When I was 7, my maternal grandfather would light his chest hairs on fire, solely for my amusement. He could also wiggle his ears. My paternal grandfather could say “kiss my butt” in Spanish. And he had a small bedroom closet stuffed with cheap paperback Western and crime novels that, to a 7-year-old’s discerning eye, had enticingly racy covers. Worth close inspection from time to time.

My grandmothers were pretty cool, too. My paternal grandmother picked up a stripper doll in New Orleans that when you squeezed her stomach her skimpy top flopped down and her rubber boobies popped out. Not to be outdone, my maternal grandmother took my younger sister and me to see “Mary Poppins” and bought me a box of popcorn so big I could put my entire head inside it.

Suffice to say, I was imprinted early in life with the knowledge that grandparents were wondrously special creatures. Super-entertaining family members to be cherished, even worshiped. Both sets of my parents’ parents played an important role in my early life one year, when I lived with one set or the other at different times during my parents’ bitter divorce and my mother’s transition into a new life as a divorcee and single parent.

During that tumultuous time, my father’s parents introduced me to big city life (San Francisco), ethnic food (Mexican and Chinese) and movie marathons. My uncle, who was living with us at the time, took me to a double feature of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” When we came out of the theater some six hours later, dazed and confused, I felt like I had missed puberty altogether and was ready to apply for a home mortgage.

My mother’s parents – the sweetest, kindest people on Earth – had serious drinking problems. But they showed me that you could start drinking cocktails with the evening news, don’t stop until your 11 p.m. bedtime and never once act drunk, fight or say one unkind word. Maybe a questionable lesson from a practical health perspective, but impressive nonetheless in its capacity for maintaining normalcy and civility in the face of staggering intoxication.

My mom’s parents also smoked like chimneys (Winstons and Newports), while my dad’s parents preached piously about the social and physical evils of “that filthy habit.” Smoking never really caught on with me until I lived in Japan. Almost all Japanese people smoke, and they sold cigarettes with wonderful names like “Peace” and “Hope.” How could anyone resist?

Now that I’m a grandparent myself (of nine!), I realize that I’m probably a role model, too. I wonder what they’ll remember about me when they grow up. That I wrote funny essays? Took them on scooter rides? Threw a decent football? Cooked a mean macaroni and cheese?

Or, I hope, they’ll remember that I loved them all more than life itself. That’s how it is with grandparenting. You’re putty in their hands. They know it, you know it, and it’s all good.

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