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COLIN L. POWELL: “Always There For My Grandchildren”

When the readers of GRAND Magazine voted General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.), one of the sexiest celebrity grandparents in America, we had no idea that this distinction would make its way into the General’s remarks on the lecture circuit. But after speaking to this remarkable grand, we’ve come to realize how proud he is to be a grandfather.

General Powell and his wife of more than 45 years, Alma, have three children: Michael, Linda and Anne. And now that they’ve grown and are off on their own, it is an especially exciting time for the Powell family. After seeing their first two grandchildren grow from toddlers to teens, they are getting a chance to repeat the joyous journey again with two new grandkids – both under 2 – to love and cherish.

Am I a spoiler? They’re grandchildren; I don’t have to discipline them. I’m always there for them. I couldn’t be prouder of them. I have four wonderful grandchildren-two from my son Michael and daughter-in-law Jane: Jeffrey, who is 18 and graduating from high school; and his brother, Bryan, who was 13 in July.

My second daughter, Anne, got married five years ago, and she now has two children. The oldest one is Abigail, who was born in November ’05, and they quickly decided to have another one; his name is Patrick, and he was born in March.  So we’re next-generation grandparents and probably last-generation grandparents. I have a hunch they may all be finished.

Being a grandparent affords General Powell a great opportunity to experience things that he missed out on when he was raising his own children.

One thing that I would have liked to have done is spend more time with our children. Alma did the majority of the day-to-day childrearing. When my son was born, if I can go back that far, I was in Vietnam and I didn’t even know he had been born. He came a little earlier than expected, and it was weeks before I knew.

Then the second one came along, and I went back to Vietnam and left them for another year. Then when my third child was born, Vietnam was over; but I went to Korea. So I left her for a year.

By the time my son was 9, I’d been away three years of his life, and equivalent amounts for the younger ones. But you couldn’t tell I was away that long if you were with us now, because we’re all pretty close. And it isn’t so much your being there as it is what you are doing when you are there. It was all Alma: taking over when I was away and letting me back in when I came back. By that I mean letting me reassert myself after she had been doing both jobs.

History repeated itself when General Powell was answering a call to military service again at the time his son Michael welcomed his first son into the world.

When Michael’s son was born, I was still in the army and I was on a military trip to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, supervising some training that was taking place there with the 82nd Air Force Division. I was a four-star general. I knew the baby was due any time, and I was hoping to be back in Washington for the birth. But the worst ice storm you ever saw hit North Carolina, and I was stuck. I couldn’t get out of North Carolina.

It was another day or two before I could get back to Washington to see my grandson. It was a moving moment because you see the next generation continue and you also have to start thinking, “Jeez, I’m no longer a young father, and even an old father. I am a grandfather.” It kind of reminds you of what’s important in life as you get older. You appreciate your health; you appreciate the health of your children.

The birth of Jeffrey represented an important milestone for the Powells.

In the case of my son it was a special moment because we almost lost Mike in a terrible accident in the army. He almost died the first night of the accident. Doctors were able to stabilize him and got him back to Walter Reed-literally rebuilt him. There were terrible internal injuries in his pelvis; his entire urinary tract was ripped apart.

General Powell says that the medical crisis had unexpected positive consequences.

Mike had an old girlfriend from college whom he had dated years earlier, but they had broken up and separated. She came to see him in the hospital when she heard about the accident. She walked in, took one look at him all stretched out with tubes and wires and everything holding him together, and she fainted. But she faints a lot, as we discovered later. So when she came around, she started coming to see him frequently and constantly; and they realized they never should have broken up. They then got married. So they had their child, and it was moving: It not only reflected the new generation, it reflected the complete recovery of my son.

He’s still not totally well, but Jeffrey represented a generation that might not have been. And then five years later they had Bryan. I’ve watched Jeffrey and Bryan grow, and they are two fine young men. Their parents have raised them very, very well.

It’s only natural for grandparents to see bits of themselves and other family members in the grandchildren, but General Powell says he resists that urge, preferring to let nature take its course.

I’m not looking for me in them because that will show up eventually. If we are in strong families that stay together, we all turn into our parents and grandparents. I have watched my three children slowly turn into me and my wife. They won’t admit it and they would not acknowledge it, but it’s true.

