Pen Ultimate / Big Lessons, Little Teachers

For second generation holocaust survivors, often those who teach you what a grandparent is - are your very own grandchildren.

About five years ago, I became a grandfather for the first time. Since then, my two sons and daughter, and their spouses, have let me experience that special feeling five more times. Having never had grandparents - due to the circumstances we will commemorate next week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day - I have learned, like others of my generation, how to be a grandfather with the best of all possible assistance: from my three granddaughters and three grandsons.

There is much literature and any number of courses that teach people how to be good parents. And with life spans becoming longer, and life becoming, in general, a process that is constantly scrutinized, researched, debated and categorized - even the subject of "grandparenthood" has won its due of so-called applied theories. I've always been a bad student of theory, however, and I prefer to cut my teeth on the real flesh of life.

Furthermore, my impression is that there are many more books on motherhood and grandmotherhood than on fatherhood and grandfatherhood, and most of the latter seem to be written mostly by wise and sensible females. While I admit that women may be more knowledgeable than we males in such matters, I prefer to form my own conclusions and learn, even the hard way, from my own experiences. And indeed, each of my grandchildren has taught me a lesson at one time or another, for which I'm grateful. This may not always have made me a better grandparent per se (I have received few compliments and some complaints on this score), but I do believe it has made me a better person.

I admit that I do not subscribe to the theory (and practice) according to which grandparents are to be treated as a useful - and loved, respected and cherished, too, of course - "utility" to be pressed into service by busy parents in times of need. I probably differ from many grandparents on this score, but I generally insist on being a grandfather by my rules. Perhaps people think I do this because of my innate laziness, and I can't argue with them. But lazy bum notwithstanding, I love all my grandchildren dearly, each one of them in his or her own special way.

Two and a half year-old Ronnie, for example, has always played hard to get. Not that she screamed in fear whenever she saw me, or protested when I picked her up. But usually whenever she was in my arms as a baby, she would go completely limp, putting a head full of blond silky curls on my shoulder, looking away with a dreamy look in her eyes, as if she were in a reverie - present in the flesh, but not in spirit.

That period was followed by a rather long one of flirtation. I would make faces and she would giggle. Then we progressed a step: I would say "yes" and she would shout joyfully "no" - and we would go on exchanging yeas and nays with lots of laughter and her hiding her face. Sometimes I would unexpectedly shout "no" and she'd immediately switch to "yes," and we both were very happy indeed.

What I like about Ronnie and my other grandchildren is their total innocence - the tendency to act in a completely spontaneous, unpremeditated way, reflecting a here-and-now mood. Even when it is obvious that Ronnie is putting on an act for the benefit of an audience comprised of her parents and grandparents. For instance, after a toy was snatched away from her by another child, you could see her assessing the situation - was it worth her while to raise hell, or a waste of time? - and acting accordingly, with charming candor.

In any event, last Saturday we seemed to reach a major breakthrough in our relations. For the first time we were not simply flirting by making faces or shouting or giggling: She actually related to me. She answered my questions, would hide a toy that she expected me to seek (her idea), and then showed me an acrylic painting she had done; together we talked about the greens, the blues and the browns on the canvas. She even let me teach her how to wield a toy sword.

I deduced that on that day, finally, I came and saw, I was seen and had conquered - a small victory, considering the fact that, by virtue of being a grandfather who virtually eats out of their hands, I am in any case a captive of my grandchildren. So, I sat next to her during our pizza dinner, gazing at her beautiful girlish face, with her clear skin and wide eyes, hoping that we had indeed opened a new chapter in our relations.

I was on my second (or possibly third) slice when I felt her eyes on me, and gave her my undivided attention. She then said, her bluish eyes pleading: "Please, do come here again." My joy was boundless. "Whenever you want us to come," I answered, smiling sweetly.

Then I heard her repeat what she had apparently said the first time. I have to hand it to her: Her pronunciation was crystal clear. She said: "Please, don't come here again." Stunned, I smiled a bit less sweetly this time. But I have to admit that she looked as lovely as ever when she said this, completely candid and lacking any malice. We parted the best of friends.

On my way home I pondered our little conversation. Actually, I was not in the least offended, but I do not intend to heed her plea. However, I'm grateful to her because she taught me a much-needed lesson, namely: Never, even with your own grandchildren, can you take anything for granted. Every encounter is a new challenge. You have to win their confidence again every time anew, and eventually you will get whatever you give. If I demand the right to love them in my way, I have to accept that they will love me - despite the sometimes odd forms that love takes - in their own inimitable way.

And so, dear Ronnie, I will come again. Hope you can live with that, and thank you again for the lesson.