My children barely remember “long-distance” phone calls.
We made them when they were youngsters, because my mother in West Tennessee was a long-distance call. My husband and I had many, ummm, discussions about our long-distance charges when it came time to pay bills.
But when it came to my children talking to their Gran, I tried not to put a clock on it.
I learned by example the value of those precious, expensive minutes on the phone with loved ones far away. My mother patterned it. With her parents living across the street and every one of my maternal aunts and uncles no more than a 10 minute drive, mother had plenty of family nearby.
My deceased father’s family was in North Carolina, a 16-hour Greyhound bus ride away. It was a long-distance call to talk to Bubbie and Granddaddy Mack.
Mother found a way to make sure we always felt connected to these grandparents, aunts and uncles who loved her and us so much. Childhood celebrations – making the honor roll, the basketball team (my brother, obviously) or winning a blue ribbon – were dually celebrated with a trip across the street to Mamaw and Papaw and a phone call to North Carolina.
I am, therefore, aware of how blessed I am to be able to stay more easily connected to my grandchildren, who are across the state and across the country. I cherish the video chats and phone calls with them, because they allow me to know the minutia of their lives.
Still, as my mother also knew, there is nothing that cements relationships like a good, long visit.
When I finally got to Seattle recently, I stayed for nine days. Gardner, newly 4 years old, and Cohen, galloping up on 15, got more than a passing glance at Gigi and Granddaddy. We relished every minute we got to spend with them and with our son and daughter-in-law.
When you can wake up with family in their environment and spend the days doing what they do, you get a sense of place and rhythm that you often miss in long-distance relationships. You learn who needs a few snuggle minutes in the morning and who hits the floor ready to go. You find out what your role is in active play – creative participant or follow the script playing out in their mind? – and you get a sense of what makes them smile and what frustrates them.
Cohen, the oldest grandson, and I took a drive one morning, and he directed me to the new high school he hopes to attend in person before this freshman year is in the books. It was important to me to see it, to be able to place him in it in my mind.
Gardner taught Gigi all about machinery in his “big trucks” book, and then would test my knowledge when we passed a construction site. “Not a digger, Gigi, an excavator!”
These moments are important. This year, above all years, I feel blessed to have had a few.
We left for the airport very early on the day we came home. When I talked to a newly-awaken Gardner as I waited for the plane to board, he wanted to know how long until I came back, and he wasn’t asking for weeks. “I have to go home for a while,” I told him on the video call, “but I will be back.”
He screwed up his features to his very maddest face. “Why do you have on your mad face?” I asked him.
“Because I want you to come back and play with me,” he said.
Who knew a mad face could warm a heart so completely?
Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.