My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

My Most Honored Guests Were the Ones Who Never Came

By Shabnam Samuel Thakar

Portrait of Indian family at home. Grandparent and grandchild eating butter cake. Asian people living lifestyle. Grandfather and granddaughter.

As a child in India, the day before my birthday (March 31st) was always a day filled with excitement – it was the day the tailor brought home my new tailored clothes, the day the baker brought home my cake, and the day the household help went shopping for the tea party held in my honor on April 1st. I would sit on the porch steps and wonder who would give me what as a present. Would Mrs. Tucker give me the fourth book on the Famous Five by Enid Blyton? How much money might Aunty Radha put in my birthday card? Why did Papa and Granny insist on giving clothes as presents?

But another thought persisted above all the others: maybe, just maybe, the joke would finally be over. My parents would come to my party as a surprise, scoop me up in their arms and wish me a happy birthday.

Maybe I could finally go to school and not have my friends ask questions about Papa and Granny that filled me with embarrassment and shame: “Why is your father so old?” or “How come your mother wears a dress and has blue eyes?”

The embarrassment and shame I experienced as a child over my parents’ absence made me a person who spun exceptional tales about my life: “My parents?” I would say, “They are spies for the Indian Army and live abroad, most likely London.”

The truth was sadder: I did not know my parents. I had not heard their voices or even seen a picture of my mother and father. I was raised by my bi-racial grandparents, an Indian grandfather and my Russian grandmother, in a small town in India in the 1960s. We lived in a house where, at one time, fifteen people had lived comfortably in their own space. When I was growing up, the only people who lived in the home were my grandparents and me. There was always a sense of emptiness both inside and outside of me.

When extended family came to stay, on most days you would find me sitting behind a curtain or perched precariously on a balcony, sometimes even hiding under the bed to listen. Eavesdropping to glean information from conversations was how I related to my family. I tried to piece together my history from the hushed-tone phrases I could string together: poor childorphanagewhat a trauma… how could a mother do such a thing?

I knew better than to ask – no one would explain anything to me. It seemed that my grandparents’ plan was that the words mother, father, mummy or daddy were never to be mentioned in front of me.

Still, I persisted with my hope of a birthday surprise. I wanted my parents – the young, age-appropriate ones. I wanted a normal dad who would drive a car and take me to school. A mother who was beautiful and ethereal in a sari, who would drop everything she was doing and hug me when I came back from school. I knew other, younger parents did this. I had seen my friends. I carried around a lot of envy and sadness.

But maybe, just maybe, this was the year.

The 1st of April comes, the only day I was allowed to sleep late. Schools was closed on April 1st because it was a government holiday: Orissa Day, a celebration to mark the state of Odisha as a separate province. I wasn’t able to give out toffees to my classmates, as I would have been allowed if my birthday fell on a school day. On my birthday, there was no special breakfast, no phone calls from relatives – mostly because we didn’t have a phone.

All of my focus fell to the grandfather clock in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike 4:00pm. As the cucumber finger sandwiches were being made and the meat patties were warmed, I would excitedly put on my new clothes. My favorites were a forty-inch wide bell bottom set – I was a real trendsetter in those days. And then I would wait for friends to show up. The ones who came, though, were mostly family friends, hardly anyone in my age group.

One by one, they wished me a happy birthday and handed over their wrapped presents. In my mind, I sized up the package while speculating on the gift. Darn, that is a box of chocolates, why? Couldn’t she give me like a book or a dress or something? This would go on for a little while. In between silly talk and little foods, I would sneak back and forth into my room and open the presents one by one. Always glimpsing out of the window, always with ears perked for new voices, I kept hoping and dreaming. But they never came.

Slowly, year after year, the same old routine became boring. Of course, once I hit twelve, the party was over. “Too old to have a birthday party,” my grandparents would say. The clothes, the sandwiches, the meat patties, the cake – all gone. What never went away was the longing, the hope and the sadness that “they” never came.

Here I am, forty years later, feeling nostalgic for those days of excitement – the moments of being carefree, the future of endless possibilities, the anticipation, the innocence, the dreams.

The one flame that has never died and carries with it a ray of hope: they will come and they will say they are sorry we left you and went away – and they will, at last, finally wish me a happy birthday.

Shabnam Samuel Thakar is a writer, a business coach for low income, immigrant women entrepreneurs and is the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in India. She has called the suburbs of Washington D.C home for the last 30 years.

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

The One Where My Father Teaches My Kids To Use a Phonebook

By Francie Arenson Dickman


My children recount my eighty-four-year-old father’s childhood escapades the same way they do the episodes of Friends. The One Where the Dog Took Pop’s Cookie. The One Where Pops Stole the Truck. And their favorite, The One When Pops Quit Camp Freedom Because They Only Served Bologna Sandwiches. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, they flung ’em to us out of the back of a truck like we were dogs,” he tells my kids from his kitchen table in Palm Springs, where I take my kids every winter break.

“Do me a favor,” he tells me each year, “stop bringing them here. There’s nothing to do.” If you’ve ever been to Palm Springs in the winter (or any other time of year for that matter) you know that he’s right. There is nothing to do. Which is why my 14-year-old-daughters end up sitting around the breakfast table for hours every morning listening to him tell stories. My father says it’s like putting them in prison, like Camp Freedom itself. There’s no beach. There’s little sun. There are no other kids for miles around and you can’t show up to the table with your smart phone because not everyone at the table has one. My father hasn’t the faintest idea how to work a smart phone. In fact, during our most recent visit, he showed up to the table with a phone book.

“What is that?” My daughter asked after my father dropped perhaps the last remaining Yellow Pages onto the table. We were deciding, as we do every breakfast, where to go for dinner.

“What do you mean, ‘What is this?’ It’s a phonebook.” He opened the book, shoved it in front of my daughters and added, “How else you gonna make a goddamn reservation?”

My girls studied it like it was something out of King Tut’s tomb as my father sat down, took a bite of his bagel and began to impart knowledge on my kids in subjects and in language that they’re not getting in school.

Breakfast, for my father, is a thing. It’s leftover, I suppose, like he is, from a time when folks had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than sit around the table and tell stories. When I was a kid, he’d get up at the crack of dawn to get the bagels that he and my mother would serve to my grandparents and whichever of my father’s friends came and went during the course of the lazy weekend day. It was the same every winter vacation of my childhood which we spent with my grandparents in Florida. No one had a tee-time or a tennis game to get to. Instead, every morning, we’d sit at a table at the Rascal House Deli where the adults shot-the-shit for hours on end while I watched them chew their bagels and prayed that no one would die.

The same, I’m sure, as my kids do now, as my father huffs and puffs, recovering from the carrying of the phone book. But all the while, they are learning, like I did, despite themselves. From their penance in Palm Springs, they know how to work a dice board, the same way I learned from my time around the table how to smoke a cigar. They know how to drive a car. And we all know how to dance the Charleston.

As my father is the only person they know who doesn’t own a cell phone or have an email address, he is one of the only people my kids know who is 100% present in their presence, 100% of the time. And therefore, so are they in his. They check their phones at the counter, just before the kitchen table where they munch on bacon and fried salami while they listen to his stories, the same ones my brother and I also know by heart. They rely on a regular cast of characters and a predictable plot, that of the underdog overcoming against all odds a series of hardships that tend towards the ridiculous and make his presence at the table nothing shy of a miracle. He is his own serial, a living, breathing situation comedy from which my kids learn (I hope) lessons that I don’t know where they’d learn anywhere else. From the practical—like entertainment need not come from a screen and success need not come from school. To the past—like how FDR ended the depression and the mob created Las Vegas. And for better or worse (there is, after all, The One Where Pops Gets His Mom Out Of Prison), they learn who they are and from where they came, which experts say is important in developing a child’s self esteem and confidence.

So maybe we don’t go zip-lining and we don’t go home with a tan, but in Palm Springs there is no bologna. Only salami and bacon and a perspective that is priceless. Especially now that my kids are teenagers and tend to tune me out. Especially now as their confidence waxes and wanes with the moon, with their identities up for grabs and the pressures of tomorrow upon them. They are, these days, preparing to go to high school, which means making decisions in areas in which they lack the necessary information. What subjects interest them? What activities do they want to do? These decisions domino into bigger ones about where to go to college, and to my anxiety-prone, analytical daughter, they trigger existential ones like, “Will it all turn out okay?” Naturally, they have answers to none of this and their parents’ reassurance carries no weight. But from a survivor of Camp Freedom and everything else, “Take it from me, none of this matters,” is comforting to hear. I can tell from the way they laugh as he talks and they recount throughout the year.

Pops is living proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat, which, in a society ridden with rules and driven by convention and a fear of the road less taken, is a valuable lesson. As valuable as knowing how to use a phonebook. “Just in case those phones or whatever they are stop working,” he explains as he chews his bagel, “you’ll know how to get your hands on a goddamn pizza.”

Author’s Note: I am excited to say that between the time I wrote this piece and now, my father acquired an iPhone. Of course, owning the iPhone and using it are two different things. He is set to start iPhone 101 classes this week. According to my mother, my father says he will attend. However, when asked to comment, he told me only that he is not throwing out his phonebook anytime soon.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


A Namesake for Nonny

A Namesake for Nonny

By Mimi Sager Yoskowitz


At 32 weeks pregnant, I board a Chicago-bound plane from New York, teary eyed and wary about leaving my husband and traveling this late in my pregnancy. I’m heading back to my hometown to celebrate turning 30 with my high school girlfriends. We planned this getaway before I told anyone I was pregnant, so I never raised my concerns about the timing. But the timing turns out to be a blessing of sorts. My 94-year-old grandma has been in and out of the hospital, and this trip provides me with an opportunity to spend time with her.

Nonny’s apartment in the assisted living facility has a view of Lake Michigan. We stare out at the waters together, and she places her wrinkled hand on my burgeoning belly. Just as she settles in to check for some movement, her future great-grandchild kicks out a giant thwack!

“That’s a boy,” she says chuckling.

“You think so, Nonny? How can you tell?” I can’t help but smile.

“It’s so active.” Her tone is matter-of-fact as she rubs my pregnant middle, seeking out more signs of baby.

“All right Nonny, we’ll find out soon enough.”

I wonder if her old-fashioned stereotype will prove to be true. My husband and I are going the traditional route and not finding out the gender of our baby. And so it will be another few weeks before we know if my grandmother’s prophecy is correct.

After I return to Manhattan, Nonny and I start calling each other more frequently. It’s a mutual check-in; we are each concerned with how the other is faring. It seems that while my baby grows each day, getting ready to enter this world, my grandmother becomes weaker, getting ready to leave it.

“Hello?” Nonny answers the phone.

Cars honk and buses screech in the background as I walk home from work, but her voice still comes through stronger than the last time we spoke. Hopefully that means she is doing OK.

“Hi Nonny. How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, you know, Mimi. I’m waiting. I’m waiting until June 1.”

June 1 is my due date, and soon these words become her standard reply every time I ask how she is feeling. It’s just like Nonny to come up with a clever way of expressing her desire without being too emotional. Her love and determination remain strong, even as her heart weakens.

The special bond I share with my grandma dates back to my infancy when I served as a source of comfort as she grieved my grandfather’s sudden death. There are photos of us snuggling on the couch while she reads to me. Those cozy moments on her lap morphed into shopping excursions, sleepovers, and later, after I graduated from college, evening visits when I’d stop by her apartment after work.

As grandmother and granddaughter, we can do no wrong in each other’s eyes. For both of us, she has to meet her great-grandchild who is growing inside of me.  

On Mother’s Day, my husband and I head to Buy Buy Baby to complete our registry and take one more gander through the mega store that seems to hold all the paraphernalia needed to calm our first-time parent jitters. After combing the aisles filled with every possible stroller, breast pump, burp cloth and car seat known to parent-kind, we hail a taxi and head back home.

“Let’s finalize our boy and girl names and be done with it.” I have my husband cornered in the back of the cab. He’s been avoiding a decision, wanting to wait until we are  closer to the due date. Now I waddle instead of walk, and my belly tightens with Braxton Hicks contractions. It’s time to decide.  

During the course of my pregnancy, our conversations about our baby’s name ranged from calm and funny to heated and frustrating. We’ve combed through multiple baby name books, searched the Internet, and drawn up lists. Our preferences vary from the traditional, like Jacob, to the more modern, such as Talia. We discuss naming the baby for the grandparents we have lost, though I’m too superstitious to even consider naming for Nonny. At this point, it’s been weeks since we last broached the subject in any way. But something about that taxi ride seems to do the trick. By the time we arrive at our apartment building, our soon-to-be born baby has a name.

Once upstairs and giddy about our choices, I call Nonny to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. She can’t get to the phone, her caretaker tells me she is sleeping, but I should try again later. For some reason or another, I never do.

My father’s phone call wakes me the next morning.

“She didn’t make it.”

My friend who lives one floor below tells me she heard my wails through the walls.

I beg my doctor to let me go to Chicago for Nonny’s funeral.

“You can’t travel at this late stage of your pregnancy,” she tells me.

We’re too close to that June 1 due date Nonny was trying so hard to reach.

Jewish custom calls for mourners to bury the deceased using a reversed shovel until a mound of dirt forms on the casket. Since I can’t be there in person to say good-bye, my pen acts as the reversed shovel, and my words are the dirt I use to help lay my grandma to rest. My brother reads the eulogy on my behalf, and I listen in from my Manhattan apartment, my cell phone on speaker. It isn’t the same as being there, not nearly, but I hope I’ve given all those gathered a sense of how much Nonny meant to me.

Nonny’s name was Cecelia, though she went by Cel for short. After her funeral, my husband and I toss out the names we finalized on Mother’s Day and come up with a different list of names that begin with “C.” Nonny didn’t make it to see the baby, but my first-born child will be her namesake.

Up until delivery, I debate whether I can name a girl directly for Nonny or if the pain of her loss is too raw for me to call someone else Cecelia, even my own child. But we do choose a boy name, Caleb, which means bold and devoted, two traits my grandmother embodied. She was brave attending law school in the early 1930’s, one of only two women in her class. She was brave when she wed my grandfather in secret at the age of 23. As a medical resident, he was not allowed to be married, but their love transcended the rules. Nonny remained devoted to him up until her last breath, and she always put family first.

It turns out Nonny also was good at predictions. Four days after my original due date, I give birth to a baby boy. Though they won’t ever meet, Nonny and her great-grandson will always be connected by their names that start with the letter “C.”

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz, a former CNN producer, is now a mother to four children ages 10 to 4.  Her writing can be found on, the 2016 “28 Days of Play” series, in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me, and on her blog,

Mourning Alone

Mourning Alone

By Marcelle Soviero


“I don’t want to watch Grammy die,” my son said as he got out of the car, dirt-dusted from his afternoon baseball game.

“I know you don’t buddy.” I took his hand and we walked into the house. “But Grammy had a good life. Ninety-two years is a long life.” My ex-husband Larry’s mother was now in hospice care in Chicago, halfway across the country, and Larry wanted the children to be able to have their last good-byes.

I gathered my three children, Johnny, Olivia and Sophia, ages 9, 10 and 11, into the living room; I got a good look at the three of them seated in a row on the couch, each face punctuated with worry. Tear dots on Olivia’s cheeks.

My ex-husband Larry would be here in an hour to go to the airport. Though I had been divorced eight years, I had long adored my mother-in-law, and I was sad of course, but perhaps even more anxious than sad. I was unraveling knowing I would not be a part of what would be my children’s first attendance at a funeral. But this isn’t about me, I thought. Then again, somehow it was. This would be a major event in my children’s life, their first experience with a death, besides our family pet, and I would not be there.

I had asked Larry if I should go, but I knew I would not, our divorce had been court-worthy contentious, and we still spoke only if we had to. No, we would not fly as if a family to Chicago, instead the children would have their father—a no doubt distracted father—to care and console them. Who would really watch the children on the plane?

