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Step-grandparenting can be bittersweet — and beautiful

Seeing our late partners’ faces in our grandbabies’ smiles is joyful but startling.

illustration by Maura Intemann/Globe staff

In one of the many surprises of aging, my husband, Michael, and I have been thrown off-balance by bittersweet emotions, along with experiencing the usual joyful ones, since becoming grandparents. When we married 15 years ago, we were both still grieving our deceased first spouses. Between us, we brought three sons to the marriage. They didn’t become best buddies, but with patience and love gluing us together, we became a new family.

Now, we are seeing our late partners’ faces in our grandbabies’ smiles and expressions, and though expected, it’s startling. We mourn that these children and their elders will never meet one another. And with the birth of grandchildren, the longings for our past families have resurfaced. Of course, the babies don’t know the whole story yet, even though we lovingly have pictures of our late spouses up on the wall.


One of my stepsons lives in California with his wife, and with the birth of their son and daughter, I became a step-grandparent. But unlike with divorce, there is no ex-wife to be the “real” grandmother. On this side of the aisle, I’m the only grandmother.

Divorced friends who’ve remarried and have melded families tell me, euphemistically, “Oh yes, it can be quite challenging.” But remarriage after death and how it affects everyone involved with a new generation is not easier or more difficult, but different.

I can vouch for this because my father was married three times. After my parents divorced, I gained a stepmother and stepfamily, and again when my father remarried after his second wife’s death. And there were many grandchildren added to the mix.

Now my stepdaughter-in-law’s wonderful parents are one set of grandparents, and Michael and I, called Poppy and Nana, are the other.

Meanwhile, in faraway Holland, where my late husband was from, one of his sisters and her husband have two grandchildren, which makes me a great-aunt, “geweldige tante” in Dutch. Whether I have lost that title, in any language, because I remarried, nobody has informed me, fortunately.


Of course, with babies, one of the great delights is to give them gifts.

Michael and I admit we’ve hung onto some of our children’s playthings longer than usual, because they remind us of when our first families were young and whole. But now we have the pleasure of passing along these treasures to the next generation.

A few weeks ago I found Michael looking wistfully at a photo of his son as a 2-year-old, holding a mail truck, a gift from Michael and his first wife. Now that truck is being raced across floors in California by Michael’s grandson.

In the bottom drawer of my bureau, I kept a tiny red shirt covered with musical notes, which I’d worn when I was little. I have a photo of my mother buttoning me into that shirt; I remember her singing, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and calling it “the magic music shirt.” And I have a photo on my desk of my own son wearing that shirt.

Occasionally, I’d take the shirt out of the drawer and hold it to my face. But recently, I wrapped it up and sent it to California.

As this new era unfolds, Michael and I are sometimes adrift, missing our “old” families more than ever. But, if someday our other sons have children, if the magic music shirt is not in tatters, it will be sent to them. And if more babies are born in Holland, the shirt will travel across the ocean.


When we see our late spouses’ faces in the eyes of these little ones, we smile, we cry, and we continue to patch together the families with patience and love.

Patty Dann’s most recent book is The Wright Sister. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.