A grandfather embraces his grandson in an embrace


Now and always, this is one of my great roles as a grandparent

Feb 4, 2021

With a newborn in a snuggly, and her two-year-old riding on her shoulders, my life partner was pulling a wagon full of groceries.

The two-year-old began to fuss.

He wanted to ride in the wagon, but there was no room.

My partner placed him on the sidewalk, and began to tell a story he had heard many times, one that he loved. She started, “The smallest Billy Goat Gruff crossed the bridge to get at the sweet green grass on the other side. Its hooves sounded ‘trip-trop trip-trop’ …”

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The two-year-old’s eyes grew large.

When she added in the large troll’s voice — “who is that trip-tropping cross my bridge?” — he squealed “me!” and ran ahead, trip-tropping as he went.

By the time the story had come to its end, our walk home was over.

Decades have passed and now we are grandparents to that two-year-old’s own four-year-old. When we visit our grandson, we walk with him to the library, play in the park and check out the big construction machines.

Our grandson is a delight. But when he gets tired or he wants something that he should not have, he fusses.

Beyond the pack we carry filled with snacks and supplies, we bring along our stories.

We love the oral tradition, the telling of tales, the sharing of rhymes, the singing of songs. These are simple activities that help shorten the road, whether walking home from the grocery store, or rambling through the neighbourhood.

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Sometimes our grandson listens quietly, absorbed in a Dennis Lee poem about snow and a giant’s beard. Other times when we recite that Dennis Lee poem, we give space and time for our little man to leap in with the rhyming words that end each line. We all laugh when we finish the poem together. After four years of listening to stories, he is beginning to tell his own.

We have found stories to be versatile, lightweight and inexpensive. We use them to capture and redirect attention, to motivate, to calm, and of course, to send little ones to sleep.

Our brothers and sisters have children, and some of their children have their own. As the listeners age, fictional tales eventually make way for our real life experiences, usually the funny ones where we got into trouble.

To the adolescents and young adults, we tell the many true adventures of our family. How my partner’s grandfather was the engineer in charge of the conversion from steam locomotive to diesel across the Canadian Rockies. About my mother’s outrageous outcome in the 1950s when she learned to roller skate so she could work at a drive-in diner; a diner that was on a very steep hill.

"Now, wrap those rules in a story, which carries its own context and consequences, and the child’s inevitable question 'why' is already answered."

Or tales of mischief and misadventure, such as when I was just a child and woke up Christmas morning to find a small green and orange box of Japanese Mandarin oranges under the tree. I had never tasted fruit so sweet. When at last my parents came into the living room, I lifted the one remaining orange and asked, “would you like one?”

The whole point of language is to pass on to others the things we have learned. Facts and orders may be the simplest and fastest way to deliver information, but they carry little meaning to a young inexperienced child. Now, wrap those rules in a story, which carries its own context and consequences, and the child’s inevitable question “why” is already answered. We build the house with bricks because a house made of straw will blow down.

We do not eat all of the fruit, because Mom and Dad would be really sad. The consequences are built into the story, but safely away from the child.

These days we communicate at a distance, via phone and screen. Because he is only four years of age, we continue with the really short stories and poems. There is something wonderful when my partner tells a short story with finger puppets, and he follows along, mimicking our actions, our words.

Father David Robertson employs the Indigenous tradition of Own Voices storytelling to guide him and his family through the pandemic. Read that here.

Think of the skill our grandchild is developing — that of listening. In listening he learns to predict patterns, while learning words and their rhythm. At a young age the stories we share are much shorter, much simpler. Because they are an entry to the love of language. Something we hope to nurture.

While the oral tradition can certainly be an education, it’s also social. Stories don’t just flow in one direction — they enact a conversation, between the storyteller and the listener, who uses their body language and responses to rally.

By sharing, I feel we are creating a bond. Stories are not only a good thing for relationships, but they are also good —  to quote Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot — for our little grey cells.

As we get older, we won’t be as physically active, but we will still have a connection through shared experiences, through our memories and stories, from nursery rhymes to family history.

The best part: stories are light to carry. While some may weigh heavily on the heart, others will lift us up on a dreary day.

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