The coffee mug on his desk was turned to just the right angle. I could see the legend in vibrant green, red, yellow, and blue lettering that looked as if a 7-year-old had hand-lettered the piece: "World's Greatest Grandpa."
Sliding into the chair across from my colleague, preparing to have a discussion about some topic I've long forgotten, I couldn't help wondering to myself: "How come no one told me about that contest — 'World's Greatest Grandpa'? I could win that one — hands down!"
Is it arrogance — some type of late-onset egotism — that allows us to believe that we are terrific grandparents? Or is it the simple, unadorned truth? The proliferation of mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and ball caps would lead us to believe that the feelings of grandparental expertise are not unique.
For reasons that may be worth pondering, we seem to move quite easily into the role of grandparent, understanding infant cries and instantly distinguishing whether hunger, anger, or a diaper needs attention. Those cries stir our children to immediate fits of action, while we move calmly through the process of mid-course correction that calms everyone down. Our attempts at dispelling a fear of thunder or making sure a dog sniffs our hand before we try to pat its head come so easily that we often amaze ourselves.
Somehow, we just know what to do.
By the time we get to step proudly into grandparenthood, experiences relived or simply etched into the "muscle memory" of our minds, serve us with ease and confidence. We simply know what the cry means. We count the seconds after a fall, then decide whether the net result will be tears or trying again. We intuitively grab the extra container of wipes, the rag doll, the baseball glove, or the camera as we exit the house and venture off on another cross-generational adventure.
But truth be told — and it will come out one way or the other — do we not silently wish that we could be as skilled at long-term parenting as we are at spontaneous grandparenting? Watching adult children go through the transition from amateur to "pro" in dealing with their own kids provides ample opportunity for us to say (silently, to ourselves, one would caution), "I remember when…," and step right in to help.
Not so the challenge of watching those same adult children get the bumps and bruises that seem to come with reckless abandon in a turbulent economy, a job market that is less than encouraging, and the series of political, social, and economic travails that have marked the past few years.
We want to help — instinctively we know what to do and when to reach out — but the difference between a lost toy animal and a lost job are so dramatic as to be crippling.
The drifting-away boyfriend in sixth grade causes some tears and provides the parent a chance to make things better with a talk, a walk, and some seasoned philosophy about life and love. The marriage that drifts away causes pain and anguish that no amount of soothing conversation seems to dispel. We answer our grandchildren's questions with the surety of seasoned oracles. We field our adult children's questions and reach out for answers that never seem to appear.
To our knowledge, there are no mass-produced coffee mugs that allow us to communicate "I Wish I Were a Better Parent." But as the coffee steams up out of my colleague's grandparenting "trophy," I revel at his good fortune, reflect on my own, and rest comfortably, knowing that my standing as a "professional grandparent" remains unchallenged. That title seems fairly secure. It's the parenting challenge that I'm still working on every day.