Stardust Sprinklers & SOBs: Grandparents

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“The relatively recent appearance (c. 1920) of what I call the ‘third generation’ has led to the poverty of idioms and proverbs alluding to grandparents. ‘Grandfather clock’ is solidly ensconced even as the clocks are disappearing. But ‘Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’ is making a rapid exit probably due to salmonella and plastic eggs that need no sucking. In Great Britain, misers are sometimes described as people who would ‘dig up their grannies to steal the coppers from their eyes,’ but this expression began fading with the death of the large English penny and cremation’s popularity. ‘Granny glasses,’ a rimless, unisex accessory which gained currency in the 1960s, is one of the few positive phrases I’ve located, but it’s rarely used anymore.” —Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

Skip, Lena, Ingrid, Edgar, Spencer, and Sterling.

Skip, Lena, Ingrid, Edgar, Spencer, and Sterling.

“Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather’s house we go.” —Lydia Maria Child

“Grandparents who want to be truly helpful will do well to keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves until these are requested.” —Dr. T. Berry Brazelton

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—9/5/2016—An old story begins with the observation that grandchildren and grandparents are “natural allies with a common enemy.”

I’ve never felt quite so common as when our son was 16 and struggling with girls, grades, sports, and me. That summer, my German in-laws came for a month-long visit and, by some stroke of good fortune, my father-in-law thought to bring his harmonica, though he had no advance notice that his grandson was trying to teach himself the blues harp.

When these two discovered their common interest, I backed off. In the cool of the evening over the next few weeks, I would pull up a chair on the patio’s perimeter and listen to their jamming. I recall thinking that the harmonizing, which left me feeling marginalized, was a bit like the monkey bars at school recess: one can make smoother progress if one skips a bar. Indeed, parents often are the bar which some adolescents would do well to bypass.

I rarely had this luxury myself because our peripatetic family seldom lived very close to my mother’s parents and never near my father’s. But I won’t forget the times that “Dear,” my maternal grandmother, bought me an ice cream and showed me off at Kirven’s, her favorite department store. Every child deserves at least one memory like that.

Of course, I’m assuming the grandparent bar is there to seize and, increasingly, it is. With 27 percent of all American children living in single-parent homes in 2010, it is the grandparents who are doing a lot of the parenting while the single parent holds down a job or two, if there’s a job to hold.

A few blocks from us lives a heroic couple raising their six-year-old granddaughter because her father is in prison and her mother has abandoned her. A hundred years ago, it’s likely that this innocent, now the legal ward of her grandparents, would have landed in an orphanage but, with American life expectancies approaching 80, the majority of children born in 2016 will not only know their grandparents but their great grandparents as well.

One thing that continues to mystify me though is how poorly most parents get along with their sons’ families relative to their daughters’. Even though my wife’s parents lived in Germany while our two children were growing up, they enjoyed a warmer relationship with them via the telephone than with my English-speaking parents who often lived within driving distance.

Otto and Ilse Barmwater.

Otto and Ilse Barmwater.

Sadly, the same is true today, for my wife and I have a better rapport with our daughter’s family than we have with our son’s. Indeed, in the great majority of cases we know of, the same is true. Too often, some friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law reaches the flash point, and the victims are the children. I recall seeing a bumper sticker in south Florida reading, “Ask me about our estranged grandkids.” If my experience is widespread and my math is correct, roughly half of all grandchildren are disaffected.

The relatively recent appearance (c. 1920) of what I call the “third generation” has led to the poverty of idioms and proverbs alluding to grandparents.

“Grandfather clock” is solidly ensconced even as the clocks are disappearing. But “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs” is making a rapid exit probably due to salmonella and plastic eggs that need no sucking. In Great Britain, misers are sometimes described as people who would “dig up their grannies to steal the coppers from their eyes,” but this expression began fading with the death of the large English penny and cremation’s popularity. “Granny glasses,” a rimless, unisex accessory which gained currency in the 1960s, is one of the few positive phrases I’ve located, but it’s rarely used any more.

Pejorative phrases like “granny knot,” implying ineptitude, or “grandfather clause,” implying something devious or underhanded, appear to be firmly rooted. In recent years, “the granddaddy of them all” (the oldest of anything), “granny dumping” (abandoning the demented elderly in an emergency room), “granny farm” (an assisted living complex), and “granny flat” (a small addition to an existing home) have entered the language, but there aren’t many more like them. The only proverb I’m aware of is the conservative motto, “What’s good enough for grandfather is good enough for me.”

Except for humans, lions, pilot whales, baboons, and some warblers, the “third generation” does not exist in the animal kingdom for the simple reason that most creatures of the field, sea, and sky do not live long enough. When that generation does exist in a species, it’s usually the older females that stay home to supervise the children while the “second generation” hunts and gathers. Incidentally, among human hunter-gatherers, it’s the plant-and-insect-gathering females who supply up to 70 percent of the calories at any given pot-luck meal. Though there are conflicting studies of the “grandma hypothesis,” it appears the extra productivity of the women and the relative safety of gathering may have given them the edge in longevity.

Whether man or beast, the “third-generation’s” role is principally one of “first-generational” child tending, though in hard times, an economic support role often emerges.

For males, the appropriate role usually consists of finding ways to be useful around the house without being a nuisance.

For my own part, I have fixed bike flats, helped to build a tree house and a deck, painted a bathroom, patched some sheetrock, and read to the children. When our grandsons want to shoot basketball, I am their mobility-challenged backboard.

My wife’s chief role at our daughter’s home is to take over the cooking and baking duties, but she has to be very careful not to do too much while visiting our son lest her assistance be seen as a criticism of our daughter-in-law’s domestic competence or a ploy to reclaim her husband. Perhaps her safest role in either household is to serve as the “Grandmamarazzi,” seizing only two-dimensional memories, and no hostages. It’s a delicate set of scales, and equilibrium does not come easy.

It’s been said that you don’t really understand a problem until you can solve it for your grandparents, but it seems the reverse is also true. Fortunately, my wife’s mother was an excellent role model and problem solver; indeed, she wrote the “manual.” Though she lived some 5,000 miles away from our children when they were growing up, she was the one whose visits our children looked forward to and the one our children went to visit when they came of age. I’ll cite one example of her transcontinental love.

Four weeks before each Christmas, a large package arrived from our sainted Mutti (German for “Mom”). In the box was an Advent calendar for each of her grandchildren. On an embroidered sheet of green felt were 24 small gifts individually wrapped and tied to a gold ring sewn to the felt. It didn’t take long before we came to appreciate just how much effort and love had gone into that undertaking. With two more grandchildren at home, Mutti had 98 gifts to buy, wrap, attach, and distribute.

The gifts are long gone, but I still have one of the exquisite three-inch-long string knots she tied her parcel with. It’s pinned to the wall over the table where we wrap our own gifts because that’s our “manual.”

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling ("Skip") Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through nearly 50 years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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2 Responses to Stardust Sprinklers & SOBs: Grandparents

  1. Will B says:

    More poignant than I expected, Skip. Lovely.

  2. Skip says:

    Thanks, Will.
    At 74, “Poignancy” is my name.

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