Based on my admittedly limited experience, being a grandparent is one of the few things in life that really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. On this past Sunday, I helped celebrate my grandson’s third birthday. Not much of a milestone, some of you non-grandparents may be thinking, but what do you know?
Three is a great age, and not just because it now happens to be my grandson’s age. It marks the transition, more or less, from toddler to pre-schooler. For Jews, traditionally, it has marked the beginning of the formal education process. (Remember the sons’ song from Fiddler on the Roof: “At three I started Hebrew school…”?) A three-year-old’s birthday party is the first one that the child can anticipate. Celebrations of the two previous birthdays are really for the benefit of the adult relatives, whether they want to admit it or not.
Yaakov — that’s my grandson — was certainly looking forward to this year’s party. Much of it consisted of free play with a small group of his toddler/pre-schooler age friends and a large assortment of age-appropriate toys. Yes, I know, at that age, free play still mostly means parallel play, with most of the children paying a great deal of attention to the toys and only occasional attention to each other. But when my daughter-in-law turned on some recorded music, one of the young guests took the hint and started to dance, and Yaakov — who always seems to be dancing and singing, whether we can recognize the song or not — was happy to join in.
After that came the familiar part of the party — the singing of “Happy birthday” (in English and Hebrew), and the blowing out of the candles on the birthday cake, which Yaakov accomplished with a little help from his parents. (Actually, in this case, his parents’ participation in the candle-blowing was particularly appropriate, since their birthdays both fall within a week of his.) Yaakov clearly loved being the center of attention — who doesn’t? — and, of course, most important, eating a hefty slice of his birthday cake.
Don’t we all wish our delights were that simple, our needs that easily satisfied? A grandchild’s birthday comes only once a year, but opportunities to marvel at the wondrous process that over time transforms a squalling newborn into a unique child on his way to adulthood are more abundant. Over these three years, I have had numerous opportunities to watch Yaakov grow and develop his own enthusiasm-filled personality.
Parents have more such opportunities than grandparents, of course, but precisely because they see their child’s talents and personality develop day by day, they can easily miss the sense of the miraculous that grandparents couldn’t avoid if they wanted to — not that most would want to. Besides, parents, blessed with the awesome responsibility of child-rearing, cannot help but be aware of the immense effort required to turn the potential miracle of the developing child into the actual miracle of the responsible adult. Grandparents are fully aware of the challenges of child-rearing, obviously, or they couldn’t have gotten their own children to the point of being parents themselves. But most of the time grandparents can pretend to have forgotten how much effort goes into successful parenting. Being a grandparent, most of the time, is enjoyment without responsibility
Life’s problems and challenges, unfortunately, don’t stop with the birth of a grandchild, or even with his third birthday. But while grandparenthood doesn’t eliminate life’s hardships, it does make them somewhat easier to endure. Yaakov’s third birthday came at a particularly challenging time for my family. A freak set of circumstances resulted in a cracked bathroom fixture sending water cascading into the kitchen below it. The ensuing flood has made our kitchen for the time being unusable and our house thus effectively uninhabitable. The homeowners’ insurer (fortunately, the flood damage is a covered loss) has relocated me and my daughter to a hotel temporarily. That temporary accommodation is bearable during the week but considering the hotel’s location and my disability, totally inadequate for Shabbat. For some reason, however, none of the contractors or insurance adjusters involved in the restoration process seems to share my sense of urgency.
There was a silver lining, however, to this particular dark flood cloud. .My daughter and I spent these last two Shabbatot with my son and daughter-in-law in Riverdale — which gave us lots of extra time to watch Yaakov’s delight as he looked forward to the party celebrating his third birthday. More important, however, it helped me to keep the hardship caused by the flood in perspective — it’s an inconvenience, not a tragedy.
Yaakov goes through each day blissfully unaware of the obstacles that those who love him must overcome in order to enable him to enjoy the world around him. The rest of us cannot avoid paying attention to these obstacles, but sometimes we let the challenges of daily life obscure its delights. Whenever you feel that happening, I have a simple piece of advice: look at a three-year old.