Northern Borders is tribute to caregiving grandparents

By Tom Rivers, Daily News Staff Writer
March 11, 2004

I just finished Northern Borders, the latest A Tale for Three Counties, and I want to hug my grandparents.

In the book by Howard Frank Mosher, 6-year-old Austen Kittredge is sent by his widowed father to live with his paternal grandparents on their farm in northern Vermont. Austen learns the wonders of outdoor life while receiving the love of his grandparents, who despite 40 years of marriage can’t stand each other.

Austen’s grandmother loves archaeology and has a particular fascination with Egyptian history. She names one room in her home, Egypt, and she calls her grandson ”Tut.” She also keeps the top garden in the county, winning numerous blue ribbons at the county fair for baked goods and items from her garden. Her husband is her main competition at the fair.

Austen’s grandfather runs a mill, milks cows and is widely regarded as a somewhat surly character. He doesn’t go to church, cusses and hangs with a rough crowd. But he teaches Austen the ways of the woods and clearly loves him, even if he fails to get the words out.

Austen spends 12 years on the farm, and says they are happy, unforgettable times.

I’d recommend reading the book. I postponed reading it for a month, scared away by the small typeface. But this book is a tribute of the love of grandparents who sometimes, often in difficult circumstances, fill the caregiving void for grandchildren.

Locally about 800 grandparents are the primary caregivers for children in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. Genesee has 360 grandparents, Orleans 260 and Wyoming 212 who are parenting their children’s children, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

I grew up with three of my four grandparents living less than a mile away from my house. My father’s dad died 20 years before I was born. I also had many uncles, aunts and cousins within a 10-minute drive.

The only defector in my immediate family was my mother’s sister, who married a Baptist minister and lived in Ohio and then Florida. I saw them once every two years or so while I was growing up.

My favorite relative was always my grandfather, a retired steelworker and World War II Navy veteran. He taught me to fish and play pool. He was a safe place, a person who didn’t pass judgment, especially when my parents divorced when I was 12. He was one of the few in the family who didn’t pick sides between my mother and father.

Instead, he would take me out on his boat in search of a muskie we never did catch. (I did hook many bass, carp and even a few turtles in my day.)

Besides my grandpa, my great-uncles Hubert and Mac took me fishing. My favorite picture when I was a kid shows my Uncle Mac holding a muskie next to me, at about age 8. The fish was longer than I was.

I can remember many trips for ice cream with my grandparents, many games of cards and other trips to a cheese factory somewhere near Chautauqua County.

I remember one particular trip, when my grandfather just bought a new Lincoln. He was proud of the car and was driving me, my brother and mother somewhere. But I felt sick and promptly threw up all over the backseat. Even that didn’t provoke my grandfather’s wrath.

I was only mad at my grandfather when he sold his house along Cassadaga Lake, and he and my grandmother bought a motor home, touring the country for a few years before settling in Florida.

They stayed in Florida in the winter and returned to New York in the spring, just in time to take their motor home to my baseball games, becoming the most popular fans at the park. They weren’t shy about laying on the big foghorn when my team scored or made a nice defensive play.

Soon after finding their retirement home in Frostproof, Fla., (which they called their ”Little Piece of Heaven,”) my grandfather got sick and a few months later died of cancer. He maintained his upbeat personality even at the end. I was 17 when he died.

I feel blessed to have grow up with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins so close by. Northern Borders, the latest community reading project, was a nice reminder of lucky I have been.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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