Thirty four years ago tonight, I was elated, scared, confident and worried. Thirty four years ago tonight, I was in Boston’s Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, trying with all my might to give birth to my first child.
It was a long and daunting process, but it ultimately resulted in Paul and I holding our very own daughter in our arms. I remember looking into her wide open dark eyes and thinking to myself that life would never be boring again.
One look at her sweet chin and I was in love. Head over heels, who-cares-about-the-rest-of-the-world in love, love, LOVE.
I remember one moment in the hospital. I was on lots of medication, having just had a C-Section. My baby girl was in my arms, the lights were low, and it was just the two of us, breathing in each other’s breaths. I was swept with the deep love that I felt; I knew that if anyone or anything threatened this child, I would kill them or die in the attempt.
I remember resting my cheek against hers and thinking about my Mom. “Wow,” I whispered into the quiet room, “Momma, now I know how much you love me.”
Nothing before that moment had allowed me to fully understand just how deeply my own Mother loved me. I finally understood.
My relationship with Mother has not always been smooth or gentle or free of the barbs that come with jealousy, anger, rebellion. My relationship with my daughter hasn’t either.
But now I find myself almost equally balanced between the two of them, and I am overwhelmed with how sweetly and how deeply my love for them both reaches.
My daughter is the best Mother I know.
She is devoted, calm, loving, supportive and flexible. She keeps her sense of humor intact.
Right now, she is pregnant with her third child; her health, her strength and her stamina are always a worry to me. She is an elementary school teacher, too, so rest time is not something that comes to her easily.
But she is smiling, happy with her life, excited about her career, her children, her new baby and the husband she loves.
She’s kind of my hero.
And my Mother, who will turn 90 in a few weeks, is my other hero. And my other worry.
Mom is still at home, with help from a health aide and from her children. She is increasingly fragile, increasingly confused, in need of more care every month.
It breaks my heart to see my warrior woman Momma, who was the first feminist I ever knew, sinking into her last days.
I go to see her once a week. We share a meal, we talk about the past, we do little chores around the house.
And every single time, Mom tells me that she is proud of me, and that she is grateful for my presence. She tells me that she loves me “more” than I love her.
Tonight my heart is filled with a potent mix of love, pride, sadness and joy.
I spent the day baking a beautiful chocolate cake with my grandkids, who love their Mom so much. There were paintings and macaroni necklaces to celebrate her birthday.
I looked at my little granddaughter at one point. I felt my place in a long, long, long line of women and their mothers and their daughters.
I owe my life to my Mom. In turn, she allowed me to have my daughter. Who has blessed my life with her own children.
I look at my grandchildren, dressed in dance clothes, frosting a cake that we’d made together. I thought of my Mom.
Back in 2011, all three of my children moved out of our house within about a six week period.
Our oldest was already a college graduate, while her brothers were still in the process of getting their educations.
As a “MammaBear”, that year just about broke my heart.
I know, I know: it is a sign of having succeeded when your children reach adulthood and move out into this wide and wonderful world.
Still, for me the transition was the most painful thing I’d ever encountered.
I remember, so very clearly, one cold winter night after they’d all moved out. I couldn’t sleep. I tossed, and I turned, and I tried to visualize every beach I’d ever seen. At 2AM, my heart was knocking in my chest, and I got up.
I made my way through my silent house to the living room. I stood for a moment in the window, gazing out into the snowy, frozen night.
I knew that I was a very lucky woman; my husband of more than 30 years slept down the hall. Our dogs were snoozing on the couch.
Still. My heart hurt.
I sat down in the rocking chair where I’d so often held my children. I pulled a blanket around myself, and stared out into the starlit, frozen night.
And I wondered.
When was the last time that I’d sat here in the night, rocking a feverish little child? When had I last held one of my children to my heart and murmured words of comfort into their ear?
I didn’t know, and that realization had me curling forward, over my knees, sobbing into the winter night.
I wanted to go back! I wanted to recognize my last ever night of holding a sick baby in my arms. I wanted a do-over.