But it was more than this. Larry did not believe in a heaven of any sort; our misshapen souls do not rise. I knew matter-of-fact answers would be the only consolation offered from father to child—the details of the aorta, collapsed ventricles and how blood circulates through the body. I knew this because just after Larry and I married, my father had died young of heart failure. Mourning his death was made harder by the fact that Larry would not support speculation on an afterlife, while heaven was the only concept that was helping me through it. After a few weeks, Larry had told a tortured me that I needed to move on. I knew then that the marriage would end, not then, but soon.

“It will be hard to say goodbye to Grammy,” I said to the kids now believing each sentence I spoke would invite more questions in their minds. Perhaps I was hoping for that. Evoking questions and memories so they could mourn with me in advance. I knew Larry would get through it, his coping mechanism would be to intellectualize the death.

“She’ll die and we will never see her again?” Johnny said.

“That’s right, but she had a good long life.”

“Will Daddy be busy being sad?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But he will be OK I promise.”

Johnny twirled the fringe on the couch pillow. I sifted my words, deliberately dumbing them down in an effort to explain the unexplainable.

“I believe in heaven,” I said. “Your father may think differently and that is OK. You can believe what you want to believe.” I went on and on, this would be my only chance to ever tell my side of the heaven story. “Every time you think of Grammy she will be alive again in your memory.”

The concept of heaven wasn’t an entirely new idea for my children, we’d lost our dog years back, which had required some explanation on my part. I was able to persuade Larry then that the children did not have to hear the clinical aspects of how our dog died.  

“Grammy will be watching you from another place, she will see you grow. She will watch over you, you’ll talk with her in your mind, not face to face.”

“I love Grammy,” Johnny said.

“Me too buddy,” I said. Then I surprised myself by taking out every cliché I had in my purse—This is for the best, Grammy will be at peace soon—until I was clichéd out.

Larry came to get the kids at 6:00. Again came the clichés, I was so sorry she was nearing the end. How could I help? Polite conversation, then me escorting the children gently to the car, remembering every other time I piled them into the car to see Larry on his weekends.

The Jeep etched out of the driveway, and I went back inside. I cried anticipating the sadness my children would carry witnessing their grandmother’s death. I cried finally too for my mother-in-law. She was a charming character with good intentions, our only contentious moments being my decision not to breastfeed any of her grandchildren, and my decision to divorce her son. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to him,” she once said, my first and only Jewish mother.

An hour later Sophia texted me. They were at the airport—Grammy died. They had not yet boarded the plane. Neither they or Larry would have a chance for that one last visit.

I clenched my hands, which had already begun to sweat, the kids would not get to say goodbye to Grammy after all. I selfishly consoled myself with thoughts that their grief would be closer to home, closer to me now. Grammy was from New York, the services would be here so they would not board a flight and mourn across the country.

The next day Larry texted the particulars. The services would be on Wednesday.  

Nine-year-old Johnny got on the phone next with questions.

“Yes honey, the funeral will be in two days, on Wednesday,” I said.

“Did Grammy go to heaven already or will she go on Wednesday?” he asked.


Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child Magazine. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Gary Rockett /

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

Sharing Photographs of Our Grandmommy

By Jennifer Palmer

I recently found an image of my husband’s grandmother stashed away, hidden on some forgotten corner of my hard drive. I was purging; after years of simply dragging and dropping files from my camera to my computer without bothering to sort, I had many gigabytes of mediocre pictures needing to find a home in the recycle bin. I was flipping through old memories quickly—next, delete, next, delete—when this particular image jumped out at me, gave me a moment’s pause. It is not good in any technical or artistic sense; the light was dim and I did not use a flash and so the image is grainy, the faces blurred ever so slightly. It should not have survived my sweep, and yet it held my attention, demanded my contemplation. I did not delete it.

The photo was taken six years ago, when Grandmommy was in her early eighties. In it, she is hunched, bent slightly at the waist. Her poor posture is not due to age, though that would certainly be a reasonable excuse; after eight decades on this Earth, one earns the right to stoop. No, she leans forward for an obvious purpose: she has a hold of two of her great-grandchildren, cousins of mine, one small hand clasped in each of her own. The kids are young. The girl sports the holey grin of one recently visited by the tooth fairy; the boy is barely past the age of diapers. Grandmommy’s eyebrows are raised, her mouth open with a hint of a smile, her face forming that expression of excitement and fun adults so often assume when indulging a child they love. They form a circle, two blonde heads and one gray.


Other photos in the series offer a fuller explanation of what is happening: in one, the three of them are walking in a circle, in another, they’re seated on the floor. Or rather, the kids are. Grandmommy is bent nearly double, feet still planted, her hands touching the ground so that the human chain remains intact. Ring around the rosy, then, played together while waiting for supper to be served. A children’s game, reserved for those who are very young and those who are young at heart, captured in a moment of pure innocence. The participants are unaware of the camera, unaware of the bustle of food preparation in the background, unaware of anything, really, except each other and the circle they form.


This is a group of images worth keeping, worth sharing.

My hard drive is home to another group of images worth sharing, this set more carefully taken, more lovingly preserved. Five and a half years after the ring around the rosy series, it is now 2014, and, though you can’t tell from the photographs, the intervening half decade has not been kind to Grandmommy. Age has taken its toll. Dementia has set in, devouring memories and leaving nothing but confusion in its wake. A fall and resulting broken hip have made mobility for Grandmommy more of a challenge. But the woman in the photographs does not look much different from the one who played with her great-grandchildren a few years earlier. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think no time has passed at all.

Grandmommy sits in a rocking chair in the corner of a room, the walls behind her a pale green hue found only in hospitals. She holds the tiniest of swaddled bundles in her lap—my daughter, just two days old. There are many photographs of the two of them together, taken one after another; a moment such as this, the meeting of one so very young and one so very old, does not happen every day. Most of the images depict what you might expect from such a moment. The baby lies in Grandmommy’s arms, asleep, oblivious to the world around her. Grandmommy’s head tilts downward, her gaze fixed on her great-granddaughter’s face. The scene is one of tranquility, of peace, of wonder.

My favorite photo in the series, however, is the first—the only one in which Grandmommy is not looking at the baby at all. Instead, she looks up and out of the frame, as if at someone who didn’t make it into the shot. Her mouth tips up in a grin, her eyes alight with an unspoken question, and her hands wrap protectively around the little one in her lap. She is a young child clasping some precious treasure, an heirloom doll, perhaps, or an antique rattle, something far too special for her to hold. She impishly begs an older and wiser adult if she can keep it. The Grandmommy in the photograph does not seem to remember she has difficulty walking, or that her memory is fading, and she is no longer able to care for an infant, even for an hour. She cannot recall the work involved in changing diapers, in middle-of-the-night feedings. She has forgotten much, but the look in her eyes implies that she remembers this, at least: that children are precious, that the world is a fascinating place, that there is plenty in our lives that is worthy of reverence.


I have other photographs of her, of course, images with her beside Granddaddy at his 90th birthday celebration; of her reading a picture book to a great-grandson, the younger sibling of those who played ring-around-the-rosy; of her wearing a paper headdress clearly fashioned by young hands, made for fun from a child’s imagination and worn out of a great-grandmother’s love. But these two groups of pictures—of her playing ring around the rosy, of her delighted with the baby in her arms—embody Grandmommy to me more than the others. Gracious, gentle, kind. A lover of children. An observer of the world, not afraid to lose herself in wonder.

Grandmommy passed away this week. I did not know her as well as I wish I had, to my shame and regret. Feeble though the excuse sounds in my ears now, modern life got in the way with all of its distraction and obligation, and kept me from making the time I should have made. Still, even as she aged and her memories slipped away, the core of who she was remained true. These photographs, moments frozen in time, were taken when she was unaware she was being watched, when her defenses and masks were stripped away. They capture this woman, reveal her heart and her spirit to those who will take the time to look. Until her final days, she maintained her fascination with the world and her love for children and babies. Though befuddled and confused, she remained cordial and loving, becoming ever more childlike in her wonder for the smallest things and people around her. Though she is gone now, the images remain, a testament to who she was, to the treasure hidden beneath the surface.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Author’s Note: Grandmommy passed away on January 15, 2015, and I wrote this piece shortly thereafter. Though the emotions surrounding her death are no longer fresh, the traits I highlighted here stand out ever more clearly in my memories of her. I hope that who I am at the core, when everything else is stripped away, will be as kind and gentle and loving as Grandmommy was. It seems fitting, somehow, to honor her memory with this essay, one year later, and I’m grateful to Brain, Child for including me in their grandparent blog series.

