If the grandkids are awake, breathing, and on the premises, questions are buzzing like bees swarming a hive in summer.  There is nothing to stoke the mental agility, touch the heart, and occasionally terrify the soul of a grandparent more than the questions these little varmints hurl at you.  Here’s a sample of my Top 10 favorites (with apologies to my old pal David Letterman), paired with the often less-than-stellar answers:

No. 10:  Why do some flowers stand up in pots and others hang down?

G-ma:  They’re made like that.  They do that on purpose.

No. 9:  Why is your hair sticking out like that in the back?

G-ma:  Sometimes when you are here I forget to look in the mirror.

No. 8: Can we sing that song you like?

G-ma:  Of course.  You know I’ll sing any place, any time.  But don’t make that face.

No. 7:  Do you like knock-knock jokes?

G-ma:  More than life itself.

No. 6:  What does that button do?

G-ma:  Ummmm…maybe it…or, possibly it’s for…actually, I have no idea.  But I will find out for you.

No. 5:  Are lightning bugs nocturnal?

G-ma:  How on earth did you learn a word like that?

No. 4:  So, what have you been doing lately?

G-ma: (So flabbergasted by question I can’t think of an answer for a couple of seconds.  Then:). Oh, you know, just the usual stuff. Work, walk the dog, you know.

No. 3:  Why do they call these corns ears?

G-ma:  They stick out off the stalk like the ears on your head.  Be careful–they might be listening.

No. 2:  Do you believe God?

G-ma:  Yes.

And the all-time No. 1 favorite G-kid question:  Can I help you?

G-ma:  Of course.  I couldn’t possibly do this without you.

Need a little something to help you sleep?

Of course you do. If you are over 50, as many of G-ma’s readers can proudly claim, it’s a virtual certainty. Sleep problems are a guaranteed conversation topic wherever people of a certain age gather, right up there with the pluses and minuses of joint replacement and the best natural digestive aids–scintillating stuff, of course.

Come, fellow sufferers, and listen to a story about the most powerful sleep aid I’ve ever known. It takes effect within minutes, can be used as often as you feel the need, requires no prescription or pharmacy card, and is essentially free. From now on, you can shun your chamomile tea, toss your Melatonin. A simple command on the TV remote puts it at your fingertips.

Just click your way to your local PBS station and find yourself an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

If you are like G-ma, you will be dozing peacefully before you can say “DVR.” In fact, I rarely launch an episode if not already under the sheets, as I prefer not to spend the night on the couch.

What’s this? Not familiar with the program? It emerged as reality television long before we ever suffered the oxymoron. Billed as PBS’ longest-running series, Roadshow tours the country to cities and historic sites with a band of experts from art auction houses, museums, and antiques dealers, who appraise a wild variety of objects brought by the local attendees. The most interesting appraisals—when something truly rare is identified at extraordinary value, or a fake is spotted and explained—are taped for the hour-long, weekly episodes. For more than two decades now, Roadshow has been surprising ordinary people with remarkable facts and history associated with seemingly every-day objects. If you are not careful, Roadshow will turn you into a dumpster-diving, estate-sale-prowling maniac, for the whole premise is that exceptional value lies hidden in the most unlikely places. That is, if you can stay awake long enough to develop such inclinations.

On any given episode, you might see a stunned elderly man, shocked at the value of a signed baseball he’s kept covered in a sock in his drawer since the Hall of Famers signed it for him while he stood at the dugout fence as an eight-year-old. The next week, here’s a woman who dug an oil painting out of a dumpster she passed as an old office building was being emptied for demolition; the dusty painting with the damaged frame is a rare early find for an international master, actually worth in the mid-six-figures. Or there’s a guy who bought a heavy volume of nature art at an estate sale for $15, only to find it contained early prints from major Impressionists and is valued at something north of the ozone layer.

Sleep habits aside, I’m a total Roadshow fangirl, having watched it long enough to recognize featured items on re-runs. I’ve been known to prowl the house the next day to excavate a small green vase from storage that I’m certain matches a find just traced to a storied Southern regional pottery hub and appraised at an auction value of $7,000. The show has turned me into one of those annoying characters who turns over china to examine clues on the bottom, even in other people’s houses. I come from a family of keepers, my house replete with “treasures” that go back generations. I just know in my bones that one of these days, I’ll learn that the dear departed great-aunt’s watercolor views of central Paris are the work of a renowned master. And my retirement will be therefore secured. If I can foist off sleep long enough to notice.IMG_7911

Because no matter how fascinated I am, no matter how beautiful the location, the lids gain weight on about the second appraisal, and with about 10 minutes absorbed, I’m dozing the sleep of the innocent.

Why should this be, when I truly am intrigued? Hard to say. Maybe it’s the production style—in such contrast to other television these days, the show lights are stable at normal levels, the conversation between appraiser and owner sounds like a nice chat in your living room. There are no loud ads to break up the flow of history, no distracting background soundtrack while the camera stands still or moves very slowly in to disclose key details. The only drama occurs on the faces of the owners who are stunned by what they learn; some shriek, some cry, and some stammer in shock. I can so see myself in their shoes.

Meanwhile, If I play my cards right, I get a about a week’s worth of sleep inducements per episode. The math works like so: I cue up the DVR to the week’s show and fast-forward to something I don’t recognize. I just start there, soak up a smattering of obscure history quietly, thoughtfully, reverently, and….zzzzzzzz. The next night, repeat.

Thanks, Antiques Roadshow. I love your mysteries revealed and still believe you’re going to make me rich someday. Until then, I’ll have to settle for the wealth of great rest.

“…by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.”

