Over one summer, for three and sometimes four days a week, I looked after my then three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Mayana – pronounced My-Anna – while her mom was doing a yoga teacher’s course.
Mayana calls me “grandad.” She used to call me “grangrad,” which I found kind of cool, but I guess somewhere along the line I graduated to full-blown grandfather.
During my summer with Mayana, I was going to teach her a lot of things.
How to ride a bike.
How to sing Yellow Submarine.
How to say “please” and “thank you” and all that stuff we grownups find kind of important.
How to write her name.
How to have fun.
Instead, I think I learned more than her than she learned from me.
Mostly, how to slow down.
And not only smell the roses – but count them. And count them again. And again. And again.
How many red ones. And blue ones? And white ones? And do we prefer the white ones, or are the red ones prettier?
I also learned, for instance, that washing your car can be a far more memorable experience if you let your three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter hold the hose. The car didn’t get very wet, but we did.
That summer had been a pivotal and somewhat emotional time for me. After more than 45 years working as a journalist, I was leaving the daily grind of journalism. And heading to the dreaded r-word: retirement.
Some guys yearn for retirement. I had mixed feelings. Retirement meant all the clichés to me….a lack of purpose, doddering into a life of seniors’ specials and matinee movies, a world of baggy cardigans and pinochle or euchre, whatever they are. Someone told me I was old enough now to play pickleball, a kind of tennis for old people. I could still play tennis. Could still serve the occasional ace, and here I was already consigned to the shuffleboard of life.
I’m not sure how the idea of me looking after Mayana came up. I might have volunteered. Or, more likely, someone volunteered me. Amy, my eldest daughter and a single mother, said she had this intense yoga course to attend for the summer, and it would be tricky to have Mayana cared for.
And suddenly, it became patently obvious that everyone else was busy, and I had nothing useful to do.
Grandfathers stereotypically join in when the grandchild is about three years old, somewhere after toilet training and before kindergarten.
We’re good with balls – soccer balls, tennis balls, baseballs, footballs – but we are not naturals at grandfathering.
I think men are getting better than they ever did at parenting. My generation started to get into it big time, but my daughters’ generation is amazing. The dads do more cooking and washing and cleaning and parenting than any of their forbears. With most moms working full time, that’s as it should be. It’s a shared experience. And this is the 21st century.
But grandparenting? Our role models are now gone. So we kind of make it up as we go along.
In a youth-obsessed society, where every wrinkle is a badge of shame, being a grandparent isn’t exactly something you shout from the rooftops. “Hey grandpa” can be an insult in the workplace. It means, you’re past it, old timer. Go sit in your rocking chair.
Mick Jagger, wrinkles and all, is a great-grandfather.
Roger (I Hope I die Before I Get Old) Daltrey of The Who is a grandpa at least 10 times over.
Paul McCartney is a proud grandad, as is Ringo. McCartney also wrote a kids’ book Hey Grandude!. It’s a picture book in which the grandfather is, yes, a cool dude and goes on adventures with his grandkids.
Jim Carrey. Tom Hanks. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Kiefer Sutherland. Pierce Brosnan. Harrison Ford. All grandfathers. Donald Trump too. Nobody said they all had to be grandfather figures.
Daltrey has taken the grandfather role very seriously. He recorded a version of The Wheels on the Bus for two-to-four-year-olds. No guitars were smashed in the recording.
Bob Dylan has at least nine grandchildren and though nobody can understand a word he’s singing these days, he still manages to fill concert halls around the world. One of his grandsons, Pablo, is a rapper, and calls Dylan “the Jay-Z of his time,” which would mean something cool and hip and life affirming to every grandfather on the planet, if only we knew who Jay-Z is. Or could at least hum one of his songs.
The thing is, being a grandfather doesn’t mean acting like one in these boomer grandpa days.
We don’t have to do it like our grandfathers did it.
Few of us ever acted our age anyway. So why start now.
It started with a slow walk. The first day of the summer that I looked after Mayana began with what I expected would be a quick stroll to a small playground. It would normally take me five minutes at most to walk there.
This day it took us almost an hour.
We stopped to look at flowers. Then bees. Then butterflies. Then we blew dandelions. We picked buttercups. And looked at horses in a field. Then we patted a dog. And talked to the owner. And then we talked to the dog.
Mayana, on this first day of the rest of my life, taught me on our first full morning together to slow down. Not just slow down. But also come to a full stop. And sometimes, go backwards.
Until that week I had been running a turbulent, crazy TV newsroom in Vancouver. My life was organized chaos, particularly on days of big breaking news, when nobody had time to blink, let alone think.
One of my last jobs was to oversee our coverage of an election. I’d commissioned polling, argued with party officials about the format of the TV debates, pushed for us to get to the heart of the issues, gone through graphics and results systems and online coverage – and now here I was staring at a crack in the road.
“Why is the road broken?”
“It’s not broken, it’s just cracked a bit.”
“Will we fall in?”
