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  • Reflections of a Moderately Disturbed Grandfather
  • Joe Mackall (bio)

As the day nears dusk, I watch as my oldest granddaughter runs out of our house toward a car full of other high school kids. The girl behind the wheel—somewhere between sixteen and the rest of her life—is a little overweight, which for some reason comforts me, until I notice she wears the too-thick makeup of a young woman wanting a life she doesn’t yet understand. A boy jumps out of the rustbelt Buick to let Ellie in the backseat. I don’t like the kid right off; I know he can’t be trusted. His movements are too deliberate. He acts as if perpetually aware of a camera. He has too-beautiful hair. He doesn’t even acknowledge my wife or me as we smile miserably from the front porch. I hear the tinkling of an empty can spilling out of the car and hitting our driveway. Assuming it’s a Miller or Bud, I tense; my muscles clench. I then feel the warmth of my wife’s fingers on my arm, which is just enough to keep me still. Ellie tosses us a casual wave over her shoulder and disappears into the Buick, into the world. The world outside of our family and our home has been whispering to her since she was old enough to realize there was something else out there. It beckons us all, of course. But on this day, it echoes with the wail of pain.

But I’m just imagining this. Ellie’s only four years old. She still has [End Page 63] her favorite blanket she calls her “night night.” She never runs out of our house unless it’s to play in our yard. As a matter of fact, she hates leaving our home, even to go back to her own, to parents she loves and who love her. But I know this will change. It has to. It’s the way of the world, which is little consolation. I recall being eager for my own three children to grow up, accrue resources for living, become independent. When it comes to my granddaughters, however, I’m often paralyzed with fear at the thought of their entering the wider world. And I’m not exactly sure why.

I admit I’ve been blindsided by becoming a grandfather. Before we had grandkids, I’d professed my vision of our life to come. I told my wife, Dandi, that we’d buy the kids anything they needed, take them on vacations, pay for college, leave them money, make sure they had the best life and most boundless love we could give them, but I did not want to be involved in the day to day. I did not see myself as a babysitter or as a second layer of parent. I did not want my life defined by becoming a grandfather. My desire was to drift in the sweet stratosphere of benign neglect. Dandi has promised to waterboard me if I ever express a desire to walk around a mall wearing a “World’s Greatest Grandpa” T-shirt.

Now I can’t go more than three or four days without aching to see the girls. My whole way of being wavers in their presence. My dark disposition begins to lighten up; at least it does when they’re around. I figured out some of it. After a quarter century of loving all the same people, I’ve fallen in love with somebody new. I’ve loved my children all of their lives and my wife every day for nearly twenty-five years, but now there’s new love. Perhaps my heart’s tectonic shifts have shaken my psychic geography. I have two new people to love, two new people to see the world through, to share life with, to worry about, to fear for in a time when I sometimes can’t recognize my own country and when the world’s people appear easily connected electronically and so dangerously disconnected in just about every other conceivable way.

I often feel as though I’m moving toward the edge of a foreign...