“Is Grandma a bad guy?” my grandson David inquired gravely as his grandma left the café table to go to the bathroom.
In spite of the line of questioning I find that my wife and I are very lucky in that we are the youngest of all those in our friendship circle to have become grandparents.
And I take the job of being a grandfather very seriously. It necessitates a tremendous amount of demanding and assiduous effort labor to tickle, wrestle, and buy ice cream. And there is a major benefit; namely, I don’t get to change any poopy diapers.
But another vital aspect of grand-parenting is to provide a comfort zone for the kids. I aim to give them a safe place that is free from any negativity, one which is absent judgment, where they might be able to maintain and extend innocence and to delay those inevitable and interminable years when they learn again and again about the unfortunate goings-on going on in the world. And finally I am unable to overstate the degree of utmost importance that they don’t learn this terrible stuff from me.
Last September my son Alan and his wife Lena, both of them lawyers, had to attend a destination wedding. Mollie, a friend of hers from her law firm and Giles, Mollie’s French-born, Brooklyn-dwelling investment banker fiancé were tying the knot. My wife and I were drafted to come along as babysitters for their two boys, David, three months short of four, and Michael, one year old. It was in the south of France. I can easily contemplate worse gigs.
A couple of days before the wedding all six of us took piled into the rental minivan for a drive to see the Roman ruins in the town of Vaison-la-Romaine. It was a beautiful day and after working our way through the wrecked remains my wife and I decided to spend some time at a sidewalk café which was situated on the town square. We intended to take in the scene and enjoy a cup of coffee- to savor being alive.
Alan and Lena wanted to walk Michael around in his carriage for a while; they had to get him to take a nap. They left David with us and in a painstakingly careful lawyerly manner they took turns instructing us to make sure that if either of us had to go to the bathroom we must insist that, no not insist, but we must require that David go along; he was having some serious toilet training issues.
We get coffee for ourselves and ice cream for David. We are content just to sit in the shade and to watch the world go by and David is having fun occupying himself with some small toys.
After about fifteen minutes my wife has to go to the bathroom. She asks David to join her. He turns down the invitation. She persists; he continues to decline. Not wanting to witness a potentially unpleasant standoff and also hoping to forestall any subsequent tension I break in, “Please don’t force him to go to the bathroom. That’s his parents’ job, not ours. I say that we should let them be the bad guys, not us.” She ponders this for a moment, nods in agreement, and walks off to relieve herself.
David looks up at me, very serious and attentive, perceptive and precocious: this is when he asks me “is grandma a bad guy?”
Oh, how I desperately wished that I had an audience right there and then. This is the perfect time to savor a pregnant pause, to make a thoughtful face, to offer a gesture with my arms and shoulders, to mull over this loaded question, to make this moment last. But no, I had with me a three-plus year old in the midst of toilet issues along with an age-appropriate short attention span. I waited as long as I could, moved a wrist back and forth and said, “Is grandma a bad guy? Well [stretched out to three syllables], not really, I guess.”
Just as I finish he points at a man in another café on the square- “is he a bad guy?”
I am appalled. “What makes you say that? No, he’s not a bad guy.”
Before I can finish he points to another man, “is he a bad guy?”
“Or course not.”
“Is she a bad guy?
At this point two realizations hit me at the same moment. The first is that I shouldn’t be both so horrified and egocentric; nobody there cares about us, a bunch of tourists who will likely never be seen anywhere proximate to Vaison-la-Romaine after this day. The other is that David won’t be content and shut up until I collaborate with him and locate and identify an actual bad guy.
“Is he a bad guy?”
“Yes, I think so.”
David smiles. Then he points, one by one, at almost everyone in all of the cafes in the square, “Is he a bad guy? Is she a bad guy?” “Yes, no, yes, yes.” I let him know that there are bad guys all around us. He is triumphantly satisfied; he has confirmed an evident truth.
My wife returns to the table, “grandma, there’s a bad guy over there.”
She gives me a quizzical, WTF look. “I’ll explain later” I tell her.
I was trying my hardest to avoid acknowledging the certainty that negativity and unpleasantness and bad people are facts of life; he was having none of this.
I was wasting energy trying to put something over on him, denying the presence of bad guys.
It took a kid with toilet issues, someone who literally did not have his shit together, and someone who could see through my bullshit, to teach me about the vanity of denial.