My Grandfather, Nathan, was an incredibly shy man. In addition to being very short (5’4”), he was a quiet and kind immigrant who listened far more than he spoke. He came from Russia to pursue a better life, and made his living as a bicycle-riding handyman in Toronto before moving to Detroit, where my mother was born. Sadly, Nathan became a widower when my mother was three.
As a single parent, Nathan left many of the child-rearing responsibilities to my mother’s siblings, Aunt Pearl and Uncle Al. He never remarried.
Nathan worked as a plumber and got involved in the fledgling automobile business as a mechanic and inventor. He was so shy, he would send my toddler-aged mother into his shop to shoo away the creatures that huddled around their warm stove overnight.
Ultimately, he invented the brake rest, as well as an improved bumper. When Henry Ford used the bumper on the Model A, my grandfather sued him and won. He got no enormous cash payout as compensation, but remained proud, nonetheless, that he lived in a country where a poor immigrant could successfully sue the richest man in the nation.
When my mother was sixteen, she and my grandfather came west to join Pearl and Al who had started a small loan business in Los Angeles. My grandpa liked getting his hands dirty, so he ran a small trailer lot, like U-Haul, and tinkered in the back. He lived a very quiet life.
My mother, Marcie, was an active teenager. She was a great athlete and an excellent student. When she entered U.C.L.A. she was living with my grandfather and taking care of him. One night when she got home from school, he announced to her that he was going to be taking dance lessons at Arthur Murray on Tuesday and Thursday nights. She looked at him and said “Dance lessons?” He just nodded.
The next night he said to her “You know, Masha, (his nickname for my mother), you can make plans for tomorrow night. I have my dance lesson.” In that moment my mom realized that Nathan was taking the lessons so that she wouldn’t have to come home to care for him at night. He was forcing himself to do something he had no desire to do, in order to allow his daughter the freedom she needed as a teenager.
My grandfather wasn’t rich. He didn’t buy things for his daughter. He didn’t take her out to fancy dinners, or on long trips – what he did was sacrifice. He put his feelings aside, because he knew that my mother wouldn’t leave him alone unless he found a way to be busy outside of the house. He pushed himself to do the right thing, even though it was uncomfortable and inconvenient.
This story of my grandfather reminds me that the job of parenting is often a selfless one. It’s often about the practical sacrifices we make, emotionally or physically, to do what’s right for our children.
Sometimes these sacrifices mean taking an uncomfortable path – saying no and going through the discomfort of teaching our kids to deal with adversity. Sometimes, it’s about the devotion of real time, leaving all else alone and putting down our phones to look our kids in the eye when we’re having a conversation with them.
The days of doting offspring seem long gone, but it’s clear that children still care about their parent’s feelings, opinions, and concerns. It is our job to help our children grow, even if it sometimes goes against our nature to hold them, cuddle them, and protect them. We don’t need to take dance lessons to release our children from their obligation to us, but we do need to consider their lives, their ages, and their feelings as we continue to set for them an example of how thinking, loving adults behave.
If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by driving your kids to school, or signing them up for summer camp, or letting them walk to the park, remember that you’re doing the right thing. You might also tell them about their grandparents. It will give them a sense of pride, and the foundation they’ll need to stand tall.