By Marilyn Shapiro
How difficult it must have been for my grandparents! Their children Fran and Bill lived at least eight hours away, first in Vermont and Connecticut and then in small towns in Upstate New York.
Between the distance and the logistics involved trips were limited to one or two week visits that they made by train from Brooklyn and Queens.
Even talking to each other was difficult. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and conversations were short and infrequent.
The Main Source Of Contact
Family visits to New York City were even rarer.
By the time I was eight years old, both of my father’s parents had passed away. We spent time, usually over the winter holiday, with my mother’s parents in their tiny apartment on Coney Island Avenue. Mom would take us to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes and a movie (usually one from the Disney Studios). Grandma Ethel would make potato latkes, and Grandpa Joe would play Chanukah songs on his old piano. At night, as the subways rushed past their windows, Mom would sleep on a cot in her parent’s room while I slept on the couch and my little sister Bobbie slept in between two pushed-together chairs. Our visits still remain fond memories.
The inability to communicate with far-flung relatives and friends left a void in people’s lives. “We didn’t have much interaction with my grandparents,” my friend Marilyn recalls. “Visits were the main source of contact, and I had only a few over my young years.”
Communication technology hadn’t changed much by the time my contemporaries and I went to college. Long distance phone calls were the only means of communication. My friend Holly recalls only being able to call home—collect, of course— on Sunday before five o’clock because that’s when the rates were lowest.
It wasn’t just calling parents. My friend Julie went to a small all-girls college with one phone booth on each floor of her dorm. On Dec. 1, 1969 the first lottery for the military draft was held. Girls were lined up at every phone anxiously waiting to call their boyfriends. “Bill’s number was 289, nice and high,” recalled Julie. “Some of his friends were not so lucky.”
My cousin Ruthie faced even more challenges when she lived in Israel after college. As she didn’t have a phone, three times a year she went to a central post office, purchased metal tokens, and made three-minute calls to the States. “We hardly had time to say anything,” Ruthie said. “Even though I wrote them letters, I recently have felt guilty for putting my parents through the lack of verbal communication.”
My Children’s Experience
My children had many more opportunities to spend time with their grandparents. My husband’s (Larry) parents were less than 20 miles north of us. Until they retired and moved to Florida for the winter, my parents were still only two and a half hours up the Northway. They came to visit frequently, and the four of us spent a week or two at a cottage on Lake Champlain. Again, I don’t think my children spoke at length on the phone to either sets of grandparents. They saw them often, and talking to a faceless grandparent did not hold much of an interest, whether they were toddlers or teenagers.
Technology Boosts Bonding
How life has changed! In addition to actual visits, we now have the ability to keep in touch with children and grandchildren through more advanced communication. While they were in college, we kept in touch with Adam and Julie with phone calls and regular e-mails. Since the advent of smart phones, Larry and I are also able to communicate with them more frequently through text messages and video chats.
Since she was only a month old, Larry and I have FaceTimed with our granddaughter Sylvie. At first, communication with us was primarily carried on by Julie and her husband Sam.
By the time she was crawling, however, Sylvie took more interest in the calls—and in the cell phone her parents were using to FaceTime. Sylvie’s face would light up the minute she saw us on the small screen, especially when she sa Larry. “Hi, Zayde! Hi Zayde!” she would cry. Then she would wrestle the phone away from Julie and carry it around with her. Rather than seeing our granddaughter’s adorable face, we would be seeing her toys, the refrigerator, the floor, the ceiling—all at a speed fast enough to create vertigo and nausea on our receiving end. When Julie finally got the phone back, Sylvie would reach over and start pressing keys. Our computer screen would pause, or mute, or disconnect.
All four of Sylvie’s grandparents had experienced enough dizziness for a lifetime. So, we all decided to give Julie and Sam an iPad for the holidays (a little early) this year. Sylvie is still interested in pressing the keys, but thankfully the iPad is more Sylvie-proof.
Miracle of Video Chat
Friends also rely on video chats to communicate. Bernie and Chris, said that the new technology has brought them closer to their children and four grandchildren, so close that at times they seemed to be right there. One morning, they were skyping with their two-year-old grandson while he was eating breakfast. Micah held a muffin up to the screen and said, “Here, Grandma, eat!” while trying to put it into her mouth.
Peg and Peter have had similar “virtual reality” moments with their granddaughter during their weekly chats. “Keira ‘carries us’ up to her bedroom to play with her and show us her ‘secrets,’” Peg said. “It always makes us smile.”
In contrast to Ruthie’s Israel challenges, Lynn video chats several times a week with her daughter and granddaughter in Israel. “My granddaughter Sarit recognizes my voice and blows kisses to me,” said Lynn. “As I watch Susie making dinner and the toddler playing, it’s hard to believe that they’re on the other side of the world.”
“Time is our greatest gift as grandparents,” my friend Marilyn asserts. Yes, it is! So whether it be in person (the best!) or by phone, or by the miracles of modern technology, we savor every moment we can be connected to our families during Chanukah and all year long.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla.