Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bridging the Generations

Spot has more female admirers at 5½ months than I’ve racked up in a lifetime. The curious thing about it is that most of them are over 65. Spot has managed to acquire his senior groupies in the course of regular visits to his grandparents’ retirement community a few blocks away, where he puts on his show a few mornings a week. It seems to be a straightforward win-win all around: Spot has more grandmas than can possibly be hugged and cooed at in one visit, and they, having already seen most of their own grandchildren reach adolescence and beyond, get to enjoy the hassle-free pleasure of having a baby around. When things start to turn sour, I’m there to wheel him offstage. He’s been called the community mascot and the community therapy baby. Who needs a dog when you can pass Spot around?

Less than a year before Spot was born, my wife and her brother, who are American-born Chinese, convinced their Chinese-born parents to do the unthinkable: defy an Asian-American law of cultural gravity and move east from the West Coast. There were a lot of good reasons for this reversal of the American Dream: they were by then retired, my wife’s mother was increasingly dependent and needed an affordable assisted-living environment -- which they weren’t going to find in the Bay Area -- and we were getting serious about starting a family. Even with all of these centripetal forces at work, it still took a good amount of cajoling. In the end, they gave in, and are now quite happily living within a mile of their only grandson.

So now the generations are reunited, and Spot has his groupies. And I am infinitely thankful for having one set of grand-folks very close by, and for the affection and enrichment they give him, to say nothing of the everyday practical assistance. I don’t know how long we’ll all be together, so I don’t know what he’ll remember, if anything, of these weeks and months when he joins the ladies of the club for late morning tea in the sun room, or finds a parking space between the variety of walkers and other contraptions during wheelchair aerobics, or listens to family gossip in Chinese. But he's being cared for by many hands; he's becoming familiar with faces of all shapes, sizes, and colors; he's learning to trust people, not just mom and dad, to get an early taste of the conversation of mankind.

But he's not the only one who is growing as a result. Now, not only do I find myself in the role of at home dad, constantly trying to process what that means and trying to adapt it to the odd assortment of personas that make up my identity; I find myself in a sort of team effort with none other than my father-in-law, who like me has blossomed into a huge "baby guy." It's a metamorphosis that has surprised his own adult children. My wife assures me it's a result of the physics of Confucian kinship structure: barred from overt displays of paternal affection to his immediate children, he is liberated with the arrival of a grandchild, who he is no longer directly responsible for. The upshot is that Spot is now getting a good chunk of his care from two men of different generations.

I don't know what it must look like from the outside when an underemployed academic historian (me) and a retired chemical engineer have a polite argument about whether Spot needs a new diaper, or when he and I huddle in the ill-equipped lobby restroom handling a major poopy blowout like two army field surgeons. I regularly grill him over how much sleep Spot had, how much he ate, and inspect their back bedroom to make sure it's being kept up to the highest nap-time standards. But recently Grandpa has completely trumped me: he's come up with big plans to fly kites on the beach next spring. I'm jealous. Three Cigars and a Playdate, anyone?

Of course I jest; I couldn't be happier that Spot has such an involved grandfather (to speak of only one half of the family) -- the more kites, the better, and I'm happy to let grandpa take the lead. I happen to enjoy kites. In fact, the inner boy in me perked up when I first heard this idea. "Wow," I thought, "I haven't done that since I was 10, and it's been way too long." Maybe it's something we can all do, the three of us, out there on the beach when the whitecaps roll in.


Jeremy Adam Smith said...

A great entry, Chicago pop. Thanks. I hope this one gets some links, because it deserves to be read by more people.

chicago pop said...

Thanks for the sentiment, Jeremy. I'm glad these little stories about Spot have a place here; having a reason to write them in between naps is helping keep me sane!