The international ties that bind us now

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One on one is the only way. Two can fit on an ample lap for a picture book, but for real closeness, the focus must be solo at some point. For me, the first grandchild was easy. She was an only child, and since her mother was teaching, Lark was dropped off at my doorstep before breakfast every morning from the time she entered nursery school until she claimed her independence in seventh grade.

From the back of my bicycle, her joyous voice singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" lifted me daily uphill to her preschool for the first three years. As I pedaled, we exulted in flights of fancy, spotting sprites peeking at us from the dew-sparkling grass, or telling each other stories. But then she learned to ride her own two-wheeler and arrived at the hilltop long before I could.

When, puffing and pink, I finally joined her, Lark began to greet me in the different languages she was intent upon learning. Buenas Dias and Guten Tag were soon joined by Jambo and Sin Chau.

Recommended: 2 excellent new novels, both set during the Korean War

I remember when she told me gently, "I really don't need you to ride to school with me any more, Nana," quickly adding, "but you can come if you still want to." I began to explore other ways to be part of her life.

When Lark was in eighth grade, we started planning a trip to Mexico together. Our dream was to live with a family. We found a perfect one, friends of a friend, in a small Mayan village in Yucatan. The daughters were Maya, Sol, and Mar - affording Spanish lessons with their very names. One week of immersion in simple village life delighted us, whetting Lark's appetite for more Spanish.

So later we made another trip to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, this time to the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where Lark enrolled in a public high school for six weeks. This resulted in a language fluency I could not match. Once again, she had left me behind. But these life-experiences together created a special life-link.

Now in college, Lark recently exclaimed, "Nana, I just realized that living even briefly in a developing country inspired my college major of Global Perspectives, with a focus on sustainable development." A desire for bonding can bring unexpected rewards.

Two grandsons had been growing up in a distant state. I yearned to feel closer to them. The search for an opportunity to lure them, one at a time, once again had surprising results.

A Vietnamese student, Duyen, who had become a part of our family, had returned to Hanoi. Now he was asking us to come for a visit. Could I handle such cultural exposure with a 9-year-old? Bryce was ecstatic at the idea, and his teacher agreed that the educational potential outweighed two weeks in a classroom at home.

So, after finding a cut-rate fare, off we soared, playing word games and shooting rubber bands at inanimate targets during long waits in remote airports. After surviving an interminable flight, we were festooned with flowers and hospitable hugs upon our arrival.

Bryce rarely stopped smiling as his new Vietnamese "uncles" took him speeding through the streets of Hanoi on the backs of bicycles and motorbikes. Local kids included Bryce in their street soccer games. Never one to relish physical contact at home, my grandson grinned as Vietnamese on street corners felt his arms and shoulders, saying, "Nice boy. Big boy!"

Bryce also ate freely of the strange berries placed in his mouth by the woman sitting next to him on a bus. Although he was a cautious eater at home, Bryce enthusiastically tried every strange food offered. For him, the commonplace is boring, whereas newness brought delight.

On the trip home, I asked Bryce what was the best part of the trip. He replied immediately, "First, Uncle Duyen. Second, Uncle Dung. Third, Cousin Tham. Fourth, Nana." I was grateful to have made the list.

We still talk about and communicate with these friends who showered him with gifts of love and appreciation - as well as with cuckoo eggs and dragon fruit.

Where should I take Hunter, the last grandchild? At 7 years, he showed a keen interest in wildlife and nature. When an inspired conservation teacher offered a child-centered trip to the rain forests of Costa Rica, it proved to be the perfect time for us to explore the wider world.

Together, Hunter and I awakened to the beauty and amazing diversity of life in the misty moistness of El Bosque Eterno de los Ninos ("The children's eternal rain forest") in the clouds of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Hunter's long list of highlights included spotting and imitating howler monkeys, climbing high up inside a strangler fig tree, being the first to spot an active volcano on the horizon at dawn, and tasting an edible beetle.

His spontaneous exclamation that "I will never, ever in my life cut down another tree!" was as rewarding as hearing, "Oh, Nana, this is the best gift I have ever had in the whole wide world! And it didn't even have to be wrapped up!"

The bonds have been cemented. And what a blessing for me, to witness the growing appreciation of our world through the eyes of grandchildren.

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