If at first you don’t succeed, have grandchildren

I found myself caught in that crack between the rock and the hard spot recently when, trowel in hand, I turned on a ladder to discover my 12-year-old grandson, Patrick, standing behind me with a joyous expression on his face. “Is THAT how you tile?” he asked, excited eyes sweeping along fresh grout and tile. “That doesn’t look so hard. Can I do it, Nana?”

“Not on a vertical wall for your first time out, bud, but I’ll explain what I’m doing so you’ll be ready to help when we tile a flat surface,” I offered. His smile faded and his eyes lost their shine, but he stood resolute, listening as I explained and demonstrated the boring details. Likewise, he patiently stood a respectful distance away as I used a Dremel to ground down slate stone on a cook stove countertop that extended beyond the glass tile curvature I’d created on the side, though I could tell he was itching to hold the enticingly dangerous machine.

“How do you know how to do all this stuff?” Patrick asked reverently, looking around at the various projects in the works. I told him it was mostly learned while watching Uncle Herb and Uncle George flip houses. As shown in the photo to the left, I started tagging along with them as early as 2 years of age, outfitted with my own lunch pail and wooden toy hammer. Seems I’ve always known how to build — it’s almost instinctual now.

“Does my mom know how to do all this stuff, too?” Patrick asked.

No, sadly none of my children learned how to tile, garden, can vegetables, sew, knit, crochet, or build, though I did teach son Philip how to lay hardwood floors when I needed extra help a few years ago. (In fact, we’ll be doing that again together next week at the new house, as I most enjoy working alongside him.)

“Why don’t they know?” Patrick persisted.

What an astute question, Grasshopper. They did, after all, grow up in a home where Mom singlehandedly finished a basement, carpeted the main floor, built a fireplace, and added closets and a porch. Why don’t they know the difference between a jigsaw and a miter saw? Surely my kids were as fascinated with power tools as my grandchildren seem to be. Surely they had asked to help, too.

But — and here’s the crack in my foundation as a good parent — I was too busy to show them, needing instead to quickly finish and then move on to the very many other (very, very) important things I (very) much more wanted to do. I didn’t immediately come up with that answer to Patrick’s question, telling him instead that they must not have been as curious as he was, but that wasn’t true. The truth was that I didn’t nurture their curiosity.

Nor did I suggest that while he could not immediately tile a vertical wall, I could have brought in a little wooden bench from outside, given him some mortar and broken tiles, and let him practice on that while I explained the process to him. So there was another opportunity lost to fully engage a willing child in the building trades that I so love.



And that makes me wonder, today, about how many times I’ve not delegated things to others because I was the more accomplished one who could do it faster and more easily alone. How many opportunities have I lost to mentor and to inspire — to encourage others’ talents?

Patrick is coming back to the rehabbing project to spend a few days with me over his Christmas break. I’ve already made him a junior tool belt with an appropriately weighted hammer, eyewear protection, and even tucked a few bandages inside. He has a bench to tile and a sack of mortar marked “save for Patrick.”

I admittedly fell far short of the super-mother mold I wanted to fit inside, but I’m not too proud or too old to learn from my mistakes. So I do try diligently to shore up any grandparenting cracks. What I teach our little ones today, paying forward the kindnesses and encouragement shown to me throughout my life, is the most important legacy I might hope to build with the many tools I have acquired along the way.

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