“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.