A late-season malaise has settled over the wide porch, the headquarters of summer at my house.  The plants are sagging moodily in the August heat, their blooms barely even tired replicas of the first brilliant bursts.  The shards of a broken pot, toppled to its demise in a stormy gust of wind, remain to be swept up.  The inviting rocking chair, this year’s proud new porch trophy, is gathering dust, abandoned and unmoved since the smothering humidity settled stubbornly over the area.  The porch, like many of us in the South this month, is dragging itself toward Labor Day looking and feeling August-y; in other words, hot, grimy, and far less than its charming best.

Near the porch door, where the rain shoes for dog-walking and watering cans and other seasonal paraphernalia perch at the ready, sits one little souvenir of summer. It is an odd leave-behind, a spot of comedy that prompts a laugh in the otherwise dreary scene. It’s been sitting there since June and really needs to be thrown away, but somehow, I can’t make myself toss it. It’s a single, smelly, mud-encrusted, child’s water shoe.

The shoe and its mate went on the feet of my 8-year-old grandson, Buddy, to day camp back for a week back in June at a lovely, wooded park south of town.  Buddy stayed with me for camp week, since it was an easy drive from my house and an extra chance for some special summer time with him.  On the third day, fondly recalled now as Camp D-day, both shoes went bravely out, and only one returned.  The one that remained, opined the veteran camp counselor after the tragic loss, is probably thriving as a salamander castle, adhered for all time to the deep, sticky mud at the bottom of a marshy pond far in the park’s natural center.

Camp D-day rained down insult upon injury on Buddy’s determined blonde head as the long day wore on.  Apparently, he plunged bravely (or so the counselor said; in surveying the aftermath, rashly is the word G-ma chose) with his net deeper than the other children into the pond water in pursuit of tadpoles, the day’s quarry. Suddenly, he found his feet stuck in mud about as unforgiving as quicksand.  The mud held his feet like fast-drying concrete, so firmly that the counselors could not get close and were forced to extricate him by extending a long pole for him to grab.  They heaved a mighty pull to haul him out, leaving one shoe behind for the salamander version of Flip this House.

The young Tadpole Hunter was deeply troubled about the abandoned footwear at the time, the story went, but it was pie compared to the indignities that followed.  While Buddy awaited rescue from the pond water, a leech sampled his ankle for lunch and was later detached with dramatic effect, bloodletting, and the application of a trophy band-aid.  And if that wasn’t enough, the change of damp muddy clothes later revealed an attack of chiggers in the water like nothing his doting G-ma has ever seen.  The tiny itch monsters feasted on him in the only location he was not covered in bug repellent:  under his underwear, everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, if you catch my drift.  A cool, soothing bath, Cortisone ointment and ice packs were required that evening to achieve sleep.

D-day featured the most concentrated dose of malfortune at camp, but other minor calamities occurred as the week progressed, causing G-ma to fear the whole camp thing was a misguided bust that would leave her beloved grandson scarred for life, literally and figuratively.  That was right before Buddy piped up brightly on the last day and asked if he could come back to camp again next year.

Relieved but still fretting, I relayed the D-day horror story to a dear friend who has taught second grade for decades, seeking her expert assessment of the potential long-term impact of Buddy’s camp traumas.  “Believe me,” she said firmly but kindly, in a solid, classroom-managing tone, “he has already moved on.  Now, you need to do the same.”

So, I’m keeping the Buddy Memorial Camp Shoe, for now.  I’m using it to stave off the end-of-summer blues, the oppressive August feeling that life, like the unyielding air blanket, is stuck in a dank and dark place.  Take a lesson from an eight-year-old boy, says the shoe.  Move on.

 

 

 

 

Consider for a moment, if you will, the peanut butter sandwich.

Universal staple for a child’s mid-day meal for generation. And maybe something more.

I was about to make one for Sis, my six-year-old granddaughter, at lunch time on a recent visit. Before I could say “jelly or honey with it,” here came the most frequent question of our current phase. “Can I help?” she asked.  There followed a deep, yoga-inspired inhale for G-ma, as I considered the implications.  This task involves a knife, of course, and something extremely gooey and sticky, and at six she can’t really reach the counter easily yet, and she is really hungry, and we are due somewhere soon….it is ever thus.  When, oh, when will we have more time?

