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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


Three of our four generations at Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






I see the Moon, and

The Moon sees me

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

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

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

God bless the Moon, and God bless me…”

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

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

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

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

It’s our first sing-along.


Seems to me that God above

Created you for me to love.

He picked you out, from all the rest

Because he knew, I loved you best.” *

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

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

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





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

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

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


These two love to work in the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ready for trick or treat!


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




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

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

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

“Evie!  Do you believe God?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“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.


(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?


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.


(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.