Better Late Than Never

by Celeste Cheyney

I can’t recall all the reasons why those two grandchildren made me so happy when they were young, but I can remember a few. For one, when we were together I saw the world through their eyes and every experience was filled with excitement. When they jumped up and down like Chihuahuas as I entered the room, it was certainly good for the ego. While we were laughing at the monkeys in the Bronx Zoo and the arthritis pain mysteriously disappeared, the health benefits were clear. Whenever I brought Chinese takeout, which they devoured with gusto, I was able to help the family with almost no work at all. When they were a bit older and the boy won the second grade chess tournament or the girl pirouetted gracefully at her dance recital, it made me beam with pride.

Most important of all, though, they gave me an excuse to shop. That provided the best escape from anything that was causing anxiety. It didn’t matter if I was searching for a good deal on a crib on Amazon or wandering aimlessly around Barnes and Noble before picking up a copy of Goodnight Moon. Even buying a Spider Man t-shirt made me feel good inside. Of course finding something of educational value brought the most satisfaction. Stocking up on those Baby Einstein DVDs couldn’t guarantee the kids would turn out to be geniuses, but it might bestow some advantage one day when they applied to the Ivy League. Shopping might be a woman’s thing, but what man can resist that LEGO Technic Ocean Explorer set for his grandson? Because you’re doing all of this for them, it never seems like a waste of money or time. You’re investing in their future, which is a truly noble deed. You’ve earned the right to the instant gratification that shopping brings, without the slightest bit of guilt. That’s more than you get from buying another designer bag or custom-made shirt that you don’t need, or even a book about Spinoza.

Somehow, my son and his wife had managed to have those two children by the time they were 35. It was like some kind of a miracle, considering that most of their peers were out drinking and dancing every night. My daughter Alanna, who is eight years younger than Matt, was in no hurry either. When she was approaching 35, nothing seemed farther from her mind than becoming a parent. By then, the grandchildren were doing what was normal at their age. Not only were they too busy with homework, test prep, hockey practice, video games, and friends to want to see me for more than ten minutes, now they were capable of buying whatever they needed without any help. That, of course, left a huge gap in my life. I didn’t want it to evolve into a full-scale crisis. Wasn’t it a daughter’s duty to fill such a gap?

Alanna’s attitude shouldn’t have been a surprise. It wasn’t only that her friends were postponing parenthood as if it were some kind of a curse. It was my own fault, too. My advice to both the kids had always been to follow my example and avoid settling down too early. Stay in school as long as you can; the more degrees, the better. Find work that you feel passionate about. Most important of all, fill your life with adventure. Don’t start a family until you’ve stayed overnight in a yurt in Uzbekistan, ridden a camel across the desert near Fez, and experienced the majesty of the Taj Mahal at dawn. They had both followed my advice, and I was proud of them. However, now Alanna was almost 35 and she was still following it. Did she and her husband really need to spend their honeymoon in Thailand and Cambodia? As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were planning visits to Antarctica and Bora Bora. Maybe my advice wasn’t so good after all. I could have stressed the advantages of settling down early. You get all the hard work over with when you’re young and energetic. You can always do your traveling later. Also, didn’t they know that if anything is an adventure, it’s living with children? I should have said something about that.

This wasn’t only about me, though. Alanna and her husband seemed to adore other people’s kids. I wanted them to become part of the cycle of life. I didn’t want them to wait too long and miss out on having a family of their own. Hadn’t they heard of something called a biological time clock?

Of course, once you’ve stopped paying their bills, what your offspring do with their lives is none of your business. You never ask questions, because you might just end up offending them and then they won’t call for a month. You can’t give them advice, either, even though you’re the one who knows what’s best for them. Still, nobody said you couldn’t give it some thought.

I told myself to be patient. After all, these days people are starting families well into their forties. In educated circles, it’s becoming the norm. It should come as no surprise that having grandchildren late in life is, too. My eighty-two-year-old friend has a new grandchild, his first. This is no old geezer who shuffles along with a walker. He is seen in the park every day sprinting behind a jogging stroller, with a huge grin. Since 80 is the new 60, nobody thinks it’s the slightest bit odd. His comment about it is “Better late than never.”

I realized that Alanna and her spouse might be trying desperately to have children, without success. Maybe they’ve tried everything from acupuncture to hormone therapy, and nothing has worked. If they do IVF they could end up with triplets, or even worse. Then again, they could always adopt. That would be a mitzvah in a world where so many children are without homes. I could learn to enjoy shopping for a child who doesn’t look like me.

I had to accept the possibility that they might not want children of their own. It’s not for everyone. When you’ve seen Angkor Watt, a trip to Disney World might not seem so exciting. Children are unpredictable. They whine and cry and spill ice cream all over the couch. These days they have so much paraphernalia that there isn’t much room for anything else. Being child-free does have its advantages. My girlfriends who opted for that are quite happy with their lives. They’ve had fulfilling careers and their apartments are filled with fine paintings and priceless antiques. Even now, some of them still have svelte figures, few wrinkles, and not a single white hair.

I had to admit that it would be absurd to become a grandmother again at this age. Unless I live to almost 100, I won’t be here to see if Alanna’s children make it to the Ivy League, so I won’t know if my investments in them have actually paid off. Even if I practice Mindful Meditation and twist myself into the Cobra position every day, I probably won’t make it that far. Still, I do remember something Aunt Lill said many years ago, when she was in her seventies, “Oy, I’m like an old car. I need new parts.” These days, almost everyone of a certain age has new parts. It almost seems natural. However, if most of me is bionic, will I still be me?

Then, of course, there were global issues to consider – rising sea levels, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, as well as income inequality and the immigrant crisis, and even the threat of nuclear war. Maybe it isn’t fair to bring a child into such an imperfect world.

Well, that was settled. I had to accept that my daughter was not likely to have children. It was probably best that way. I would have to learn to live with it. I found a designer bag on Amazon and placed my order.

About four months after she turned 35, when Alanna called to announce that she was pregnant, I almost fainted. It was tempting to say, “Well, it’s about time!” but I just blurted out, “Yes!” It‘s amazing how quickly all those negative thoughts disappeared. Once again, I would experience all the benefits that a young child brings. Most important of all, I would have somebody new to shop for. As soon as the call was over, I headed for Barnes and Noble to pick up a brand-new copy of Goodnight Moon. Better late than never. Much, much better.


Celeste Cheyney worked for many years with the hearing impaired, and had a memoir about a deaf colleague published by Gallaudet University Press.  I enjoy sharing my own experiences, which tend to be somewhat unusual.