On the other hand, clamored an alternative self, from somewhere deep down and usually far away, here was a tiny, shiny little chance to teach her something.  Her future success in life would, of course, not rise or fall on this outcome. But if I can encourage her to master these simple steps, with patience, might she come to me for something else?  Remember that I trusted her?  Gain confidence because someone gave her a chance?

And these thoughts were crowded by something else a bit more personal, G-ma should confess, a little voice of ego.  Let’s face it, if you are old enough to be a g-parent, try to remember the last time someone asked for your opinion or guidance or teaching.  Can’t recall?  I bet you have lots of company.  Maybe you are a guru in your field or an actual teacher by profession—but how about the rest of us?  In the space of a single generation, the importance of older people transferring knowledge to younger ones vanished with the pulsating signal of an internet connection.  Poof.

When I was starting out on my own, I turned first to my parents for the fundamentals of daily life.  What gets strawberry stains out of a white shirt?  Will geraniums bloom more than once in a season?  My mother was as near as the phone, and I wore her out with questions like those, her practical experience and coaching a gold mine I could not imagine replicating elsewhere.  How do you service your lawnmower after winter passes?  I called my dad for that stuff.

Those habits are hallmarks of another time, so recent yet now invisible.  Today’s younger generation trusts a YouTube video for instructions, the purportedly authoritative voice of an unmet stranger above the advice of nearly anyone they actually know.  Whether in the family, the workplace, or the community at large, global information sources available at the touch of a finger make counting on our elders for advice a cultural more about as relevant as calling cards or pickle forks. (In full disclosure, I should note that I own both of those relics of anthropological evidence, though I freely admit I haven’t used them in at least a couple of decades.)

And then a new generation appears.  In that ever-shrinking window of time between grandchildren emerging with two hands eager to learn to navigate the world and the arrival of the dark forces of screen time leeching away their conversation skills and relationships, there lies a golden age.  They think the adults in their lives actually hold the keys to important information.  And they want it.  Standing there with the peanut butter jar open and merciless clock ticking, it occurred to me that we are now standing in that window. Here was a chance to prop it open, if I had the sense, and let in a breeze of shared accomplishment.

Sure, say I to Sis, forcibly rejecting the compulsion to exhale in impatience.  Let’s get you a stool so you can see what you are doing. Let’s make a deal, ok?  You do the peanut butter and I’ll do the jelly. Here’s that small knife that you like (with a blunt end and short handle, it’s really a cheese spreader, but she thinks it’s a knife, and hoorah).

PB Sandwich Command Control shifts instantly, as Sis digs deep in the jar for a huge dollop and hurls it like a volleyball spike onto the innocent, waiting surface.  Routinely, her first instinct is to apply effort at the rate of about 175 percent. Her spreading looks more like the pounding of bread dough, threatening to shred the whole wheat slice from sheer pressure. Easy, easy, I coach.  Not quite so hard.

“How do you get it out to the corners?” she asks, having only flattened her dollop slightly via the pounding stroke.  Slide your knife sideways, not up and down, I indicate, that’s right, back and forth, and you’ll spread the peanut butter out to the sides.  Gently, gently…there!  Finally, we have an even application of PB with only minimal gashes. She crowns my jelly-coated slice with her creation and looks up for my approval, radiating triumph.

Ta-da!  I proclaim, Great Job!  Just like that, for a moment, we are teammates and partners on the journey toward lunch.  Suddenly, she seems about six inches taller.

Looking back in time, I am sure I didn’t take time enough to teach my daughter much when she was small.  As a constantly stressed, single mother, overwhelmed by the dynamics of managing career and home on my own, I am certain I was too naturally impatient, too many, many things.  Yet here the universe has brought me another chance to pass on something that just maybe, somehow, might matter–even if that something is not some highly prized life skill, but only trust and encouragement and the respect that comes with those. And surprise, surprise, I gain something in return. If I can slow down long enough and keep my eyes open, I might see that my guidance may have meant something.  Even if it was just peanut butter.

