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

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

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

“Evie!  Do you believe God?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It’s Howdy Doody time!”

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

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

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

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

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

Both (shouting): YEAH!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_7126Buddy:  Evie, are lightning bugs nocturnal?

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

Sis:  What’s not, not-turnal mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both (solemn, wide-eyed). No, ma’am.

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

Sis (shouting assent): YEAH!  LIKE HAIR!

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

Sis (with expression of distaste):  Like BLOOD?

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

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

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

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

Buddy: They have clothes! He was wearing clothes!

Sis:  But he only has one pair!

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

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

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

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

And that, for the moment, was that.

 

 

 

 

Entertaining children successfully and safely requires, as veterans may have learned the hard way, thoughtful preparation. And a few essential tools.  

Wait.  Scratch that.  Sometimes, you might get away with just one tool. 

It may be the oldest toy known to children, yet it offers new opportunities every time it is clutched by young, eager hands.

It works in the yard, on the porch, and sometimes, with certain essential governance, even inside the house.  It requires no batteries or charging, and stands ready for use at all times.  It travels well to other locations—the pool, the friend’s house, the picnic.  You probably already have one, stuck away somewhere.

It is more appealing to some children than others, but always appealing to every child at some point or another.  It comes in eons of sizes and colors, requires no instructions, is essentially unbreakable, and stands up remarkably well to repeated abuse.  It can be had cheaply and purchased just about anywhere.

The virtues of this tool go on.  It sparks imagination and creativity, assuming different forms in new contexts without actually changing.  It inspires ultimate collaboration in new games, then fierce arguments over the outcome.  It provides a forum for children to boss adults around, when the rules of a game can be invented as you go.

How could something so simple be the catalyst for so many activities that are so complex?

Grandparents, pals, doting relatives, babysitters, camp staffers, after-school stalwarts; all the child-amusing population knows it as the universal item that never fails to deliver.

It’s a ball.

Oh, sure, I hear you muttering.  Maybe in the longed-for days of yesteryear.  Now, you are assuming, the Effective Grandparent must be stocked with video games, youngster-level tablets, remote-controlled vehicles, transformers.  Well, perhaps, but this G-ma’s battlefield experience shows otherwise.  No single item holds the attention of the pint-sized like a ball.  

Not exactly an athlete, myself, I stumbled on this fundamental truth by accident, as with so many other things about these kids.  About a year ago, Buddy was goofing off out on the porch, where toys of various genre and interest were strewn around.  Suddenly, he spied something halfway hidden under a railing, snatched it up and held it aloft like a bass fisherman with the week’s biggest catch.  “What’s this?” he inquired, holding up a dirty, ragged tennis ball.  That’s a ball I was throwing for one of the dogs, I answered, surprised.  “Can I play with it?”  Well, sure, I said, glancing in puzzlement at all the other offerings he was abandoning, but he was off like a flash, bouncing it off walls and the porch floor, hurling it out into the grass and chasing it himself.  I watched, astonished.

A week or two later, always on the lookout for ways to refresh the Kiddo Bin at a modest investment level, I was sailing through the drugstore when I noticed a $5 bin with a package of three miniature balls in it, one each for basketball, soccer, and football.  Why not?

These were, to put it mildly, an instant hit.  Every characteristic appealed; the size, the color, the way they fit into small hands for hurling. 

Never one to let a good thing bounce away (forgive me), I recently added to the two large kickballs, one in each child’s favorite color.  These set me back a whopping $3.99 each, yet there is no price that could be placed on the scope of this success.    On a recent Saturday morning I sat on the porch with Sis, bravely navigating a series of rapid instructions on a game she delivered rather pointedly as we went:  “OK, Evie, throw it to me.  NOW, bounce it off the floor before I catch it.  NO, not that way, THIS way.  Now, dribble five times and throw it back.  Now, catch it with your arms up high!  Hahaha!  You missed!  I WINNED!”

What a kick (these puns just take control!) to know that something so accessible still rings the bell.  Other things from the bygone, simpler days still appeal, I’ve learned—bubbles are huge, squirt guns a seasonal favorite, and crayons and plain paper are infallible—but for sure-fire excitement, the ball has no peer.

If you worry about screen time, divert with a ball to inspire action.  If you need to wear them out before bedtime, same thing.  Want to give them a chance to show you something new?  Hand over the ball, and invite their instructions.

