Adding a Baby to a Family Tradition

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Generation Grandparent

We were standing in line at the ferry dock in Provincetown, Mass., on a glorious, crystalline day last summer that made saying goodbye a bit harder than usual.

“End of an era,” said my daughter Emma, bound home to Brooklyn after our annual summer stay in a rented house on the Outer Cape.

I agreed.

“Next year will be more interesting, but less relaxing,” she said. Traveling solo that year, her husband unable to leave work, Emma was seven months pregnant.

We’ve been making the trip since she was 5, and I always feel a twinge of end-of-vacation blues when our sojourn ends.

Not only does the week or two fly by — after a full year’s anticipation of beach-y afternoons, dune hikes, seal spottings and clamfests — but it briefly recreates that time when parent and child were constant companions.

I don’t actually yearn to live with my kid any more, but for a few days, it feels like a sweet restoration. Now, it would be years before we could spend idle hours reading on the beach or walking along the shore, yakking.

But, but — wasn’t I thrilled about the baby? Yes! Yes, I was.

When Emma told me she was expecting, I immediately claimed the name Bubbe, Yiddish for grandmother. (Sort of retro-Brooklynese. Artisanal grandparenting.)

I promptly volunteered to spend a day each week at their apartment, to get to know this new creature but also to help hold down the crushing cost of child care. The pregnancy was nothing but grand news.

Of course, many delightful prospects carry a shadow of loss, too. Leaving home. Getting married. New jobs.

Gaining a grandbaby would be wonderful, but it would also end a certain kind of relationship with my adult child.

If yours has reached that promised land of independence, financially and otherwise, you know what I mean. After what is often a stressful process, your kid has become a grown-up who has work, a place to live, a circle of friends, perhaps a partner. She has developed an identity; she’s pretty much who she is going to be.

If you’re fortunate enough to be nearby and on good terms, you have arrived at that point where your child is — not a friend, precisely, because she’s always your child. But you can behave the way friends do.

In our case, my late-life divorce meant that we were single women together, though at very different bends in the life course. We could be silly about that, or serious.

We could meet for dinner every couple of weeks, trade gossip and celebrate work triumphs and dissect relationships. Occasionally, for her birthday perhaps, I could buy her a few pairs of discounted shoes or a raincoat at Loehmann’s (late and lamented; pause here to sob). But gifts were pretty much the only things I bought for her. Sometimes, after a meal, she casually picked up the tab.

If this prospect lies before you, take my word for it — it almost makes up for the teen angst, the fits and starts of early adulthood, the questions about how this young person will achieve self-sufficiency. She did, and I had cherished that interlude.

Now, she and her husband would face years of the mostly happy chaos of child rearing, part of which is the feeling of never being off the clock. Though Emma might be able to snatch an hour here or there for a quick meal with Mom, her responsibilities as a working parent would always loom. Her life was about to be upended, and that would alter our connection, too.

“Give it until the baby is 10 or 12,” a friend reassured me. “You’ll get Emma back.” But our family tends to reproduce at older ages. When the baby turns 12, I pointed out, I’ll be nearly 80. Emma may well be inconspicuously keeping tabs on my welfare as well as her child’s.

Happily, my daughter and son-in-law are models of calm, besotted parenthood. It’s lovely to see.

On Bubbe Thursdays, I take an early train from Jersey and do my stint with Bartola (a private name for my granddaughter, derived from the former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon). It’s generally delicious but protracted, confirming that old saw about how years go fast but the days pass slowly.

I bring cooked vegetables in plastic containers, and we read board books and go to the park with the baby swings. I sing old Motown songs that include the words “baby” and “girl,” which is pretty much every Motown song. Then, I get to hand Bartola back to her exhausted parents. We are all nothing but lucky.

At times — when Emma comes home from work and we have maybe 20 minutes to chat before I need to hop the subway myself and then New Jersey Transit — I feel a bit wistful.

To have evenings when neither of us had to worry about the time, when we could have another glass of wine or not and it didn’t matter, that was a treat, a bygone bonus.

But this is a treat too.

This summer, I met Emma, her husband and the baby at the ferry dock on the Cape and we had a week together. I’d rented a crib and a high chair and stocked the house with diapers, wipes, formula and Cheerios.

We passed the baby around, so that her parents could have dinner alone and her bubbe could get in a little beach reading. Bartola, who had 2.5 teeth by then, enjoyed her first itsy slivers of lobster. Our stay became, indeed, more interesting and less relaxing.

In another two years, we’ll walk along the marsh and I’ll show Bartola the sand crabs scuttling around. Three years after that, maybe she’ll be old enough for whale watching on a boat out of Provincetown.

When she’s able to clamber through sand for half a mile, there’s a little-known path I’m waiting to show her. From the dunetop, you can see the breadth of the Cape, from the bay to the sea.