Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Month: January 2019

In Praise of Grandmothers

Since I relaunched this blog in December 2017 a number of grandmothers have asked, “Is this also for grandmas?” Yes it is! Here’s a post I first published in 2015…

Since I relaunched this blog in December 2017 a number of grandmothers have asked, “Is this also for grandmas?” Yes it is! Here’s a post I first published in 2015 about grandmothers. Enjoy.

My grandmother, Harriet Fish—always just “Gram” to me—was an extraordinary woman.

My Gramp, Frederick Fish, was a successful salesman, and Gram didn’t have to work, but she chose to work hard anyway as a national leader of the Girl Scouts. She met Gramp when they were students at Middlebury College, and married just before he shipped off to France as a pilot in the Great War. She was smart and sophisticated, a lover of poetry and hymns, strong-willed and intense as the gusts that blew in off Lake Willoughby to the porch of her homestead in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Gram’s hair was red, though grey by the time I knew her.

I picture her now at a family barbecue, 1966. Her cream colored dress tightly fitted to her five foot four, wiry frame; her nose angular, hair pulled back, chin up, one arm planted on a hip, a cocktail in the other hand, grinning at the excellence of the day.

She adored her two children—my mom, Janet, and my aunt Lois. She especially loved her grandchildren, the five big Page boys and my three cousins. She adored us all with an unabashed pride. She’d stand amidst my six-foot-six tall brothers and look up at us as if she’d come across a forest of redwoods, and proclaim, “Isn’t this marvelous to have all you boys here today? It truly is marvelous!”

Gram was rooted firmly in her conservative outlook and Church of Christ faith. She believed in God devoutly, while my own mom (perhaps reacting to her strict upbringing, thought all religion “a bunch of hooey”). Gram’s maiden name was Myers. She’d come from a family that had immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, and there had been some conjecture that perhaps the family had been Jewish and converted to Christianity upon arrival in America, something Gram denied.
Gram was a member of the John Birch society until she had an encounter with a member who asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No,” Gram replied.

“Well,” the man said haughtily, “You have all the attributes.”

Gram resigned her membership on the spot, disgusted by their bigotry.

When my mom had her first baby, my brother Calvin, Gram showed her the ropes with an efficiency and thoroughness worthy of a Girl Scout merit badge. Baby bathing, feeding, dressing, holding, check-check-check-check. It was the kind of crash course required for any young mother at the start of the baby boom. Good thing, because mom gave birth to five boys in a row, like a string of firecrackers, between 1948 and 1959.

Mom was thrilled when Nancy and I had our first child in 1986, a girl! It had taken a generation, but the genetic roulette wheel was finally spinning mom’s way.

We lived in a third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, way before this part of the city was cool, and certainly before we were ready to be parents.

We’d read all the parenting books, of course, and Nancy had done her share of babysitting, all of which amounted to roughly nothing as this little baby girl, this totally new thing—our beautiful Abigail—squirmed and screamed in her crib. Was she ok? Why was she making that noise? Was the baby getting the right nourishment from breastfeeding? I remember that feeling of absolute terror of not knowing, the fear that I wasn’t holding her right, that something might break.

It was horrifying to give Abigail a bath.

What if Abigail slipped from our soapy hands and went under and got water in her lungs and drowned? At night, as Abigail lay in her bassinet, I’d lay awake straining to hear her breathe, deeply worried she’d stop.

During this time our telephone became so important to us, because in the dark heart of a Brooklyn night, it was our only link to my mom in New England. The phone was our hotline for all things motherly. Nancy’s mom, Dorothy, was a help as well. But there was something about my mom’s knowledge, warmth and firmness that were especially reassuring.

Abigail, we learned, would not break so easily.

Babies had somehow survived bathing and diaper changing and all manner of sickness for millennia, and Abigail would pull through as well.

When we did manage to span the distance between Brooklyn and Northern Vermont where my mom and dad lived, Abigail was soon in my mother’s total embrace, riding mom’s hip as she stirred dinner on the stove, being tucked in and read to at night. It was as if Abigail was mom’s baby number six, the one right after me, and no time had passed at all.

Last but far from least in my grandmother chronicle is Nancy, my wife of nearly thirty years.

Nancy exemplifies a new breed of grandmother for our time. She is five foot seven, with long wavy brown hair, lively and funny and curvaceous and fit and active. She works out a lot and looks ten years younger than her age. Nancy has an extraordinary strength, and above all a belief that “everything is going to be ok.”