When do we sweep our children into our arms for the very last time? When do we hold them as they shiver with the chills, not knowing that this moment will never come again?
I was so filled with grief, even as I recognized how lucky I was to have brought three babies into a healthy adulthood.
I wanted, just for one more night, to hold a hot little body against my heart, to soothe and to comfort and to rock. I wanted the chance to feel so deeply needed, so wanted, so important.
In my sheltered and unimpressive life, those were my best, most competent, most meaningful moments.
And the years, as they do, went by.
My children made their way into their adult lives. They are happy, productive, loving and whole. My job should be done.
But I’m not ready to let go.
Last night our beautiful little granddaughter spent the night here. Her parents were committed to an event at the school where her Momma is a teacher. Her little brother went with them.
But Ellie had been running a fever for a few days. She couldn’t go to the game. We decided that it made sense for her to spend the night here with her Papa and I.
Because I take care of Ellie and Johnny every day, our house is all set up for them to sleep here. I had pajamas in the drawer. The “Nappie bed” was ready. Ellie’s Dad dropped off her favorite stuffies for the night.
All was well, more or less, as Ellie settled into her bed for the night. I was planning to turn on the monitor but let her sleep by herself just the way she does at home.
But at bedtime, her fever began to rise, and she became a little weepy. “Nonni, will you sleep with me?” she asked. My old momma heart rose in my chest, and I assured her that I’d be delighted.
The two of us snuggled into the nappy bed, where a nightlight, two strings of Christmas lights and a glowstick kept away both her fears and my ability to sleep.
By ten pm, Ellie was asleep, and Nonni was tossing and moving the blankets on and off.
By eleven, Ellie was panting, her eyes were glowing with fever, and she was sobbing about how much she wanted to go home.
I pulled out the thermometer for a check. When it read 105, my heart dropped. “This isn’t right,” I told myself, and checked once again. 104.8 was the reading this time around.
I jumped out of the bed, and poured a dose of ibuprofen. I went into the bathroom for a cool, wet facecloth and began to wipe down Ellie’s face and neck. I pulled back the covers, and whispered that I’d make it OK.
The poor little kid curled herself into my chest, and sobbed.
I suddenly remembered how much I’d missed rocking a hot little body in the night, and guilt flooded me. Had I somehow brought on her illness by wishing to be the one to comfort her?
In something of a panic, I texted Ellie’s Dad, telling him that she was crying to come home at midnight. He answered immediately that he’d be right there.
But common sense and a mother’s wisdom prevailed; as the medicine kicked in and her temperature dropped, Ellie’s Mom decided that it made no sense to take a sick toddler out into the icy cold of a Massachusetts’ December night. Better to wait until morning.
Of course, I did.
Because after that call, I found myself once again wrapped in a blanket, in my living room rocking chair, comforting a sick little child.
We rocked, she dozed, we rocked some more.
My arms went tightly around her, and I felt the familiar blessing of a tiny, hot hand, resting on my cheek in the darkest part of the night.
“I’m so happy that you’re here with me, Nonni,” Ellie whispered. “I’m having fun on our sleepover.”
I pulled her to me, as close as we could get. I kissed the sweaty hair on her brow, and handed her a cup of cool water.
“I am so lucky,” I said into her shoulder. “I am so lucky. Here you are. In my arms.”
It was three AM, and I was still holding her. Her breath was hot and panting on my cheek.
I was so sorry that she was sick. I prayed that I could pull the virus out of her and into myself. I was more than a little freaked out about her very high temperature.
I laid my cool cheek against her feverish one.
“I’m here,” I said.
“I know,” she whispered back.
That fever raged the whole night long. We rocked, we sang, we took medicine every few hours. Ellie panted, and dreamed and cried for home. But she also wound her arms around my neck and pulled me close.
My love for her is a deep and enduring echo of the love I held, and still hold, for her mother and her uncles. I remember every long, feverish night of their childhoods. I remember thinking, “Dear God, let this end!” and I remember my firm belief that I wouldn’t survive another all night rocking-the-sick-kid marathon.
