“Company” is Coming


Quick! Dust that shelf!

When I was a young adult, I felt completely comfortable coming home to my parent’s place. It was the house where I’d grown up. One bedroom was “mine”. I knew where the dishes were kept, where the good Scotch waited, where the extra towels were kept.

Coming in the door was coming home. Just like I’d done about a million times before. Key in lock, door pushed open, “Hi, Ma!” as I came up the stairs into the kitchen.

Home.

But gradually, as the years went by, “home” became the apartment where Paul and I lived. It became the house we rented when our first child was born. Then the house we bought to raise all three of our children.

Visits to my parents house became visits.

I realized that my parents would plan special meals for our visits. They’d put on a tablecloth. I started to ask permission to have a glass of wine or a bowl of ice cream.

I was a guest, in my own home.

Weird, but cool. I felt like a real adult.

I never wondered how that felt to my folks, though.

Then my kids grew up. They moved away. They all have lives. My daughter lives only a half a mile away and brings her kids here every day for me to care for while she and her husband are working. So she still feels pretty comfortable here, and has no worries about opening the fridge for a snack.

But my sons live two hours away, and we only see each other every couple of months.

When they come home, I notice that they are happy to grab themselves a beer, or toss a load of laundry into the machine. They seem to feel like this is still more or less “home”.

But something bizarre has happened to me, the momma.

It’s scary and it’s weird. Me no likies.

Yesterday our son Matt and his fiancee were planning to come for dinner. We haven’t seen them for a bit, and I was looking forward to catching up. I did what any self respecting Italian Momma would do. I shopped, I baked, I roasted, I sauteed.

But I also cleaned the kitchen. I threw the trash and washed the can. I cleaned the bathroom and put out new soap. I adjusted the sofa pillows and swept the floor. I vacuumed the steps.

As I was washing the doggie nose prints off the living room window, I suddenly stopped, vinegar soaked rag in hand. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself. “Did I seriously just clean the toilet for the kid who I potty trained in this very room?”

I shook my head at my foolishness, gave myself a little smack, and went back to cleaning the windows.

Then I straightened up the pinecones on my shelf and changed the batteries in all the Halloween lights.

My kids are “company”.

Holy crap. Time must be flying.

How We Talk to Our Kids


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.”

Huh?

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.

PERFECT day


We went to the beach today.

It was the first time since February that I found myself afloat in the Atlantic ocean.

Perfect.

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.

It was one PERFECT. DAY.

I Met Someone


I met the most fascinating woman last weekend! Although I went to high school with her son, I’d never known anything about Jean before now.

But in meeting her, and getting to know a little bit about her life, I found myself enchanted with this older lady.

Jean was born in March, like me, but her birthday predates mine by 33 years. Even so, I felt like we were kindred souls.

I learned last weekend that Jean was born in the small city of Berlin, NH. My family has been going on vacation in the same area for almost 50 years, and I know Berlin very well! That was one thing that made me feel a connection. Jean described looking up at the beautiful Presidential Range which overlooks the city, talking about how deeply she appreciated the beauty of the spot.

It could have been my husband or one of my children talking! That range is their favorite place in the world.

As I learned more about Jean, I also learned that she loved music intensely. In fact, she loved it so much that she defied her penny pinching father by renting an instrument in his name and taking lessons that he ended up paying for. I laughed out loud at that story.

Like me, my new acquaintance was a young nerd. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been as smart or as studious as Jean, but like her I have always loved to read. We both love to learn new things, even as we age.

What I liked best about Jean, though, was her life philosophy. I can’t remember her exact words, but it was something like this: “To find as much pleasure as possible without hurting anyone.”

I want to be like her. I want to be as full of joy. I want to be as dedicated to enjoying my life.

I’m so glad that I got to meet Jean. I wish I’d met her years ago, when there was still time for us to be friends.

You see, Jean died last February, at the tender age of 95.

I was never lucky enough to have actually met her.

But Jean was a writer. She recorded the stories of her life. She wrote with love, and with humor. The warmth of her voice as a writer pulled me in and allowed me to feel like her friend.

What a gift!

Many thanks to Stacy and Louise for sharing Jean’s story with me!

First Day of Summer


Well, happy Solstice, everyone! Yay! It’s finally summer, for real!

The days get shorter from here.

Sigh.

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!

Exhaustingly 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.

Yay, me.

Now what?

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.

What are we gonna do?

You mean….nobody will be dropping string cheese?
I kinda need a hug.

I Stand on the Bridge


I find myself standing on the bridge between the past and the future, and it is a tender and poignant place to be.

I stand between youth and old age.

At the age of 63, it is of course natural for me to find myself in the middle of life’s journey.

But for me, the juxtaposition of what has been and what is coming is feeling profound right now.

