Desperate times call for…well, you know the line.  If you’ve ever been on a road trip with two near-adolescent siblings in a phase of constant bickering, you may know a level of desperation that staggers the imagination.

About two hours into a three-hour summer drive to visit family in central Kentucky with grandkids Buddy and Sis, desperation was the mot juste.  Voices were rising and appendages traversing the mid-line of the back seat at an alarming rate.  This fighting thing is intense at present, and it requires particular management around the house or in public places.  But inside the car, traveling at 70 miles per hour, with me behind the wheel?  Pulling over was not an option, and all threats had long since worn thin. These moments call for strategic innovation, and quickly.

I went for the first thing I could imagine that would bring balm to my own soul and, with luck, drown out the audio garbage churning behind me.  (As far as them smacking each other, I knew they were safely buckled in and could only reach so far, so I decided to let those chips fall where they might.)

Siri, I barked (grateful that she manifests as immune to tone of voice), Play Classic R&B Playlist.  I didn’t add “And Fast!”, but I imagine the urgency was clear. I was cranking up the volume before she could even finish her response.   Out from five waiting cabin speakers blasted the smashing drum/cymbal combo announcing the Temptations anthem to (stay with me on the irony here) the desperate measures required by love.  I caught up to the vocals in the second phrase, determined to out-amplify the racket in the back seat.

“….but I refuse to let you go, if I have to beg and plead for your sympathy, I don’t mind, ‘cause you mean that much to me, AIN’T TOO PROUD TO BEG, and you know it…”.

As I paused to inhale, I listened carefully; could this be working?  The back seat was suddenly silent.  No doubt its occupants were stunned to hear their grandmother booming out the tune.  Before they could muster up comments, I added Driver Dancing, keeping one hand firmly on the wheel and with the other, thrusting the fingers upward in time, elbows bending to the beat. (I’d describe it as ala John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever, if that weren’t mixing genres.)

Dance with me!  I shouted, keeping eyes forward on the highway and not daring yet to measure reaction in the rearview.  Soon my head bobbed along with the rhythmic elbow/finger moves; you’d have to be way in some other stratosphere if that memorable tempo doesn’t call to the marrow in your bones.

Still silence behind me, so I added another layer of strategy. This time, I fell back into a high-ranker on the list of things you should never do to change the behavior of children.

I’ll give $10 to anyone who can tell me who is singing this song, I shouted over the music. It seemed like low-risk financials, but a move that might gin up some diverting dialogue.

“Stevie Wonder!” Buddy shouted back.  At 11, Buddy is rather alert to opportunities to earn a few bucks.

This answer shocked his G-ma so profoundly she nearly veered into the emergency lane, regripping the wheel with her (second) Dancing Hand just in time.  I turned down the Temps for a moment to probe further.  How do you know about Stevie Wonder?

“Our band teacher,” he replied, indicating with a shrug I caught with a quick rearview glance that this should not surprise anyone.  Still, his grandmother felt the warm, early glow of a rekindled spark of faith in public education.  And with it came the urge to nudge along this whole band thing.  Buddy just began his second middle-school year as a band member, studying trumpet.  I punched the button to advance a couple of songs and cranked up Earth Wind & Fire’s Sing a Song.  Check out the horns in this one!  I shouted.

Next on the playlist came one of my special favorites of the era, Sam Cooke’s eloquent and heartbreaking A Change is Gonna Come.  After the first few phrases of his aching solo, I dialed down the volume again to discussion level.

Have you two ever heard this before?  “I’ve heard this song, yes,” affirmed 9-year-old Sis, and her brother added, “Me, too.”  What do you think it’s about?  “It’s about civil rights and racism,” Buddy answered.  I paused a moment, surprised again but grateful, as the knowledge of a rising sixth grader sank in.

Alas, Buddy had not lost the thread of the earlier opportunity.  “I guess I don’t get the $10, huh, Evie?”  Overwhelmed with relief for the success of my diversion tactics, I relented partly:  I’ll give you $5 for just knowing to guess Stevie Wonder, I answered.

Of course, equity is everything when siblings are involved.  Let’s find one for your sister to guess, I told him, punching the buttons to summon a different playlist.  Thinking I remembered their mother was a fan, so this might be an easyone, I cranked up the unforgettable, opening piano chords of one of the biggest hits of my generation.  We were approaching our destination, my sister and brother-in-law’s farm, and this one would calm down the vibe considerably.

“When you’re weary, feeling small,” it begins, “when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough…”.

“I don’t know this,” Sis answered flatly, as we pulled off the interstate and turned onto the lovely country road, lined with green fields and stone fences.  “Oh, you do,” her brother nudged, always eager, in spite of their bickering, to coach her to success.  “Evie, can I give her a hint?  When I nod, he adds, “It’s the same people who sing The Sounds of Silence.”  (The knowledge revealed in this hint nearly runs me off the road again; will these children never stop shocking me?) “It’s two names.  C’mon, guess!”  After several false starts, she shouted triumphantly, “Oh, I know!  It’s Sam and Garfunkel!”

Close enough!  I shout in return, giddy with the joyful sense of music spanning the generations, and everything it implied.  Five dollars for you, too!

We are pulling into the driveway of the farm now, and their great auntstands waving a welcome on the front porch.  My sister, a great musical talent, took up guitar when we were not much older than Buddy.  As two long-haired teenage girls, we sang, sometimes in harmony, while she strumming the chords carefully marked along the lyric lines on the pages of a loose-leaf notebook filled with the pop and folk songs we adored.  To this day, I could recite the poetic lyrics of The Sounds of Silence in my deepest sleep.  “Hello Darkness, my old friend…I’ve come to talk with you again..”