But now I know that one long night is nothing.
I know that it is everything.
In the blink of an eye, these little children won’t need my loving care anymore.
And that is just as it should be.
But for now?
For now I am so happy to have had a chance to feel that too-hot hand resting on my cheek, and to feel those too-hot lips pressed to my neck with love and gratitude.
For now, I am so tired, and so worn down, and so very very very grateful to have had a chance to be the one taking care of a sick toddler in the darkest part of the night.
I hope she’s all better tomorrow. I hope that tonight she sleeps deeply and without a fever.
But I’ll be forever grateful for last night.
Exhaustion is a very small price to pay for being the one who magically makes things all better.
Oh, what was I thinking? What the hell on earth was I thinking?
Since I spend so much time at home with toddlers, there are moments when the house feels way, way, way too small. The toys seem to all pile up in one place, and the running around in circles starts to feel just a little bit claustrophobic.
I guess that’s why, in a moment of mental weakness and overwhelming crankiness, Nonni here got the brilliant idea of cleaning out the basement and making it into an additional play space.
Oh, smart old Nonni! Won’t it be lovely when you can send the kids downstairs to play with the doll strollers, the blocks, the climbing structure and the awesome interconnected tunnels?
The kids and I spent a full week organizing, cleaning, moving stuff around and setting up a toybox.
Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!
What a fun, warm, wide open playroom we’ve created! Hoo-rah!
The kids now play in the spare bedroom (lovingly referred to as the “nappy room”), in the kitchen, in the living room and dining room AND in the basement playroom.
How freeing to have more room.
I’m not kidding. When things get a little tense, and the kids can’t seem to agree on one single thing, it can be miraculous to have a whole new place to fight…..I mean, “to play”…..There are new items to fight over, new games to invent and play, new furniture to jump on.
But if you are reading this little memo, you might already have found the flaw in my ingenious plan.
If one child is in the living room, deeply involved in pretending to be a dragon, at least one other child is in the basement. Nonni, for all her marvelous nurturing powers, can only be in one place at a time.
Ergo: wherever I am at any given moment, there is a tiny person with the lungs of a town crier in the other space. And that child will be shrieking “NONNI!!!!” so piercingly that it’s a wonder the cops haven’t been called.
I swear to you, sometimes I’m sure my ears are going to bleed.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of the challenges I face.
Today my sweet Ellie was in the dining room, playing with a nice tray full of kinetic sand. Johnny decided to head into the basement playroom to “Play Rescue Riders”. I was washing dishes.
Suddenly, I heard a death shriek from the basement. “NONNI! HELP! COME NOW!” I dropped the waffle dish in my hand and ran toward the basement.
Aaaannnnnnd, at the very same moment……”NONNI! COME HERE!” Ellie called from the dining room. I ran down the stairs, yelling over my shoulder, “Wait, Ellie! Hang on!” I threw open the playroom door, ready to grab Johnny and head for the Emergency Room. I swear, my phone was in my hand, all ready to call 911.
And there he was, sitting calmly on the old sofa in the playroom, a plastic box in his hands. “You help me open dis?” he asked.
Once my heart stopped scrambling around in my chest, I opened his box and said, as sternly as I could, “John, do NOT scream like that unless you are hurt! If you need me, come upstairs and get me.”
“OK!” he grinned cheerfully.
I trudged back upstairs, to where Ellie had been reduced to sobs and had not stopped chanting, “Nonni, come here. Nonni, come here. Nonni, come here……..”
“OK,” I think I sounded reasonably calm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I wanted to show you what I made.”
I looked at her creation, told her that it was fabulous, then repeated my message. “You can’t scream for me like that, honey. Not unless you are hurt. If you need me, come get me.”
The message apparently was never received because this afternoon our friend Bel came to spend an hour or so with us. Her visits are totally the highlight of every week. We all love her to bits. Bel is, like Ellie, four years old. She is funny, sweet, creative, kind and energetic.
