For the most part being a grandfather is a good gig. Parents and grandmothers shoulder the real responsibilities like civilizing the little darlings and changing dirty diapers. That pretty much leaves the good stuff like playing games, reading stories, or generally goofing off. My only complaint about the job is that collectively we have such a lousy image.
Whenever my granddaughters draw a picture of me a few things stand out. First of all grandma rules. I am always much smaller than my wife Diane and my hands and arms are drawn stunted and ineffectual compared to hers. While my actual wardrobe may leave much to be desired, they seem to think I exclusively wear primary colors of the clown persuasion. However, the unkindest cut of all is that my hair is symbolized by a white vertical line slashed above each ear— nothing on top. There is a certain elegance that even Picasso could admire in being able to so thoroughly insult both the color and quantity of my hair in two simple strokes. I can live with this visual image but what deeper meaning does it represent?
Let’s face it, the media has not been very kind to grandparents in general and grandfathers in particular. For us baby boomers, the grandpa archetype was firmly established by actor Walter Brennan as Grandpa Amos McCoy on the television series The Real McCoys. Bib overall wearing and politically incorrect Grandpa McCoy was crotchety and interfering and if he wasn’t insulting his long suffering daughter-in-law, Kate, he was racially insenstive and verbally abusing the hired help– Pepino.
Real McCoy’s writer Paul Henning, who should be on the AARP’s hit list, is also single-handedly responsible for the rowdy grandfather on the Bob Cumming’s Show, Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies and worse of all “That’s Uncle Joe, he’s a moving kinda slow” from Petticoat Junction. Thanks a lot Paul.
Grandpa McCoy was just one in a long line of curmudgeon grandfatherly types whose gruff exterior usually melts in the presence of some curly-haired waif. This theme is repeatedly seen in works of literature like Heidi, Silas Marner, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Colonel, and a host of others.
I suppose I prefer the curmudgeon grandparent to the comically incompetent or mildly brain damaged one we sometimes see in characters like the senile Grandpa Simpson the or the impulsive Sophia Petrillo from the Golden Girls. Charlie Buckett’s Grandpa Joe from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a slight improvement. Although feeble and somewhat feckless, he is at least affectionate, supportive, and apparently slightly more sane than Willie Wonka.
Even better, however, are the suave pipe-smoking grandfathers dressed in tweeds in movies like Disney’s The Parent Trap. At one point in the original version the granddaughter says “Grandfathers smell like tobacco and mints”. I have to admit that would be an improvement over most grandfather’s I have actually smelled, including myself. Realistically the best case scenarios is beer, brats, and perhaps 30 weight motor oil.
In the newspapers, grandfather’s have a positive but vulnerable image. Bill Keane’s Family Circus featured a ghostly grandfather and worried for month’s when Lynn Johnson was fixing to kill off Grandpa Jim in her For Better or Worse comic strip. Jim was an admirable and resilient character who loves to dance, played in a band, and was a respected war veteran, but the last strips he was in focused mostly on his deteriorating health. It was looking for a long time that Grandpa Jim would soon be meeting Farley, the family dog that Johnson previously dispatched to such great effect.
Some where in the middle of all this is Donald Crisp’s sympathetic portrayal of Grandpa Spencer in the popular 1963 family film Spencer’s Mountain. I can only remember one scene from the movie, and that is where Grandpa Spencer finds his old piggy bank laying on the ground and he starts shaking it, trying to see if it still contains money. While he’s doing this, he is crushed by a large falling tree. Evidently his hearing was so poor he did not hear the tree or the warnings shouted by his son (Henry Fonda). It may just be me, but I don’t think this movie was very grandfather friendly. It was written by Earl Hamner, Jr. and became the basis for the saccharine television series The Waltons.
Of course we baby boomers have to take some of the responsibility for the current image of grandparents since we invented the culture of youth and took perverse pride in not trusting anyone over thirty. The chickens have come home to roost. We also cling to the belief that we are perpetually young and reject many traditional beliefs including how we approach grandparenting. This was aptly demonstrated by the character portrayed by Dyan Cannon in the 2001 sitcom Three Sisters. She insisted that her grandchildren call her “goddess” instead of “grandma”.
Perhaps now is the time to reconstruct the image of grandfathers and make them more positive than just curmudgeonly hillbillies, incorporeal ghosts, or self-absorbed yuppies. Maybe grandfathers could even change a few diapers now and then. Just remember to be alert for falling trees, somewhere out there is a sycamore with your name on it.