In our sports-mad culture, the language, the nuance around balls and games sinks in surprisingly soon, even if slightly wonky.  Last weekend in the neighborhood pool I stood (upon command) about eight feet from Buddy, waiting for him to toss me the ball.  He paused before throwing to shout urgently, “Evie!  Are you open?  Are you open?” This when nothing separated us but undisturbed water, I held nothing in my hands, and he could see my attention was riveted on him.  Still, we must follow form, right?  So I shouted and waved my hands high:  Throw it!  Hit me! I’m open! 

The brilliant German writer and statesman Goethe, whose cogent wisdom from centuries back remains relevant on so many deep matters, offered these observations about children:

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”

And:  “One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.”

What fun to know, amidst all the other, weightier writings, that he also said this: 

“Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it with our feet when it stops.”  

Two hundred years later, it’s as true as ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You wouldn’t hear much these days about the Seven Deadly Sins, unless some aspiring social media “influencer” transformed them into Seven Deadly Sins that will Hamper Your Career—or some other impossibly simplified, allegedly self-helping pablum that was then shared on some garbage-filled social channel, receiving “likes” from thousands.

Well. I’ve already digressed, and we’re just getting started.

Returning now to our regularly scheduled program: I recently got reacquainted with one of the Super Seven, we might call them. Her name is Envy.

There was a time, not long ago, when Envy visited regularly, and I got to know her pretty well. You might know someone like her. Envy never fights her impossibly curly hair. She eats the occasional donut, yet never gains weight. She has a doting and faithful husband who laughs at her jokes, regularly brings home a paycheck, and will share in-depth conversations about a favorite Americana artist. Envy drives a sexy, late-model convertible, and nothing ever goes wrong with it. She travels a couple of times a year to exotic, sunny locations with smiling family, leaving the rest of us to admire, or resent (depending on the day), her Facebook vacation photos

And Envy’s powers go deeper, to more important, heart-rending matters. She has all the time she wants to spend with her family, whenever she chooses or may be needed. Envy never endured the gut-wrenching realities of looking for a job, and she never has too much month at the end of her money.  She is never afraid of being alone when she is old.  Most importantly of all, Envy never lost an adored family member to cancer.

Yep, Envy hung around a lot, during some tough times, until gradually I got sick of her. Maybe certain life changes opened my eyes wider to the value of things I had not held dear enough, or perhaps other vices just demanded my immediate attention. Either way, I realized I hadn’t seen Envy in quite some time, when suddenly, a few weeks back, she returned. Unannounced.

It was time for a much-needed break from the office, when a friend at work mentioned she was taking off at the same time. “Taking my grandkids to the beach,” she crowed. “Rented a place right on the water, where we can walk to great restaurants. Going on to Disney World from there. I can’t wait.” Hope it’s a blast, I responded, not as cheerfully as I might have, beating a swift path down the hall and out of sight before she could ask me what i was doing with my vacation. The answer wasn’t going to sound like much, in comparison.

There are indeed many blessings in life these days, but a beachfront condo and Disney junket funded by me for me and the grandkids was not one of them—-at least (she qualifies, optimistic to the very end), not in present circumstances. So, I went back to my office for a private pout and the chance to wish in solitary self-pity that I could bestow such wonders. I shut the door and turned around to see Envy reclining easily in my chair, her high-heeled, embroidered yellow cowboy boots propped up on the desk.

Get out, I began, with less ferocity than I might have.

“I just dropped in to ask about your grandchildren,” she observed, in musical tones. “How are things going?”

Get out! This time, I shouted.

“Okey dokey,” she acquiesced, easing her way to the door. “But I expect we’ll bump into each other again soon.”

A few days later, it was time for a Vacation Day with G-Ma, 2017-style, and this year’s episode was strictly local. My daughter dropped off Sis for a day with me while her brother was off on a camp expedition, and we blasted off in pursuit of Fun on the Cheap. It started at the swimming pool, then progressed to lunch and a prolonged visit to the public library. From there, we sashayed over to a local joint that purveys the most divine popsicles, all made from fresh fruits and whole creams.

As outings with Sis tend to go, the day included a sprinkling of brief but acute tragedies. Her swim float sprung a leak at the pool, and later she went down forward on her elbows and knees on the library sidewalk, shedding a bit of blood and causing severe injury to her dignity. Let’s hope, I thought, that a popsicle has healing qualities.