I turn down the volume on Bridge Over Troubled Water as I stop the car and the kids eagerly unbuckle.  Wait until she hears this story, I think, waving back.  She won’t believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

,

Why do siblings fight?

Why does the moon orbit the earth?  Why do cats dominate dogs?  Why do Kentucky basketball fans loathe the Duke Blue Devils so bitterly?*

Some things represent forces of nature, beyond the influence of humble beings like parents or grandparents.  Right, or not?

Buddy turns 11 this week, and Sis will be nine in another month.  With their ascent toward adolescence has come a distinctive evolution of fighting styles, a maturation, you might say, toward bust-ups that are more tactical than violent, more reflective of their particular personalities, more calculated and eye-popping in their ugliness.

After a late breakfast with the twosome on a recent overnight visit there was a distinct sour note in the air, the cause yet unknown.  Perhaps some fresh air would break the tension.  Out we went for a stroll down the hill, my little dog trotting merrily along between Sis and me.  Stopping to pick up after him and falling a few steps behind, I heard some low snarling between the two, then watched as Sis shouted “no!” and ran down the hill on her own, leaving her brother behind, a painful scowl on her face that often presages tears.

I caught up to Buddy in a few steps, halted his progress with a grip on the sleeve of his jacket, and stepped in front to face him directly.  What did you just say to your sister?  I demanded. When he answered, “I told her she has ruined my entire weekend,” my jaw dropped at the easy cruelty of children in general, and the immediate impact on the intended target of this accusation.  Of course, it was followed by a litany of all the tiresome and vexing crimes a younger sister may commit, wreaking despicable havoc on life for an older brother.

Should a grandparent dispense discipline?  Most I know would surely say no, preferring to leave all that to the parents and play a very different role in the lives of young souls.  Over the years I’ve come to agree, but still find the occasional need to draw a line.  This was one of those times.  I strove for a calm (possibly not in my top five skills) and serious tone. I know you love your sister, I delivered, straight into those blue eyes, but that was a very, very unkind thing to say.  Don’t do it again.  To his credit, he held eye contact, nodded his head, and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

While it is tempting to conclude that a younger female sibling is at a disadvantage in such situations in perpetuity, years of watching these two has taught me otherwise.  Sis’ tactics can and have been as reprehensible as her older brother’s, and every bit as effective in their mission to hurt his feelings, potentially re-arrange his life, maybe even make him vaporize.  Each takes a turn in the role of aggressor, each giving about as good (or bad) as they get.  No saints, only ordinary sinners, in this particular tale. And as quickly as we may write off sibling arguments as standard stuff, the meanness and hurt feelings is still painful to witness.

Are they really inevitable, or is that an old-school concept that helps me make excuses for these twin lights of my heart?  Dr. Sigmund Norr, a Cleveland Clinic pediatrician describes it this way:

“… the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes such as birth order and family dynamics. Competing desires for your attention and differences in developmental stages can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding. Rivalry can even affect them as they get older with their self-esteem and even their friendships. Most of these causes, like age difference or temperament, are impossible to change. That makes sibling rivalry, unfortunately, inevitable.”

Great. Normal, but still treacherous.

When I take a few steps back from the immediacy of these bitter conflagrations, it is interesting to speculate on what they foreshadow about these precocious boneheads as teenagers and adults.  Sis fights with intensity and passion, sometimes the first to scratch or deliver a physical blow.  Her raison d’etre is defense against any perceived injustice, her task to wave the flag of defiance and never it let touch the ground.  There is no subtlety in any cell in her bone marrow, only blazing truth (at least, as she sees it) and often increased volume.  “That. Is. NOT OKAY!” she may shout, over and over until someone listens.  Buddy’s tactical maneuvering for war is much more subtle, even at his tender age, and calculated.  His deceiving calm may belie the dastardly edge of his needling, his worst verbal jabs sometimes aimed at his sister in a deceptively low voice.

When I was a child in a family of four siblings and explosions were as routine as sunrise and breakfast in the morning, my parents often imposed separation as a first solution.  After the recent Ruined Weekend argument, I was thus pretty excited to get a Saturday afternoon with Sis on her own.  At least they won’t be arguing, I think, and it will be a good chance to catch up with just her.  A shopping excursion for art supplies was planned, followed by lunch at a favorite Chinese restaurant.  These were known favorites that seemed sure to please.

It turns out, in the irony that so often intertwines our assumptions about children, the old one-on-one was not the blaze of glory I had anticipated. The hot and sour soup bowls and lettuce wraps had barely hit the tabletop when Sis delivered her five-word bombshell.  The shock of it deflated my raised right arm, the lettuce wrap choosing that moment to pop open and eject its contents back onto the plate, eluding my mouth, frozen in the open position.

“I wish Buddy was here,” she said with just a hint of affectionate melancholy.  And before I could readjust my jaw position, there was more.  “Can we take him some lettuce wraps? He really likes those.”

Why? was the only response I could manage. Why do you wish Buddy was here?

“He’s my brother,” came the simple answer, a small shrug implying the presence of the blazing obvious.  “Also, he’s really funny.”

That’s true, I agreed, readdressing the lettuce wrap and shaking my head.

