How to be a Terrific Grandmother in the Digital Era

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Agewise, the youngest baby boomer is already in the early 50s, the oldest in the mid-60s. Which means, a lot of us now are grandparents. With more joining the ranks every day. And that’s why we like this story from Renee Fisher, who has solved a big modern-day challenge: how to be a grandmother on the internet.

When my daughter and her husband of one year moved to London, I thought the worst had happened to me. Then, within a year, she was pregnant. The loss factor multiplied Then my first grandson, Jonah, was born. Suddenly, the romantic notion I had always had of grandparents and grandchildren living in close proximity to each other vanished.

It was different when I was a kid, especially during the first seven years of my life when my grandparents only lived several houses away. Now, I live in Arlington, Virginia, but my grandchild is several thousand miles away. They might as well be on the moon.

I always knew — in the abstract — that modern life had tossed people all over the planet, and that grandparents often found themselves living in cities, states, or even countries far away. But that doesn’t do me any good now. We’re talking about me and my grandchild.

I also knew that planes flew. That didn’t do any good, either. Of course I visited London several times a year, and the visits were always wonderful. But the memory of the smell and feel of a baby’s soft skin or of the determination in the pitch of a toddler’s little body as he careened around the room would start receding even as I was in the cab headed back to the airport.

Jonah in London with Ne Ne in Arlington, Virginia.

Jonah in London with Grandmother Ne Ne in Arlington, Virginia.

I knew my grandchild would be in London for the foreseeable future and I would be here. That wouldn’t change. I knew it was up to me to reinvent the notion of what it means to be a grandparent. The result would be old-fashioned grandparenting, framed in new-age technology

After all, I’m a boomer. I may not have been raised on technology, but I’ve had computers since my kids were little. I started with a desktop, graduated to a laptop, then added an iPad, and now an iPhone. Skype became Grandma’s Best Friend, whether at home or on the go.

For the first three years of my grandson’s life, we used Skype the usual way. I spoke baby-talk in decibel levels that had my husband running into the room, holding his hands over his ears. I sang songs, I made funnyfaces, I wore silly hats and I showed him little toys on the monitor. My goal was less to communicate with him than it was to hold his flea-like attention span.

The warmth of Renee Fisher - grandmother "Ne Ne" - from thousands of miles away.

The warmth of Renee Fisher – grandmother Ne Ne – from thousands of miles away.

When Jonah started to talk, really talk, he wanted me to listen to him. He talked and talked and talked. The problem was, I had noidea what he was saying. I would have to ask my daughter to translate or I would guess and Jonah would intone, “NO, Ne Ne,” which is how he says my name, and then go off onto another incomprehensible explanation.

After listening to him one day, going on and on about porridge (I think) and nappies (I think) and rubbish (I think), and trying to connect the dots, I asked him if he wanted Ne Ne to read him a story. He stopped in mid-sentence and stared. “Ne Ne,” he asked, “where your book is?”

My heart leapt. Of all the material joys in my life, books have always been Number 1. And reading to my grandchild in London is Number 1 Plus. I grabbed a book I had bought to mail to him. I started to read. Jonah sat perfectly still and listened, his eyes riveted on the monitor. The pages went by, one after the other. Jonah’s eyes stayed completely focused on the book, his ears on my words. I made sound effects to go with the words. I think I was even more entranced than he was.

Renee_Fisher_11

Grandmother Ne Ne reading as Jonah has a snack.

The next time we were on Skype, Jonah asked, “Ne Ne, can you read to me?” in his perfect, heart-stopping little English accent. This time I was prepared, with a pile of books I had gotten at the library. I read and I read and I read. After three books, I began to wonder where my daughter had gotten to. I asked Jonah where Mummy was.

That’s when she came into the room. “I’m sorry Mom,” she said, “I got to clean the kitchen floor and straighten everything up, while you were babysitting.”

“While you were babysitting.” Next to “I love you,” “It’s a boy,” and “It’s a girl,” those might have been the most precious words I have ever heard.

I can’t run down the street, as my grandmother could have done. I can’t jump into the car and drive a few miles, as some of my friends can do. But I can create my own Ne Ne and Jonah Time, while my daughter goes about her business. Armed with my laptop or my iPad or my iPhone, I can create my own way to be a grandma, when I can’t be there in the flesh. After all, I’m Boomer Grandma, able to leap tall continents with a single bound.

6 Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this piece. Like you, I was very close with my Grandma who lived just down the street when I was growing up. My son & daughter are probably not much older than your grandson, and my Mom – their Grandma – lives in another state. So, Grandma cannot run down the street or jump in the car to be with them in our situation either. I’ve offered to buy my 80 year old Mom a computer so she can visit with the kids via Skype … but she’s no Boomer-Grandma and wants nothing to do with computers. I plan to print out your article, send it to her via snail-mail and, hopefully, it might help convince her to give it a try.

  2. My husband has started reading to his grandson Cody via skype as we are currently living in Cuernavaca, Mexico and he is in Bellingham, WA. We actually also met the author of the book (Finding Noah by Douglas Floen) while here in Mexico, so it has an extra special meaning. Now when Papa Mike gets on skype Cody asks for the next chapter to be read. A very special bonding happens when you read to a child.

  3. Skyping IS the next best thing to being there, Renée, and these are lovely pictures…I would just add that you can also use a Google Hangout, it’s the same thing. And if you have more than one computer in the home, it can be really fun (up to 8 or 9 people can easily be added) and of course, it’s free – comes along with your g-mail.

  4. We FaceTime (apples version of Skype) with our grand kids! It’s helped the babies from not knowing us when we only see them 2 or 3 times a year…what I love most is ….I got them all iPod touches – they all text me now. Whenever they see something they want to share with me, it’s within their small world to do. Unlike Skype they had to ask for help…. Technology has indeed changed the kind of grandparent I am!

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