I parked outside the popsicle place and stood out in the sunshine, leaning in with an extended hand to help Sis hoist herself out of the booster seat in the back. As she pushed her four-year-old self upward and out, she delivered one of those smack-the-head, open-the-eyes moments. And I thought, not for the first time, that I should try as hard to learn from these children as I try to occasionally teach them a little something.

“This is the best day EVER,” she announced, hopping down onto the pavement. “We went swimming, and now we’re getting a popsicle….” She heaved a huge sigh of rapt anticipation, then inquired for the at least the third time, “What flavors do they have?”

I looked up for a brief second and noticed Envy sitting on one of the sun-dappled benches outside the popsicle store. She was watching us, laughing ironically and pointing her finger right at me. I leaned down to grab Sis’ hand, and when I looked up, she was strolling rapidly in the other direction, until she became a tiny dot on the horizon, then was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

School roared back into session just a few weeks ago, and like night follows day, it’s already here.

It’s FUNDRAISING SEASON!

And thus arrived my first opportunity to serve as the sales target of an earnest and highly focused six-year-old.

It began this way:  As I walked into the room, I observed him turning to his mother for consent.  “It’s OK,” my daughter affirmed.  “You can ask her.” He wasted no time before launching his pitch, and no words on frilly preliminaries.  Presenting himself immediately in my path, he began, “Evie, would you like to buy a City Saver book today?”

Well, I don’t know, Buddy, I replied, stalling for time while dropping into a chair to get to eye level.  What’s this about?

He came forward with his sample and presented his order form.  “It’s for my school.  If you buy this book, you can save money, and the money goes to my school.”  The flow of funds was slightly distorted in this preamble, but I got the gist.  “You put your name right here,” he rolled on, pushing to close, like any good salesman.  “Just write it there, and I’ll put your money in the envelope.”

I’d be happy to support your school, Buddy, I replied, but I don’t have any cash on me, and I’d rather pay with cash.  Could we do this some time in the next few days?  A small , serious nod followed, along with confirmation that a week or so remained before the deadline.

It’s not entirely clear whether superior follow-up was part of the sales training foisted on these pint-sized revenue generators, or just a natural part of Buddy’s tenacious nature, but every encounter over the next couple of days began with exactly the same polite reminder.  “Evie,” he began again, calmly, “would you like to buy a City Saver book today?”  Finally, I remembered to get cash from the ATM, and we sat down to close the transaction.  I entered my name as instructed, handed over a twenty and a five, and watched while he ogled these bills of such scope to a small boy.  Watching him stare, a memory came flooding back, and I wondered if there might be something more that I could offer him.

Back in the 1960s, small towns like ours in central Kentucky still had those magical, dusty emporiums known as “dime stores.”  Our little town had two on Main Street, one named for history’s ultimate master of frugality, Ben Franklin.  A visit to Ben Franklin was a chance to spend your allowance coins on penny candy, or select a birthday card and a matchbox car for the little brother who loved them, or just accompany a parent in search of laundry soap, a replacement frying pan, or some other essential item.

One spring afternoon when I was about seven, I joined my dad on a visit to Ben Franklin that occupied him long enough for me to wander off and browse the toy section.  I stopped to stare at an old-style push carriage for a baby doll, an alluring pink plaid with shiny silver wheels, perched on a high shelf, literally and figuratively out of reach.  I had gotten a new doll the previous Christmas, and how I wanted to push her in this charming little conveyance.  It had a handwritten price card perched in front of it that my mind’s eye can still see to this day:  $2.99.  It might have been $1 million.

Except for an inspiration my father gave me.

“His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand.” from Leader of the Band, by Dan Fogelberg

Locating me in the toy aisle, staring upward, Dad shooed me out the door and into the car.  Maybe I was daydreaming on the way home, and through dinner, because I don’t think I said much.  Just before bedtime, he called me over to his easy chair, where he was finishing the newspaper.

“Thinking about that doll buggy, hmmmm?”  he asked.  I nodded.  “You really want it, don’t you?”  Another nod.  “Okay, sweetie, I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you a deal.  You come up with the first $1.50, and I’ll match what you save, and we’ll get your doll that buggy.  Think you can do that?”

