Juju has been teaching Xi how to yo-yo. He brought over this lovely classic orange Duncan butterfly — straight out of the 80s — and told the girls he wanted them to be able play with it if they liked. As he came into the house, we was winding up the cord and explaining his intention to Xi, Echo, and me. Then he started to slip the loop at the end of the cord over his classic (though perhaps more precisely manicured) grandfather index finger, and I thought, “Oh cool. He’s actually going to try it out to give the girls the idea…”.
Then he whips a flaming orange blur into action, slinging it quick and languidly out from his hand and effortlessly receiving it back. And then he did it again. And again. Like some sort of yo-yo wizard, he’s mystifying all three of us as we stand motionless before his one-armed jive. We began to guffaw our “ooh”s and “aahh”s and Juju started disclaiming his prowess, but we weren’t fooled and didn’t bother to pull the stars from our eyes…
Pretty quickly, Xi was asking for pointers and Juju was slipping the loop over her finger and explaining the basics of the initial sling, bounce, and retrieve. She worked with it some, but teeth-brushing was already afoot and bedtime stories were pending, so it was only the barest foray into this new world of single-appendage gymnastics. Juju swore to impart some of his yo-slinging wisdom to her at their next earliest convenience.
A day or so later, we were all outside. Xi suddenly remembered the promise of secret yo-yo knowledge and ran to get the magical orange device. She began practicing as Juju had showed her, but it wasn’t more than a minute and a half, maybe three sling-miss-and-rewinds, before Juju was tapping her shoulder to “cut in”. He slid the loop over his knuckle and whipped into action yet again. He showed us how to make the yo-yo “sleep”, and go “around the world”; then settled into instructing Xi’s more remedial attempts, coaching her kindly and gently, encouraging her, and then celebrating with her when she caught it the first time.
I stood transfixed in the courtyard watching them both while a funny feeling was yanked up into my chest. I am often suddenly aware of the quality of a moment as the type that my child(ren) will “always remember”, just like the murky overbright moments I still carry from my own growing-up; and this was one of those. Xi was having a moment with her grandfather that she will likely always remember, and the richness of that was palpable ten feet away. But more than that. I wasn’t just moved at the likelihood of Xideka being moved. That feeling in my chest was being pulled up from deeper than just the shared instant I was witnessing.
As the statue of me with hand on heart stared on unblinkingly, I was transported backward in time to a similar height and age as Xi. I was with my grandfather, always austerely referred to as “Grandfather”, but always warm and tender enough with me to belie the title. He was showing me a thousand things. His immaculately ordered tool closet in the garage; the “nothing grinder” on the coffee table next to his arm chair; how to pet the West Highland Terrier I called “Noony” (but who preferred “Wendy”); how to plant a tomato start; how to spit a water melon seed; how to make a ring from his nightly cigar wrapper; the MGB he was refurbishing; the correct diagonal to invisibly mow his carpet-lawn; the perfect boat acceleration and nautical speed for waterskiing; how to get “misty-eyed” with dignity on a Christmas morning; how to choose a CB-handle with style (though I still don’t know why he picked “Star-Gazer” since I never once saw him telescoping anything, let alone the night sky…); how to make a windmill from a splayed aluminum can; and how to sling a yo-yo, as well.
And I remember thinking at the time how lucky I was to get to live near my grandparents. My cousins who were, I’m sure, no less loved then I was, got, in my estimation, a whole lot less of the love from our grandparents than I did. And even in my uncontemplated youth I figured that this was mostly because I lived in the same town, while the cousins were several hours away. I was thankful for that then, and have remained so my whole life. And yet, I’m the same guy who moved 2200 miles away from my parents before I started having kids…
One thing has (as it always does) led to another. I helped to make one lovely child in Montana and shortly thereafter got divorced from her mother. Then I helped make another lovely child “out of wedlock” and was immediately in a second co-parenting relationship. So whatever hope I might have eventually formulated of removing my family to a closer proximity to more family (that is, my children’s grandparents) was fairly dashed right out of the proverbial gate. Then, because I was processing and piloting my own return to Natural Parenting, I (perhaps too long) underestimated the value of being nearer my parents. Until now, really.
It wasn’t a complete, out-of-the-blue thunder strike. I didn’t suddenly wake up in Juju and Bonnie’s compound courtyard realizing the “error of my ways”, or the immense, untempered value of loving grandparents. It’s certainly been a continental drift gestalt in my mind and heart over the years, slowly ushering me toward this pointed instant. But the effect was a culminating crash to say the least — I was thunderstruck. I couldn’t quite calibrate the potent understanding landing with each downward dive of the yo-yo that Juju and Xi were enjoying. Right before it settled in me, it would be yanked back into a nebulous ineffable knowinglessness — a wry wondering want for something I couldn’t quite define. Until I did.
It is this. This, this, and this. It is the natural call from under the primal skin of my parenthood. It is the heartbeat of the long lost village in all of us. It is the nurturing truth of our nature. We are family beasts. For our own health and wellbeing and for the same for our young — we need our families, we need our communities, we need our tribes. That’s what makes us the best of who we are or can be. That’s what makes us us.
And for the first time in my life, I know with all of my being — this is what I want. For my family and for myself, I want my kids surrounded — girded on all sides — by their loving, attentive, deliciously doting elders. I want them buoyed up by that extra connection. I want them enriched by that extra experience. I want them held close by that many more extra arms and hearts. I want them to have it even better than I did. And I want them to have it now.
I can’t say what any other parent should do if finding him- or herself in such a position. I don’t know if every family can reap the loving benefits of proximity without suffering too much from the vacuum of their own childhoods and/or their understandings about child-rearing. For a lot of families, the divide between what our parents and grandparents experienced of raising kids and what we want our children to experience in being raised is too wide a chasm to broach. For some, the very idea of having our parents even near our kids is upsetting. But for any of us who can make peace with our forbearers, and/or get them to make peace with how we’re doing parenting, it is a no-brainer. For those of us who can — we would do best by ourselves and our children to bring our prodigal families home.
In our family, we’ve now made it part of our year to come here to Santa Cruz (where Natalie grew up and where almost all of her family still lives) for a few months of each winter. We weren’t sure how it would work and we didn’t know exactly how to make it happen — but we did, and it is. And standing here, watching the orange blur of memories being formed in my daughters’ minds, and feeling the warm fullness of their hearts, I know the value of what I am witnessing. I know the value of my village.
And, now, however absurd all of us might think it would be, I want nothing more than to pack my parents up and ship them out from their respective homes in Alabama and Virginia to wherever we will be. I want them to, also, be a bigger part of raising our girls. We need them all. We need what only these tender-hearted grandparents can offer to their grandkids. We need what every family needs — our village — because that’s what it takes to give our kids the best of what all kids deserve: to be loved for who they are and to be nurtured toward all they can become by as many of their doting grown-ups as they can get.
Here’s to all of us finding our places, building our villages, and running with our packs.
P.S. Thank you, Gramma and Grandfather. I didn’t get to tell you nearly enough in your lives. Thanks for everything, and I love you.
Be well, all you growing families. Sending you good thoughts.