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Modern Family: What Grandparents Can Do

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously said. Each has wonderfully individual days and ways to celebrate them, we add. The occasions to whoop it up may be many and momentous—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, retirements. That last one can extend to a phase as glad or sad as each family chooses to make it.

June 20, both last year and last week, coincidentally dawns as a red-letter day for a pair of elders we’re privileged to live with, one under the same roof, the other across the city. My 78-year-old mother-in-law is about to be sworn in as President of Lions Club (Host) in the 60th year of its Bombay chapter. With a clear mind and big heart, she’s set to work hard in areas in which she has chosen to make a difference: health care for children and education of the underprivileged. Even more than us, the children, her grandchildren, have been watching and cheering her on. Proud of her, they’re pleased as Punch to pick up the phone most mornings when it rings and hear a variety of voices asking, “May I speak to Lion Perin please?”

(If you think that sounds strange, remember it’s the right form of address to a lady who’s a member in her own right; Lion Lady is for wives of male members.)

The same date last year proved special for my feisty nonagenarian father, too. “Happy Homi,” as he’s known by younger friends, wowed the world when his book “Musical Journeys: a Personal Introduction to Western Classical Composers” launched in June of last year. Covering 34 composers and spanning five centuries, from Palestrina to Stravinsky, he has mapped their times beautifully enough for the book to be graced with a foreword by conductor maestro Zubin Mehta. Our author extraordinaire is the subject of a new documentary by a filmmaker who finds that passionate energy infectious and inspiring. Having just blown out the candles on a 91st birthday cake, the man I call Dad is now immersed in putting together his second labor of love: a book for children, telling them the story of the orchestra.

The kids see their ancestors on either side of the family rock on, trying to stay curious, to stay creative. They admire that it’s possible, through the autumnal years, to continue leading zestful lives with spirit and dignity, despite any number of health hiccups. They also, most importantly, learn that no matter how hard it gets (think the space crunch of a joint home, fierce egos, long periods of nursing health), living between three generations works as a cheerful challenge that disguises a blessing. Here’s how:

Grandparents make the best babysitters and relationship gurus. Remember Babymoon? Coined by pregnancy expert Sheila Kitzinger in a 1996 book, the word then suggested a calm phase that fraught parents need after the arrival of their child. Nervy couples have reversed the term to the idea of vacationing before their baby is born. I got lucky. Before notions like “babymoon” claimed currency, my mother-in-law packed us off on holidays minus our babies. Born and married into a joint family, I enjoy special bonds denied to smaller homes. Sure, it’s not roses all the way. Still, provided people get along reasonably, nothing tops such a superbly reliable support system.

Grandparents can help ease household burdens. Insanely high property prices make separate apartments a distant hope. Embrace the plusses here. Joint parenting is less exhausting than the nuclear family slog; it frees up time for self-actualisation. Not always stifling, the presence of elders, to an extent, helps calm quarrelling couples. That kind of calm is fantastic for kids to see while growing up.

Grandparents can transform a table. The dining table, to be precise. Children gather and grow around a large table in ways that go beyond the nutritional. To eat with a joint family is to sit down to dinners laid out as more than mere meals. The extended family table is the crucible, finely mixing food for thought, unique seasonings, tolerant attitudes, debate, and wider outlooks.

Grandparents can foster a more peaceful home. “Stop reacting to everything,” has been ma-in-law’s advice on seeing my daily flare-ups with our adolescents. The same principle spells peace when tending to the older generation on particularly difficult days. Words that help me are from Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1943 sermon—its timing not lost, when he delivered it, on Americans threatened by Japanese coastal invasions and German submarines. There’s powerful solace in the prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Grandparents can humble all of us. Changing relationships mean a flip-flop in co-dependencies. We think we know best, but often don’t. Each time I announce what I feel is a foolproof idea to protect my father from a potential fall, he reacts with rightful annoyance.

“You’re breaking my spirit,” he said, when I recently suggested a fresh precaution.

“Better than breaking your bones,” I snapped.

“We’ll handle that when it happens,” he said quietly. “Your fears frighten me more.”

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