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A late-season malaise has settled over the wide porch, the headquarters of summer at my house.  The plants are sagging moodily in the August heat, their blooms barely even tired replicas of the first brilliant bursts.  The shards of a broken pot, toppled to its demise in a stormy gust of wind, remain to be swept up.  The inviting rocking chair, this year’s proud new porch trophy, is gathering dust, abandoned and unmoved since the smothering humidity settled stubbornly over the area.  The porch, like many of us in the South this month, is dragging itself toward Labor Day looking and feeling August-y; in other words, hot, grimy, and far less than its charming best.

Near the porch door, where the rain shoes for dog-walking and watering cans and other seasonal paraphernalia perch at the ready, sits one little souvenir of summer. It is an odd leave-behind, a spot of comedy that prompts a laugh in the otherwise dreary scene. It’s been sitting there since June and really needs to be thrown away, but somehow, I can’t make myself toss it. It’s a single, smelly, mud-encrusted, child’s water shoe.

The shoe and its mate went on the feet of my 8-year-old grandson, Buddy, to day camp back for a week back in June at a lovely, wooded park south of town.  Buddy stayed with me for camp week, since it was an easy drive from my house and an extra chance for some special summer time with him.  On the third day, fondly recalled now as Camp D-day, both shoes went bravely out, and only one returned.  The one that remained, opined the veteran camp counselor after the tragic loss, is probably thriving as a salamander castle, adhered for all time to the deep, sticky mud at the bottom of a marshy pond far in the park’s natural center.

Camp D-day rained down insult upon injury on Buddy’s determined blonde head as the long day wore on.  Apparently, he plunged bravely (or so the counselor said; in surveying the aftermath, rashly is the word G-ma chose) with his net deeper than the other children into the pond water in pursuit of tadpoles, the day’s quarry. Suddenly, he found his feet stuck in mud about as unforgiving as quicksand.  The mud held his feet like fast-drying concrete, so firmly that the counselors could not get close and were forced to extricate him by extending a long pole for him to grab.  They heaved a mighty pull to haul him out, leaving one shoe behind for the salamander version of Flip this House.

The young Tadpole Hunter was deeply troubled about the abandoned footwear at the time, the story went, but it was pie compared to the indignities that followed.  While Buddy awaited rescue from the pond water, a leech sampled his ankle for lunch and was later detached with dramatic effect, bloodletting, and the application of a trophy band-aid.  And if that wasn’t enough, the change of damp muddy clothes later revealed an attack of chiggers in the water like nothing his doting G-ma has ever seen.  The tiny itch monsters feasted on him in the only location he was not covered in bug repellent:  under his underwear, everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, if you catch my drift.  A cool, soothing bath, Cortisone ointment and ice packs were required that evening to achieve sleep.

D-day featured the most concentrated dose of malfortune at camp, but other minor calamities occurred as the week progressed, causing G-ma to fear the whole camp thing was a misguided bust that would leave her beloved grandson scarred for life, literally and figuratively.  That was right before Buddy piped up brightly on the last day and asked if he could come back to camp again next year.

Relieved but still fretting, I relayed the D-day horror story to a dear friend who has taught second grade for decades, seeking her expert assessment of the potential long-term impact of Buddy’s camp traumas.  “Believe me,” she said firmly but kindly, in a solid, classroom-managing tone, “he has already moved on.  Now, you need to do the same.”

So, I’m keeping the Buddy Memorial Camp Shoe, for now.  I’m using it to stave off the end-of-summer blues, the oppressive August feeling that life, like the unyielding air blanket, is stuck in a dank and dark place.  Take a lesson from an eight-year-old boy, says the shoe.  Move on.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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