And so the match of enterprise was lit.  I can’t remember how long it took me to raise my seed capital, but it was surely many weeks.  I think my allowance in those days was 15 cents a week, or maybe a dime, but I asked for, and received, extra chores to earn additional cash.  I folded laundry and ran it up the steps from the basement, did extra dishes and helped my mom in the garden, and slowly my little jar begin to fill with coins that I must have counted a thousand times.  When finally I reached the mountaintop, he drove me back to Ben Franklin and carried through the lesson to the very last step, insisting that I shake my own coins out of the jar onto the counter so the saleslady could count them before he laid down his money.  “That’s her money, that she earned and saved,” he told the lady, who nodded her approval at me primly.  I pushed the buggy on the sidewalk out to the car, my heart bursting from the joy of accomplishment and the pure greed of acquisition.

I think back on this episode now with such wonder at my father’s insight.  He was a complicated and challenging man in so many ways, but strategy like this was his greatest strength and perhaps most enduring gift to his four children.  It was not just the genius of teaching a seven-year-old to take charge of and work for her own desires in this world.  Looking back through the smoky shadows of the decades, I remember how my heart was lifted by the simple solidarity, the shared goal, the joint effort implied by his offer.  If it matters to you, he was saying, then it matters to me, too.  I hear you, I care about what you care about, and I’ll walk with you to get there.  I won’t carry your load for you, but I’ll share it.  That’s the essence of what he said—to such a little, little girl.  He and I, we were in it together.

Isn’t that all we want in this life?

And so, across my dining room table the other day, I finished completing my rows on the order form, handed Buddy the pen back and asked him some questions.  How many books are you hoping to sell?  He looked a bit uncertain.  Do you have a sales goal?  Still no answer, but I could tell he was pondering it.  I tried a different tack.  What happens if you sell them?  This rang the right bell, and I got a litany of possible prize options for sales achieved. I asked if three would be a good goal, and he nodded that it would.

Well, you did a good job selling me one, I said, so I’ll make you an offer:  if you sell another one, I’ll sell a third one for you, and that will get you to three.  But you have to sell the next one first, understand?  I won’t do my sale until you get your next one.

He signified agreement with this, though I could see, deep in Buddy’s highly analytical mind, he was wondering what was in it for me.  Nevertheless, he persisted, nailing his next sale with his indulgent aunt, and it was time to uphold my end.  I invested in the past in fundraisers for the children of a work friend, so I tapped her for a easy yes, and the deal was done. Buddy sold another book to his mom, turned in his money, and collected his prizes.

Will he remember that I helped get him there?  Who knows?  I’ll probably get another chance to work the Matching Grant idea again for some future endeavor.  I bet it will work like a charm with his younger sister, who never saw an activity attempted by her brother that she wouldn’t hurl herself at like a Major League fastball.

As to what’s in it for me, in addition to all those coupons?  It’s just a chance to pay forward a gift I was given a very long time ago, a chance to show, in real time, how a challenge is lightened when it is shared.  And the chance to pass that on to this enterprising young fellow, so intent on everything he does, is a gift, in itself, to me.

Nicknames show up in funny ways.  Some may spring from characters in music, books, or movies, but others, perhaps, from the times in which we live.

I’m pretty sure that’s the case for the moniker that recently came to mind for my granddaughter.  You can count on one thing with certainty when it comes to Sis, who is now a Large Four Years Old:  Force of will shows up at the front of the line ahead of reason or other emotions, insisting on precedence.

So, I started calling her Sister Resister.

The first time I used this title out loud, proof of veracity arrived faster than a Prime package at the front door.  She scowled and muttered darkly, “Don’t call me that.”

Yet in hardly any time at all (and with the help of her creative mother), she had re-imagined the title completely, anointing herself with the status of Super Hero.

“Look, Evie!” she shouted exultantly, striking a wide-footed, super-hero stance and planting fists at her waist, elbows bent.  “I’m SISTER RESISTER!!”  This was followed by a triumphant cackle, head thrown back, decidedly worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West.

