“You know it feels like I’ve been in Florida for only three days, not a week. But when I think back to when Grandma met me at the airport, that seems like a long time ago,” Jules said to me on the phone.
“Well, you’ve packed in a ton into one week,” I told him and, thanks to the grandparents, he really had. On the Whoopsie Piggle Facebook page, the family photo shows Jules looking at the camera through binoculars. His Grandma Ann gave him those binoculars at Christmas because, like her, Jules is an avid birder. In our yard, Jules maintains multiple feeders, each designed to attract different species of birds. Last fall, Jules helped to pay for the purchase of a serviceberry bush after angling for one all summer. Do you know how many birds are attracted to the serviceberry bush? Was the rhetorical opener we heard repeatedly and just prior to a litany of species. Jules has worked his way through innumerable bird guidebooks, which he reads like gripping novels. He prefers the drawings of Roger Tory Peterson to those of James Audubon and can tell you the migratory, mating and dietary cycles of more species of birds than you might have known existed. And he does. Tell us, that is. Endlessly.
Ah, the great goodness of good grandparents.
At The Villages, where Max’s mother and her husband, Clark, winter each year, a population of “active seniors” eagerly awaited the arrival of this young birder. The residents delighted in showing Jules birds he had never before seen and were impressed by his knowledge, both wide and deep, of the avian class, among other things (last summer, Jules’ other grandfather nicknamed him “Encyclopedia”). After six days in Florida, Jules told me he had seen 83 species of birds, 80% for the first time. He saw them around The Villages, on a day trip to the Gulf Coast and also on a two-day trip to the Atlantic Coast and Merritt Island.
Thinking about it after I hung up the phone, it reminded me of my time with my grandparents who retired to Arizona in 1973. Like Jules, I had been a child from Ohio flown to a state that was exotically different. My grandparents also packed up and traveled the state with me, though they brought along a fifteen-foot Aristocrat trailer. Over the period of three summers, we traveled through Cochise County in the southeastern corner of the state all the way north to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. Like Jules, when visiting my grandparents, the dramatic landscape and its creatures transfixed me. I took many photos of mountains and lizards and saguaro cacti, but woefully few photos of my grandparents. I have none of the three of us together. The next time Jules called, I told him to get photos with his grandparents, even if he had to ask a waiter.
For Jules, a week alone with his grandparents is a week in which he does not have to be one of five children. He is the sole focus of two adults and their community who, by all accounts, are having as much fun with him as he is being there. At home, Jules is a mini-me. After nearly a decade of being the youngest child in the family, he transitioned easily into role of big brother. When I tell people that Jules makes my life easier, it is no exaggeration. All three of the older boys are wonderful with three-year-old Leif and baby Lyra, I could not imagine they’d be any more loving and helpful were they three older daughters. Jules, however, is uniquely able to play like a child with Leif because Jules still is a child. Yet, at twelve, he has a foot in adolescence. Which shows when he helps with Leif and Lyra; regularly doing things like getting them food and drink, changing their diapers, bathing and dressing them, putting them to bed and plucking them from their cribs when they wake up. He does so without prodding, often taking Lyra from my arms whether I need him to or not.
In my girlhood visits to Arizona, I too soaked up the attention of my grandparents and their friends. However, for practical purposes, I was an only child. I did not see my father between the ages of five and fifteen and my only siblings are the two daughters he had in his second marriage. One of the most positive components of my mother’s parenting was her neglect, which, thankfully, was also her default setting. Her attentions were rarely positive and commonly violent, so neglect was preferable. For many years, she left for work as a bar maid within an hour after I came home from school. My stepfather, who sold farm machinery in multi-state territories, was rarely home on weekdays. Most afternoons, I ate my dinner and did my homework in front of the kitchen TV, washed the dishes, watched more TV, took a bath and read in bed until I fell asleep.
In Arizona, my grandparents planned their days around me. Oh, sure, we still went to their events, such as botanical society meetings or church outings, but even when there wasn’t much for me to do but sit and wait, I didn’t mind because I felt included, just as Jules did in Florida. This hit home when Jules told me Grandma and Grandpa taught me a new card game, I don’t know what it’s called, but we’ve been playing at night. I remember sitting at a card table my grandparents’ living room playing a game that required four decks of cards. Their wirehaired terrier, George, would hang out under the table, ready for someone’s hand to drop and scratch his ears. Night after night, once the dinner dishes were washed, my grandparents had no other desire than to spend time playing cards with me. These little things, in no small measure, buffered me through the years with my mother.
