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Grandfather Shakes Image, Finds Peace

December 31, 1987

I gave up making New Year's resolutions a long time ago, but I made one this year that I hope I can keep. I've resolved to try to be comfortable with the grandfather I am.

A lot of years ago when my own children were young, I read a piece in the old Saturday Evening Post about Walt Disney. It was written by his daughter, and the thesis of the article was what a fine model he served as the grandfather of her children. I remember thinking then that I hoped someday my children would see me in the same light, as a grandfather in the Walt Disney mold. Warm. Wise. Permissive in a highly principled sort of way. An island of strength and stability, ready always with the right kind of advice when it was sought--but only when it was sought.

One of my more pervasive pictures was sitting on the bank of a stream with my grandson. Our fishing lines bobbed in the water while we talked deeply about important things. He would ask questions, secure in the knowledge that I would always protect his confidence. And I would respond in such a way that he would still have to find the answers for himself but would have guidance and perspective in that journey. He would be interested in exploring my past and learning from it, and I would tell him little stories that he could flash on years later and know just what to do when he found himself in crisis.

I carried this fantasy around in my head through my children's adolescence and marriages, not all of them successful. I now have three grandchildren, and I've just returned from spending a week with two of them. The fantasy is gone. In its place is a mixture of reality, guilt and relief at no longer having to support the fantasy. Just for starters, I can now acknowledge that fishing bores me out of my skull, and as far as I know, my grandsons have no interest in it either. If they ever develop any, it won't be through me.

The other fantasies die a little harder.

Take wisdom, for example. What I've discovered as I grow older is that I'm very sure about less and less. This may be the zenith of wisdom, but it doesn't play very well with little kids who want answers more than they want philosophy. Should I hit that kid who is 20 pounds heavier and keeps kicking over my bicycle or shouldn't I? Is a blunt instrument OK if he's bigger? Why are piano lessons good for me? That sort of thing.

The either/or approach or shades of gray don't mean much to little kids, and it's where I'm living increasingly the older I get. It's not a great place for communication with small creatures who generally live by fairly primitive rules. That doesn't make them bad kids. Just kids. And it's why I've looked for--and found--substitutes for that scene on the riverbank.

My oldest grandson and I go to the University of Colorado football stadium whenever I visit his home in Boulder. We have a hole in the fence we can squeeze through if the gate is locked, and we take various kinds of balls and cavort in the vast, empty stadium. I can hear crowds in the stands and the thud of bodies. I don't know what his fantasy is, but it works for both of us. So far, we haven't sat in the stands while I dispensed wisdom.

The fact is, I don't know whether my grandson should hit that big kid or not. The bully might be startled by a show of strength and leave my grandson alone after that. Or he might beat him up and then hit on him daily until my grandson gets big enough to take him on. Or he might tire of the game and look for someone else to tyrannize. There's no matter of principle involved, just survival. But how do you say that to a little kid and still sound like Walt Disney?

Same thing with guilt. I picture Old Grandpa Walt playing endlessly with his grandchildren until he carries them, exhausted, up to bed. But with my grandchildren, I'm the one who gets exhausted. After so many games that require me to flick a spinner and move blocks or pegs or cardboard figures of whatever around a board, I start looking for adult company or sneaking glances at bad television--and feeling guilty as hell. Grandfathers shouldn't feel this way. Surely Walt never did.

But slowly, I'm beginning to make peace with whatever grandfather I am--and that's what brings the relief. Trying to live up to a fantasy is both mentally and physically tiring. Allowing your frailties--damn Walt Disney and full speed ahead--is by contrast an immense relief.

These difficulties are, of course, solely mine. My grandchildren seem to love me however I present myself to them, and I love them back with the kind of freedom available only to grandparents. Why shouldn't I, since they are the brightest, warmest, most delightful little kids I've ever come across.

They don't care about my New Year's resolution, but I do. If I can stick to it, maybe they'll listen to my war stories when they get older.

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