It’s time to get back into harness after a perfectly delightful summer break, which included plenty of fun in the sun, some intriguing backroads exploration, and a restorative helping of lengthy naps.  There was lots of quality time with family, with many moments to recall fondly in days to come.

Other times, I can only hope memory will mercifully obscure, and let’s face it:  that’s always the case in the long-running drama series that is anyone’s authentic family life. A particular episode in the latter category provided a few key reminders for future reference:

  1. Plans with small children for special outings are splendid starting points, so leap in and plan away with the most golden intentions. But when the inevitable wrench is thrown, the prevailing law of all nature applies:  Adapt Quickly, or Die.
  2. If a youngster who is the adored center of this special outing seems a little off his feed, his usual enthusiasm noticeably absent, you might pause for a root-cause analysis, as the process improvement gurus like to phrase it.
  3. If optimism outwits pragmatism in the eternal sunshine of a grandmother’s heart, and you elect to proceed anyway, you better hope you have stashed paper towels and plastic bags in the car. (Come to think of it, no matter where and for what reason you are transporting small children, these are essential survival tools.)
  4. No matter how superior the hand-eye coordination, not even Mario Andretti or his ilk could drive a car with a stick shift in the middle of traffic and hold open a barf bag for a backseat occupant at the same time. Let the child aim for the bag while you put safety first, and to heck with the car interior. There’s always the professional car wash.  (There you will be forced to stomach, forgive the pun, an exorbitant up-charge for carpet cleaning, and gratefully accept the air freshener.)
  5. The resiliency of small children, however awe-inspiring in the universal sense, may rankle in its swiftness. By the time you have hosed off the floor mats, given the carpets and seats your utmost with a fat roll of paper towels, and rinsed and tossed the poor child’s outfit into the laundry, he is beginning to feel better, and may soon inquire about re-starting to the original destination. Only you can decide whether to tempt the Digestive Gods one more time, but now might be the time to shove pragmatism ahead of optimism with a firm push.  In our case, affirmation of that wisdom was provided by Nature, soon enough.
  6. A mandated recuperative period may involve special benefits that are not part of the average day for the Adored Sufferer. What’s not to like about extra access to the afternoon cartoons on TV, the vast expanse of the couch all to himself, perpetual refills for his water cup, and tender, frequent solicitations as to his well-being?
  7. And so there should be no surprise at his reluctance when the hour requires you to say, “Time to go home, Buddy.” But you may instantaneously block out the sordid details of the whole yucky business when he pleads, “Oh, no!  Can’t I stay just a little bit longer?”

 

 

 

The Scene:  Spring dance recital.

The Location:  A clean, bright church in the heart of downtown.

The Players:  Scores of dance students in assorted matching ensembles, ranging from restless, over-stimulated three-year-olds in tremulous tutus to high-school students demurely draped and displaying the detached nonchalance of stage veterans.

The Audience:  Efficient young parents, speeding each dancer to the correct pre-show location and trailed by doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends.

Opening act:  If you have ever attended a dance performance to witness the efforts of your own child or another apple of your eye, you will know the fundamental laws of such occasions that universally apply.  The first is that you will be appalled by the length of the program.  How many children in the average metro area can possibly be installed in tap, ballet, and modern dance offered weekly?  Apparently, thousands.

The second law is that you may well expend your best self to claim a good seat early, but your child’s number is not first.  Or second. It is buried deep into the program, testing will and endurance, especially for the Tiny Dancers and those who love them most.  And finally, consideration for the feelings of others must prevail.  Take care about laughing audibly at someone else’s child, because yours might do something even funnier.

Settling into the pew and enjoying the pre-show anticipation in the air, I joined Sis’ paternal grandparents, with warm appreciation for their effort to drive three hours to attend. A quick scan of the program prompted a deep, cleansing breath.  The entertainment featured a series of 22 performances, and Sis and her ensemble were slotted at number 17.  A cheerful, commanding female claimed the microphone to announce the requisites and signal for lights down and music up. We were off.