My mother is 89 years old. She is 26 years older than I am.

Mom still lives at home, in the house where she and our Dad raised six kids. She is still there, still in her kitchen, where I learned to make sauce and meatballs. Still sleeping in the bedroom where she and Dad slept from 1962 until 2008 when Dad died.

I go to see her once a week. My siblings go at least once a week, too. Some more often. We are Mom’s supports, her cooks, her money managers, her cheerleaders as she heads on down the path toward her next step.

As my very wise sister put it, “Mom is quietly folding her tent.” She is gently withdrawing from her life, seeing fewer and fewer friends as her memory and her body fade.

But she is happy. Perhaps happier and calmer than at any other time in my life. Mom, once a power woman in control of all around her, has learned to accept help with grace. She has been willing to wear her LifeAlert, to have a home health aide and to welcome one of us every day (although she doesn’t often remember whose turn it is on any given day to have dinner with her.)

Mom is showing me how to exit gracefully, just as Dad did when it was his turn.

I am watching her. I am learning. I am coming to terms with some thoughts of my own about my life going forward toward that “rainbow bridge.” I am so lucky to have a model of how to go with humor and humility.

And.

As I stand on this tender bridge, I look back toward my youngest child. My son Tim turned 27 yesterday. So you can see that I am almost the ‘median’ point between my mother and my son.

I look at him, my sweet, kind boy. I see that life is spread out before him like a banquet. He plans to marry his sweetheart next summer. They are thinking about children, about careers, about their hopes and dreams for a future family.

I see him, and I see his Dad at the same age. I see myself. I see our worries and our joys and I remember what it was like to be young, in love, ready to move into the future with courage and hope.

My Mother often talks to me about those years before she married my Dad. She talks about how happy they were to sit under the trees on Boston Common, planning how many children they’d have. She talks about what it was like to hold his hand as they walked through the city sharing their dreams of a beautiful future.

And I stand on the bridge. I hear her thoughts, and I hear Tim’s. I know that it was my Mom and Dad’s ability to dream and love that lead to my family, and lead to my marriage and then lead to my beautiful boy and his wonderful partner.

I know that Tim and Sweens will marry, have children, face challenges, encounter unexpected joys and find ways to keep recreating their hope. Just as Paul and I have done. Just as my Mom and Dad did for all those years.

And I know that one day it will be me who is facing that final chapter.

I just hope, and pray, that when that time comes my children will look to me as a model of how to move on. I hope that they will think about Grandma, and remark on how like her I am.

And I hope, and I pray, that when that day rolls by, there will be children of theirs who are busy falling in love and planning their next steps and thinking about babies of their own.

Perfect?


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.

Whatever.

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.

“Perfect.”

Do the Right Thing


Yup

So here’s my question: how do you really know what is the “right thing”? How can you be sure?

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where “the right thing” feels obvious to us. Help someone we love. Give to someone in need. Reach out to somebody who seems alone.

It seems so clear, doesn’t it?

But here’s the problem: we can never really know what other people are thinking. Even people we’ve known their entire lives. Even people we consider to be our closest, most trusted, most loved allies.

Even then, we can sometimes take an action that feels so clearly “good” to us, but which is met with anger, resentment and dismay.

What do we do then?

For me, having done something wrong out of a desire to do something right, I am at a complete loss. How do you apologize for what you felt, deeply and honestly, was a giving action? How do you get past the rage and resentment to explain what it was that you intended?

I don’t know.

What I do know, what I have come to believe, is that I have to trust my own intentions. I have to trust my knowledge about myself and about those around me.

Someone way smarter than me told me recently, “We can’t control how our messages are received. We can only control how they are sent.”

“Do the right thing.”

Sure. Sounds easy.

Only its actually the hardest thing there is.

Say My Name, Say My Name


Oh, jeez, Nonni.

Get a freakin’ grip.

I remember a time when I was very young, one of six children clamoring around my Mom. I remember her barking at us all, “Stop yelling “Mom”! Stop, you’re making me crazy!!!! I’m gonna change my name and not tell you what the new one is!”

At the time, afraid that my Mom was about to disappear on us, my siblings and I cried and moaned and tried to guess her new name. It was pretty harrowing.

Of course, I now realize that the entire time as we were crying and guessing her new name, we were all yelling, “Mom? Momma? Mommy! Ma! Mom! MOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMM!”

Still, I thought she was being just a tiny bit heartless.

Hahahahahahahaha!

Silly me.

While I have no clear recollection of feeling the same way about my own children, I now fully understand my Mother’s frustration at hearing her name called out roughly 987,675 times a day.

And this is where the whole grandparent thing gets weird.

I will never ever ever forget the first time that my sweet Ellie looked up at me with those melting brown eyes and said, “Na. Na ee.” My heart rate jumped right up to about 300 and I almost stopped breathing. “She said ‘Nonni!!!’ She said it! She said ‘Nonni”!!!”

