Lessons at the Knee of the Master, My Father-in-Law

The first time I left my eldest child was to go to a wedding, overnight. The celebration was obligatory and I was a wreck. I was worried beyond all reason that something would happen to my year-old baby and truly did not want to abandon him for an hour let alone twenty-four hours.

My husband convinced me that I had to learn to leave him and that my father-in-law, my son’s grandfather, would care for him, if perhaps not exactly as I would.  Our son, he reminded me, would be in good hands. When I arrived back home, all I can say, is that both sets of hands, big and small, were covered in chocolate.

lessons from Grandfather

In 24 short hours my son had learned a new word, “choc,” thereby increasing his vocabulary to three words. He couldn’t say “Grandad”, but he could say “choc.” My husband could see that I was apoplectic and talked me down off the ledge (for the record, I wasn’t going to jump, I was going to push my father-in-law).

When my father-in-law saw my astonishment at feeding chocolate to a baby, he explained, in his soft Irish brogue, that Cadbury made their Chocolate Buttons so small in order for tiny hands to successfully manage them. Cadbury, he was implying, knew better what my child should eat than I did. I don’t remember that I took that well.  In a better frame of mind I might have understood on that day that I had much to learn.

This is what my FIL has done to my children. He has dressed two of them in each others’ clothing and never noticed. They are not twins. He has put them in each others diapers so that a younger child was swimming in one much too large for him and an older child was an unholy mess. See above, they are still not twins. He helped my eleven year old son dye his brown hair bright blond, with permanent color, and it took two rounds at the hairdresser to get his hair brown enough to return to school in September. I lost the battle early with chocolate and to this day he arrives at my doorstep from Europe, with one suitcase of clothing and another filled with candy.

My FIL has played soccer, cricket, golf, and American football with my kids even though he has no idea how to throw a football, or even how to hold it. He’s taken them bike riding and fruit picking. He has taught them to plant vegetables and bet on horses.

He has laughed with them at Tom and Jerry and sang along with Barney. He has run after soccer balls by the hour as my boys practiced shot after shot, usually missing the goal entirely. He has taken them to parks and zoos and movies and playgrounds. He has taken them river rafting, which is all the more heroic because he doesn’t know how to swim.

When they were tiny he would rise with them, long before the sun, sneak them out of their beds or cribs so quietly that as my husband and I slept, we never even heard him put them in their stroller and leave for the park. Before they returned they had eaten breakfast at McDonald’s. There was syrup in their hair, bits of pancake stuck to their clothing yet I would have slept until 9:00.

My FIL gave them their first piece of chocolate and their first pint of beer, and he was there for everything in between. He has taught them to use every power tool sold by Home Depot and they have taught him to play dorm room drinking games.  I don’t know who is the wiser.

And here we are, nearly twenty years later and my sons, my very grown up sons, look forward to his every visit and beg him to return as he leaves.

When my sons were visiting colleges my FIL came along on our trips. This is a man whose education comes very much from another era. My boys were excited about the prospect of this next step but their true appreciation for the opportunity being placed in front of them came when the saw college through my FIL’s eyes. He gave them the gift of perspective. To them this was one more step on the path of their lives, albeit the most exciting one; to him it was beyond imagination.

So what did I finally learn?  We learn to be grandparents while we are still only parents. Even as our children are tiny, long before we can imagine their offspring, we are watching and learning from those who have parented for far longer than we have.

This is what my FIL has done for me. He has shown me how to be a grandparent. When I get there I know I will be ready. For while I was learning to be a mother, quietly without a word, he was teaching me to be a grandmother. On some blessed day in the future, with a beautiful grandchild in my arms I will remember that a bit of chocolate never hurt a child, that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than being there for your grandchild, that dirty faces, leaky diapers and permanent platinum blond hair do not matter in the face of true grandparental love.

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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