At six and four, Buddy and Sis are old enough now to enjoy the occasional overnight visit at my house.  These visits linger in memory with certain central “themes”.  Oh, yes, I might think, looking back, that’s the time we made peanut butter cookies the first time.  Or, that was the time Buddy first dove under water at the pool, I might say, answering a friend who inquired how I entertained the children over the weekend.

A recent visit, on the other end of the spectrum, gets indexed for history under Injury, Pain, and Bloodshed.

A nervous Nellie by nature, I prattle precautions at the children constantly.  They appear predestined to demonstrate the futility of such intentions.  A child’s natural instinct to over-extend, to probe, to try—these two seem endowed with extra helpings of all those, and the inevitable aftermath will be the order of the days.  I may as well buckle in and muscle up for it.  Perhaps EMT training for grandparents is out there somewhere; at this rate, I’ll be able to teach it myself, before long.

The recent Festival of Agony opened with Sis.  Unable to contain her standard exuberance while she waited to roll the cookie dough into oven-sized morsels, she commenced to wiggle her bottom vigorously, a sort of Cookie Dance, throwing her weight from port to starboard and back.  This motion destabilized the stool that elevated her position at the kitchen counter, sending the stool sailing out from under while gravity dropped her straight down and caught her chin a hard lick on the edge of the granite countertop.  I watched this unfold from behind, too far away, of course, to intervene in time.  Amazingly, given the decibel level of the shrieking that followed, no teeth were displaced, no lip split, and the allure of the cookie dough took precedence over the pain with alacrity.

About half an hour later, the oven performing its office on the cookies and the aroma filling the house with a false sense of security, Buddy rounded the end of the dining room table in sock feet while in rapid pursuit of his sister.  When he lost his balance on the curve, he executed a Major League-style slide into a chair leg that forced two of his toes to merge right, and the other three to merge left.  Owwwww rose in my throat, at the same time it emerged from Buddy’s mouth. We examined the tender redness carefully, with an offer quickly made to ice the area against certain bruising.  Apparently the pursuit of justice may demand certain sacrifice, as he declined the ice, shook his foot hard a few times and rose to resume chase.

The evening’s Injury Trifecta played itself out near dusk, when the day’s rain finally subsided and a fresh-air strategy was pursued with an eye toward burning energy before bedtime.  We took the dog out for a walk, and a kindly neighbor stopped to meet the children and exchange pleasantries.  When she complimented Sis’ eye-catching pink rain boots, Sis attempted to demonstrate, Gene Kelly-style, a few dance steps in a puddle.  Sadly, these boots were not made for dancing.  She caught one foot behind the other and took a rapid swan dive face down on the rough aggregate sidewalk.

This time I knew we were for it, and I dove down to scoop up the screaming child with my heart in my throat.  She clung to me with unusual ferocity.  Let me see, I said over and over, let me see your face, but she wouldn’t raise her head from my chest while she screamed.

As I returned her grip for reassurance and lowered her feet down onto a nearby bench, hoping to wrest her loose and survey the damage, I was suddenly transported away to another time and place, as though I had stepped into a time machine.

Thirty years earlier, in our tiny stone house on a shady street in Lexington, Kentucky, Sis’ mom took her first face-down swan drive on the hardwood floor of the little ranch’s narrow, central hallway.  I saw her so clearly there—she had a short, bowl-style haircut and was wearing a blue print smock with a white Peter Pan collar and red corduroy pants.  The ensemble was completed with the little white leather laced booties that were obligatory for toddlers in those days, and my daughter came running for something, catching a toe somehow in those stiff little shoes.  She sprung back to her feet with a shriek, blood spurting from her lower lip, and before I could gather my wits I shouted frantically for my husband.  I distinctly remember reaching for my own lip, as though it must surely be bleeding simultaneously, so painful was the reaction of a young mother to the child’s first little accident.  She’s fine, she’s fine, her father said calmly, here’s a cold wash cloth, she’s fine.  But facial cuts are always so bloody, often so much worse in appearance that in fact, that the maternal instinct can hardly avoid overdrive.  Then, or now.  Hence the sharp, cinematically accurate memory of that little scene.

Meanwhile, present time drew me back when another concerned neighbor approached with a peppy little dog.  Sis continued to cling like a poultice and my nurturing was insufficient to loosen her vice grip, but the sight of the curious little dog did the trick, and she stepped back to reach down for a pat.  A first view of her pearl-skinned face revealed a cut lip, along with scrapes to the chin and cheek in several spots that left bloodstains all over my sweatshirt.  But the pressure of her face buried in my shoulder had served to stop most of the dripping blood by the time she let go and stooped down.

And so, the dog having administered distraction and the spell of tragedy broken, the evening wore on to its conclusion.  When I was her age, perennially feeling (unjustifiably) ignored in a large family, I would have milked such injuries for all I could get, but Sis had little to say about the episode later.  I dreaded having to explain to her parents, though, of course, they deal with this all the time.  When my son-in-law appeared to retrieve the children the next morning, the first thing he said to Sis was, “What happened to your face?”

“I falled down,” she said with an easy shrug, indicating it was really nothing.  And illustrating another timeless truth:  the children always recover long before the adults.

 

 

The status of grandmother was bestowed on me six years ago last month.  Oddly, it didn’t come with a manual.  Though it is surely one of life’s richest blessings, I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.

There must be others out there who, like me, feel so different from grandmothers of earlier generations that it is ironic to even use the same title.

After all, look how the role of women has changed in our culture in the last few decades.  Neither of my grandmothers worked outside the home.  Their parents died younger, and I have no memories of any of my great-grandparents.  They had lifelong partners, enduring marriages of five decades or longer.

In 2017, it’s a different picture for many women whose kids have kids.  Having just entered my seventh decade, I’m still a working professional, with miles to go before retirement is visible on the horizon.  I’m a single woman, looking after myself and striving to maintain a social life at the same time.  My precious mother is, thank heavens, still with us at 86, so I strive to stretch my time across four generations of family.  And many of them are 200 miles away.

