When I was a little girl, my Nana was often a part of our holiday celebrations. She sometimes came with us on vacations, or on the daytime adventures that my Dad arranged to keep us all entertained.
Nana had a way of laughing even when things went wrong. I have a vivid memory of her hiking with all six of us kids and my parents through “The Flume” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I can hear her laughing as a sudden storm overtook us. We were suddenly drenched and cold, and none of us was happy.
“We’re making memories!” Nana called out in her laughing voice as we slogged our way through the dripping path. And some 50 years later, I still recall that memory with a smile.
I always hoped, when I was the mom of young children, that we were making happy memories together. I hoped that our holidays made memories, even when we discovered that mice had nested in our Christmas decorations. I wanted my kids to grow up with happy memories, funny memories, memorable memories. Even when it snowed on our camping trips or when we all had strep for Christmas.
Tonight is Halloween of 2020. In the face of the terrible Covid pandemic, few people are going door to door to Trick or Treat. Our neighborhood is silent and empty of kids. My grandchildren won’t be going out for candy.
It is a sad reminder that life is nothing like what we want it to be this year.
But we dressed up anyway, Paul and I, in costumes meant to make us look like our dogs. We pinned on our false ears and tails, rubbed make-up on our noses, and put on the dogs’ collars.
I made a guacamole witch and a “Ghosts in the Graveyard” dessert.
We went to our daughter’s house, where she and her three kids were in costume and the house was decorated with light up spiders and glow in the dark ghosts.
We had a supper of “Mummy dogs” and “Monster pizza” and then the kids searched the house for hidden candy.
There was no traditional “Trick or Treat”. There were no neighbors or friends or other kids wandering with glow sticks. It was nothing like Halloween is supposed to be.
But as Paul and I were getting ready to say good night and head back home, my three-year-old grandson Johnny threw his arms around my neck and asked breathlessly, “Nonni, wasn’t this the best Halloween ever?”
And you know what? It really was.
It was the best because Johnny’s parents made memories for their kids. And those memories will last a lifetime.
My beautiful grandson Max was born in early April, in the scariest part of the pandemic. He was born at our small local hospital, with his parents masked and gowned and the staff in full PPE.
We knew before his birth that Max would come to us with bilateral club feet. While congenital club foot is a very common birth defect, and can be successfully treated, it was still a scary situation for my daughter and her husband. For all of us, really!
But Max was brought into this world by his rockstar of a Momma, who labored in her Covid protectant gear and delivered all 10 lb 3 oz of him naturally.
He was brought home safely, and all of them managed to stay virus free, thank all the gods and goddesses.
Our little guy was put into casts when he was less than a week old. He wore them for a few months, having them changed weekly as he grew. Eventually he was fitted for his “boots and bar” which he wore for 23 hours a day until yesterday. That was when his orthopedist said that he could start to go barefoot for 6 hours a day. Hurray!
Over all this time, growing and gaining control of his body, Max has had his feet rotated outward and held in place to allow the bones and muscles to grow correctly.
He’s done spectacularly well and he’s going to be totally fine when this is all over in a few years.
So this morning after his Dad dropped him off to me for the day, I carefully removed his bar, then the leather strapped “boots”. I took off his socks and put one pudgy foot into each of my palms. I rubbed my thumbs across the skin of his ankles, making happy sounds and smiling at my boy with tears pouring from my eyes.
I’m so grateful. And I’m so profoundly aware of how lucky we are to have been able to give our little guy everything he needed to insure that his birth defect will never slow him down.
My daughter and her husband are both professionals. They have excellent health insurance. They are able to afford the deductibles, the copays, the uncovered parts of the treatment (including the very expensive little boots).
We live in a part of the country with great medical facilities that are within driving distance. Max’s family has a car so they can get him back and forth to the doctor’s so frequently. They have jobs with good benefits, so they can take the time needed to care for him and their older two kids. I live nearby and am able to help every day.
So it’s all going to be fine.
