By Gregory Keer
One of my favorite Bill Withers songs, aside from “Lean on Me,” is the sad and celebratory “Grandma’s Hands.” In it, Withers’ soulful and blue voice sings of his grandmother, who helped watch over him and supported him with her hands of experience.
Two years ago, I lost Grandma Betty, who died at the age of 92. She, too, had healing hands. One of my most treasured memories of her is the way she used to fill up with pride upon seeing me, then pull my face to hers with both hands and say, “Gregg, Gregg, Gregg.” I’m still not sure why I deserved all that validation and, frankly, I don’t think she would want me to think about it. It just was.
While I was blessed with 42 years of having her as a grandma, my own children had the good fortune of knowing her, too. My oldest son, Benjamin, has fond memories of visiting my grandparents in Chicago, eating Grandma Betty’s rice pudding, then having a snowball fight outside their apartment. And when my Grandpa Phil’s health necessitated that they move near us, all three of my boys got the chance to have their paternal great grandparents around.
Grandpa Phil, who came to this country as a little boy from Russia, reveled in the unbridled playfulness of his great grandsons. He was particularly tickled by my middle son’s name, Jacob, which was Grandpa Phil’s father’s name.
My dad’s parents have not been the only ones to favor my children with their love and wisdom. My maternal grandmother is now of an age she would prefer I not reveal, but she is alive, kicking, and a real presence in my sons’ world. Grandma Jenny regales my boys with her angelic lullabies and abundant spaghetti with meatballs. Despite a debilitating back condition, she even manages to play cars and trains with little Ari.
Grandma Jenny also likes to tell my sons stories about me, such as the time I stole salami from my parents when I was two and the evenings I would work on school projects with my beloved Grandpa Al, who died before my kids were born. The tales that used to embarrass me when I was a teenager now serve as glue for my relationship with Grandma Jenny. Occasionally, she calls to praise me for my own stories, the ones I write about my kids in these columns. She might be too easily impressed, but the stories remind her of the mutual good fortune that she is an active participant in my boys’ lives where most children are lucky to have any sort of grandparent.
The value of my sons sharing time with three great-grandparents is immeasurable. My kids see these elderly people as vital and relevant. They’ve played cards with them, eaten with them, hugged and kissed them. I hope and expect that they will always treat those much, much older than them with respect because they have had great grandparents.
Because of their relationships with them, my boys have also learned difficult but important lessons about death. When Grandpa Phil passed on five years ago, Benjamin and Jacob were sad but still foggy about the whole thing. They had many questions about bones in a cemetery and heaven, which my wife and I did our best to explain.
After Grandma Betty’s passing, following an awful illness that emotionally drained the whole family, Wendy and I decided to have the older boys, Benjamin (10) and Jacob (7), attend the funeral. It was hard for them, and they cried a lot, mostly because they saw their parents and grandparents weeping. But it was a good thing, I believe, for them to see that Grandma Betty’s caring hands still reach out to all of us.
With Grandma Jenny thankfully still with us to sing and tell stories, and the memories of Grandparents Betty and Phil forever strong, I am grateful to all of them for giving my children a sense of heritage and an appreciation for the vitality of old age.