Well, one wants to do the right thing, of course, and clap appreciatively for all performances. Nevertheless, about the time that some ten Tinies in leotards of multi-colored sequins were wreaking their particular brand of havoc on stage, the mind began to wander.   Memory hovered on the testimony of the immortal Bertie Wooster, hero and foil of the Jeeves stories of  British humorist P. G. Wodehouse.  Recalling a series of amateur performances at a village concert, Bertie described the opening violin solo like this:

“It was loud in spots, and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality I have noticed in all violin solos, which is seeming to last much longer than it actually did.”

Jarred out of the Wodehouse analogy by the next enthusiastic round of applause from the commendably patient audience, I re-focused and realized something interesting. By the time we clocked into about Dance Number 8 or 9, patterns emerged.  Without commentary on child psychology or related questions, I can vouch that each Tiny Troupe featured the following roles, whether undertaken voluntarily or not.

The Free Bird:  Detaches self from group, ignores teacher and all other performers, runs wildly around the stage perimeter in some routine of the dancer’s own devising.  Some Free Birds had to be removed from the stage by force majeure at the conclusion of the number.

The Statue:  Stands frozen in terror, staring fixedly into audience.  Cannot move feet, may clutch hands, possibly in subconscious plea for removal.  Bravely resists crying but clearly would like to.

The Two-Timer:  Cannot decide whether to follow teacher or fellow performers so alternates, turning from front-facing to peer-view position and back again, remaining a few steps behind throughout.  Our Sis took this role and performed it with enthusiasm (see photo above, far right).

The Good Soldier:  Stays in designated position, eyes locked on teacher, following carefully with intense concentration.  Demonstrates total commitment, but may or may not look happy about it.

The Star that’s Born:  This performer follows the routine to perfection, even adding a flourish or two of his or her own, here and there.  Lights up with genuine delight at the applause of the audience, floats off stage on a cloud.

Do these roles illuminate windows into the future for these Tinies, and into the paths they pursue?  I would pay excellent money to reconvene them in about 20 years and find out., but I will have to settle for watching our Sis.  She seemed more interested in her sparkling outfit and post-performance flowers than the actual dance, and it occurred to me I would have felt the same in her tiny ballet shoes.  Nevertheless, all survived and success was ultimately declared.

Meanwhile, the real heroes of the evening seemed to be the teachers, who led their Tiny Troupes through their routines with unwavering grace, radiating encouragement.  Proving that indeed The Show Must Go On, they were neither distracted by The Free Birds nor de-railed by the Two-Timers.   Mentally I file this latest addition to my own private list of heroes, which includes firefighters, cops, plumbers, tech support specialists, and Seal Team Six.  They have heard and seen it all, and life holds no further surprises for them.  Had I encountered one of these beacons of hope when departing at the evening’s conclusion, I would have been tempted to salute.

I like to think I became a grandparent at a fairly young age (don’t we all?).  Let’s don’t dwell on whether that is a delusion.  Just believe me when I say that life can sometimes look very similar to the way it rolled before the age of the spirit begins to diverge widely from the age of the body, and before the family grew by an additional generation.  Some challenges with my grandchildren are the same ones I had with my own young daughter, raising her as a single mom beginning almost three decades ago.

Chief among those is the struggle to give the children more of my time.  Like so many grandparents today, I remain a working professional with a more-than-full-time job and a family I adore that is spread over many miles.  Add to those factors a desire to give time back to the community and reasonable attempts at a social life and downtime, and the sum total spins the days forward at a turbo-charged pace.  And the only thing moving faster than the merciless calendar is the rate at which the children mature and change, and the heart longs not to miss it.

So it was that I was deep into some rudimentary problem at the office a few days ago when I noticed my cell phone vibrating on silent with a call from my daughter.  This was not routine; she has much-appreciated respect for the moderate insanity of my usual workday and almost never calls me before 6 p.m.  It was a few hours before quitting time, but I couldn’t stifle a prick of anxiety, so I picked up her voice message at my first opportunity.

“Mom,“ says my daughter’s voice, chirping out on the speaker, “sorry to bother you at work, but Sis wanted me to call you.  She just said she wanted to talk to you, so I thought I’d try and see if you could pick up.  We’ll catch you later.  Bye!”