But as we head at last toward the Presidential election in a week and a half, I can’t help but think of all the parents out there in this country with similarly beautiful children, whom they love just as much as we love Max. I think about the many kids (about 1 in every 1,000) born with club feet like his.
What if their parents don’t have good health insurance? What if they can’t afford the copays, the weekly visits, the boots, the deductibles? I think about how awful it must be, as a parent, to be put in a position where you know what your baby needs to thrive, but to be unable to give it to them.
I picture another grandmother, bathing her grandchild and looking at his feet, still turned sharply in, still deformed at 6 or 7 months old. Maybe the family went through the casting part, but wasn’t able to get the time off to change it every week. Or maybe they had him fitted for his boots and bar, but needed a couple of months to save up the money to pay for them. Maybe they couldn’t afford them at all.
Our Max will most likely have no repercussions from his adventures with club feet. He will probably walk, run, ice skate, bike ride and swim without an issue.
What about those other kids, though? What about them?
The shortsightedness and cruelty of our profit based healthcare system will never cease to astound me. How can we endure a system where babies can’t get the care they need because for some reason in this country we have connected jobs to health insurance?
I’m going to vote for Joe Biden this year because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. But as soon as this election is behind us, I’m going to redouble my efforts to work toward universal healthcare for every single person in this country.
I’ll do it with Max’s healthy, strong feet cupped in my grateful hands.
But when my beady little eyes popped open at 6 AM, my first thought was,
With consciousness came awareness, and I remembered a few things. Like the fact that my life savings is worth about half of what it was a month ago. And I’m retired.
Like the fact that the first really progressive candidate of my life is getting smoked by a guy I could never support.
And like the fact that the world is in the grips of the most serious pandemic of modern times.
I couldn’t decide if it was good that I’d probably croak from the new virus before I end up living under a bridge, so I decided to get up.
I checked the news, because I’m stupid. I saw that last night our President gave a speech intended to reassure us. Unfortunately, between the thick layers of bullshit and the slurred speech, it was hard to tell whether everything will really be OK or Trump is taking all the Zanax left in DC.
I closed the computer and started breakfast for the kids.
The front door opened and in came my son-in-law with my grandkids.
“Good morning!” I chirped in the happiest fake voice I could muster. “How are you all?”
“Fine. Except that Ellie doesn’t feel well.”
I got four year old Ellie settled on the couch and asked how she was doing. “I have a cold.” The juicy sneeze that followed told me that this was true. As did the cough that followed it. “I have the chills.”
She closed her eyes. I clenched my jaw.
Her little brother hopped up on a kitchen chair and asked for a waffle.
I. Did. Not. Panic.
But I washed my hands. And my face, where the sneeze juice had landed. I hummed to the tune of Happy Birthday as I rubbed my skin raw.
“Happy Sickness, oh jeez.
I’ve been slimed by a sneeze.
We’re all gonna get it.
Staying safe ain’t a breeze.”
I plastered my smile back on, and went to give Johnny another waffle, a banana, a bowl of blueberries and a piece of toast. I obviously won’t be avoiding the grocery store any time soon.
My husband came down the hall to give me a desperately needed hug. I felt a little calmer, until I saw that he was dressed in a jacket and tie. My heart sank, as I remembered that he was headed to the funeral of a good friend. I worry every day about my husband’s health, and about the level of stress that he deals with in his job as a psychologist.
My anxiety ticked up a notch, but I reminded myself that everything would be OK. Paul would come home, I’d have a nice dinner for us to share. Ellie probably just has a cold, I told myself. I probably washed away the germs before they could infiltrate my mucous membranes.
I took a deep breath and sent a quick to text to my daughter to let her know about Ellie’s symptoms.
And to see how she was feeling, to be honest. Because she is 36 weeks pregnant with her third child. She’s been having contractions so we know that she’ll be having that baby any day now. Right here in our local hospital. The one in our community, where all the schools are closed because of…..yup….the dreaded virus.
The virus that might be in her own house in the sweet little nose of her very own daughter.
Noticing that I was getting a little dizzy, I forced myself to start breathing again.
