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In My Next Life: Showering like a Swan and the Identity Learning Curve

Posted By Karen Young On October 21, 2009 @ 10:49 pm In Features,In My Next Life,spotlight | 10 Comments

davidnicholsBY DAVID NICHOLS

Ten years ago, when my Beautiful Grown Daughter was in elementary school it was called “Grandparents Day.” Pretty straightforward. Lots of respectably graying men and women trooped onto campus to sample muffins, orange juice, and math classes. For the school it was a chance to show off and maybe shake a few donation dollars out of some respectably graying trust funds. For us, the parents, it was a chance to show off and prove to our parents that we hadn’t completely mucked up our lives and were managing to provide a decent education for our progeny.

In the past decade, however, schools have wised up a bit. They’ve come to realize that in these days of blended, improvised, and geographically scattered families not every kid can summon up a bona fide grandparent on command. So now it’s called “Intergenerational Day” and The Boy has asked me to attend in my capacity as a “Special Friend.” I’m proud and happy to be invited, but a little uncertain as to what “Special Friend” actually means in our case. I’m crazy about him and his mom, the lovely N. We share a riotous, curious, and often glorious daily existence. But I’m not his grandparent. I’m not legally a step-parent. So what the heck am I? Then it hits me. I’m a source of amusement.

I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty ordinary guy. But I’m discovering that I possess a number of personal quirks that The Boy and his mom find endlessly fascinating and hilarious. (My Beautiful Grown Daughter has been helpful in pointing out some of her own favorites.) If it sounds like I’m bragging about my comedic abilities, I’m not. I swear I’m not trying to crack them up when I pick up a forkful of food from my plate and then hold it there for a minute or two while I finish making a conversational point. But every time it happens the sputtering and giggling goes on until I finally give up and just eat the damn spaghetti. Similarly, it seems the way I juggle my keys, wallet, glasses, and checkbook when I leave the house is a routine Charlie Chaplin would’ve been proud of.

And then there’s the showering. I have a method of rinsing off my feet by standing on one leg while bending and extending the other under the spray. Then I stand on my other leg and repeat the process. To me it’s an efficient, sensible technique for getting rid of the suds. But N. finds it fall-down funny. When she demonstrates it for The Boy she looks like a demented stork and the two of them wind up red-faced and gasping. So it occurs to me that while everyone else’s Intergenerational Day nametag may read “Grandfather” or “Uncle,” mine’s likely to say “Goofy Guy Who Does Ridiculous Things In The Shower.” But before I can show up and find out, there’s another Intergenerational Day of sorts to attend.

The last time my Beautiful Grown Daughter and my Niece In Oregon were together at a wedding was when their great-grandmother was remarried. I picked my niece up and danced her around the way you do with toddlers. Meanwhile the other guests fussed over my daughter, who was still in arms. Now my Niece In Oregon is the one getting married and my Beautiful Grown Daughter is a bridesmaid. So N. and I take a trip to Portland where she’ll be meeting most of my late wife’s family for the first time. My own parents have been gone for years, so introducing N. to my mother-in-law is as close to taking a girl home to mom as I’m going to get. I’m not worried. I know N. will be her usual charming self and my mother-in-law has been more than gracious in letting me know how pleased she is that I’m getting on with my life. Nevertheless, this seems like another of those happy but not-quite-defined relationships. Since I’m not married anymore is my mother-in-law still my mother-in-law? Or has she moved into the category of Special Friend? And does it matter?

This time around there’s no need for me to pick anyone up in order to dance. In their all-grown-up heels my niece and daughter are both taller than me. And they both have dates. So I inflict my own particular style of “dancing” on the long-suffering N. She moves gracefully and sinuously to the music while I shuffle around in a circle and shift my weight from side to side. Occasionally I get lucky and do this nearly on the beat. And then I catch a glimpse of my mother-in-law watching us all. Her two grand-daughters, her new grandson-in-law, the Special Friend who used to be married to her daughter, and the woman who now shares his life. Her eyes are moist but she’s smiling broadly. It’s about as intergenerational a moment as you’ll find, and it’s a good one for all of us.

So here I am, finally on the Valley Village campus at The Country School. As it turns out I’m allowed to make my own nametag, so my concerns in that department are alleviated. Everything’s pretty much as I remember from the old days. The juice, the muffins, the friendly pitch for funds. The only change I notice is that this time all the guests who look like me are, well, grandparents. Luckily The Boy comes to fetch me before I can dwell on this and off we go on our classroom trek.

The art teacher, a chipper young woman with an impressive array of tattoos, has put up a blank sheet of paper with the headline “I Love You Because….” She encourages us to pick up a marker and complete the sentence on our way out. I write my comment and The Boy adds his, but before I can read it we’re escorted away. In the lab, the Mad Science Teacher shows us how to set fire to a penny. I’m thinking if The Boy really wants to see money burn he should come to Armstrong’s Garden Center with his mom and me, but I suppose this is more fun.

And then, in the Social Studies classroom, it happens. The teacher asks each student to explain their relationship to their Special Friend. The Boy and I look at each other. It’s the moment of truth. We have to come up with a definition. I got nothin’. Then, in a tone that implies the answer is the most obvious thing in the world, The Boy says: “I live with him.” Perfect. There’s something Zen-like in the simple way it says so much. Still, just so nobody gets the wrong idea, I add: “His mother lives with us too.”

While The Boy runs to get his backpack I stop to check out the “I Love You Because…” poster. Someone did write “you make me laugh.” But it wasn’t him. Instead he wrote “you teach me and take care of me.” My eyes fill and I smile from ear-to-ear. I can tell it’s the same expression I saw on my mother-in-law’s face.

It’s pretty cool, the way these generations just keep coming. It’s as if the Universe is giving us one chance after another to get it right. As The Boy and I head home I find myself looking forward to the day I can dance at his wedding. And when I do, I hope he laughs.

David Nichols is a TV writer and producer who has worked on such shows as “Caroline In The City”, “Grace Under Fire”, and “Evening Shade.” Having mastered The Demented Swan, he is now looking for other wild-life to imitate in the shower.

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