Below is a “feel good” story by Jim Stingl a writer with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, sent to me by one of my sisters. I hope it brings a much needed smile to your face today.
Sitting on lap leads to stand-in grandparents
Kathy Thome will never forget the moment she and her husband, Dean, became grandparents, though they didn’t realize it at the time.
It was 2006 and they were celebrating Father’s Day with their daughter, Dana, over brunch at the Ambassador Hotel’s Envoy restaurant.
“I looked down and here’s this beautiful child toddling over to me with her arms up. She clearly wanted to sit on my lap. I looked over at her dad, and he said, go ahead, sure,” Kathy said. The parents were sitting a couple of tables away.
Seeing this, the child’s older sister ran over, too, and she climbed on Dean’s lap. For about 20 minutes, the girls chattered and helped themselves to food on the Thomes’ plates. It was delightful and right out of the blue.
You need to know something about the timing of this encounter. The couple had learned days earlier that their daughter would not be able to bear children. Their son and his wife had decided not to have kids. Kathy and Dean needed to make peace with never being grandparents.
Or maybe not.
“I still believe in miracles. It was two little girls,” Dean said.
That would be Chloe and Grace O’Connell, daughters of Greg and Leslie O’Connell. At the time, Chloe was nearly 4, and she’s 9 now. Grace was 21 months old when she set all this in motion, and she turned 7 this month.
Here’s another important piece to fit into this story. Greg’s and Leslie’s parents have all passed on, the last one dying when Chloe was just 3 months old. So the girls were left with no grandparents.
Or maybe not.
As they were finishing that brunch five years ago, Kathy and Dean walked the girls back to their parents, and they all talked for a while and exchanged phone numbers. Right from the start, there seemed to be possibilities in this random meeting of strangers. Perhaps they could satisfy a mutual need.
Dean, 77, is a retired Spanish teacher from Grafton High School who does part-time office work these days. Kathy, 70, is also retired. She taught piano to children and English at Marquette University. They live in a condo downtown. Leslie works at Northwestern Mutual in the communications department, and Greg is a self-employed musician and sales and marketing guy. They’re both in their 40s and they live in Elm Grove.
Greg and Leslie teach their children to be cautious around people they don’t know, but something about the Thomes’ easy manner put the girls and them at ease.
“I think they can genuinely sense warm, caring hearts in people. And even at a young age, they have a good sense of decent human beings,” Greg said. “This had never happened before, and I don’t think it’s happened since.”
Kathy and Dean left the restaurant intrigued and excited about the encounter.
“But when I got home – and I don’t know if Leslie knows this – I said this is ridiculous. You don’t get grandchildren in a restaurant. So I threw the phone number away,” Kathy said. “I kinda said, well, Lord, if you want me to have grandkids, you’re going to have to take care of it.”
Several weeks went by. Leslie and Greg talked about Kathy and Dean, and they even checked them out as best they could on Google. Obviously, you need to be careful when it comes to your kids.
Finally, Leslie called Kathy and asked her to lunch. They talked mom-to-mom for a long time and learned they had similar interests and values, and they even knew some people in common. Then Kathy invited the whole O’Connell family to their home for brunch.
“The day came, that Sunday, and I was really nervous,” Dean said. “I thought, these two little girls won’t have any idea who we are. They will have forgotten us. But when they got out of the car, I was standing on the balcony, and they were just so excited. They came running like they had known me and known Grandma all their lives.”
Kathy had mentioned to Leslie she would bake a pie. “Those little girls came flying in screaming, ‘Grandma is making us an apple pie!’?” Kathy said.
From that day forward, they were first Grandpa Dean and Grandma Kathy to the girls, and then just Grandpa and Grandma. It sounds so natural when the girls say it, and when the couple calls the girls their granddaughters.
Now the two families – more like one extended family – get together for holidays, birthdays, grandparents day at school, ballet recitals and even sleepovers for the girls. They see each other at least once a month, which is more than some biological grandparents and grandkids do. A week ago, they celebrated National Grandparents Day early (it’s actually today) with some kite flying at the lakefront.
The girls each made a greeting card. “You are the greatest grandparents I could ever have,” Chloe wrote. “I lost a tooth yesterday,” Grace said in her more newsy card. “I love you,” wrote Chloe. “Love,” Grace signed her card. It’s a word they and their grandpa and grandma use easily and often.
“They always go the store with Grandpa, and they always make cookies with Grandma. They play Sorry with Grandpa, and knit and sew with Grandma or do crafts,” Kathy said.
This is all fine with their daughter, Dana, and their son, also named Greg, who have said jokingly, “They got us off the hook.”
The O’Connells still talk to the girls about the biological grandparents they lost, and they visit their graves. Even though they were quite young when they first met the Thomes, the girls fully understand – and don’t mind at all – that they’re not related by blood.
What’s real is the bond they share with the Grandma and Grandpa who thought no one would ever call them that.
Jim Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel