Relationships That Can Never Be

Relationships That Can Never Be

By Jennifer Palmer

Relationships 2

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.


She sits on his lap, tiny fingers reaching first for his own age-spotted ones, then for his starched plaid collar, then for his mouth, which curves up as her touch flits across his cheek. Her head follows her hand, slowly traveling up until their gazes lock. The look lasts only a moment before she is drawn once again by his shirt, dropping her head and her hand to examine the stiff fabric. I wonder whether some special understanding was reached there, in that instant when their eyes met, some knowledge passed from one to the other that none of the rest of us could comprehend, or if it was just a glance, a chance look not registered or remembered.

My pragmatic side thinks it must surely be the latter; neither of them is likely to remember this encounter for any significant length of time. She is only seven months old, after all, and at ninety-five, his mind just doesn’t hold on to things as it once did. Still, I hope that I am wrong. I hope somehow, my daughter has formed some special connection with her great-grandfather. Though she may not keep conscious memories of this gentle man, I hope, at some level, these brief moments might settle into her heart and soul and she would be better for it.

Before long, she tires of sitting on this stranger’s lap and she twists her head around to look for me. Though I want to draw this moment out, I also want it to end well, so I swoop down and pick her up before her agitation turns to tears. She clings to my sweater with one small fist, looks over my shoulder to grin at him as I move away, and his face lights up to match hers.

The moment passes and life continues and all too soon, our weekend visit has come to an end. This one brief encounter may be the only time he ever holds her, for the drive is long and his days are short and who knows if we will make this trek again before his time on earth is done?

*   *   *

It grieves me some, the thought that she will never really know her great-grandfather this side of eternity. It is likely she will never know any of her great-grandparents; of the eight of them, five left this earth before she was even born. The remaining three are all in their nineties and age, cruel tyrant that it is, has already robbed them of so much. Even should she have memories of them that survive to adulthood, they will not be of the fun, wise, loving, creative, quirky people her dad and I had the privilege of knowing as we grew, but rather they will be some hazy shadow, some half-glimpsed vision of easy chairs and wrinkles and age.

It cuts both ways, this knife does, for they would have loved to have known her, too. I stand in the middle, having known and loved all eight of her great-grandparents, having also been entrusted with the care of this girl of mine, and I long to turn back time somehow, to work some magic so that these beloved people might be more than just a story to her, more than just old photographs, so that she might charm them with her big brown eyes and her sweet little chuckle and the adorable way she wrinkles her nose when she grins.

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.

*   *   *

My daughter will never know any of her great-grandparents, and this saddens me. Still, I know her story is not my story and this is a good thing. Her life will be supported by a different cast of characters than my own and there will be those—please, God, let it be so—who will be to her what my grandparents were to me. Though I see her in my dad’s dad’s lap and mourn what will not be, she will likely never feel the lack; young as she is, she is already surrounded by many opportunities for rich and meaningful relationships. Her future is bright, her possibilities endless.

And yet, this is one aspect of parenting I never really considered before my daughter was born: that those who have meant the most to me might mean very little to her, that she may never even have the opportunity to meet many of the people who have played important roles in making me who I am today. She comes from a rich legacy of love and faith and family, and yet she will only ever know the key figures in that history through old stories, the stuff of myth and legend, not of flesh and bone.

There will be many relationships, many experiences, many passions and loves I will want to share with her in the years to come which will mean little to her, whether due to a difference in age or personality or preference. As she grows, she will diverge from me more and more, rely on me less and less, and I think this must be the heart of this melancholy I feel: she is yet an infant, and already I feel this break between my life experiences and her own, between those I love and those she will love. Already I feel her slipping away from me, moving on and growing up.

Of course this is a good thing. Of course this is the ultimate goal of parenting: to help her discover who she is, to help her learn how to be a kind and loving and productive member of a civilized society, to help her find and develop the skills she needs to make her own way in this world. Of course it is, and I will rejoice each step of the way even as I mourn the too-quick passage of time. I’ve known from the first time I saw her, a tiny teddy bear on the green-gray screen in the doctor’s office, that she is her own person and that the world is better for it. I just didn’t expect to feel the separation pangs so soon, when she is still so little.

She will grow and she will change and before I know it, I will no longer be the center of her world, and this will be a good thing. And one day, a day not so far in the future, I fear, her own son or daughter will sit in the lap of someone she loves—my dad, perhaps, or my husband’s—and she will wish for a wand to turn back time, for a way to create space for relationships that can never be.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.