Sending a grandson abroad: A grandmother's dose of reality

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Sally Friedman and husband Vic are joined by their grandson, Sam. They recently sent him off for a semester in the Netherlands.

I vowed there would be no tears on the car ride from Moorestown to Montclair, N.J. Instead, I announced, I'd rehearse what I would say to our grandson who was leaving for a college semester in the Netherlands.

It's a 90-minute drive, and that's a long time, I admit, to listen to soliloquies from an overly dramatic grandmother.

"He's not going on a space mission, or off to war," my husband, Vic, reminded me. "He'll be back in five months."

Vic can deal well with realities like this. He loves this grandson as much as I do. But he's rational and sensible about transitions. I'm not.

Sam, the first male born in decades to my family of origin, has a special place in my heart. He taught me, the mother of three girls, how to speak boy. And it actually was like learning a foreign language. Missing was the constant drama of daughters. Present was "he hit me first!"

Sam's childhood passed in a flash. I wanted more, more, more. His teen years galloped by, and then off he went to college. Time had slipped out through life's back door.

Suddenly, a 21-year-old, 6-foot tall giant, confident and competent, was out there in the world making major decisions on his own. Just as it should be.

But Sam's decision to spend a college semester in the Netherlands, a place that involves crossing an entire ocean, was not sitting well with me.

"Why does he have to go so far? Why can't he just stay here?" I would ask my husband, who was definitely and justifiably losing patience with me. We'd been over this territory quite enough.

Sam was going because he wanted a new experience. Because he wanted to test himself. Because at his college, juniors are actually encouraged to try a semester abroad.

And because Sam had spent all of the last two summers working crazy hours in tough jobs to earn the money to do this.

Given all that, I still wished we weren't already on the familiar streets of Montclair, and in Sam's driveway. I began rehearsing my smile.

I wanted to show Sam how happy I was that he'd soon be spreading his wings. A lie.

I wanted to act like the grown-up I should be, but I'm not.

Ironically, I'd been on this kind of mission three times with our own daughters, each of whom left this country at about Sam's age to spend a semester in Israel.

Three times, I had said that goodbye at Kennedy Airport, steeling myself not to beg them to change their minds.

I didn't expect that it would be even harder with this grandson I adore, this lad who looks so much like his grandfather and who makes me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I love him so much that it's scary.

And I also admit that when any one of our seven grandchildren is doing something new and even marginally brave, I react. This is what nobody ever told me about being a grandparent.

We're not on the front lines. We're some steps removed. And that can be both a relief - and a regret, and that we feel things even more mightily than we did with our own children.

When Sam opened the door, I wondered how he could possibly have grown two inches since Thanksgiving. Was that a shadow of a nascent beard on his chin?

I got a bear hug - and another. Then we both tried for nonchalance, but the air itself was charged with endings.

I urged him to try on a warm jacket I'd carried along, one that his grandfather never wears. He politely but firmly insisted that the one he already has was quite fine.

I suppose I was trying to proffer that jacket as a metaphor for warmth and love. It wasn't working.

"But will you be safe?" were the words I didn't dare utter as Sam showed us a map of Amsterdam, and pointed out where his student hostel would be, as casually as if he were off to the local supermarket.

Sam's younger brothers and his parents teased him about the beautiful Dutch girls he'd be meeting and I had to restrain myself from thinking that maybe he would fall in love with one of those ruddy-cheeked lasses and never come back. This is what one of our sons-in-law, the psychoanalyst, would label "delusional thinking." So I kept it to myself.

The hours flew by, with a little Sunday football thrown into the mix. And suddenly, it really was time to say goodbye.

I tried to go back to my rehearsed script. Keep it casual. Keep it light.

My husband gave Sam a bear hug and they shook hands, like guys do. Short and sweet.

Then it was my turn.

Of course my eyes teared up. And I saw that there were tears in Sam's eyes too, but he blinked them back just as he once had on the playground when he was about 5, and a bully was taunting him.

So many moments like this in the lives of parents - and yes, grandparents.

So many yearnings to protect. So many goodbyes at kindergarten doors, college dorms, wedding aisles, and when a truck pulls away with the worldly goods of a kid moving across the country.

"See you in June, Grandma," Sam said so nonchalantly.

"Come back safely," I said as I rushed out the door.

And as dusk fell, his grandfather and I rode home in the silence that marked yet another family rite of passage.

pinegander@aol.com