Jennifer Palmer lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter. Her essays have appeared online at Mamalode, Good Housekeeping, and Brain, Child. She writes about finding the beauty in everyday life at Choosing This Moment

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

I Think My Grandmother Has Forgotten

By Patrice Gopo


On the two-hour drive to my sister’s house, I tell my older daughter about the time my grandmother slaughtered my pet chicken. My husband’s hands hold the steering wheel, and my toddler sleeps with her cheek pressed against her car seat. But my six-year-old focuses on the story about the woman we will soon see sitting on the couch in my sister’s home.

“A family friend gave your auntie and me a chicken,” I tell my daughter. I then explain how one day when my sister and I were away at school, my grandmother walked with her machete to the makeshift coop in our backyard. She grabbed the chicken and chopped off its head.

“Then Gong Gong cooked it for dinner,” my daughter adds using the same name my grandmother called her own grandmother long ago in rural Jamaica. My daughter has heard the story before, and she doesn’t flinch at the chicken’s beheading.

“Yes, Gong Gong made a curry out of it.” I chuckle at the thought of my grandmother’s no-nonsense behavior. Her life in rural Jamaica happened decades before I was born, far from the suburban American neighborhood where I grew up. I imagine she struggled to believe that a chicken was supposed to be a pet. I can also imagine that an activity like slaughtering a chicken must be similar to riding a bicycle. Even if decades have passed since one last killed an animal, a person can’t forget the way the hand holds the feathered body. Or the way the opposite hand grasps the smooth, wooden handle of the machete.

Except a person can forget, and I think my grandmother has forgotten.

*   *   *

When I was about eight and my grandmother a bit past 60, she called her daughter-in-law—my mother—and said she was going to retire and come help my parents care for my sister and me. She left New York City, her home since leaving Jamaica, and came to Anchorage, Alaska, the place my parents settled after my father’s time in the military. With two working parents in our home, my grandmother shouldered many duties, easing the strains of managing life. She walked my sister and me to the bus stop and was there when we came home in the afternoon. What I remember most, though, is the way her hands spent their days in a whirlwind of motion: holding the handle of a hot iron as she pressed my father’s work shirts, twirling a wooden spoon while she stirred substances in great cast iron pots, hovering over a vegetable garden plucking weeds. Even in rest, she sat with word search puzzles in her lap, a pencil in her hand, making quick circles around the found words.

The color of my grandmother’s hands is brown like mine but with a tint of sunlight. These days she sits with those golden hands folded in her lap, no longer twitching or looking for something to make the fingers move. Now she doesn’t long for pulling weeds in a garden. And if my daughter had a chicken, her Gong Gong wouldn’t remember the steps to transform the pet into a fragrant curry dinner.

Why does the brain do this? When the brain decides to forget, to carve out gaps in memory, why does it leave the hands idle?

Once upon a time my grandmother came to help my parents care for their children. Now the years have passed and the roles have changed. My grandmother lives with my sister who helps her get ready in the morning, reminds her to take her medicine, and offers her more water to drink. From time to time, my sister even wipes my grandmother’s tears away when she remembers how much she forgets.

My older daughter was in preschool when my grandmother came to live with my sister. In those early months my sister and I talked about the similarities in our caretaking roles. The overlap as we both cajoled others to eat or go bathe or both.

As time has passed, though, I have watched my daughter develop greater independence and shoulder her own responsibilities. And my sister has watched the eager help my grandmother’s hands once offered diminish. Instead my grandmother sinks into the couch while the sounds of old television shows fill the living room and transport her to the past.

*   *   *

At the end of our drive, my sister answers my daughters’ pounding fists, and my girls leap through the front door. A dance of hugs ensues, and my grandmother rises from her spot on the couch. Her smile is wide across her face, and I know my sister will tell me later that Grandma had a good day because we came to visit.

“TC,” my grandmother says, standing in front of me with her hands pressed against my shoulders. She stares at me, her eyes a soft sparkle. I smile at her use of my old nickname. She stares a moment longer before adding, “It’s been so long since I last saw you. So long.” Her hands drop from my shoulders, and her arms curl around my waist, bringing me into a hug.

“Yes, Grandma, it’s been so long,” I say to her just like I said last month.

In the kitchen, my oldest daughter says to her aunt, “Gong Gong asks the same questions again and again.” I hear silence and know my sister pauses, taking a moment to gather her words. I’m glad my family lives close enough that we can make this trip often. There is a sweet joy that comes when I watch my grandmother’s face brighten at the appearance of my daughters. Even more I think of the lessons of life, love, and family my daughters discover during these times.

“She asks the same thing over and over,” I hear my daughter say again.

“Yes,” my sister explains. “Gong Gong’s brain is sick. She has a hard time remembering things.”

My daughter accepts this answer. Later, when we all are leaving a museum and walking down the sidewalk to the parking lot, I hear my daughter call, “Wait, Mommy. Don’t forget Gong Gong.” I turn and see my grandmother lagging behind.

While there are no guarantees about what the mind will do in the future, today I don’t forget. I tell my daughter about my grandmother’s hands that were once in constant motion. I pour over my daughter stories my grandmother no longer remembers. Perhaps one day my grandchild will speak to her daughter the stories I no longer remember.

Now, though, I stare up the sidewalk at the generation ahead of me and the generation behind. “I’m coming, Gong Gong,” my daughter says. She runs back and slides her smooth fingers into her great-grandmother’s wrinkled hand. I watch them, linked together by laced palms, walking toward the rest of their family.

Patrice Gopo‘s recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Full Grown People, and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina with her family.


The Perks of Being a Grandmother

The Perks of Being a Grandmother

By Susan McCoy


“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”


Monday afternoon is Scrabble day. My 12-year-old grandson Jax and I hole up for a couple of hours at a local coffee shop for serious word competition. Well, perhaps I’m overstating … friendly, word building is a more accurate description.

This past Monday, after setting up the board, we went to the counter. The owner smiled, “Hi, ready for your game? You two want the usual? Hot Chocolate with marshmallows?” (He’s got us down. We are what you would call: regulars.)

Scrabble between us began this past fall and, as I said, I made sure my grandson knew that vocabulary building is the intent. During the first couple months he played open dictionary—this variant, dictionary use, was my idea and I thought using it would keep him on a level playing field. I recall those first few games me saying: Let’s not worry about who wins. We’ll go for improving our personal score each week. Deal?

I thought he had agreed. Me, I continued babbling about how fun it would be to play for the joy of making words and improving. I went so far as to discuss sportsmanship, like if he drew a challenging combination of letters. In fact, in the beginning games, we strategized together instead of staring blankly at a rack of lackluster tiles, for example: iiiiooe—boo hiss.

About 30 minutes into Monday’s game, an employee stopped by our table, chatting us up a bit. Who’s winning? Every week, someone asked that question: Who is winning? Why does everything have to be about winning?

I humbly adjusted my halo, “Oh we play to improve our vocabulary … the score doesn’t matter.” I offered a smile. How could anyone expect a twelve-year-old to beat an ole Scrabble fan like me?

Glancing over at Jax, I noticed he was studying his letters not even aware that a question had been asked.

He was taking a long time with his play. “Do you want me to look at your letters?” I asked sweetly.

“No, I want to figure it out myself.”

“Well, remember, you can use the dictionary if you want.”

“No, I’m okay.”

He reorganized the tiles several times on his rack, stopped, then bit his upper lip suppressing a smile. He looked at me, smiled full out and plunked down the word: perkish. The “k” covered a double letter, the “h” on a triple word and also joined to the word “ut” at the right angle forming “hut”—yes, another triple word. And, since he used all seven letters, a 50-point bonus was allowed.

Arrgh … my back straightened.

“Perkish? Is that a word … perkish?” I was taken back at the play.

“Well, if you are perky then can’t you be sort of perky?” We locked eyeballs. “That would be perkish,” he stated in a matter of fact tone.