Mom stirring applesauce June 2016

My mom taught us to make homemade applesauce.  I hope I get to pass that technique on.

My grandmothers occupy such large places of love and respect in my memories, but can I be to my grandchildren what they were to us?  Not likely.

 

My maternal grandmother often wore an apron, and could roast the most beautiful chicken any chef every claimed.  She came to visit for working trips, joining my mother in the kitchen for the all-day process of cooking country ham, and she patiently hemmed and mended hand-me-downs.  She was a crackerjack card player, demonstrating tactics that belied her gentle demeanor.  I liked attending her church, because its rituals were open to “all who believed” and not restricted to those who completed some class or ritual declaration.  That meant that a child could share in the communion celebration with the adults.

My paternal grandmother was a stunning, petite blonde who stayed beautiful as she aged.  She had elegant taste, a fine wardrobe, and the manners of an accomplished socialite.  That included certain standards that were not to be compromised, and when they were, hell might demand the settlement of accounts.  She hosted elegant parties that required dressing just so, and my mother prepared us carefully.   If my grandfather told raucous jokes at dinner and enjoying himself too much in his cups, she registered disapproval by threatening to leave the room—and when he didn’t behave, she vanished.  No shrinking violet, that one.

Is any of that a heritage I can pass on?

Elegant parties?  I like to set a nice table, and I have china and lovely dining treasures from both of them.  But my holiday dinners are more likely to be thrown together in the wee hours the night before, after a 50-hour work week.  By the time the guests arrive, I’m lucky if I remembered to shower and put on lipstick.  I would love to learn to cook a country ham myself.  But one has to weigh a whole day invested against the convenience of buying it cooked from one of the fine Kentucky purveyors, of which there are many.

Teach my kids how to maintain a home, how to get spots out, one of many of my mother’s great aptitudes? Don’t be silly.  Not long ago, I asked my extremely handy son-in-law to tighten the handle on a finicky kitchen faucet.  Got mildly irritated when I noticed him stockstill in the middle of the kitchen, staring intently at his phone.  Don’t they ever put the dang things down?  That was before I realized he was watching a You Tube video about repair of not just any faucet, but THAT faucet.  The next generation doesn’t need our knowledge.  They get it from strangers, on a tiny glass screen.

So what CAN we offer?  After six years, here are some intentions I have set (as the yoga teacher calls it).  The important things, it seems, are less about the hands and more about the mind and heart. They are not necessarily new to this generation, but perhaps take on a different hue in today’s times.

We can show up.  When they are older and look back on important days in their lives, I hope it means something if I was there.  So getting there is the goal.  Other things can wait.

We can listen.  The world is roaring with noise and distractions that defeat good conversation.  Yet communication defines our relationships.  If my grandkids have something to say, I want them to know I am interested in hearing it.

We can ask questions.  What happened at school today?  What’s that book about? I want Buddy and Sis to know I’m interested in their observations and ideas, their kiddie jokes, their fears.  Their parents are good talkers, wonderful at encouraging the kids to express themselves and talk through things.  But it takes a village.

We can show mercy.  A while back at a family meal, my daughter relayed a story about a particularly trying episode with Sis a few days before.  Absorbing the details of this transgression, I turned to notice Sis watching me intently, brow furrowed with anxiety as she awaited my reaction.  I support the parents in their excellent standards for discipline—but there was no need here to extend the sentence already rendered by the court.  Sis’ little map flooded with relief when I returned her gaze, winked at her, and changed the subject.

We can offer sanctuary.  It’s a tough world out there, getting tougher.  Buddy and Sis are lucky to be happy and safe in their home, but when they need another place to be encouraged, empathized with, or just to raid the cabinet for snacks, my door can be open.

At six, our Buddy is an intense thinker, progressing through reason and root cause and relevance at an astonishing clip.  Thoughts tumble out so quickly I struggle to keep pace, but I do my best.  He also seems to pick up particular turns of phrase that linger for a period in the Lexicon of Buddy.  He repeated one of those multiple times over dinner not long ago.  “Evie,” he kept asking, “Can I tell you something?”

Yes, Buddy.  You bet.  I might not get it, and it won’t be long before you are so much smarter than I will ever be.  But I am listening.  Tell me.

Children change so quickly, don’t they?  It’s an amazing thing to watch.  And, of course, it’s so much easier to discern these charming progress points when they aren’t your immediate progeny.  Kind of like watching a new house going up as you drive by occasionally:  Oh, Look!  The chimney is up!  Gosh, that was fast!  While the poor owners are staring at each brick being added, wondering if moving day will ever come.

As she approaches her fourth birthday, our Sis has had a big year.  She learned to sing “Where is Thumbkin?,” complete with hand motions, and developed an interest in kitchen activity and cooking.  She carries on a fairly complex conversation with enthusiasm and is gaining on her life’s aim to keep up with her older brother.  She grew more than an inch.

But there’s one thing about Sis that remains a steady fixture in our lives, rooted as deeply as her unwavering insistence that it matters not if you wear your shoes on the wrong feet.

Sis is an Eating Machine.  A Ravenous Ravager of (almost) all things eminently edible.  She is the top-rated Hoover of plate cleaners.  In our family, there are no other contenders.lj-muffin-date-tbd

This rather striking quality tends to surprise those who aren’t around her regularly.  They first notice the crystal blue eyes, long blonde curls, or precocious exuberance.  But join her at table, and it’s hard to stop the eyes from popping.  You may feel like a balletomane who sneaks into the dressing room to discover the prima ballerina stuffing her face with Twinkies.

But let me get at that Twinkies thing immediately, before I get in trouble here.  The really remarkable thing about many of her menu preferences is their healthy nature.  She never asks for junk food at my house.  When this volume trend began to escalate a year or so ago, the first shocker was cooked carrots.  I mean, who knew?  When I was her age, I wouldn’t eat them on a bribe.  Last time I served carrots with pot roast on a cold winter day, Sis ate her portion, her brother’s, a small heap of seconds from the pot, and was still pining when her father bridged the shortage by forking over his, too.

