Wednesday is the day I drive from my house in San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge to pick up my granddaughters, Maggie, 4, and Ryan, 6, from school and take them back to my house, to be fetched later by their mother.
I am a grownup when I race into the school parking lot and join the line of cars waiting for a space to open up, but when I cross the little bridge and peer through the first-grade classroom at six-year-old Ryan in her red glasses, I am six years old again myself, waiting for the classroom clock to make that sudden click to 2 pm. I can even feel the weight of the desktop lid in my hand as I stow my arithmetic book when the bell rings.
Having grandchildren is like having a third ticket to childhood: first, you are a child experiencing your own childhood, then your child’s. Then, after your child has grown up and gotten bristly and maybe has a tiny wrinkle or two of her own, and you find yourself reading articles on retirement with real interest, these dewy-skinned tots arrive in your life to remind you that beds are a lot of fun to jump on, and what a mystery it is that the sky is blue, and how good it is to lose a tooth or peel off a scab or win the fight over the green rubber spoon.
A couple of days ago after a storm, I took the girls out to jump in puddles on Scott Street, and as they jumped off the curb into the brown puddle I could feel the cold water seeping into my socks over the lid of my red rubber boots, the ones I had when I was 6 or 7. “It’ll only be cold for a minute,” I was able to inform four-year-old Maggie when she said her feet were sopping. “Then your feet will warm up the wetness, and it will be fine.” I knew that because as a kid I would help my brothers and sisters divert the water running down the street into brown channels in the dirt, and stand in them until the water ran over our boots.
When my own kids were small, I felt this tug into childhood memories, but not as much. I was their mother, and responsible, and tended to think of them as part of my adult life, rather than of myself as being a visitor to childhood. I did let them stomp around in puddles, but I was thinking about what a great mom I was, to let them do that. Being a mother was such a self-consciously important role that I was pretty much pumped up with my own importance throughout those years.
This is different. Now I let my work leave my head, and I am just with Maggie and Ryan, not thinking of past or future, only the immediateness of feeding them raisin toast and drawing roads on butcher paper in the exact places they demanded they should go.
You would think I had never seen a child before, or been hired to report back to somebody, the way they mesmerize me. I join them in their world, even when we’re at my grownup house. I now get into the pool to play, rather than read my book from the chaise lounge and wave once in a while as I did when I took my kids to the pool. It’s remembering being in the water, and how much more intensely wonderful any experience was when a grownup popped up beside you, water streaming from her shoulders, grinning, or plunked down to watch the movie with you, or joined you on the tree branch.
English grandmother and writer Nell Dunn echoed this when she wrote of her grandson, “What Cato gives me is the sheer pleasure of living. He reminds me that there isn’t so much to it all, that actually a good breakfast, a nice walk, a new word, good weather, a new hat, can be outrageously delightful, and all those things that take enormous effort are not necessarily where our satisfaction comes from.”
Grandkids bring you into a sweeter, slower present. They show you the future at a time when a lot of your friends are thinking about the past. And they take you back to childhood – theirs, the parent’s, your own: a three-time admittance to a wonderland.
They remind you of the pleasures that reside in memory. One morning Ryan and I pedaled to Golden Gate Park (in the opposite direction from her school — shhhh) to see if the blackberries were ripe yet. Very few were, and those had been mostly plucked clean by the other berry lovers who got there before us. I showed her how to check the undersides of leaves to find overlooked berries. As I did, I remembered picking blackberries with my mother and then how I poured milk and sugar over them. They tasted so good I couldn’t stand still but had to walk up and down the brick-patterned linoleum floor eating them. I ate blackberries with Ryan, and I was nine years old again.