New worlds beckon as single grandparent turns into uncharted waters

Building character: Chapter 2

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

"Grandma Mac doesn't have a grandpa for me," my grandson announced to his parents -- my daughter and son-in-law -- after he recently spent a weekend with me at my cabin.

At the young age of 4, he had apparently looked at his other grandparents, added one and one and come up with something other than one.

Hearing his remark, I was confronted with the realization that it wasn't enough to have navigated the occasionally stormy but always rewarding waters of single parenthood. My grandson's innocent observation lifted my insensitive eyes to a whole new level of responsibility.

The words of my mom came back to me, as clearly as when she spoke them 24 years ago after the decisions were made that resulted in my single-parent status.

"Adversity builds character," she said. And though she meant to be comforting, hearing that phrase always caused my lips to curl back from my teeth and a vicious snarl to escape involuntarily from my mouth. I was certain to my very bones that there must be easier ways to build character.

Considering the circumstances, however, she could have been referring to herself. My two daughters and I moved in with her, in her tiny 14-foot by 16-foot cabin. No running water. No electricity. We were fortunate to have beds to which each of us could retreat when the close quarters demanded a time-out.

The fabric of our "Little House In the Big Woods" lifestyle grew threadbare in a very short time. The necessity to stretch my problem-solving skills to fit our new circumstances was frequently frustrating. Tears and tempers often threatened to destroy a thin layer of civility.

Adversity being spun into character, my mom would remind me with each incident. And I would clench my teeth, choking back an involuntary snarl.

Like the night the cabin almost burned down after Mom and I built a coal fire too big for the little Franklin fireplace. We frantically shoveled the coal out of the white-hot stove, into a wheelbarrow and dumped it outside.

Or like the bucket that would occasionally be tipped over in the darkness after someone used it instead of donning a coat and boots and making a quick middle-of-the-night trip to the outhouse.

Or like the vehicle-swallowing quagmire our quarter-mile dirt driveway became after it rained.

All character-building experiences, Mom would say.

Then there was the little cabin in Ninilchik Village that my daughters and I moved into so we could have some space of our own. It was heated by an oil cook stove, which had a carburetor that frequently clogged up, leaving us shivering in freezing winter temperatures and covered with a fine dusting of black soot.

With each challenge, I hoped that my character-building lessons were nearing completion. But graduation day was an elusive target, constantly slipping over the horizon.

We rebuilt and moved into an old log house, thanks to the generous help of friends and family. Sparse finances allowed for a solid roof, but didn't permit the extravagance of windows. Double layers of Visqueen did the trick until a fall storm ripped through the plastic and I was awakened during the night by my daughters' cries for help as the wind tore through their loft bedroom.

Once, after a hard day at kindergarten, my grandson's mother -- my youngest daughter -- shared with me that she and one of her classmates had found themselves embroiled in a major difference of opinion. She was proud of her creative response: "I'm gonna tell my mommy." I shuddered at what her solution might have triggered, envisioning an updated version of the traditional threat to pit father against father.

And then there was the villager who was certain "a woman's place is in the home," rather than trying to build one. That was, until he stopped by one day and saw what we had accomplished with the support of those who were willing to help, rather than criticize.

Looking back, I can see that the biggest adversity was often the limitation in my own mind to struggle with the challenge rather than enjoy the experience. Character building can sometimes be a joyous event. Complete with rays of brilliant sunshine. And a sense that everything is right with the world.

Like the daily commute to and from school and work when my daughters and I repeated the multiplication tables until they could recite them flawlessly. The quiet nights I spent sewing costumes for Halloween parties and ballet recitals and was richly rewarded in the morning by my daughters' brilliant smiles. Our annual hikes up Mount Roberts, where we would collapse breathlessly on the rocky mountain slope, eat our sandwiches, and enjoy the sweeping view of Juneau and Douglas Island and Gastineau Channel. Conversations around the dinner table when I heard them argue different points of view as they explored who they were and what they believed.

There also were the shaved heads and dyed black hair. None of it was unique to single parenting, but single parenting gave it a unique spin.

And now there's single grandparenting.

I see opportunities for character-building once again hovering on the horizon. I sense they will be similar to the first lesson of grandparenting, that as a parent I thought my heart was full, but as a grandparent I discovered room I didn't know was there.

No, grandson of mine, I don't have a grandpa for you. But hang on, sweetie. We've got some character to build. And I have a feeling it's going to be one heck of a ride.

McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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