Fruit is another favorite, and oranges currently rank quite high.  On her last visit, Sis risked life and limb to get close to a bowl of the alluring, bright orbs, clambering up from a stool, to a chair, to a box on the chair, before I could leap to secure her on perch.  Alas, she still couldn’t reach, so was forced to ask, politely but pointedly, if she could please have one with expedited delivery.  I cut it in half, and by the time I reached to peel the second half, the first sections had vanished.

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Sis loves kombucha, which many of us would have to be paid to drink.

The next morning, we moved on to surprising success with the larger citrus cousin, grapefruit.  Watching me spooning out the pink sections, Sis requested a taste test.  I cut her a very small portion and hesitated before handing it over.  This is much more tart than an orange, I warned.  Try this small piece first.  It’s OK if you don’t like it.  (Note to self:  wasted breath.)  “I love that!”  Sis exclaimed, adding her personal anthem: “Could I have some more?”

What creates such an appetite, I have pondered occasionally, in between efforts to stock the larder before the children arrive and scrambling to proffer seconds and thirds during meals. An extended growth spurt, I suppose.  One does wonder if takes extra calories to fund a campaign of regular screaming—whether in exuberance, or just a forceful bid to be heard, one never knows.  (This is yet another phase we seem to be stuck in.)  Sis is blessed with good health and no weight concerns, thank goodness, and her parents work hard to select and offer quality food to the children. They certainly converted me to the notion that children will learn from example and context when it comes to healthy food.

Meanwhile, my favorite evidence of the Hoover plate-cleaning action occurred at Christmas dinner just a few weeks back.  We have a family tradition of serving homemade applesauce with the holiday meal.  Our family product is a thick, somewhat tart variety that we make with the best apples when they ripen every June, then we hoard it in the freezer for special occasions. mom-stirring-applesauce-june-2016

What fun to see the children excited to get their portion, which I served in tiny, delicate, gold-rimmed bowls passed down from my great-grandmother.  No doubt the original owner of the bowls turned in her grave if she noticed Sis about a minute later with her bowl upended near her face, so she could lick it clean.  Hey! I remonstrated weakly, stifling an empathetic guffaw.  Use your spoon, please!

“But the spoon won’t get it all, and it’s so good,” she replied, pausing just long enough to answer.  What’s a grandmother to do?  I wish I had a picture of that little episode.  It would be fun to taunt her with when she is older, when it comes time, if we are lucky, to teach her to make the applesauce herself.

First, close the door as carefully as possible.  Now, let’s survey the aftermath.

There is a dinosaur sticker clinging to the hardwood floor near the entry hallway, torn, folded in half, but sticking nonetheless.  A single, royal purple crayon perches alone and forlorn, probably hiding for its life, between a couple of couch cushions.  Light switches I forgot existed are thrust into the on position, illuminating normally unused corners of the house.  One half of my pajamas (I can’t tell which half, but who cares?) is strewn across a kitchen chair, far across the house from where pajamas are routinely exchanged for street clothes on the average day.  Glassy-eyed, wary, and immobile from exhaustion, the dog is prostrate on the carpet.  She declines to shift as I step over her.

The children have been here.  Overnight.  Both of them, with just the dog and me.madeline-exhausted

It was a first, so let me quickly confirm that everyone survived intact.  Or maybe just the children did.  I think I might have.  Right now, the dog is a close call.  We’re not as young as we were, the dog and I.

And let’s be clear about a few other things, in fairness and up front.  First, I asked for this opportunity.  Are you ready for the kids to stay overnight, both of them? I asked my daughter chirpily.  “I am if you are,” she responded, so quickly I should perhaps have taken note.  (About halfway through the previous evening, a good friend texted, ‘How’s it going over there?’  To which I responded: There is a reason this task was originally divined as the responsibility of two people. But I am one, plus dog, and so we do what we can.)

Second, Buddy and Sis are relatively well-behaved kids, as kids their age (five and three) go.  Their parents diligently coach good behavior, require them to clean up after themselves, to employ good manners, all of it.  They’re just active, REALLY active, and inquisitive, and quick…and exhausting.  My LORD, they are exhausting.

While surveying the aftermath, providing asylum to the desperate purple crayon and otherwise tidying up, I begin pondering the sleepover experience from the children’s perspective.  And I quickly fear their view will not equate to the stuff of Hallmark cards and treasured future family lore.  Did they have a good time?  Or was every word I uttered a reprimand, a correction?  We ate a good dinner, we read books, watched a cartoon, they colored, we sang.  Is that what they’ll talk about?  Tomorrow, and 30 years from now, when I may be only a memory in their hearts?

Or will this litany, from me, come to mind instead:  No, back away from the wall with that crayon.  No, don’t take the top off that pottery bowl, there’s nothing in there for you.  PLEASE don’t give the dog any more pot roast. She’ll vomit.  Wipe your hands before you leave the table, they’re covered in sauce.  No, you can’t have another cookie.  No, you can’t watch the show a third time, you have to go to bed.  Stop screaming; you’ll frighten the neighbors.  Stop pushing all those buttons; better yet, hand over the TV remote, RIGHT NOW.  I’m not kidding!  Did you spill that, again?  I just wiped it up!

I once heard a wise and impressive grandmother, a Harvard-educated college professor, state boldly that her only job is to keep her grandson safe.  If safety is assured, whatever else he wants, in her house, he gets.  Such a beguiling idea, that, with its alluring quantities of flexibility and openness.  And good luck to her, and the child.  It’s not how this G-ma is wired.  One longs to provide that Hallmark card experience, the gentle touch, the calm and kind word, the fresh cookie, the twinkle in the eye.  But how to balance that with the powerful instinct to protect property and animals, even one’s own sanity, at least, a little bit?