They have habits of ours and recently look more like us. They just seemed to have picked up what we wanted them to pick up: the way to do things, the way to have a family. Since the generation of my son and my daughter’s has picked this up and since their children are in strong families, I expect the kids will pick up the same values. But we really shouldn’t expect to see every generation replicate. That would be inbreeding after a while.

These are kids who were born and raised in a digital age, not in the age of my upbringing of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They really haven’t known war. They see it now in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they’ve never known it. So they live in another world. They are very computer literate. They understand how to get information in ways I could have never imagined. I try to keep up with them in terms of how to use the Internet, how to operate in this new world, so they will have our basic values.

And yes, I can see that started to be reflected from their parents to them. And ultimately it goes back to us. We have to expect them to be their own people in a new world that is totally different from that of their parents or their grandparents.

General Powell tells GRAND that all his grandchildren have distinct personalities and identities.

The youngest one, Patrick, is a very sweet baby. And he’s chubby as can be, and not a difficult child at all. His sister, Abigail, is now starting to speak phrases. She’s reached that parrot stage where she can repeat sentences you’ve just said to her even though she doesn’t fully understand them. And now she is constantly pointing at things to get their names. Her language skills are now coming along very rapidly. She knows all of us by name, and she is absolutely adorable. She’s extremely outgoing. She will go to anybody, and she is seldom upset about anything.

General Powell credits his daughter Anne’s parenting skills as the reason for Abby’s even keel.

She is a product of my daughter’s very disciplined approach to raising her two kids. She eats at exactly the same time every day-no changes, no shifting, no giving her food except at the appointed time. She gets her snacks in between her regular feedings at the appointed time. She’s on a regular diet, which is varied; she’s now starting to vary it herself, eating more bananas and more apples. She goes to bed at exactly the same time every night. So there’s no confusion in her mind about what life is supposed to be like and what’s expected of her.

Not surprisingly, considering his military background, General Powell is a great believer when it comes to adding structure to a child’s upbringing.

It’s always been my belief in child raising as well that children need to know what “box” they’re supposed to live in, and it should be a very constrained box initially so that they develop habits and they develop behavior and they know what is right and what is wrong. And as they grow, the box gets bigger. When they hit 21, you get rid of the box. Anne is very good at that, and the baby is coming along the same way.

General Powell says that while Anne certainly learned much about child rearing from her parents, she’s not afraid to try new ideas.

Anne bought one of these things that I had never seen before. It’s called a swaddle blanket. Patrick goes to bed completely swaddled up. He can’t move his arms. He’s all wrapped up like a mummy with his head sticking out. And it keeps him quiet and it keeps him very secure.

He seems to feel very comfortable inside that cocoon. It’s like going back to the womb, and that will be with him for a while until he outgrows it. I think it’s working, in that he already has an easy personality; and Abby, who just loves everybody and everything, is a sweet child to be around.

When General Powell turns to the subject of his older grandchildren, he reflects on the positive stability and nature emerging in them as Jeffrey and Bryan approach young adulthood.

Bryan is quiet. He is a very loving young man. He was very short as a child, but now he’s stretching and he’s going to reach a good height. He’s very secure but quiet in a very interesting kind of way. He is a gymnast, and he’s very good. He just wants to do it for fun-he doesn’t want the constant competitiveness-which I think is good.

And here’s a family secret: He  only eats a few foods. We worried from the day he started eating food.  Why didn’t he eat burgers? Why doesn’t he eat French fries? He’s a very careful eater, and he doesn’t have a eenager’s voracious appetite; but he is solid and has muscle and is growing well and is absolutely healthy. We have decided that he knows more than we do. And he’s going to be healthier than all of us. He faithfully listens to what his body says he needs. He’s not attracted by junk food or big portions of food, or necessarily what’s on the table.

Trust me, we have watched this carefully over the years to make sure he’s OK. His health is fine; his muscle tone is fine. We stopped worrying about it long ago.

General Powell points out that Bryan’s brother, Jeffrey, isn’t as quiet as Bryan is.

Jeffrey is a very loving, happy-go-lucky kid. He’s graduating high school and is still not certain what he wants to do yet. I tell him, “That’s OK; neither did I. Look, I didn’t know until I was about 40 what I wanted to do, but something will come along, and it will turn you on. Don’t worry about it.” Jeffrey loves music. He plays guitar and likes that kind of thing. He plays some athletics, but athletics for fun, not athletics for passion.  He’s a good kid.

General Powell, on the other hand, grew up with a passion for baseball.

I was a Giants fan growing up. My heart left when they went to San Francisco, and I’ve never had another team. The Washington Nationals are pretty much our team right now. In those days you got your affiliation from your father. If your father was a Giants fan, you were a Giants fan. You had no choice. You want to eat, you want to live, you root for the Giants.  Don’t ask me why he was a Giants fan; that wasn’t part of the discussion.

Baseball affiliation notwithstanding, General Powell has fond memories of being raised by his parents, Luther Theophilus Powell and Maud Ariel, who had emigrated from Jamaica to the United States and worked in Manhattan’s Garment District.

I had two immigrant parents who were part of a large immigrant family that came here. The family was distributed from those from the homeland in Jamaica who stayed there to some who went to New York, mostly in the Bronx. Some went to Canada, and a few went to England. But the Bronx group was the largest contingent. Then in later years family members came out of Jamaica and went to Florida. So there were lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in the family, and what they conveyed to us is just a few simple things.

They said, “We came here with nothing. We’ve got more than nothing now, but we don’t have a whole lot. And we have expectations for you kids to do better, and you can’t disappoint us. It is not your choice about whether you go to school or not. It is  unthinkable for you to drop out. It just isn’t done in this family.” Mostly they said to us, “We have expectations for you, and don’t shame the family.”

General Powell, who was born in Harlem in 1937 and was raised in Hunts Point, South Bronx, by an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins as well as his mother and father, compares his upbringing to a game of pinball.

For me, it was not just my parents, it was my extended group or aunts and uncles and cousins who kept all the kids and me in play. Sometimes when I am talking to audiences and trying to make this point vivid, I say it’s like living in a pinball machine. All the cousins came shooting out and came bouncing down the pinball machine hitting all the bumpers and the number counters, springing off the little springs or rubber bands on the side.

We were going every which way, not sure where we were going. We were looking for the payout, looking for the jackpot on the machine. Anytime we were about to fall out the bottom, an aunt or uncle would be there as  flippers and to kick us back into play. Nobody falls through the bottom. It’s corny. But it’s also rather reflective. None of us knew which hole we would wind up in.

General Powell went to school in the Bronx, graduating in 1954. He was awarded a bachelor’s degree in geology from City College of New York. It was at City College that Powell joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.  He would call it one of the happiest experiences of his life. He found his life’s calling and reveled in it.

Being a career soldier was the only thing I was cut out to be. I’m sure I could have done something else, but this is what I loved doing. Still, we’ve never pushed our grandsons in that direction. With their father getting hurt and their grandfather a career soldier, they just have not expressed an interest in it as of yet. But you don’t know; you can’t tell. My sister became a teacher; my cousins became doctors, lawyers, judges, dentists, engineers, bus drivers, subway conductors, nurses or homemakers.

The one thing they all had in common was that nobody failed. And it didn’t make any difference in the family whether you became a general or a bus driver-it was all the same.

General Powell’s upbringing has given him very specific ideas about the role of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren.

My view of grandparents and  grandkids in general goes along with my belief that the adults in the lives of children are not just the parents but the extended family. Teachers, ministers, rabbis, neighbors-they all contribute to the raising of that kid. The way youngsters are really going to determine whether they are going to be like you is not what you say to them. It’s not how you lecture them. It’s not what you teach them. It’s what they see in you.

Children learn from you by watching you; and if what they see makes sense and what they see suggests you know the way to behave, they think that’s probably a good thing the way mom does that or dad does that. Children are always watching you even when you’re shouting. What they’re really doing is watching you. If they like what they see, that’s what they’ll be doing when they grow up.

GRAND Magazine Issue 18 Sept Oct 2007


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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