I have one grandchild, Johnny.
Naturally (like all grandkids), he’s the cutest, the funniest, the sweetest. He’s a real chatterbox and will sit happily drawing and talking for hours at a time.
On the other hand, he’s almost five years old … and he likes to play. Sadly, I’m no longer that good at playing.
One day I was making cootie catchers with him. He had just learned about them, and we were on our third or fourth one. We were working diligently away, trying hard to think of funny fortunes to write under the flaps, when my daughter showed up. “Cootie catchers?” she said. “Can I make one, too? Remind me how, Johnny. … Oh, I have some really funny fortunes to write. Wait till you see!” He loved her fortunes, which were mostly about stepping in dog poop and burping on the bus.
They laughed and laughed. Then his uncle, my son, showed up. He picked Johnny up and threw him around for awhile, over his shoulder, upside down, and swung him between his legs. He sang him a funny song he’d made up. He said, “Let’s go play basketball at the playground!” I went with them, and sat on the bench, and watched.
I’m not fun. My back aches, so I can’t throw him over my shoulder. My shoulders ache, so I can’t swing him around and around. I’m not good at running, and I don’t know how to play basketball.
Even my brain isn’t that quick anymore. I forgot that stepping in dog poop is the funniest thing imaginable to a boy that age!
Furthermore, games of imagination to me are now like mazes: The path of the story now contains barriers that I can’t get around or break through. I used to be so good at making up stories when my own kids were little.
Now my mind is like a field that’s run out of nutrients. What were those stories I used to tell them? There was that character I made up, Mr. Rotten, and his gang of troublemakers — all of them driving red cars and demanding elaborate food delivered to them by Mr. Rotten’s long-suffering mother. Poor Mrs. Rotten! She had it bad. She had to lug the food up four flights of stairs to bring it to her rotten son and his nefarious gang.
My kids loved those stories, so I thought I would try and tell them to Johnny, too.
But I couldn’t remember the plotlines — it was like trying to trace a skyline that has disappeared in the fog.
I’m just older now, that’s all. A little slow, a little rusted. But still, I told myself, I am Johnny’s grandma. I want to be known even amidst the colorful whirl and swirl of his world.
What can I do so that one day he will remember me?
I got the idea when I was babysitting one night. We were doing the routine — bath, books, bed. After the bath we went in his room and closed the door. He picked a couple of books, and we sat in the big soft chair and read them. He was clean and relaxed and tired. We snuggled in the chair and talked about whichever book it was that we were reading.
In that half-lit velvet sliver of time between day and night it hit me: This is where I might leave an imprint on his fast-paced, busy little life.
The next day I wrote him a letter. I told him a story about when Tom the dog peed in the elevator on the way down from the fourth floor. I knew it was a topic that he would like and I wanted my first foray into our new relationship to be compelling. I illustrated the letter, to the best of my ability. Most important — I made myself a character in the story. I was the one who couldn’t find the paper towels. It was me with my hands on my head in horror as the elevator door closed to go back up.
It gave me a thrill to write Johnny’s name and address on the envelope and put it in the mailbox. It felt like a direct connection between us.
Several days went by. I didn’t ask — I didn’t want to appear pushy or desperate or needy. I know these are busy young people. But finally I couldn’t stand it. I asked my son, “Did Johnny get my letter?” He said, “Oh I don’t know! Sorry, Ma … We hardly ever check the mail. I’ll try to remember to check it when I come home tomorrow.”
Try to remember? The kids these days. But I guess no one actually does check their mail any more because really, why would they? I had to be patient. Three days later he texted me. “We got the letter!” he said. “We read it when it came and at bedtime I had to read it three more times in a row.”
How often do we get to feel successful, or even recognized in this world? Every year we become a little bit more invisible. But when I heard that Johnny and his father read my letter three times in that quiet pause before bed I felt, for a moment, as though I had stepped from the shadows into the light.
I write to Johnny regularly now. The other day we were at the playground. Johnny had been playing basketball with his uncle and his father and he was tired. He came and sat next to me to have a drink of water.
He turned to me. “Remember, Grammy?” he asked. “Remember the time that you were in the elevator with Tom, and he peed, and you couldn’t find the paper towels? And then the elevator doors closed, and it went back up?”
I said, “Oh man, do I ever.” He swung his little legs back and forth. ‘That was so funny,” he said. “It was so funny, when that happened.”