She also has the voice of an operatic soprano trying out for her first solo aria. The girl can etch glass with that voice.
And so by the end of today I found myself racing from room to room, from one floor to the next, answering shrill cries of “NONNI!” They seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
Now I’m not a newbie. This childcare gig is not my first time around the manipulative toddler block. I know that 9 times out of 10 the screams don’t mean severed limbs.
But. These are not my kids. Neurotic old woman that I am, I am not quite prepared to ignore the ear piercing shrieks of little children.
Holy fatigue, Batman.
I have a new plan.
I’m thinking that from now on, the kids and I will enjoy our days safely closed in one room. The smallest room I can find. I’ll lock the door and keep us all within each other’s eyesight.
That way when someone screams “HELP! NONNI, HELP ME!” I will immediately recognize that the problem is a doll’s sock and not an invasion of zombies.
And I will hopefully prevent the impending heart attack.
Once upon a time, when I was young, I loved to pretend. I loved to imagine that I was someone other the same old boring me. With just those words, “Let’s pretend,” my old bike turned into a wild stallion, and my suburban streets were instantly the wild and dusty west.
I remember, so well, those hours spent riding our horses across the west, racing to get to the next pioneer outpost.
“Let’s pretend,” I’d say, and my best friend would turn into Paul McCartney’s sister. We’d grab tennis racket guitars and hair brush mics and take off on our own version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
There was a time when I slipped easily from reality to pretend and back again.
But let’s be honest. Those days were more than a half century in my past.
It isn’t so easy to shed my rigid old skin these days. When there’s laundry to fold, dishes to wash and emails to check, it’s really hard to jump into the world of fantasy.
But you know what?
Sometimes it’s worth it to ignore the dryer, let the dishes soak and tell the messages to wait.
Because I spend all day with my toddler grandchildren, I have at least 700 chances every day to relive my childhood.
Today was one of those days, where both of my grandkids were completely invested in playing “Rescue Riders.” We try not to watch too much TV, but when we do turn it on, this show is one of our favorites. It has brave kids, funny dragons, simple problems and lots of bright colors.
God help me, I have even heard myself making comments like, ‘Burple wouldn’t fight the Slinkwings.’ as we discuss the latest episode.
So what could I do when Ellie turned those huge brown eyes on me, and said, “We’re playing Rescue Riders! You are Chief Duggar!”
I pretended to be the Chief, of course. Ellie was one dragon, Johnny another. We raced around the house, shouting things like, “Oh, no!!! I’m caught in a cave with Elbone!” and “Winger is getting sick with the Dreaded Dragon Flu!”
Maybe it was because it’s been a tough week, but I had to throw myself fully into my role. It could have come from a desire to prevent the two year old from belting the four year old. Perhaps I was hoping to stop the four year old from whining and sobbing at every move made by the two year old.
Or maybe the laundry and dishes and bills and news alerts and school shootings and impeachments had Nonni feeling like she just wasn’t up to facing reality today. Whatever the cause, I found myself free to throw myself fully into the pretending and the fantasy roles.
It was fairly exhausting, to tell you the truth. After a while I was getting a definite headache.
But then “Chief Duggar” got trapped in a cave, and I found myself hiding in a closet. I heard the “Rescue Riders” searching all through the house and found myself in the darkness, behind the coats and shirts, trying not to giggle.
When at last the two little dragons found me, and opened the door to my “cave,” all three of us burst into the kind of honest, deep, belly laughing joy that rarely happens in the life of an older lady. We laughed so hard that we were crying.
I found myself sitting on my guest room floor, with a laughing little one in each arm. I kissed those sweet, sweet heads and pulled them in against me.
I have no doubt that at some point tomorrow my back will ache from hiding, my foot will hurt from running, and I will be heartily sick of pretending.
It was worth it.
It was so so so worth it.
As I head off to bed tonight, I’m going to try to remember the feel of riding that stallion across the wild west.
I know that most people think childhood is just one big party. You get to sleep a lot, watch cartoons, be carried around whenever you get tired. There are all those toys, crayons, dress up clothes.
