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The Grandfather Connection

(THE GRANDFATHER CONNECTION was published in Parents Magazine-April 1991.)

My father and my daughter,Emily, thirteen, are doing the breaststroke side by side in the pool at my parents’ condominium. About every half length, one looks over at the other, making sure neither has gotten ahead or behind. When they finish, they come over to where I’m sitting, grab their towels, and dry off.

“Papa did eight lengths today, Ma,” Emily tells me exuberantly. “Isn’t that just great?”

I nod to her and to my father-my short, twinkly eyed father-who is beaming at his only granddaughter. Yes, it’s great. It has always been great between the two of them-both in and out of the water.

Earlier, as they were getting into the pool, Emily had asked me whether I wanted to join them. I said no. Even though I am a swimmer, I usually say no when she asks. Doing laps has evolved into one of their activities. Three might be a crowd.

The two of them, now sitting in lounge chairs next to mine, look tired yet relaxed. I am envious of the pure, uncomplicated bond between them. Both of my grandfathers died long before I was born. I wish I had known them, since I see what my daughter gets from my father. It’s what I got from him, only more.

My father loved my company; that I knew. We were always playing something, usually cards or Ping Pong. The latter was my favorite, and I quickly learned how to return his cuts and spins. He’d praise my good shots, beam when I’d beat him, then boast about it to his friends.

“Nancy’ll spot you five points,” he’d say, or, “Nancy can beat you left handed,” without telling my opponent that I was a southpaw. My ability to handle his toughest shots away from the table, however, was a greater source of pride. We bantered easily, and I got big laughs for my retorts and one-liners, which he’d later repeat to my mother or his friends, laughing as he retold them.

Despite his message that I was a great pal, I sometimes felt pressured to keep up with him-to stay on his wavelength or to perform. For Emily, there are no expectations to act a certain way. She can just be.

That’s not to say he babies her just because she’s a child. Later this evening, around seven, after we’ve come back from an early-bird dinner, he will sit on the sofa and she will pull up a little yellow footstool to the cocktail table, just like I used to do, and they will play hand after hand of casino or rummy or “steal the old man’s bundle.” During these games, my father treats her the way he used to treat me: He doesn’t let her win; he insists that she try her best, stay focused, and yet have fun in the process. I’m not so sure I appreciated what he was doing way back then, but I certainly do now.

When they finish their games, they’ll probably do card tricks. Emily will practice the ones he has taught her. Then he’ll do new ones, and she’ll react to them with sheer amazement, as I once did.

It’s a real mutual-admiration society.

Yet like most grandparents, my father sometimes gets carried away. “I can’t believe she knows so much about cars,” he once told me. (I believe it, considering the number of television commercials she’s seen.) “She made breakfast all by herself,” he bragged to everyone at the pool a few years back. His cronies didn’t mind listening. They, too, had grandchildren who could make toast. And I certainly didn’t mind. He was instilling in my daughter the same kind of pride he had once instilled in me when he handed a Ping-Pong paddle to a potential opponent and said, “Nancy can beat you left-handed.”

My father, opening his eyes now from a little snooze, asks us the time. Emily immediately answers, “Time for the story about how you practiced for Cousin Herb.”

No, not again, I groan to myself. I have heard this story too many times when I was growing up, and in recent years with Emily. But as I glance over at my father-who is sitting up, fully awake and raring to go-and then at my daughter, who is eagerly waiting-I think, “Ah, yes, again.”

When my father was growing up,

`As I watch my father and Emily, a scene from a movie about the Kennedys flashes through my mind, a scene about love without expectations… “

he lived next door to his Cousin Herb. The two boys took violin lessons together, only Herb never quite caught on. Afraid to tell his mother, Herb talked my father into practicing for him. Every evening, my dad would climb out through his bedroom window and sneak into Herb’s room, where he would practice their lesson-for a quarter.

“Didn’t your parents know?” Emily asks.

“For a dime, I had my brother cover for me,” he tells her.

“What about Herb’s parents?” she responds.

“He had a brother too.”

“Didn’t you feel funny taking Herb’s quarters?”

“Never.”

Emily laughs. I do too. My father is grinning an enormous grin. He has always made a point of letting me- and, now, Emily-know his philosophy: As long as no one gets hurt and nobody’s doing anything immoral or illegal, it’s okay to bend the rules on occasion. In fact, it’s more than okay-it keeps one’s spirit alive (and years later, it makes for one heck of a story). Certainly Emily and I appreciate this aspect of my father’s nature,or we wouldn’t get such a kick out of hearing this story again and again and again.

A family of ducks in the lake beside the pool area catches Emily’s eye.She wants to go over there and take a closer look.”Wait,” says my father, getting out of his chair to walk with her.

My father isn’t really big on ducks, but his actions don’t surprise me. He wants to be with Emily and is catching up with her just as he used to come running after me-during my teenage years and even now,whenever I’m about to drive anywhere. He feels more than a little overprotective about letting her go off alone. I smile.

As I watch them, a scene from a television movie about the Kennedys flashes through my mind. John, just a teenager, is walking along the water’s edge with Grandpa Fitzgerald, to whom he is comfortably baring his soul-sharing his doubts, secret longings, conflicts, and fears-things he’d never tell his parents, who had such high aspirations for him. It was a touching scene. A memorable scene.Love without expectations-that’s what grandfathers give.

I think now of the thousands of times Emily has said “I love you” to my father at the end of their phone conversations and at bedtime when we visit. He melts when he hears these words, just as he did when she visited him in the hospital over a year ago after he’d had surgery. He was surly to my mother when she tried to feed him or talk to him. He behaved a little better for me, but when he saw Emily, his mood immediately changed. His entire face lit up.

Emily’s expression today when she reported that my father had swum eight lengths was not much different.

“Isn’t that just great?” she had said.

It’s more than just great. The two of them stand close together now, watching the ducks come back up to the shore… . It’s simple and special and pure. It’s the buddy system at its best.

Nancy Kelton is a frequent contributor to Parents.

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