Grandkids far away? This tech-savvy grandma can help

Mary Bach is not what you’d call an absentee grandma.

Her four grandchildren live in other towns — up to three hours away — a fact of life for modern grandparents.

But when her oldest grandchild was born in St. Louis eight years ago, Bach took a vow not to be a long-distance grandmother.

From day one, she’s made regular visits to see Lulu, now 8, and brother Finn, 5. And she frequently hosts the grandkids at her Champaign house, which is outfitted with all the toys any self-respecting child could want.

In the summers, she runs “Grandma Camp” once a month for her two grandkids in Mahomet, Anna, 7, and Charlie, 5. It’s a one-day camp packed with crafts and other activities, including a library checkout system. (Did I mention she’s a former teacher?)

She also connects with her grandkids through the mail, sending themed postcards with riddles for every birthday, holiday and special occasion, or just because.

Oh yeah, and she does a grandma blog.

“Grandma in the Mailbox” (www.grandmainthemailbox.com) chronicles all of Bach’s tips for being, well, an awesome grandma from any distance.

“I really enjoy being a grandmother,” she says. “Obviously, I’m retired, but when I fill out those occupation blanks on forms, I always think there should be a little checkmark box that says ‘grandmother.’”

How did she end up online?

When Anna and Charlie were younger, Bach taught “Grandma School” once a week while her daughter-in-law was at work. They’d learn letters and numbers, sing songs, do crafts, have sharing time and read books together.

When her daughter-in-law’s position was eliminated, Grandma School had to close. Bach found herself at loose ends.

Her son in St. Louis, Patrick Hawley, suggested she blog about all the creative things she did with the grandkids. A programmer with his own Web applications company, Hawley set it up, and she launched the blog in January.

“She’s computer-savvy anyway,” Hawley says. “I got it up and running, and she started blogging that day.”

Bach says she wanted to help other grandparents keep their grandkids entertained and stay in touch across the miles. For some, the whole young child thing is a distant memory.

Bach, 71, refers to the blog as a series of “teaching minutes,” a phrase borrowed from her teaching days. She taught Latin in Potomac and at Urbana Junior High School for years before going into administrative work, retiring from a human resources job.

Her blog touches on everything from postcard tips (she gets most of the cards from www.zazzle.com) to the best recipes for vegan cookies. Her son in St. Louis is, she confides, a “healthy person.”

Finn loves kale, so she found a Bobby Flay recipe for cooked kale on the Food Network. It was a hit.

For each holiday or special event, she blogs about good kids’ books to check out at the library. Her grandkids particularly like “The Night Before...” series (summer vacation, kindergarten, etc.).

She blogged about how to convert a bedroom to a playroom, using some bought items and some home-made — like the golf game she made out of cereal boxes and cracker boxes, or the tower of oatmeal boxes she covered with contact paper. In the summer, many of the toys move out to her much larger sunroom.

Bach and the grandkids play school with the big magnetic chalkboard, do scavenger hunts with a basket of tiny animals or play pretend grocery store-kitchen-restaurant with the toy table and chairs and mini-kitchen appliances. There’s a well-equipped tool bench, Little Tykes basketball hoop, Thomas the Tank Engine train table and myriad books, toys and games.

The current favorite is Grandma’s Library, complete with book labels, library cards, checkout slips, a date stamp and books arranged on greeting card display racks that Bach picked up after one holiday season.

“I like to say that I’m making memories when we do things together,” she says.

Hers is not a “don’t touch” house. She lets the grandkids use their Playmobil people and Hot Wheels cars with her Department 56 snow village at Christmastime.

But for the next Grandma Camp in July, Charlie has requested “all the things you never let us do.” His bucket list includes Play Doh — “the messiest stuff in the world,” Bach says — the sandbox, a game with 1,000 pieces and water balloons.

Bach recently sent her postcards and assorted activity sheets to the St. Louis grandkids for the Fourth of July. Hawley says his kids feel just as close to Bach as they do to their St. Louis grandparents.

“She does just wonderful, wonderful things for my kids. She’s pen pals with a couple of young kids in the area, also. It’s just really nice that she’s sharing all of her ideas with other kids directly or indirectly through the blog.”

Bach hasn’t tried to publicize the blog, though it gets occasional comments. One suggested she buy an add-on to improve her Google ratings.

“I’m not really writing this for ratings,” she says. “I just do it because I like it.”

She’s not sure how long she’ll keep it up as the kids grow older.

“In a few years, they’re not really going to be interested in Grandma,” she says.

Somehow, I doubt that.

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Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues, social services and the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her column appears in the paper every other Tuesday. Leave a comment below,  contact Julie at 351-5226 or jwurth@news-gazette.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos:

1. Finn and Lulu Hawley stand by the Valentine's Day tree they made with their grandmother, Mary Bach, in St. Louis in February 2010. Courtesy Mary Bach

2. Mary Bach shows off her blog, ‘Grandma in the Mailbox,’ at her home in Champaign in late June. Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

3. Cousins Charlie Hawley and Finn Hawley enjoy the playroom at Grandma Mary Bach's house in Champaign. Courtesy Mary Bach

4. Charlie and Anna Hawley of Mahomet make patriotic cupcakes at their grandma's house in June. Courtesy Mary Bach

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