And there, I confess, I hope the idea roots firmly in her heart.  It’s enthralling to watch a child so bold, so determined, so insistently fearless.  Maybe that’s because when I was her age, I was the complete opposite.  They called me Fraidy Cat, and there was plenty of evidence: I sobbed on the back of our pinto pony during the Christmas picture photo session, even when the poor animal was held tightly in place and motionless.  I cowered in the seat behind my father in the ski boat, clinging tightly to his back when the boat thumped merrily over waves.  Meanwhile, my braver, carefree sisters perched madly in the far front bow, hoping to be bounced as hard as possible.  I can’t for the life of me see, looking back, why I was like that.

I don’t think I chose the nickname to egg on this child who needs no encouragement to assert herself.

Or did I?   Doesn’t matter.  If she sees those qualities in herself, that’s everything she may someday need.  For me, circumstances were the great modifiers, many, many years after I feared bouncing boats and ponies.  Life took certain turns that called for certain responses, and fear, by default, became something that could be considered later, at some other time.  I’m not sure it’s accurate to call that courage so much as a predisposition for action.  My dad used to voice a simple credo for difficult situations:  Do Something, Even if it’s Wrong.

Who knows what adversities may someday require super-hero strength from Sis?  In the public arena, a recent parade of examples has marched past, flags waving.

Maybe someday she’ll need to resist like Taylor Swift, who stood up to a powerful music industry personality who abused his position and degraded her in public.  Taylor stood firm all the way to trial, and when the court ruled in her favor, she asked for $1.  The real victory, she said, was the opportunity to publicly encourage other women to speak up and refuse to be silenced by mistreatment.

Or maybe she’ll need to persist like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was forced into silence on the floor of the Senate for the letter she was reading about the civil rights track record of a key presidential appointee.  Justifying his procedural action in the face of subsequent criticism, the Senate majority leader ignited international response with this statement:  “She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.”  (Thank you, Senator, for the deeply inspiring call to action for women everywhere.  T-shirt vendors are still counting money as I write this.)

And then there was Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who resisted attempts to derail her questioning on the House floor on the basis of procedural time limitations.  She responded by persistently invoking a procedural proclamation of her own: “Reclaiming my time.  Reclaiming my time.”

Our Sister Resister is too young now to understand the momentous impact of these women, who are facing down the renewed adversity and conflict in our tumultuous contemporary times.  Those of us of a certain age watched first-hand the earlier footsteps of women who fought 50 years ago for equal pay, an end to gender discrimination, and other protections.  History is, of course, full of earlier examples, and I hope someday she’ll learn about and honor them.  The famous Resisters, as well as the countless women who persist in the face of private adversity in daily life–all surely called on super-hero strength to stand tall when needed.

So I say: Onward, Sister Resister.  Start learning now to stand up and speak out.  Refuse to be derailed if you believe you are right.  You might be mocked like Warren or groped like Swift, or even bounced out of a motorboat, but you have what it takes to carry on.  I can see it as clearly as the blue in your eyes.

Because scripture may foretell that the meek will inherit the earth, but She Who Resists, and Persists, can change it forever.

 

There could be enthralling cartoons rolling merrily on the screen, there might even be fierce artistic fervor unfolding, there may be arguing, even shoving, with battle lines being negotiated .    Just about any attention-grabber the universe can wave before my two grandkids could roar along in any given moment, but I can trump it, hands-down, no exceptions or outliers, with four magic words:

Who wants a peach?

The resplendent summer peach, in all its velvety, rose-hued, softly ripened glory is currently the Mother of All Culinary Fantasies for Buddy and Sis.  And while their love of the juicy jewel is shared, and equally fervent, their consumption style reveals radically different foraging actions and much, I would venture, about the distinctive individuals they will become.

From Buddy, at a wise and deep-thinking six, the peach receives respect and gentle handling, as much as a boy of six can be gentle with anything destined to travel soon from hand to stomach.   He calmly studies the velvet orb cradled in his palm and ponders his options when offered the choice of eating it sliced or whole.    His young mind, its gears processing output options as clearly as a blinking Times Square billboard, wastes little time in divining the key distinction here.  Option A (sliced by his grandmother, delivered in bowl with fork) requires a slight delay at the post, while Option B (whole) offers instant gratification.  Still, he takes care not to rush his answer and show his (hungry) hand.  “I think,” he says calmly and deliberately, “I’ll eat it whole.  If I could please have a paper towel for the juice.”

