My five-year-old granddaughter sits at my table, surveying her plate of rice crackers and goat cheese. I sip my coffee and marvel at the sight of those big brown eyes framed by long, dark lashes.

“Gramma,” she says, “did you and Grampa ever die?”

“No, my dear,” I reply. “You only get to die once.”

She considers this. I brace myself for the next question.

“Gramma,” she says, “do you fink the cats would like some of my goat cheese?”

“I am sure they would,” I reply, delighted with the change of topic. “But we never feed the cats at the table.”

“Awwww,” she protests. “Just a leedle bit?”

“Sorry, sugar. Gramma’s house, Gramma’s rules.”

I reach over and tousle her hair, ignoring her scowl. For the first four years of her life our relationship was conducted through telephone receivers and computer screens, with tousling time restricted to twice-yearly visits. No longer a long-distance grandma, I can tousle to my heart’s content.

Eleven years ago, when I held my first grandchild in my arms, I thought of my wonderful, comfortable grandmother. Her big old home was my refuge, her lap was my nest. She dispensed wisdom and Band-Aids with the same calm smile. I vowed I would be that kind of grandmother. But I found myself, seven grandchildren later, struggling to dispense long-distance love and wisdom via Skype and FaceTime. And my house was empty. And my lap was cold.

My husband Bill, who had also known the close love of a grandmother, shared my desire to have a special place in our grandkids’ lives. We tried! We phoned them often, sent notes and photos and birthday cards and gifts. We made the long trek south twice a year, sleeping on air mattresses and being awakened at dawn by the delighted giggles of young children. Every August we rented a vacation spot where the entire clan could congregate for a week, the difficulty of finding a suitable place increasing each year as the families grew—this year we’re 12 adults, seven kids, and a baby. Still, our bodies were in one place, and our hearts were in another.

So last October, my husband and I relocated to the Comox Valley. It was not easy to leave the small northern B.C. town that had been our home for 42 years. But now that the dust has settled, here I am, seated across from this wee mite whose fertile brain is, even now, is devising new ways to test mine.

“Gramma,” she says, “can I have screen time until Mamma comes to pick me up?”

“No screen time today. We will find something better to do.”

She frowns, then those big brown eyes light up.

“I know! We can go outside wif your iPhone and time each other running up and down the driveway, like we do!”

“Why…sure,” I say, with forced enthusiasm, wishing she would lose interest in what has become a ritual game. Oh well, it will get us out into the fresh air, and I can manage a few laps before the knees give out. Then I’ll lure her back inside with promises of hot chocolate, and we’ll play with my costume jewelry, or fill the bird feeders, or bake cookies, or feed the kitties, or just curl up with the storybooks I read to her mommy when she was a little girl.

In the past, when several generations lived together, grandparents were part of the fibre of a child’s life. And that’s what I want to be—not a disembodied face on a computer screen; not a voice at the other end of a phone, not a person who breezes in and out of her life, bearing gifts she will soon outgrow. I want her to say to her children, “I remember how my grandma used to race up and down the driveway with me, but boy, she could be tough! We never got away with anything.”

As I help her into her pink flowery gumboots she looks up coyly, batting those long, dark eyelashes. “Gramma, when we come back in do you fink I could have just a teensy, WEENSY bit of screen time? Just DAT much?” She holds her thumb and forefinger two centimetres apart.

“Never mind the Bambi eyes, my dear. They didn’t work on me when your mommy was a little girl, and they don’t work on me now. I said no screen time, and that’s an end to it.”

Now comes the pout. “But why NOT?”

I smile and pull out my ace card. “Grandma’s house,” I say, “Grandma’s rules.”

She shrugs, and puts her hand in mine, humming a little tune. I look down fondly at this child for whom I gave up everything, and gained so much more.

“Let’s go race up and down the driveway,” I say. “But remember the rule. Little girls run. Grandmas walk.”

Jacqui Graham has six grown kids and eight delightful grandkids age 6 months to 11 years. If she had known how much fun grandkids would be, she would have had them first!