What It's Like To Be A Grandpa, Having Barely Known My Own

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A first-person account of what it is like to be a grandpa, by Mike St. Esprit. As told to Meg St-Esprit.

My strongest memory of my grandfather on my dad’s side was being pulled out of school in 1963 for his funeral.

I was 10. All he did during my lifetime was work, I hardly ever saw him and didn’t know him well at all. On my mom’s side, I had my Grand-papa. I got along with him well, but he was in Montréal, and we were in Pittsburgh. I saw him every other summer. I loved him, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with him. He died the year before I became a dad. So my two experiences with grandfathers were one who died early, and one who lived 500 miles away.

My own dad was great, but not very hands-on. He worked two to three jobs, all the time, just to get by. My mom did 90 percent of the caregiving for the six of us, really. As a grandfather to his 13 grandchildren, he was similar. Loving, and present, but not very personal with the grandkids. I didn’t really even get to know my dad until he went into the nursing home. He softened, and we had a lot of time together. I finally got close to him then, which is sad just as much as it is a blessing. I am glad I got that chance, but sad that it came so late in his life. I even saw him soften towards my first grandchild, Eli. He loved when he came to visit the nursing home — his eyes just lit up as he showed him off. He died when Eli was just over a year old, and never met my other six grandchildren…

So, looking back, I didn’t really have a role model for a very involved and connected father or grandfather, but I’ve always tried to be that. I wanted to be different. With my kids, and now with my seven grandchildren. The oldest of my grandkids is 7. There are three 5-year-olds, a 3-year old, and two infants. I am sure there will be more. My wife hopes to hit 10, we will see. I am their “Pap-Pap” and she is “Gaga.” These are our favorite roles.

Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit

Four of my grandkids joined our family through adoption. I wasn’t sure how that would be at first, before it happened. I worried about it a bit. But when I met Eli, it was love at first sight. The fact that he was adopted never even entered my mind when it came to loving him. A good friend asked me once, “How is it having an adopted grandson? Do you think you love him as much as if he was biologically yours?” I just was floored for a second, and I fired back at him, “I haven’t ever thought of that. I love him with all of my heart.” At the time, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. He was my only grandchild, he was adopted, and I was so in love with him. Now I have three biological grandchildren in addition to the four that are adopted, and I don’t even think about it. I love them, and they love me. I couldn’t love them more, and I don’t love them differently. These kids all were placed in my life for a reason, and it’s an honor to be their Pap-Pap.

I try to think of what the world is like through their eyes — what’s it like for them to have a white Pap-Pap, white parents.

They’ve taught me so much too. Because of adoption, I’m also the grandfather to kids who are a different race than me. I grew up in a world that was so divided — I had black friends, but society very much told us not to mix. Now I see the world is becoming more blended than ever. By the time my grandkids are adults they will have a totally different perspective than I did as a kid. For me now, though, I find it such a blessing to get to have my worldview broadened, to think of things from another perspective. I try to think of what the world is like through their eyes — what’s it like for them to have a white Pap-Pap, white parents. It’s been really terrific for me, too, to have my world shaken up. We just didn’t think so much about these things when I was younger, but people need to just be open and learn, or else they will just live their life angry and resistant to the changing world. I love to meet the kids’ friends, from all backgrounds. I love to go to the adoption agency picnics and see all the many types of families with different stories and abilities. It’s just people loving people. Its beautiful.

Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit

I think the thing I love the most about my role as Pap-Pap, though, is the little moments. My son-in-law recently took a picture of me with one of my grandsons on my boat. Now, I’ve always had a fishing boat, but a few years ago Gaga and I got a pontoon boat for the grandbabies. We love to take them out on it, and they get so excited to go. In this picture, I am pointing at something, showing my grandson a construction site along the Ohio River that has the most cranes at one location in the world right now. He is listening so intently, and I just love that picture.

So many of my friends who are retired are moving away. They are going to Florida, or the Carolinas. A few friends have asked me where we are going to move. I tell them, 'I can’t go anywhere. I have seven grandbabies here. I can’t leave them.'

When all seven are all together, nobody gets the limelight. It can get a little hectic. Those rare moments when I get one-on-one time are so special to me. One moment that stands out is taking the oldest fishing. He had newborn twin siblings at home, and his dad and I wanted to get him out of the house a bit. We took him on my fishing boat, and he didn’t care at all about the fish. He was fascinated with the mechanics of the boat, of the trailer, how everything worked together. When we were loading the boat on the trailer to leave, I looked over and he was just standing in the water. It was a chilly day, he had on long pants, but he was just enjoying the moment.

I am trying to find more of those moments. We had an old family hunting cabin, but I’ve spent the last few years since I retired fixing it up for my grandbabies. Taking them up there, to Allegheny National Forest, is my absolute favorite thing to do. I love when we are all up there, the whole family. But I am so excited this summer that my three oldest grandkids are able to go up with just me. I loved when my own kids were around their age, every summer I took them camping without my wife. It was just a special thing we did together, I didn’t have to share that time with anybody else, and I am excited to be able to recreate that. I really want all my grandkids to grow up with an appreciation for nature and God’s creation. So many kids don’t have that, they don’t get outside. I nurtured that it in my own kids and I want to instill it in these kids too. This is my retirement.

Photo courtesy of Meg St-Esprit

So many of my friends who are retired are moving away. They are going to Florida, or the Carolinas. A few friends have asked me where we are going to move. I tell them, “I can’t go anywhere. I have seven grandbabies here. I can’t leave them.” I didn’t expect to be so attached, but the truth is I just can’t get enough of them. Even tonight, after a full day with the whole extended family at our house and on the boat, I was exhausted. I dropped two grandkids off at their house, and was ready to head home. The kids had found a hurt baby bird earlier that day, named it Lizzie, and I had promised them I would check on it. But then one of the babies, Henry, was just happily playing on the floor. I had to stop and play with him for a half hour. I couldn’t miss that.

I just didn’t expect to feel so much love and connection to these kids. It is just an honor to be their Pap-Pap, I feel so blessed to have this opportunity. I always think about when they are grown and have their own families, and I am dead and gone. My only real hope is that they think back to me and say, “He was a good guy, and he did the best he could.” That’s all I really want.