Lunch finished, we started homeward, and a short call arrived from her mother.  She was checking on us and reporting on Buddy’s birthday gathering with school friends at the local water park, where I was to deliver Sis to join the activities later on.  All was going well, though a surprise had emerged.  The school friends were daunted by the largest water slide and declined their turns.  Buddy knew that his sister had already conquered this monster on an earlier visit.  “So, he’s really ready for her to get here,” and ride it with him, confirmed their mom.  This bulletin lit up Sis’ face like fireworks on the Fourth.

Driving home, I drifted into memories of ferocious arguments and dastardly plots against my own siblings through our growing up years, three people I grew to cherish and respect as adults more than anyone on the planet, save my parents.  This ying and yang should not surprise me, I told myself.  Perhaps there is always hope, as long as we as siblings recognize that no matter what, we still need each other. To conquer the water slide, tell a good joke, whatever the journey requires.

Why do cats smack dogs across the face and pull their tails?  Cleary, some dynamics in life may not be fully revealed to those of us with eyes to see.  We are just meant to watch them unfold, and ride along as best we can.

——————————————————————————————————————————

 

*The Kentucky-Duke basketball rivalry has a long history, but no highlight was more bitter than a controversial game 30 years ago that eliminated Kentucky from post-season competition and burns in fans’ memories to this day.  The Sporting News remembers it like this:  “ …Christian Laettner fielding a 70-foot pass from Grant Hill, getting the rhythm just right as the Kentucky defense cleared out for fear of fouling, then launching a 17-foot jumpshot in advance of the buzzer that may be defined as the centerpiece of college basketball’s lore and allure.”

Dammit.  I can see it like it was yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our fall break adventure was so lovely, but it was ending.  Time to go home.  There were so many memories packed into just a couple of sunny days—a crackling campfire with sausages roasting, boat rides in a wind so vigorous that the lake’s bristling whitecaps rocked us around, determining our course.  In a few rounds of biking, I panted to catch up with Buddy and Sis and declined to waste breath responding when they hollered Come On! from the top of the hill. They taught me new games, their favorites, and it marked a new season when I had to accept defeat at the hands of a child born when I had already lived half a century.  It was all enough to summon tears when closing time was already upon us, but there was nothing for it but to trudge to the car with the first load, dump it into the trunk, and petulantly slam the lid.

Returning to my room to fetch Load 2, I could have turned either way, one option toward the gravel driveway and main entrance of the lovely old wooden lodge, the other toward the outside steps, closer to the little lake whose grassy shore was just a few dozen steps downhill from the parking lot.  Something told me to turn toward another view of the water, utterly quiet at this early hour, its flat surface undisturbed, even by fish or those who pursue them.  It was a chance to drink in one more look, just for a moment.

So, feeling blue about leaving and heading home?  Something asked.  Wishing it wasn’t over so soon?  Thinking you needed just a few more days’ respite from these crazy, unpredictable times?  Before you go, here’s a parting gift, to help you remember an interlude when happy days broke through the clouds.  Stand right there for a second, right where you are.  Don’t move, and Watch This.

As I stood still, watching, the sun inched just high enough to launch the show.  Out on the water a spectacular display of miniature fireworks erupted, scores and scores of tiny rockets of light bouncing off the surface in silent bursts, exploding and dancing as though choreographed, heralding the climb of the sun and the coming of the day.  On and on it went, flash after burst after flash, as I watched in amazement.

Instinctively (I regret to admit), I patted my pocket for my phone, imagining the satisfaction of a little video, a few seconds of recorded evidence to watch again later and remember.  But the pocket was empty.  What’s this?  Something asked.  Left your phone in the room?  You’ll just have to take this gift with you the old-fashioned way.  Stand here long enough to burn the image in memory. Watch with every sense and savor it, let it root and grow in your mind and heart, where you can take it anywhere you go, and you don’t have to push a button or charge a battery to summon it later.  Add it to that list of Signs That Appear When You Need Them Most. You’re not keeping a list of those?  Something asked, incredulous. Well, you can start one, today.

Gradually, as the sun continued its morning ascent, the fireworks fizzled, transforming into twinkling flickers on the water, a carpet studded with alluring sequins for an early fall celebration.  Finally, the flickers also vanished, merging into a powerful pool of light crossing the surface of the lake from one woody green shore to the other.

I wish the kids had been here to see this, I said out loud, to no one, as I turned away from my solitary spot on the little green hillside.  Don’t worry about the kids, Something answered, kindly.  They’ll have their own memories of the trip–you can count on that.  This gift was for you, for this particular moment.  Feeling better?  I thought so.  Time to hit the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the course of everyday family life involving school-aged children, schedule demands often dictate the shape and form of interaction. Conversation may feel less like an in-depth news interview and more like a quick declaration  aimed at a passenger who has just leapt on a departing subway.  The chance to say “have a seat and tell me all your news” may return someday, but now is not that season in the flowing river of time.

So, it was a particular, shiny little delight, unplanned and brief, to get some conversational time alone recently with my grandson Buddy.  His sister required his mom’s undivided attention for something important, so Buddy came over to hang out with me for a couple of hours.  As dusk began to settle over the neighborhood on the hot summer evening, we took the dog out for a stroll.

Buddy turned 10 when I was away for a few months in a temporary home, and I am still catching up to the people he and his sister became in my absence.  Perhaps it’s the warping of time in our pandemic era that distorts perfectly natural progression, but the changes in both of them have popped my eyes open since I came back to live nearby.

