Phil Gulley: The Girl Next Door

I’m becoming a grandfather, and I’m counting on the new arrival to change me for the better.
As I write this, my wife and I are expecting our first grandchild, Madeline. Our son Spencer and his wife, Jessica, are about to produce only the third girl in our family since 1957. There are 18 boys in my parents’ line, but not one girl since 1993. A 21-year drought of females, with Gulleys reproducing like rabbits, and not one of us pitching an X chromosome across home plate. The level of excitement, as you can imagine, is high.

It is impossible to live too close to a grandchild, so my wife and I bought the house next door to my son’s family. To let my son and his wife know we understand boundaries, we’re erecting a fence between the two houses, but with a gate right in the middle that I’ll be teaching Madeline to open just as soon as she can reach the latch.

Having little experience with girls, I’m unsure how best to proceed with a granddaughter. I can teach her about woodworking, pocketknives, and camping. My son knows quite a bit about homebuilding, pigs, and chickens, so we’ve got those bases covered. But someone will have to instruct Madeline in those matters unique to females and puberty, and it won’t be me. My wife never had a daughter, so it probably won’t be her, either. I guess this is why God made mothers and Cosmopolitan magazine.

Our son and daughter-in-law told us they were expecting just as soon as the pregnancy kit from CVS confirmed it. It set me on pins and needles, where I’ve been perched ever since, keeping an eye out for trouble. My wife and I lost our first baby, so I’ve never rested easy until a baby has exited the womb in the 40th week. Had we not lost our baby, he would now be 24. At odd moments, I wonder what he would have been like. The early 20s are an unsettled time. He might have been married, but maybe not. Might have still been in college, or perhaps didn’t go. Might have had his own home, but might also have still been living at home. One never knows with a 24-year-old. I do know he would have been loved by his parents, just as Madeline will be loved by hers.

It has been said that having children changes people, often for the better. They become less self-centered, more mature. I wonder if having grandchildren changes people, too—if it makes them care more about the world their grandchildren will inhabit. I’d like to think I’m still pliable, that I’m not so set in my ways as to be unmoved by an infant. I’m counting on Madeline to change me for the better, which is a tall order for one so young. And yet, I suspect she’ll possess great power, at least over me.

I’ve been polling my peers, asking them the best thing about being a grandparent, and the answer is always the same: “You can love them, and then send them home.” That seems peculiar to me. Why would I want to send my granddaughter home? Both my sons left home when they were 18. I wept on both occasions, at night in bed, after my wife fell asleep. Now I’m supposed to be happy that I can send my granddaughter home? She just got here, for crying out loud.

Since it takes two, preferably unrelated, people to produce a child, we’ll have to share Madeline with another set of grandparents, Dale and Debbie. Sometimes a child will have a bad set of grandparents and a good set of grandparents, and there for a while I was feeling my competitive juices start to crank up. But Madeline will have two good sets of grandparents. Dale and Debbie are kind-hearted and attentive. Dale tells corny jokes, but that shouldn’t be held against a man.

We’re going to try hard not to be the kind of grandparents who micromanage their adult children. At least my wife is. I’ll probably stick my nose into everything they do, advising them on matters large and small. I’ve already hinted that they should get rid of their television set until Madeline learns to read. They’re not doing anything about it, so I might have to sneak in while they’re gone and steal their TV. They’ll thank me later.

I’m thinking of the things I can teach my granddaughter to do, most of them having to do with taking care of me.

I’m also thinking of the things I can teach Madeline to do, most of them having to do with taking care of me when I’m old and feeble and peeing on myself. Our family doesn’t have much of a tradition of the younger ones taking care of their elders. The parents and grandparents wave the younger ones away, urging them to leave. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll go live in a nursing home,” they say, like a Jewish mother. But I intend to change that pattern with Madeline and let her wait on me hand and foot.

I would have taken care of my father’s dad, but I didn’t know him. He died when I was a baby, but his wife lived well into my twenties, a very proper woman whose penchant for etiquette caused her to seem distant. I knew both of my mother’s parents well. My grandfather Hank was cranky, but otherwise likeable, and we got along fine. My mom’s mom, Grandma Norma, was straight out of Central Casting—a loving, doting, cookie-making, grandchildren-can-do-no-wrong kind of grandma.

Years ago, my cousin Judy gave birth to a little girl named Caroline. Grandma Norma was gone by then, up in heaven where all kindly grandmothers eventually go to knit and cook and brag to God about their grandchildren: “Did I tell you about my granddaughter Jeanne? She’s been accepted into nursing school. Smart as a whip! And this is Philip.” (Shows God a picture.) “He’s a pastor. Not very smart, but he tries.”

One night, when Caroline was 3 years old, Judy heard her talking to someone in her bedroom. Judy went to check on the girl, who told her she was talking with a nice lady who came and sat with her every night while she was in bed.

Judy knew children sometimes had imaginary friends and wasn’t alarmed. Caroline’s older brother Patrick once had an entire imaginary basketball team. So Judy kissed Caroline goodnight and thought nothing of it. Weeks passed, and the nice lady continued to visit Caroline each night. Then one day, Caroline saw a picture of Grandma Norma on Judy’s dresser, studied it closely, and said, “Mommy, that’s the nice lady who talks to me.”

And that, my friends, is the kind of grandparent I want to be—one who comes to visit his grandchildren even after he’s dead.