William Shakespeare

The grandchildren are growing up so quickly it almost hurts to watch it.  With spring birthdays just weeks apart, Buddy and Sis are about to turn eight and six, respectively, and change seems to manifest even in the (luckily) small intervals between visits.  Oh, you are taller AGAIN, I catch myself wailing in despair as I wrap a hug around Buddy’s thin, lanky frame, as though I could expect him to slow his growth down himself, or he was somehow responsible for it.  And look how neatly you write your name, I exclaim to Sis, with a touch of melancholy, so proud but aching, just an itty bit, for the little-kid days that are vanishing.

Visits here at G-ma’s house have, naturally, evolved to very different affairs.  Gone are the spoon-only meals and the ubiquitous fear of (and prevention strategies for) potty accidents.  There’s no need to sweep the house for breakable objects that require removal to a higher plane or invisible location.  I can leave them alone in a room for a few minutes while I change a load of laundry or provide a quick pee break for the dog, as long as I keep an ear tuned for the inevitable flare-ups of sibling bickering.  Those blow in and then dissipate with eyepopping speed, and occasionally some intervention to prevent bodily injury is imperative.  (As one of four children myself, I accept this dynamic as only a veteran can.)

Entertainment and productive occupation are ever-new scenarios, as well.  The kids are plenty old enough to contribute competent help at meal time and often request the opportunity.  Imagine my pride (though I’ve learned not to overreact to certain things in the moment) when Buddy approached me in the kitchen recently and said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Cleaning up after play, on the other hand, is a skill which might lag just a tad behind others in their precocious development—putting them on par with their peers for all history, one can only assume.  They will do it when nudged, and unless tired or puny will apply themselves with minimal resistance, but there is one outcome that remains predictable as the months and visits fly by.  It’s like a signal, or a code for anthropologists, the ultimate provenance that they were here.

They leave some small objects behind, or out of place, and I usually have no earthly idea what they are.

I found this mildly scary-looking thing, for example, on the coffee table by the sofa about two visits ago. What on earth could it be? Perhaps that’s the problem; it’s not of Earth as grandparents know it.  A body part of an alien being? IMG_7750

Another time, there was a handful of these on the couch cushions and under the ottoman.IMG_7747

The highly organized and efficient among us (and bless you, wherever you are; do drop by some time if you need work) would move swiftly to toss these objects and sweep the environment clean for the next round. Oddly, I cannot bring myself to do it.  Look at this cute little guy, for example; surely he has an important role of some sort?  Don’t you love the moustache?IMG_7749

I’ve taken to heaving them into a pottery pedestal bowl on my kitchen counter, a readily visible catch-all for things that need to migrate on, elsewhere. When the kids come next, I try to wedge an interlude in the conversation for identification and instructions on these items.  Keep or toss? Take home or leave here?  Functional or broken?

Why bother to wonder? Any number of reasons, I guess. Maybe I’m hoping that reunion of child with object will solve some niggling puzzle, provide some bit of closure, restoring something they feared lost forever.  More likely, they have a hopelessly curious grandmother, who really just wants to know what these items may tell me about their imaginations, their evolving skills.  If the mystery objects turn out to be important, maybe it will stimulate an interesting conversation, and they’ll remember I cared to ask.  Maybe I’ll learn something interesting.  Or unnerving.  Or both.

So, the pile of kid-visit detritus in the bowl stays, for now, changing in shape and composition with time and the seasons but still magnetic, like the dollar section at Target. A rough projection would indicate that one item out of three is reclaimed from the bowl to the right place, over time.  That’s high enough odds for me.  What’s life without a little bit of mystery?

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The broad-shouldered, stocky shopper with the expression of a man on a mission stepped up to the counter and carefully deposited his haul:  two stacks, six boxes high each, of soft-soled bedroom slippers in various cheerful prints.  An even dozen. Noticing his black jacket, embroidered with his restaurant logo and buttoned up the side in the style worn by chefs, I smiled at him from my post behind the counter and couldn’t resist a comment on the scope of his purchase.  “Look at you!   That’s quite a stack.”

He smiled back, a bit shyly, and explained, “These are for my ladies.  They’re on their feet all day long.”

I felt a tiny catch in my throat as I reached for the top box to open his transaction, getting down to business with, “Wow, I bet they’re going to love you for this.” He shrugged away the praise. “They work really, really hard.”

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In the classic holiday flick Love Actually, a favorite in annual year-end rotation for nearly every romantic soul I know, Hugh Grant plays a bachelor British Prime Minister who claims total failure in his romantic life.  Yet the movie opens with scenes of dozens of reunions of hugging, crying people, with his voice offering this observation:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there…”

I thought about this observation more than once recently, having ignored the critics and watched the film enough times to remember bits like that, however schlocky.  It came to mind thanks to my slipper-buying chef and others, as I spent several days running a cash register and assisting customers at a local big-box retailer in the final, frenetic days and hours of the annual holiday buying extravaganza. When I mentioned these plans to friends and family as the days approached, a few bubbled a cheerful, ‘Oh, fun!” But more than one offered a face crossed with the shadow of anxiety.  “Oh, lord,” one admitted later, “I thought you were going to be fighting it out with the frustrated dregs of humanity, and I hated it for you.”  While I refused admit it out loud in advance, I feared the same.

Oh, what fun it is, as the song says, to learn that the experience proved very much the opposite.  While we prattle on endlessly about holiday stress, over-spending, about commercialism and misdirected intentions, as a foot soldier at the battlefront of the gift-giving rituals, I didn’t see that.  Where I feared snappy, stressed shoppers, barking unreasonable demands, I saw patience with long lines, polite acceptance of the late-season realities of inventory and options, and smiles returned when offered.  Where I dreaded watching the nauseous excess of people spending irrationally with plastic, with no thought of cost or the implications thereof, I saw thoughtful attention to pricing and promotions, with many a buyer—far more frequently than expected– deliberately dealing out bills from carefully counted stashes of cash.  When I flushed with embarrassment over a transaction error and stammered an apology, the kind victim received it with a knowing nod and added, “There’s a lot more to what you are doing here than most people realize, but I get it.  Hang in there.”