Sounds sweet, right?
Most people I talk to think that the hardest thing about toddlers is having to take are of them.
And as an aging woman who takes of 2 or 3 toddlers every day, I understand.
But here’s what I have been thinking about lately.
It is no picnic to be a kid between the ages of 1 and 5. I get to see, up close and personal, how much stress there is on those little toddlers.
Think about this:
When you’re a little kid, you have almost no control over the world you inhabit. You can’t get your own food when you’re hungry. If one of the grownups in your life finally agrees that you can have a snack, they might hand you a string cheese when you are desperately craving a bowl of cereal.
If you aren’t yet toilet trained, you have to spend a certain amount of time every single day sitting in your own pee and poop. You can’t go outside when you want some air. You can’t have ten minutes to yourself, because the adults are afraid you’ll eat a toy or fall down the stairs. You get to lie down and get some rest only when one of those grownups decides that it’s time.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. “Why not just ask for what you want?,” you sniff.
But toddlers can’t do that. In the first place, they most often don’t have the language to express the subtleties. My little grandson, at the tender age of 2, can tell me, “Me hungry.” But he can’t say, “I’m feeling a little run down. Maybe I need some protein.” He can’t say, “I’m not actually physically hungry, but I need a little taste boost. How bout some popcorn?”
Nope. He can’t yet get past, “Me hungry. Have a cereal bar?” I might say yes, but more often I’ll say “no” because his Mom and I are trying to be careful about sugar consumption. I might offer him a cracker or an apple.
At this point, he is likely to have a bit of a meltdown. Remember, he is hungry, and has physical feelings that he can’t recognize or understand. And even if he did, he can’t articulate it.
And even if he COULD tell me, “I am craving something sweet and filling,” he doesn’t have the power to make that happen. He has to depend on me to understand him and to grant his request.
Yeesh. That never happens to adults.
So language is one huge obstacle that toddlers face every single day. But the stresses of human interactions are even harder.
If you have ever spent more than 4 minutes with a couple of toddlers, you have heard dozens of variations on “That’s not fair.”
It might happen when the kids decide to play with a bunch of trolls. “But I WANT the one with the pink hair!” will be met with “But I got the pink hair troll FIRST!!!!” As the adult in charge, you are very very likely to respond with something like, “But there are 64 trolls in the basket.” or “You need to learn to share the pink haired troll.”
I’m pretty sure that what the toddlers hear is this: “You can’t have what you want. You have to give up your dream.” The toddler, at the tender age of three, does not think “big picture”. He does not think, “I can always get the pink hair later.”
If your entire life is only 30 months long, you don’t have the same sense of time perspective that all those frowny grownups have. What happens right now is all that exists for these little guys.
It’s an incredibly frustrating thing for adult caregivers to mediate. I get it. Here’s an example of a real life experience in my house this week, when three toddlers were having a snack.
“Can I have popcorn?”
“I want popcorn, too!”
“Can I have cereal? No want popcorn.”
Nonni dishes out the snacks.
“No, I wanted the yellow bowl!”
“But I want the yellow bowl! That’s my favorite color!”
Naturally, Nonni tried to mediate this situation, pointing out that the popcorn would taste the same no matter what color the bowl happened to be.
The kids, because they are kind and well meaning, went along with it. But once again, I think the world must have felt just a bit out of their control.
If you spend time with children in this age group, you will know that nearly every conversation includes some kind of negotiation. Every interaction includes a decision about what to play (“Want to play Elsa and Anna?} as well as who will play which role (“I am Elsa.” “No, I want to be Elsa! You are Anna!”) . Every interaction includes some sharing of materials. (“I’m using this playdoh shape!” “But I NEED that shape!”}
And you know that every ten minutes or so (if you are a very lucky caregiver), someone has to scream out loud that someone else is hitting/grabbing/yelling/ignoring/refusing/arguing/wrecking everything.
As an adult, this feels ridiculous, stupid, pointless and endlessly repetitive.
But you know what?