I grabbed the dictionary. Yes, I knew we are playing for fun but … what kind of derivative of perky was that?

The answer to that question: perkish is not in Webster’s nor Oxford Dictionaries (I know this because later that evening, I looked it up at home—and, yes, I recognize what this says about me; don’t remind me) BUT, it is in the Scrabble Dictionary. And, according to Scrabble, a person can be sort of perky.

I added up his score: 131 points. I added it again … are you kidding me? 131 points. I also lost my next turn for questioning the move and being proved wrong.

“Well, Grandma,” he smiled, “at least you improved your vocabulary.”

“You are so not using a dictionary for help ever again,” I mumbled. I scrutinized my next play.

“I didn’t use the dictionary,” he said quietly as he pulled seven letters from the black felt bag.

His final score: 414. Yes, 414!

Vocabulary be damned. (The halo is not remotely near me and likely never has been.) The guidelines have now officially changed. Monday’s game will no longer be “sort of” anything to do with me demurely correcting folks who ask about the score.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the coffee shop also serves beer and wine … could become my new “regular” order. Hmm, I’ll have to remember that: “regular” is a seven-letter word. I could place the “go” on a triple letter, put the “r” on a triple word a word, and receive the 50-point bonus. A perkish move, wouldn’t you say?

(A final note:  I have had to hit the ignore key six times when spell checking this article.)

Susan McCoy is an author and teacher who lives part of each year on an island in the Straits of Mackinaw. 

Ground-Level Memories

Ground-Level Memories

By Jennifer Fliss


When I ran a search for “parents with disabilities,” all that came back were articles and experiences on raising a child with disabilities. Scores and scores and scores and probably not nearly enough if you are the parent of a child with special needs. But still, it was not what I was looking for.

I am a full-able-bodied new mother. However, my own mother, who lives nearby and wants to play a visible role in her granddaughter’s life, is not. She is 62 and walks, not very well, with a walker. What started as a limp when she was young has degenerated to an almost lack of mobility in her legs. As a child, I was bullied and only one of the frequent taunting refrains was about my mother being a “cripple.” As if that made her less of a person. As if that made me, her child, less of a person.

It is true that it has made things difficult. For years I’ve had to help her with stairs, walk her to the bathroom, provide the sturdy arm that I always thought should be the parents’ responsibility to their children. It is something I struggle with. Often. But it is also something I’ve had to just get over. Be okay with. Not easy.

When I moved from New York to Seattle, my mother followed. When I had a baby, naturally she wanted to spend time with her grandchild. Isn’t that what so many grandparents want? But how would this work? What would she do? There would be no bouncing on the knee, no pushing in swings (as I remember my mother doing for me, while singing Elvis songs), no walks to the duck pond (as I had done with my beloved grandmother), and later, no bowling or trips to amusement parks.

Of course, going through my mind were frustrations when people would say “Oh, it must be so nice to have help nearby.” The thing is, I couldn’t trust my mother to hold my daughter. In her thin and shaking arms, I was sure she would drop her. I certainly couldn’t get a breather while grandma watched over a sleeping or crying newborn. When out of my mind caring for my colicky girl, I desperately needed the help I thought a mother should provide. But, I couldn’t get it. Yes, she wanted to help. She bought us a stroller, a car seat, and myriad other baby items. But I wanted more than that. I wanted what money could not buy. I wanted someone who would hold me and tell me I was doing a great job and here, why don’t I watch her and you get a break, some sleep Sweetheart. But those fantasies never came to fruition. If my mother came to my house, I had to watch over my baby and my mother. And in that selfish time, I just couldn’t.

So, that led me to my Google search. There had to be parents or grandparents with disabilities and challenges like my mother’s. What did they do? How did they do? Surely there was some kind of online support network with resources. Here is a little game Grandma can play with an eight month old. Look at this new gadget that makes it easier to hold a baby for someone with such little body strength. Read this story on this fantastic parent and her experiences and how wonderful her children turned out. Nothing. The digital version of crickets.

What do I do then? I still struggle selfishly, but as a parent, my selfishness must be put aside for the benefit of my daughter. So, I do what I can to foster their relationship. I bring my now thirteen month old daughter to Grandma’s apartment. I set her on the ground, at the same level as her grandmother. And they laugh together. I’m never very far away. If I’m lucky I can sit up on the couch, check my email, read a book. We have gotten a wheelchair for my mother that allows us to go on walks with her. Baby in a carrier or baby backpack, or if my husband is with us, in a stroller and granddaughter and grandma tour the park next to each other, laughing at the ducks or pointing out the resident elusive heron.

I am never going to have a fully-physically able-bodied mother. It is still going to bother me sometimes; the unfairness of it. But I’m also an adult, one that, I think, turned out pretty well, despite my mother’s declining difficulties. Maybe it’s helped me learn compassion. Maybe I understand that others have situations that are worse. I have a mother. And she lives just up the street, less than a mile away. And walking doesn’t mean loving and holding doesn’t mean laughing. She cannot walk. She cannot hold her granddaughter. But she can love and she can laugh and together, they’ll make wonderful ground-level memories.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based new mother, writer, reader, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze. She has written for book blogs, including The Well Read Fish and BookerMarks and other publications.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

Big Grief

Big Grief

By Jenna Hatfield


While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me.


I’ve known grief.

I’ve fought it off, angry and afraid in the same breath. I’ve wallowed in it, allowing it to wrap me up in its dark cloak of solitude. I’ve ignored it, pretending it away for a moment, for longer.

I thought the sudden loss of my grandfather and two of my husband’s relatives in quick succession felt unbearable. Different than the loss of my daughter to adoption, these beloved figures in my life were simply gone. I dreamed of my grandfather’s voice, of riding in cars with him as I did as a child.

But grief, as it does, ebbs and flows, and while I missed my grandfather, I felt whole again.

Until my grandmother, his wife, died last June.

I grew up on a farm with my grandparents. They lived just across the driveway for the first seven years of my life, and then down a great big hill when my parents built a new house. I spent my after school hours with my grandma, helping her start dinner, watching television, playing with her dogs. She made my formal dresses as I grew into a teenager, helped me get ready for proms, brought a suit up to college for an important event, and worked diligently on the decorations for my wedding.

Even though it should have occurred to me she would someday be gone, it didn’t.

My grandmother always stood as a strong, positive fixture in my life. Sure, she told me how my brown 1990s lipstick didn’t match my skin tone (she was right) and ragged on my nose ring and tattoos, but she lifted me up in so many other ways. She taught me to sew. She sent beautiful letters when I felt homesick in college. She sat with me in the hospital when I first became sick during my pregnancy with my daughter; her presence during that time calmed me then and soothes me now.

The final diagnosis of renal cancer caught the entire family off guard, but it wasn’t until I made it to the hospital the day before she entered hospice that I allowed myself to believe my grandmother was, in fact, dying. I held her hand in mine and knew she would leave us soon. Two days later, my grandmother passed away.

For ten months I’ve been waiting for it to get better, this grief and grieving, this loss of someone who mattered so much in my life. She too appears to me in dreams, sometimes with my grandfather and often times without. Recently we sat on her back porch and watched her dog chase chipmunks.

I miss those little things.

I cry when I make macaroni and cheese the way she taught me. I feel a heavy weight of sadness when I need help picking new curtains and she’s not there to call. I miss her so much some days I feel a physical pain.

“But she’s just your grandma. It’s not like she was your mom.”

I’ve heard it, and I’ve even whispered it to myself on hard days. My mother is still very much alive, dealing with her own grief of having lost her mother-in-law and mother just four months apart. Yes, my mother is still with me for what I hope is a long, long time.

While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me. In our weekly telephone calls as an adult, she offered me advice on dealing with fussy babies and stubborn toddlers. “You’re doing such a great job raising those boys,” she told me regularly. She listened, she comforted, she mothered.

While walking in the cemetery with my seven-year-old son recently, he asked a series of questions about life, death, and the afterlife. He talked of missing my grandmother, his Big Mamaw, as the boys called her. I let him talk and process, as I do every time we end up here, and added my own bits of understanding, sadness, and question-prompting.