What was I doing there, anyway?  It just seemed like a good way to wave a very grateful good-riddance to an unusually tough year.  My traditional career role lost to restructuring months before, unemployment running out with no new job in sight, I was determined to get out of the house and turn my restless hands to something productive, anything, really—and earn a few bucks in the process, for the Christmas gifts on my own shopping list.  While struggling with being jobless, I had watched in previous months as members of my beloved family struggled with health and disruption of all kinds, and there seemed little I could do.  Nothing underscores pain or uncertainty like yawning, unoccupied hours, and I would do almost anything to stay busy during the season when the requisite cheer was proving hard to conjure up.  So off I went, shortly after Thanksgiving, to enlist in the ranks of retail’s “seasonal associates.”  And I suppose it’s fair to admit one more enticement:  Some forty years after I first worked in retail as an industrious teen, there was a challenge in seeing if I could still do it.IMG_7696.JPG

While the answer to that proved to be yes—though not without a few embarrassing hiccups that made great comedy–I earned something much different than anticipated in my holiday experiment.  In return for sore feet, broken fingernails, bleeding cuticles, security-sensor needles stuck to my shoe sole, finger knuckles slammed in register drawers, and more of that sort of amusement, I had the privilege of watching, over and over again, one of the most powerful human emotions:  generosity, and the genuine desire to give to others, not as a perfunctory requirement, but as an expression of love.

Chef Slippers was a favorite, no question, but there were so many others.  In the handbag department one morning I assisted an earnest young husband and father with an important clarifying question.  “We have a young toddler at home,” he began.  “And we’re just starting to get out at night again.  My wife is tired of carrying that big baby bag, and when she was dressing to go out last night she said, ‘I really just need a clutch.’ “ Holding up one option he had industriously identified among dozens that would easily confuse anyone not schooled in, shall we call it, the Art and Science of Purses, he pleaded, “Is this a clutch?”  Helping him nail his quarry was the highlight of my day. If I have ever studied anything long enough to qualify for Ph.D.-level achievement, it might just be for a doctorate in handbags and accessories.  (Such a pity, that there isn’t one.)

And then there was the grieving grandfather. This story came from my young co-worker, and I was not privileged to see it myself, but we cried together when she shared it.  A woman approached the service desk with a stack of items for a young woman accompanying her, apparently a granddaughter or niece.  The man in line behind them overheard them talking to each other and stepped forward to slide his own credit card for their purchase.  His own granddaughter had recently died, he explained, seeking the older woman’s permission to complete the transaction, and he missed buying her something at Christmas.

So next year, if I am gloomy (like Hugh Grant) about the state of the world, I may have to re-enlist, if my feet are tough enough to take it.  To get to watch, close up, when the heart rises to the surface, with the objects of its affection in mind, and the spirit of giving expresses itself so freely.  Thanks for reminding me, Chef Slippers and all the rest of you, about how deeply generosity and its closest cousin, kindness, are rooted in the human soul, often in the most impossible situations.  What could be a better gift than that?

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering “it will be happier.” 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

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Four generations turned up at our family Thanksgiving table this year, a memorable time, indeed.  Seated with honor at one end of the table was my 87-year-old mother, now bearing the title our uncle used to call the OLM (Oldest Living Member).  At the opposite end in an attached baby seat perched our youngest addition, who clocked in at the six-month mark the week before the holiday.  Scattered in between were two generations of adults and my very energetic grandchildren, seven and five.

My sister and her husband were our hospitable and relaxed hosts, accommodating this chaos with admirable ease.  I rang up a day or two later to say thanks and check in, imagining the Aftermath.  “We had such a blast having everyone,” she said cheerfully, “though we couldn’t believe the wreck left behind.”

Ah, yes.  Small children in the house, and an adult party to boot, and the wreck left behind.  The Aftermath is the unsung verse in the folksong of grandparenting, the thing you forget to imagine when you dream of the arrival of the little varmints and look forward to their presence at these events. We couldn’t love them more, of course, but their presence changes things, and that’s just a fact.

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Three of our four generations at Thanksgiving

Before I stagger into trouble here, I offer a hasty clarification. The baby exuded charm and good nature while family members jostled for the privilege of minding her, and her two cousins were cheerfully kept occupied by a succession of doting great aunts and uncles, behaving as well as any children their age could at such a gathering.  All parents involved are responsible and attentive adults, so the Aftermath did not spring from egregious lack of supervision. After seven-plus years in this grandparenting game, I’ve learned the Aftermath is not necessarily correlated to the behavior of the zoo inhabitants.  It’s just what happens when kids are around, even when the kids are well-coached to clean up afterward.

Let’s examine a recent installment.  Buddy and Sis spent the day before Thanksgiving with me, school being out but their parents working.  The day’s activities left enough evidence behind that an astute observer, though not present, could probably still re-create our schedule.  We began with art projects for the Thanksgiving hosts and other relatives and were favored with excellent output.  (Aftermath:  tiny construction-paper triangles on chair seats and floor, broken crayons heaped in centerpiece bowl, black marker streaks on tabletop where G-ma amateurishly failed to provide appropriate table covering.  Luckily, some good table oil erased these with ease later.). We moved on to baking peanut-butter cookies for the Thanksgiving repast, which happily earned good reviews from the customers.  (Aftermath: Invisible sugar grains that overflowed onto kitchen hardwoods and mysteriously stuck to shoe despite repeated attempts to wipe up; bits of peanut butter on the corkscrew handle, and no, I didn’t serve wine to the underage bakers; a measuring spoon that fell into the dog’s water bowl.). Get the picture?

