By the time my 40-something year-old mother gave birth to me, I was already down to just two living grandparents -- and one of them was in a home for the aged.
My maternal grandfather passed years before I was born and his widow died during my mother's pregnancy. I never got to meet her but her death determined my name: My Hebrew name is Chanah, which was hers.
On my father's side, there was Grandma Rose who died before I was old enough to have actual memories of her; I "know" her just from a black and white photo in which she is pushing my baby carriage to the corner drugstore soda fountain in Mineola, Long Island in the summer of 1950. After that photo was taken, my Bubie and her friend parked me in the shade and left me asleep while they went inside to get root beer floats, something that upset my mother so deeply she couldn't ever look at that photo without telling someone the story of how I was almost kidnapped because of her mother-in-law's need for a root beer float. I think my father eventually hid the picture, hoping to restore peace. I haven't seen it in years.
I know even less about Bubie's husband, my Zaida; there is just one photo of him in which all of his adult children and their families are gathered behind his wheelchair. He wore a gray suit for the occasion, whatever the occasion was -- and I hid behind my mother's skirt.
Growing up grandparent-less in Long Island and later in Newark, N.J. never felt like a big deal to me. My friends had grandparents who, for the most part, all lived in Florida. When they would make annual visits to New Jersey, my friends would disappear into the family vortex for a week or so and emerge with new skills, like knitting and fishing. Sometimes, they would brag about being taken to Radio City Music Hall in New York City. But deep down, I knew all those Nanas and Poppas would eventually hit the road back to Florida and my friends would return to me.
Not having grandparents of my own who came to visit was a fact of scarce notice. Far stranger, in the eyes of my schoolmates, was that I didn't have any siblings. I grew up as an only child -- the only "only" among my childhood friends. There was one boy who also had no siblings, but in case, he used to have an older sister who died. People spoke in whispers and never directly addressed him about his "only" status because of the mysterious illness that claimed his sister. I wasn't spared their curiosity. Me, they confronted directly with the question of 'Why?" and while I couldn't answer it, it always made me feel different and uncomfortable in a way that not having grandparents didn't.
Without question, having no siblings shaped my childhood far more than the absence of any grandparents.
It wasn't until I had kids of my own that I realized what I had missed out on by not having grandparents growing up. Good grandparents are the people who fill in the parenting blanks.
My husband and I adopted two children from China at the point in our lives when our own parents had long passed. When my kids were young, I had no "Grandma's house" to take them to when I needed a parenting break. There was no one to fill in the gaps, to provide the parenting-without-the-usual-boundaries that kids need.
Grandparents are like the relief pitchers who come in and save the game. They arrive fresh and full of patience and with the knowledge that when they wear out, they just need to drop Junior back home. Grandparents always get to play the Good Guy. They are the ones who can sneak the kids Happy Meals and let them order chips instead of the apple. Grandparents can often also supply the Big Ticket holiday gift, the computer for graduation, the summer camp experience that would otherwise break the piggy bank. At least in my romanticized version of life, they do.
For my kids, there has been none of that. There was no Grandpa to teach them how to fix a leaky pipe (Dad did that) or Grandma to bake cookies with them after school while Mom was still at work (Dad did that too). They had no one to tell them our family's history beyond what my memory holds, no one to tell them first-hand how the family kiddish cup they are holding in their very hands was smuggled into this country in the hem of my great-aunt's skirt.
I notice their missing grandparents mostly at my son's club soccer games and my daughter's cross country races when I see just how small our little cheering contingent is. I also notice it when at the holidays, we invite friends to fill the empty seats at our table.
But that's the way families are today: They come in various shapes, sizes and colors and for the most part, it's just fine. And when it isn't, we find work-arounds -- ways to focus on what we have, not what's missing from the picture. And, speaking of pictures: With nothing but the greatest respect for my Grandma Rose, maybe a root beer float was just her way of saying not all grandparents are perfect and not even romanticizing them will change that.