As a small, powerless, tender little being who spends all day trying to learn the rules, find the words, gain some control and still be loved, these interactions are the biggest thing in life.
I have one example to share with you from my day today.
My grandson, only two years and 5 months old, played all morning with a four year old friend. They argued, screamed, played, laughed, fought, argued and yelled.
The friend went off to preschool, and my four year old granddaughter came home. Now my little guy was put in the position of negotiating with a whole new big kid. A big kid with different ideas, different needs and different words than the one who had been here all morning.
At one point, my grandson argued with his sister and ended up scratching her. She shrieked. I approached. I told him that he couldn’t hurt anyone, and I told him to go to the “time out” chair.
Now, this wasn’t his first trip to the chair, and he usually sits quietly for one minute and expresses his remorse.
This time, though, little Johnny burst into tears and collapsed onto the floor. He was sobbing, so I went to him. He leaned his forehead against mine, and put his arms around my neck. Through his tears, he whispered, “How bout if you just rock me instead, Nonni? Me so so tired.”
So I did.
And it made me think about the long, stressful day that this sweet little boy had put in up to that point.
All I could think was that toddlerhood is a pretty tough row to hoe.
I don’t mean that romantic kind of love that makes you agree to watch endless basketball games just because the Celtics were wicked good at the time. That love makes you feel as if your soul is melting into another soul, and that you are now the owners of the first mutual love soul ever.
And I don’t mean the kind of love that you give to your dog, because he’s just so incredibly doggie. That love has no strings, no thoughts, no need to measure for reciprocity.
I mean the kind of love that you think will be less intense, but turns out to be enough to pull your heart right out of your soul.
I’m thinking about the love that parents feel for their children. The kind of love that makes us sit up at 2AM, gazing into the eyes of someone who can’t even focus on our faces yet, thinking that we would happily give our own lives to insure that this person would continue breathing.
It’s the love that makes parents buy the food that their children love. The love that makes us choose orange juice with no pulp for a full 25 years, even though we really like the pulpy juice ourselves.
I’m talking about the love that makes us put up paper ghosts and orange blinking lights in October, even though we are in our sixth decade of life.
Love is weird.
Love makes us happy to play in the dirt when our backs hurt. It makes us laugh at “Captain Underpants”, even though we’ve retired from teaching and don’t have to pretend any more.
I’m talking about the kind of love that makes us happy to deal with poopy diapers, and drooling babies, and dropped crumbs. It’s the love that makes us so incredibly happy to finally get to the weekend, when the kids will be at home with Mom and Dad for a couple of days. And it’s the love that makes us irritable on Sunday night, because we can’t wait to get the kids back here into our kitchen.
Love is weird.
Love makes us willing and eager to buy candy googly eyes so we can make cupcakes next week. It makes us happy to order a case of food coloring, thinking of baths and playdough and cookies to come.
It is the love that makes all of the aches and pain, all of the stress and worry, all of the whining and crying simply fade away with one big hug.
Love is weird.
I’m so so happy that I have a chance to feel that ridiculous sappiness every day.
I’ve spent a lot of my adult life with little kids. I was blessed with three kids of my own, and now I am the daycare provider for my two grandchildren.
In between those lucky adventures, I’ve also been a teacher, a speech pathologist and a babysitter for a few extra kids.
I’ve been to dozens of professional development classes, countless meetings about child development and a ton of visits with friends and their kids.
In all that time, I’ve learned a lot.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the way we talk to our kids. I’ve been paying attention to what we adults say to our children in everyday interactions.
I’m not impressed, truthfully.
Let me put it this way. Let’s pretend that the words we say to our kids every day were said to us instead.
Pretend that you are about to head off for a day at work. You’ve showered, dressed, eaten breakfast, grabbed your work bag. You embrace your spouse for a kiss goodbye, and hear them say, “Now you be a good person today.”
Wouldn’t you think, “Wait a minute! Do you think that I’m NOT a good person?”
What if you were about to head off to a meeting, and you heard your boss say, “Be a good listener. Don’t give the presenter any trouble!”
