My granddaughter Perry graduated from high school in June. It was a wonderful event on a beautiful day and she made us proud by winning a prize for her work in the social sciences. What made that event extra special was that she has lived with us for all of her 18 years, and this event was her first step toward leaving the family, going off to college.
Perry’s mother had died of a pulmonary embolism a day after her Perry’s birth in California where my son Peter was trying to make a career as a screen writer, a hard way to make a living. There seemed nothing else to do than to bring them home. Some six million grandparents help raise grandchildren, so there was nothing new to that.
But it was new to us, who had thought our nest had emptied years earlier. Now it was parenthood all over again–starting at age 63 for my wife and 66 for me. Dr. Spock’s book, our bible for raising our own children decades earlier, did not have a chapter on that. As it happened, incidentally, my wife, Sidney, had published a book in 1992 called Parents Forever. The first sentence in the book was “They never told us it would go on for so long.” But her book focused on young adults not one’s middle-age children or raising babies again in one’s old age. No one ever mentioned that possibility and I don’t think my wife or I ever thought of such a thing happening.
Peter and I both immediately pitched in but it soon became obvious that Sidney would be the surrogate mother, all the more so since Perry was a girl. Sidney had to give up her teaching to do that, but it was evident this would be no simple babysitting chore. Newborn babies, we found out again, take time and trouble. They live by a different clock, and demand as much care at night as during the day, noisily making their needs known. In many ways though, if it was hectic and tiring at times, it was also an adventure. Many of Peter’s high school and other friends turned up to comfort Peter and to see the new baby.
As time went on, Perry passed through that stage of life and a new division of labor was worked out. Sidney read books by the hour to her, I took her to playgrounds and pushed swings, Peter did the laundry and school visits. Eventually, the teenage years came and with them some familiar struggles. Perry would watch TV late at night and be hard to wake up the next day. When I berated her about that, she said something like, “Why don’t you let me alone and have my own life.” At another point she berated me for the parental crime of greeting her on the street when she was walking with her friends. A few years later—without, of course, telling Peter or us—she got a small nose ring, having earlier had each ear pierced in two places to accommodate an upper and lower ring.
But as we had learned earlier in the horrible 1970s with our children that nose and double ear rings are the least of the dangers teenager face and not worth the hassle to complain about. We also knew from seeing our children reach their 30s and wear their hair shorter and neater that Perry’s nose ring will eventually disappear. Her double earrings are already gone. Some of our five boys later had the opposite kind of hair problem from the one of their youth: they started getting bald. That was as much a shock to us as to them. Didn’t they understand that we were too young to have middle-aged balding children?
High school eventually came. We found, however, that teenagerdom had changed from what we knew earlier. Our town is small, with 8,000 people and not much over a mile long. Save for the youngest elementary school children all others walked. Much to our surprise, none of our children asked at age 16 to drive; and that was true of many of their friends; they waited until their early 20s. Not Perry or her friends. They couldn’t wait. In the earlier years there were few cars parked around the high school. Now there are dozens. Walking seems a thing of the past. Our children also never went out regularly with their friends to dinner at the better restaurants. Kids then just didn’t do that. Whoever coined the word affluenza got it right.
Soon the days of visiting colleges and filing out numerous applications came. Tuitions these days are a shock, particularly for private colleges, which is what she had in mind. Perry made clear that she did not want a small liberal arts school and she chose not to have any SAT tutoring. She wanted a large school in a large city, and was pleased when Boston University, exactly fitting her model, offered her an early admission.
Our second turn at parenthood has all but come to an end, and I think we will feel the change. Peter will miss her and so will we. It is wonderful having young people about. Sometimes they make one feel old, and sometimes young. Their energy and vitality is infectious—at least in our mind if not in our bodies.
Daniel Callahan, 84, co-founder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, is an editor of Over 65.