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.
My Dad was a pretty typical father of the 50s, 60s and beyond. He went to work while Mom stayed at home with the six kids. He earned the money. He was the provider.
Dad came home every evening right around 6pm. Dinner was just about ready, and we were around the table. A drink was made, Dad took a sip, then settled down for dinner with the brood.
He was a good provider. He was a breadwinner.
But that isn’t what I remember tonight, as I think about Father’s Day and what my Dad meant to me.
What I remember about my Dad was that he made things.
Just for fun, just for a sense of creativity, my Dad made things.
When I was a very little girl, he made pancakes. He did it every Saturday morning while encouraging my Mom to sleep in a bit. Dad would get up with all of us, and he’d make batch after batch of pancakes. We’d eat them up while watching “The Little Rascals” on tv.
As I got older, Dad made things like shelves, and picture frames and other small wooden items. On the weekend, Dad would go down to his workshop in the garage, where he’d make step-stools and Confirmation Crosses and bookshelves.
After his retirement, Dad made more decorative items, just for fun. My parents had a beautiful in-ground pool, and Dad made planters for the flowers that Mom placed around the patio.
When my family was young, and settling into our first and only home, Dad helped my husband to build a shed to store the garden tools.
Dad isn’t here with us anymore. He went on to the next step back in 2008.
But tonight, as we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day without being able to hug our kids, I am thinking of my Dad and of his legacy of creation.
I’m thinking a lot about the fact that although I am his daughter, I don’t really take after my Dad. I don’t know how to hammer a nail or saw a board or make a shed. I’m not good at math, the way that he was. I don’t have Dad’s sense of detail and his ability to create logical, sequential plans. That skill is shared by my sister, but not by me.
That thought made me a little bit sad today.
Then I took a walk around my garden. And I thought a bit.
Maybe I’m stretching it, maybe I’m making it up, but it seems to me that in a different sense, I do share Dad’s ability to “make things.”
I have made a garden out of a yard that was once completely wild. Slowly, step by step, blossom by blossom, I have turned my wild property into a pretty, fragrant, welcoming space.
Making something out of nothing is perhaps a skill, or a desire, that I do share with my Dad.
Maybe the bread that I make from my own sourdough starter is a way for me to create something, too.
What I know is that I miss my Dad. I miss his smile, his humor, his hugs. I even miss his rigid sense of right and wrong. I miss his love. I miss the things that he made out of nothing.
So tomorrow morning I will walk in my garden. I’ll salute my Dad as I admire the coreopsis growing in the goose planter that he built. I’ll take a lawn chair out of the shed that he built in our yard.
And I’ll water the wild roses and irises and herbs that I have planted here in what was once a piece of woodland.
I’ll think of my Dad and I’ll treasure the small ways in which I am like him.
It’s the night before Easter. I know, we aren’t exactly practicing Christians. We haven’t followed the whole Catholic thing for decades.
But this is the night before a holiday. It’s the night when I used to put out the pretty eggs that you all had colored the day before. I’d get the baskets ready, adding the eggs, and the jelly beans and the chocolate bunnies. Dad would make a huge arrow out of candy on the floor of the hallway, as if you didn’t know that you should come into the living room to find your treats.
He and I would spend an hour hiding chocolate eggs and jelly beans all around the house. In the morning, you three would get up, all excited. You’d find your baskets and hunt for candy. There would be laughs as one of you located a chocolate egg in a shoe or inside of a Kleenex box.
Breakfast would consist of candy, hard boiled colored eggs and a slice of cassatta, in keeping with our Sicilian tradition.
When you were little ones, we’d go to Grandma and Grampa’s house for a dinner of ham, and pasta and more candy. The cousins would all run around, the aunts and uncles would talk, laugh, argue about politics and drink wine.
I miss all of that.
I miss the morning hugs. The sweet pajama clad three of you with your baskets in your hands. I miss the big dinner.
Mostly I miss the feeling of joy and celebration.
Spring is the idea of renewal, rebirth, returned hope. Spring is the time of flowers and trees bursting into life. It’s when our gardens are still dreams and our thoughts are all about warm beach days and barbecues with friends.
Spring lets us ignore the truth of our lives for a bit. Easter is the definition of that forward looking hope.
This spring is so different, though. This Easter feels like something unknown.
We don’t know when or if there will be a rebirth. We are beginning to wonder if the true rebirth will come without humans. Will there be lambs, and chicks and baby birds and buds on trees, but no humans anywhere to be found?
We don’t know. We are living our lives in isolation now. Living in fear of an enemy we cannot see.
But it’s the night before Easter. My dear children, my adult children, I am sitting here tonight thinking about those Easter Baskets, and that candy and those hopeful springs.
I miss you.
I wish that you were here for some eggs and some cassatta. I wish that you were here for some ham, and some potatoes. And for some hugs and some laughs.
I love you all just as much as I did on your very first Easters.
Easter is about hope and renewal. It’s about a better future.
I miss you.
Happy spring. Happy renewal. Happy hope, my dears.
The economic crash of 2008 hit my small rural community pretty hard. By the Spring of 2009, our neighborhood held as many empty homes as full ones. As the summer came on, even more homes were foreclosed on or simply abandoned.
The woods behind our house began to seem wilder as the humans moved away, and there were entire days when I never heard a sound other than the calling of jays and the hammering of woodpeckers.