Who Are These People?
My grandparents in Arizona were my father’s parents. Even though my mother aggressively forbade any communication with my father for over a decade, her parenting default setting made summers with his parents possible. For the price of a plane ticket, she was childfree for three months. And I had three months to sample childhood.
My boys don’t have a relationship with any of their biological grandparents. With my mother, it’s a generational mirror. My adult relationship with her has consisted of long gaps of estrangement punctuated by brief periods of reconciliation in which I would cautiously hope she had changed only to find out all to clearly that she had not. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that there is absolutely no healthy reason for me to ever communicate with my mother again. My boys, who have their own stories to tell from their few interactions with her, have no desire to see her either. This week on Slate, I read an article validating our choices.
The boys never hear from their father’s father, a widower who lives in Mexico.
None of the grandparents in our family are blood relatives except for Max’s mom. And she is not related to the three older boys. At Thanksgiving, I posted about spending yet another warm holiday with the boys’ grandparents, i.e., my stepmother and her husband, who is not my father. After divorcing my father, Liane married Bob a couple of months after Claude was born. Together, they have been the primary grandparents of my boys’ lives and now are significant to Leif and Lyra, too.
I wasn’t thinking of what kind of father Max would be when I fell in love with him. But knowing him as I did, for we had been friends for years before we became a couple, I would not have been surprised to learn that he would be devoted to his children. That he is equally as devoted to my three sons defies typical expectation. In terms of Darwinian fitness, i.e., survival of one’s own packet of genetics as the species continues, a child from another man is competition for the resources of his own children. But Max is not a base animal. He’s not even a base human. He loves and tends to Claude, Hugo and Jules just as he does Leif and Lyra.
As the old Ronco ads used to say, But wait! There’s more! Max also brought my boys a set of grandparents who are so good at it, I suspect they’ve been preparing for it all life long. And not just for the fun stuff. Last summer, when Claude had to go to orientation at the University of Michigan, he took a bus from Charlevoix, Michigan, where he was living with Grandma Liane and Grandpa Bob while working for the city streets department, to Battle Creek, where Ann and Clark live nine months of the year. Max’s mom was out of town, visiting relatives in Colorado. So it was my partner’s mother’s husband, known around here as Grandpa Clark, who spent the evening with Claude and then drove him first thing the next morning to Ann Arbor.
This Is Whoopsie Piggle
We’ve piggled ourselves up a family and it is good. Sure, there are times when I wish Max and I had met and fallen in love in our late 20s, that we had been together through our 30s and not had to wait until our 40s to create this family. But the longer we are together and the more normalized this family becomes, the less I pine for the decade when we weren’t raising these kids together. The way the boys love Max is as open as the way he loves them. Claude calls Max to discuss assignments he’s working on and when he comes home, the two of them go out for dinner together at least once.
“Hey, I hear you’re my mom’s boyfriend,” said 11-year-old Hugo in September of 2008, “Can I have twenty bucks?” Max told him no, but was not offended, and we still laugh about it today. Soon thereafter, Hugo turned to Max for help with his homework, advice on how to handle social issues at school and just to talk. Before Max, I was unaware of the void in the boys’ lives, one I had not been able to fill. Yes, I could show them how to be adults, but they also wanted to be parented by a man.
A few months after we had informed the boys that we were dating, Max joined us at a school event. When we left, Jules decided to ride with Max. As Claude and I watched from my car, Jules first got in the back seat of Max’s car. Then he popped back out. With his arms and legs moving in all directions, Jules looked like a gangly scarecrow as he scrambled into the front seat. “Jules likes Max,” said Claude. “We all do. He’s…well, he’s just so humble.”
There are some who believe that before they are born, children choose their parents. I have a hard time reconciling that idea with the parents I have. I do not believe biology trumps love. Being related is not reason enough to have a relationship with someone who is cruel or neglectful. Whoopsie Piggle is about a group people who actively love each other—all the time, not just when it’s convenient. Or in the booty-shaking words of Sister Sledge, “We are family.”