Sis wanted to call me?  I’m charmed to distraction, wondering what was on her three-year-old mind.  I must call back ASAP to ascertain. But various tasks loom large before I can finish the day, so rush, rush through those, rush home through annoying traffic, rush the dog out for her business and fill her food bowl. Where did the day evaporate to? The sun is low on the horizon. Breathe at least once—now, time to call Sis back.Calendar paper.watch.5.16

Well, hang it, it’s already her bedtime.  Time got away from me again, but I’ll try anyway.  And let’s tap the wonders of technology and use the videophone, and maybe I’ll get a glimpse of that little face.  My daughter, who knows me well, picks up even though they are cuddled in Sis’ bed, finishing a story with the lights down.  “You can talk to Evie for just a minute,” says my daughter softly to her little one, turning the camera to center it on the child, “then it’s bedtime.”

I can see Sis’ expression in the dim late light, and she is tired.  Her mother’s voice is tired, and I am beyond tired myself.  Hey, sweetheart, I say softly, I heard you wanted to call me, so I wanted to be sure to call you back.  What’s on your mind?

“Evie,” she begins, then falters, facing the camera’s eye, squirming and digging deeper into her covers.  Yes, precious? I encourage.  “Evie,” she repeats, with uncharacteristic brevity, snaring a lock of hair on a tiny finger and tugging it while she contemplates my face on the phone screen.  Yes, sweetheart, I inquire again, debating to myself whether this is an expert bedtime-avoidance stall or something our little chatterbox really needs to share.  (Sis is an Olympic-level competitor in the Bedtime Stall.) Either way, Time My Enemy is ticking away, and I want to be out of my work clothes, off my feet, and tucking into some form of late dinner.  My heart wants to complete this little circle, but my head wants to get on with it.  My toes are not tapping with impatience, but they are thinking about it. Why does it always, always have to feel like time is so short?

“Sis, we have to hang up so you can go to sleep,” prompts my daughter with admirable patience (while I hope my lack thereof is not showing). “Tell Evie what you need to tell her.”

The child heaves a tired sigh and turns toward the phone screen for one last effort.  “Evie,” she says slowly and carefully, “I love you.”

And for just a moment, time stops.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (as the immortal Austen might have put it), that giving stuff to kids is fun.

They make it so easy for you, the little buggers, when they radiate anticipation, joy, and wonder in such bewitching fashion, whether ripping into a birthday gift, staring through that store window, or beholding the bounty of Santa Claus.  Who can resist providing such golden moments, frozen in memory for years to come?

Well, I could, and I did.

When Buddy and Sis were tiny miniature people, not even walking yet, I watched the massive pileups of festive packages at Christmas and first birthdays and thought:  This is ridiculous.  These children have too much stuff, they will never play with all of it, never remember most of it, surely never realize who showered all this on their blessed little unknowing heads.  It was not the fault of their parents, or really anyone in particular—it was the collective outpouring of affection from many that looked like the offerings of a bunch of Anglophiles invited to a birthday party for young Prince George.  Those thoughts birthed other, shadowy contemplations about the materialism of our culture, the financial implications of giving children so much, the unending cycle of more, more, more.  I was raised by practical, realistic people, who loved the spirit of giving but moderated sensibly (and essentially, with four children) and started very early teaching the important truths about earning, and sacrificing, to get what we want.

I pondered this and started by holding myself a few steps removed from the gift extravaganzas, resisting the temptation to bring random gifts when I visited, carefully selecting relatively modest options on the obligatory occasions, refusing to think I could demonstrate commitment or build bonds with what I bought them.

And then some stuff happened.

The first was a memorable misfire.  When Buddy turned four last spring, I had fun selecting a bright green teeter-totter designed with the face of an alligator, or perhaps a crocodile, because I have always been confused about the difference.  The gator/croc seats two, and I thought:  Perfect!  It’s active, it’s healthy, it’s cute, they’ll love it.  Wrong. Early interest was noticeably minimal, then Sis fell off and created a stir, and it was clear we had a dud.  Confirmation was offered later, when I happened to mention the gator/croc rocker.  Buddy horrified his listening parents with precise, solemn honesty: “Next year on my birthday, will you get me something I want?”

But the real force that knocked me off my lofty perch was the simple passage of time.  The children became talkative toddlers, imaginations running wild, something bizarre and hilarious forever on their minds and coming out their mouths.  Anyone with ears and a heart, listening and seeing things through their eyes…well, what happens?  You know how this ends, don’t you? Stay tuned for delivery of the evidence.