What a deal.  I take my PB with pickles, by the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was just drifting off, Kindle about to tumble from my exhausted hands, when I heard it.  First, a little squeak, sort of, and I looked at the strangely garrulous cat, but she was dozing soundlessly on her corner of the mattress.  My granddaughter was sleeping over and had been out for more than two hours already, after a very active day at summer camp and in the swimming pool.  But a soft, tangled cough soon followed, so I swung my feet off the high bed and tiptoed around to the far side of it.  There was six-year-old Sis, sitting up on her soft pink sleeping palette on the floor of my room, rubbing her sleepy eyes and the top of her head, confused and disoriented.  A long-eared, purple stuffed rabbit named Mim Mim was suffering prolonged strangulation beneath her left armpit.

It was 11:15 p.m.  What now?  Nightmare?  Upset stomach?  Something else?

Hey, I said, very softly, crouching down to eye level, and then I waited.  She looked up, surprised for just a tiny hair of a second, then smiled broadly, looking me straight in the eye.  No words were exchanged, but the smile floated forward as she and Mim Mim belly-flopped back onto the sleeping surface.  And almost instantly, she was out again.

My creaky, sad knees propelled me slowly back up to standing, as quietly as I could.  It’s routine, it’s old stuff, it’s never surprising–kids and their nighttime fears.  For this particular little one, it’s a phase we’ve been in for awhile now.

And yet: I stood still for just a second, frozen briefly in wonder, in a swell of surprising gratitude, that the sight of my face was all it took.  And that I was lucky enough to be there and turn it her way.

 

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.

It’s a March thing.  It’s a mad thing.

And for us, it’s a family thing.

In the state of my birth, with its blue-tinged grass, honey-colored Bourbon, and the fried chicken that conquered the world, basketball reigns supreme.  Oh, sure, we love the Boys of Fall (especially this past year). And we did, after all, bring the world its quintessential baseball bat, the venerable Louisville Slugger.  And yes, of course, our blazing-fast horses are the stuff of story and song—true, all true– but basketball is rooted in the marrow of our bones.  Like so many states, we have a bifurcated soul for college sports, but there is no house divided in my family. We stand solidly within the unfettered boundaries of the Big Blue Nation (BBN), the admittedly maniacal fan tribe of the University of Kentucky.  And when March rolls around in the Big Blue Nation, attention must be paid. Because they don’t call it Madness for nothing.

As luck would have it, a prime tournament game fell this late March week on an evening when Buddy and Sis were visiting overnight.  How to maneuver this, I wondered, reaching back in memory, trying to recall how early I watched basketball.  Must have been REALLY early, because I can’t remember not watching, any more than I can remember a spring without daffodils, dogwoods, or the Kentucky Derby.  Two options emerged for Elite Eight night:  offer the kids a movie in the other room, or take a shot at wrapping them into the fold.  I tested this concept with preliminary market research and found that terminology may still be rolling up the learning curve, but the core concept is definitely rooted.

Hey, guys, there’s a big game on after dinner, I begin.  Basketball, our Kentucky Wildcats.  Wanna watch it with me?

“Nah,” Buddy responds, shaking his head.  “I’m not much for that.”  As I take a breath to formulate Plan B, he continues, “I really like March Madness. Can we watch that?”

That’s it! I affirm in relief.  That’s what I mean.  The Wildcats are playing in March Madness.  Big game. Go Cats!  Right?

“GO CATS!” echo the two young nascent fans, Tennessee transplants but, like their G-ma, Kentucky natives.  So, I dig in the closet for extra Kentucky t-shirts, rustle up some snacks, and we settle in for tip-off.

We played the late game, with tip-off near their usual bedtime, even on a weekend.  I remind myself to be flexible if they can’t hang, but the raucous game holds its own attractions.  The speed alone was probably enough to keep them riveted, with the added bonus of the satisfying little flashing indicator in the lower corner of the screen each time the ball hit net.