To explore my darkest lingering fears, I ring up their mother a day or so later.  Did they have a good time, I inquire, trying not to sound desperate.  “Of course, they did,” she assures me, “they loved it.”  Really?   I repost.  I feel like I hardly said a kind word…had to get after them time and again.

“Mom, I promise,” comes the matter-of-fact answer.  “I doubt they thought too much about any of that.  They’re used to it, you know.”  Aha.  Well, there’s that, of course.

“Do you know how lucky you are?”  This is a question I hear often from friends and family, always in reference to the magical concept of two beautiful, intelligent, healthy grandchildren, living just 20 minutes away.  How they wish their kids lived closer, they say.  Or:  I can’t wait until I have grandchildren.  Or:  I bet you love every minute you spend with them, don’t you?  You lucky dog.

In the core of my heart, I know this:  Of course, I am lucky.  These children, with their bizarre questions and oddly precocious wit and pale blue eyes and boisterous attitudes and non-stop, simultaneous talking are gifts from almighty, gifts of a lifetime, ones I never earned.  Of course, I know that.  I want more than anything to be a source of love and happy times, new experiences for them.  Good memories.  It’s not always clear how to do that, not as obvious as the fairy tales would have us think.  They were not delivered with a handbook.

And treasure every moment with them?  EVERY moment?  I’ll come up with a snappy answer for that one.  If I ever get up off this couch again.

It seemed like a such a good idea at the time.

So why was I standing in the aisle at Target, a genuinely clenched knot in my stomach, on the verge of panic? This was a terrible, terrible mistake.  I must be an idiot.   How can I get out of here without nuclear disaster?h-toy-aisle-target-12-16

The signal for potentially impending doom came from my 5-year-old grandson, Buddy, who had dropped to his knees in front of a wide shelf of beguiling trinkets at the entrance to the toy aisles, two weeks before Christmas.  Presented as potential stocking stuffers, I’m sure, this array included temptations like shark hand-puppets, small footballs with lights inside, miniature Slinkys, and the like.  Buddy perused the selection with excruciating longing.  Head drooping forward slightly like Charlie Brown in despair, he grasped the shark puppet and said sadly, “I think he would really like one of these.”  Then, in painful but brave acknowledgement of the objectives and terms of our outing, he says without rancor, “I know we are not getting things for me, but I would like a slinky, some day.”

This last bit underscored his mother’s success at the promised coaching in advance of this expedition.  It was the annual opportunity to shop for a needy child identified by our office’s Angel Tree.  My hope, which now stared back at me like the Oscar Winner of Dumb Grandmother Ideas, was to make the most of it by bringing Buddy along.  First, he could serve as peer consultant, helping select things that a boy his age would truly like; I had selected a tree tag showing the name and clothing sizes of another five-year-old.  Second, I hoped to share with Buddy, even at his tender age, the genuine joy of giving back during the holiday season.

Watching this acute desire and Charlie Brown head droop in the face of this massive pile of commercial temptation, I was furious with myself.  This was too much to ask, he’s too young.  He’s not going to understand, it’s not fair to ask him, he might have a tantrum, and who could blame him?  He says he gets it, but his expression says otherwise.

What to do?  Bolt now, before it gets worse?  Fib a reason to get out of there, like a stomachache on my part, which at this point is not a fib?  Before I seize one of these cowardly solutions, Buddy rises to his feet and proceeds deeper into Childhood Nirvana, forward in our shared mission.  Deeply unsure of what to do now, as I so often seem to be with these children, I watch, and wait.

And, it immediately does get worse.  I follow him to a row of robots, caged in their boxes, eyes bright and forward, just waiting for a small boy to set them free to do whatever small robots do.  He stares for a few long seconds, then sorrowfully snares one box, turns, and reaches up to hand it over, admitting, “I KNOW he would really like one of these.”  He is not tearful, but I sense he is close.

I’m not sure I can take more of this, but reality intervenes.  That’s really cool, I say of the $89 item, but that’s out of our price range, Sweetheart.  Remember, we already got him a coat and some clothes.  Let’s find some other good things, instead.

Perhaps this practicality is liberating—at least he will not have to watch me put it in the car and ponder another child receiving this mesmerizing item—or maybe the heart of a five-year-old runs so much deeper than grown-ups can possibly imagine.  Either way, Buddy rallies now.  He finishes his selections with careful study and efficiency, but no discernible angst.  A large set of Hot Wheels with tracks and a smaller set of Legos (with some super-hero theme) are shoved into the cart, and we start toward checkout.  Hugely relieved, ashamed for doubting him, and generally being a doting G-ma, I tell him how proud I am.  He has done a great job, and has been a huge help.  In appreciation for those things, I suggest he select one item for himself and one for his sister from the stocking-stuffer section, and throw the miniature slinky in for good measure.  This accomplished with great excitement, we are off to the car.

Chatting as we head homeward, I decide to affirm the reality of the day with one more fact.  He has been learning numbers in kindergarten, has begun to ask questions about money and cost, so I share sums of today’s outlay:  $139.  “Whooooaaaaah,” he answers in amazement.  “Evie, do you have a lot of money?”  I don’t, I answer quickly, but I am very fortunate to have steady work, and a nice place to live like your mom and dad have worked hard to have for you and Sis, and enough to eat.  And if we are lucky enough to have all those things, we must remember to share with others who don’t have everything we have, especially this time of year.

A quick glance in the rear-view mirror reveals he is nodding understanding.  And then comes the best proof of how profoundly easy it can be to under-estimate children.  And how compassion is native to the human spirit, beginning so early inside little hearts and bodies.

“When I grow up, I hope I have a lot of money,” he begins, “and then I could buy them…”   He pauses, and I wait for it:  The robot?  More Hot Wheels?  Pokémon?  A motorized bike?  And I nearly veer the car off the road when he concludes, “I would buy them a home.”

