Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Musings on Being a Grandparent and Time Travel

You can never go home again. ~ Thomas Wolfe What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance. They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life. And, most importantly, cookies. ~ Rudolph Giuliani If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and of changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe. ~ Larry Niven Last Friday, my wife and I flew from Boise to San Diego to visit our first grandchild. Actually, my son's family lives in Oceanside, California, which is just a little north. To be even more accurate, they live in base housing on Camp Pendleton since he is a Marine. The trip proved that time travel is not possible but that time loops probably are. Let me explain. My wife and I used to live in Orange County, CA. When the nearest drive by shooting was only a mile and a quarter from our house, we decided it wasn't safe to raise kids there anymore and eventually moved to Idaho. However, while we were in California, we had our three, beautiful kids. I remember my parents, the new grandparents, coming down each time a baby was born. While my parents connected with my sons easily enough, I was a little worried how my Dad would react when we had a daughter, since he only had boys. As it turned out, my daughter had him totally wound around her little finger on the very first visit. Thus began a lifelong bonding between my children and my parents that I have watched with the utmost joy. Now it's my turn. Seeing my grandson Landon for the first time reminded me of the first meeting between my parents and my children. I remembered thinking my parents looked just a bit older on that occasion, but I didn't feel old at all when I saw Landon. I did feel somewhat amazed listening to my son David comment on his responsibilities and how he had planned every detail of the next 20 years of his son's life. He was somewhat revelling at being "head of household" and projected a sense of confidence and security in his own decision making as a parent that I'm sure I didn't have, even though I was ten years his senior when I had my first children. I also remarked to myself how that confidence would be eroded as he actually proceeded to parent over the next weeks, months, and years. Families are not the certain and stable things we pretend they are. I don't mean I think families are unstable. Family life just doesn't progress in an orderly and linear fashion. Having children introduces uncertainty to the extreme and events become unpredictable currents in the stream of time, like a leaf you send sailing into a forest creek. Nothing brings out the best and worst in people as does facing those currents by becoming a parent. I wonder how sure my son will be about how he wants to raise his own children five or ten years from now? I don't feel old. When I look at photos of myself (which I don't like to do often) I look old. My face sags and my hair is, at best, a salt and pepper mix (though I've managed to keep most of it). I have the usual aches and pains and obsess over what they all mean, but I don't look like my grandfather did, with a full head of silver hair standing on trembling legs (trembling at least near the end of his life). I feel "mature" when my son and his wife complain about how little sleep they're getting and all of the other adjustments they have to make, now that a newborn has entered their lives. The history of my own early parenthood rises to the occasion, though I see that action more in my wife, as her mothering skills come to the fore. The passage of time has caught me a little by surprise. Being a grandparent seems all at once real and unreal. Certainly holding my grandson is very real to me, but the stereotype of being a grandparent is completely unreal. I haven't given my first piggy-back or horsey ride yet, or read Landon his first storybook, or taken him to the park to play on the swing set or any of that stuff (give me a break...he's only eight days old right now). The passage of time also introduced another strange experience...going back "home". I say "home" in quotes, because Idaho is my home now. However, we weren't that far from Orange County and one of my sister-in-laws still lives there, so we went to go see her on Sunday. She has cerebral palsy, so doesn't travel much; thus she hadn't been able to go to Oceanside to see Landon. We all went up to her in Buena Park. Although she's my wife's younger sister, her hair is completely gray. She looked well and in fact, was probably the heaviest that she's ever been. In her case, putting on and keeping on weight is the same for her as my newborn grandson. Since Annie has cerebral palsy, her health has always been an issue. As she's gotten older, she has suffered more, and we've always had it in the back of our minds, that she may not live as long as the rest of us. She spent sometime in the hospital over the past few months and my wife was frantic at one point, trying to make sure she got the right care while hundreds of miles away. We hope and pray for God's care and peace in her life, but I couldn't help but notice the that she looks older than my wife. The added punctuation in the story was Landon, who is just starting to live. While in the area, we also decided to visit the "old neighborhood". Our old next door neighbor is still in the same house and we went over