Watch those numbers at the bottom of the screen, I urge, watch how fast they change.  Look!  We got a basket; what’s the score now?  See that guy shoot the ball from so far away?  He gets extra points for that.  Three!

Buddy studied the action as the three-pointer was answered almost immediately by a snaking blitz down court and a slam dunk.  The magnificence of this electrifying leap was undervalued in his reason-driven, eight-year-old brain.  “It seems like that should get four points,” he observed thoughtfully, eyes still glued to the action as the young superstar hung briefly on the basket then dropped back to terra firma.

During a timeout, I keep up the patter, pointing out the sea of blue in the arena.  See those folks?  They’re all for the Wildcats, just like us.  Hear them cheering? Later when the TV camera zooms in on the angry, swearing face of the opposing coach, I seek to divert.  Look, that’s funny, he’s wearing a blue shirt, I note.  That’s our color.

Sis frowns with palms up in question mode, head cocked.  “That’s weird.  It looks like he’s voting for us.”

Meanwhile, the family basketball commentary extends over state lines, and reaches up into global airspace.  My brother, sister, brother-in-law and I, ardent fans all, often maintain a running, four-way text commentary on the status of the game.  After I fire off a confirmation that we are watching in Nashville, I get a return confirmation from the sister and brother-in-law in Central Kentucky, though I have forgotten that my brother and his wife left that afternoon for a vacation in Europe.  No matter! Citizens of the BBN always find the game, somewhere somehow, and sure enough, here buzzes a text from the jetliner, high above the Atlantic, bound for Paris.  “This in-flight internet is the best $20 I ever spent,” says Brother, taking up his thread in the text conversation while streaming the game.  “GO CATS!”

When the opposing team starts to close the gap, narrowing our lead, Buddy seeks to needle me by cheering for their progress and watching my reaction.  As I try to silence this with a frown, he tries out adult logic again. “It’s just a GAME,” he says, placatingly.

There can be only one response here:  Not to me, not to Wildcat fans.  You have to understand, I try to explain—this was my school, where I went to college, and where your mother went, and your father went to law school, and your great aunt and uncle…on the litany goes.  Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with memories, bouncing atop one another.  Sitting in the student section with free tickets, so close to the floor you heard the sneakers squeak.  Scoring lottery student tickets to the Final Four my senior year in college, and the dizzying euphoria when the championship fell to us.  The names of every starter on that team.  Years earlier, sitting on the floor in front of the TV in the little paneled den at home, a young teen watching records smashed, a tradition built one championship flag after another.  Something to cheer for, to look forward to, to speculate on, to scream about, something that transcends so many boundaries.  Something that still peaks every year in March, still infuses unbridled anticipation.  Just a game? Never.  Not in my house—this last is delivered with a wink.

But it is half time now, and that means bed time for my two fellow watchers.  “Tell me what happens,” Buddy pleads, and I promise I will.  After I tuck them in with their bedtime books in the adjacent room, I am reduced for the second half to pounding the couch cushion and flinging arms into the air silently, hoping not to keep them awake as the game rolls to a breathtaking close.  At last, a Wildcat victory is secure.

Checking on them one last time for the night, I stroke Buddy’s thick blonde bangs briefly, thinking he is asleep.  The blue eyes pop open for just a second as he whispers sleepily: “How much did we win by?”

Four, I whisper back. Four points.  His eyes widen in triumph, there is a very brief, -small smile, and he turns face back to pillow. But I’ll take that as a sign.  Another fan in the ranks, the new generation.

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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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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I see the Moon, and

The Moon sees me

The Moon sees somebody I’d like to see…”

Low, off-key, the little children’s ditty pops out, first as humming, a melodic memory from childhood a half-century ago.  Absently, I begin singing the old rhyme as we stand outside, waiting companionably on the dog’s evening ritual under the warm light of a harvest moon looming large in the inky fall sky.

