The Real Fountain Of Youth: Being A Grandparent

Older men and women drinking water from the fountain out of paper cups.  (Photo by George Karger/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/
Older men and women drinking water from the fountain out of paper cups. (Photo by George Karger/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

When my godson Matthew was about five years old he, like so many other children his age, was fascinated with dinosaurs. No wonder. His picture books depicted those astonishing creatures as hairless beasts with enormous bodies, scaly skin and terrifyingly sharp teeth. He could tell you with confidence that they lived a very long time ago and exactly how they became extinct.

One day, while playing on the living room floor, surrounded by his family, Matthew looked up at his grandmother and asked, "Grandma, how old are you?"

Taken by surprise, his grandmother replied, "Oh, Matthew, I'm very, very old."

He paused for a moment, contemplating her answer, and then asked, "Were you born before or after the dinosaurs?"

Everyone in the room burst out laughing. Since Matthew's concept of time was not yet complete enough to integrate the remoteness of the Jurassic period with the brevity of a human lifetime, his question was certainly a good one. He had not yet formed any notions one way or another about what it means to grow old and was simply curious. How refreshing!

With two grandchildren of my own, girls who are now 10 and 13, I have been thinking a lot lately about the grandparent-grandchild relationship, specifically about what makes our bond so special, precious and different from all others. Of greatest interest to me is how the span of time between my age and theirs doesn't diminish our mutual affection one iota. To me and to many of my friends who, over the past 15 years, have become grandmothers, the feeling we have for our grandchildren is nothing less than pure, unfettered love. One of my friends, Donne Davis, even founded an organization, called the Gaga Sisterhood, to explore what it's like to be a grandmother today, which is nothing like it was when we were kids. Most of the grandmothers I know now are all accomplished and well-traveled with many interests and busy lives, yet there is absolutely nothing that gives us greater joy than spending time with our grandchildren, and we always enjoy sharing new and amusing stories about them.

My friend Shannon, for example, recounts an incident with her three young grandchildren, whom she recently overheard discussing someone they considered "old." One of the kids pointed out that their grandmother was the same age as the person they were talking about, to which Shannon's grandson, Hank, immediately replied, "Grandma's not old, she's fun!" In Hank's mind, being "old" has nothing to do with a person's age; to him, Shannon concludes, "it's a state of mind."

I live a short plane ride away from my son's family and have been flying up to see my granddaughters about every two or three months since they were born. I especially enjoy visiting in the summertime, after they've returned from overnight camp. The youngest, Mia, has developed a habit of coming into my room first thing in the morning and, to my great delight, telling me in vivid detail about her camp experience. Last time, as she sat on the edge of my bed, she absentmindedly began playing with the skin on the back of my hand, and I became aware of how strange my hands must look to her. When I explained that my hands were getting old, she countered, simply, "I like to see the veins. It's neat." Just observation, pure and simple.

Over the past year, beginning when my granddaughter Hannah was 12, we have, at her suggestion, become pen pals, writing handwritten letters to one another, posing questions, and sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings. The fact that I am more than five decades her senior doesn't limit our mutual interest in each other's lives. In fact, it may even bring us closer. Hannah arrives at the concept of longevity from a very interesting perspective, having been born on the cusp of the twentieth century. As she cheerfully exclaims on her color-saturated personal blog, "Happy Hannah's Project Rainbow": If I live to be 101, I will have lived in three centuries!!!"

There is something distinctly thrilling about standing at opposite ends of a lifespan with someone you love so unconditionally: I, with so many years to reflect back on, and she, with her whole life ahead of her. Through our letters, it's as if I am meeting Hannah on a rainbow-shaped bridge, arching over a river and conveying fragments of personal, familial, and cultural memory to her and her sister, both of whom will carry whatever parts and parcels I have to offer, and more, into a world I will never see.

As Hannah explained to me in her last letter, after I'd asked her about the special quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship from her point of view, "You know that your grandparents have experienced our nation's history and probably have a lot of stories to tell. . . . You can talk to them about anything. It's like telling a source that will process information, give you good advice, and then a hug. It is amazing."

To become such a source for a grandchild must certainly be to sip from the Fountain of Youth -- for what could be more rejuvenating than that?