And how to address the Aftermath?  One does not want to avoid life-enriching opportunities with the littles, so over time, certain survival strategies emerge.  Just when I start to get these things right, the kids will doubtless outgrow them, but at my house, a few key steps have kept my nose just above the Aftermath waterline.

First, begin with essentials only.  Before exhaustion triumphs over motion and you collapse on the nearest horizontal surface, seal and store any open food items.  No one wants cherished memories sullied by a parade of invading ants.  Check the floor for objects that might impede safe progress to the bathroom or the kitchen sink.  You might feel like you’ve been knocked on your butt, but it shouldn’t be because you tripped on a loose shoe or skidded on an errant piece of melting ice.  Establish the visible presence of pets, verifying none are locked in a hall bathroom or hiding desperately deep under a guest bed.  These things done, everything else can wait, except perhaps the rejuvenating cocktail.

The compulsive among us will think they could not sleep until the now-quiet homeplace is restored to total order, and to them I say, have at it.  Just don’t look down your nose at us Aftermath veterans until you’ve been there.  Trust me.

Then we progress to the next day.  After a few hours sleeping the slumber of the near-dead, the kind usually available only to marathon runners, Olympic competitors and pre-school teachers, you can begin anew. Some key strategies here:  Essential functional spaces, like kitchen counters and bathroom floors, require priority attention for established routine to continue. Clearing those prevents the spreading of detritus elsewhere.  (See sugar example above.) These things accomplished, the rest is simple:  Get to it as you can.  And learn to live with an updated definition of “orderly.”

Is this approach pragmatic, or just lazy?  Can we accept the lackadaisical, or should proper home management require that immediate SWAT-style restoration after every invasion?  Everyone must make their own determination, but here’s what I think:  I like the Aftermath.  I love a pile of worn crayons, a messy stack of picture books, those paper triangles scattered on the floor under the table (though sugar on the shoe soles stretched the point slightly). While I generally favor reasonable order, the Aftermath is a sidewalk artist’s freeform sketch of the human energy that generated it.  It makes the heart swell a tad and illustrates time you can’t get back. It helps you remember, like a scar on your knee from that fall on the desert hike, or a scrape on your car door from a guardrail you skimmed, luckily, while yielding to an approaching tractor on a narrow, mountainside road in rural France.

I remember as a child arising early on Saturday mornings after my parents had entertained on the previous evening. The Aftermath was usually a few crackers or nuts on a forgotten plate, maybe a couple of overlooked cocktail glasses left on sofa tables, little whiffs of fragrant bourbon still floating above the pools of melted ice they held.  The  aroma didn’t tempt me to steal a sip in those long-ago days, but even then, I knew instinctively that it must have been a good party.

So, before I sweep or wipe it away like a chalk picture hosed off the pavement by a rainstorm, I putter around in the Aftermath a bit, savoring thoughts of fellowship, chuckling over what put it there.  It usually makes a great story, later.

Clean up when you get around to it.  The next Aftermath will come along soon enough.  If you are lucky.

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“It’s Howdy Doody time!”

Shouting that storied response from the Golden Age of early television was the happy chore of a few dozen Boomer kids watching the popular live show from the bleacher seats known as “The Peanut Gallery.”  Those lucky devils—who among us didn’t want to be one? — also provided the spontaneous live laugh track for the long-running show featuring America’s favorite, freckled puppet and his pals.

Legend has it that the term “Peanut Gallery” originated in vaudeville, where attendees in the cheapest seats took a freestyle approach to their feedback, shouting insults and hurling peanuts at performers who failed to deliver the goods on stage.  This tradition, along with the Howdy Doody version, spawned a common parenting phrase, heard many times in our rowdy house of four children.  When too many of us were talking at once (i.e., most of the time), my father sometimes interjected sternly, ‘Hey!  That’s enough from the Peanut Gallery.’  Or, when back-talk wandered into the danger zone, he often shut it down with a firm, “No more comment from the Peanut Gallery.”

I heard echoes of the Peanut Gallery the other day when a duologue version emerged in the back seat of my car. Late summer brought a great chance to spend some extra time with Buddy and Sis (now ages 7 and 5) while helping their working parents cover some gaps in the summer camp schedule.  As we tooled around town in the car or hung out at home, I soaked up a constant stream of commentary, spontaneous debate, and the occasional shockingly precocious projection about something weighing on their minds or seen out the window. The snippets below are offered as evidence that kids do indeed—to use more Boomer vernacular—say the darndest things. They are re-created as accurately as possible, though I swore off actually recording these chats.   (G-ma maintains a rather strict viewpoint on the use of devices for anything other than quick snapshots when the children are around.)

(Scene:  En route to produce market; kids buckled into back seat.)

G-ma:  Hey, guys, you want to get a watermelon?

Both (shouting): YEAH!!!!

Sis:  I know!  I know how to tell if it is ripe!  You touch it and cut it open and see if the seeds are the right color.  You can eat the white seeds but not the black ones.

Buddy:  You can eat the black ones, but you don’t have to eat any seeds.  You can dig them out and leave them on the table.

Sis (top of lungs): NO!  BECAUSE I’M THE ONE WHO WILL HAVE TO CLEAN IT UP! (This an apparent reference to her recent acquisition, at her own request, of a child-sized cleaning set.). And the seeds get squished.  And if they get squished something might come out of the inside of them and MAKE A MESS!! AND I’M THE ONE WHO HAS TO CLEAN!!IMG_7168

Buddy (with patient condescension):  Seeds don’t get squished.  They might fall out, but they don’t get squished.  And I’ll help you clean it up.

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(Scene:  Back porch, dusk falling, kids finishing after-dinner popsicles.)

G-ma:  Look, guys, the lightning bugs are out!