Sis jerks her small blonde head around to stare at me, searching, surprised, as if I’ve emitted the unintelligible audio of a space alien.  Startled to have startled her, I pause for a millisecond, then plunge on, another verse awaiting its turn in memory’s queue.   It’s a little tune her mother loved, thirty years ago, and I sang it to my little daughter because my mom sang it to me.  I’ve sung to Sis before, many times, so why the surprise? She’s a few fingers short of six years old, a bit long in the tooth for nursery rhymes, but some tunes endure, ageless in the heart.

God bless the Moon, and God bless me…”

Swiftly, her chubby little dial, faintly mauve in the fall air, morphs into excitement, while the head bobs just slightly, straining for the ill-defined tempo. Then from some tiny synapse comes the instinct to join in.

“God bless the moon and God bless me…,” she warbles, a tiny vocal shadow, an itty bit of melody offered back with the blue eyes locked on mine.

I nod a beam of encouragement with the last line of the verse.  “God bless the somebody I’d like to see.”

“God bless the somebody,” she trills back, eye bigger with the thrill of a duet discovered, and we finish the last line together.

It’s our first sing-along.

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Seems to me that God above

Created you for me to love.

He picked you out, from all the rest

Because he knew, I loved you best.” *

*The origin of this rhyme and lullaby is variously reported, but clearly long ago.  The verses added here are the ones sung to me as a child, but there are multiple versions.  The first verse can be read in a volume called Gammer Gurton’s Garland, a collection of rhymes first published in London in 1810, with the subtitle “A choice collection of pretty songs and verses for the Amusement of all Little Good Children who can neither read nor run.”

Full moon with Black and White sky background.Element of Full moon image furnished by NASA.

Full moon with Black and White sky background.Element of Full moon image furnished by NASA.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps because Halloween ghosts and goblins were everywhere and trick or treat just a few days away–who knows?–but mortality leaped into the conversation in my kitchen on a recent weekend morning.  Of all things, it grew out of a session making pumpkin bread, a fall breakfast favorite with Buddy and Sis.

G-ma makes no apologies here to serious bakers for cheating with a pumpkin bread box mix from Trader Joe’s, a handy option that’s extra appealing when small, aspiring cooks want in on the action. Buddy, who at seven easily reads cooking instructions on the side of the box, latched on immediately to the concept of the fractions listed, along with their corresponding markers on the measuring cups.  With the careful, studious intent that is his general modus operandi, he measured and poured the oil and water into the bowl, enjoying the little flour cloud that rose with a satisfying puff when he dumped the dry mix into the bowl of the liquids. Sis, an earnest competitor when armed with a big wooden spoon, plunged onto the scene in time to seize a first turn at the blending and stirring of the batter.  As soon as I wasn’t looking, the sound of lip-smacking told its own tale, as she shared congenially with her brother the occasional nips of batter from the spoon’s edge.

Stirring, sniffing, and sampling escalated anticipation about the ultimate product at a rapid rate, because pretty soon Buddy declared, “I think we should have pumpkin bread at Evie’s house every time FOREVER.”

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These two love to work in the kitchen.

My back still turned as I wrangled a tray of bacon at the hot stove, I heard Sis reply with marked nonchalance, “Yeah, we can do that for a while, but then she’ll die.”

The bacon tray clattered loudly on the stovetop, mercifully containing its sizzling grease when I released it involuntarily and whirled around to face the children at their workstation at the end of the counter.  What did you say?  I asked her, stunned and wondering if I had heard it correctly.  I must have raised my voice in sheer surprise, because she instantly burst into tears, droplets gushing down her flushed cheeks at a rate that would soon have salted the waiting batter below.  “I want my mommy!”  she wailed.

I instantly encircled her in both arms as she stood frozen on the stool she requires to reach the countertop.  No, no, don’t cry, I begged, fervently wishing I could whack the top of my head with some hard object and jolt myself into greater sensitivity. It’s OK, I didn’t mean what you said was wrong!  You’re right, someday I will die.  Everyone does.  It’s OK for you to say that, because it’s true.  Please don’t cry, I repeated, immediately fearing that what I’d just said could make it worse.  At five, would she understand what any of it meant?