A young man of deep thoughts, Buddy is still not always the first to launch a sociable conversation. As we ambled down the street at the moderate pace natural to summer in the South, I nattered on idly, trying, without pushing, to land on a subject of interest. We approached a patch of woods with thick, spiky green undergrowth crowned with purple and white wildflowers.  A white-tailed rabbit sprang out of the bushes and bounded across the street in front of us in a flash, startling the dog away from his close inspection of a redolent street grate.  “We have a lot of bunnies in the neighborhood,” I offered.  “They drive the dog crazy.”

“Did you know,” Buddy responded thoughtfully, “that kangaroos can’t move their back legs separately?  They have to move together.  That’s one reason why they hop.”  Making my own leap forward to track with this hopping theme, I asked him the eternal, adult-to-kid query: Where did you learn that?  Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he shrugged his thin shoulders.  “I don’t remember; I think I read it somewhere.”

I nodded appreciatively at this nugget, and we continued downhill, where the road is bordered by an intriguing meadow that opens between two dense clusters of scraggly old trees.  You can’t quite view the full expanse of the grass, shrubbery and weeds from the road, and I am curious about what lies beyond the narrow, visible opening. One day you and your sister can bring your boots over and we’ll explore down there, I told him. There might be a little creek we could wade in, but you’ll have to have boots, because there might be snakes.

“Do you know,” he began again, “how to tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes?”  I don’t, I admitted, beginning to feel like a batter in the practice cage who wasn’t warned when someone switched on the pitching machines at high speed.

“Poisonous snakes have slit eyes, and snakes with round eyes aren’t poisonous.”  Anticipating the previous query, he added, “We learned that from a ranger at the park where we went camping.  I’ll take him now,” he finished, reaching for the dog leash, the nature lesson concluded. The two of them went running down the hill ahead of me, leaving me to watch this long-legged, decade-old, human encyclopedia of facts sprinting for the joy of it on a summer night, the dog on his six-inch legs trying desperately to keep up.

When you get to observe a burgeoning young intellect up close, you learn that its beam roams widely, illuminating the joyful, the troubling, and things in between.  Not long before our walk, I stood by quietly as Buddy engaged his mother in a spirited discussion.  She’d been after him to learn a particular skill, and his resistance grew in equal measure to her pleas. This skill had been around for centuries, she reasoned on this particular go-round, and it wouldn’t have survived that long if it wasn’t worth doing.  He dispatched this logic with startling alacrity.  “Lots of things stayed around for a long time that shouldn’t have,” he riposted. “Racism. Sexism.” I could offer nothing here, stunned into silence by this precocious application of logic.

We all think our grandkids are brilliant, right? Hang on, before the chest puffs out too much.  If you delude yourself into thinking one demonstration of intellect forecasts another, a trap awaits.  A child psychologist probably has a clinical term for this, but mine is Office Hallway Brain:  If the noggin contains a complex series of passages, flipping the light switch in one clearly does not illuminate the others. Buddy may argue effectively against discrimination or spot a poisonous snake, but he often can’t find his way, literally, from Point A to B.

Reporting on the first day of school, his mother mentioned that pandemic restrictions prevented parents from accompanying the students to their homerooms that crucial first time.  As she ushered him out of the car, she encouraged, “Okay, remember, Buddy, room 245.  2-4-5.”  Clambering up the steps to the main entrance, he looked back at her, and she raised a hand to wave and signal a final reminder:  Two fingers, four fingers, then all fingers.  Still, he forgot his room number the second the huge metal door slammed behind him, a clash of cymbals proclaiming his official arrival at Middle School. He was on his own to navigate he knew not where.

Back at my house that recent summer evening, the dog’s walk concluded, he cast around for something else to do.  “Evie,” he inquired politely, “do you play chess?”  I don’t, I answered, instantly thrown back in memory to a day, a half-century before, when my father tried to teach me.  Maybe impatient about the complex analysis and slow pace of the game, or maybe cowed by Dad’s commanding skill level, I couldn’t stick with it.  With a brief swell of embarrassment that turned quickly to curiosity, I turned my next comment a different direction:  It’s so cool that you play, I continued.  Who do you play with?  Do you have your own set at home?  Tell me more.

I used to think the window would be open longer, the period of time when I had the privilege of sharing what I know with these children, where my own life skills, even the smallest, practical things, like how to slice a juicy summer peach, might help them along the way.  How quickly it is changing, in just a flash, to where I may learn (if I keep my mouth shut and listen) more than I can teach.  Maybe there will be other lessons to share later, fewer of the kind you teach with your hands and more of the ones you teach with your heart, and the ones you show with your behavior.  I guess we’ll see.  Meanwhile, it appears my job is changing from instruction and guidance to witnessing, to appreciation and encouragement, and to listening as I walk alongside.

I hope I have the sense to listen.  Because I sure wouldn’t know one snake from another, without a kid to teach me.

He raised his long, gangly arms instinctively, then dropped them again, uncertain.  The study in his light blue eyes was tentative, watchful, hopeful, but unsure.

I looked right into them, longing to restore his comfort, trying to beam away the weight of so many months of uncertainty.  Long, dry, confusing, lonely, frightening months.  The last time we hugged, he was a year younger, inches shorter, shoe sizes smaller.  Just a year?  Across the gulf of this moment, it felt like a lifetime.  It was before the emergence of that precocious intellect, with its crackling wit and love of puns, its astonishing vocabulary, before he asked things like how to use “irascible” in a sentence.  And before he debated his mother issue for issue, flashing terms learned so young in the long shadows of the extraordinary era, out of the deep, omnipresent tragedies of the previous year, terms like “racism” and “sexism.”