Such operational analysis and niceties of manner are but dust beneath the chariot wheels of his younger sister, who squeaks like a rusty bike chain when told she gets an entire peach to her four-year-old self and reaches forward to seize the prize in the work of a moment.  (As I have said before about this young female, no one is ever going to have to advise her to Lean In.)  By the time I can turn back around to articulate the slicing option a second time, there is juice everywhere, the peach is reduced in size by half, and her rakish grin illuminates the room like a late July sunbeam.

So goes a hot summer evening, with two kids, two peaches and a grandmother pondering if peaches can portend things to come.

 

 


Author’s note:  Regular readers know I don’t use this space for commercial promotion, but will nevertheless for this story say that Jackson’s Orchard in Bowling Green, Ky., has the finest peaches I’ve ever tasted or laid eyes on.  If you live in this region and love peaches, you will find theirs are incomparable.  Admittedly, I am biased, as the orchard is run by extended family, but the quality of the product speaks for itself.  Visit them online or on find them on Facebook.

G-ma was delighted when a couple of recent installments of the Chronicles inspired readers to recall some of their own favorite family lore.  Even better, they wrote and shared their memories and bestowed permission to pass them on.  Over the years, G-ma has become a fervent believer that there’s a funny thread somewhere in every family, though some may have to look harder for it than others.  Why not spread the laughs around and capture them for future generations?  To that end, she hopes you enjoy these reader contributions.

The first tale comes from an old pal in Kentucky, one of the funniest people I know, but who will remain anonymous in this missive.  He was inspired by The Invincible MM, and its reference to my mother wearing a new outfit and pearls the afternoon after an accident sent her to the emergency room.  He writes:

“…one element of the story reminded me of an incident involving one of my mother’s sisters, my Aunt Libby.

Libby Louise Longworth Hampton was a tiny, fastidious woman who clung to her East Tennessee upbringing despite living most of her adult life in Detroit.

One evening, Aunt Libby’s daughter, cousin Rhonda, dropped by Libby’s house to visit, only to find the front door standing open and Libby (now well into her 70s) lying in the foyer, staring at the ceiling, housecoat and hair curlers in disarray, bare feet askew.

After some requisite shrieking about strokes, heart attacks, and seizures, Rhonda told her mother to stay still, then dashed off to dial 911.

When the call was complete, Rhonda returned to the foyer to find it…empty.

No Libby Louise Longworth Hampton anywhere to be seen.

More shrieking and dashing ensued; this time Rhonda ran into the dimly lit front yard, expecting to find her mother on all fours, crawling toward parts unknown.

In short order, an ambulance arrived, Rhonda babbled out her story, and the EMTs — being experienced professionals — suggested searching the house first, Great Outdoors later.

Imagine, then, the absolute wonder Rhonda felt when the search party got to the front door, and found Aunt Libby in the precise spot where the story began, flat on her back in the entranceway, hands demurely folded across her breast.

Only now, she was wearing a prim frock, her hair was combed out, rouge lightly colored both cheeks, a hint of gloss gave life to the lips, low heels adorned her feet, and the folded hands held a string of pearls in place.

Libby would eventually explain, “I couldn’t go to the hospital looking like that.”

And the subject was closed to further discussion.

I think the diagnosis was a fainting spell related to low blood pressure.  Aunt Libby lived to a ripe 90+, as did all my mother’s sisters who survived childhood.”

The next exceptional tale was shared by my great friend and former co-worker Barbara Morris of Louisville, whose family absolutely has a bedrock sense of humor.  Inspired by a Chronicles reference to the challenges of entertaining grandchildren and keeping pace with their energy, Barb went back in time to this:

‘When I saw your posting on your grandchildren having an overnight, I was reminded of a story from when Clay Sr. and Marian had the grandchildren for a visit. The two grade school-aged grandsons from Columbus, Ohio, were there for a week. The Sr. Morris’s had worn themselves ragged entertaining them. Belle ride, museums, movies, parks, train ride, eating out and more. When their parents arrived for pickup, the younger of the two said tearfully, ‘they didn’t let me do ANYTHING!’

Family legend now as a phrase we use when it fits…. Clay Sr. often said, “Grandchildren make you happy twice, once when they come and again when they leave’. “

Amen to that last bit, Barb.  And thanks to my pals for sharing.  G-ma hopes other readers will stroll down memory lane, then take time to do the same.