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Mondays with the Mamas: Living with Grandparents

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Abbie and her Grandpa

I used to sit in the garden with my grandpa and whistle at the birds. Sometimes, when there were no birds chirping, he would break the silence by whistling and looking up, challenging me to find the sparrow. Everyday after school, I would come home and find him sitting under the olive tree in his chair, his plaid pants pulled over his round stomach, his white short sleeve collared shirt neatly tucked in, happy to see me. The 82 years that were between us was no barrier at all. My parents had decided that he was too old to live alone and had made room for him in our home, where his nurse would eventually live too. Many afternoons, I would bring him a toasted cheese sandwich and a glass of apple juice. This was the only snack I knew, as an eight year old, to make. Sometimes we would just sit quietly. Sometimes we chatted. Always I truly, deeply loved him. “One day” my mother told me, “you’ll take care of us.”

Three years ago my husband and I decided to sell our home and move in with my parents. There were many reasons behind this decision. Finding the funding for this little company was taking longer than we could afford and pouring all our money into it AND keeping a roof over our heads was no longer an option. My daughter needed to attend kindergarten and the school in my childhood neighborhood was exceptional. And then there was dad. My father had fallen and was in the hospital for pneumonia. I remember the nurses lifting his body from the stretcher onto the x-ray machine to get a picture of his lungs. He seemed a shell of himself. And I knew my mother’s prediction had come. It was time to move back into the home I grew up in. At the time of this decision, dad was 91. The house was big and empty and cold. It needed the life my family would bring to it. HE needed the life my family would bring to it. And so, for that reason and many others, we moved in.

Dad and Charlie

Leaving our sweet home in a nearby neighborhood, I vowed to return. But I also knew my husband and I had committed to caring for my dad until the end. When the moving van left, having dropped off the last box of our belongings, I closed my new (old) bedroom door and cried into a box of cupcakes my friend had brought over as an ironic “welcome home” gift. How would I continue to thrive as the independent, ambitious, go-getter I had been for 20 years on my own? How would my husband and I ever sneak an intimate moment in the kitchen again? What the hell was I getting myself into? The tears were deep and real and lasting. I was mourning my former independent self and my future as a care-taker of an aging father who I wanted around forever.

Abbie’s Dad and her kids

The first two weeks weren’t pretty. I regressed into my 16-year-old self. “Don’t ask me where I am going!” I would bark at my mother as she cheerfully waved to me as I left for the day. “Do I have to say good-morning before I’ve even had my coffee?” Nothing felt like my home – it just felt like hers. But then things started to settle. After about six months, I started to exhale.

We staked our boundaries. Two refrigerators – one for my parents and one for us. A must. Our own living space where we could be our own little family, away from them. Parenting stakes were placed in the shared ground. We made clear we were the parents of our children, and they would have to bite their tongues when we didn’t force our kids to finish all their dinners…or do anything else differently than how they’d raised me. And room by room, I cleared out the tchotchkes, the clutter, I repainted, I redecorated, updated the landscape. I made the home less of a reflection of my childhood and more of a reflection of our shared circumstance. It felt empowering. And we started to settle in. My mom joked, “you inherited your childhood home, just with your parents still living in it.” It didn’t sound so bad…It wasn’t so bad.

We had built-in babysitters! We would cook; mom would clean. There were everyday benefits. But longer term, what made it all worth it, of course, was seeing my aging dad have a reason to get up in the morning, get out of his pjs, and come downstairs. My daughter would bring him cards and challenge him to gin. (He never let her win.) She would come home from her jazz dance class and show him her latest routine. And she would kiss him goodnight.

Mom and Charlie

When my son was born a year later, there was a moment when I could have sworn my father’s age was working in reverse. He seemed to remember more things, make more jokes, walk a little taller. Could it be possible that all those homemade, shared dinners and late night decaf talks were giving him renewed purpose? All of his friends might have passed, but he surely had one helluva present.

Then one day – perhaps a year later – it hit me. My parents were giving my family as much as we were giving them. My son Charlie worshipped his grandparents. Even as an infant, Charlie would reach up and be soothed by my dad’s whiskers. He would bring him board books and sit on his lap. He would help push his walker. He nestled on my mom’s lap and shared her every English Muffin breakfast. And when she cooked dinner, he would put on his teeny apron and be her sous chef.

Beside all the obvious lessons about aging and making family a priority and how we should take care of our parents when they age, there was more. My children would remember their grandparents forever. They, like I, would have fond memories – in the same exact house – of making silly faces and telling tales.

Perhaps, hopefully, one day my husband or I will sit under the same olive tree in the garden, sharing a homemade snack with our children’s children. And maybe when it’s quiet, we’ll hear the birds chirping and tell them stories of their great grandpa who would ask us to search for the sparrow. — Abbie Schiller, TMC Founder and CEO

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