“I just miss her. Like, I BIG miss her. You know, for BIG Mamaw,” he said, never missing a step.

I nodded, a bit too choked up to respond in the immediacy. I let the words he spoke hang over us both as we walked past gravestones of people long gone before either of us entered this world. I assume we all have someone—or even someones—we will Big Miss when they die. It matters not how directly they were related or if at all.

What matters, I suspect, is that we loved them in the first place. Learning to feel the presence of that love without the presence of that person slowly helps the grief feel less Big, what turns the Big Grief into just grief and the grief into missing and the missing into pleasant memories.

For now, I work on getting out of the Big Grief stage by allowing myself to feel, to write, to do what I need to do in this moment. She would be proud of me for that.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo: Breno Machado


A Quiz For My New Mom Millennial Daughter

A Quiz For My New Mom Millennial Daughter

By Nancy L. Wolf




Question 1: Who do you think changed the great majority of your diapers when you were an infant?

A. The Tooth Fairy.

B. No one, you were toilet-trained at birth.

C. Not your dad who slept through the night with ease when you didn’t.

D. Me, your mom.


Question 2: If your answer to Question 1 was (as it should be) “D”, then Why Do You Feel the Need to Instruct Me Every Single Time on How to Change the Diapers of My New Grandson?

A. Because Diaper Technology has significantly evolved since you were born in 1984.

B. Because I failed to correctly apply the organic diaper rash cream.

C. Because I did not line up the diaper tabs with exact precision.

D. Because you have a Type A Personality (as you have had since you were born in 1984.)


Question 3: What is the optimal millennial mom approach to Baby Bedtime?

A. To sigh heavily because your mom should know without having to be told precisely what time the baby should be placed in his crib.

B. To tell your mom that the baby must be placed in his crib at exactly 7:00 p.m. or there will be consequences.

C. If you are out, and when you return, your mom is still playing with the baby who is not in his crib and it is already 7:10 p.m., to wag your finger and tap your watch in annoyance.

D. All of the Above.


Question 4: If your baby is “accidentally” fed a tiny bit of ice cream at age 7 months, what should you do?

A. Scold your dad.

B. Tell your dad that dairy products (other than breast milk) have not yet been tested on his new grandson.

C. Email your dad three scientific studies to read on the perils of giving ice cream to a baby.

D. Relax and say, “how sweet, Dad, look how he likes it?”

E. A, B and/or C but not D.


Question 5: If your baby is accidentally placed in his crib with his swaddling blanket not fully secured by parentally-related, Saturday night unpaid babysitters, your options include:

A. Promptly take an iPhone photo of the offending swaddling for evidence purposes.

B. Call your mom and dad early on Sunday morning to find out which of them was guilty of the improper swaddling.

C. Complain that the baby did not sleep well, even if he did, because his swaddling came loose.

D. All of the above.


Question 6: If you have (God willing) a second baby, you will learn from your experience with baby #1 and in the future will:

A. Not be upset at your mom and dad if they never figure out how to operate the latest model baby video monitor.

B. Try to understand that your parents actually managed to raise you without any assistance from mommy blogs, parenting websites or new mom list servs and look how well you turned out.

C. Realize that you are doing an amazing job as a new mother even if your son fails to appreciate the homemade kale, quinoa, avocado puree you keep trying to feed him—so Relax a bit!

D. Know that you have made your own mom and dad incredibly thrilled to be new grandparents.


Nancy L. Wolf is a Mom of Two Adult Kids, a New Nana and an Ecstatic Empty Nester who recently returned to writing after too many years spent as a Washington DC lawyer. You can find her Blog at



Relationships That Can Never Be

Relationships That Can Never Be

By Jennifer Palmer

Relationships 2

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.


She sits on his lap, tiny fingers reaching first for his own age-spotted ones, then for his starched plaid collar, then for his mouth, which curves up as her touch flits across his cheek. Her head follows her hand, slowly traveling up until their gazes lock. The look lasts only a moment before she is drawn once again by his shirt, dropping her head and her hand to examine the stiff fabric. I wonder whether some special understanding was reached there, in that instant when their eyes met, some knowledge passed from one to the other that none of the rest of us could comprehend, or if it was just a glance, a chance look not registered or remembered.

My pragmatic side thinks it must surely be the latter; neither of them is likely to remember this encounter for any significant length of time. She is only seven months old, after all, and at ninety-five, his mind just doesn’t hold on to things as it once did. Still, I hope that I am wrong. I hope somehow, my daughter has formed some special connection with her great-grandfather. Though she may not keep conscious memories of this gentle man, I hope, at some level, these brief moments might settle into her heart and soul and she would be better for it.

Before long, she tires of sitting on this stranger’s lap and she twists her head around to look for me. Though I want to draw this moment out, I also want it to end well, so I swoop down and pick her up before her agitation turns to tears. She clings to my sweater with one small fist, looks over my shoulder to grin at him as I move away, and his face lights up to match hers.

The moment passes and life continues and all too soon, our weekend visit has come to an end. This one brief encounter may be the only time he ever holds her, for the drive is long and his days are short and who knows if we will make this trek again before his time on earth is done?

*   *   *

It grieves me some, the thought that she will never really know her great-grandfather this side of eternity. It is likely she will never know any of her great-grandparents; of the eight of them, five left this earth before she was even born. The remaining three are all in their nineties and age, cruel tyrant that it is, has already robbed them of so much. Even should she have memories of them that survive to adulthood, they will not be of the fun, wise, loving, creative, quirky people her dad and I had the privilege of knowing as we grew, but rather they will be some hazy shadow, some half-glimpsed vision of easy chairs and wrinkles and age.

It cuts both ways, this knife does, for they would have loved to have known her, too. I stand in the middle, having known and loved all eight of her great-grandparents, having also been entrusted with the care of this girl of mine, and I long to turn back time somehow, to work some magic so that these beloved people might be more than just a story to her, more than just old photographs, so that she might charm them with her big brown eyes and her sweet little chuckle and the adorable way she wrinkles her nose when she grins.

Time continues her relentless march, however, always forward, never back, and so such relationships between generations must only ever live in the world of dreams.

*   *   *

My daughter will never know any of her great-grandparents, and this saddens me. Still, I know her story is not my story and this is a good thing. Her life will be supported by a different cast of characters than my own and there will be those—please, God, let it be so—who will be to her what my grandparents were to me. Though I see her in my dad’s dad’s lap and mourn what will not be, she will likely never feel the lack; young as she is, she is already surrounded by many opportunities for rich and meaningful relationships. Her future is bright, her possibilities endless.

And yet, this is one aspect of parenting I never really considered before my daughter was born: that those who have meant the most to me might mean very little to her, that she may never even have the opportunity to meet many of the people who have played important roles in making me who I am today. She comes from a rich legacy of love and faith and family, and yet she will only ever know the key figures in that history through old stories, the stuff of myth and legend, not of flesh and bone.

There will be many relationships, many experiences, many passions and loves I will want to share with her in the years to come which will mean little to her, whether due to a difference in age or personality or preference. As she grows, she will diverge from me more and more, rely on me less and less, and I think this must be the heart of this melancholy I feel: she is yet an infant, and already I feel this break between my life experiences and her own, between those I love and those she will love. Already I feel her slipping away from me, moving on and growing up.

Of course this is a good thing. Of course this is the ultimate goal of parenting: to help her discover who she is, to help her learn how to be a kind and loving and productive member of a civilized society, to help her find and develop the skills she needs to make her own way in this world. Of course it is, and I will rejoice each step of the way even as I mourn the too-quick passage of time. I’ve known from the first time I saw her, a tiny teddy bear on the green-gray screen in the doctor’s office, that she is her own person and that the world is better for it. I just didn’t expect to feel the separation pangs so soon, when she is still so little.

She will grow and she will change and before I know it, I will no longer be the center of her world, and this will be a good thing. And one day, a day not so far in the future, I fear, her own son or daughter will sit in the lap of someone she loves—my dad, perhaps, or my husband’s—and she will wish for a wand to turn back time, for a way to create space for relationships that can never be.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Me’me’ Mondays

Me’me’ Mondays

By Priscilla F. Bourgoine

imageMondays have become my favorite day of the week. This is thanks to my older daughter and son-in-law for asking me to take care of my grandson.