to visit. By contrast to my sister-in-law, Norma hadn't really changed that much. Her husband has, but not in a bad way, and at 71, he still has a full head of hair. He's survived 5 types of cancer and still looks like he runs (though he likely doesn't these days). He says that he's learned to stop worries (a quality I wish for in my own life...though I hope that I don't have to face cancer to learn it). The kids my kids grew up with are all tall and at least somewhat like adults. One even has a child of his own, but I noticed Norma was still in charge of how all the kids are raised. A lifetime as a foster and adoptive parent has moulded her into the ultimate caretaker for many generations. Being a grandmother is the most natural progression for her. We managed an invite into our old house. Everything was a darker color but there were some things that were familiar, even after 15 years. The ceramic tile we had laid right before we moved was the same. I remembered the place in the backyard pool where David had broken a tooth (baby tooth, thankfully), while jumping in the jacuzzi. The chandelier in the core of the house was different, but the railing on the stairs was the same. It was an odd trip back in time, but then, I had to remind myself that time travel is impossible. There are only memories to create the illusion. Like the house, the neighborhood was the same, but different. The streets were lined with palm trees now, that the city had put in. The local park was the same, but new playground equipment was in place. The air still smelled of partly combusted hydrocarbons, but the strip mall where our dentist had his office was gone; replaced by partly built condos that had been abandoned when the economy crashed. Now the frames of the aborted condos are exposed to the weather and disintegrating; perhaps illustrating the erosion of California, or at least my mind's version of it. The freeways were the same, but if at all possible, everything around them was even more built up than when I lived there. Cars traveling 75 miles per hour (and faster) were just inches away from us as we moved from one freeway to the next, while my son listened to the droning guidance of his GPS system. Little sparks of pleasant familiarity briefly flared into view, like fireflies on a humid summer's night, but then reality repossessed the night and the present returned. As I wondered how life would have evolved differently had we not moved away, I was reminded that I could never move back, even if I wanted to. I was no longer the same person who left 15 years ago and neither were my surroundings. While it was home once, it isn't now and won't be again. We left Orange County and David took us onto Pendleton through a different entrance to show us where he worked. We had driven past the Pacific Ocean on I 5 and I gazed at the endless seas that I never get to visit in Idaho, longing for one small visit to the beach. More than anything, I missed the ability to look out and let my eyes and my mind expand out across the vastness of the water, going past the horizon to distant shores. I no longer feel landlocked in Idaho as such, but this trip reminded me of what I sometimes miss. This trip pointed out to me that you can only revisit old neighborhoods, but you can't actually relive the past. Memories are mile markers, but the territory continues to change. In some ways, my wife and I have become my parents and my son has become the father. I can now hold my grandson in my arms and feel the new life in him and pray that God lets him grow up and be safe in an increasingly uncertain world. This must be what my father felt like when he held my children for the first time. Time travel is impossible, but visiting old neighborhoods and accepting the role of grandfather from my own father allows for a certain "looping" in time. I haven't really become my father, but having my own grandchild has created a new connection between us and between the moment when he first held my children and the first time I held my son's child. I can visit the house that was my children's first home, but it's only a shadow of what it once was. It's good to visit, but you can't live there. Connecting with the past provides valuable reminders, but the action is always happening in the present. We take what we can from our histories, but the ink has been dry for sometime and the pages are yellowing. The quotes from the past must be lifted from the old page and be written with new ink. I'm back home now in Idaho and it's another ordinary day in the City of Trees. I'm back at work, seeing familiar faces and doing familiar things. I posted the first pictures of Landon to Picasa and to my Facebook profile and emailed the attachments to quite a number of people. I'm writing the new history with fresh ink, but it's already drying as my first meeting with Landon moves from present to past. I can take from the past what I need to establish my role and use it to anticipate the future, whatever God wills it to be. I pray that I am allowed to read Landon from his favorite books, and do all of those things with my grandson that my father did with my children. Well, it won't be the same, both because you can't completely summon the past into the present and because, although I have adopted the role, I'm a grandfather in my own way. The past is just a memory after all. Landon and I will need to build our new memories together. For Landon.