Warm thanks to my friend, fellow Kentucky native and author Georgia Green Stamper, for sharing this grandmother’s tale of deja vu and antics that repeat across generations.

Last week, I tagged along with my youngest daughter, Georgeann, to Cincinnati.  Her young children, Annelise and Hudson, made the jaunt from Lexington, Kentucky, with us. At five and almost three, they are now almost exactly the ages my two older daughters were when Georgeann was born. Strapped in the backseat in their state-of –the –art car carriers, with a movie playing on the DVD player and iPads loaded with games clutched in their hands, the children didn’t make a peep on the seventy-mile trip. Quite a contrast, I thought, to the long car trips of my young motherhood when I had only my imagination to keep the children entertained and separated in their minimally restrained seats.

But the moment we hit the six-lane traffic of I-75 – a stretch of city driving that puts me on edge – Annelise began to screech in a voice edged with panic. “Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! Mr. Bear! Hudson is grabbing Mr. Bear!”

I turned around to investigate, and sure enough, there was Hudson with a big old grin on his face pulling as hard as he could on Mr. Bear’s head while Annelise held on to his body for dear life. Like a member of the family, Mr. Bear has been her near constant companion since she was an infant. Hudson is never allowed to touch Mr. Bear unless Annelise gives him permission for the occasional cuddle. (This is in no way a deprivation since their household has a few hundred stuffed animals tossed around. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but much of one.)

Déjà vu. Staring at my grandchildren pulling at opposite ends of Mr. Bear’s fragile body, I was transported back to 1977 on this same stretch of Interstate highway. Mother was with me then, sitting in the front passenger seat where I was now, and an infant Georgeann was cradled in her arms in those pre-safety seat days. I was at the wheel navigating unfamiliar urban traffic to pick up my husband at the Greater Cincinnati Airport.

My five-year-old daughter Shan was in the back seat with Bear, whom she never left at home.  A plump half-pillow, half-plaything, he was handmade from a cloth cut-out, a craft notion popular in that era. The girls’ other grandmother had found Bear’s blue front and back body image at a fabric store, then stuffed him into a rotund pillow, and sewn up his exterior edges.

My mother-in-law had made a similar stuffed animal for our middle daughter Becky when she came along, but Becky could not be persuaded that her brown Dog was as fine as Shan’s blue Bear. And so, as I-75 widened from two lanes into many lanes, and the lightening fast traffic converged and diverged from all directions, Becky, a few months shy of her third birthday, grabbed Shan’s Bear by the head.

A frantic tug of war broke out, punctuated with shrieks and sobs. Mother, holding the baby in the front seat, could do little to intervene in the battle. I, of course, couldn’t cross multiple lanes of traffic to pull onto a shoulder if our lives had depended on it.  My admonitions to “JUST STOP IT!” were ignored. (Where was Dr. Spock when you needed him?)

Tension was escalating in both the front and back seats of our car when suddenly the girls, in unison, let out a blood curdling scream. I nearly lunged into an eight-wheeler in an adjacent lane. What had happened? Had one of the back doors swung open despite being locked? Had someone fallen out of the car into the path of the trucks?

Bear’s decapitation is what had happened. His head was in Becky’s hands, his body in Shan’s, and his foam innards were flying all over the car like popcorn on steroids.  Bear had lost his mind –and I was not far behind him.

Then, as both girls sobbed inconsolably in the back seat, Mother began to laugh and laugh until tears ran down her face. “You might as well,” she said.

Mother’s laughter restored both Bear and me to sanity. Within a few days, we had him re-stuffed and his head reattached with heavy thread.  He soldiered on for many more years until his skin completely gave way to ravels and gaping holes. Then, we let him go to that special place in our hearts where we forever hold all of those we have loved.

Last week, my hand darted into the backseat in time to rescue Annelise’s Mr. Bear before his body gave way. But I heard my mother’s voice echo across the decades to remind both Georgeann and me to keep a sense of humor when dealing with the day-to-day challenges of parenting young children. You might as well laugh, she would say.

