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Being a grandparent ranks right up there with heaven for most of us who have been given that gift; it's a reward for longevity and for surviving parenthood. But having those grandkids living far away makes the relationship different from the kinship that happens when the families are close enough to connect person-to-person on a frequent basis.

Too often, when getting together with the kids is a rare occasion, Grandpa and Grandma are more like a drop-in Santa Clause than a part of the fabric of life. No one really gets to know anyone else before the visit ends.

But even if the distance keeps you from regular in-person visits, there are lots of ways to keep a loving connection going across the miles. The internet, of course, is a wonderful way to exchange pictures and letters if it's available to both the grandparents and the little ones, but it's not the only way to keep in touch.

PHONE CALLS: Even tiny babies held up to the receiver respond to a voice, so ask to speak to the babies when you call the family. Around the age of three or four, some kids develop a dislike for the phone. Honor that by asking if they would like to talk to you. This lets them know that you are available but not intrusive.

REGULAR MAIL: Even with phone calls and the computer so available, it's a thrill for children to have something in the mailbox just for them. Any of these suggestions can be adapted to fit the age and unique personality of each grandchild.

Brief letters, postcards from your home town or from your travels, a package with a new color book or sidewalk chalk, brighten a child's day.

A story book, accompanied by a tape recording or you reading that story to them, is an especially personal touch. Sending consecutive gifts that go together, like the letters of their name, mailed one at a time creates a special kind of anticipation and excitement.

MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS: An on-going gift that, carefully chosen, can show your awareness of each grandchild's unique interests. There are wonderful magazines available for every age group and hobby, and they are not expensive, especially when you divide the subscription price by the number of issues.

VIDEO CAMERAS: Shoot some film, and narrate it, of your yard, your house, the places where you have hung their artwork or photos. Get some shots of you creating something for them--knitting a blanket or building a birdhouse--that you can send along with the gift.

You can also use the camera to film a birthday party for them that you have at your house. This works especially well if there are lots of cousins and aunts and uncles that can get together near you. Send the video along with the gifts, the wrapping paper, cards, party favors.

TELEVISION: Arrange ahead of time to watch a television broadcast "together," then call afterward to share your impressions and feelings about the show.

YOUR COMPUTER: Even if you don't have internet access, if you have a computer you can use it creatively to personalize gifts for the grandkids. You can write stories featuring them with their friends and use a graphics program to print pictures in "color book" mode to illustrate your stories.

With a scanner, you can include photos of them and their friends, families, or pets.

You can also use the same method to tell the stories of your own life, either when you were a child or what's happening with you now, instead of ordinary letters. Make the type style appropriate to their age and reading level. Personalized color books are another creative computer exercise you can do for the younger ones.

JOURNALS: As your grandchildren get older, journals can replace the color books, and they are easy to make. With a word processing program, write brief quotations one to a page. Fill the page with lines, print on nice paper, and bind them or use a three-hole punch and put them into a binder.

The quotes can be inspirational, funny, or relate to an activity that's important to the child.

GAMES: About the age of seven or eight, kids can learn to play checkers; older ones might be into chess. These games can be played across the miles with each player having a board at home and the moves being transmitted either electronically or through the mail.

ONGOING STORIES: If your grandchild loves to make up stories, you can take turns adding a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter to a tale you write together.

VISITS: Of course, the highlight of the grandparent/grandchild relationship is in-person visits. Whether you are going there or they are coming to your house, get some input ahead of time about what they would like to do during your time together. Is there a zoo nearby? Horseback riding? A bike trail or a nice place to walk and picnic?

LISTEN: Communication is a two-way street in any relationship; listening is the most important part. When you ask questions, listen to the answers. While it's important for you to share your wisdom and experience with the younger generation, avoid becoming preachy or critical of their lifestyle or their parents. You can do that simply be sharing your opinions and beliefs without demanding that they think the same way. After all, unconditional love is the most important gift you can give to your grandchildren, regardless of the distance that separates you.