Since last October, I have driven down from New Hampshire to Boston to spend the day with my baby grandson, while my daughter and son-in-law go to work. With the arrival of April weather and his turning ten-months-old, my daughter and I have been brainstorming about events I can share with Jacob.

Outings were a staple of how I mothered my own three children, how my own mom mothered us, and can be traced back at least two more generations. My mom gave my brother and me a kaleidoscope of new activities, sprinkled with the notion that curiosity about life, shared together, created joy. She encouraged us to step out into the world with her and go beyond our fears of the unknown: riding the train into Manhattan to stand in the grandness of the 42nd Street library, hiking mini-parts of the Appalachian Trail, fishing with bamboo rods, at dusk, along the jetty at Stamford’s Cove Beach, and she brought us to the circus at Madison Square Garden. She had a backstage pass. We held hands and stood inches from the ferocious tigers in their cages.

One of my fondest outings was picking strawberries. My Scottish great-Aunt Teen and her older sister, my Gram, visited us during my first summer living in New Hampshire. My parents had shed their Connecticut roots for the bucolic state of pine trees and lakes, during my sophomore year of high school.

That New Hampshire summer, the Scottish sisters decided to resurrect an activity their mother used to do with them. My mom drove all of us in her station wagon to the local farm. Side by side, Aunt Teen and Gram, instructed us in how to snap the berry from its plant. I plunked handfuls of plump strawberries into our bucket, and I popped some into my mouth. Sweet juice danced on my thirsty tongue. The strong sun burned my sore arms, and the berries stained my fingertips deep red. We had begged to stop. Gram and her sister had told us “Aye, just a wee bit more.” Then, they laughed. In the afternoon, at our home, they had taught us how to make preserves with a pressure cooker, a skill I haven’t duplicated, but one I am glad I learned. Since then, anytime I have bitten into the fleshy meat of a berry, I have been transported to that June day where I knelt in the dusty rows of that farm with my Great Aunt, Gram, and my mom. My remembrance of their Scottish voices soothes me with the notes of their faded melodies.

Bagpipes hummed in the distance this Monday morning, April 21st 2014, Patriots’ Day. My daughter and son-in-law and I had agreed today’s parade would make a great first outing. Jacob napped extra-long. He was probably exhausted from a weekend of Passover and Easter celebrations.

Sleepy-eyed, I zipped Jacob up in his teddy-bear jacket and carried him outside. The blue sky covered cool crisp air with a promise of warmth. Fans soldiered along the sidewalk toward the Alewife T- Station to ride downtown to the Boylston Street Finish Line, the battlefield of last year’s bombings; their arms loaded with clear plastic bags, filled with survival blankets and clean, cushioned socks for their Marathoners.

I covered Jacob’s lap with a quilt, and steered his stroller away from the apartment, as if I was on reconnaissance to locate costumed Rebels or band members or clowns, roaming the streets after the parade disbanded. In a few moments, the intersection with the main road was in view. Blue strobe lights flashed from a police car, which crept along Massachusetts Avenue.

“Hold on Jakey!” I said. I turned my fast walk into a sprint and dug deep to resurrect my decades ago skill in the fifty-yard dash. I huffed and puffed. The moment we landed near the intersection, we saw Paul Revere in his triangular black hat with his cape flowing, mounted on a chestnut horse. Two other period-clothed riders flanked Paul. In a flash, the entourage passed us. I found myself running along the sidewalk with the horse escort. Less than two blocks later, my legs ached, my breathing forced, I changed to a walking pace, resigned to the fact that once a sprinter, not always a sprinter. I’m a grandmother now, so I may have slowed a bit. The horses disappeared around the curve at Arlington Center.

While I am pleased I exposed Jacob to a little bit of history today and stimulated his curiosity, I’m not sure whether he enjoyed the man with the funny hat riding horseback or if he was more captivated by the blue strobe lights from the police car.  I’ll take either, because both were new experiences. Mission accomplished. The point was reveling in the joy of doing something new together.

This sunny April day reminds me strawberry season will arrive soon. While it has been years since I took my own children to the farm, when my grandson is older, and with all the grandchildren to come, I will take them strawberry picking and, under the warmth of a summer day, I will egg them on to pluck ripe berries “a wee bit more.”

Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist outside of Boston and, offers web therapy through a Manhattan company. She earned a MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Priscilla lives with her husband in southern New Hampshire. 

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Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

image-1Friends warned me that parenthood changes everything.  I understood and accepted that parenthood would change me, but I didn’t understand that parenthood’s influence was even greater than that.  Parenthood has transformed my parents, my vacations, my house, and my relationship with coffee.  Parenthood has even transformed words I formerly considered synonyms into words that mean drastically different things.

Parenthood changes everything.

Quiet vs. Silence

Before children, silence and quiet were relatively interchangeable.  Silence just meant deeper quiet.  Now I believe the difference between quiet and silence should be taught in every pre-natal parenting class.  Putting a diaper on wrong or forgetting to burp the baby can lead to trouble.  But, that trouble is nothing compared to the trouble that mistaking silence for quiet can cause.

Quiet means children are focused.  Quiet means children are sleeping.   Quiet means the cartoon you are letting them watch is having the desired effect.  Silence, on the other hand, means there is a gooey substance being spread somewhere in the house. Silence means something rolled, stacked or organized is being unrolled, toppled or jumbled. Silence means crayons or paint are being applied to a non-paper surface.  Silence means a child is pooping in an isolated corner.  Quiet is a treat. Silence is trouble.

Click vs. Snap

Before children, click and snap were just two words in a long list of available onomatopoeias to describe life’s soundtrack.  Now, I know that a clicking sound and snapping sound are not the same.  It is essential to know the difference between click and snap during the “some assembly required” phase of a new toy.

Click is the goal.  Snap should be avoided at all costs.  Click indicates you have accurately interpreted the cryptic graphic instructions and lined up two pieces that were, indeed, intended to fit together. Snap indicates you are about to make a kid cry and will be required to plug the tear dam with promises to replace the now-cracked piece of plastic that no longer feels like a bargain.

Going to Bed vs. Going to Sleep

Before children, I thought you sent kids to bed and that was the end of it.  Oh, the bliss of ignorance.  Now I know that the time you send children to bed has no correlation with the time they go to sleep.

Going to bed means entering the bedroom and putting oneself in a horizontal position on the mattress.  Going to sleep means actually closing one’s eyes and entering a period of slumber.  Those two events are separated by lots of interim steps.  Requests for water.  Requests for another hug and kiss.  Claims of being scared that are delivered with a wide grin and a surreptitious glance at the living room TV in a never ending quest to crack the mystery of grown up television.  A trip to the bathroom.  A knock-knock joke sibling session.  Another trip to the bathroom.  And, finally, sleep.

Snack vs. Meal

Before children, I thought a snack was a small bit of food eaten between meals.  Now I understand that it is sometimes food between meals but mostly just a marketing trick that transforms unacceptable foods that will not pass a toddler’s lips into delicious treats.

Carrots served on the go between a park excursion and home?  Delicious!  Carrots served at home as a side dish to the main course?  Unacceptable.  Green beans grabbed from the garden on the walk to the car?  Delicious!  Green beans grabbed from the garden and served on a plate?  Unacceptable.   Hummus at the zoo?  A tasty and exotic dip!  Hummus with dinner? Unacceptable.

Trip vs. Vacation

Before children, trip and vacation meant the same thing to me.  Now, I understand that parents do not take vacations (periods of exemption from work).  Parents take trips (voyages, journeys). Travelling with children requires the same amount of work you do every day, only in unfamiliar setting with less comfortable accommodations.

Vacations involve reading trashy novels with your feet in the sand.  Vacations involve sipping adult beverages with colorful umbrella accessories.  Vacations involve drifting in and out of sleep in a sunny lounge chair while you try to figure out what day of the week it is.

Trips involve hauling luggage filled with enough board books and plastic toys to start a daycare.  Trips involve contorting your left arm to reach under the seat for the dropped sippy cup.  While it is possible to lose track of the date on a trip, it is always clear when it is meal time or nap time.