I headed down to my freezer to get out some chicken stock. I grabbed a frozen mason jar.
A frozen mason jar of chicken stock.
Did I mention that I’m stupid?
I noticed that there were some cracks showing in the glass. The kids were safely snuggled on the couch and I had cleaned up most of breakfast before John asked for his first snack.
I picked up the jar to show to Paul, and a huge chunk of glass fell off. The whole jar started to slip out of my fingers, and I grabbed for it with my right hand. The entire slippery thing shattered as I grabbed it, and I found myself clutching about 40 shards of broken glass.
Bits of glass and greasy frozen chicken covered the floor. It had ended up in one of my cabinets, too.
Paul grabbed a broom and got the dogs outside as I bent to pick up the biggest pieces, cursing the whole time. (In Russian, French and Italian. I’m not a completely irresponsible old lady.)
Between the blood, the glass and the chicken fat, the floor was a huge smeary mess. It took a while, but eventually Paul and I had managed to scoop, wash, wrap, bandage, vacuum, throw out and scrape up most of the mess.
He headed off to the funeral and to work. I made a cup of “Tension Tamer Tea” and sat down with my bandaged and throbbing fingers. I was trying to tell myself that the day would get better from here. That everything was OK. That it would be fine. No need to panic, I murmured.
I gently picked a few tiny glass needles from my palm. I sipped my tea and smiled at the kids.
Then I heard a strange crunching noise coming from the kitchen.
Bentley, the canine Hoover, had found an inch long piece of glass under the stove and sucked it out and into his mouth. Because chicken.
As I carefully pried the deadly glass out of his slightly bleeding mouth, I decided that enough was enough. I gave up. I let the anxiety wash over me.
So I’m not technically in a panic this morning. But I am definitely in a “WTF-Might-As-Well-Eat-The-Donuts” frame of mind.
If you need me, I’ll be in the locked bathroom. Bathing in vinegar and bleach.
Before I became a grandmother, I remember everyone telling me that the best part of being a grandparent is that you get to send them home after they visit.
Sure, there are lots of times when that’s true. When everyone is healthy and energetic and we spend all day riding bikes, painting, baking cookies and dancing….yes, that’s when I find myself counting the minutes until Mom arrives to take them home.
When it’s the last day before vacation, and we are all sick of our daily routine, this stay-at-home Nonni is more than ready to send them out the door as soon as I see those headlights in my driveway.
When the little ones are sick, everything is different.
I have spent the past two weeks taking care of my grandchildren as they fight off a nasty virus. Their Mom is pregnant and is saving her sick days for when she gives birth. Dad works from home. Nonni here loves having the kids and loves the feeling of taking care of little loved ones who really need her.
I raised three kids with lots of allergies. My two sons had pretty severe asthma. One had intermittent moderate asthma (but ended up in the hospital once for three days). One had chronic severe asthma and could go from perfectly fine to wheezing like you read about in ten minutes.
I was on red alert for about a decade. My medicine cabinet had six inhalers, four allergy meds, cough syrup, decongestants and every known herbal remedy. During those days, you could have woken me up at 3 AM and I’d have been able to tell you exactly what meds we had and how many doses each contained.
I got to the point where I could tell that one son was beginning to experience lower oxygen by looking at his little face. When it was as white as milk and his eyes had blue rings under them, it was time to grab the inhaler.
I was able to simultaneously sleep and listen to the gentle wheezes of his younger brother. There was a certain pitch that had me on my feet, grabbing the asthma meds.
I have spent nights with a nebulizer, walking from one side of the crib to the other, hoping to get the mist into the lungs of the baby who kept rolling over. I have slept upright in a recliner with a baby in my arms more nights than I can recall.
Of course, it was terrifying to leave my boys in day care. I once got a call that my son was in distress after a field trip to a farm. I made it to his daycare before they had to call 911, and took him in my car to the ER. He was treated and sent home with me. My husband and I spent the next three nights taking turns using the nebulizer every two hours.