Certainly, it beats losing one’s head or one’s mind.

Copyright© Georgia Green Stamper

Excerpt from Butter in the Morning. Wind Publications. 2012.

(Available on Amazon.com)

Re-printed with Permission of the Author

When your birthdays push you past the half-century mark and beyond, there’s something the great P. G. Wodehouse would have called a stone-dead cert:  You have a long list of things that mark the increasing acceleration of time.  Candles on the cake, growth in the garden, waking up and finding it is Easter, when Christmas was just yesterday.  We’ve all got ‘em.

Yet none of those ubiquitous markers has smacked me on the old bean quite as powerfully as when, on a recent day, I looked into the light-blue eyes of my 12-year-old grandson.  And realized I was looking up.  Because, though we have checked and debated this metric multiple times in recent months, there is no longer any question. The ref has blown the whistle, and there is no need to examine the video. It is official. He is taller than I am.

If one pays the slightest attention to genetics, which I view as increasingly powerful, the older I get, this milestone should be no surprise.  Lanky, long-limbed Buddy, two months shy of his 13th birthday, is the child of a six-foot-plus father and a mom who has proudly towered over me since she was not much older than he is.  Still, there is something particularly poignant about this illustration of the fleeting passage of years.  Why is that, I wondered?

Maybe it’s apprehension about the official arrival of the teen years, and all that they routinely include.  I recently lamented to my daughter (his mom) about the marked recent signs of maturity in Buddy and his younger sister, two years behind him on the birthday calendar.  “I KNOW!” she wailed.  “They used to be babies!”  Indeed, I thought, remaining convinced that was only about two weeks ago.

Flags indicating the onset of Teendom in Buddy have been waving for several months now.  Not long ago at the dinner table, I watched while his mother’s husband swiftly and without comment swapped his slices of roast for hers, providing her with the cuts he knows she prefers. Wow, I commented in appreciation, that’s true love.

“Awwww,” Buddy moaned, “I want true love!  And I’m going to have wait so LONG!”  Maybe not, I thought to myself, remembering the 70-year romance of my parents, who met at 14.  You never know on that one, I said aloud.  He didn’t roll his eyes, but he probably considered it.

Then there’s the dreaded Maybe Syndrome, a highly effective tool for teens to wield against anyone who holds any degree of responsibility in their lives.  It’s a subtle, but effective, power-shifter.  There are days when anything you ask Buddy generates the same answer:  Maybe.  Want a sandwich?  Watch a movie?  Sauce on your ice cream?  Maybe maybe maybe maybe.  I recently took a cue from his younger sister, who is admirably sharpening her skills in fighting fire with fire.  He asked me after a recent meal about dessert, and before I could respond, she jumped in with strategic advice.  “Tell him maybe, Evie.  Tell him maybe.  That’s all he ever says, so say that.”

Across the dinner table on another recent evening, family chatter lagged for a moment.  Buddy stepped bravely into the breach to announce, apropos of nothing, “Guess what, Evie! I started wearing deodorant today!”

What’s a grandmother to say?  I blabbered the first thing that popped into the G-ma brain: Is it working?  What a rookie mistake.  His ever-vigilant sibling immediately seized the obvious comedic opening.  Leaning over from the chair next to her brother, she thrust her nose into his armpit, then issued her ruling:  “NO.”

So far, at least, in spite of all the fears around us in our tumultuous world, I’m not too worried about what the teen years will mean in life for Buddy.  He has a devoted, competent, no-nonsense mom, a very present father and stepfather, and many other adults who love him.  Still, looking down the road while looking up into his eyes raises other questions.  What’s my role now, with this boy I adore?  No more need to check his shoelaces or remind him to go to the bathroom or wonder if he remembers the safe way to slice an apple (well, I might still hover a bit on that last one), though he does maintain his propensity for getting lost.  He is much more likely to explain to me some complex scientific concept to me than the other way around. My role as second-team safety patrol and/or entertainment/information source is over, at least in its old form.

