It’s noon on Sunday, and as usual, I’m sitting at the kitchen table having lunch with my fourteen-month-old son and his grandparents. It’s our weekly ritual, one that has become indispensable to all of us: I can take a precious few moments to catch up with my parents between cutting peanut butter sandwiches and retrieving dropped sippy cups, they get to dote on Nico and see how he’s changed over the past week, and he gets to entertain his adoring fans, for whom everything he does is brilliant and hysterical. But when Nico tries to feed a piece of his sandwich to his grandfather, things get weird.
See, Grandma and Grandpap are 1,200 miles away. We maintain our weekly lunch date – and our familial bond – almost exclusively online, via Skype. Grandpap leans toward the screen, wiggling his moustache for effect, mouth wide open to accept whatever slimy, half-chewed morsel of food his grandson offers. And Nico, giggling expectantly, leans in closer and closer till I have to pull the laptop back to keep him from smearing jam across the screen. It’s a sweet, silly exchange between them, which, like so much time spent with a baby, is not about doing anything significant, but rather just being together in the moment. But none of us quite knows what to do when our virtual relationship runs up against such literal walls.
Nico rolls with it, of course, and moves on to smashing kiwifruit into his hair. He is part of a brave new generation, one for whom communicating in this way that once seemed so impossible, so Jetsonian, is a purely quotidian experience. Nearly everyone I know whose kids have out-of-town grandparents does some sort of online video-calling, and a recent New York Times article documented just this phenomenon. But quotidian or not, I wonder about what it means for our relationships.
We travel to be together in person whenever we can, but the very reason for the more frequent visits – my son – makes traveling much more logistically challenging, not to mention more expensive. And my parents, like so many other baby-boomer grandparents, are younger and healthier than those of previous generations; they’d love nothing more than to be involved in their grandson’s life, but also like many others of their generation, they find themselves having to work later in their lives and lack the leisure time or financial security to travel often.
In some ways, these concerns seem so very:I don’t know, twentieth century. We are all, of course, mind-bogglingly hyper-connected in this postmodern era. With web cams and an internet connection, we can in fact see our family whenever we want; Nico certainly spends more time online with his grandparents than I did face-to-face with mine. But the paradox of this intense connectivity is that it’s always coupled with reminders of the actual distance between us: the limits of battery life and bandwidth are nagging indices of the miles from the Midwest to the East coast, and the inevitable technical glitches can make our online visits feel as alienating as they are enjoyable.
I recently wrote a letter to my own grandmother on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, reminiscing about my earliest memories of her and reflecting on the pleasures of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. What struck me while writing was how physical my memories of her are, how many of them involve touch and smell and presence. Watching Nico interact with his grandparents online, it becomes clear just how challenging it is to create a relationship with a child (especially a pre-lingual child) when those elements of physicality are removed. They’ve risen to the challenge as admirably as anyone possibly could, honing their performance skills and developing an arsenal of visual entertainment techniques to rival any children’s television host.
They’re a comedic duo, with Grandpap playing the straight man in Grandma’s routines: she dresses him in funny hats, tugs on his ears and nose, feeds him with a huge wooden spoon – they do whatever it takes to get a busy toddler engaged with a twelve-inch screen. Our visits are always tinged by a certain sadness. And there is genuine joy in the experience, on both sides. But our visits are always tinged by a certain sadness. When we end our weekly calls, my parents’ longing is almost palpable – my mother frequently signs off by saying something like, “Oh, Nico, why don’t you just come over for the rest of the afternoon? We can walk to the park and swing on the swings” in a faux-cheerful voice. And I find myself missing more substantive conversations with them, especially now, since being at sea in the world of parenting has given me such a different perspective on them as people.
Having a baby made me value my family in new and unexpected ways; and after Nico was born, the miles between us and his grandparents seemed to stretch open like some yawning, indifferent beast. To be sure, Skype makes that distance feel a little less beastly. And for Nico, whose days are immersed in imaginative play, maybe navigating that distance virtually is not such a perilous undertaking. Regardless, even five years ago we could have only traversed it in that old-fashioned, embodied way to be together at holidays and for significant family events; so for now, we’re all grateful for those Sunday lunches, and for lovely moments of inconsequential togetherness, virtual or not.