Here I am, taking care of my little grandson as he fights off a nasty virus. He is sneezing, nose dripping, running a fever, and coughing very hard. His parents are aware, and I KNOW that they are on top of it.
Still, I am feeling a huge sense of PTSD from this whole thing. I am scared that I’m missing something. He doesn’t have asthma. He isn’t wheezing (yes, I have been checking with my trusty stethoscope), but his cough is tight and harsh and he tells me that it hurts. His nose is running like a hose.
I am sitting in my recliner, rocking him in my arms as he sleeps.
And I am feeling the scariest sense of deja vu.
I trust my daughter and her husband completely. I do! They are remarkably calm and patient and attentive parents. I know that they are on top of whatever this virus is doing to our little guy.
But you know what?
The worst part of my day, now that my little guy is sick, is the moment when I peel him out of my arms and give him to his parents to take home.
Yes, I need the rest. I am not a young Momma anymore.
Yes, he needs his parents. Duh. Of course!
I wake up at 2AM straining to hear the sound of his breathing. Sometimes I have a brief moment where I think, “I hear him and his breathing is fine.”
Then I realize that I’m hearing my young and healthy dog, dreaming away on the couch. This makes me roll over, look at the clock and calculate how long it will be before he is back here with me, where I can check him out.
I am a neurotic, crazy, traumatized Grandma.
And I am here to tell you that the whole “you get to send them home” thing is a sham.
Excuse me while I go make a big batch of homemade chicken soup for tomorrow.
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.
And by that I mean, almost everything about retirement is great.
In my retirement, I’m able to sleep until 8 pretty much every day. I get to drink my coffee slowly, in my pajamas.
I haven’t worn “dress shoes” more than three times in the past four years, and those were all weddings.
When it’s rainy, I stay warm and dry in my house. When it’s snowy, I get to go out and play, then come right back in to the fire and the hot soup. I can cook to my heart’s content. I have the time and the mental freedom to learn new things, like my creaky violin and my rudimentary Italian.
I get the grandkids every day, and nothing in the world tops that.
Best of all, I NEVER have to go to meetings. There’s no paperwork and no deadlines (other than getting to the potty in time.)
Because there are a couple of downsides, too.
There’s the fact that it took less than a year for me to be completely out of touch with the newest thoughts about education. I feel left behind and dumped at the curb.
I often feel useless.
Now, don’t start with all that “but the kids need you!” stuff. I know that. My job as chief caregiver for Ellie and Johnny is the most important one I could have. I love them so much that sometimes it actually hurts. They love me back.
But every once in a while, I hear myself utter a sentence like, “Let’s make a playdoh castle for the trolls!” That’s when I wonder where my formerly intellectual self has gone.
I miss being a deep thinker. I miss having rich conversations with my colleagues about our students. I miss doing diagnostic work, and recognizing how a child was processing the world.
Most of all, I miss the feedback that came with my professional life. I miss the hugs from the kids. Those I miss the most. I miss their smiles, and the little shared jokes that came with every class.
When I was teaching, I knew that I was going a good job. I knew because the kids told me. “You’re a funny teacher!,” they’d tell me. Or, “You’re nice.” I had kids tell me that I helped them understand themselves better, or that I helped them learn how to make mistakes without feeling bad about themselves.
I miss the feedback.
A smile from a parent, a “thank-you” from a worried Mom, hearing a grandparent say, “I’ve heard so much about you!”
I once had a child bring me a rutabaga, six months after he’d graduated to the next grade. It was hilarious, a reminder of a joke that had lasted for his entire fifth grade experience.
I miss that.
And I truly miss the feedback from colleagues; working with very smart teachers and sharing lesson plans made me feel bright by reflection. Sometimes in a TEAM meeting, I’d realize that my observations helped to clarify how a child was struggling. And I knew I was good at the job.
I love retirement. I love being a stay home Nonni and baking cookies on cold days. I am happy to play with toddlers and to read familiar books while snuggled on the couch.
But once in a while, I’d love to have some of that positive feedback that used to make me feel smart.
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.