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Claire N. Barnes, MA Headshot

Grandma, What Big Eyes You Have

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As part of my transition into my new phase of life (now called "inspirement"), I signed up for a class at San Francisco State University -- one of their offerings through their Osher Lifelong Learning Center (OLLI). If you are fortunate enough to live in a community with an OLLI, you know the coursework is designed to inspire, stimulate and inform students over the age of 50.

I enrolled in a class called "Transformations: Revisiting Fairytales." I anticipated course content that would explore the human condition as characterized over the centuries through fairytales. I wasn't disappointed by the first session with the entire focus on Little Red Riding Hood. Most stimulating to me was the role of the Grandmother, which led to further, independent exploration of how grandmothers and grandfathers across cultures are presented in folk tales.

Little Red Riding Hood is obviously close to her Grandma. She is willing to navigate the dangerous woods and face down a wolf to take food to Granny when she is sick in bed. Similarly, in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, the lead source of comfort and adult supervision for Peter is his Grandpapa. Even when Peter disobeys Grandpapa and steps outside the gate and into the woods (watch out for the wolf again), Grandpapa is gentle, kind and tolerant of Peter's youthful curiosity.

Similarly, in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the aging Sorcerer (similar to a Grandparent), has to tolerate the Apprentice's energetic inquisitiveness even at the risk of flooding the castle. What Grandparent hasn't had to watch a grandchild make a mistake and learn the lessons from it?

And finally, our favorite American holiday, Thanksgiving, is paired with a visit to Grandmother's House. Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go .. evokes a warm, welcoming and safe atmosphere with plenty of food when we get there.

I am encouraging my fellow grandparents to consider the importance of their role in their families as characterized across cultures and through multiple, artistic representations:

1) Grandparents are a source of family continuity -- the tribal elders. When parents don't have the time to share family histories, traditions and habits, it is the grandparent's privilege to do so.

2) Grandparents have the patience to let children make mistakes and learn from those experiences. Because most grandparents are not with their grandchildren every day, they can be tolerant of youthful questioning (Why?) and missteps that are part of learning.

3) Grandparents often act in loco parentis (in place of parents). When parents are not physically or emotionally available, grandparents can nurture, cuddle, supervise and discipline. Importantly, with grandparents involved, childrearing is still a family matter.

We lived in my grandmother's home when I was 2-4 years of age. My grandmother had very long, straight gray hair, which she taught me to braid into two braids, then wrap the braids around her head so she could tuck them under her Sunday church hat. I always loved doing that for her.

She also let me eat oatmeal cookies for breakfast because they had oatmeal in them. I loved her very much, and like Little Red Riding Hood, I would have navigated a dangerous woods to go see her. So for all you Grannys, Grandpas, Nanas, Abuelas, Papas, and Babooshkas, always remember how important you are to your grandchildren. By doing so, you will live forever in their memories.

Dedicated to the memory of my Grandmother, Jenny Ellis Gorton, one of the first female school superintendents in rural Nebraska. This blog first appeared here.