IMG_7126Buddy:  Evie, are lightning bugs nocturnal?

G-ma: (Stunned, very slow to stutter an answer.) Yes.  That’s correct.

Sis:  What’s not, not-turnal mean?

G-ma:  NOC-turnal means something that comes out at night.

Sis (waving popsicle-free hand for scornful emphasis):  Then you can just say, ‘lightning bugs come out at night.’  You don’t have to say not-turnal.  Right?

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It is a wise woman who remembers, even with grandchildren of her own, to listen to her mother.  Chatting with mine on the phone a couple of days later, I shared some excerpts from the Peanut-Gallery-of-two improv act, as Mom loves to hear what the children are up to.  “You better write these things down,” she directed, rather ominously.  “You’re going to want to remember them later, and you’ll be sorry if you don’t.”  So, I continued giving that my best when they returned the following day.

(SCENE:  Children snarfing through dripping peaches while seated side-by-side on the porch, where their grandmother has been nurturing a small garden of blooming plants in pots.  G-ma arrives to catch the tail end of a conversation already in progress.)

Buddy:  …..Spit doesn’t do anything for plants.  Plants need dirt and sun, and that’s what makes them grow. Spit does not help.

G-ma:  (Pausing briefly to achieve nonchalance, glancing at the thriving red salvia in the large pot in front of their seat):  Did you spit in the plant?

Both (solemn, wide-eyed). No, ma’am.

Buddy (in effortless diversion):  Spit has DNA in it.

Sis (shouting assent): YEAH!  LIKE HAIR!

Buddy:  Yeah, DNA is in hair and spit and everything in the body.

Sis (with expression of distaste):  Like BLOOD?

Buddy (diversion achieved, still determined to make point):  Yes, blood and hair and spit and skin and everything.  But spit doesn’t help plants.

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(Scene:  Kids in back seat again.  We have just left a local market where I’ve given each a dollar to insert in a donation box supporting a local rescue mission for the homeless. The proprietor matches the donations.)

G-ma:  Hey, guys, remember the other day when you asked me if we should give some money to that man you saw standing on the corner with the sign saying he was homeless?  Well, that box where you put the money, that money goes to help lots of people like that guy.  So, you can give to an organization that helps him and lots of people or you can give to the individual.  There’s more than one way to help.

Sis:  Yeah!  Let’s give to that organization, like you said, because they need clothes and maybe they give clothes to lots of people.

Buddy: They have clothes! He was wearing clothes!

Sis:  But he only has one pair!

Buddy (shaking head in disagreement):  They need money to get a job, so they can work and get more money and get a house. It costs money to get a job. Maybe he would have taken the money and used it to get a job.

Sis:  What if he took it and spent it all on candy bars?

G-ma: (Silence, biting tongue severely.)

Buddy (with firm finality): He wouldn’t do that.  No one who needs a job would do that.

And that, for the moment, was that.

 

 

 

 

All you grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents, and kindly friends of families with children out there, Heads Up.  Summer is here, and we want the kiddos to visit, right?  Of course, we do; under the right circumstances, we love it.  It’s a cherished highlight of the whole adult/child experience.

And yet, are we really ready?  Prospects for disaster may lurk, even in the best-managed, adult-occupied domicile.  If we are unaccustomed to invasions by under-teen crowd, it is wise to consider precautions that may insure the best possible time is had by all.  Where possible, we strive not to add urgent care or ER visits to the entertainment agenda. 

Those of us lucky enough to entertain the Small Ones regularly have learned a few things on this topic along the bumpy road.  In the spirit of sparing others, G-ma offers adult hosts the following precautions as food for thought before the next invasion.  These are generally applicable to all ages of Small Ones who have achieved self-propelled status.  Ignore them at your peril.

  1. What’s the view, down there?  Crawling around on the floor yourself to test the environment for toddler safety is not recommended; it could be injurious to knees and other body parts.  Your orthopedist has already accumulated significant personal wealth resulting from the shenanigans of the over-50 population.  Lean WAY down and eyeball it, or perhaps using the occasional yogic squat, for this examination.  Yet another reason to commend yoga to grandparents.
  2. Cover yourself.  Literally.  Choose your most modest and stable nightwear when they visit you overnight.  This protects your sense of modesty and their lifelong image of you,  should they wake you up at 3 a.m. to announce they have wet the bed.
  3. Man’s best friend is the child’s best vacuum cleaner.  Unless you are monitoring food consumption within about a six-inch safety perimeter, only feed the children things the dog can safely eat.  Dogs learn fast, and never forget, that a meal with children is one of life’s great bonanzas of crumbs and handouts.  Prepare accordingly.  You can’t prevent it.
  4. Watch out for stool dancers; they start young.  Toddlers with the habit of dancing and prancing incessantly should not be offered stools or anything similar to elevate their view of the kitchen counter or other hard surfaces.  This precaution is especially critical for adults sensitive to the sight of blood, and for those who prefer not to be involved in the elimination of baby teeth.
  5. No shoes?  No socks, either.  If the children have been thoughtfully trained to remove their shoes upon arrival at your house, better get the socks off quickly if you have hardwood or tile floors.  Pay particular heed to this concept if the visitors are siblings who, when annoyed with each other, tend to give chase.  (Also see above reference to blood and teeth.)
  6. Is your safety shelf really safe?  If you’ve developed the commendable habit of putting matches, fireplace lighters, and other hazardous items on your highest shelf, ponder what else you’ve hidden there before sending other grownups thither.  Otherwise, you may lose your best dark chocolate or that tiny bottle of expensive bourbon to visiting adults who count rather broadly on your generosity as a host.

