The dilemmas of the long-distant grandparent

A dedicated grandmother has learned how to turn the miles into smiles.

grandkids metro 88 298 (photo credit: )
grandkids metro 88 298
(photo credit: )
While many grandparents are filling their diaries with holiday activities for their locally based grandchildren, some head to Ben-Gurion airport to greet families from abroad or fly to foreign shores to visit relatives for the summer. They are different ball games: We may spend many days ferrying our Israeli grandkids between museums, leisure centers and monkey parks, but at the end of the day (or two) we take them home to their parents and stagger home for a long shower and a rest. Long-distance grandparenting is an intensive experience. Not wanting to miss a moment of contact because of the long wait until the next visit makes it easy to fall into one of the many traps that can spoil some of that time together. Hosting house guests for any length of time can cause tensions. Knowing that this visit is precious may cause extra strain. That's why it is worthwhile for hosts and guests to discuss expectations so they know each other's limitations. If the family is coming to Israel, ask for an itinerary. Grandparents have lives of their own. Some are still working, and it is important to know visiting relatives' plans. The biggest mistake is expecting them to spend every moment under your roof. There are often two families of grandparents involved, and the visit should not turn into a fight over who sees the kids the most. Visitors may want some leisure time to see old friends and colleagues or do some sightseeing. Maybe they want to leave the kids with you and go away for a few days or spend an evening at a restaurant. Having an itinerary - however provisional - also makes it easier to arrange family reunions, getting all the children and grandchildren together for picnics or weekends. Each summer we book family rooms for a weekend in a Galilee kibbutz or by the Kinneret for us, our four children and their families. We need to book early, so before Pessah I ask our son living in the US to give us their dates. This is a wonderful opportunity for our family to have quality time together. Because the family meets regularly, there's chemistry between the grandchildren according to their ages and personalities, so the weekend is a highlight in the interaction among them. Preparation for the visit is all-important because not only will an entire family be staying in your spare room, but other siblings and their children will also be dropping by. I remember difficult visits to my own in-laws because the house was ill equipped for children, and we had to take everything with us - a project that took hours of preparation and packing - just for a weekend visit. When our own first grandchild was born, I equipped one room with baby furniture, accessories, some spare clothes, toys and toiletries so that our children could drop by any time without quantities of bags. When long-distance family stay for a period, some flexibility is needed because Israeli homes are not that spacious. If there are two bathrooms, give one exclusively to the visitors, buy a jumbo pack of toilet paper, and keep the bathroom equipped with plenty of towels and toiletries. In the bedroom, clear the closets and drawers so your guests will not be living out of suitcases. Restock the toys and games cupboard. The kids are growing; and while Thomas the Train might still amuse the little ones, the older children will be exploring new and more complicated games. If they read Hebrew, take them to the bookshop to choose some bedtime reading and buy or borrow some new computer games and DVDs. There will be times when they come home after a long day trip and just want to shower and chill out. One doesn't want to waste this precious visit in the kitchen, so stock up on their favorite dishes. Tastes change, so check on this before they arrive. Give them freedom of the kitchen. Your own child and in-law are familiar with your kitchen, but show the grandchildren where everything is. Grandparents with a garden or an open balcony can offer outdoor meals and activities. Reasonably priced paddling pools, trampolines and yard games make those stay-at-home days more enjoyable and relaxing. Also, check the papers for age-appropriate activities so the holiday is stimulating for the children. Yes, the house does get messy. There's sand in the beds, nothing is in its place and the washing machine may grind to a halt - but just remember how much you miss them when they go away, and keep smiling. If the hugs at the airport on departure are as warm as those on arrival, you've succeeded. A visit in the opposite direction should be planned just as thoroughly. You may be going for a specific purpose, such as to help working parents during the holidays or to celebrate a family milestone. It's not a vacation in the true sense of the word, as one takes over the laundry, shopping and cooking, but it's still an opportunity to explore new places. There are long weekends for sightseeing with the family, and everyone can organize a trip together to another city or resort. If the visit is long, there is no reason not to take a few days away from the family doing some activity more appropriate for your age than theirs. Don't feel guilty if you are not with them all the time. If a small grandson complains, "Why do you want to go into Manhattan, anyway?" suggest that he accompany you to the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim. He will probably prefer to stay home with his computer game. But the kids will appreciate it if you take them to Manhattan for the sole purpose of the FAO Schwarz toy store experience or going to the playground in Central Park or the Bronx Zoo. It is worth using maps, guidebooks and Internet sources to make some leisure plans for the grandchildren even before you travel. I have discovered aquaria, a skating rink and other leisure spots out of the city nearer their upstate home by searching websites. "Don't let Savta near Barnes and Noble" (the irresistible chain of bookshops), warns the older grandson. "You'll never get her out of there." But I discovered that they keep happily occupied if I sit them down in the children's section to browse and explore and eventually choose something to buy. When my son and his family first moved to the US and lived in Seattle, I went to help them start the school year. With English as a foreign language, we looked for suitable books that were simple to read. While the 10-year-old soon got through the entire Harry Potter series, the first-grader was hooked on Curious George. It is particularly satisfying to visit grandchildren abroad when we make life easier for them. My daughter-in-law's comment: "What would we have done without you!" made it all worthwhile. Not all families can offer comfortable accommodation or sufficient privacy. In some cases, grandparents cannot take the fast pace of their children's home and long for quiet early in the morning or at the end of a long day. If one plans sufficiently ahead, it is possible for the hosts to find an empty apartment in the neighborhood or house-sit for a friend who will be on vacation at that time. This is particularly important when visiting to help with a new baby in the family. Mothering the new mother is one of grandparents' most significant tasks. When the soup is simmering, the fridge is full and the baby has been rocked to sleep, it can be a blissful rest for everyone if the grandparents have alternative accommodation nearby. Parting is always sweet sorrow, and if the visits are not very frequent be prepared for tears and strange behavior, particularly from the kids. Sitting at breakfast one morning on my first visit to Seattle, it was mentioned that I was leaving in two days. From that moment, the first-grader wouldn't talk to me and threw all his clothing out of his closet after we had sorted his laundry together. He was angry with me for leaving, and his parents were mad at him for behaving like that. We talked it through and cried a lot, and by the time I left we were doing fine. There were a lot of tears at the end of the early visits but now, after three years, the kids have got used to the routine, and the time between reunions does not seem so endless to them. Whatever direction the visit, it's not easy to be tactful or well behaved all the time - neither for children nor adults. But there are some no-go areas that should be avoided, such as "Aren't the kids messy eaters! Why don't you do something about it?" and more profound issues such as "What are you doing there, anyway? When are you coming back to Israel?" or "We're not getting any younger and will not always be able to travel/have you all to stay." Don't go down that road. Steer clear of criticizing or trying to control their lives, and make the visit as happy and relaxed as possible. The sign of a successful visit is that everyone is looking forward to the next one.