Grandparents’ Gentle Wisdom Not Always Close At Hand

Thunderstorms are again with us.

Lightning flashes, thunder crashes. The dogs quake, seeking shelter in the barn.

Some adults quake, too. So do children past the toddler stage.

Not me.

I respect lightning. When thunder changes from a rumble to a boom, I cease my outdoor work.

But I don’t cry, or hide.

Once, I did. I would shudder, and go to bed. Sometimes, I went beneath the bed, whimpering amid dust bunnies while scratching myself on the old-style exposed box springs.

“Enough of this,” decided Grandma. I spent most of my youth at Grandma’s house, located in a delightfully interesting neighborhood for a youngster. Across the street was Struthers-Wells, a steel fabricating plant with forging hammers, railroad tracks, etc.

As a storm approached, Grandma took me out to the side porch. We could see Struthers in front of us. To our right was the freight terminal. Perched atop a truncated concrete pyramid was a huge 19th-century industrial age crane, rusted since its replacement by more mobile cranes for Struthers.

Like a defiant rust-and-black finger, the crane pointed skyward.

Grandma sat me on her lap and, uncharacteristically, held me tightly, so that I couldn’t get down.

Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. I whimpered.


This lightning bolt was synonymous with the terrifying thunder crack. The zigzag smacked directly into that old crane … as lightning had often done, as Grandma knew it would.

I screamed.

She shushed me, rocking and chuckling, and she pointed at the crane.

“Look,” she said. “Look! She’s still there!”

I have long ago forgotten the precise Italian words, but I remember the warmth of Grandma’s lap and bosom, the cheery chortle of her chuckled words, her finger pointing at the undamaged crane.

“See?” she said. “It’s just loud noise and bright lights. It won’t hurt you.”

Grandma oversimplified, of course, but to a 6-year-old (or so), the message was clear: Don’t be afraid. Use common sense. Come indoors. But if you can see it and hear it, it’s already done. If not … well, you’d never know what hit you.

Grandparents, I thought, could be wonderful.

Grandma is long gone. For a quarter-century now, I have been “Grandpa Denny” for 16 grandchildren.

They do not live here. I can’t teach them, except vicariously. We visit each other.

But I saw Grandma almost every day.

Grandma and Grandpa lived downstairs, two blocks away. Upstairs was for Uncle Flat, Aunt Jean and their three kids. Within that neighborhood were, our house, Uncle Tim’s house, Uncle Tony’s house, and the houses of Dad’s cousins Bonnie and Chinkie. They all lived close, not because they enjoyed each other (they sometimes fought, even physically), but because they all worked at Struthers. When they began to work there in the 1920s and 1930s, nobody owned cars. Everybody walked to work.

Everybody’s children ended up at Grandma’s, too.

Grandma didn’t babysit in the modern sense of the word. Much of what she did … actually, didn’t do … would bring Children’s Services a-running these days. She whacked us with a broom. A handful of dried Cheerios served as a snack or treat. She didn’t come outside to watch us play; she had washing, ironing, cooking and mending to do. She sent us outside, trusting the watchful eyes of every adult nearby to report transgressions, which resulted in … pinches. Grandma could grab and pinch a child’s cheek in tears-sprouting twists. No need to spank. We learned. Don’t mess with Grandma.

She taught me not to let thunder and lightning turn into mind-numbing fear. She also taught me to detest Cheerios, to duck and weave to avoid a swinging broom, to laugh loudly and often, and to stay at least 3 feet away from her when she didn’t have her teeth in, to avoid being … umm … dampened when she spoke.

My own kids speak in similar mixtures of reverence and amusement when they talk about my mother and their other grandparents. They, too, learned.

Times change. I live 80 miles away from the closest grandchildren, hundreds of miles away from others. In-person grandparenting on a daily or weekly basis is impossible. Then again, when a grandchild hit a rough patch with a college admission dream, I could send an email message. When another grandchild chalked up a high school baseball double play, it was a text message relayed through his proud father.

Time marches on, age catches up. The window of opportunity shrinks.

Nonetheless, those of us who are grandparents need to maintain our not-quite-parents contact, our not-as-demanding oversight, our passed-on wisdom.

Sometimes, Grandma with her tendency to laugh and hug could get a needed message across even better than my so-earnest parents. Today’s kids could use that, but many grandparents, like myself, are too constrained by time or distance to provide it.

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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: