On the last day of Hanukkah, Cheri Goldberg gathered with her son, daughter-in-law and 18-month-old grandson Ari to light the eighth candle on the menorah, say their blessings and sing Hanukkah songs.
While Cheri resides in San Francisco, her grandson lives 3,000 miles away in Pittsburgh, Pa. This Hanukkah, the Goldbergs celebrated together through an iChat session, where they meet virtually to spend time with their grandson every Sunday.
"It's very important that we celebrate holidays together even though we're not physically together," she said.
The Goldbergs, and others like them, are part of a new generation of grandparents -- technologically plugged in, highly educated and interested in doing what they can to break down the geographical and generational divides between them and their grandchildren.
Donne Davis of Menlo Park uses her education and workplace skills to devise creative ways to interact and connect with her grandchildren. Unlike previous generations of more-distant grandparents, Davis has fostered playful, intimate relationships with her grandkids.
Today's grandparents are self-aware and interested in learning about their new roles as grandparents, experts say -- a byproduct of their baby-boomer culture. They belong to support groups -- Goldberg is a member of the Menlo Park-based GaGa Sisterhood, a group for grandmothers -- and take classes in grandparenting, such as one offered at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
One emerging trend is spending one-on-one time with an individual grandchild, notes Allan Zullo, author of several books for grandparents of the baby-boomer generation.
In contrast to grandparents of a few generations back, today's energetic elders don't bond over cookie baking. They take classes with their grandchildren or -- as Palo Alto resident Beverly Nadine does -- go on exotic trips with them. Nadine has traveled with her grandchildren to the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica.
Zullo also notes that improved health and increased vitality means grandparents have the energy to keep up with their grandchildren. Some active grandparents take grandkids cycling, camping, backpacking, scuba diving, sailing, skiing/snowboarding, on desert-exploration adventures, or -- especially people from rural or less politically correct areas -- on fishing, hunting or outdoor-motorsports expeditions.
Yet that good health may be a two-edged sword, according to Nancy Sanchez, community relations manager at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Grandparents' active lifestyles may mean they take on numerous social and community responsibilities that sometime leave them struggling to find time for their grandchildren. And many still work.
"We're not our grandma's grandmas," Davis said.
Today's mobile society has left modern families more dispersed and increasingly reliant on technology to stay in touch, according to Zullo.
Davis, founder of the GaGa Sisterhood, sends her two granddaughters e-cards with music and animation.
"I think that grandparents need to be hip to technology," she said, noting that "one of the hugest obstacles to a relationship is the distance." She lives in Menlo Park and her two granddaughters live in Carmichael, about a two-hour drive away.
"Once both of them can read, then I'm sure that they'll probably be e-mailing more," Davis' daughter, Deborah, said.
The Goldbergs began using iChat when Ari was born. Cheri felt she was missing so much by living far away, but with their regular iChats she has been able to witness Ari roll over, take his first steps and grow.
"I'm not high-techy at all, so for me to do an iChat ... is pretty amazing," she said.
Davis has noticed other GaGa Sisterhood grandmothers using technology to compensate for distance.
"One of the biggest ways they share things is with Kodak Gallery," where parents share pictures of holiday events, such as grandchildren going to the pumpkin patch, she said.
"They really stay in touch visually."
Judith Dean, 68, of Menlo Park, exchanges e-mails with her granddaughter Lisa, who attends college in Portland, Ore., two to three times a week.
Dean's background in administrative computers meant she was already comfortable using the medium.
Other grandparents use the Internet to research developmentally appropriate activities and community resources.
When grandson Ari came out to visit, Goldberg went online to research the best parks in San Francisco and museums that had programs suitable for children.
Davis, who has a masters degree and works in speech and language pathology, frequently uses the Web to find activities or projects to share with her grandchildren. She once found a recipe online for "blue goo" made from cornstarch, water and food coloring.
"They had so much fun with that," Deborah Davis said.
Thanks to the low cost of technology, some grandparents rely on it much more than their parents did -- even the old technological standby, the telephone.
Donne Davis sees her grandchildren about twice a month. In the meantime, phone calls are a good way to keep in touch.
"A long distance call [used to be very expensive, and now it's just pennies. That makes a big difference," Davis' husband, Sonny, said. "We talk unlimited, whereas before my parents would always limit the amount of time on a long-distance call."
The Davises spend hours on the phone with granddaughter, Juliet.
"We talk on the phone probably every other day," Deborah Davis said. "One thing my mom and dad both do is they tell stories to Juliet on the phone. She loves it."
Many grandparents say being playful with their grandchildren is a development in modern grandparenting, in contrast to what they experienced as children. Goldberg called visits to her grandfather's house "a very formal experience."
"It wasn't fun. He never played with me," she said.
Dean's grandmother "was more limited in what she thought was appropriate." Acceptable activities included playing the piano, sitting quietly and reading, or doing embroidery, she said.
But grandparents today are less restrained. Davis frequently participates in activities with her granddaughters that require her to get dirty or messy, such as playing with Play-Doh or watercolors.
"It's just one of the joys of being a grandma ... to be silly and goofy and get down on the floor," Davis said.
Such kid-level interactions create a closeness between grandparents and grandchildren that was absent a generation ago, the grandmothers said.
"I feel that [my grandkids are far more familiar with me because we do a lot of active things together. We are comfortable, easy," Nadine said.
Part of the difference, they say, is because most activities in the past centered on the grandparents' lives and routines. As a young girl, Dean would drink coffee with her grandfather.
Deborah Davis would go to work with her grandfather, who owned a clothing store.
"He would let me do ... little math things for their accounting," she said.
Mountain View resident Jan Kuersten, who plays make-believe with her grandchildren, also recalled the time spent with her own grandparents as being markedly different.
"We just kind of hung around ... and absorbed what they were doing," Kuersten said. There was never any play involved -- toys were not available at her grandparents' house.
Most activities centered on meals.
"It wasn't play. It was care-giving," Kuersten said.
Dean attributes the change in style to shifting attitudes about the role of grandparents and grandchildren.
"Grandparents a generation ago would have assumed they had the right to take care of the grandkids. You did what you were told," she said.
Now, grandchildren do what they want, and grandparents "don't expect them to sit on the couch and quietly behave," according to Nadine.
Those standards of a generation ago have now been reversed. For better or worse, 21st-century grandparents are the ones expected to be quiet, said Sanchez of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
Through the hospital's class for pre- and postnatal grandparents, students learn that childrearing is different from when they were parents. Grandparents are encouraged not to give unsolicited advice. It helps preserve peace in the family when grandparents understand what their role ought to be in childrearing, Sanchez said.
Zullo also emphasized that grandparents should not advise or try to play a direct role in raising their grandchildren.
"Grandparents gotta learn how to shut up," he said.
It's a far cry from how modern grandparents were themselves raised -- but it's a new paradigm they seem willing to embrace.
"When I was a little girl, children were seen and not heard," Nadine said. These days, "children are a part of every decision that's made. ... I notice now with my grandchildren what they might want to do."
Davis sees the emphasis on the individuality of the child as a byproduct of her generation.
"I'm a baby boomer and kind of was used to consciousness-raising groups -- our generation really started that," Davis said.
At their meetings, members of the GaGa Sisterhood discuss grandparenting issues that would not have received consideration before, many say. They discuss their role in their grandchildren's discipline, healthy snacks, safe gifts and appropriate financial contributions to extracurricular activities.
Grandparents have also cultivated a sense of themselves as independent beings through education and their careers, which has led to a reframing of their relationship with their grandchildren, they say.
They want to learn about who their grandkids are, and they do this by spending one-on-one time with them, a new trend Zullo noticed in his research.
"I feel like we get to know them better when we get the grandkids on our own," Dean said.
Dean talks frequently with her college-age granddaughter Lisa about real-life situations such as school and jobs. As a college-educated woman, Dean also discusses topics such as World War II with Lisa, who is a history major.
"My grandmother never worked outside the home. ... [She didn't talk to me about how to get along in the world," Dean said.
Lisa recently asked her grandmother about birth control, a discussion Dean would never have shared with her own grandmother. But Dean was happy to talk about it, to help her granddaughter be safe and make good decisions, she said.
Nadine spends quality time with her grandchildren by taking them on exotic international trips, always one-on-one.
"Travel ... is really big in my world. I may not make cookies with them, but I do take them places. They're so much fun. They're so interesting," Nadine said, adding that her grandchildren make great traveling companions.
Many activities that keep grandparents active and vital, such as travel, would have been considered extravagant in prior generations, but modern grandparents have been out in the work force and have considerably more discretionary income.
Marketers have recognized the potential of the grandparent population and are targeting them with a "desire to turn the grandparent-grandchild relationship into a consumer-centered one," writes Terry Mills, associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida.
But many educated, socially conscious grandparents think differently about spending money on their grandchildren. Shying away from showering their grandchildren with material possessions, they choose to invest in enriching activities. The trend is to buy grandchildren experiences, whether karate lessons, ballet classes or a trip.
"You see more of that than buying a grandchild a new video game," Zullo said.
One GaGa Sisterhood grandmother sends gift certificates through Amazon.com to her grandchildren, who then purchase books and write back with book reports. Others take art or language classes with their grandchildren. Some grandmothers are more practical and use their financial contributions towards necessities, such as back-to-school supplies.
Discretionary income has also made it easier to bridge the physical distance between generations. Goldberg gets on a plane to see her grandson in Pennsylvania every six weeks to two months.
The big challenge modern grandparents face, though, is time management. They are not only busy with their families and careers but also maintain active social lives or take on many activities after retirement.
"The boomer generation of grandparents [is still 'doing it all,'" Sanchez said.
Compromises must be made for them to spend time with their grandchildren. Sanchez, who works full-time at Lucile Packard, schedules time with her grandson, a kind of multigenerational "play date."
"There's a part of me that wishes I were in a different position, but it's just not my life," she said.
"Gone are the days when grandmas are at home and crocheting and available to the grandchild," Sanchez said. Working grandparents have to arrange to take time off to visit grandchildren who live far away.
Davis' grandmothers group typifies the overachieving grandparent.
"If they're not working, they're docents," guides for some nonprofit entity or agency, she said.
Bob Schwaar, 76, a retired chemical engineer who resides at Channing House, splits his time between various groups. He volunteers with Friends of the Palo Alto Library and Palo Alto Unitarian Church and is the editor of the SRI International alumni association newsletter. He also participates on a committee at Channing House.
In the new millennium, with time divided between work, play, travel, volunteering and other activities, grandparents still are finding ways to play important roles in the lives of their grandchildren. As researchers and the elders themselves note, being a modern grandparent is a new role, but one they're eager to tackle.
"We don't just sit back on our rockers," Schwaar said.