When the inevitable incidents do occur, we might subvert painful guilt if we endeavor to remember the universal resiliency of children.  After one painful episode involving a crash of grandchild into furniture at my house not long ago, I confessed to my daughter my sorrow that I couldn’t stop it in time.  A very careful but still pragmatic mom, she gave my report a cheerful, verbal shrug:  “Mom, it happens all the time.  They get over it.  I’m sure they are fine.”

Over the last few months, the most wondrous thing has suddenly picked up steam like a bullet train. 

My 7-year-old grandson is READING.  Just about everywhere, and everything.  Books for his younger sister, longer and more complex stories for himself, the funny papers, restaurant menus, street signs, instructions on the sides of game boxes.  He can’t get every word yet, but already he’s getting most, with more all the time.  No more questions to me about “what does this say?”  He just picks things up and reads them.

As with so many life-changing landmarks with children, there was no fanfare, no siren blaring upon the arrival of this new phase. I remember the day that my daughter (his mom) took her first steps, grasping the edge of the couch cushion at the babysitter’s house.  Oddly, there were no pealing of bells, no swelling Broadway chorus of She’s Walking!  When Buddy offered to read a page of a book I was reading aloud to his sister, he proceeded to do so without hesitation or error.  The only announcement was the surely audible pounding of my proud heart.  (And I might have swelled up some, like the stentorious Mr. Toad.)

Rich images of mesmerizing potential came quickly into view.  How could I help him to love books, like I do?  Maybe like the bookstore as much, or more, than the video store? Will he someday enjoy discussing a favorite author, maybe argue the merits of one legendary fictional character vs. another?  (For example, would the immortal “gentleman’s personal gentleman” Jeeves stay with Bertie Wooster if the legendary bachelor ever got hitched?  OK, perhaps that one is a bit of a stretch this early, but you get the idea.)

Yet with many of those same childhood miracles, there is a lingering shadow or two to consider.  Suddenly, I’m scrambling to adequately offer appropriate reading choices.  How to stock the home library when he visits?  My current inventory of children’s reading looks more like a bookshelf for Sis, at five:  more of the Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, Little Owl, you know the gentle, lull-them-to-sleep variety.  Sis still likes these selections and still loves us to read aloud.

For the older brother, current popular choices run toward things about which his G-ma knows a Big Towering Zilch.  What, pray enlighten me, is the concept behind Minecraft, books and games featuring a bunch of pixillated images filled with characters made of Legos?  And even tougher to grasp, if you lightly examine the visuals, we have “Plants vs. Zombies.”  The cartoon books (thank goodness I have not yet been subjected to the actual video game) seem to contain tales of using plants to prevent zombies from eating brains.  We can all agree to vote for preserving brains, that’s affirmative, but Is this something that a grandparent wants to stock around the house?  Does the joy of discussing books with my grandson stretch to a zombie tale? 

Still contemplating the answer to that one, I already yearn for the days when I didn’t fear the open world of words and its power to deprive Buddy of his  innocence.  Last week we had a terrible mass shooting here in our city.  Should I put away the newspaper when he comes over?  A week or so earlier, we pulled up in traffic next to a car with a glittering, metallic sticker on the passenger window nearest us that shouted, “F….k this Shit.”  Buddy, in his car seat in the back, could look straight at this window.  I eased the car slightly forward and asked him a distracting question, hoping I wouldn’t be the first soul he asked to explain those words.  Maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe it’s already happened.  I decided I didn’t want to ask.  It’s a tough world out there.

 At the grassroots level of daily kid management, the wonderful world of reading also threatens one of the most historically effective operational tricks of adult supervision.  What he can read, he will very soon also spell, and then life as we know it is a whole new ball game.  How are we supposed to talk about the children in front of them, without spelling out the relevant sensitivities?

First signal of this upcoming cataclysm occurred recently when I asked his mother, in front of him, about options for dinner.  “What do you think we should give them to E.A.T.?” I asked.  Standing nearby, Buddy froze in his tracks, his face a map of intense concentration.  I watched him slowly, silently mouth the letters—E. A. T..  In a split second, his expression shifted from effort to triumph.  Certain in his comprehension, he turned to me and smiled hopefully as he suggested, “Pizza?”

As the era looms when this useful operational technique fades into obsolescence, what will emerge in its place?  What if I need to telegraph some transgression that landed him in time out, without him realizing I sold him out to the authorities?  Or—and yes, this can happen when you least expect it—he has eaten something that his system rejected, and I need to tell his mom he had D I A R R H E A?  Thank goodness, it appears that spelling trails reading by a somewhat workable margin, so perhaps there is a brief window to plot a future alternative.

Back on the literature selection front, I recently observed Buddy reading a newly reprinted volume I found of the 1936 children’s classic Manners Can Be Fun.  This book, with its cartoon characters impersonating various ill-mannered transgressions, still teaches and amuses at the same time, 80 years after original publication.  The Snoopers (and their huge noses) walk right into rooms without knocking!  “If they…asked if they might come in, people would not call them SNOOPERS.”

Buddy pointed to his favorite Manners character, Touchey, who has nine arms and hands, but no head.  Touchey never thinks about whether he should touch things or not;  “Maybe it’s because he hasn’t any head—he is all hands.”  If poor headless Touchey, with his nine hands on stick arms, can still generate a spontaneous cackle, maybe there is still time before the little-boy perspective shifts forever into a different realm.  Or maybe even in our overwhelmingly digital universe, some books, some old stories still stand tall in the test of time, with enduring charm for all ages, ad infinitum. Maybe it’s both.  I hope so.

Let’s get to the meat first, and get the suspense out of the way:  I blew it.

Or, you could view it through a different lens, and say I triumphed.  You can decide for yourself, with some scoop on the details.