Another surprise brought this question to mind again recently.  I’m not sure if my reaction, which was clearly sought, was right or wrong.   A grandmother can only, with love, do her best in the moment.  The phone rang a couple of days ago with a FaceTime request, and when I hit accept, a shock awaited.  Buddy’s handsome face filled the screen, his shiny hair cropped to about a quarter-inch all over his head.

For months, maybe more than a year, our young man had grown out his hair until it reached below the top of his shoulders.  My hairdresser confirmed the predominance of this trend with young teen males, when I may have shared my dismay with a professional. Thick, wavy, and blonde, Buddy’s hair drew comments all around. In my circle, the reactions reeked of envy, especially from women of, shall we say, a certain age.  In recording this for history, I’ll leave out the details of my own view, which I may have failed to keep to myself in front of him.  Let’s just say I often missed a clearer view of his handsome face.

On the phone, on camera, my jaw dropped way below sea level.  What on earth?  What made you decide to do that?  And Teen Man gave voice.  “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I was bored, I think.”

Well, my goodness, I stuttered.  You look very handsome.  Of course, you were handsome before, and you’re handsome now.

Under pressure, it was the best I could do.  It’s Teen Time.  More surprises are surely coming.

It was one of those golden moments, the kind that linger in memory, perhaps more powerful because it was utterly unexpected.

It began with one of those instincts you can’t suppress, because it is rooted deep in your bone marrow.  We were gathered around the dinner table, with pizza and birthday balloons and cupcakes waiting and a generally festive atmosphere.  My 12-year-old grandson, Buddy, commenced to tell a story involving his younger sister.

“Me and Sis were going to…” he began. I interrupted on autopilot with a correction that, in our family, goes back at least two generations.

“Sis and I,” I corrected, more pointedly than may have been charming at a birthday party.

“Wait, I mean..what?”  Buddy stammered, confused.  “Why does it have to be Sis and I?”

Before I could open my mouth, his mother raised one eyebrow and beamed a look at her progeny, as if warning off a hopeless punter loading up on a longshot at the race track.  “I advise you,” she recommended firmly, “not to get in an argument about grammar with your grandmother. You won’t win.”

And there it was.  I’m certain I felt a spotlight illuminating me from above like a soloist on Broadway, with the horns and percussion sounding TAH DAH!  Thus arrived the moment every parent longs for:  The stunning revelation that something they said, some time, even decades ago, actually penetrated.  And stuck.

My daughter was an excellent student, a creative spirit with writing skills far above average for her age, so I rarely reviewed or corrected her English homework. (I had better sense than to touch her math, where I was more harm than help.)  That did not prevent me, however, from doggedly correcting her verbal communication from the very early days, starting with the classic, historically festering misalignment of objective and subjective pronouns.  Me and Sis?  Nope.  Not happening.

My mom had ascended to her eternal reward by the time this little birthday grammar episode occurred, but she would have heartily approved.  She raised her four children with the same standards, weaving in the correct language—sometimes rather pointedly—around the dinner table and most places the transgressions occurred in the boisterous conversations of four very talkative siblings.  It was simply part of the molding of young souls, in her eyes, no different than insisting on clean hair and brushed teeth and responses of “yes, ma’am.”

What drove that habit?  Generational patterns, as with so many other things in families. She was raised the same way, the only child of an English teacher whose standards for appropriate and correct speech never wavered.  Mom also taught English, just for a couple of years in her twenties in the Philippine Islands when my Dad was stationed at Subic Bay Naval Base.  Only history knows if she dogged her students in similar fashion, but when her children began arriving over the next few years, the diligence already had firm root.

Fast forward to the present day, with me now an elder guardian of subject, object, and the like.  Will it end with my generation, in our family?  Can grammar and clear language survive the age of instantaneous communication? What really matters in the reign of thumb-typing, auto-correct, and shameless comments regurgitated in haste with no punctuation?  Should we cave in and rely on the digital editor and her glaring red lines under our errant phrases? Who cares, anymore, about actually knowing grammar?