Reaching toward him, slowly but comfortably, I encircled his thin shoulders with one arm, then both.  Our Buddy is 10 now, tall, angular, thin, elbows and feet everywhere, an openly tender and vulnerable young soul.  Inside the safety of my arms, he signed softly for a beat or two, then squeezed back in response.

It’s OK now, I said out loud, while wondering if those words would ever really ring completely true to any of us again.  It’s OK, I repeated, mustering more confidence this time, my arms giving the signal that mattered most to this young man, little boy, grandson, brother, son, child of the times, one of millions.  It’s fine to hug me now.  It’s safe.  I’ve had my shot.

 

 

A drama in one act

The scene

 Location No. 1:  A 7-year-old girl’s bedroom at about 7:45 p.m.  The room is captured in the screen camera’s eye and beamed over the ether to another screen miles away, via the technology that is re-defining communication and relationships in the era of COVID.  Child is leaning back against a rumpled mass of pillows, facing the camera, and the lovely pink flowered coverlet is only visible in one tiny triangle in lower left. She is, at least as the scene opens, under a tangle of various layers of covers, accompanied by a large purple bunny squeezed under her left arm, only one, long narrow flop-ear exposed, dangling on top of the covers like a tie adorning a dress shirt.   Presumably there is a white dog sharing the bed; only his foot is visible, lower right.

 Location No. 2, simultaneously shown:   The home office of this child’s grandmother.  A stack of children’s books stands at the ready on the work table next to her laptop.  Lighting has been carefully arranged to illuminate the pages of the books she will hold up to the camera, but not too bright, because it is bedtime, after all.

 The characters

  • Sis, the aforementioned 7-year-old girl, who has eagerly accepted her grandmother’s offer to read her a bedtime story via FaceTime.
  • Buddy, her 9-year-old brother. Possibly thinks this activity is beneath his age, having largely outgrown his taste for little kids’ books. He is too kindly to say so in front of his grandmother or sister.
  • The mother of these children, who plays a role in tech support but does not appear.
  • The grandmother of these children, aka G-ma, or Evie, who routinely would never refer to herself as a desperate woman.  And yet, she is missing these children so fiercely that she wants to give this strange scenario a legitimate shot.
  • A patient, quiet, white and black terrier mix dog named Sam, who never gets far from the children.
  • A frenetic but supremely devoted brindle terrier mix named Grace with the delicate presence of an offensive lineman protecting the blind side in overtime of the Super Bowl.

The scene opens as FaceTime connects and G-ma’s face lights up at the sight of the child.  Her brother is not visible.

G-ma (brightly):  Hi, precious!  I’m SO glad to see you.  Let’s pick out a book to read.

(G-ma holds up a couple of options to the camera. The child is squirming, possibly in anticipation, possibly impatience, possibly both. She sits forward in affirmation and points at the screen when it shows her the cover of the classic Where the Wild Things Are.)

G-ma continues:  This one?  Great.  Let’s get started.  Where’s your brother?  Does he want to hear this?  Buddy, are you there?  (Hoping to involve both, she speaks to the child she can’t see.). Do you like this story, too?

(A second face appears on screen, extreme close-up but completely sideways, visible only from the eyeballs up.)

Buddy (non-committal but polite tone):  Yeah, but I’ve read it multitudes of times already.

G-ma (flummoxed by this mastery of vocabulary from the sideways, partial face):  Did you say multitudes?  Is that what you said?

Buddy:  Yeah!  Multitudes.  But it’s OK.  You can read it to Sis.  (He drops back onto the pillow next to his sister, close enough to be about half visible, then noticeably hoists his own book, his face disappearing behind it.)

Sis (pushing her brother farther away from her on the bed, to gain space and reject his response):  Go! Evie, read!

(G-ma begins the old favorite story, turning the pages slowly, twisting in various contortions, attempting to see, while reading, if the pages are visible to the watching child. Striving to keep her audience on the hook, she displays the page where the protagonist is sent to his room for misbehavior)

G-ma :  Can you see this?  Look at him making that face.  What do you think he’s mad at?

Buddy (without lowering his own book, apparently watching over the top of it):  He’s mad because…

Sis (shoving him again and interrupting):  Stop!  You aren’t even reading with us.  Go on, Evie. (She turns her back to her brother, propelling herself hard enough to dislodge the position of the laptop, which is now displaying the tranquil bed scene at a 45-degree angle.)

G-ma (uncertain whether to just tilt her own head or request tech support):  You knocked the laptop, sweetie.  Straighten it back up so I don’t get dizzy looking at you.

Sis:  Oh, sorry!  (She leans forward to correct the issue but suddenly vanishes, while the screen is filled by the torso of the amber-and-black brindle dog, who has leapt onto the bed and into the action.).

Sis, Buddy, and their mother (simultaneously, shouting out of view):  GRACE!  GET OFF THE BED!

(Pause.  Scrambled audio.  G-ma waits, uncertain whether to proceed, thinking this has not gone well.  Perhaps it’s too much for the kids to focus in this scenario.  They are too young/not interested/just humoring me.  Maybe this was more about me, G-ma wonders regretfully.  Meanwhile, brindle torso flashes on past and ejects itself out of sight.  Grandchildren again visible on camera.  Action resumes.  Soon, G-ma announces the conclusion is nigh.)

G-ma:  Almost done here, guys.  Here’s our last page.

Sis (interrupting, directs question to her mother, off camera):  Mom, can we do this again?  Cause I really like it.

Mother (off camera):  Sure, if Evie wants to.

