Poppa’s Lap

The lights dimmed in the school auditorium as the audience hushed in anticipation of  seeing their elementary aged children perform in the musical version of Pilgrim’s Progress. I sat next to my eleventh and last grandchild, two-and-a-half year-old Caroline, who patted the empty seat between us and whispered, “Poppa?”

“He will be coming along soon. Let’s watch your sister.”

My son had recruited me to help with her during the play. Caroline sat primly during the first 15 minutes of the show, until finally boredom forced her to explore my purse. The mint she found kept her quiet for awhile. Next I tried the string cheese which I had offered earlier. Finally my husband, Ken, quietly slid into the seat next to me. The second Caroline spotted him she slipped off her chair and made a beeline for his lap.

With a strong, well-muscled arm, my husband of 48 years scooped up the little girl. In that instant greeting I saw the baby lower her eyelids, bat those long lashes, deliver a huge smile, and then coyly look away. How funny. How instinctive. How feminine. She is such her Poppa’s Girl!

Suddenly I felt a familiar warm glow flood through me, no doubt oxytocin or dopamine set loose in my bloodstream. The sweetness of that moment, of falling in love with my husband all over again, swept over me. I sat back in my chair and relaxed. This was not something new. I had experienced this before. Each time I witness that magic between my husband and our many grandchildren, my heart skips a beat. Perhaps the chaos of my childhood gave me this ability. Somehow I have learned to see ordinary moments – even the simple act of my husband bending to lift a two-year-old onto his lap and the ensuing flush of her smile – in a kind of Technicolor. I feel gratitude, not just for the beauty of family life, but for being able to pause and see it, to feel the love, and to immerse myself in it.

I am newly enamored of neuroscience. I love that scientists now know our human brain is far more malleable than was ever known, that our social interactions play a huge role in reshaping our brain thorough neuroplasty. This means that we can sculpt our brains, we can choose our company, we can choose our mood.

Throughout my adult life I have taken some flak for being my cheerful self. I have been called “Pollyanna” and not in a good way.  Even back then, without MRI evidence, I knew that I could choose my responses to what life threw my way. Today science proves the impact our relationships and our attitude have on our mood. Social Intelligence author Daniel Goldman says we know that loneliness is as damaging to our health “as a heavy smoking habit.”  Goldman reminds us that “vibrant social connections boost our good moods…that we have a kind of neural ‘WIFI’ through which we can ‘catch’ another’s mood.” I know this is our time on the planet and it is up to us to make the most of it.

Donna Friess
Author and psychologist Donna L. Friess, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Communications Studies at Cypress College in Orange County, CA. Donna has been a social activist for children’s rights. She facilitates a “Loss of a Loved One” support group and is an active professional speaker.
Donna Friess

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