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Doing the Ellie-Nellie Two-Step

by on September 18, 2019 4:30 AM


VANCOUVER, B.C. -- I am giddy with granddaughters. 

There’s Penelope, a year old already and saying “Caw!” when she sees a crow and “Up!” when she wants to get closer to the sky and “Ah-toe!” when she wants to be inscrutable. 

And now there’s Elleka, born last week, who, when she isn’t sleeping or demanding sustenance, practices all the facial expressions she will eventually summon when she is amused, baffled, perturbed or cheesed off. 

I managed to see both of these precious ones last week, which took some doing. Elleka lives in Vancouver. Penelope lives in Boulder, Colo. 

Last Monday morning, after putting in a few days helping Schuyler and Norah get their house baby-ready (mostly I washed dishes and floors), I took the shore-hugging train from Vancouver to Seattle, spent the night, then flew to Denver. Elleka wasn’t due for another week, so I thought I’d sneak in a quick visit to Penelope before her step-cousin’s birth. 

Well, due dates are like umpires and hotdog vendors – you know, ballpark figures. Labor began on Sunday. I could’ve canceled my trip to Colorado, but it was my last chance to see granddaughter, daughter, son-in-law, son, sister and brother-in-law before departing for Greece for the year, so off I went.

I hoped Elleka would spare her mom a laborious labor and show her face before train time, but she had other plans. The train chugged away from Central Station at 6:35. Elleka chugged into the world eight minutes later. 

Ah well. With a doula and two midwives attending the birth, we grandparents-in-waiting weren’t needed anyway, though I’m proud to say we contributed a crucial late-night popsicle run before the birthing personnel swooped in.

What followed was pretty zany: I spent Monday afternoon and evening with friends in Seattle, Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday with family in Boulder and Denver (including an evening with Bernie, Elizabeth, Joe and the rest of the Democratic crew), then back to Seattle on Friday with enough time for a coffee, a walk and tacos with my friend Steve before boarding the evening train back to Vancouver.

And then, on Saturday morning, I met Elleka, five days old, and got to marvel all over again at the tiny intricacy of a newborn’s ears, nose, fingers, toes, lips and chin, all as perfect as dahlias. 

With my visit to Penelope fresh in my mind I also got to marvel at how much a human being grows and changes in the first year of life. Penelope eats and drinks, waves and points, turns the pages of books, lights up when people she knows walk into a room and emphatically expresses her preferences – no, she absolutely did not want to stop playing on my blow-up bed and get strapped into her stroller for a walk downtown. In short, she’s more like you and me than she is like her Canadian cuz.

My wife and I knew this time would come. When we got together, we had five adult children between us. At least some of them, we figured, would set aside their qualms and bring babies into this scary world. Now three of the five are in their 30s and our own private baby boom has indeed commenced. 

What’s wonderful about grandparenthood, according to the cliché, is that you get to adore the little ones when they’re adorable and hand them back to their parents when their pouty or poopy. An underappreciated reason everyone loves being a grandparent, though, is that the joy isn’t tempered by anxiety the way it is for the parents. 

Parents, especially new parents, fret about whether they’re doing it right. Too permissive? Too impatient? Too much sugar? Too much screen time? When little Wilberforce next door, 3 years old, starts French or cello or building a water filtration system in Lower Klopstokia, you think, “Should our little Wilhelmina be doing that?” 

As a grandparent all you worry about is whether your back can withstand another pony ride – and whether grandparenting via video chat is enough. It isn’t.

I saw Penelope in the flesh five times during the first 13 months of her life, once in State College and four times in Boulder. I’m grateful I had the money to make all those trips and a little ashamed of my outsized carbon footprint, but now that I’m about to leave for Greece, video chats with her and Elleka will have to suffice. 

If our far-flung empire of grandkids shows signs of expanding when we return from our year abroad, we may start making the rounds in a camper van, because let’s face it, the only FaceTime worthy of the name is one that allows for the kissing of actual faces.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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