About what, you ask?  For those who missed the earlier installment (read it here, if you like), my sister and I agreed at New Year’s to stop shopping for the first quarter of 2018.  This experiment was inspired by author Ann Patchett’s December 2017 New York Times essay, “My Year of No Shopping.”  While we both admire Patchett, this wasn’t a pilgrimage to the Ann Tribe. We just thought it would be fascinating to see what happened.  

And we were right.

To get started, Sis and I each set our own rules.  She and I have been doing that in shared activities since I followed her onto the family roster 21 months after she emerged as firstborn. Thank goodness one of the great gifts of our age is the ability to view those differences with a light heart.  Besides, we are interested in so many of the same things, and this was definitely one of those.

My rules were these:  No clothes, shoes, jewelry, or home decorating items. That meant no buying, and no looking.  Unlike Patchett, I allowed shopping for gifts.   Anything in the grocery store was also permissible.  At the last minute, I exempted a pair of new glasses, an important image item for a professional person, admitting to Sis that my current ones are sorely outdated. 

All this yielded to one of the most intriguing efforts I’ve ever undertaken to change my behavior and genuinely study the outcome.  While I didn’t succeed completely, my lapses focused a bright light on what motivates, and why.

The first lapse began with sheer forgetfulness; old habits, etc.  I stopped by a favorite shop in early January (DUH—deadly time for sales)  to pick up some jeans I had ordered before Christmas. Two minutes in, I stuck my arms into the sleeves of a sale jacket before I even thought about it.  Confession No. 1:  I quickly realized it but failed to back track, and I walked out with a fabulous rose-pink darling that I’ve probably already worn a dozen times.  Cost:  $50 plus tax.  Painfully ambivalent about the fabulous score vs. the early lapse of discipline, I emailed Sis a photo and confessed.  Why a photo?  Was the perceived value of a prize bargain going to excuse me, to myself or her?  Ha!

“Welcome back on the wagon,” she responded.

My other two lapses had a common thread.  They occurred on outings with old friends, the kind who know what you treasure and where you can acquire it.  Shopping with Pals for Fun or Sport was thus identified as a major weak point. Confession No. 2:  I told myself I would only buy gifts.  What garbage.  Nevertheless, good fun was had, and the damage for both trips was four small items for me at a total of $39.  When I confessed to one pal why I  shouldn’t be there, she promised not to tell and conveyed absolution with a sign of the cross.  (I love you, girlfriend; you know who you are.)

Final score: Three lapses in three months, total damage of $89, not that the actual outlay was the point.  Not bad; or, is it?

However we score those final results, the learning was invaluable.  Two things, in particular, really stick with me.

First, I used to consider myself a pretty savvy shopper, reasonably aware of trends and where to get good value.  Looking back, it’s hard to know when those skills vaporized. But when I chose to stop, it was painfully clear how extensively the commercial machine had been managing my buying habits, rather than the other way around.  Heaven help us, the evidence was everywhere:  emails, snail mail coupons, catalogues, and most heinous of all, those ads that trail you, anywhere you go in the far reaches of the world wide web.  I had ordered shoes from Tom’s for several family members for Christmas, and throughout my three-month test, I could have described their extensive spring offerings for men, women, or children, though I never once went to their site to look on my own.

Coupons trumpeting radically slashed prices, but JUST THIS WEEK?  Pre-test, I would have definitely caught that sale and likely bought something, because a bargain is a bargain, right?  During our Buy-Less Quarter, I exulted in hurling tempters away, tossing unread catalogues into the recycling bin, ripping coupons in shreds before pitching them into the smelly kitchen garbage, where retrieval is too disgusting to contemplate.  I deleted those promotional emails, which were sickeningly frequent.  Some arrived daily.  (Really, retailers? That begins to feel harassment.) There was triumph when I took time to unsubscribe from most of them.  

With the benefit of clarity provided by abstinence,  I see how these commercial entities know way more about me than should ever be comfortable.  It’s not as bad, though close, as if my data was stolen from Facebook for election tampering.  It may not be completely possible nowadays, but I want them out of my email, out of my land mailbox, and out of my hair—and I will learn what options I may employ to make that happen.  If I want value for my money, I’ll figure out how to find it, and when.  It’s enough to inspire a shopper to carry cash again and leave no trail.

The second lesson was equally eye-opening.  One of the expeditions with my old friend was to a retail store for Bybee Pottery, a handmade craft operation that has operated in my home state of Kentucky for nearly 200 years.  We have collected their work in my family for decades, so I bought several gifts for family and friends.  The next day, there were the two boxes, filled with carefully wrapped works of beautiful craft, sitting on my table, awaiting a destination. Even knowing how lovely the contents, I felt sick.  Now, I thought, I have to deal with all this stuff:  Unwrap, or don’t? Find precious shelf space to store it until those future birthdays,  where? Load up the boxes for the recycling center, and on it goes.  Here, in high photographic relief, was a picture of the rippling burdens of our buying habits, reaching far beyond the cost and purchase of the objects.

And what about my partner in this endeavor? My sister, an exceptionally game soul, agreed to share her own learning for this Chronicle.

“I learned that the habit of acquiring what you want, when you want to, is hard to break,” she reflected.  “But once I did, not shopping became the habit that replaced it.”  That led her to wonder if she would now avoid buying what she might actually need, in the force of the new pattern.

A few days after the experiment ended, she popped in to a favorite craft gallery and gift store we both love, in search of a present.   The experience, after the Buy-Less Quarter, just wasn’t the same.  “It reminded me of when I cut a lot of sweets out of my diet,” she said.  “Once you get used to not eating them, they don’t taste as good.”

For anyone who might chose to undertake this, I highly recommend a partner, preferably one as intrepid as my sister  There’s nothing like sharing your pain, or your failures, with those who understand.  Our Buy-Less Quarter yielded some pretty spirited email dialogue.  As the weeks wore on and the regime tested our patience, communication included sisterly debate over things like the spirit vs. the letter of the law.  A few excerpted highlights follow: 

Me:  Meant to say I also loved (Ann Patchett’s) comments about digging out old products and using them.  I have used this technique before with great success.  Especially on those samples you get at the cosmetic counter.  They are like gold.  