Sis turned three a few weeks back, and I joined an expedition for birthday tea at the American Girl store.++  Contemplating this in advance, I feared disaster.  Tea and birthday cupcakes with the birthday doll (dressed to match the birthday girl), very cute and fun, can’t wait to see it.  But let her roam through the store, with piles of product on glorious display as far as a three-year-old can see?  What if she asks for one of everything?  Isn’t this trap invented by an evil marketing genius?

At first, Sis surprised me, as she so often does.  When the post-tea store tour commenced, she skipped from one display to the next, telling everyone, “It’s my birfday,” exclaiming over much and asking for little.  I watched for clues to select my own gift, but got nothing. Then I crossed the store to find the ladies room and missed the inevitable challenge.  Her mother reported it went as follows.

Sis put her birthday doll into a bright pink doll stroller with fat, maneuverable wheels and handles at just the right height, and promptly pushed her baby for a spin.  Come along, her mother said after a few turns, we need to go now.  No, came the heartbroken wail, my baby NEEDS it, and she clung stubbornly, refusing to turn loose.  Finally, her mother pried her hands off the handles and led the tearful birthday girl away before the scene reached genuine meltdown stage.  This all transpired, thank goodness, before I returned.  Because I might have caved right then, much worse (or so I told myself) than caving once the child was out of sight.

Naturally, the earlier, tougher, morally grounded me would never reward such behavior by buying the item, even though Sis recovered with more grace and self-possession than might have been expected under the circumstances.  I would have chosen something else entirely, to drive home a lesson that we never achieve good ends by behaving badly in public.

That was then, and this is now.  As with so many other things involving these children, I don’t know if it was right or wrong, or if grandparenting drives reason and logic to the far and high hills, or whether I’m over-thinking the entire dadgum thing.  But it ended this way:  Sis got the stroller (though not til the next day—give me that, please), Birthday Baby got a fine new ride, and I must face the mirror and admit I’m as susceptible to spoiling as any grandparent on this earth.  At least there is solace in knowing I have a lot of company.

 

 

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++Our experience at the American Girl store was indeed memorable.  The staff was charming to the children and exceptionally helpful, the products interesting in their detailed connection to periods of American history, the dolls diverse and representative of many origins in our American culture. I can recommend it to other parents and grandparents, but I receive no benefit from doing so here.

 

Seated recently at my table for Sunday dinner, my grandson uttered a phrase that is sure to make the heart of any grandparent sing with delight and hope for the future.

“May I please have some more mashed potatoes?” he asked, with perfect decorum.

It might be unfair to say I was shocked by this display of elegant behavior, but pleasantly surprised would be no exaggeration. It’s not that I didn’t expect his parents, both raised by fairly strict disciplinarians, to teach their children manners. I just didn’t think the lessons would take hold at this early age. Don’t we try to forget about such passages and how they went with our own children?

It seems that the home-based teachings (or, sadly, the lack thereof for many) are being supplemented these days by in-depth, practical instruction on manners as part of the pre-kindergarten curriculum in the local schools. Clearly, this additional coaching has brought the topic into bright relief for our Buddy, who, already as a new five-year-old, is so engaged in the pronouncements of his teachers and sensitive to the commentary of his friends.

The shock (or rather, ahem, the pleasant surprise) rippled further through the family a few weeks before my experience during a family dinner at the home of my sister. Manfully trying to manipulate a green salad studded treacherously with small fruit wedges, Buddy lost control at the wheel and shot a slippery orange section off his plate like a hockey puck and into his lap, where it ultimately skidded to a stop on the frame of the chair leg. My sister, hoping to ease his manifest embarrassment, leaned over and suggested softly, “Just pick it up with your fingers and put it back on the plate.” She claims she will go to her grave remembering his reproachful expression as he delivered his rebuke. “That’s not manners, Aunt Kate,” he said solemnly. “We use a fork.”Pigs from MCBF

Even more surprising than Buddy’s swan dive into the choppy waters of social niceties are the mirrored actions of his two-year-old sister, who exhibits a remarkably keen eye for strategies that deliver results. Overhearing Buddy request (and receive), seconds on dessert, she surged forward to repeat the magical “May I please…” and bounded away, smug in victory, a few seconds later.

