When my daughter moved to Costa Rica, married and had children so far away from our home, I sadly realized that I would not be able to have the frequent, in-person contact with my grandchildren that I had always imagined. Our relationship, particularly throughout the COVID pandemic, would somehow have to develop through video calls, over FaceTime or Zoom.
I wondered if my grandchildren and I would really be able to experience a special and unique relationship with minimal in-person contact. Engaging with young children and developing a trusting, intimate relationship happens through imaginative play. It did not seem possible that we could “play” during our FaceTime or Zoom interactions.
Fortunately, our granddaughter, Emma, had her own ideas about how we could engage over the phone. When Emma was 3, she introduced us to an imaginary world of FaceTime play. Hide and seek was the first game we played. My daughter would give Emma the phone and, clutching the phone in her hand, Emma would find a hiding place for us. We would whisper to each other, with anticipatory excitement, as her mother searched the house for us and then squeal with delight as her mother came closer and closer. Periodically, when Emma needed to pause the play and go get something to drink, she would put the phone down and sternly tell us to “Stay right here. Do not go anywhere” — as though we had a choice to roam around her house without her. She would return, in a few minutes, and take us to a new hiding place.
Over the past year, as Emma’s imagination has grown, so too did our FaceTime and Zoom play activities. She now asks if Pop-Pop, her grandfather, and I, Tita, have time to play and, of course, we respond, “yes,” as it is one of our favorite things to do.
“Come here,” Emma says, “we are flying to Baltimore.” Emma takes the phone over to a high table with bar stools, climbs up on the stool in a high airplane seat and props the phone up on the table so she can use her hands while we play together. “Hurry, get on the plane, Tita, Pop-Pop and Tia,” her aunt who lives in New York. “The plane is about to leave. Do you have your passports?” Emma asks. “You need them to get on the plane.” We settle into our seats. “The plane is taking off!” Emma throws back her head and laughs. We all do our best imitations of a plane’s noise as its wheels rise up and it takes flight.
Emma’s aunt says she is hungry, and Emma tells her that she does not have any snacks. Emma’s aunt says, “I have some in my pocket. Do you want some?” Emma thinks this is hysterical. Emma and her aunt put their hands up to their respective cameras and exchange the snack. As we are flying over the ocean, Emma says, “Oh no, a crab is biting my foot. Look! Crabs are on your feet too.” We all groan in pain as the crabs snap at our toes. Finally, Emma says they are gone, and she asks each of us, individually, if we have boo-boos after our crab encounter. We all show her the boo-boos on our toes. “The plane has landed. We’re in Baltimore!” shrieks Emma.
She laughs and tells us that we now have to go upstairs so we can play Christmas. Emma tightly holds the phone and walks all of us upstairs. She takes a couple of minutes to prop the phone up on her bedside table so we all have a view of the room. Emma explains that she is Santa Claus and tells us that we have to go to sleep. She goes off camera, while we all snore. Then we hear a deep, “Ho, ho, ho!” Emma/Santa tells us that she is eating the Christmas cookies left for her and is giving the reindeer their carrots. Emma/Santa tells us to close our eyes. We wait for the wake-up call. “It is morning,” Emma shouts, and “look what Santa brought you!” Emma comes into view, carrying three toys, one for each of us. Emma puts a toy up to the camera. “This one is for Tia,” and Tia puts her hand up to the camera to pull the gift through so she can unwrap it. “This one is for Pop-Pop,” and Emma pushes his gift through the camera. “And this is for Tita.” and I reach up to the camera to pull my gift through. We each unwrap our gifts and exclaim how much we love our presents. Then Emma says, “Now you be Santa, Pop-Pop,” and the play continues.
Over the last year, the themes of Emma’s play have changed, often as a way to reduce her anxiety about the typical fears and challenges that she is facing in her life. When Emma started preschool, her play was about mothers and fathers leaving their children at school and returning to pick them up. She also rehearsed separation from her parents through play involving a mother leaving the house to go grocery shopping; all the babies — us — had to cry until she returned home. Sometimes, the play was about nighttime monsters stealing your blankets, which you must report to the police. There were doctor and boo-boo themes, scary lions or tigers chasing-us themes, and we cannot forget the COVID test theme.
The COVID test, which Emma had to get prior to coming to the states, was quite traumatic for her, and she repeatedly rehearsed this in her play. We were able to rehearse her getting a COVID test in different ways: Sometimes we were brave, and other times we were scared and cried, but always we got a pretend ice cream cone after the test was completed. She shared with us when she was frightened about something in her life, such as her upcoming visit to the doctor. We have read books to each other and have had scavenger hunts in Emma’s home. Sometimes, Emma, now 4, FaceTimes us while she is eating dinner just to tell us about something exciting, like a cake pop for dessert! This year, we have “tasted” and “smelled” countless dinners and desserts that were “passed” through the FaceTime camera.
Ian, our now 2-year-old grandson living in Costa Rica, started to interact with us on FaceTime calls when he was nearly 18 months. Initially, he just noticed that his sister was “talking to the phone” and he wanted to be included. Now, he laughs a lot, and we narrate his play as he uses his child-sized lacrosse stick and shouts, “goal!” or puts his sister’s finger puppet princesses on each of his fingers. Ian’s favorite thing to do is to wave and say “bye-bye” so he can push the red button on the phone to end the call.
Now, we wait for our 10-month-old grandchild, Cal, who lives in New York, to show us how he will “play” with us on the phone. We are grateful that Emma, our oldest grandchild, has paved the way for our grandparenting journey. We now know that a rich and intimate relationship can develop through FaceTime and Zoom contact. With each child, their unique, imaginative play allows us to engage and see the world through their eyes. We cannot wait to see where their play will take us.
Mary Mueller (firstname.lastname@example.org) resides in Maryland. She has been a preschool teacher and is now a social worker providing mental health services at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. This is her first essay about the challenges of grandparenting from overseas.