While others are holding their cheeks in tragic parodies of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” over the latest insurmountable worry (honestly, that’s me, I own it), Nancy just marches through it all and comes out the other side. It’s like she has her own force field. An avalanche of boulders would just bounce off her.

Nancy beams when she holds our grandkids—a wide, joyous smile, eyes lit up. “Hi,” she says, “Hiiiii.” And our grandkids beam right back. Who would not?

This past week Abigail had a meltdown.

She’d been working three days a week as a speech therapist at a school for special needs children. Henry had not been sleeping well, often waking up at two in the morning and staying awake for long stretches. In addition, his daytime naps had become a struggle because he refused to sleep on his back and would scream bloody murder for hours in protest. If he was placed on his stomach, he’d fall asleep instantly, but the pediatrician was adamant against stomach sleeping because of the danger of SIDS.

The numbing fog of sleep deprivation, coupled with the drive to excel at work and prepare for the parent teacher conferences, plus the tiny New York apartment; plus the demanding dog; and the cat that didn’t like the dog and resented the baby (to the point where it took a dump on their bed in feline protest); plus [insert worry x, y,z here] all came to a head suddenly like wires overloading a circuit and Abigail broke down in choking sobs. She felt she was doing it all wrong. She was so busy at work and so incredibly tired she was doing a billion things but none of them well. She didn’t even have time to call back her friends who left messages of support. It was all too hard, too much.

Nancy got on the phone with her and helped her through.

Everything Abigail was feeling was normal. Henry’s screaming fits were normal. Abigail herself went through a period where she refused to sleep. Abigail was actually doing a really good job. She was, in fact, a good mom. The grandmother hotline worked again, a line from one state to the next, a voice of experience to guide a daughter through the rough waters. But in a larger sense, a line that extended back to my mom, and Gram, and back through time hundreds and thousands of years, maybe to Eve herself.

Grandmothers, you see, are the glue of the world.

They are the ones who have been there, through all the pain and heartbreak and happiness. They raised their children well, and now it’s all coming back to them; the wisdom they gathered as young parents is blooming again. To love and comfort, to be strong, to gently touch a baby’s head to share a peaceful calm. Grandmas know what temperature to keep the bottle. They know the meaning of each type of crying; they can read baby poop like mystics analyzing tealeaves to foretell the onslaught or retreat of sickness; they can tell us what Google could never answer or dream or imagine.

They know, I think—all of them, every last one—from Boston to Bombay and all the lands between, that everything, every little damn thing, will be. All. Right.

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The Trial

Simply saying the words “my father” in the opening sentence of this story gives away the happy ending,… …but this is the risk I have to take when telling you…

Simply saying the words “my father” in the opening sentence of this story gives away the happy ending,…

…but this is the risk I have to take when telling you of the courtship of my mother by the WWII Navy Lieutenant who would form half of me, and my mother’s father—the Air force Colonel who believed (unreasonably) that no man was good enough for his daughter, Janet. That Janet had some say in who she married was true, but when facing my grandfather, Fred Fish, even my strong-willed mother was surely put to the test.

Gramp, as I called him, was a Vermonter who had flown a biplane in the First World War. Six foot three, a giant by the standards of the day, he had sandy brown hair, a long soulful face, and eyes and wit that sealed the deal for the young ladies of France (and later, occupied Germany). Gramp was known as a ladies man. As such, he knew all about men and what they were capable of, and by the time he’d matured in life and rejoined the air force to fight the Nazis, his faith in MANkind was at a low point when he learned that Janet and the Lieutenant were serious.

A deep, mysterious lake would decide my father and mother’s fate.


Both Bill and Fred were on leave at Fred’s farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, staying at the family farmhouse on the shores of Lake Willoughby—a place of such rugged beauty it deserves description as a central character in this tale.

Five miles long and one mile wide, Lake Willoughby was formed when a glacier crawled down from Canada and gouged out a hole five miles long and one mile wide, forcing a large mountain to give way in its center, tossing massive boulders aside in slow motion, and leaving behind a deep blue green lake with sheer rock cliffs on either side. Eagles and hawks and ravens and seagulls and all manner of birds swoop and circle around the cliffs and lake. When storms come in, the cliffs funnel the dark clouds and push them like more boulders towards the line of red and white cabins that dot the shore. The surface of the lake is sometimes flat as glass, but more often it is a tumult of tall waves and white caps, like something you’d see and hear at the ocean.