Curious how he came to understand the implications of such choices so clearly, so young, I probed Buddy about it after this recent dinner. “I noticed your very nice manners,” I said, punctuating this with a fond hug. “Why do you think manners are important?”

With perfect comprehension of action/reaction, he replied with a philosophical shrug. “If you don’t say please, it won’t happen.”

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*Munro Leaf’s classic children’s book Manners Can Be Fun was first published in 1936, and the worn copy we came to love growing up was actually a gift to my mother when she was a child. The book was re-released in this country about 10 years ago. Its illustrations, which look like they were rendered by children (see photo above of the two pigs), are timeless classics. I have adored this book since childhood but receive no compensation or benefit from mentioning it here.

I had the chance to feed Buddy and Sis their dinner the other day, and when thinking ahead to the menu, I thought I’d try something easy that might be a fun change of pace. We’ve always been big breakfast fans in my family, and upending the routine to serve morning food at the end of the day can be an appealing variation (or why else would Cracker Barrel be open at all hours, and Waffle House a favorite hangout after parties? clearly the marketplace has tested this concept favorably). In my mind, the old “breakfast for dinner” act would feature scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, warm biscuits with honey, complete with homemade applesauce. Sounds pretty good, right? Harlan eating applesauce 2.16

Late afternoon soon arrived, and as the entertainment value of the activity in progress began to wane, I sought some early mileage out of my menu concept with a morsel of advance anticipation. However, it quickly became apparent that when it came to creative menu planning, I was a mere fast-food fry cook competing with the likes of Julia Child or Emeril Lagasse.

Guess what’s for dinner? I begin brightly.

“WHAT?” shouted Sis, who cares less about the particulars of the menu than the frequency at which food is proffered.

Her brother had other questions.

“Is it eyeball pizza?” he began. (Buddy has a thing about eyeballs. They loom large in his imagery and conversation. It’s probably best not to ask why.)

Nope, say I, we are all out of eyeballs for pizza topping.

“Can we have a cockroach sandwich?” he continues, picking up steam.

turnip

Could a turnip substitute for an eyeball as pizza topping?

Yuk! I retort instinctively, providing the perfect provocation to escalate the repulsion efforts.

“Then how ‘bout a crab pizza!” he enthuses, collapsing into peals of laughter at his own joke (self-appreciation of humor is another family characteristic, I might note).

I like crabs, I riposte—I’ve had crab on pizza before. It’s good.

“But this crab is alive and will PINCH YOUR GUMS OUT if you eat it!” and by now the joke has escalated to shouting, with Sis bleating her own fond appreciation of her brother’s comedy.

Then let’s don’t eat crab pizza, I answer, watching my menu idea fade rapidly away on the inspirational horizon. Our gums hold our teeth in, so we wouldn’t want that. (And why bother to address imagination with logic? It is a fool’s errand.)

“I KNOW!” comes his last and best idea. “BOOGER PIZZA!”

Wondering why nasal mucus continues to inspire small boys over the march of centuries, I am saved by the diversion of the ringing phone. When I finish this call, I think, maybe just cave in and call for pizza delivery. And inquire about the day’s most unusual toppings.

“I declare, I believe that boy has a hollow leg.”

This affectionate observation was delivered many years back at family dinners by our great uncle, watching in good-humored amazement as my little brother worked deftly through his heavily laden plate of food. It was briefly amusing, I remember, to wonder if my brother could really be an oddity whose stomach actually stretched down to his ankle. But my sisters and I had long since stopped noticing the volume of his intake. He was a sturdy, active, growing boy who became, as the great author Russell Baker phrased it in his memoir, a prodigious trencherman at the table.

The mysteries of anatomy, capacity, and appetite as they relate to children floated back in memory recently as I watched my grandchildren at my dinner table. When it comes to the concept of hollow legs, my uncle would have said they appear to have four, between the two of them. Meal preparation therefore requires strategic thought and careful procurement. One must steel oneself to meet the occasional tactical error with determination to carry on, and nurture the fervent hope that volume errors run to the high, not the low, side.