Sis:  Yes. I am currently working thru my little toothpaste samples and various bottles of lotion.  Bonus:  less clutter!  Do you need any soap?  I have enough to last until at least the year 2030.

Me:  Ha!  I propose peripheral rule:  no reducing clutter by shoving it off on each other.

Sis:  So you don’t need soap?  How about knee-high nylons?

Me:  Proposed rule No. 2:  no purging of items subsequently deemed injurious to health in the decades since purchase.  Such items must be discarded, or the judges will inflict a substantial penalty.

Sis:  Knee-highs would go nicely with your outdated glasses.

And later, there was this:

Sis:  So far so good…Just tossed LL Bean catalog with three pages dog-eared for possible purchases.  One thing I feel like crying about but I’m holding firm.  For now.

Me:   Be strong.  This a.m. I tossed Garnet Hill, furious that the cover featured a beautiful new print in those cotton pajamas I love so much. Think I actually hurled it with some force, rather than tossing. Seemed to help.

And finally, this exchange, when we were speculating what we would do immediately upon conclusion:

Sis:  I’m going to be up at midnight and ready (with laptop) on March 31.

Me:  When was the last time you were up at midnight?

Finally, Sis and I agreed on one key tenet that represents an opportunity for some enterprising genius.  With the clarity of abstinence, we saw that our shopping habits had been driven, in part, by sheer frustration with the evolution of retailing, particularly for women of our generation.  With old, trusted brands disappearing, true customer service in retail largely gone, and the stores we once loved long consigned to history, it becomes a dad gum problem to know where to go for something you may actually need. Such problems can nudge one to impulse buying and promotion-oriented purchases, fueled by the sheer hope of finding SOMETHING, anything, that works.

So here’s a clarion call to Sara Blakely, Oprah Winfrey, or even Elon Musk:  One of you genius innovators could fix this problem.  There are customers waiting for you, if you do.

Meanwhile, Sis and I got just enough from our Buy-Less Quarter to see the landscape much differently.  Can’t speak for her, but I’m restriction-free for a few months, though with new eyes on all of it.  Later, I may try it again.

Ah, the slow-crawling days of deepest winter. Lead-gray, sodden, and short, these are the days that incline us to stay inside and shut tight the door. In the sanctuary of home, we turn inward, to examine…what? Maybe, our plans and hopes for the year. Or, perhaps the insides of our hearts. Or, if we are brave enough, we might face the deepest, darkest, and oft-ignored secrets of:

The insides of our closets.

That last one can outflank an innocent soul in the work of a moment. If you think, like I did, that you can escape the menace of creeping closet chaos by slamming the door and feigning other priorities, well, your closet may indicate otherwise.

Mine did. Turn away at your peril, the snarky space seemed to snarl. If you are skating dangerously close to the same dire straits, I offer the fellow sufferer three key indicators as guideposts. You might need to clean out your closet if:

1. You strain a pectoral muscle trying to shove the hangers apart. Unless you are training for a bodybuilding competition or lifting large bales of hay one at a time, you probably never strain your chest muscles in that fashion. Picture yourself with right arm extended, palm vertical and flat, muscles taut as you give a determined shove to the left, across your chest, in your best effort to make enough open space to extricate one recalcitrant garment. Owwww! There are so many hangers in there, the clothes are frozen solid, standing together in solidarity like a giant, upright, impenetrable pile of laundry for a family of 10. Right pec, left pec, shove whichever direction you may, doesn’t matter. Something, or sadly, several somethings, have gotta go.

2. You reach for that elegant handmade black cross-body, and another purse falls out on your head. This stunning, oversized (of course!) leaping tote achieves a decent bounce, landing precisely where the innocent cat lazily lounged on the bed just an instant ago. This is hurtful. And I don’t mean on the thin skin that anchors my hair onto my (thick, I’ve been told) skull. The pride is wounded, for this is the one section of the closet I felt certain was under control. A year ago (or three? or five?) I delighted in the acquisition of a row of sectioned plastic shelf units, ideal for my purse collection, of which I am inordinately fond. After a quick purge of a few non-starters, I cheerily stacked the bags inside these efficient little units, displaying them by type and size, upright, visible, and ready for action. The end result was so smashing that I texted “before and after” photos to the most methodical and organized soul of my close acquaintance, then basked in her congratulatory response. What happened after that recedes into the mists, of course, but somehow, overcrowding supplanted order. The closet was thereby forced to eject its own evidence.

3. The cat tells no tales, but emerges victorious. Bending to snare a pair of boots stuck under something on the closet floor, I turned to see the cat freeze, alert and twitching, at the ready. She makes a furtive dive into a dark far corner, out of sight. When she reappeared, she wasn’t exactly licking her lips, but her strut and tail angle communicated a conquest that she could not share aloud. Ick. Ugh. Yuk. This particular closet abuts an angled wall and, for some strange reason, the builder left open the pie-shaped, useless back corner space. What to do? Get a flashlight and learn what she caught back there, if there’s anything left of it? Who are we kidding? The solution stands before me, on four dainty white feet. I’ll just open the door, let her in there every so often, and assume that she will execute her duty, we might call it. What are cats for, anyway?

Ah, well. Winter is on the downhill slide, and soon our thoughts will turn to other things. Before gentle spring breezes and waving daffodils lure us outside, away from the internal, the dark and unseen, we are called forth to undertake this excavation, this vital and authentic rite of winter. Grant us courage.  Better give it a go now, before someone else gets hurt.

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Bonnie Raitt, Chief Closet Inspector