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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Long-distance grandparents

BY VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Their granddaughters, Emma, 6, and Sophie, 8, have just arrived from California for a three-week visit. Barbie dolls and accessories and clothes, which the girls can't have at home because their parents prefer toys made of natural materials, cover the floor of a den. Two small bikes that Mrs. Kramer bought at a yard sale stand ready for action in the garage. Smoke from the grill, where Mr. Kramer has lunch almost ready, drifts across a kid-friendly backyard.

It's clear the Kramers have spent much time and effort readying themselves for this annual summer visit. It's equally clear from a few minutes' conversation that they adore the girls and love the role of grandparent. And because, like millions of grandparents in America, they don't live near their grandchildren, they pull out all the stops when the girls come to town.

"The first thing we say when they walk in the door is, 'Let the spoiling begin!' " Mr. Kramer says with a grin.

According to a 2002 AARP survey, about 45 percent of the grandparents who participated in the study have grandchildren who live more than 200 miles away, the result of living in a country in which geographic mobility is prized. In 2002-2003 alone, more than 40 million people moved, according to U.S. Census figures, and of those, 19 percent went to a different state.

Not only do many young adults move away from their hometowns to pursue work, but their parents often leave those same towns for sunbelt states. The result: many American families in which seeing Grandma and Grandpa is an occasional treat rather than a daily or weekly event.

If the response to The Blade's query about how grandparents and grandchildren bridge the geographical gap is any indication, it's an issue about which people have deep feelings. Dozens of people called or e-mailed to tell us how they reach out across the miles.

The stereotype of a grandparent calls for rocking chairs, cardigans, and some befuddlement at the high-tech gadgetry that has come to dominate our homes. But many of our respondents say they've learned to use, and rely on, the latest technology to keep up with their grandchildren's lives.

Steve and Mitzie Toth of Oregon have grandchildren in Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee. "We keep in touch with them through IM (instant messaging), e-mail, [and] phone calls," he writes in an e-mail.

And in a neat twist on the stereotype, one granddaughter says her California-based grandfather, an engineer, taught her a thing or two about technology.

"Despite the physical distance between us, he has remained close via letters, cards, personal visits, and, more recently, the Internet," writes Jennifer Puls of Toledo in an e-mail. "He taught me the concept of paragraphs while writing to him in my grade school years. Even now, at age 88, he is still teaching me the newest technology - from cable modems to digital cameras - that allow us to keep in contact with ease."

Other grandparents consider e-mail and IM just a couple of arrows in the communications quiver. Sharon Kassay, who divides her time between Florida and Port Clinton, videotapes herself reading books and singing songs and sends the tapes to her granddaughter, reports her daughter, Tammy Rikard of Point Place. Others go even further.

"Staying connected must be in the budget because it's not cheap," admits Linda Ruckman of Holland in an e-mail. "We use photos, videos, computer, phone, snail mail, visits, and bi-yearly vacations."

Indeed, vacations together seemed a popular way for many folks to bridge the distance gap. Many folks wrote in with descriptions of trips taken and annual get-togethers. The Toths, for instance, planned to spend a week in Virginia with their extended family of 18, including grandchildren, their children, and their spouses.

And of course, many, many grandparents visit their children and grandchildren.

"My oldest recently asked if Grandma lived at Toledo Express Airport," writes Stephanie Ubaydi of Toledo. "I'm guessing because that's where we go to get her and where we drop her off."

But despite not being able to see their grandchildren anytime they wish, many folks said they felt close to their youngest relatives. Sandy Remer of Toledo has 10 grandchildren who live in Antwerp - the one in Belgium, not Paulding County. She visits them every couple of years and stays in touch via mail and phone calls. Nevertheless, "I couldn't feel closer to these grandchildren if they lived next door," she says. "It's the truth."

And the Kramers believe the infrequent visits actually make them better grandparents. They set aside everything to spend concentrated time with the girls when they come.

"It brings me a lot of joy, just to hear their voices and to be around them," she says as Sophie climbs into her lap. "More so, because we don't get to see them every week."

"We have them totally to ourselves, rather than having to share them with others," says Mr. Kramer. "I like it this way."



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