(G-ma reads last page, closes the book.)

G-ma (smiling fondly into camera):  Great!  That was fun.  I love…

Buddy (leaning face sideways into view again, before his grandmother can finish):  Thanks! Bye!

(Screen abruptly goes dark.  In the ensuing silence, G-ma stares for a second at the black space where the children just were, and then at the cover of the book.  She wonders if anything every goes the way it is so brilliantly shown in the grandparenting magazines, with their articles on “10 Ways to Stay Close to Grandkids During COVID.”  She doubts it. But knowing she got one vote in favor, she decides to declare victory as she switches off the light.)

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

The accomplished hostess knows this fundamental truth of entertaining:  Good parties tend to grow.

A little gathering at my place on a recent weekend morning started with just two guests, with my granddaughter Sis as hostess and me hovering in attendance nearby as kitchen staff.

“Evie, can we get out the tea set?” she had asked, beaming a little jolt of joy into my weary heart that morning.  The tea set is a relic from my parents’ time at the American naval base in the Philippine Islands in the 1950s, an acquisition on a side trip to Hong Kong in those very different post-war times.

My granddaughter was a newborn when my mother downsized to smaller quarters and so many treasures went on to new destinations.  I took the lovely teapot with its enchanting curved spout and the wafer-thin, gold-flowered cups and plates and stuck them in a drawer, wondering if they might appeal to her on some future lazy afternoon.  On a recent day when we needed, shall we say, to redirect her focus, I had unwrapped them and conveyed them as hers, to remain for now in my care. “We’ll get them out soon and have a real tea party,” I offered, unsure if she even knew what that was.

That day was here.

As I reached for the location at the no-kids elevation where I stored the 60-year-old china, she installed the first two guests in their places at the coffee table, on a little bench and in a child’s rocker.  The long, slender stuffed monkey displayed manners questionable for a tea party, his long arms flung behind him wildly as if on a bender, but I let it go.  The raggedy, worn lop-eared bunny who faced him across the table displayed a rather detached expression for a party guest, but I let that go, too.

Shall I make some real tea? I offered, having saved a caffeine-free variety with a hint of cocoa in it for the children, and she answered, “Oh, yes, everyone wants tea.”  I snapped to it in the kitchen, digging out a few of my grandmother’s shiny sterling teaspoons to add to the place settings.  As I worked, more guests arrived. Next came a blue Kentucky Wildcat beanbag, who was never constructed for sitting up, a dark brown squirrel who held his ground rather nicely, another bear, and finally, a striped fish relic of a long-ago Disney movie.  Fish needed an extra pillow to swim level with his teacup.  Meanwhile, the real dog patrolled the perimeter nervously, certain this unauthorized activity required careful monitoring and watching me for instructions.

I held my breath as Sis, at her request, carefully poured the hot brew for each guest into the tiny cups. Not a drop spilled, reminding me again how trust fosters growth.  With more focus on the spirit of the occasion than prudent nutritional practices for six-year-olds, I inquired if the guests preferred honey or sugar for their tea.  What a rookie mistake; Sis is never one to pass up promising options.  “They might want both,” she answered. I paused briefly over my error, then decided, why stop now?

Older Brother Buddy disdained this little charade at first, but as tea was poured and the gathering grew, he could not bear the sidelines.  He came forward with a tiny rubber creature of undetermined species (possibly a video game character?) that was liberated from its small plastic case in time to claim a seat at the table.  “He’s too small to drink from a cup,” Buddy worried about his little pal, about 1.5 inches long.  Could he drink from a spoon? I asked.  This was satisfactory, and soon the miniature creature was perched on a placemat in front of a silver spoon containing just a few drops of the amber liquid. The hostess and her brother sipped over-sweetened tea from different cups and spoons on their guests’ behalf, chatted sociably, and soon the little event wound to a conclusion.

My 89-year-old mother loves knowing when others enjoy her vintage things, so it was fun to tell her the tea-party story soon after.  I shared photos showing the table set with her china, amusing her great-grandchildren more than half a century after she first acquired the tiny, gold-trimmed little pieces. She shook her head, amazed.  “I didn’t know little girls still cared about those things,” she said, a bit wistfully.  Within a few short days, there would be no immediate chances to reminisce with Mom over family photos, as her residence was closed indefinitely to visitors while pandemic rages on.

With such abrupt swiftness, our world has spun into a dark and unpredictable alternative reality in recent weeks.  Everyone seems frightened and unbearably stressed.  With each new dawn, the news continues to worsen, and on some days, hope may elude us.

And yet we press on.  In her brilliant essay collection Late Migrations, author Margaret Renkl explores the intimacies of acute grief, but says that human beings are creatures who are built for joy. We look around, and we see that in defiance of global tragedy, spring still came, and the cherry trees have gracefully bowed down under the weight of their opalescent pink offerings.  Golden daffodils stand forth in triumph to herald the coming of Easter.  Musicians pour out their gifts before cameras instead of crowds, because deep in their marrow they know how music transcends, never more than in the hardest of times.  Birds are boisterously caroling their mating and nesting plans, driving indoor cats mad with frustration through windows everywhere.  From balconies across the ancient cities of Europe, strangers sing opera to the open air and applaud the heroism of healthcare workers who, if they are among the fortunate, they will never encounter.

And little kids still like tea parties.

 

If there are many things that lift the heart faster than making a child laugh, I can’t name them. The other day I tried a little trick with the grandkids with a bit of an ulterior motive, and it got a better laugh than I expected.