During those bleak months, I used to walk my dogs around the block, passing one empty house after another. Sometimes I’d look at the plants growing along the roadside, or at the ducks in the pond across the street, and I’d let my mind wander.
“What if something really terrible happened to the world, and hardly anyone was left?” I’d think. “Could I manage to feed my family with dandelion greens and fiddleheads? Could we learn how to trap birds, or kill ducks or turkeys for food?”
I always had a slightly romantic view of how things would be, of course, because this was just a daydream. All of my grown kids would somehow manage to make their way home, and we’d combine our skills and strengths to build a big garden in our yard. Maybe we’d raise chickens.
I was sure that I’d come through the trauma as a stoic, cheerful, no-nonsense kind of Mamma. I’d clean the fish and make the dinners and be happy to use the bit of power we could get from our solar generator to keep everything clean.
There was a gauzy haze over this dream, as I walked around the quiet streets.
I never thought anything would actually happen.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic of 2020, as we sit in isolation from each other and wonder what in the world will happen next, the reality of a global disaster seems far less romantic.
After about a month of worsening news and scarier headlines, I have come to an interesting conclusion.
I don’t want to forage for edible weeds in the woods. I don’t want to fight my neighbors for toilet paper or soap or cans of tomatoes.
The reality is that not only can my adult sons not move here with their partners, we can’t even get together to share a meal right now.
My daughter and her family live a mere half a mile away across those fertile woods. I’ve been caring for her children every work day for five years. But now, in the age of Covid19, we can’t be together at all. I haven’t seen them since the day that schools were closed, almost three weeks ago.
And I don’t know when I’ll see them again.
We are staying apart, staying away from all other humans, because my daughter is due any day to give birth to her third child. If I leave my house to go to the grocery store, there is a risk that I might bring the virus back and could contaminate Kate and her children.
Because she sees her doctor at our local hospital once a week now, she is afraid that she might contaminate her father and I. So we simply stay apart. In our own little self-isolation pockets.
We’re all living in fear. And we’re all dealing with a total lack of control. Nobody on this entire earth knows what is coming next. Will the virus sputter out in the summer? Will it roar back in the fall? Will a vaccine be found, or a treatment?
Or will millions die? Will the economy of the world totally collapse, based as it is on a continuing flow of commerce?
Will schools ever reopen? Will governments implode into chaos? The truth is, we just don’t know.
Once, a few short years ago, those thoughts were just a way to pass the time as the dogs sniffed the fallen leaves.
Now they are right in front of me. And I am discovering that I am not the hearty pioneer woman I always imagined I’d be. Instead, I’m just another scared and overwhelmed old woman who desperately misses the touch of her children and grandchildren, and who has no desire to harvest cattails for dinner.
I think a lot mother’s question our success. We go through the day, juggling jobs, shopping, cleaning, homework, hockey practice, girl scouts, track meets and band concerts.
We do our best to be supportive and loving and patient, but we aren’t always sure that we’ve hit our goal.
A lot of mothers, I think, lie down at night and wonder, “Was I OK today?” We hope that we have done a good job taking care of our kids and our homes and our spouses and our actually paying work.
I was one of those working moms for 24 years. I often found myself hoping that I’d done it well. My kids were happy and secure, so I felt OK about it, but like many mothers, I found myself focused on every time I’d raised my voice and every time I’d given in when I shouldn’t.
I was never sure that I had been a good mom.
From the vantage point of a 64 year old grandmother, and the mom of three adults, I can tell you now that I absolutely kicked ass. I was all that and a bag of chips. I killed it. I nailed it.
There is no more successful momma than me.
(Insert image of old chubby lady doing the happy dance.)
How do I know that I have been a totally successful mother?
I look at my kids, that’s how.
I have a daughter who in many ways has followed in my footsteps. She became a teacher, like me. She is about to become a mother of three, like me.
And she has surpassed my achievements in every way.
I have always believed that teaching is both an art and a science. I was very, very good at the art. And I was fair to middling with the science.
My daughter excels at both. She is one of the most beloved teachers I’ve ever known. Kids, parents, colleagues; all of them appreciate and value her. And she’s been chosen by the school district to take a leadership role with the curriculum.
I did a good job as a follower; she is a leader.
And my sons have outpaced me, too.
I have always dreamed of being some kind of musical performer. I wanted to sing. I wanted to learn the guitar. I wished to be a soloist.
My sons have taught themselves to play music on several instruments. They write music. They sing. They have been performing with a bunch of local groups.
This weekend they’ll be in the recording studio making a recording with some of their very best friends.
I’m so proud of them!
And both of them have lived up to their vows to contribute to their communities. They are hard working, humble, kind. They work every single day to make life better for kids, teens and families at risk in the small city that they have made their home.
I must have been an amazing mom. My husband must have been a remarkable Dad. Our children have grown up to be kind, giving, generous. And all three have gone beyond my life’s achievements.
I know I’m a good Mom because I’m so happy to have written the paragraph above. I feel no competition, no challenge, no need to hold onto my place.
I am happy, so very happy, to cede the position of most beautiful Mom, most patient Mom, most beloved teacher to my daughter.
I am proud and delighted to hand over the title of family musicians to my talented boys. I am proud beyond belief.
And I no longer lie in bed at night and wonder if I did a good job.
The proof is in the next generation.
I’m happy to sit back and enjoy the reflected glory.
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.
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.