How Neighbors Became ‘Grandparents’
Dozens of papers streaked with blue, yellow and green markers covered the kitchen table. Lovely designs resembling trees, butterflies and circles overlapped on multiple pages of scrap paper I had reserved just for this purpose.

“Color with me!” my 2-year-old granddaughter said again. Hadn’t we just spent the past couple of hours doing just that? Fortunately, one thing grandmas have is patience, so I picked up the purple marker, wrote “GABBY” on the paper, and drew my best tulip.

During the week of Gabby’s visit, we colored enough pages for a year’s worth of refrigerator art. Once a picture was sufficiently finished, Gabby promptly forgot about it and concentrated on her next masterpiece.

“I don’t want to go home,” Gabby said, as I slipped a clean sheet of paper under the red marker wobbling in her hand. “I want to stay with you, Grandma.” A faint smile crossed my face. I had heard those same words many years ago from my own young daughter, Gabby’s mother, about her “grandma” across the street.

“I’m going to Grandma’s house. She takes care of me,” my daughter Brandi threatened in her 2-year-old logic, when she didn’t like what was happening at home. Brandishing a pout to accompany her defiance, she scampered across the street to her adopted grandparents’ house.

Tender Connection

Violet and Webb Bailey lived across the street from us. Violet and I worked for the same school district, and I had taught her son a few years earlier. Yet we had remained “front porch neighbors” in our snug subdivision until the children came along. What a difference that made. Babies have a way of capturing hearts, especially from people who have an abundance of love to share. My children grew up with an extra grandma and grandpa, not related by blood but as close to their hearts as their related grandparents.

Soon after our first child, Brandi, arrived, Violet knocked on the door for a friendly visit. Before long she became a regular at my house, arriving promptly at 4 p.m. when her job as a school librarian was over. She came to see my daughter – to hold, laugh and restore her spirit in the gaze of a newborn child. “Land’s a mercy,” she exclaimed, eyes sparkling as she scooped the plump bundle from my arms.

“May I take Brandi to my house for a while?” Violet asked one day. “It will give you a break,” she said. I hesitated about letting this tiny baby out of my sight, yet I agreed. In reality, Violet wanted the opportunity to bond with the baby by herself, and somehow I knew this was a good thing. Although the relationship was completely unexpected, it was so genuine that I could not help but accept it.

During those first months, I had witnessed Violet’s devotion to my daughter and the tender connection that had developed between them. I felt comfortable and trusted Violet’s grandmotherly instincts.

In a matter of weeks, her house was outfitted with a crib, diapers and assorted baby supplies so that she and Webb could keep Brandi for longer periods. They loved her, truly loved her, as deeply as if she were their flesh and blood. And my daughter loved them. Webb, who rocked her for hours and delighted as much in baby talk as Violet, became an expert in nursery rhymes.

Brandi spent many happy hours just building with blocks and shopping for groceries with them. When boredom loomed they gave her a bucket of water and a brush to paint the house.

“Look, Grandma, I’m painting,” she exclaimed as they marveled at her handiwork. Up and down she stroked the brush, admiring the dampness before it faded. Simple pleasures such as these developed into a pure and mutual attachment.

“We want to take Brandi to the farm,” Violet said one day, although I suspected Webb was really the motivator. Brandi was only 2, but it seemed like a good outing for her. The farm was “home” to Violet and Webb, a place they left decades ago but always planned to return to someday. There Brandi marveled at cows feeding in the field, petted the horses and saw windmills turning to pump water. When walking to the pond tired her short legs, two pairs of arms were ready to carry her home.

As our other children were born, this couple’s family circle widened to include all. Retirement came, and they moved to the farm, a four-hour drive away. We resolved to not only maintain contact, but allow the relationship to flourish even more. Thus, the children wandered the open spaces of their farm in summer, rode horses and fished in the pond.

As the children grew older, special occasions like graduations saw Grandma Violet and Grandpa Webb proudly sitting in the audience. My last child never knew them as neighbors, but she always knew them as grandparents.

 A Deep and Lasting Relationship

Quietness embraced the rural church, a short drive from the farm, quiet and stillness, but that is how it usually is at funerals. We were there to bury Grandpa Webb.

“Sit with the family,” Violet insisted. So we sat on the pew among kin just met. These were the blood relatives of Webb Bailey; we were the love relatives.

Brandi and I wandered through their house, which already felt empty without Grandpa Webb, peering over glasses perched on his nose, languishing in his special green chair. Memories flowed through the rooms.

Grandpa’s slow drawl echoed through the walls, offering to read the truck book one more time. Pictures of the children at various ages were scattered on shelves. Books read while they sat on comfortable laps years ago sprawled in ancient bookcases. We reminisced about sleeping on the back porch while cool night breezes filtered through screened walls.

A Bucket of Love

Together, we walked down the hall, silently recalling visits of years past, hearing familiar voices in the background. Suddenly Brandi stopped and tapped my arm. Unable to speak from the lump stuck in her throat, she pointed to a bookshelf displaying mementos fondly gathered during a lifetime. There, as regally as a jeweled crown, sat the small bucket and brush she had used as a toddler to paint Grandma and Grandpa’s house. It was empty now except for the memories it held. Brandi touched it reverently.

That plain bucket symbolized the depth of this relationship, transcending from simple metal to precious gem just as Violet and Webb had transcended from neighbors to family. As long as the bucket and brush remained in view, the connection would remain intact.

Gabby and I continued to color pretty pictures of anything and nothing. Not being very artistic, I soon tired of drawing stick figures that all looked the same and decided we needed an outside activity.

In a corner of the garage I found a bucket and brush, just right for busy little hands to paint the house. I handed it to Gabby. When she dipped the brush into the water and painted a magical streak of dampness, I knew that the bond forged through love had not been lost, but continues to unite our generations.

Beverly Burmeier is a freelance writer and “go-getter” grandma of six. She writes on parenting and relationship issues, health and fitness, environment and gardening.

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