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Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Be aware that the following is the result of years of careful research and daily observation that has resulted in a conclusion which, while hardly new, begs a reminder. We are constantly told of the stellar achievements of gifted artists, high-finance movers and shakers, political power barons, those who keep us from harm’s way and people who can cook up a storm. We are a people who celebrate our heroes, and rightfully so.

Some, however, perform their services outside the spotlight’s glare.

Thus, our subject today is grandmothers, something about which I know a great deal inasmuch as I’ve now lived with one for a number of years. Like best-selling author Judith Levy says, they are born the minute a new child comes into the world. And, lordy, do they play an important role in today’s society. They go by a variety of names, including Granny and Grandma. In France they’re called Meme; the Germans and Dutch lovingly refer to them as Oma. The one at my house is called Nana, and I am amazed by the range of easy talents she brings to her position. Not to mention the energy.

On any given day, she is sitter and taxi service; official family photographer at soccer games, dance recitals and choir performances; the go-to lady when cakes need to be baked for favorite schoolteachers or a birthday party requires a planner. If the elementary-school teacher needs a volunteer, guess who gets the call? She patiently serves as summertime lifeguard at the backyard pool, no matter the soaring temperature, and can sew up a Halloween costume that’ll be the talk of the neighborhood.

It is at her table where the grandkids, along with their moms and dads, gather to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. And all the while she somehow manages to avoid the pitfall of crossing the fine line drawn by parents, keenly aware of the difference between interfering and helping out.

And she’ll be the first to tell you she is but one of many doing the same.

In an economic time when it is increasingly necessary for both parents to work, it is often the grandmother who steps in to pinch hit. According to AARP, in fact, no fewer than 4.5 ?million ?American children are being raised solely by grandparents of kids whose parents passed on the responsibility of child rearing, whatever the reason.

“The grandmother’s role is constantly evolving,” says AARP Texas spokesman Rafael Ayuso. “From being the primary caregiver to those filling in for the parents who are away at their workplace, she’s playing an ever-growing part in the child-rearing process. Her input ranges from simply being a friend and a playmate to offering needed stability to the children. She’s become the family’s safety net.”

So, we’re not talking about the Hallmark-inspired portrait of the little old lady who does nothing more than spoil the kids rotten with sweet talk and chocolate chip cookies. Today she’s a far more complex figure in the family picture. She is teacher and comforter; someone with time to hear childhood concerns about school-day activities and who imparts wisdom not yet achieved by Mom and Dad. She immediately knows what to do about upset tummies and scraped knees, commands manners and respect, stresses the importance of learning the ABCs, advises against taking shortcuts when a school project is due and instinctively knows when to cheer and when to gently scold.

Her knowledge of things is remarkable, ranging from the simplest way to unravel the mysteries of fifth-grade math to how to repair broken dolls and get stains out of baseball uniforms. She can immediately recognize the fluid mood of whichever grandchild arrives at the front door, knowing whether to talk or listen, suggest a dip in the pool or getting homework done. It’s a gift. Grandmothers, it seems, just know those things.

Mine did. So did Nana’s. She admits that even today she still occasionally has warm and welcome dreams about carefree childhood summers spent at her grandmother’s house.

You’ll pardon the unscientific observation, but perhaps it is simply a divine skill passed along through generations, an instinctive awareness of the importance of the job to be lovingly done. Whatever the case, we’re all — my grandkids included — immensely better for it.