You would be furious, I have no doubt. But you’d also probably feel pretty damn insecure. You’d ask yourself, “Why does my boss think I’m going to be a bad listener and a troublemaker?”
We do this to our kids all the time.
All. The. Time.
As parents drop kids off at daycare, school, music classes, swim class, they most often kiss the little one and then give a warning. “Be a good boy today!” or “You listen to your teacher!”
When they pick those children up after a day of playing with friends, most parents ask, “Were you a good girl today?”
We do this because we feel like it’s required. We feel like this is the right way to help our children become responsible adults.
But it isn’t.
Instead of giving our children the idea that we suspect them of bad behavior every day, why don’t we give them the message that we trust them and believe in them?
I think of my son-in-law, who brings his two toddlers to me every day. He never tells them to be good. Instead, he kisses them, tells them that he loves them, and says, “Have fun today!”
The message to those kids is this: I know that you’re a wonderful person. I know that you will be as kind and as thoughtful as any toddler. My wish for you is a day of fun and happiness.
It isn’t about obedience. It isn’t asking children to behave well in all settings.
It gives kids a happy, hopeful, self-affirming message.
So how about this, just as a suggestion.
As we drop our little ones off at daycare/preschool/kindergarten, why don’t we say something like this:
“Have a fun day, honey! I’m so proud of what a great listener you are! I can’t wait to hear about how you shared with your friends today!”
The way that we talk to our children shapes their views of themselves. It shapes their belief in our expectations. Our words truly do shape the people that our children will become.
I am reminded of my very last school field trip. I was one of three fifth grade teachers taking our students to Olde Sturbridge Village. As the bus pulled up to the entrance, I stood in the aisle at the front of the bus.
“Boys and girls,” I said, “I hope that you all have a wonderful time today. I wanted to tell you that I am so proud to be your teacher. You are a great group of kids, so kind and so respectful. I’m so lucky to have a class that I know will impress all of the adults here. Go and have fun!”
One of the Mom’s on the trip turned to me with wide eyes, and said, “Wow. Even I want to be good just to make you proud! That was genius!”
But it wasn’t.
It was common sense.
We all want to hear good things about ourselves. We want our spouse to tell us, “Have a great day, honey!” We want our boss to say, “I’m glad you’re the one going to this meeting.”
We believe what people tell us about ourselves, especially when we are only babies, taking our first tentative steps out into the wide world.
Let’s stop warning our kids and telling them that we don’t trust them. Let’s tell them that we trust them to be the wonderful people we know they can be.
It was the first time since February that I found myself afloat in the Atlantic ocean.
The kids were so excited to be there, even though the waves were a little bit daunting. I was with my daughter and one of her best friends. Two fabulous moms at the beach with their happy, excited, beautiful kids.
The sun was out. There was a gentle breeze. Fish were feeding off shore and terns were diving.
We met families celebrating 4th birthdays, families from abroad, families of young people who were clearly just starting out. There were other grandparents, smiling with joy at their little ones.
There was salt. And sand covered fruit. And the booming of the waves. And the sound of children and gulls screaming together.
It was a perfect day.
I floated. I jumped in the waves. I made sand castles with Ellie and pushed a toy beach buggy down the sand with Johnny. I jumped through the surf with Hazel. I laughed with three little children, and shared my lunch with all of them.
I spent the day with my firstborn child, my amazing and beautiful daughter.
I am undeservedly lucky, and humbled by that fact.
Well, happy Solstice, everyone! Yay! It’s finally summer, for real!
The days get shorter from here.
I guess you can see how ambivalent I am about the end of the school year. Now that I’m no longer a classroom teacher, the end of the year is less about having time off and more about feeling at loose ends.
My daughter has the summer off, which means I won’t have my grandkids here for a few weeks.
I mean, I am very, very happy to have some time to rest and recuperate. I love watching my grandkids every day. I really, really do!! Toddlers are magical!