The lake is deep. Very deep. For the glacier was intent on plowing up all in its path, its roots burrowing down to yank every possible scrap of soil and rock up and out, up and out of the way. And when the thaw came, the water—bone cold to this day—filled the void.

A depth that conceals many secrets.

On a sunny day, you can look down into the depths and follow the light rays for a few feet, knowing that beyond your sight is a blackness that chooses not to give up its secrets. Hundreds of feet down it goes, to a place where trout the size of small horses lumber about in peace. Once in a while an ice fisherman in February hauls up some monster. You can see the Polaroids at the local store. The fish are so big it’s like they’ve been photoshopped. The fishermen clutch their fish’s mammoth body and smile at the camera, part happy and part wondering in the back of their minds if they are holding something prehistoric; not really a trout at all; something that would eat them if they hadn’t stuck their hook in first.

Travel across the lake down between the mountains and no matter what kind of boat you’re in, you can feel the deepness of the lake. It’s like gravity. A force that is always there. We are guests on this part of the lake, skimming across its surface only by invitation of the deep, a temporary and frivolous guest.

And it was here, down between the mountains, that Bill took Janet one day in August of 1943. He’ borrowed the forty horsepower outboard motor from my grandfather and attached it to the small wooden rowboat.

In my grandfather’s eyes, no man was good enough for Janet.

Fred Fish had been cool to him all weekend, this young fellow who thought he was going to marry Janet. Yes, it’s true my father was also tall – six foot three. Yes, he was a fine looking young fellow who served with the Navy. Yes, the young man had seen combat at the battle of Okinawa.

None of that meant he deserved Janet. Not by a long shot. Bill had graduated from Tufts, a good school, yes, but Bill had quit the football team in his freshman year. What kind of man EVER quits a football team? Not a good sign. No, not good at all.

Janet was surely a fine catch.

Five foot ten, with long brown hair and brown eyes and an oval face that lit up when she smiled. She was smart. She had a wit that could chisel granite. “Fun” didn’t even begin to capture the sheer delight she showered all around her like rain glowing white in the sun. No wonder Bill fell for her. No wonder Fred was not ready to give her up.

Bill and Janet puttered out from the beach and set a course for the southern end of the lake, the part faced by the twin rock cliffs.

The deep part.

It was a lovely summer day, but the waves were picking up with the increasing wind as they hummed closer to the mountains. Going against the waves and wind, it took a good forty-five minutes to get close to the cliffs. Nobody else was there, so who knows what they did when they arrived there; maybe a kiss, far from Fred Fish’s disapproving eye. For Bill, this was not only a time to be with his true love, it was time away from the war. A little bit of peace out there on Lake Willoughby, far from the kamikaze horror.

He kissed her, she kissed him.

They gazed into each other’s eyes. And maybe at that moment Bill was reaching into his jacket pocket to take out the box with the ring; he was just about to shape his mouth into the words, “Will you…”

…when suddenly, for no reason aside from maybe the tossing of the boat in the rising waves, the outboard motor fell off the back of the boat and disappeared beneath the waves.

Bill stared in shock at the place where the motor used to be. Janet covered her mouth with her hand, “Oh no!”

“Damn,” Bill said.

The entire time I ever knew him, this was the toughest swear in his vocabulary. But whenever he said it, he poured so much anguish, anger and disgust into the word it became condensed in the extreme.

Hope. Sunk.

Fred Fish’s prized forty horsepower outboard was gone. And with it, Bill knew, any chance of Fred allowing his lovely daughter Janet to have anything to do with him. His marriage plans, you could say, were sunk. And not in just any piece of water. That motor had gone down in the deep part of Lake Willoughby, a place that laughs at you for trying to understand it.

Second Lieutenant Bill Page grabbed the oars. But before the first pull, he took note of the spot they were bobbing in, and jotted in his memory the longitude and latitude of where the motor had dragged his hopes to the bottom of Lake Willoughby.

Bill rowed for an hour to get back.

He said not a word, his jaw set, his eyes fiercely intent. Janet cried.

Fred Fish was waiting on the shore. The fact that Bill was rowing, and the motor was no longer on the back of the boat, was all Fred needed to know. He stood there, glowering, as my tearful mother went to him with no words to say.

Bill was gone for ten minutes. He returned with a large bundle of rope and a grappling hook. And with only a dark look at my silently judging grandfather, pushed off from shore.

