Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Learning to Listen

Grandmothers have the time they never had as a mother—time to tell stories, time to hear secrets, time for cuddles.

Dr. M. De Vries

“When I grow up I’m gonna be a boy!” my four-year-old granddaughter announced. Ignoring the concerned look on her father’s face, she calmly bit into a slice of pizza.

My son shot me a worried glance across the table. “Now Hilary,” he said to his daughter, “we’ve talked about this before. You know you can’t turn into a boy.”

“But I want to,” she smiled.

“That won’t make it happen. Besides, it’s good to be a girl. Girls are just as smart as boys. Girls can do anything boys do.”

“No, they can’t.”

As I sat listening to my son reel off a long list of careers girls could have and sports they could play, I wished I knew how to help. The truth was, I was still pretty new to the grandmother business. My son had married early, quickly produced three children—and then suddenly found himself a single parent, struggling to be a good dad and a good provider at the same time. Everything had happened so fast, I hadn’t had a chance to perfect my grandma technique.

And another thing: Hilary was a girl, and I had no firsthand experience with raising little girls. I had two sons and two stepsons. I knew all about Cub Scouts, football, Power Rangers and burping contests, but I didn’t have a clue about the mysterious world of girl-children. Being female myself should have helped, but somehow it didn’t. Things had changed a lot since I was little.

After dinner, Hilary and her two younger brothers played in the family room where their grandpa was watching TV, while my son visited with me in the kitchen.

“I don’t know how to handle this, Mom,” he said over a cup of coffee. “It just started this week. Hilary came in from playing and told me she wanted to be a boy. I didn’t pay much attention to her then, but after she talked about it three or four times, I started to get worried. She’s the only girl in a house full of males. Do you think I treat her brothers better than her?”

“Of course not. Don’t spend too much time worrying about this; it’s probably just a passing idea. She’ll forget about it after a while.” I was just as puzzled as my son, but I tried to sound reassuring. Hilary was spending the night at our house. It was a special treat to stay with Grandma, where she could play undisturbed by annoying little brothers, stay up past her bedtime and receive plenty of one-to-one attention.

That evening as I watched her at the kitchen table drawing pictures with bright new crayons, I thought about my own grandparents. I had loved Grandma and delighted in hearing her stories about how she grew up on an island in Canada, the youngest of seven daughters in a fisherman’s family. But it was Grandpa I truly adored. During the first few years of my life, my father had been overseas with the Marines in Korea, so Grandpa was my substitute Dad. I remembered following him around the yard, jabbering happily to him as he pruned his roses. A quiet man with a gentle sense of humor, he let me wear his gray fedora and clomp around in his shoes. Had I thought I would grow up to be a boy back then, simply because I admired Grandpa? I couldn’t remember.

As I put away the supper dishes, I continued to think about my grandfather. I hadn’t been the only person to enjoy his company. Everyone sought him out—family, friends, business associates. What was it that made people want to tell him about their troubles and triumphs? I thought I knew the answer: Grandpa was a great listener. From the time I toddled around in his footsteps to the day he passed away when I was thirty-five, I knew I could tell Grandpa anything—and he would listen quietly, without judgment. Even though there were times when he must have disagreed with my decisions or opinions, he respected my right to say what I thought. Was I as good a listener as Grandpa?

The next day I was driving Hilary home through rush-hour traffic. My little granddaughter sat in the seat beside me, chattering nonstop about her neighborhood friends, her brothers, and her cat Francis. We stopped at a red light, and Hilary said matter-of-factly, “Grandma, I’m gonna be a boy when I grow up.”

This time I wasn’t going to offer her a dozen reasons why she should enjoy being a girl. I decided to simply listen. “So you want to be a boy. Why’s that?”

The answer came immediately. “Because I want to chew tobacco!”

I struggled to keep a straight face. “I see. Who do you know who chews tobacco?”

“My friend Lucy’s Uncle Jack. I saw him do it when he came to visit them. It looks really cool!”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You get to carry the tobacco around in this pouch thing, and then you get to spit it out on the ground! I asked her Uncle Jack if I could have some of his tobacco, but he said only boys get to chew it. That’s why I want to be a boy!”

Hilary’s two brothers greeted her with noisy enthusiasm. They’d missed their big sister, even though she’d only been gone for one day. Soon the three children were out on the sidewalk blowing bubbles that I’d brought them, so I had a chance to speak with my son.

“You’ll never guess why Hilary wants to be a boy,” I began and told him about our conversation on the way over. My son howled with laughter.

“Well,” he said at last, “I guess this isn’t as serious as I thought. But what did you say to her after she explained about Lucy’s Uncle Jack and the cool tobacco pouch?”

“Oh, I think we worked it out pretty well,” I replied, suppressing a grin. “I just told her she didn’t have to be a boy to chew tobacco. I said it’s a free country, and when she grows up she can chew all the tobacco she wants.”

Ann Russell

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