Hey, Buddy, I said casually, do you hear the birds chirping?  Sitting across from me at the table and drawing while I was looking at a catalogue, he turned to look out the window.  I tugged quickly on my right ear, fast enough that he didn’t see the motion, which generated a tiny, bird-like squeak.

He spun back around toward me, searching my face for clues.  “I don’t see a bird out there,” he said.  Look again, I responded, pointing out the window.  As he did, I tugged on the ear again, repeating the little chirp.  Almost nine years old and nobody’s fool, my grandson examined my expression again, analyzing the prank he smelled.  “You’re making that noise,” he conjectured.  “How did you do that?”

Oh, it’s a special bird-chirping magic trick, I began, and then relented under his analytical gaze. Actually, it’s my hearing aid. The one on this side makes a little feedback sound if you adjust the position of the tip.  Sounds like a birdie, doesn’t it?

“It does!” he agreed, laughing.  “That’s pretty cool.”  Later, I demonstrated for his younger sister, with similar success.

Ever since my two grandchildren grew old enough to converse, I have worried that my severe hearing loss would strain the fabric of our relationship.  Young children are generally hard to understand for most adults, even for those with normal hearing.  For those of us who live daily with significant hearing impairments, it can be darn near impossible. As it happens, that encompasses a very large group of people.

According to the National Institute on Deafness, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, one in eight people in this country aged 12 or older has hearing loss in both ears—that’s 13 percent of the population, a whopping 30 million people.  For those of us in grandparent age-range, the rate of disabling loss nearly doubles to 25 percent of individuals past 64, and it rises to a full HALF of senior adults age 75 and older.  Another national research institution ranks age-related hearing loss as the fifth-highest debilitating condition in the world, behind only low-back pain, migraine, major depression, and diabetes.  That’s a whole, whole lot of people who might be in line with us at the grocery store or down the aisle at the movies or waiting patiently in the early voting line who may struggle to understand any audio cues or words at any given time.

Family history, as in so many things, may also dictate the course of hearing disability.  We have a very strong family pattern for hearing loss on my father’s side of the family, beginning much younger than average.  In an effort to resist career setbacks or disrupted relationships, I acquired my first aids long before I was 50.  As with most technology in the digital age, aids are getting better all the time, with capabilities that adjust for infinite variations in sound. Still, as with other disabilities, it is a constant challenge to maneuver daily life.

Struggles range from the tiny to the enormous.  Aids cannot compensate for the direction of sound, so if someone turns from you on a noisy street, their words blow away in the wind.  Whispering in the movie theatre?  Forget it. Background music at your friend’s dinner party?  Torture, unless you prefer to dodge the conversation.  That acclaimed expert speaker you went to hear, when you bought that expensive ticket and queued up early for a good seat—that presentation was completely lost, an experience equivalent to watching TV with the sound off. The speaker said, “Can everyone hear me?” And when no one said no, he walked away from the microphone because he didn’t like to use it.

Some, like my father in his later years, largely give up in group situations rather than asking people to repeat and fearing that’s a burden to others.  Even the kindly friends and family members who are aware cannot possibly catalogue and accommodate for all the varying conditions that may isolate a hearing-impaired person from his surroundings. Decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act created requirements for physical access and other important accommodations, hearing loss—as distinguished from deafness—is the secret disability. My own theory is simple:  It’s because it is invisible.  Some days, it is like walking around inside a glass capsule that defines your freedoms but is unseen by everyone you meet.

So, how to deal with children that you love?  Their little voices and unconstructed sentences and funny stories are so precious to the ears and heart. Some days I have shivered with anxiety, worrying these young souls who light up my universe like moonbeams will find my presence irritating, my understanding incomplete or bizarrely twisted, my conversation useless.

For the fundamentals of daily operation, there is gentle coaching.  Turn toward me so I can hear you, I coax, as patiently as I can, over and over.  I really want to hear you, I sometimes add, hoping it helps, because what you say is important to me.  Yes, those words you see on the TV screen are supposed to be there.  They are called “captions”, and they show what the speaker is saying, in case I can’t hear it fully.  On and on it goes.  Hoping that what is routine becomes easier to accept, and not so different or awkward, I openly share the mechanics of the “personal audio system.” I show them how the aids fit into the ear, explaining how I can adjust it by touching a button lightly on the back of the tiny mechanism.

Only once have I received a snarky response from one of the children to my request to repeat something. Maybe because it was so hurtful, maybe because I was tired and out of steam, I elected to meet this full-on.

Repeating yourself may be frustrating sometimes, I say bluntly, right into my grandson’s wary face. But you know my ears don’t work well, that I can’t hear what you guys can hear, and that’s very hard for me.  So, the kind thing to do is help me, not make fun of my problem. Don’t ever let me hear you joke about people whose bodies function differently than yours.  Would you say something like that to a person in a wheelchair, be mean to them because they couldn’t go up the steps?  Of course not.  I know you wouldn’t.  This is no different.  Do you understand?

This rant yielded a remorseful nod, which I took as an apology, and in turn I delivered a hug to seal our peace treaty.  Children so seldom intend to be unkind, but sometimes they need help seeing the nuances of reality.