A dwindling few of us still do, though it’s a lonely chair to occupy. My own compulsion to wave this flag is grounded in both family habit and professional training.  In my early career as a journalist, editors still cared. They did not take kindly to having to execute grammar corrections under deadline.  We had reference books and style guides at our disposal and were expected to be responsible for knowing what was correct. In current times, it’s a rare day there is not a misspelled word or glaring grammar error in headlines and news stories anywhere you can stand to look.  Will we ever be rescued from the ubiquitous blizzard of mis-used apostrophes (the Smith’s had a party) and absent hyphens (the sun dappled patio)?  I have a favorite t-shirt with this legend on the front:

Let’s eat, Grandma

Let’s eat Grandma

Commas save lives

The heart aches to notice how few people laugh when I wear it.

Still, as the young so often do, Buddy delivered a little glimmer of hope recently.  He was probably just looking to get his own back.  I was pinch-hitting as driver to his music lesson on a hot day, and he was wearing shorts.  I watched as he awkwardly maneuvered his long, lean legs and enormous feet into position as he climbed into the front seat of my car. The speed of his recent growth spurt is still a shock.

He caught me scanning the apparent mile between his hips and knees, and asked, “What are you looking at?”

Nothing, I mumbled, embarrassed to be caught staring.  It’s just that you, well, you have a lot of legs.

“No, I don’t,” his pre-teen self replied, with a sly side-eye.  “I only have two. If I had a lot of legs, I’d be an octopus, or one of those bugs.”

True!  I had to answer, caught crimson-handed and thinking, Touché.  Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the correct sentence, after all.


Editor’s noteThis week G-ma welcomes a guest writer.  She’s our beloved sister, and we’ll call her G-aunt here. Enjoy G-aunt’s reflections on how deftly small children put us in our places and teach us what only they can.

He’s named for his dad, looks like his mom, and acts like — himself.  My grandson operates his own way and on his own schedule.  He wouldn’t crawl for a long time, then went along sideways on one hip.  He wouldn’t walk for a long time, then stood up, started running and hasn’t stopped.  He frisbeed his plate of holiday food across the room into the Christmas tree, announcing helpfully, “I frew my plate.” Yeah, thanks little dude, we noticed.  We didn’t expect that, but we noticed.

His sister, age four, recently pedaled her new bike into a parked car and apparently was stung when her dad chuckled despite her upset.  She told us he couldn’t understand her feelings “because he doesn’t live inside my body.  He isn’t me.”  Seriously?  We know adults age forty-four who can’t grasp that concept.

When the father of these two (our son) was their age, he told us through tears that he was scared about “the sun burning out.” Attempting comfort, we assured him the sun will be around many more thousands of years. No dice.  “But you know how grandma and grandpa had you, and you had me, and I’ll have kids and then they’ll have kids?  SOMEBODY in our family,” he wailed, “will be here when the sun burns out!”  Um, you might have a point there, kid.

Our daughter, their young aunt, was never one to shrink from reality, much less shrink from describing it. While visiting her kindergarten class many years ago, I gushed about how happy I was to be there, how proud I was to be her mother, how nice her classroom was.  Her response?  “Mom, your breath stinks.”  Nothing like a cold hard truth to get you over yourself.

I often have wondered:  who exactly ARE these small people?  And who sent them here to confound us, inspire us, touch us and yank our feet back to the ground?

I do not know, but I do know this:

It’s a sacred privilege for their little souls to have been given into our keeping, if only for a short while.

It’s an honor to witness and enjoy their astonishing individuality, and to love and guide them as best we can in the time we are given.

And it’s a humbling thing that the little ones we seek to teach, teach us so much:  To be ourselves.  To understand that others can’t always sympathize.  To think ahead. To keep it real.

Ah, the joy and the wonder of it— for us and all the world to be blessed with the wisdom of the children. May it ever be so.


Picture this:  The next day, there were cookie sprinkles in my bed.

You really can’t make this stuff up.  How did the little multi-colored devils make their way from the kitchen?  Certainly not because I was eating in bed; I was too exhausted by that time to even open my mouth, much less chew. Most likely they were stuck to the paws of the cat, who jumps on the bed to nudge me awake, no small job on this particular morning.