Thrilled is way way way way way too weak a word for the joy that coursed through my bloodstream! Huzzah!!! She KNEW me! She recognized the key and unforgettable role that I was playing in her life! We were bonded forever, me and my girl! Oh happy, happy day!!!!!

You get the picture.

And it has only been the past month or so that little Johnny has started to use my name. He, for reasons that nobody can explain, talks like a little old Italian man. Like more than one of my old uncles, in fact. When he wants a snack, he asks for “cheese-a”. To answer the question “Who wants a snack?” he answers “Me-a!”

So of course, he calls me Nonna. With the long ‘nnn’ that marks a good Italian accent.

‘Nonna’

Si, that’s me! La Nonna!

Picture the same heart stopping joy and delusional beliefs of eternal love that I felt when Ellie first called out to me.

Yup.

Happy, happy old Nonni/Nonna. Happy and joyful me-a!

Sure. For the first nine million times.

The problem is this: Ellie has learned to use the phrase, “But, Nonni….” to open every single comment. If she is asking me a question, it’s “But, Nonni, what part of our body helps us to chew?” If she needs something, she says, “But, Nonni, can I have milk?” To tell me about her weekend, “But, Nonni, we had so much fun with Grammy and Grampy.”

But, Nonni…..

“But, Nonni……?” Over and over and over again. All day. Every day. ALL WEEK.

Even if I’m looking right at her, and we are the only two humans awake in the room. Even if I just said to her, “Honey, maybe we can do some art.” Even then, her first words are, “But, Nonni……….”

There are moments when I am sure that my head will explode.

Then sweet little Johnny, our man of few words, reaches out his arms to me. “Nonna?” He’ll ask, “Up? Arms?”

“Nonna!!

And I melt again.

Mom, I’m sorry for making you pretend that your name was Rumplestiltskin. I had no idea.

Love,

A Grandmother to be named later

Trust


Oh, my.

I don’t remember exactly what it was that I hoped my grandchildren would ask of me. I don’t clearly recall what dreams I had back in the days when my teaching colleagues used to call me “NonniWannabe”. I know that I wanted my grandchildren to love and trust me. But I’m not sure that I had a really clear idea of exactly what I wanted the kids to want from me.

Do you know what I mean?

But I think that today showed me exactly what I’d hoped for.

It was a typical spring morning in New England. We live far from the coast, so the mornings here are still cold. Our son-in-law arrived, as usual, with his two kids in his arms. They came into the house dressed for the sixty degree day that was forecast, but the morning was frosty.

The kids came in and sat down for breakfast. I had put out fruit, as usual, but also made nice warm toast. I offered oatmeal or waffles. Both kid wanted pineapple, clementines, milk, and nice cold grapes. By the end of the meal, our Ellie was shivering.

“Snuggle me, Nonni,!” she asked. “I’m freezing!”

I held my girl, wrapped her in a blanket, snuggled her as she had asked.

“I’m so cold!,” she told me. “I need your warm snuggles.”

My heart started to melt. I had intended to vacuum the floors, but I was forced to sit still and hold my sweet little girl in my arms. Her french braid tickled my chin, and her bony little bottom wriggled on my leg. It was heaven.

As we finished our breakfast, I told the kids that I had some leftover chicken to give them at lunchtime.

“No thanks,” said Ellie. “I want some nice hot soup for lunch.”

I blinked. I answered honestly, “Honey, I don’t have any soup ready.”

She turned her head and gazed up at me with her deep brown eyes. She put one hand on my cheek.

“Nonni,” she said sweetly, “Just check your ingredients. I bet you can make soup!”

Holy trusting child.

She was cold. She had the shivers. She was trusting me to warm her with my loving arms, but she was also telling me that she was completely confident that this old woman could whip up some homemade soup in no time.

Naturally, I pulled out some frozen chicken stock, added some garlic, onions, salt, pepper and bay leaf, and let it all simmer. Of course, without a doubt, Johnny and I pulled apart last night’s chicken and added it to the pot. We let it simmer while we played all morning, and then I cooked up some ditalini and added frozen peas to bring down the temperature.

I served it to the kids, who were starved after an hour outside playing in the cold, wet yard.

“Oh, yum,” said Ellie. She slurped up a big spoonful of hot broth, and smiled at me. “See? I knew you had some soup around.”

And now I know.

THIS is what I wanted my grandchildren to think about me. I wanted them to think, “Nonni will keep me warm. Nonni will be able to cook up the best food to keep me healthy and warm and safe.”

I wasn’t even sure what I wanted them to think, but you know what?

THIS is it.

It’s about soup.

Other Grandmoms, do you get it?