New partnerships, on and off the courts

When Elaine Cosseboom and her mother, Kathi Power, don their tennis whites and pick up their racquets Thursday for a match at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., they'll be competing in an unusual tournament. It's the National Mother-Daughter Grass Court Championships, sponsored by the United States Tennis Association.

If the two women win the senior division for mothers over 60, it will be Mrs. Cosseboom's second trophy this month. Two weeks ago she and her father, Leo Power, won the super senior division for fathers over 70 at the US Father and Daughter Doubles Championships in Brookline, Mass.

Those of us who will never be more than spectators at a tennis match can only imagine the pleasure parents and grown children experience as they share this kind of activity. The bonds they forge undoubtedly carry over into other areas of their lives off the courts.

Even a decade ago, events like these for parents and their very adult offspring were largely unheard of. Today they're part of a quiet but profound revolution in family relationships. As longevity increases, and as parents and grandparents live more energetic, involved lives, the gap between generations is shrinking.

Consider the oldest team playing in the father-daughter tournament earlier this month - a 92-year-old father and his 60-something daughter. "It's inspiring to watch them," says Cosseboom.

Inspiring is a word that may also describe other 21st-century family relationships. Last week a friend of mine ran a three-legged race with her granddaughter when the little girl's school held a mock "Olympics."

What memories that experience must have created for both of them as they hopped along, legs tied together, laughing all the way. Talk about bonds! Who knows? Someday they might even compete in a grandmother-granddaughter tennis tournament. We whose grandparents never had an opportunity to visit our schools, much less run a race with us, can only cheer silently for moments like these.

Score another point for the diminishing generation gap.

No wonder children of all ages are likely to assume that their parents can do just about anything. Many take little notice of the passing years and make few concessions to the candles on a parent's cake. Age? No problem.

Take a bow, Mom and Dad, and consider these attitudes a compliment.

Yet this perception of parental youthfulness and energy, this growing sense of equality as the two groups share activities unimaginable to earlier generations, is also changing parent-child relationships at home for some families.

"My children have vastly different expectations of me than I had of my parents - financially, emotionally, physically," says a spirited mother of two daughters in their 30s, echoing similar comments by other empty nesters.

On the plus side, she loves their open, more egalitarian communication. "We talk about things my parents and I never would have discussed," she says.

At the same time, she finds herself amused to be playing roles she thought she had outgrown: Mom as ATM. Mom as errand runner. Mom as pet sitter and perpetual hostess, all in addition to her full-time job. "Whew," she says, smiling.

Another mother whose four children are in their 40s laughs when she says, "They all still think Dad and I are in our 30s." Vacation visits with their offspring turn into a marathon of activities, especially for Good Old Mom, whose well-honed skills as cook, bottle washer, laundress, and diaper changer par excellence have never been more in demand. A vacation? Not exactly. Still, the rewards of being together produce an afterglow that lingers on and on.

Similarly, a 60-ish father spent part of a vacation week this summer digging out six tree stumps from his son's yard. Hard work? You bet. At the same time, the project gave him a sense of pride in a job well done. His son's appreciation increased the satisfaction.

No wonder greeting cards bear testament to these thoroughly modern relationships with messages such as, "To Mom [or Dad], my best friend."

The need to be needed, the longing to be useful, the satisfaction of contributing, and the pleasure of sharing know no boundaries of age. These will be among the rewards as two generations, vastly different from their predecessors, rewrite conventional roles and find new ways to be partners, on and off the courts.

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