Wise Words From a New Grandfather

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

On Father’s Day, I became a grandfather. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal. After all, there are some 69 million grandparents in the U.S., of whom 29 million are grandfathers.  The number of grandparents in the world probably exceeds 1 billion. On the other hand, no matter how many grandparents exist in the world, our grandchild has only four, and we have responsibilities to this wonderful newborn that others don’t.

Actually, being a grandfather has been a lifelong dream. I came along at a time when little boys aspired to be astronauts or soldiers or firemen. My classmates thought me strange because I always said I wanted to grow up to be a grandfather. In my childish imagination, a grandfather sat with a grandmother on the front porch of their aging but sturdy house, waiting for the station wagon to drive up, whereupon the grandchildren would tumble out and race across the lawn into welcoming grandparently arms. The image matched nothing in my lived experience; perhaps I had picked it up from a movie or television show.

But now, confronted with the reality of a beautiful new grandchild, my dream has become simpler: to love, to help, to watch over. I gaze at the gorgeous days-old face and find myself gripped by a fierce protectiveness. There’s an episode late in the second season of “The West Wing” where President Josiah Bartlet explains how an aging senator is able to continue a filibuster to secure funding for a disease that plagues his grandson:

Let me tell you something, don’t ever, ever underestimate the will of a grandfather. We’re madmen, we don’t give a damn, we got here before you and they’ll be here after. We’ll make enemies, we’ll break laws, we’ll break bones, but you will not mess with the grandchildren.


Meanwhile, the birth of a grandchild has jolted the slumbering wordsmith in me fully awake. “Grandfather” is a fascinating word, not least because its etymology remains oddly unclear.  Still, we do know that the word is six centuries old. The formidable Oxford English Dictionary uncovers a use as early as 1424. Since then, the word has become rich with tricky usages.  Consider just a handful: When laws are changed, things that will henceforth be illegal may be grandfathered in. During the heyday of the literacy tests for voting, segregationists preserved their own voting rights through grandfather clauses. And science fiction has long been fascinated by the grandfather paradox.

And then we come to the grandfather clock ... and therein lies a tale. Consider: Why do we call grandfather clocks grandfather clocks? Most sources cite the indefatigable OED, which traces the origin to a popular song from the 1870s called — you guessed it — “Grandfather’s Clock.” The song, a lament about how swiftly and suddenly the generations turn, has become something of a perennial, covered as recently as 2004 by Boyz II Men. But although the wise people at the OED know everything about the language, in this case a bit of delving in the sources shows that the etymology must be earlier.

In 1850, a quarter-century before the song became popular, the Knickerbocker, also known as New-York Monthly Magazine,  published a short story called “My Grandfather’s Clock,” in which the anonymous author proclaimed “a peculiar affection for old clocks; especially that sober race of puritanical clocks with long, lank bodies, that stand so primly in the corners of rooms, slowly and discreetly ticking away the hours ... as if to shut out the frivolous forms and fopperies of their latter days.” These clocks, which “smack of the olden time,” are said to “look as if they had innumerable stories to tell me of my great-grandfather, who died an hundred years ago.”

The author goes on to describe a dream in which the old clocks, male and female, are lined up in a room for an evening of distinguished entertainment, only to find their ceremony invaded by “a jaunty rabble of modern clocks” who race noisily inside and, ignoring their elders, begin to dance quite wildly. Most of the older clocks leave. Only the grandfather’s clock remains, trying to tell his grandchild a tale of enormous importance, but —  here’s the nub — the grandchild is so busy watching what the young clocks are doing that he misses the tale completely.

“My Grandfather’s Clock” was widely reprinted in Britain, and Britain is where Henry Clay Work, the author of the song, was visiting in 1875 when he got the idea.  It’s a straightforward morality play, in which tall clocks standing in the corners symbolize the wisdom of an earlier age. The question the writer presents is whether his generation is willing to listen to what the elders have to say.

For me as a newly minted grandfather, this is heady stuff. Here I am, supposedly a font of wisdom, and I’ve little reason to think that I have any to dispense. My wife is handling the transition with her usual grace and aplomb, but even though we have of course been expecting this turn of events for some months now, I find myself feeling a bit like Joanie Caucus as she headed off to law school. (“Where’s my grandfather manual? What if I’m no good at it? What if I can’t cut the mustard?”)  Fortunately, the gratitude and joy soon wash the doubts away.

As for my childhood dream, matters are more complicated. The station wagon is essentially dead, and our house doesn’t have the kind of porch one can comfortably sit on. Yet none of that matters. What matters is that on Father’s Day I became a grandfather, and joined the society of those expected to be loving and gentle and protective while imparting wisdom. The loving and gentle part I can handle. I’m ready to fiercely protect. I’m just not sure I’m quite ready to be wise. But it’s now my job.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.