And a little child shall lead them. *  Peace on Earth to all.

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*Isaiah 11:6:  The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them.

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A landmark birthday roared past recently, one of those that bestows a zero digit on your age and thus cannot be ignored.  Even for those of us who aren’t given to ruminating about the terrors of aging, it’s hard not to contemplate the implications of the ones that signal a new decade.

Not long before the Big Birthday, my three-year-old granddaughter crawled up in my lap, squirmed into the desired position and happened to shift the wrong way against my stiff right knee.  “Ow,” I winced, adjusting Sis slightly. “Be careful, sweetheart.  Evie is old.”  This last bit popped out unexpectedly; perhaps the zero-digit had been plaguing the subconscious more than I knew.   Sis absorbed my reaction and proceeded to probe further.

“Old?”  she repeated, leaning back in my lap, to get me into full cinematic view while knitting the little brow in puzzlement.  “Why?”

Ah.  Well, now.  Why, indeed.

Oh, you know, I have a birthday soon, I babbled, weakly.  And every year on your birthday, you get another year older.

That sufficed, as she nodded and moved on to other queries. But the question lingered in my heart.  Why am I old?

Well, I mean to say, how much time have you got?

I’m old because I recently argued with my sister about the color of a certain pair of gloves in a photograph.  Sometimes I argue with her for the mere sport of it, of course, but in this case, I clung to my position like a terrier to an aromatic shoe because of a rare and distinct advantage I hold over her when it comes to assessing color.  I have had cataract surgery and she (though older) has not—voila! If you have had the same procedure, you understand the implications with, forgive me, perfect clarity.  If you haven’t, well, you might not be old.

Continuing on the visual theme, I suspected I was old when I realized the military-style precision I applied to mapping out strategic geographic locations for glasses.  The aforementioned surgery left me requiring only reading glasses, and if you are old enough to need readers, you know they are never where you need them to be, like teenagers assigned to the dinner dishes.  If one wants to avoid wandering aimlessly in circles, seeking the pair you just knew was here somewhere, the only solution is to stash a pair at all strategic operating locations—home, office, car, purse, and so forth.  I bet you’ve spotted the flaw in this strategy, but I will nevertheless confess it openly, as a cautionary tale for fellow sufferers.  Once finished with the close-up task at hand, one must remove the readers and leave them where the map has pinpointed their post.  Otherwise, you wind up with four pairs in one room, and none in the critical locations, such as the kitchen, and the wandering begins all over again.

Traveling south of the head for additional evidence, I became certain I was old a couple of months back while folding forward in yoga class.  There was a sudden, strange feeling of an unusual obstruction in my right armpit, and further, discreet investigation revealed that my foundation garment (aka BRA) had given up the ghost on one side–perhaps also having reached a certain age.  This brazen abdication of responsibility allowed one of the girls, if you take my meaning, to attempt escape, traveling south and east.  This distraction did nothing for my yogic calm and meditative concentration.family-portraits

And so, the litany continues, right?  Swapping stories about such things with friends is a part of daily life at our age.

A couple of days after Sis’ question, I leaned over to straighten a photo frame on the wall of my bedroom, where hangs a collection of family portraits illustrating four generations.  Still smoldering on the upcoming Big Birthday, I peered more closely at the faces of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-grandparents, and thought about what those people had in common.  Most all were people of faith, some to an extreme that annoyed the others, but most went to their graves believing they would meet again.  And most didn’t go there early—sturdy, largely healthy, handing down good genes without disorders any more unusual than too great a fondness for Kentucky bourbon.  Hard-working folks, all of them, some of them high achievers, some more middle of the road, but all blessed with the will and ability and the freedom to pursue their own paths and support their families.    They passed down other traits, as well, like heavy eyebrows, unruly thick hair, lousy hearing, the love of a great joke, and a strong preference for fast cars.  Probably, in sum, it’s a story like those of countless families who, with all the warts and inevitable oddities, have been as fortunate as mine.

And there, I realized, is the answer to Sis’ question.

I’m old because I’m lucky.

 

 

 

“What’s that red button do?” you ask me, tugging on my arm and pointing carefully.

We’re standing in front of a vintage race car, a powerful, striped beast posing silently for viewing by the quiet masses wandering through the museum**.  Looking at it, my mind flies to images of dusty, romantic roads of post-war Europe, where the beast roared to glory in yesteryear.  At the same time, your mind lasers in on something right in front of you.

Inside a slanted air vent on the beautifully curved body panel closest to the door, there’s a small red button.  It’s directly visible at about your eye level.  I have to bend down to see where you are looking.

Is there another single soul among the thousands who have traipsed through this exhibit who looked closely enough to notice that little button?

Now you’ve got me curious, so I want an answer, too.  There’s no one around that particular day at the exhibit who can tell us, so I pledge to try other avenues.  A little online research a few days later, a couple of email exchanges among friends kind enough to help satisfy the curiosity of a child, and voila!  The red button is a “kill switch.”  It provides an alternative way to shut off the engine in a dangerous situation, like a crash.  Unsure of the best way to convey this slightly frightening concept to a five-year-old with such a detail-oriented brain, I ultimately relay it through your mother, leaving that discretion in her capable hands.

But oh, these questions of yours.  Maybe I want to get you answers just to keep you talking.  In this world of colossal communication overkill, when information is everywhere but genuine conversation so scarce, you are a good talker.  In this precious window before you are old enough to turn to the keyboard and screen for all you seek, maybe topics like this will keep you in serious conversation with me.

Even more, I long for you to believe that your questions count.  Asking good questions is a life-changing thing, and every soul needs other ones to take them seriously.  I’ll be one of those for you.  That’s a gift I can freely give, far more important than anything that could be wrapped in bright paper for your birthday or Christmas.

