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The Joy of Cultivating Practice Grandkids

We're not related, but hanging out with my 'grandkids' has been a delight


Greg, 21, a senior in college studying biology, is a community activist involved in Amnesty International, the Sierra Club and local organizations in his hometown. Elliot, 15, a junior in high school, is a musician and a regional Pokemon champion. He recently appeared in Hamlet at his high school. Jenny, 25, is earning a master’s in geology after graduating from Oberlin College with undergraduate degrees in geology and organ performance and a master’s degree in historical performance.

I am so proud! These three young people are my “practice” grandchildren.

Their parents — all dear friends of mine — encouraged me to spend time with the kids long before I had a grandchild of my own. These relationships were never about babysitting — they were about enjoying each other’s company. When Greg, Elliot and Jenny were younger, we hung out. Now, watching them grow into adulthood delights me.

The teacher asked the boy how he knew me. Elliot said, 'She’s my friend.' I beamed.

Whether you’re waiting for a first grandchild — or one seems unlikely — consider developing a relationship with a friend’s child.

What’s in it for you?

  • A new role
  • A friend to laugh with
  • A closer look into another generation’s concerns
  • A chance to share your interests

You’ll also get to tell your favorite stories and maybe even pass along some wisdom. In any case, you will have a lot of fun.

Sharing Hamburgers and Root Beer Floats

I met Greg through his dad, Jeff, who published a book I wrote in 2002 about the St. Louis Zoo. When Jeff came to my house one day to sort through photos for the book, he brought along Greg, who was eight at the time. (Jeff and Laura, parents of eight, never asked each other where either was going but always asked how many of the kids were going along.)

At first, the boy sat quietly on the sofa. When a slide of a giraffe came up on the screen, Greg asked if I knew that giraffes have just seven vertebrae, like people. I said I did know that, and responded with a different animal fact. We talked and talked, sharing fun stories until Jeff reminded me that the two of us we were there to work.

Greg said he would prefer to draw, and filled four sheets of paper with wonderful pictures of animals and insects. Just a few years later, I bought his painting of a blue-footed booby. He knew about the bird because after I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands, I gave Greg postcards featuring the wildlife there. He even gave a report at school on the topic.

Three or four times a year, I would pick up Greg and we’d head for an art supply store. He often had gift cards from relatives and I contributed funds, too, so he could choose the paint, brushes and other supplies he needed. On the way home, we always stopped for a hamburger and a root beer float. Once, we pulled over to gather fallen golden ginkgo leaves, so I could tell Greg about this remarkable tree.

Whispering ‘Bad’ Words in the Car

When I met Elliot, he was just a toddler. But he quickly learned my full name, and for the next decade, that’s how he referred to me. When his father asked him what toys he wanted in the bathtub, Elliot would reply, “The blue hippopotamus from Patricia Corrigan.” Every September, he would ask his mother to buy honey crisp apples, “the kind Patricia Corrigan told us about.”

The year Elliot was in first grade, I went with him and his parents to his school’s open house. He introduced me to his teacher, who was considerably flustered when she recognized me as a longtime newspaper columnist and local celebrity. The teacher asked the boy how he knew me. Elliot said, “She’s my friend.” I beamed.

A few years later, we were riding in the back seat of his parents’ car, going out for brunch with the family. When I remarked to Elliot that something or other the two of us were talking about was stupid, Elliot’s mom said they discouraged him from using that word.

As a writer, I honor all words. I looked at Elliot. He grinned at me. And during the rest of the ride, we silently mouthed “stupid” at each other, ecstatic at getting away with something. Ironically, just a few months ago, I was told not to say “stupid” in front of my three-year-old grandchild, Max. Apparently he had said it at home, and when asked where he learned it, Max said, “Nana.”

Arguing Over Scrabble Games

That grandson of mine was the first newborn that Jenny ever held, because she happened to visit San Francisco not long after Max was born. Since her days at Oberlin, she has traveled widely to play and study organ, and she was in the Bay Area to visit several churches.

Because Jenny’s mother worked at the newspaper where I was a reporter, I’ve known Jenny since before she was born. Over time, I got to know her better, and when she was in junior high school, I moved just a few blocks from Jenny’s home and we became even closer.

We both care deeply about animals and wildlife conservation, so when the British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall came to town, I got tickets for both of us plus the teenage daughter of another friend. We all got to meet Goodall, and it was an evening to remember.

A few years later, I asked Jenny to join a writing group I was forming. The group included a school principal, the assistant director of the county library system, a pediatrician, a private school teacher, a freelance writer and Jenny’s mom, who still worked as a newspaper reporter. Jenny, in high school at the time, not only kept up with us adults, but her writing often surpassed our efforts.

Whenever she came home to visit from college, I spent hours playing cutthroat games of Scrabble with her at her family’s kitchen table. Jenny made up amazing words and sometimes convinced us they were real. Her paternal grandmother, Edwina, also took part in these games, and Edwina and I became great friends, too. Today, we still stay in touch across the miles.

All my practice grandchildren live far away from me now, but keep in touch through Facebook and email. And I am so happy to have these three young people in my life.

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