Heaven knows the kitchen floor was a virtual garden of sprinkles, topping a thick carpet of flour, dough crumbs, and what-all. It was all there for the strolling after a worn-out grandmother collapsed in bed before she finished cleaning the floor.  For all I know, the sprinkles were stuck to my own feet.

It was the morning after the annual holiday cookie-baking extravaganza, with grandkids Buddy, Sis, and me.  The kids are competent, trained clean-up staff, but the schedule went awry for this baking session, and I had to hustle them home before they could do their part.  So, I was a clean-up staff of one, surveying the damage.

More evidence of the previous day’s culinary chaos was traveling on four feet. Reaching down on to clip on the dog’s leash for his routine morning stroll, I lightened his load by plucking a small nugget of dried meringue from the fluffy black spikes of hair just above the base of his ear.  Not hard to figure that one out; he knows exactly where to loiter under the island counter to catch whatever falls.

Why is this baking process so messy?  For one thing, we make the dough from scratch and roll it out the old-fashioned way. We follow a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting that attributes the recipe to her own mother. (That’s right, the great-great-great grandmother of my baking co-conspirators.)

And truly expert bakers may have other thoughts, but in my experience, the answer to all questions about working with scratch dough is more flour, everywhere and always.  Dough getting sticky, or splitting under the pin? Dump more flour on the hands, on the rolling pin, on the dough ball.  When this technique is employed by bakers ages 9 and 11, turning the kitchen floors into a decorator’s “Dusty White” finish is but the work of a moment.

Next comes the decorating phase.  Supplied with red, green, and white icing tubes, a box of edible eyeballs, the whipped egg whites for texture, and four colors of sprinkles, Buddy and Sis set to work on holiday masterpieces.  A highlight for their G-ma is observing their artistic inclinations evolving as they get older.  In a short year, pre-teen Buddy has blown past friendly gingerbread men with smiles and standard icing trim to a tray full of one-eyed cyclops characters and a tenderly crafted skeleton.

While Sis opted for some more traditional formats—striped candy canes, and dotted Christmas trees—the concept of excess does not haunt the vocabulary or the thoughts.  Gentle suggestions about the thickness of icing or the volume of sprinkles were cheerfully yet determinedly unheeded.

Happily, the children have matured into a phase where humor may trump heartache when disaster strikes.  I feared a hardworking young baker’s disappointment when I pulled a tray of his smaller cookies from the oven.  Apparently, decorative eyeballs require a certain dough thickness to maintain shape while cooking.  The little cut-outs were not thick enough, and they emerged looking like a pack of forest creatures that had been slain by a mythical cave monster, their eyes plucked out by vultures.  “Oh, dear,” I mumbled, and before I could utter anything more helpful, Buddy looked over my shoulder at the melted carnage.  Hahahaha, he hooted.  “That looks WEIRD!  Eeewwwww!”

My girlfriends asked maddeningly logical questions about our baking plans when I shared them in advance.  Why not just buy the dough, make it easier?  asked one.  Don’t you want to get a decorating kit with instructions?  queried another.  How great that you let them do them however they want, said a third, kindly, with only a tiny pinch of surprise.

Staring at the next-day sprinkles sparkling on the bed linens, I admit I pondered those questions.  Is doing things the hard way a family trait, I wondered, not for the first time?  Do the cookies really taste better, from scratch—and is that even the point?  Maybe I just wanted to focus on one family tradition, and the memories attached, in this first Christmas since my mother died.   In the company of the children, this one felt so right.

Observing the wreck that remained for remediation, I remembered one more detail.  Sometimes I actually like the sight of a messy kitchen.  Sometimes, it is a vivid, aromatic illustration of shared fellowship, creative outcomes, and more than a few unexpected laughs.  Even if I am left with melted eyeballs stuck like glue to non-stick cookie sheets and meringue-wearing dachshunds.  It’s the best kind of holiday chaos.

Merry Christmas to all. May the chaos reign.






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.