These children are among the very fortunate who can count on their parents for three squares a day, a blessing none of us takes lightly in today’s world. And I’m proud to observe that the parents are very careful feeders, very nutrition-savvy, and there is no visible evidence of junk food in the house. Neither child shows an ounce of extra flesh, so the voracious consumption is clearly not overtaking the body’s demand for nutrients.

Harlan eatingThe “I’m hungry” chorus seems to be moderating slightly with our Buddy, who at almost five is tall and slim for his age, a great eater, but no longer as relentlessly ravenous as his younger sister. At almost three, Sis demonstrates precocious multi-tasking skills, juggling a morsel or bite of something in her hands at almost all times, during most activities, unless she puts down the food to pick up a glass of something. A traditionalist disciplinarian might frown on this constant snacking between meals, but I can attest that it does nothing to diminish her appetite for actual meals, so who am I to question it?

Any grandmother wants to provide what the small ones want and need, so I laid out what I hoped was a respectable game plan for this recent Sunday dinner, taking only the occasional liberty in my selections. Sis generally requests sustenance about 20 seconds post-arrival, and I was ready. Spying small bowls being filled with well-known, crunchy orange crackers, one each for her and Buddy (an essential strategy for avoiding conflict), she shrieked, “GOLDFISH!!”, and I knew I struck a positive opening chord. The main meal followed within a respectable period of time, hearty choices for a very cold day: pork roast with potatoes, carrots, and baked zucchini. This menu revealed a tactical error in volume production and a surprising fact: Sis is a huge carrot fan, possibly a rabbit in a former life, and the stock of carrots ran short of the demand. Who would have guessed it?

Curiosity later spurred me to a bit of online research on appetite and children that didn’t yield much, other than the predictable tie to growth spurts. Watching these two, and Sis in particular, I speculate on alternative causes. Surely it takes extra protein to bolster you to badger your older brother incessantly. Massive vitamins must feed the part of the brain that makes you refuse to put on your shoes, to deny you need to go to the potty, to insist that you are not even close to being sleepy. Folic acid and possibly extra fiber probably make it possible to cover your eyes when your mother sternly insists, “Look at me.” Does eating so many apples, like the Eve of the Old Testament, fuel the desire to take off your clothes at the most unlikely times and places?

Whatever the reasons, we do our best with this phase, until we come to the next one. Less than an hour after plowing through her pork and potatoes and stoically accepting the Carrot Famine, Sis crawled into my lap for sympathy, her brow furrowed in a fret. “Evie,” she said, with almost a touch of sadness, “I’m hungry.”

Gingerbread houses.JPG

It seems indisputable that today’s world harbors parenting challenges that we never imagined when my daughter was young. Yet one essential truth remains, universally acknowledged then and now:

Two-year-olds are impossible.

The other night my daughter, a devoted, creative, and loving mother, sank back into the cushions on my living room couch with a massive sigh of frustration. She was fresh from another face-off with her own two-year-old, a deceptively beautiful, tiny female to  whom I lovingly refer as Rambo in a Tutu. My daughter stared at me in utter desolation. “Mom,” she said, despair shadowing every syllable, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her. I really, really don’t.” I returned her sigh in a spirit of comradeship, thinking I could dare anyone to find a parent who has not agonized their way through this developmental stage, a period of time unlike anything a rational person can fathom in life as we know it.

And what exactly makes these Pint-Sized Revolutionaries so vexing, anyway? Is it the astonishing strength of the opposition force? The utter lack of logic and reason that governs their every move? The terroristic unpredictability, the realization that one never knows when a strike may occur?

Long before the day for my daughter’s lament arrived, I foresaw a time when my heart’s desire at this moment would be nothing more than simple justice and fair retribution. Payback time, I imagined, would be ever so delicious and sweet. The memories that drove me to that cold and bitter anticipation are remarkably fresh. My daughter’s tantrums at two were the stuff of story and song (the blues, of course), and at their peak I often tried to remove her to her room and shut the door. This pathetically ineffective strategy generated more, better screaming and motivated her to pull on the doorknob with all her maniacal might, demanding escape. Refusing to cave (and lacking a lock), I pulled against the doorknob on the opposing side in a classic tug of proverbial war. The screaming generally lasted about six weeks or so, and about halfway through I was generally reduced to sobbing myself.