So I obviously need some time to catch up on sleep. I need time to organize all these art supplies, old toys, and dried out play doh. I want to garden and read and maybe finally submit some writing somewhere. Summer is a good thing!
On the other hand, it’s amazing how dull it can be when the only one to talk to around here is me. I’m somewhat less riveting than I thought.
So day one is coming to a close. I’ve watched the news, read a lot, argued and snarked at people on social media and done four loads of wash.
I need to figure out how to fill my hours without the kids here to say, “Nonni, watch!” and “Nonni, guess what?” I need to feel useful without serving food every hour on the hour to hungry kids.
At least I have the dogs for company.
But you know what?
Both Lennie and Bentley spent this entire first day of summer wandering from room to room looking for the kids. They both spent a ton of time sitting in front of me with their big, sad, hound-doggy eyes.
We took a walk. They liked that!
But then we came home and they both went from bedroom to bedroom to kitchen to the deck. They both sighed. They both turned in circles. They gazed out the window. They chewed on their nylabones, but you could tell their hearts weren’t in it.
It’s going to be a long summer, pups. No kids until September, at least not on a regular basis. No games. No laughing. No sweet snuggly little girls to wrap an arm around your furry necks. No giggly little boy for you to chase down the hall.
Most importantly, no dropped cheese for many long weeks.
My little Ellie has started to use the word “perfect” lately, and it makes me uncomfortable.
She says it when she has worked hard to make a picture that she thinks is realistic.
“Nonni!”, she will call, “Look at my perfect polar bear!”
Now, Ellie is not quite four years old. While her artistic instincts are wonderful, her artistic realism is still somewhat lacking.
And so I hesitate to embrace the concept of “perfect.”
“Wow!” I always say, “That is a very original polar bear!”
Or a very interesting puppy. Or a wicked cool camping trip.
I just try to back off the whole idea of “perfect.” I have seen too many little children striving for “perfect” to ever feel at ease with either the phrase or the concept.
Art is, above all else, NOT perfect. Art is perception. It is emotion. It is my truth offered up to all of you. It is not a perfectly rendered reproduction; that would be a photograph.
And ‘perfect’ has even less meaning when it comes to the literary arts. What is a “perfect” story? A “perfect” poem? As a classroom teacher, I steered away from that word every day. As a parent, I used every possible synonym before I ever went with “perfect”.
As a Nonni, I am even more committed to making sure that my grandkids understand that perfection is a pointless goal. It can never be reached, but it can become a lifetime obsession.
So I rarely think in terms of perfection. I shudder, in fact, when I find myself falling into the lure of it’s siren call.
But guess what?
At the ripe old age of 63, on a day when I was fighting off a cold, cranky from lack of sleep, looking forward to my summer respite, I think I accidentally stumbled upon perfection.
It happened like this.
I was tired, dealing with a sore throat and achy muscles. Today was very warm and pretty muggy. I took my two little grandkids outside to play. My thought was to let them ride bikes and throw balls and I would sit in the shade and read The Grapes of Wrath.
But the kids had other ideas. They rode bikes across the lawn. They pulled up dandelions, blowing the seeds across the yard and screaming with joy. They used binoculars to find my giant rhododendron.
“Nonni!”, they crowed, “Watch! Look! Come play!”
I was pulled in to the vortex of their energy. Every little tiny thing in this beautiful spring time world is a miracle to them! And they shared it with me, oblivious to my fatigue.
Isn’t that wonderful? I had no choice but to become a part of their play, to become completely present in their little miracles.
We turned on the hose, and they raced across the muddy lawn, following “the stream that goes to the sea!”. They twirled, and jumped and threw up their arms in pure pleasure.
For them, these few moments were everything. They were the world. The cold water, the hot sun, the squishy, joyous feeling of mud between the toes. The yard became the universe. They were it’s center.
When they screamed out, “Nonni!!!! Jump in the mud!” they pulled me in to that moment of perfection.
And as I danced on the driveway, feeling the slippery mud between my toes, following the cold stream from the hose as it made its way across the pavement, I was surprised to hear this one word spoken inside my head.