“Well, no, it’s just a small crack.”
“Will it get bigger and bigger and then we’ll fall in?”
“I don’t think so.”
Stopping to smell the roses was out of the question. Today, I wasn’t only smelling them – in the neighbours’ front yards – I was also counting them, testing Mayana on the various colours (her favourite is purple) and spotting as many bees as we could.
“They won’t hurt us, grandad. The bees are friendly if you don’t hurt them.” She’d learned that much. Do you know why they’re buzzing around the flowers? I asked her. She didn’t, and frankly, I didn’t know much more since I was never a gardener nor paid much attention in biology classes, but I kind of stumbled through a hazy description of what bees do with pollen and how they make honey and also that, in this particular society, the Queen Bee rules. Kind of like at our house, I said.
You’d have thought running newsrooms – newspaper and broadcast – would have been perfect training for looking after a grandchild. I always likened my job to that of a kindergarten teacher. There were certainly tantrums and tears. And bruised egos rather than bruised knees.
I joked, when I was in the news world, that I learned more from Robert Fulghum than all the management courses I went on over the years. Fulghum wrote the delightful book All I Really Know I Learned from Kindergarten. Fulghum, the essayist and former Unitarian minister, had a huge bestseller in the 1980s. It should be republished for a new generation.
Some of the advice?
- Share everything.
- Don’t hit people.
- Live a balanced life –
- Learn some and think some
- Hold hands and stick together.
- Be aware of wonder.
“Grandad, what’s that pink flower called?”
I had absolutely no idea.
“A geranium,” I said. “Or a chrysanthemum, maybe?”
“Something like that. Or maybe a daisy.”
We counted more than 50 butterflies on our walk, most of them white, a couple of them more colourful. We watched them land on the flowers and then flutter off in search of more adventure. I honestly hadn’t realized there were so many butterflies in our street. I guess I had failed to look properly. My head was usually full of other stuff.
Mayana decided she’d prefer to be a butterfly than a bee. She didn’t want people to be scared of her. “Everyone loves butterflies. And they can fly so high. Look, grandad, that one’s higher than that big tree.”
Then she held my hand. “What do you want to be, Grandad?”
It was a good question. Until that moment I’d been somewhat confused about who I was after leaving the newsroom. It defined me. I loved being in the middle of all the noise, in the middle of a vital, relevant world, and I was trying to come to terms with what and who I now was. I never really wanted to be “retired” and snapped at anyone who even suggested I was now in retirement.
But right then, right at that very moment, while the world slowed to a perfect stop, while my granddaughter clung onto my hand and looked up at me with large, brown innocent eyes, I knew one of the things that I what I wanted to be.
A grandfather might be a cool thing after all.
More on Grandfathered: Dispatches from the Trenches of Modern Grandparenthood by Ian Haysom
The unexpected challenges and joys of being a grandfather are the focus of a new book by acclaimed journalist and former news director Ian Haysom.
Grandfathered: Dispatches from the Trenches of Modern Grandparenthood, releasing this week from Heritage House, offers a lighthearted look at the insights Haysom gained while making the shift from family breadwinner to hesitant retiree and caregiver to young grandchildren.
A father of four and grandfather of four, Haysom says the book grew out of his journey through grandfatherhood over the past ten years, “from baby steps (theirs and mine) to a kind of grandfatherly maturity.”
“After I left full-time journalism, I looked after my three-year-old granddaughter for a summer. She learned some stuff, but I learned much more. So I decided to write it down,” Haysom says.
As more grandkids arrived, the writing continued. The result, he says, is a humorous book about being a babyboomer granddad in the 21st century. “It’s an entertaining read for all grandparents and their kids, funny, but with insights—think Bill Bryson with arthritis.”
A key theme of the book is how the boomer generation is transforming the grandparenting experience.
“The stereotype of the kindly old grandfather who spends much of his retirement sitting in a rocking chair has been replaced by a generation of boomer grandpas who never really grew up and who still like to rock and roll and be relevant participants in the world,” Haysom says.
“Most are in denial at the start, but they gradually learn how engaging, and important, the role really is.”
Other topics covered include coming to terms with getting older, how grandfathering differs from being a father, common mistakes granddads make, remembering our grandparents, funny conversations with grandchildren, and grandparenting in a blended and mixed-race extended family.
Haysom notes that while family roles and patterns are constantly evolving, there are some things that remain timeless.
“We are not our grandfathers—we are very much a new breed. But there is one common thread. We’re
proud to be grandpas and granddads, and we like to tell stories—to our grandkids, and about them.”
Ian Haysom has been a reporter, feature writer, music writer, film critic, correspondent, city editor, and columnist. He was editor-in-chief of two of Canada’s largest newspapers, the Vancouver Province and the Vancouver Sun. Later, he moved to television as the news director for BCTV News, Global News in Vancouver, and CHEK News in Victoria. He lives with his wife, Beth, near Victoria, BC, where he continues to write and work as a news consultant.