The Case of the Runaway Gamma

January 09, 1995|By TIM BAKER

How do the two of them get away with it? What about child care? What about family responsibility?

Somehow they escape anyway. Every year, right after Christmas, they just up and leave the children behind, get in their car and drive away.

A vacation by themselves in Florida! Playing golf and lying in the sun. They indulge themselves as if they had no obligations at home. Oh sure, they call every Sunday night to check on the kids. But whom do they think they're fooling?

The neighbors talk. Friends and relatives worry. Everyone knows they've abandoned their family. You'd think it would be illegal. But when I called the State Police and asked why these two hadn't been extradited, some bureaucrat explained that technically they hadn't done anything criminal. You see, there's a loophole. The law doesn't cover Runaway Grandparents.

Actually, my parents only abandon us for three months every winter. For the rest of the year they stay right here in Baltimore -- right where they can spend a lot of time with their grandchildren.

We've been thrilled for them to spend all the time they want. In fact, my mother keeps a cartoon taped on her refrigerator door. A young man and woman embrace romantically. An engagement ring shines on her finger. ''Let's get married,'' he tells her, ''while our parents are still young enough to take care of the children.''

My parents have truly loved everything they've been able to do with my children -- from changing diapers and babysitting to cheering at basketball games and hosting slumber parties. Nothing has given them more joy than being around to watch their grandchildren growing up.

Increasingly, however, our mobile society separates grandparents from their grandchildren. It's usually not the grandparents who move away. It's their sons and daughters who leave. More and more of them don't come home after college. Not even to Baltimore. Instead they pursue careers elsewhere. Marry someone who comes from somewhere else. Settle in California or New England.

Some people's grandchildren grow up thousands of miles away from them. They only see each other for short visits, an occasional Christmas, and maybe a week in the summer. Otherwise, it's a distant voice over the phone.

''How are you, Gamma?''

''I'm fine. How are you, dear?''

''Fine.''

Fine. Fine.

But it's not fine. It's a loss for the children. They grow up without the extra security of having a sustained experience of unconditional love from someone other than their parents. Someone else who's dependable, too. Someone with a warm smile. A comfortable lap. A special name.

MomMom or Gamma. Big Pop or Gandy.

When your grandchildren make up magical names for you, it's not fine at all if most of the time you only hear them in long-distance telephone calls. It's a heartache to have your grandchildren growing up far away where you can't watch them. Indulge them. Spoil them.

That kind of separation is not what most grandparents ever wanted. It's not what many of us ever wanted either. Not for our sons and daughters or our mothers and fathers.

Some of us have arranged to stay nearby our parents. But lives take many paths, and before you know it, you're settled far away from home. My elder daughter is already 23. My son goes to college in Colorado and loves the Rockies. My younger daughter will be 16 this spring. She'll be 25 before I know it.

The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized I have to take action now. Before it's too late. So on New Year's Day, I officially promulgated some new rules for my children.

They may marry whomever they want, pursue any career they like, and pick whatever house they please. But they may not choose where they're going to settle down. Instead, I'm going to decide that for them.

They say I'm being bossy. Dictatorial. But that's too bad. They're going to have to live near me. That's all. And if they won't, then I'm going to move near them.

Either way, I'll get what I want -- a chance to be for my children's children the kind of full-time grandparent that my parents have been to them.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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