Such stories, and those of more comedic antics, are often traded among empathetic parents. I have a niece, now one of my favorite women on the planet, who demonstrated will of breathtaking scope at this age. Instructed by her mother to stop hurling bits of broccoli off her high chair tray and onto the floor, she resumed the aforementioned sport the minute her mother turned around. Mother escalated to a more direct confrontation, positioning herself about six inches from Niece’s face, firmly and slowly intoning, “I SAID: Stop. Throwing. Your. Food.” The child locked eyes with her foe, leaning even closer, and resumed slow-pitching the veg without moving her eyes from Mother’s face. (I had to run from the room to howl unobserved. These things are always funny when it isn’t your kid.) A good friend shares a tale of instructing his twin daughters that eating with their hands was hereby disallowed. Planting their hands at their sides, they solved this dilemma ingeniously by dropping their heads face down into the plate, to graze like puppies in a dog bowl. Yet another good friend summarizes the time period poignantly as “the longest days of the shortest years” of her life.

Oddly, when my moment to savor sweet justice arrived, it lacked the thrill of victory. I longed to to reassure and soothe the mother’s soul—because, of course, nothing can be done with the child—but standard alms like a stiff shot of bourbon and a long hot bath did not seem like particularly original suggestions.LJ hat 1.16

A few days later, in a fit of New Year’s purging, I sorted a box of old books and came upon a small, worn, cloth-covered volume called “The Fine Art of Motherhood” and dated 1930. That would mean it likely belonged to my grandmother and was given to her around the time my mother was born in the spring of 1931. Could there be any time-honored recommendations here? Skimming through, I failed to uncover specific solutions for surviving two-year-olds, but other, related observations made intriguing reading. “Conquering a child’s will is not what we are after, but training it,” the author opines. Indeed. And easier said than done, perhaps.

On the final page, however, I lingered over her closing statement, where she quotes an authority who “….names as attributes of little children sincerity, faith, democracy, forgiveness, and the tender heart. If we can meet them on this plane, they will teach us more than we can teach them.”

(Today’s Chronicle story is provided by a guest writer.)

They’re here! They’re here! I hear them on the other side of this door. Mom! Come open this door! I’ll keep shouting until you open up. You never come to the door fast enough. I like it when they come. Mom always shouts back for me to be quiet, but I won’t. It’s my job to monitor this door and announce arrivals, and I love it when we have company.

There are four of them that come together, but I particularly like the two Short Ones. Their hands are really close to the ground, like me, and I always smell lots of different stuff on those little fingers, like peanut butter and apples and cracker crumbs,, and sometimes I get in a quick lick and wash off a few bits before they laugh and back away. Sometimes they squeal and say NO!, but I don’t think they mean it, because I can usually get close and take another swipe. The key is to be patient.

MBhighchairAh, excellent. They’re going straight to the table. The strategy here is clear: Wait till they all sit down, and they never notice if I just creep underneath there, hang out quietly between all those shoes, and wait. Everyone drops stuff, but the two Short Ones are the best droppers who ever eat at our house. Everything they eat lands on the floor, and big pieces, too. And look! It’s those sliced things in boxes. I LOVE the crust on those things, but there’s other good stuff on them, too. Cheese, sausage…I’m drooling a little bit under here, waiting for it. Hope no one notices.

AND now’s my chance. The Shortest One is dangling her slice right down at my eye level. She’s talking to her mother, but I read this as her signal she wants me to have some. We share stuff a lot. (Sometimes it’s my idea, sometimes it’s hers.) Just a quiet step forward and THERE. Got my teeth in it, and it’s CHEESE! My favorite!

Now, just to back away carefully, very carefully. Oddly, the Shortest One won’t let go. Now everyone is shouting, I’m not sure what the ruckus is about, she invited me to take it, so I’ll just stay focused and keep my teeth where they are. Now the Shortest One is swatting at my nose, but not hard, it’s more like a pat, really, and people keep shouting, but some of that soft cheese is sliding into my mouth…OW! Mom’s got her hands around my jaw, prying it open. She’s telling me to Drop It! But Drop It never applied to cheese, is how I see it. I’m holding on…holding on…OW. Couldn’t hold my jaw shut; it was bite her or drop the pizza, and I can’t bite my Mom.

