How many grandparents get to see their young grandchildren frequently enough to witness those important milestones in their lives—the first laugh, the first solid food, the first step? In an ironic twist, the horrors of the coronavirus have brought those joyous experiences to three Harvard grandmas. Unexpectedly trapped in isolation with young grandchildren, these women have had opportunities they would not otherwise have had to be an integral part of their grandchildren’s lives. Here are the stories of Joan Shulman of Stow Road, Roseanne Saalfield of Oak Hill Road, and Faith Cross of Shaker Road.
We were planning to have Jack, our 3-year-old grandson, for a sleepover on Friday, March 13. At the same time, things started bubbling up around the virus, so my husband and I suggested our daughter, her husband, and their 9-month-old daughter Penelope stay over as well. The rest is history.
Joan Shulman’s grandchildren, Jack and Penelope. (Courtesy photos)
Penelope started crawling soon after she arrived. Now she’s pulling herself up and cruising around on the furniture. She also heads straight for the dogs’ water bowl whenever she has the chance. Jack’s imagination has exploded! He loves to create stories about the characters in the books we read and include himself in the adventures. His little sister’s recent mobility has been challenging for him. There are a lot of new lessons about sharing and asking for help when he gets frustrated.
Jack has added a lot of routine to our lives. Every day he and my husband head down the driveway to throw rocks into the stream, collect the paper, and get the mail. We have a garden gnome who lives on a little bridge in our pasture. Jack loves to bring the gnome graham crackers and chocolate chips! He’s now in charge of feeding the cat and dogs, and gathering eggs from the chicken coop. He takes his chores very seriously.
The most challenging part has been learning to relax around the mess that comes with young children and a kitchen that is in a constant state of commotion. It’s been important for us to find time for quiet, and to know when to step away from the chaos. But we’re happy to put up with the inconveniences in exchange for this time together.
Peter, our older son, his wife Maggie, and their then 4-month-old Charlotte drove up from Brooklyn on Thursday, March 12, for a scheduled three-day weekend. By the time they reached Harvard that Thursday they realized they’d be staying a good while longer than three days.
Since their arrival we have celebrated two of Charlotte’s milestone birthdays, her fifth and sixth months. For each, her mom baked her a cake; for each, we sang her a song. We’ve witnessed a few obvious milestones in Charlotte’s development since mid-March. She now eats solid food. Her very first meal, around the five-month mark, was homemade applesauce. She made the expression we now call “broccoli face” as the experience was mystifying and clearly unpleasant. Her second meal of banana mush was predictably more fun for everyone.
Roseanne Saalfield with her granddaughter Charlotte.
Charlotte now sits by herself reasonably reliably. I wouldn’t ask her to watch us stack a cord of wood in this position quite yet, but if we think she might be showing off by sitting such a long time all on her own, we just tell her we’re proud of her and take another photo. Her fine motor coordination is fascinating to watch develop. She can now capably move a small object from one hand to another. She can move a spoon, upside down or not, to her mouth (or her cheek or ear). Her age-mates in Brooklyn, we hear, notice their feet more than Charlotte does. We pretend not to worry that she’s slow in this regard, but we ask ourselves when she’s not listening, “Will Charlotte ever notice she has feet?”
Simply having Charlotte and her parents with us for the past two months now ranks among the favorite moments of my life. Bouncing Charlotte to sleep for her morning nap; singing to her while we both listen to our sons’ old kid cassettes on our son Jon’s bright yellow Sony Walkman cassette player, saved all these years in the attic for this moment; taking long Harvard walks with Charlotte, alone or with various parts of our family blob—these are some favorite small moments on our journey.
Some challenges are: finding a time and a way to tidy up the small room we’ve all been gathered in for days and days, filled with books, tablets, laptops, pens, earbuds, phones, slippers, shoes, baskets of toys, stacks of diapers and wipes, coffee cups and cookie crumbs; and wondering why everyone living here does not understand that the yoghurt always and every day lives in one part of the fridge. It does not want to travel.
To succeed in our inadvertent but in some ways very welcome experiment, we must all respect each other enough to be generous-spirited in our gestures and motives while acknowledging the other person’s right to privacy and solitude from time to time. I’d say we’ve all done outstandingly well, given our realities.
Charlotte will not remember these days as we will, of course, though we will tell stories to accompany the photos she will see. I am glad to have been able to help, and I like to believe that spending so much time with her grandparents and her uncle Jon and his girlfriend Sarah will strengthen her future ties to her dad’s home and make her future visits more special.
In February my younger daughter, Sarah, called from North Carolina to invite me down for a short visit. I arrived March 11. After a couple of days the coronavirus news was getting bad, so I changed my flight home to a later date. After a few more days I changed the reservation again. And then Sarah and her sister said I should just stay. So I chose to do that.
My grandson Aza was exactly 9 months old when I arrived. Since then every single day has brought a new milestone in Aza’s growth. They’re subtle things, but I see something new in him every day. I see him constantly learning. I can just sit and sit, watching him. You’d think I’d get tired of it, but I don’t. It’s magic; it’s absolute magic.
More and more he uses his voice to communicate with us. He grunts and squeals, but I’m sure the sounds go with the idea he has in mind. He initiates “conversation,” using a funny sound to get our attention. He knows what he wants—like food—and makes it clear to us.
When I first got here, Aza was learning about different parts of his body; in this new phase, he’s learned what those body parts can do. The difference between nine months and 11 months is amazing. At first, when we put avocado cubes on the table, he would put his palm on them, squish, make a fist and head for his mouth, opening his fist when he got there. Some avocado got in, but lots was left on his face. Now he uses his thumb and forefinger to very carefully lift a cube and put it into the middle of his mouth. No avocado face. He puts this dexterity to use in the yard tasting clover, pansies, and mulch.
Two months ago Aza was interested only in pulling his own books off the bookshelf onto the floor. Now he will choose a particular book, bring it to me, and put my hand on the cover so I know I’m to open it. And he will sit still while I read it to him. One of his favorites is “Colors.” He loves opening and closing doors in the kitchen, and is particularly fond of swinging the dryer door back and forth, back and forth. The other day when he opened the door, he noticed some writing on the inside and also a black button. He pushed the button and was delighted to have made the light come on in the dryer.
I would never have visited for two months under normal conditions. In this time I have had the opportunity to bond with Aza. We love each other. It’s tiring, but I want to be here, and I feel I’m making a difference for both Sarah and Aza.