When the sobbing de-escalated to deeply offended sniffles, I released her and stepped back to wipe her face as her brother put his arm around her shoulders in comradely support.  Striving for a relaxed, easy tone, I still couldn’t stifle my curiosity.  It’s OK that you said that, Sis, really, I resumed.  But what made you think it?  Nervously, I pawed at my cheek, wondering if I looked unusually pale, or had dark circles under my eyes, or was notably overdue at hiding the gray roots above.  Had I conveyed some hint I might be sick?  Had someone she knew died recently, and I hadn’t been prepared to acknowledge it?  I remembered when they had to be told their beloved dog had died, but was there something else?

This jarring little exchange sent me scampering for expert resources a few hours later, after the children had gone home.  Interestingly, a few simple keywords and clicks yield lots of literature with recommendations for talking to children about death when it occurs, with helpful specifics about tailoring the approach to the appropriate developmental stage. But I found little to explain what a five-year-old actually comprehends when she suddenly predicts the profound but abstract concept of death for one of the more—ahem—senior people in her life.  A 2013 piece in Psychology Today*, for example, had this to say:

“Children, between 5 and 9 years old, who do acknowledge the permanence and inevitability of death see it as something that only applies to older adults. Some children who have an incomplete understanding of death often will fill in gaps in understanding with fantasy elements (often taken from the media). Furthermore, because they do not think abstractly, some young children do not understand the causality of death.”

Hmmmm.  After hearing Sis so calmly forecasting my inevitable demise after countless iterations of pumpkin bread, I’m not sure I buy the part that kids her age “don’t think abstractly.”  Nevertheless, I can only hope life spares her and her brother the need to explore this further for several years to come.

Meanwhile, back at the kitchen counter, Sis took a few deep cleansing breaths and resumed her stirring, seemingly unable to answer my question.  I sought a lighter, diversionary tactic.

Do you really think I’m that old?  I asked with a wink, a smile, and clearly teasing tone. Unsure if this was a trap, she kept her eyes on the fragrant, speckled pumpkin batter, sniffed once more, and asked, tentatively, “Well, how old are you?”

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be 62, I answered with more cheer than my soul may have actually contained, hearing that number out loud and still watching her face.

She widened her eyes but remained uncertain how to respond, so her brother stepped helpfully into the gap. Perhaps his turn with the batter spoon inspired some deep-seated optimism.

“Oh,” he nodded, adding knowledgeably, “then I think you could live another couple of years.”

Well, thank goodness.  And with that, it seemed best to change the subject and move on to stuff the warm, waiting oven with its pumpkin-flavored prize.

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Ready for trick or treat!

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*” How Do Children Comprehend the Concept of Death?” by James A. Graham, Ph.D., Psychology Today, 2013.

 

 

 

Somewhere, far, far away, there lies an obscure stone carved with this universal truth for parents, grandparents, and adult friends:  Children will ask life’s hardest questions at the precise moments in which you are least prepared to answer them.  Straighten your back, and get ready.  

And I might scratch on this codicil:  the older the children get, the wider that gap.  The most inconvenient circumstances or seemingly harmless moments yield queries which, if fumbled, you fear could misdirect a child forever.  OK, perhaps one shouldn’t get carried away with notions about the extent of one’s own influence.  Maybe not forever, but you get the idea.

Not long ago I was driving Buddy and Sis (now seven and five, respectively) somewhere while generally tuning out the rising level of dialogue audio floating my way from the back seat. The tune-out thing is an essential, acquired skill, because vigorous debate between these two occurs about as frequently as breathing.  If they are not arguing, on some days, they are probably asleep.  Yet suddenly my attention was arrested when Sis fired my way a pointed, insistent question:

“Evie!  Do you believe God?”

Literate thinker and lifelong proofreader that I am, I was momentarily thrown by her sentence structure.  Had some pronouncement appeared from the Almighty requiring an immediate verification?  (Maybe from the cartoon God guy illuminated on the theater ceiling on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert?  Give it up for God, everybody! commands the comedian, a lifelong Catholic, to the crowd when Cartoon God appears above their heads.  Applause would indicate God has more than a few fans in the audience.  But do I believe what he said?)

