Grandparents' love bridges the distance

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Earlier this year, I sent my mother a picture of my children during a beach vacation we had taken to Florida.

It was just a happy snap of the two girls at a restaurant, late in the day when the golden sunlight poured over them. They looked tan and radiant, two teenage girls just coming into their loveliness.

My mum loved it. "Your mother is the proud grandma showing everyone the picture of her granddaughters," my dad said.

But there was a tinge of sadness too when she e-mailed me to say how much she liked it.

"Remember when we would take the three of them (my two girls and their cousin) to the beach? They would run around madly, having so much fun. Now we're left with just the memories. When are you all coming to visit again?"

It had been more than six years since we left to make a new home in North Carolina, a day my mother had dreaded from the moment my children were born.

But for 10 years, she and my dad had the unmitigated pleasure of being with their grandchildren nearly every day. They helped to raise them and the children thought of their grandparents' apartment as their second home.

They enjoyed a closeness I never had with my own grandparents, who had neither the capacity nor the opportunity to babysit us all that much. I didn't know what it felt like to be doted on by them or have them loom so large in my life.

My girls, on the other hand, had grandparents in Singapore for whom no request was too small or too big, and grandparents in America who would shower them with affection whenever they could.

Nearly every weekend they would stay with my parents and I am sure they were tucked into their grandparents' bed, while the old folks slept on the floor. In fact, I'm betting this is a sleeping arrangement that is still replicated all around Singapore.

Once we moved, however, a crack opened which only yawned wider every year and not just because we were so far away. The children grew and moved on. Their new lives expanded and their old one in Singapore receded into, albeit fond, memory.

Inevitably, awkwardness crept in. It became stressful even just to say hello to gong gong and ma ma over the webcam. My parents, too, stymied by the unfamiliar accents, would smile benevolently at them and turn to me with: "What did they say?"

Of course, they loved the children as dearly as before. But things were never going to be the same again. Even if we had never moved away, this would probably have come to pass too.

This year, for the first time, we had both sets of grandparents to celebrate Christmas with us, when my parents came to stay for a few weeks.

I was both elated and nervous, wondering about the expectations I would have to manage in them as well as the children. Most of the travel to be together had been done by us going to Singapore where we always segued easily into familiar routines.

But here, in our self-contained life that had never included our Singapore family in any detail, how would we find a space for everyone where they would feel comfortable? We were going to have to create a new normal.

So, yes, you'll have to share the bathroom. And no, you may not just hide in your room and do homework.

Working hard in my role as middleman, I tactfully nixed a few Christmas presents which would have been great circa 2006, but would be looked askance at by a cool teen.

I cracked my brain, fruitlessly, to find an activity in our sleepy town that would suit both an elderly Chinese couple and their jaded teenage granddaughters. In the end, the activity that everyone liked most was watching TV together.

Perhaps it is I with the expectations that need to be tempered.

They are still the grandparents who would sit through Interstellar to keep the kids company, soothe a cut finger, make the special fried rice a child liked so much way back when.

Both sides, really, just seem to accept each other for who they are.

If I had my way, I would want a little more, for them truly to engage and not just share the same space, peaceably. We have time to work on this while my parents are in town. At least we are together. For families, having that is a great start.

sharonl@sph.com.sg