Trips are exhausting and leave you in need of a vacation.

My Parents vs. My Children’s Grandparents

Technically, my parents and my children’s grandparents are the same people.  They inhabit the same body.  But, that is where the similarities stop.

My parents forbid soda, chips and cookies.  My children’s grandparents sneak them an extra spoonful of brown sugar in their oatmeal.  My parents required regular cleaning of dishes, rooms, and bodies.  My children’s grandparents think chores and baths can wait until the block castle and all its outbuildings are complete.  My parents insisted on respect for elders.  My children’s grandparents barely hide their chuckles when my kids roll their eyes at me.  My parents taught me that if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.  My children’s grandparents tell stories about my childhood that set a less than stellar example for the next generation.  I wish my parents had been as cool as my children’s grandparents.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  My friends tried to tell me that parenthood would change everything.  I just didn’t understand that everything meant EVERYTHING!

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Is Grandma Online?

Is Grandma Online?

By Alexis Wolff

431611_858550585584_156766502_nGrowing up across the world from his “village” of loved ones, my toddler is developing many important relationships virtually.

*    *    *

It was 3 a.m. and my cranky two-year-old son still wasn’t asleep. I’d finally brought him into my bed and started an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on my laptop, but not even this usually foolproof last resort did the trick. Neither able to calm my son’s crying nor step away for a much needed break from it, I was beat.

A break wasn’t possible because for the past five months I had been a single parent, geographically anyway. Both Foreign Service Officers, I was finishing up an assignment in West Africa, while my husband had headed back to Washington, DC early to start an assignment of his own. We worried at first that this living arrangement might negatively affect our son, but as far as we could tell we were the only ones suffering. I was perpetually exhausted. My husband was perpetually lonely. But our son, Flynn, seemed to be enjoying his days of beachside play dates as much as ever.

At least that’s what I thought until this particular sleepless night.

After hours of crying Flynn finally started mumbling that he wanted to “talk Daddy.” It was heartbreaking to realize longing might be what was keeping him up, but at least now there was something I could do. Cue the Skype connection noise, and voila, there was my husband, lying in bed on the other side of the world.

“Daddy!” Flynn exclaimed, now wearing a shy grin. He snuggled up under my arm and requested “Row Row Row” followed by “Twinkle Twinkle.” My husband sang, and before long Flynn’s tears were dry and his eyes were closed.

We had moved to West Africa when Flynn was just 11 weeks old, and Skype had been a big part of our lives there from the beginning. His grandparents back in Illinois and Ohio would watch him sleep in his bouncer as we told them about his latest squeaks or half smiles. These early Skype dates were for them, and probably for us, but of course they had no value for Flynn.

When Flynn was six months old, we pointed the laptop to the ground so the grandparents could watch him learn to crawl. By a year we were chasing him around the house and angling the computer in awkward and ever-changing positions trying our best to keep the little guy in his grandparents’ view.  Sometimes he would acknowledge the face on the computer screen with a quick wave or air kiss. But he would do the same to Mickey Mouse and other characters on TV, so we weren’t sure whether he had any idea that these faces on the computer screen belonged to the same people who had tickled and hugged him during a recent visit stateside.

By the time Flynn was about one and a half, though, his interaction with those faces on the computer screen had changed entirely. Suddenly he was giving Grandma high fives, honking Grandpa’s nose, handing his godparents his favorite toys, and even bringing me the laptop and requesting to talk to specific people. This was his portal to those he loved and who loved him most, and he clearly knew it.

To be honest, I was surprised. I’m no expert in early childhood development, but I didn’t expect Skype dates to have any value to my son at such a young age. Maybe I should have known better. After all, his command of technology was more sophisticated than I would have expected from early on.

Despite several full shelves of books, traditional bedtime stories weren’t yet a part of our nightly routine. When Flynn was very little we realized he was best calmed by looking at photos or videos on our iPhones as we told stories for him about when, where, and why they were taken. Before long he was holding the phone himself and swiping his finger across the touchscreen to navigate to one of his favorites.

Then we started to find him perched over the framed photos of friends and family scattered throughout the house, growing frustrated when a swipe of the finger didn’t result in a new image. Judging by the comments I received when I shared this anecdote on Facebook, such a penchant for technology must be pretty standard of 21st century toddlers.

It’s not just ease with technology that’s common of today’s toddlers, but distance from many of their family members and closest friends.

I spent most of my childhood living a few blocks from my grandparents, and a few hours by car from every other relative I knew. We gathered for all holidays and birthdays, and often met at centrally located Holiday Inns for weekend rendezvous of swimming and arcade games just because we could.

Flynn would not have the same experience.

My husband and I think our work overseas is important and see a lot of advantages to an international upbringing for our son, but one obvious disadvantage is the distance. He won’t ever ride his bike to his cousin’s house or earn a crisp $10 bill for mowing Grandma and Grandpa’s lawn. But then, who these days really will?

I think about other friends of mine. Relationships and ambitions have taken virtually all of them to states and countries far from where their own childhoods were spent. There are a few exceptions, sure, but in my unscientific sample at least, the “villages” that are helping raise our children span greater physical distances than ever before.

Sometimes I wonder if Flynn’s generation will serve as a giant social experiment that explores the limits of virtual connection as part of healthy interpersonal relationships. Whereas technology and its capacity for connection to others gradually worked its way into my daily life, it’s been central to his from the day he was born, and in fact even before.

Flynn exists in the first place thanks to such technology: his dad and I met online. Because of various holidays and scheduling conflicts, we grew fond of each other through a month’s worth of emails before we finally found the time for a first date. By then, though we hadn’t even met in person, we were both already pretty sure where the relationship was headed.

I’m not going to claim that virtual interactions are quite the same as face-to-face ones. If they were, then my husband and I would never have needed to move our relationship beyond emails. If they were, I wouldn’t be lying in bed that night after Flynn wanted so badly to “talk Daddy,” awake myself because I happened to miss his dad too. If they were, Flynn wouldn’t have woken up that night after two hours of sound sleep, moaning and crying like before. He wouldn’t have made a new request of me, one quite a bit harder to satisfy than his first.

“Go airplane, see Daddy?” he asked.

One of the most important realizations many of my fellow generation Xers and I have made over time about social media is that while it’s a wonderful complement to face-to-face interaction, at some point you do need the real thing. I suspect this is what my son and his cohorts will ultimately come to find too. Or maybe they’ll grow up just knowing it all along, like they intuitively know how to operate an iPhone. After all, it’s a lesson that my two-year-old son—who liked Skyping with his dad but finally decided he wanted to see him too—already seemed to fully understand.

Unfortunately I couldn’t put Flynn on an airplane to see his dad that night he asked, but the next day I did click the green video call button to summon my husband back onto Skype. He explained to Flynn that he missed him, he loved him, and that he would see him very soon.

“Flynn, when you get here, do you want to go with Daddy on a train?” my husband asked.

Our transportation loving toddler lit up at the idea. “Go airplane?” he asked, turning to me.

“See Daddy? Go choo choo train?”

“Soon,” I told him.

In just two more weeks our family would be reunited in Washington, D.C., where we would live for a year before moving together to another posting abroad. Leaving behind our careers and moving to one of our hometowns just wasn’t realistic for us, but we did make sure to get ourselves onward assignments somewhere that would allow us to visit those faces on the computer screen more easily and more often than we had been able to from West Africa. And one of those faces, Grandma, would be moving abroad with us.

Because face-to-face interaction matters.

But virtual interaction matters too.

I’m sure it matters, because when Flynn spotted his dad in the airport’s arrivals hall two weeks after that sleepless night, it was not the reunion of loved ones reunited after five long months of separation. Instead, Flynn gave his dad a quick hug and then continued their conversation right where it had left off.

“Daddy! Hi!” he said, grabbing my husband’s hand and heading toward the door.

“Go choo choo train?”

Alexis Wolff is currently on maternity leave from her job as a Foreign Service Officer and living with her family in Falls Church, Virginia. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Columbia University, and has previously been published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and in the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others.

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