a letter and a poem written for her by her maternal grandfather. He died when she was three, but she felt more connected to him than to her other grandparents. The power of the pen. Elizabeth Smither presents a superb quartet of poems to grandson, Finn. On hearing from Finn’s mother that she was pregnant, Smither wrote, “and when the phone is dead the day seems golden / as if … to gild the announcement with the moment.”
I looked forward to reading Hone Tuwhare’s experiences as a grandparent but I was disappointed. Although the publisher’s blurb refers to Hone Tuwhare’s contribution – a single poem – as “delightfully subversive”, I found it dismissive. Likewise with Patricia Grace’s piece. She turned the task over to her grandchildren, so that we got the children’s egocentric views, with little reference to the grandchild-grandmother relationship. As with Hone Tuwhare, this may well be because extended family lines are so loosely drawn in Maoridom that the relationship is taken for granted along with all other relationships; but these two approaches spoil the consistency of Grand Stands.
Trish Gribben’s Grandparenting with Love and Laughter looks and reads like a textbook. The author has already offered advice on parenting in the 70s and 80s in her book Pyjamas Don’t Matter. Where Barbara Else has let the grandparents speak for themselves, Trish Gribben has acted as interpreter. In some ways this enriches the text. Although not herself a grandparent yet, Gribben mixes and maximises the advice she has garnered from grandparents all over New Zealand.
At first glance this book might seem like the quintessential lesson in egg-sucking. Here is commonsense and common knowledge, but the book does suggest ideas for further development – how to deal with long-distance grandparenting, new approaches to bad eating habits, cooking together (recipes included), creating a grandchild-friendly house. Much of this may have been done for the now grown-up children – a space for their artwork, a magnetic alphabet on the fridge, readily available dress-up clothes, a garden space of their own – but such things take on new meaning with a grandchild. They become absorbing activities in their own right. Celebrations are important too, both traditional and newly created ones which will in their turn become part of family ritual.
The Gribben book deals with some serious issues – what to do if you suspect child abuse; how to handle the subject of death; how to answer the Big Questions. The helpful resources at the back include information about The Parenting Second Time Around Trust: for those who have to cope as a grandparent with full responsibility for a grandchild. Needs don’t stop when children reach puberty, and a chapter is devoted to helping teenagers through aspects of adolescent despair.
There is much here even for an experienced grandparent. I tried the suggestion of the candlelit dinner to great effect. The chapter on “Mindscapes” offered some variations on car-games which came in handy on a recent trip to Taupo with grandchild and friend; and I was encouraged by the grandfather who read Parsifal to his grandchildren to share my love of mythology and ancient ritual with my grandchild.
These are not the first books on the topic of grandparenthood, and will not be the last, but they both serve the baby boomers well as they join the “exclusive club”. The mystique remains, though, and you will have to be a grandparent, or almost one, to fully appreciate it.
Joan Rosier-Jones is an Auckland writer and the President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.