The Shortest One is crying now, and Mom said mean things and shooed me away from the table. Is this fair? The Shortest One didn’t want the pizza after I turned it loose, but they won’t give it to me, either. All that nice smelly cheese. Sigh. I don’t understand; she held it down there like she was serving me my piece. It all seemed so clear.

These Short Ones are harder to figure out; just when you think we’re friends, they scream and snatch stuff away. They pull on your ears, and step on your feet, and laugh at the look on my face. It’s exhausting, and humiliating. I need a nap.MBnap

It’s a crisp, clear fall Saturday morning, and Small Sister and I are hanging at the park. Her mother’s in a yoga class nearby, and I’m happy to entertain Sis while my daughter gets an hour of stretching and peaceful introspection. Sis currently occupies the mid-point in that sanity-stretching, two-year-old year, when hanging with her can be many wonderful things, but peaceful is not among them.

We soon make our way on the playground to the People’s Choice, the swings (in Sis-Speak, known as sfings) and settle in for some prolonged sfinging. Great upper-body exercise, as I push from behind, striving to accommodate pleas of “higher, higher,” when she stops me in mid-push with an unexpected request. “Evie,” she asks intently, twisting around in her seat to look me in the eye, “Will you sing to me?”

Now, I confess this fundamental truth: Asking me to sing is a bit like asking a Formula One driver if he would care to push the gas pedal just a wee bit harder. I sang everywhere I went as a child, starting not much older than Sis is now, and music has been one of the richest threads running through my life since. In church choirs, in the shower, as lead at birthday parties, any place, any time, I will jump into the tune. I’ve often daydreamed about how music might play a role in the lives of Sis and her brother, and how I might nurture that along.

But when called upon to provide a Spontaneous Soundtrack for Sfinging, I suddenly freeze. Can’t recall a single line of an appropriate children’s song. Are there any? Rockabye baby? Trilling on about a baby who falls from a treetop, while she’s sfinging? Perhaps not.

So the mind wings instead to the musical catalogue of the heart, residing in the imagination like one of those old table-top jukeboxes at Jerry’s, where you could page through the metal-bound lists of selections before plunking in your coins and shoving the red button. What selection to sing for Sis?

The songs of my impressionable young fan years were mostly folkie—James Taylor, Carole King, and forever favorites Simon and Garfunkel, with their lyrics of unforgettable poetry. (“This is my song, for the asking, ask me and I will play, so sweetly, I will make you smile…”) Later, no doubt in an angry phase, there were the screaming edges of classic rock. Come to think of it, with her personality, I can easily picture Sis as a Led Zeppelin fan (“Wanna Whole Lotta Love!”). More recently, in my beloved Music City, there’s been full immersion in the omnipresent American roots music, in all its glorious forms, traditional and new. I Saw the Light? A few bars of Vince Gill’s Whenever I Call Your Name?

We were a musical family, growing up, though strictly as amateurs. My parents kept one of those massive cabinet record players in the front hall, and their frequent cocktail parties featured background soundtracks of great Broadway shows like The King and I, along with the smoky rhythms of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We studied and played, too. My older sister, the most gifted among us by far, progressed to prodigy-level skill at the piano as a young teen. Even better, she tumbled permanently into family lore one year by falling flat on her face while ascending the stage steps at her piano recital. The best part was she laughed so hard at herself that she could hardly lift her fingers to the keyboard when she finally got there.

When begged by my mother, who to this day sees brilliance in her progeny that remains invisible to the rest of humanity, we sometimes clustered our efforts into duos or trios that must have mystified visiting family and friends. (“Were you there the night their kids played the piano, tuba, and ukulele, YES, all at the same time!?”) Let me digress here and offer a blanket apology to anyone still living who endured one of these mash-ups. We appreciate your kindness in not laughing your way straight back to the bar before the song was over.

Suddenly, I am jerked out of my reverie by Sis insistently repeating her request. “Evie! Will you sing?”

And I am as surprised as anyone by what flows from my throat, out into the fall breeze that tangles her blonde curls and rustles the tree limbs above us.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost…”