The Gift of Grandparents

Grandparents Day is Sunday, Sept. 11. Whether the role of a grandmother or grandfather is mentor, friend, confidante, even partner-in-crime (when it comes to sneaking sweets or letting the dog in the bed), their presence strengthens family bonds. And, of course, they can be a total blast.

by Alexi Wilbourn

You may know them as Georgia’s 82nd governor and first lady, but to their six grandchildren, Nathan and Sandra Deal are just “Poppa” and “Grandmama.” Although visiting their grandparents at the Governor’s Mansion means that they can’t play hide-andseek around the 200-year-old furniture, they do get to swim in the pool and run around 18 acres of landscaped lawn and gardens.

While the Deals keep busy schedules, as do their four children, they actively work at building relationships across the generations. Sandra Deal usually sees her five oldest grandchildren, who live in Atlanta and Gainesville, every week or two. Although she doesn’t get to visit as often with 5-year-old Ethan, who lives in Butts County, she keeps in touch by phone. “He talks about school and what he’s been doing,” Sandra says, a smile in her soft voice. “He likes to go out and play by their fish pond and he talks about feeding the fish.”

Grandparents can do special things that parents don’t have time for, Sandra says. Some parents get into such a routine that they don’t even take time to read a book with their kids. “My grandchildren used to get in the kitchen all the time, making cornbread, learning how to cut things up, and making hot tea. They grew to love hot tea,” she says, remembering their fun.

The Deals also enjoy making memories with their family at their Habersham County cabin on the Chattahoochee River. “They all love playing in the river, throwing rocks, swimming,” Sandra says. (In true grandmother fashion, she notes that her grandchildren only play in the safe, shallow areas and adults always supervise.) “It’s a joy for them – and us – to learn about and observe nature, play, and make up things to do.” For inside activities, Sandra has taught her grandkids to play dominoes. “We play hard!” she laughs.

The Deals love to see their grandchildren compete and are always there to cheer them on, whether it’s kayak races, Cub Scouts or theater camp. “It is important for us to support their efforts,” Sandra says.

Like the Deals, East Cobb resident Louise Betsch is eager to keep strong bonds with her family, whether they are close or far away. Her son and his children live in Indiana, so Betsch uses technology like Skype to visit with Sara, 11, and Ryan, 7. She sees her daughter’s 2-year-old, Isabel, a few days a week and baby-sits 5-month-old Juliana every day.

“We like to blow bubbles,” Betsch laughs. “We read books, sing and go on field trips to PetSmart, Publix, the library. I take [Juliana] to places where she can see, smell and look at new things. I try to take her out once or twice a week.” Besides loving to spoil her grandchildren, Betsch wants to help them grow up to be the best they can be. She tries to give all four of her grandchildren a variety of experiences. When Betsch asked her granddaughter Sara how she learned to hula-hoop so well, Sara responded, “You taught me, Grandma!” Betsch had to smile at the answer.

“I had a wonderful inspiration in my own grandmother. She was an incredible woman; she had a special needs child. She had that challenge to face every day, but still she had time to sit down with me to make paper dolls, and would bake bread every week. I loved the smell in her kitchen,” Betsch says. “She kept things going and made such good memories for me.”

Paulding County grandparents Lora “Grie” and Rick “Papa” Stermole spend a lot of time with their two grandchildren, Weston, 5, and Hollyn, 7. Lora, who got her special name from Hollyn, whose speech delay prevented her from saying “Grammy,” frequently watches the kids for her daughter, Stacie Kershner. Lora also sews the grandkids’ clothes and takes them on special outings. As a retired pre-school teacher, she incorporates educational activities into playtime. Rick allows the grandkids to help drive his boat and likes taking them to Home Depot for the woodworking sessions. He also is teaching Weston to golf.

“I am thrilled they get to have such a close relationship,” says Stacie. “My parents being nearby – and young for grandparents – means that my kids get to build relationships with them, independent of me.” Kershner also likes that her parents are able to pass on skills such as baking and golf that she can’t. The tight relationship between her parents and children also helps relieve the family. Besides helping with babysitting, her parents are helping to send Hollyn to a private special needs therapeutic school this academic year.

Atlanta grandparent Nancy “Neenar” Hawthorne’s favorite memory with her grandchildren is going to church on Sundays. “I didn’t have that with my grandparents, and it just makes me feel like a family complete.” Nancy and her husband Rowland, aka “Poppy,” live within walking distance of their three grandchildren, Ellie, 8, Caroline, 6, and Lily, 4, and see them several times a week. They often drive the children wherever they need to be while their parents are busy or at work. Once a week, Nancy and Rowland join their daughter, Anna Henry, and her family for a special dinner.

“We just love being a part of their life,” Nancy says. In fact, she and Rowland moved from Denver after 40 years to be near them. “We decided that [the girls] are our only grandchildren and that we wanted to see them grow up and be a part of their lives. That’s what we’ve done, and it’s been very, very much fun.”

“Camp Neenar Poppy,” where the girls spend the night with their grandparents, all piled in a giant bed, is one of the best things about living so close together, the family agrees. “It’s a big deal on both sides,” Henry says. “Everyone always looks forward to it.” But the thing that makes “Neenar” and “Poppy” the proudest is “when [the girls] run up and hug us and greet us with great joy,” Nancy says.

The fact that her parents live so close keeps the family tight, Anna says. She loves to see her dad outside with the girls, working in the garden, pointing out birds, and sharing his knowledge. “We like to help them learn,” Nancy says, “especially the things they don’t learn in school.”