It's always been my challenge: how to get a conversation going with grandchildren who live far away--some of whom are now pre-teens. Skype may make it seem like we're in the same room when we chat, but we don't have the same day-to-day sense of interchange as we would if my Grands lived next door--figuratively speaking. Or at least in the same city.
When my Grands were small, questions like, what's your favorite color? animal? sport? worked wonders in breaking the ice. But with pre-teens those questions can, well, seem childish. So far we've found it's easy with our boy Grand: sports is an ice breaker and conversation base. He's big on soccer, baseball, football--you name it. So's his dad and so is Paterfamilias [the Granddaddy]. When we're on an in-person visit, I get in on it by posing crossword questions having to do with sports (4 down: Cy Young winner, 1988), which sometimes brings him around to working the crossword puzzle with me and chatting about the various other clues, which we like to answer with the help of an iPad or laptop. Lot's of conversation starters there.
Tim Gunn, mentor extraordinaire
But with the girls? There isn't the same tried-and-true connector. Except that I lucked into one with my 11-year-old Grand who is living in Berlin for a year. In December, when she and her parents came to our home for the holidays we watched Runway together--hours of reruns on YouTube. It's become our "ice-breaker"--that is, my way of getting a conversation started. And it's been working. It isn't the fashion stuff that' we talk about--neither of us is into high style or brand labels. Rather it's the personalities on the show. We are both fans of Heidi Klum (and the way she says "Auf weidersehn" when she gives the week's losing designer the bad news) and Tim Gunn, the mentor and co-host.
When we Skype we talk about the new show (Under the Gunn), what it's like. And then came what I call My Big Breakthrough. I mentioned on one of our chit chats how I heard Tim Gunn interviewed on Terry Gross's Fresh Air show on NPR. My Grand wanted details. Among the points Gunn made--and among those I chose to repeat to my Grand (I did not tell her about his suicide attempt when he was 17)--was how difficult a childhood he had as a schoolboy, how he was shipped him from one boarding school to another and teased for being different: he had a stutter.
Tim Gunn's story was the opening. She sat on her sofa at her end of the SKype call and we talked about the fear of being teased or bullied at school and that morphed into her talking about her social standing in school--a school she was attending for one year while she is in Berlin. I told her what mine had been [neither popular nor bullied--just a shy person with friends who, like me, weren't part of the popular crowd] and she detailed her's. It was a wonderful conversation. I got a sense of the struggles she was having and concerns she had at the school in Berlin, her hopes for what it would be like when she was back in her home school in September with her friends--with whom she keeps in touch by email and Skype. (Let's hear it for technology!) I feel I know her better and--this is all hope on my part--I feel she feels closer to me, that there's an enhanced element of trust.
What I tell myself now is this: You never know where the opening is going to come from. (Thank you Tim Gunn for being so open and honest--and so likeable--that an 11-year-old takes seriously what you have to say.) When that opening for an intimate conversation does come along, I plan to hold on and make the most of it. It's the jackpot. And say my Hosannas that it was there. It may not come again.