What happened next would decide Janet and Bill’s fate. And I would not be a grandfather today if the outcome had been any different.

You know, of course, because I gave it all away in the first sentence, that Bill Page rowed through high waves down between the mountains, and under the stare of the rocky cliffs he took note of his position, and lowered that grappling hook down, down, down, hundreds of feet of rope down, his entire future life dangling there, the whole life ahead where he’d have five sons and many grandchildren, all of it so tenuous as to be completely hopeless to anyone but a man who loved Janet Fish so much he could not give up, and he got that grappling hook around that motor and hauled it up, the sun starting to lower and the wind rising higher and higher, and he hauled the motor like a giant fish into the bottom of the boat, and he rowed the four miles back with clenched teeth, and just as the dusk came to the sky with red and yellow streaks across the clouds he pulled the boat up onto the shore, exhausted, and went and found Janet and her father at the farmhouse.

When my father, grinning now, explained what he had done, Fred Fish slapped his knee and laughed uproariously.

And then Gramp did something he’d never done before to any man who’d ever come near his daughter, the women who would soon become Janet Fish Page. He smiled, and patted dad warmly on the back. “Well done,” he said, “Well done.”

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Band of Brothers

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but… After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got…

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but…

After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got a girl dog (Holly), as if this was her way of telling Mother Nature that here, at least, she had some control over things. But Holly was just one small female addition to a situation that was never in control. Today as a grandfather of two grandsons, I understand the special chaos of boyhood, and see it through the lens of my own experience as a brother.

Brothers in an explosive childhood.

Growing up in a house with five brothers, all gigantic and constantly ravenous, was like being in some kind of nature preserve, only the walls could not keep us from spreading our particular brand of mayhem throughout the town of Lexington. My eldest brother, Calvin, made a habit of hacksawing the tops off of the parking meters and using the timing device on his homemade pipe bombs. It didn’t help matters that my father, a chemical engineer, built a full chemistry lab in our basement. Explosions were so frequent that we barely flinched when a bomb went off that shook the whole house.

There was chemistry in our birth order as well.

Calvin was the eldest troublemaker, so much so that we later in life suspected he was the Unabomber. Next was Charles, an Eagle Scout who was always trying to stand up to Calvin, as if saving us from Calvin’s bombs would earn him another merit badge. Then came Nick, the middle brother, who saw himself as the diplomat between his two older brothers, and the two youngest—my brother John and lastly yours truly, sometimes not-very-affectionately referred to as Baby Teddy. John spent much of his childhood looking torn between abject terror and complete indifference. And I, running along behind them all as the firecrackers stuffed into the walls of the makeshift dam in the backyard exploded, was the spectator to the greatest show on earth.

A trial by fire.

We brothers finished each others’ sentences. We tried and failed to avoid each others’ farts. We knew where the older brothers’ Playboy magazines where hidden. We climbed mountains together, and ran down. As the youngest, I wore their hand-me-down shoes, and I cried when they left for college.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King rouses his troops to carry on the battle—

“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

I don’t think it a coincidence that the greatest writer the world has ever known used brotherhood as the ultimate clarion call of unity and love. We five—Calvin, Charles, Nick, John and me—were our own band of brothers, we happy few who thought nothing of devouring an entire pot of macaroni at one sitting, or shot cannons (no, really) packed with gunpowder and nails, or combined the gasses from an industrial blow torch to fill balloons that made terrific explosions when ignited; a trial by fire it was, with mom and Holly, the family’s sole representatives of humanity’s better half, seeking cover.

When I see my grandsons, Henry and Charles, playing and laughing, all of my memories of the times I played with my brothers are right there in the room. The toys my grandsons play with (Paw Patrol!) may be new, yet the dynamic of play is the same. There are times when they will fight over a toy, but I know that behind every shout of “Hey, that’s mine!” is a deep appreciation of what is theirs together, a common adventure into adulthood they will never forget.

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Boxes Really Are the Best Toys

Every year we search out the toys our grandkids will love, and every year we re-learn something we knew when our kids were little—there’s nothing quite as fun as playing…

Every year we search out the toys our grandkids will love, and every year we re-learn something we knew when our kids were little—there’s nothing quite as fun as playing with the cardboard box toys came in. Boxes have a way of firing up the imagination. In the mind of a four year old, a box is a castle, a secret room, or a submarine. Maybe we should skip the toys altogether and just give boxes on birthdays and holidays. Or, maybe not.

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