Lamentations of a long-distance grandmother

Kathy Smith Baker of Cleveland has seven teenaged and young adult grandchildren, none of whom has ever lived anywhere near her.

“I think there should be legislation that keeps children and their offspring in the same town, but it didn’t work out that way,” says Kathy, 75, a retired early childhood educator who raised her three children in Cleveland Heights, a suburb, in the 1960s and 70s.  

As 20-somethings, Kathy’s kids traveled extensively—two of them served in the Peace Corps—and then settled far from home, in Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Boston, respectively.

For the most part, Kathy had to settle for getting to know her grandkids during their school vacations. She used to host a bunch of them at a time every summer for a week of “Camp Nana,” during which she’d play with them by Lake Erie and take them to museums and amusement parks.

These days, though, their summers are usually booked.

“Am I satisfied? I would say no. I would love to see more of them, but I don’t really expect it to be any different. It’s not that I’m resentful or pouting or saying, ‘Why don’t you call me more?’ I don’t do that because I don’t really feel it. I understand why.”

“They’re all doing fine, and I suppose I am spared a lot of worry [by living far from them]. I also have friends who want to speak up and say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing with my grandchildren,’ but they don’t dare, or if they do then there’s friction. And I’ve been spared all that. I think my children are wonderful parents, I think the grandchildren are perfect, and I’ve really not seen anything that would make me think otherwise, even though I suspect there’s probably a lot of things I don’t know—and I’m probably better off not knowing them.”

However, Kathy sometimes worries that her children are exhausting themselves both at work and at home.

“The only time I ever offered any advice at all, it was to tell my kids to get their kids to help them more. They’re hardworking, especially my daughters, they’re hardworking women and they have full-time, very demanding full-time jobs. And then they come home and cook their kids meals and serve them and clean up after them and wash their clothes. And I want to say, ‘Make these lazy children help you!’ I don’t say it quite like that but I would like to.”

Kathy long ago divorced her children’s father and has been married to her current husband, John, since 1982. In 2001, after they’d retired, they decided to follow in the footsteps of Kathy’s kids and join the Peace Corps. For two years, Kathy taught English and John advised businesses in Romania.

Instead of traveling around Europe during their time off, as most of their colleagues did, they spent it all back home visiting with their grandchildren, who were in elementary school. The Camp Nana tradition began not long after that, when the kids were big enough to travel on their own.

Between visits, Kathy’s always done her best to stay in regular touch with her grandkids, but it’s hard to keep pace with them technologically.

“I wish I was better at communicating with them,” she says. “For a while they emailed but they don’t email anymore; they Facebook. They don’t even do that so much anymore; they text. The forms of communication keep changing.”

“Am I satisfied?” she says. “I would say no. I would love to see more of them, but I don’t really expect it to be any different. It’s not that I’m resentful or pouting or saying, ‘Why don’t you call me more?’ I don’t do that because I don’t really feel it. I understand why.”

And in the summer of 2013, Kathy’s eldest grandson, Nick, who was 23 and working as a medical researcher in Boston, shocked her by asking if he could book four days of Camp Nana.

“We were honored and amazed that he wanted to, but he did,” she says. “It was just great.”

She took Nick to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Rascal Flatts concert, and they marched together in Cleveland’s Gay Pride parade.

At one point, he confessed to his grandmother that he wasn’t sure where either his career or his love life was heading. She suggested he consider the Peace Corps, but he didn’t seem to want her advice, she says.

“He just responded politely in a way that made me think it really isn’t in the cards.”