Another day not long after our museum trek, you prop your elbow on the edge of the desk in my home office and lean your chin into your palm.  The object of your close examination is a round glass paperweight that is performing its office pinning down a messy pile of mail.  The heavy, grapefruit-sized orb is a souvenir your mother brought me from a beach trip back in her pre-teen years.  It contains a little ocean scene, with dolphins leaping over waves and seagulls soaring above them, all frozen inside the clear glass.

I am touched that you don’t ask to pick it up, but ready to say it’s OK if you do.  You are busy with deeper thoughts.  Soon, they come.paperweight

“What holds those fish up in there, Evie?  There’s no string or anything holding them up while they are jumping.”

I open my mouth.  Then shut it again.  It’s powerfully tempting to make up something that might make me sound really smart, but it’s not in me, not with this kid.  Better a half-answer, or more research.  Along with a deep breath, I take a lame stab:

The clear glass around them is holding them up, Buddy.  I think they put the fish in there when they first pour the glass and it is still hot and forming in the round shape.

Naturally, this simply ignites more.

“They pour the glass?  When it’s hot?”  Before I can fathom where to go next, your sister interrupts to tell you to come have a snack.  And we shift ho for the kitchen, because even curiosity is trumped by the prospect of a popsicle.

But the next time you visit, you drift in to my office again.  To stare at those leaping dolphins.  And think about it some more.  I can see I need to find a glass artist somewhere to get more details.  So we can keep talking about it.

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**The race car that prompted Buddy’s question was on display at Bellissima!, a magnificent collection of vintage Italian cars at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts.  If you are in Nashville and haven’t seen Bellissima! yet, this week is your last chance, as it closes soon.  The photos shown are also from the exhibit.  Thanks to PR Director Ellen Pryor and Curator Ken Gross for answering Buddy’s question.

Back Camera

It’s a funny thing about sisters and brothers.

You might long for them if you don’t have any.  But if you do, nothing in your life will ever drive you nuts in quite the same fashion.  That is, if you are like most of humanity.

Ours was a family of four kids, so common in those boomer days, three girls followed by a boy. My memories of my siblings as young children are distinctly unremarkable.  They might have been the bathroom wallpaper or the kitchen chairs–just there, the landscape of daily life, to be worked with, or around, as daily functioning might require.  No more, no less.

And then there was later, when inevitable dissonance and occasional outright war emerged with the arrival of adolescence.  Cruelty comes so easily then, and we devised our fair share and pointed it at each other.  When my older sister embarrassed me in front of, heaven help us, a BOY, I wrote a filthy epithet on her bedroom mirror in Vaseline (an interesting tool, yes?), using words I had never uttered out loud and might not have been able to define.  This awkward retribution earned me one of the most significant punishments of my young life.

But we three girls earned an even better one when we decided to show our young brother that he could not expect privacy in our shared bathroom.  When he sensibly resisted by locking us out, we picked the lock with a coat hanger and burst in before he could finish his business.  Our strict father exhibited zero tolerance for such bullying, thank goodness.  And really, remembering how we often we tried similar nonsense, it is a miracle that my brother is not a serial criminal, and still speaks to us.

Such stories, added to the routine family dynamics of adulthood, can crowd the heart at times.  So, when my daughter used to joke that she wished for a sister, I joked in return that I would happily give one of mine away.

That was before we lost one.

Back Camera

Perhaps more than any of the rest of us, my younger sister Jane signaled very early the adult she would become.  Named for both my parents, she was my mother’s spiritual and emotional twin, a magnetic personality endowed with faith and energy and a focus on others that drew people to her like hummingbirds to red petunia blossoms.

Her innate sense of right and wrong was maddening when we were younger.  Constitutionally incapable of tolerating unkindness or rule-breaking, she became an incorrigible tattle-tale.  For this saintly behavior we christened her Susie Good, and we dispensed revenge any time we could manage it without being caught.  We mocked her teeth, adding the nickname Snaggletooth (from the villain in the cartoon Quick Draw McGraw) and denied her entry into many of our games for no explainable reason.  Once on vacation we told her the only place available for her to sleep was in the closet, then watched with waning teenage superiority as she made the best of it and refused to cede victory by complaining.

A disposition to care for others that was embedded in her bones drew her to nursing school, and for a quarter century she nursed surgery patients, wounded diabetics, birthing mothers, and a long list of others.  She left active practice a few times, unable to disregard frustrations at the system, but she always went back to where she could get her hands on people in need.  When I observed that she would have made a great doctor, with more money for less hours worked, she rolled her eyes and shrugged, noting sarcastically that nurses are often closer to patients than doctors, and wasn’t that, after all, the point?

I can’t remember when I went from mocking what I perceived as a campaign for sainthood to admiring the person she became.  It might have been when I noticed that she showed up at every major turning point in my adult life.  She spent the night before my wedding, dispensing meds for the wedding-day diarrhea, my system’s physical signal of the unspoken fears that I was making a terrible mistake.  She took turns with my husband coaching me through labor, joking with the doctor about my cranky demands and patiently explaining every step.

Years went on, but her pattern remained.  With my older sister and brother, she came to unpack on moving day and stood by as I sobbed through my daughter’s graduation.  She drove an hour to my house so I didn’t have to be alone to tell my daughter the cat died.  Then my daughter married, and her aunt helped coached her through the birth of her first child.

My opportunity to try to balance the ledger of debts arrived way too soon, in the way you think happens to other people.  Suddenly, other people were us.  Diagnosed in her late forties with a rare and lethal form of breast cancer, she set out to wage war, and she succeeded so well for so long that at times we allowed ourselves to assume she would be among the few who beat the odds.  Whenever possible, I showed up for appointments and treatments and tests and sat in as bench support.

Even with all her professional insight, the system occasionally failed her, with an insurance snafu or a small clinical step overlooked.  At those moments, I bared proverbial claws and wanted nothing more than to use them to rip flesh somewhere on somebody, anybody, creating an uglier, bloodier version of Shirley MacLaine’s rant around the nurses’ station in Terms of Endearment.  My ferocious anger at any missteps astonished even me, but it didn’t take psychoanalysis or genetics to understand its roots. Watching her struggle was the tiniest millimeter away from experiencing it, since a sister is the nearest replica ever created to a woman’s own being.

