Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Word from Toppa: Lunch Box Grandpa

By: David Maraniss
I am the Lunch Box Grandpa. More familiarly I am the Lunchbox Toppa. Toppa is what my three granddaughters call me. Or what the two granddaughters who can talk call me. My three granddaughters are five, two, and three months. Like all granddaughters, they are precocious, of course, but the littlest one, Eliza, doesn’t talk yet. She smiles a lot, and laughs, and roots for the Packers and Vanderbilt basketball, and has a pretend morning sports radio talk show in Nashville with her dad, my son, in which she goes by the name Little Goose, but he does the talking and Little Goose does the squeaking. When the subject turns to sorry Vanderbilt football, she does the grunting and moaning.

My two older granddaughters are Jersey Girls. Heidi is five and Ava is two. Readers of this blog will recognize them as Lunch Box Mom's daughters. Ava, the two year old, has been getting more of the ink lately in the Lunch Box Mom blog because she does not like to sleep, or prefers to sleep on the lower shelf of a bookcase or in her parents’ bed than where she is supposed to sleep. This makes the Lunch Box Mom tired, and it also takes sleep time away from the utterly unheralded Lunch Box Dad, Tom Vander Schaaff, but you readers already know that. Heidi makes the blog mostly for her wondrous curiosity and ability to ask an unending series of penetrating questions beginning with the word why. There is no doubt that she is the granddaughter of a journalist, although at this point she would rather be a princess than a writer.

The writer (Lunch Box Toppa) with son Andrew,
wife, Linda, and daughter, Sarah (Lunch Box Mom) circa 1976
I became the father of Little Goose’s dad, Andrew, when I was only twenty, and Heidi and Ava’s mother (Lunch Box Mom) danced into the world when I was only twenty-four, so my wife Linda and I are not new to this game of parenting, though to read Lunch Box Mom you might assume that she and her friends were the first parents, or at least the first responsible parents, who ever lived. That is as it should be. Every generation reinvents the role. I love Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff, aka Lunch Box Mom, to pieces, and understand her every twitch and twitter to the bottom of my soul. She is an actor, and a teacher, as well as a super mom, and now she is a writer, too, something I never quite expected, and something that thrills me and would make her late grandfather, my dad, Elliott Maraniss, especially proud as the progenitor of a line of writers.

But before I get too syrupy here, and before I get back to my granddaughters and what it means to be a Lunch Box Toppa, let me spend a paragraph in the holiday season giving you a Christmas history of this Lunch Box Mom whose essays you read each week. To the best of my memory, I first made her cry on Christmas when she was about seven or eight and I gave her a wristwatch I’d bought at the last minute at a little shop inside the Pentagon subway station as I was rushing home from an interview. Even at that early age, you could not slip anything by her, she knew quality, and this watch had a cheap band. The saving grace of that Christmas meltdown was that it became iconic. Any disappointments thereafter were delivered and received in the context of my pathetic attempt to satisfy her with a faux fancy watch – every sweater of the wrong color, or shirt of the wrong style, every wrapped box containing something just plain beneath her discriminating taste (mostly picked out lovingly by her mother, my wife, the quirky saint Linda), evoked that Rosebud moment when little Sal first teared up.

Toppa with oldest
granddaughter, Heidi
That is what it is like to be a parent. That is decidedly not what it is like to be a grandparent. All the unavoidable tensions and expectations of parent-child relationships blessedly vanish. One of my books happens to be source material for a play that is running on Broadway now, and when people ask me how it feels, I compare it to being a grandparent. “It is all joy and not much responsibility, but in some sense it couldn’t exist without me,” I say. And that is the truth of the situation. We love our children unconditionally, but it is impossible for there not to be complications, large or small. The love for grandchildren is no deeper, yet somehow it seems purer, probably because it is free from the daily ups and downs of family life. We can bop in and out at our discretion. It is not my responsibility to get up in the middle of the night when Ava chooses not to sleep. When Heidi, with her boundless energy and curiosity, tires us out, we can retreat to the back bedroom or find a book to read and give her back to her mom or dad. When Eliza, our Littlest E, expresses her hunger, she needs her mother, not me.

Toppa and wife, Linda,
 with youngest granddaughter, Eliza
Just as every generation reinvents parenting, every older generation discovers the unexpected joy of grandparenting. When I am in my office trying to write, brooding over a sentence or a paragraph or the shape of a chapter, absolutely nothing in the world lifts me more than getting an email attachment from New Jersey or Tennessee with the latest picture of Heidi, Ava, or Eliza. Heidi with her gorgeous red hair and radiant spirit, Ava with her sweet and tender mischievousness, Little Goose with her infectious smile. I love those three little munchkins more than I could ever express. They are the best presents anyone could ever receive. They are the frankincense, gold, and myrrh for this Lunch Box Toppa.

Yesterday, the national website Mamapedia featured the Lunch Box Mom blog post: Kids: The Last of the True, Great Old-Fashioned Book Readers. If you missed it when it ran on the blog, or want to see it on the big screen, please click here.


Anonymous said...

David, as often happens, you've nailed it. I remember when I was about to become a grandma for the first time, people used to tell me, "You're going to love it more than when you had kids." "Pah!" I'd say. "I loved being a mom. Nothing could be better than being a mom." And then Elena and Annika were born and...okay...yes, being a grandma is at least as good but possibly better. Whatever, it's a joy, and you expressed it perfectly, LBT.

Tim Morrissey said...

Sarah - this "toppa" guy really knows how to write! He should do it full-time! :) Your blog should be on the Associated Press list of "best new things in 2010."

I can't wait for my own grandchildren, and I can't wait to find out what you'll write about in 2011.

Congratulations and much continued success!!

Sandra said...

Excellent post, David. Wonderful to read a grandfather's point of view, and especially so sweetly written. Nice of you to "bop" onto Sarah's blog!

parenting ad absurdum said...

Oh my gosh - lovely post. Fantastic photos. We just had our Pop Pop here for Christmas - we miss him!!

Fran said...

a most priceless tribute! love to read about the genetics of parenthood and feel the connection. you are amazing, Parents!