Ah, no, wrong track here.  Despite Sis having curiously dropped the word “in”, she actually was asking me:  Do you believe in God?

ACK!  The car continues rolling steadily through traffic, and I am driving.  Keep hands on the wheel, eyes pointed forward, I instruct Me. Waste no energy at this crucial moment on amazement that a five-year-old spouts this question from her car seat apropos of nothing I can discern (see reference to “tune out” above) on a routine weekday afternoon.  

This self-command to focus was accompanied by a tingling chill of apprehension as I contemplated my answer.  If ever the right choice of words could leave an indelible imprint on a young heart and mind, this might be the time.  

What do you say to a five-year-old in response to a question that has altered history since time immemorial?  A concept that has caused wars, changed governments, divided families, rewoven the fabric of society in our nation and so many others?  What’s my job here:  Affirmation?  Persuasion?  Historical context?  Toe the line articulated by the parents?

Shouldn’t there be a grandparent instruction book somewhere on this topic?  Why wasn’t I warned this question would come so soon?

My thoughts drifted back to Sis’ question Sunday afternoon as I sat in a church pew, listening intently at the funeral of the husband of an old friend.  This gentleman was a third-generation church member who contributed extraordinary effort to the well-being of the church—no fewer than four robed clergy shared the dais to testify to that history—but those references were not the things, at least to me, that delivered the most powerful elements of his life story.

Rather, it was the visible and tangible evidence of the life he lived outside the church that spoke so clearly about him as a man of faith.  It was the demonstrative affection his family members showed each other as they filed into and out of the sanctuary.  It was watching two sisters hold hands as they approached the lectern to share their joint reflections about their father.  It was hearing the pastor note that the family had agreed to also stay and receive mourners after the service, as the line had been so long beforehand that time ran out for the family to greet all who came to pay their respects.  

Perhaps the most moving recollection, though there were so many, was the bishop recalling that the gentleman became “more inclusive the older he got.”  He worked as a dentist, and they shared that he was appalled to learn some of his fellow practitioners were turning away gay patients at the height of the AIDS epidemic.  And so he became known as one dentist who welcomed all who needed him.  He brought that spirit into the church, helping the church move through a process of formally identifying itself as a church home that was open to all, regardless of orientation.

Finally, the pastor delivered one of the most striking parallels to the example lived by Christ that I’ve ever heard spoken about a single individual.  In honoring the gentleman’s open affection for people, his natural instincts to respect and support his family, his friends, his patients, his church family, his wife had described him to the pastor like this:  “He just thought everybody was his.”

Everyone listening was offered this inspiring illustration of the impact of actions as testimony to belief.  It’s a tenet often taught and discussed in houses of faith, but I wondered as I listened how many times we are gifted with real-life examples of how that works.  Today’s public discourse is so barbed with extremism, hidebound by rigidity.  The journey of believers can be made infinitely more difficult, seemingly impossible, by such things.  What if, instead of telling people what they should think and what they should and shouldn’t do, we testified by living like my friend—by loving and supporting others as if they were ours?

That reflection sparked a small hope that my spare but firm answer to Sis’ question back in the car that day may have, after all, been acceptable.  I agonized about it afterward, wondering if I should have embellished it, could have told some story, should have something more eloquent and specific to help a five-year-old understand.  But listening to the stories I heard that afternoon reminded me that as her grandmother, my best chance to demonstrate faith will be through the humdrum, sometimes unimportant choices of daily life.  That’s no small challenge, and no small privilege.  But it won’t come from one answer, one hot summer day, to one pointed question from one eager little girl.  

Because all I said was this:  “Yes.  Yes, I do believe (in) God.”  No questions in return.  No instructions, no testimony, no promises.  And I drew a deep breath when she responded, energetically (as she does with nearly everything), “Me, too!”  At five, can she possibly understand what that means?  Who knows?

For some reason, I left it at that.  I hope it was enough.  Actually, I pray it was enough.  

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