When she said she just wasn’t up to attending the birth of my daughter’s second child, instinct told me time was short.  Diagnostic affirmation soon followed.  Along with her own two daughters  (both steadfast, brave and pragmatic like their mother), all three of us siblings took turns at her bedside in those final days.  In my heart, deepest dread joined with surprising gratitude for the privilege of being nearby, of witnessing the final steps in a journey she had defined so remarkably, all the way to the end.  As I bent to say my farewell on the last day I saw her, I said, “I’ll see you again.”  And I still believe it.

A person who lives life in service to others leaves behind a wide legacy of gratitude and, for one taken so young, profound heartbreak.  My own sense of loss at first seemed strangely functional, oddly physical.  It was like a power tool had ripped away one of my toes or fingers, or like I sat on a stool with a leg missing and was dumped sharply onto my butt on a concrete floor.  When grief is described like a part of you is missing, I had never before known how literally that’s true.

Thinking of her so constantly three years after she left us, I’m watching young siblings in our newest generation.  Their bonds and conflicts, their tender affection and dissonance, all ebb and flow with time and context.   After Buddy and I viewed a spectacular exhibit of antique Italian cars one day recently, the first thing he selected in the museum gift shop, without pausing to ask, was a present for his sister.  A couple of days later, I stepped in between them just in time as he screeched in frustration and lunged for her.  Her mistake?  She had boldly subverted his demands that she stay on her side of the line (literally) and color on her own dadgum side of the page.  And so it goes.

Will love triumph over the oceans of things that shadow sibling relationships over time?  Will they stay close enough to cheer each other’s successes, maybe even help the other one get there? If one is touched by tragedy, will the other stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to fight whatever needs fighting?  Of all my prayers for their future, none is more fervent than the one hoping nothing alters that singular sibling bond.

That, and the chance to be around long enough to see what happens.

In photos passed around at the office or posted proudly on Facebook, in conversations remote or at the coffee machine, whether about emerging kindergartners or newly liberated college freshers, the off-to-school transition has a universal thread.  For evidence, examine those photos more closely.

The kids are jubilant. They’re ready to rock and roll.  Just look at those grinning small people, feet practically dancing out of their clean new shoes, the backpack’s weight sported proudly like a badge of achievement.  My very favorite first-day shot shows a new kindergartner, the nephew of my very dear friend, rushing toward his waiting teacher with a flower he picked, just for her.  Even better, it’s a giant, mature sunflower that he yanked from the ground at the roots, and he’s waving the entire plant, nearly twice his own height.  The expression on the teacher’s face proves that even those who have seen it all–teachers of small children, police officers, dance teachers, tech support, and auto mechanics among them–can still be surprised on the Big First Day.

But check those shots again, and behold the parents.  They muster a smile, but look closer, at their eyes.  However diligently they’ve nurtured, how carefully they’ve shopped from lists, how much encouragement they’ve bestowed and precautions they’ve dispensed, they aren’t fooling anyone.  Emotionally, they aren’t ready.  Not really.

And how could they be? In my parental career, three decades and change, there hasn’t been a single landmark event more terrifying than my daughter’s first day of school.  Not even her wedding, nor the birth of her children. For the naturally anxious, like yours truly, there are so, so many questions.  Which side of the street will the bus stop on?  And what evils might lurk on that massive bus?  Will her lunch spoil before she eats it—or did I even remember to send lunch?  Will there be mean kids? Will the teacher be patient with her constant questions? Does she have her shoes on the right feet?  Is she even wearing shoes?  Am I?

For her, it seemed so natural.  The door of the big yellow bus creaks open, and she bounds up the steps without a backward glance or word. The driver waves as she closes the door on my baby’s toddler years, the sweet, oh-so-short times when our world together is everything. The bus rumbles away toward the rest of her life, leaving me bereft, alone on the sidewalk.  At the office, I watch the clock all day, distracted.  My sister calls and leaves me a message that begins, “Did you put your baby on the big yellow bus today?” I burst into tears.

All this comes flooding back as Buddy’s first day of kindergarten approaches.  I’m dying for scoop, but struggling not to pry. In this and many other things required of mothers, my daughter far surpasses me in thoughtful preparation, so there is no help to offer in advance.  I listen for clues and wait for the big day.

Finally, it arrives, and with it the requisite photos of suddenly-taller Buddy, backpack strapped firmly in place, new shoes laced onto feet big enough for some other, older kid.  Actually, on closer inspection, the shoes appear intentionally un-laced.  (I guess that’s a thing.)  And look at that face; he’s so ready he didn’t really want to stop for this picture.

When I catch him for the big news bulletin, it is oddly reassuring to learn that some enduring elements of this passage retain their importance as the generations roll on.  Among them:  Why do grownups think this is such a big deal?

So, how did it go?  I begin.  “Ummm….it was good,” he nods, nonchalant, offering nothing further. I press on: What did you do on the first day?  “Well, we went to the cafeteria.”  Another pause.  Did you eat there?  Buddy’s expression indicates this merits a DUH, but he kindly does not deliver one.  “We had apples and milk, and Maggie from my other school was there, so I sat in the chair next to her.”  Did you read any stories?  “We talked about the kissing hand.”  This, I learn, is a charming tale about a raccoon whose mom reassures with a kiss on the hand that he takes her love wherever he goes.  Buddy scampers away, returning with a school folder.  It contains a paper hand for family members to kiss and return to school.  I give it a peck, glad to join in this little symbolic assignment.

With that, he has said all he has to say on the topic.  But I have more questions!  Did he meet mean kids who made fun of people (my personal torment from grade school, re-surfacing, natch)?  Did he look around and wish he was taller/shorter/wearing different shoes/not so blonde/had a better sandwich/home with his little sister?  But I follow his lead and zip my lips for now. Such things loom so monumentally in our hearts, but if they crossed his five-year-old mind, he didn’t let on.

