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Cardboard grandkids vs. the real thing

Published June 04. 2011 09:08AM

I am among the many who refer to the part of Florida where I live as a "little piece of Paradise."

With its constant sunshine, lush flowers year round, gently swaying Palm trees everywhere and a tropic location that delivers one beautiful day after another, this place is perfect for a nature lover like me.

But just as a beautiful, fragrant rose has its thorns, there are figurative thorns to living here.

Some of my friends think the seasonal threat of hurricanes and ridiculously high insurance premiums are the biggest problems in living here.

I think there's a greater price I pay for staying here - cardboard grandchildren.

That's what I call it when grandparents never see their grandkids. Instead of visits, they get pictures in the mail.

I've watched far too many grandparents have to settle for cardboard photos when what they really want is to see the little ones in person. But in this age of mobility when families no longer stay in the same town generation after generation, we have to settle for what we can get.

I remember sobbing in an airport when my older daughter was moving with her husband and child to Germany. While it was an opportunity for them, I was heartbroken not to be able to drive to see little Emmy on weekends.

A few years later, I was the one breaking hearts when I announced I was moving to Florida.

"How can you do that," questioned my daughter, Andrea, "when you're the one who is always preaching to us about family values?"

When I lived only a few hours from her, I was at every birthday celebration, every special occasion and every school event. It was so easy to drive there and back whenever I wanted. And she made the trip home many times, too, making it possible for us to remain an integral part of each other's lives, even though we lived in different states.

I told her nothing would change when I moved to Florida. "There are these things called planes," I said. "I can be in New Jersey in the same amount of time it used to take me to drive there."

For a while, I was the consummate frequent flyer, never missing a concert or special event. But as six years passed, the plane visits grew farther apart. Visiting every four months is not enough when the grandkids are changing so much.

Both daughters use every form of modern communication so they can share events I can't see. Through the wonders of video, I've watched a soccer game in Germany, a basketball game in Philadelphia and several talent shows in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

But it's not the same as being there. Not even close.

When I learned three of my grandchildren would be performing in the same Beach Boys concert, I immediately booked a plane ticket. Although I just saw them perform at Christmas, I was amazed at how they grew in confidence and ability.

I must admit I had tears in my eyes several times during the concert. My oldest grandchild, Grayson, used to be shy, never wanting to be noticed. School of Rock, where he takes drumming and bass lessons, has been asking him for years to sing for some of the songs during their shows. He wouldn't hear of it.

But there he was, singing "Surfin' Bird" and doing some gyrating dance moves all with upmost confidence. Best of all, he was having fun.

Cameron, the middle child, used to have a coping mechanism when he performed in a School of Rock concert: He turned the speaker down so his role as lead guitarist couldn't be heard over the band. At least that's why I thought he did it.

But there he was, during last week's concert, doing a solo with his ukulele. He didn't tell us about it ahead of time, wanting it to be a surprise. I would not have wanted to miss it.

At 10, Sophie is the youngest grandchild. She's a wisp of a girl and looks like a fragile flower. But as I watched her play drums with authority on stage and play basketball in a tough, mixed league, I saw there was nothing fragile about her.

I couldn't learn all that from photos. I couldn't see the growing maturity and budding confidence of these kids. Not even a video would tell me that.

A photo can't put its arms around me and give me a goodnight kiss.

A photo can't talk quietly with me and share a confidence.

A photo can't make me laugh by sharing my grandson's sense of humor.

It can't ask my opinion or tell me what's going on in their young minds.

I can only do that in person. Although plane fares keep creeping higher, I need to keep waiting for those two-day sales that can put air tickets within reach. I need to do it because too much is at stake.

I don't want cardboard grandkids. I want to share their lives.

I hope those of you who live near your grandkids know what a gift you have.

I don't count riches by money in a bank. I count it by the rich little moments of life that we get to share with those we love.

Family photos are nice. But nothing beats being there.

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