I hope the coaxing and straight talk help in the long run, but the humor may leave the best imprint in the little hearts.  The other morning, I was fixing breakfast, and the children were hungry.  Sis likes to hover around and help in the kitchen, and suddenly I had to halt the preparations when the battery died in my right hearing aid.  Feeling pressed for time and foolishly wrestling the tiny battery into its miniature compartment without my glasses, I forced feedback out of the aid unintentionally a couple of times before getting the battery in place.  When accidentally prolonged, the feedback is more of a squeal than a chirp, and it made me cringe. Meanwhile, I mumbled to Sis that the food would be ready soon.  Watching intently, she heard the familiar noise, but I didn’t look up when she first commented.

“It’s a nice noise, really, you know.”  What is? I asked, still on task and distracted.

“Birdsongs.  They’re pleasant sounds, you know, I like them.” This last is attached to a persuasive smile and a little shrug.

Never in a million years would I have risked embarrassing her by probing for the double meaning I fervently hoped was there, even if unintentionally.  I had to settle for a big smack of a kiss on her forehead and getting on with breakfast.

 

 

 

It’s a surprisingly moving cinematic moment, when delivered as beautifully as this one is, to see an older man connect to a younger one by asking about his favorite stuffed toy from childhood.  The older man is the legendary Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks in the hit movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers is trying, in his quiet, measured manner, to befriend a cynical young journalist named Tom, played by actor Matthew Rhys.  Tom has been assigned, over his angry objections, to write a short magazine profile on Mr. Rogers as an American hero. He is bitterly skeptical that this red-sweater-wearing star of children’s television should be anyone’s hero, anything like the character on the screen, so kind, so gentle, so beloved by so many.

Waving a worn, familiar puppet, a regular character on the show, Mr. Rogers responds to one of Tom’s interview questions with one of his own.  “Did you have a special friend like this when you were a child, Tom?”  Yes, the annoyed writer responds, testily. Now can we get back to the interview?

“What was his name, Tom?” Mr. Rogers persists.  Rabbit, answers Tom.  Suddenly he pauses, struggling with surprise at the catch in his voice when he adds, “Actually, it was Old Rabbit.”

It was one of the quietest moments in the theater during this heartwarmng film.  Nearly every adult present surely was thrown back through misty memory to the warm days of childhood, remembering, maybe even longing for, that most special animal.  The particular one that is so tightly wound to the heart of so many young children.

Everyone except for me. Instead, I was thinking about the time just a few years back when my mom sent me an ape.

Seven or eight years ago—when I was in my fifties, mind you—I had some minor surgery.  It was nothing unusual, but I dreaded it, and I told Mom as much a few days before the procedure.  “You’ll do fine,” she assured me, “and we’ll check on you.”  My sister, a registered nurse, accompanied me to the procedure and hung around a day or two to make sure I was following instructions from the doctor. The next day, the mailman brought a little package showing my parent’s return address.  This produced a smile from the patient.  Ripping into the box, I thought: Chocolate, to sweeten the long post-op hours?  One of my mother’s baubles, to hand down, maybe?

It was a small stuffed ape, a chimpanzee, I guess.  About six or eight inches high, he commands a permanent seated position, his fat, velvety feet pointed ever upward. The plump hands at the end of his long arms feature Velcro strips in the palms, in case you want to walk around with him hugging your wrist, like a designer purse.  Most intriguing of all, his eyes are fixed in a sideways glare that is part surprise, part wariness, and part sarcasm, like he has just rolled them upward at your lame joke.

My sister and I looked at each other, puzzled. My mother’s gift selections have been at times renowned in the family for, shall we call it, creativity.  Still, this was a rather surprising selection for a post-op patient. What on earth?  I said, and my sister just shrugged, unsurprised.  I named him Harry, after my mother’s father, an uncle of the same name, and also because he’s a…well, you get the idea.

Hey, Mom, thanks for the little ape, I chirped the next time she called to check in.  What, um, what made you think to send me this?  “Oh, I just thought he was cute,” she said cheerfully. “Now, when do you get your stitches out?”

It was borne in on me long ago that it would be wise to emulate my mother’s habit of not over-thinking things, so I moved on along to her destinations for the conversation.  Harry soon took up residence on my bed, about four decades after a stuffed animal had last been found there.  He perches in front of the fancy pillow shams, directly facing the corner spot where the cat spends about half her life dozing.  (If she is unsettled by the presence of an ape nearby, she has never mentioned it.)  Sometimes Harry serves as an excellent prop for an open book, his wide feet pointed at just the right angle to boost up the lower edge of the cover.  My grandkids occasionally relocate Harry to the guest room for the night; he serves as an excellent stand-in if they are sleeping over and forgot their own favorite friend.  And if I am fully forthcoming about Harry’s occupation here, I must admit he has been tear-soaked through more than one episode of deep grief, when my sister died a couple of years after that surgery, my father soon after, and my beloved old dog more recently.

My grandkids have never questioned why their grandmother would have a small stuffed ape on her bed and would share him as needed.  Instinct probably tells them what special grownups like Mr. Rogers and my mother also know—that if we are lucky, and open to it, we let the lovelights of childhood continue to illuminate adult hearts.  The tender desires of the very young—for love, comfort, simplicity, friendship, self-respect, encouragement—don’t really change with time. Once in a while, when buffeted by adult-world difficulties, we might need a small symbol to remind us of that. Mr. Rogers knew it.  My mother would never give herself credit for such an insight, but she knows it, too.

Then there’s Harry to remind me, sitting patiently his post, watching carefully out of that side-eye glare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scene:  A sunny Sunday afternoon in the neighborhood.

The subject:  G-ma’s new best pal, being lavishly admired by Buddy, camera in hand.

The result:  Documentary?  Comedy?  Biography?  A pinch of all those flavors. Click below to tune in.