A few days later, the fall season opened for the pre-school program where Sis goes two days a week.  Sis desires nothing more in this life than to keep pace with her brother, so her parents marked her first day, as well, with a photo opp and special, Sis-style first-day outfit.  This met with resistance (see photo).  The source of this pout remains known only to Sis, but her generally exuberant nature apparently re-emerged later.  When her mother sought a first-day report from the director, she got this: “That girl lives every moment.”

Knowing Sis, the imagination boggles at the implications.  But whatever happened, I hope she keeps it up.

 

 Copyright Eve Hutcherson, 2016.

It’s a routine Sunday morning at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, the best place for breakfast in our part of town—that is, it’s best if you prefer to place your order while sitting at a table, to a seasoned grown-up who will bring your food as you ask for it, remembers you from last time, may even recall how you like your eggs and will check later to see if they are cooked according to your specifications.  Coffee is poured with blessed frequency into plain white ceramic mugs, and it’s unlabeled, drip-brewed coffee delivered at table-side from a glass pitcher with a plastic handle and pour spout by a cheerful, apron-wearing soul performing mission from one table to the next, topping off the parade of morning doses for the grateful, bleary-eyed patrons.

It’s the 8 to 9 a.m. crowd in this joint, the usual gathering of early eaters, a cast of characters predictably and comfortably composed of the sleep-deprived parents of small, early-rising children, a smattering of sedate senior couples, a few weary musicians on stools at the counter renewing themselves after late gigs, the occasional celebrity politely ignored and left alone over his eggs.  It is the kind of place where the waitress lays down the check but encourages you to “take your time, sweetie” over your coffee and your book, and where a waiter may be observed strolling patiently behind a departing customer using a walker, chatting her up as he totes her to-go bag and purse all the way out to her car.  It’s that kind of place.

Pushing away my clean plate and reaching to resume my book, I happen to notice a family taking seats at the table directly across.  Physical likeness telegraphs unmistakably that this is a three-generation female party, headed by an attractive blonde I guestimate at about my own age, along with her grown daughter, and two small girls, ages about three and 18 months.  A brief glance at the children and I suddenly wish that Buddy and Sis were here, because they love this place.  A few more swallows of coffee, several more pages, and another sideways glance, however, and I amuse myself pondering the marked differences between their little family party and an imaginary threesome of Buddy, Sis and me in my booth this morning.

Let’s start with Grandmother.  Watching this woman tuck a strand of her expensively cut blonde hair behind a heavy gold earring as she leans in attentively toward her granddaughter, it strikes me she could have emerged from a couple of the sorority houses I rebelled against on the campus of my distant youth and strolled through a time capsule and straight into the restaurant.  Her sheer white summer blouse is so crisply pressed that the fabric tag can be seen (and probably read, were I closer) flattened into perfect repose against the cotton below her collar.  The blouse is tucked neatly into an equally pressed print cotton skirt, which matches her purse and, of course, her heeled leather sandals.

Grandmother’s summery sartorial splendor is a rather startling contrast to the rest of the 8-9 a.m. cast at the surrounding tables, most of whom are dressed like they just rolled out of bed and are contemplating returning there as soon as they can manage it.  She contrasts with no one more than me, also a grandmother of similar age, happy in my drooping cutoffs, unruly hair yanked into an uneven ponytail, no makeup, comfortable in my favorite black weekend t-shirt with its three holes in the hem and embroidery of hound hair.

Am I insecure at the sight of women like that?  Have I just become a lazy slob who doesn’t really give a rip at this hour, in this place?  Or did I ever work at it that hard?  To quote an outrageous character in one of my favorite books:  Who knows, and babe, who cares?

This introspection doesn’t linger, because the comparison ripples around to the other occupants of their table.  The tiny girls, in particular, seem destined to carry forward Grandmother’s quiet elegance into the new generation.  Not a peep can be heard across the aisle from either the neatly combed older one, who is carefully crayoning her placemat, or her younger sister, sporting Pebbles-style spiky upright pigtails and silently shoving bits of scrambled eggs around with her chubby, miniature fingers.

I’m sure this is a lovely family of kind and well-meaning women, devoted to each other and ready to go forth on a Sunday and do their best.  May the saints attend their efforts to speak quietly, and keep hair combed and socks folded over without creases or lumps, and may matching handbags always stand at the ready in their closets, lined up next to their summer sandal collections.  I wish them all that and more, I really do.

But give me my kids who can’t stay quiet in a restaurant, even in the face of substantial bribes.   Give me their tangled and hopelessly intertwined conversation, at an impossible pace, maybe in harmony or possibly in conflict, usually too loud and laced with questions I can’t answer before the next one spills forth.  Give me Sis’ head of riotous blonde curls, often in chaos not because adults are inattentive to her hair, but because you can’t harness gale-force winds blowing across a wide open prairie.  And her obviously inherited (from me) preference to shed her shoes, sometimes even in public.  Give me Buddy’s probing questions and side-buckling giggles at the sight of the giant stuffed pickle on the wall of this very place.  Give me his precocious ability to chat up the waiter, resulting in a free extra helping as a salute to his good manners.  Give me crumbs and spills that stick to shirts and tabletops and illustrate a good meal with children, with boisterous conversation (not too obnoxious to the surrounding diners, we hope) and some unpredictable laughs.  Give me all that and my holey t-shirt, and I will call that a good time.

I watch the three generations trail away from their neat, barely soiled table.  Vive la difference, I reckon.  Now, back to my book.  And one last refill in that mug.

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Note:  Some friends have asked me where this story took place.  This very favorite spot is a deli-style restaurant called Noshville, a locally-owned Nashville treasure where the wait staff is every bit as fabulous as I’ve described, so I’m happy to name them here.  Try the french toast; they make it on challah bread, and it is out of this world.