Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Tag: grandparenting

The Babysitters

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami? My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been…

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami?

My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been having a tough time of it. Grandson Henry—now a long and lanky five-year-old—had come down with a bad stomach bug – the dreaded norovirus. So bad he’d been vomiting non-stop to the point where dehydration gave him double vision.

Abigail was deeply tired and stressed out caring for poor sick Henry while our youngest grandson, Charlie, still demanded attention (as three-year-olds do).

Abigail brought Henry to the emergency room where he needed to be attached to an IV to get rehydrated.

Her stress permeated anguished texts that described how she and several nurses had to hold Henry down as he thrashed and howled when they put in his IV. Henry had screamed, “Help me!” and all Abigail could do was keep holding him down for his own good.

“It’s so hard,” we texted back, “we know.”

I was brought back to the time I had to hold down our 6-year-old son, Nicholas, when he needed a spinal tap to diagnose meningitis. The procedure was so traumatic the doctors gave Nicholas a drug so he’d never remember the experience. I thought, “Where’s my drug?”

Henry made a speedy recovery, just in time for Charlie to come down with the same bug; he began vomiting (apparently all over the place). Abigail’s dog, Rory, was also puking.

To make things even more stressful, Abigail and Ryan had a tropical getaway planned for that weekend.

We grandparents had been lined up months in advance to babysit, and were determined to help them get far from the December New England chill and the puke tsunami.

When we arrived, Charlie was still sick with a fever and totally miserable. He kept saying, “My tummy hurts,” and instead of doing his usual routine—running laps around the house—he was curled up on the couch. Rory kept making “gak” sounds from deep down in her throat as if on the verge of bringing up dog chow like a fire hose. Henry wanted someone to read him a book. Or play Frosty the Snowman on the Kindle. And get him a cup of milk. The picture window in the living room showed the dreary tangle of maple trees in the sloping back yard, grey-brown leafless trunks darkly wet in the slanted curtain of freezing rain and snow.

“I feel so bad leaving you with all this,” Abigail texted from the plane.

“Don’t worry,” Nancy texted. “We’ve done this before.”

Walking into this environment where one touch of a microbe-infested doorknob or sniffle might lead to days of feverish hurling was just part of the drill. Mere mortals would have been excused from this duty. After all, if a five-year-old got so sick he required hospitalization, what would the norovirus do to a sixty-year-old like us? This bug is known for being extremely contagious and tough to kill. It can live on a toilet handle for two weeks, and is so resilient it just laughs at Clorox wipes. The only thing that kills it is industrial-grade bleach like you’d have in the rescue truck along with your hazmat suit in a Congo contagion zone.

Over the course of the next three days we gave Charlie Tylenol and stroked his back, read many books, and watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and other Christmas favorites.

We did dinosaur puzzles and other activities – taking frequent breaks to scrub down our hands with hot water and soap like surgeons.

It kept raining and snowing for days, a nasty wintry mix. And all the while we’d see Abigail’s Instagram stories with her and Ryan’s smiling faces bathed in warm sun, drinks in hand at a beach.

Each picture of Abigail happy and rested was a thank you for the gift that we had brought, this gift that sometimes only we grandparents can provide. A blessed break from it all. A chance, however brief, to relax and take a deep breath. To bask in the sun, knowing that the kids were ok. More than ok, actually. In very experienced hands.

Sitting in the living room in dark Connecticut where the dog was going “gak!” and Charlie was moaning and Henry wanted attention and the cold rain tapped against the windows was a pleasurable duty—an expression of our love and commitment—and I could feel that tropical sun on my face with a warmth I can never fully measure or convey in mere words.

Abigail and Ryan returned after three days, and Nancy and I headed back to Boston. That night Nancy’s stomach started to hurt very badly, and soon she was praying on her knees to the porcelain God, her temperature 101. I tucked her into bed, wondering if I would be next.

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A Walk in the Snowy Woods After the Brain Scan

The eye doctor looked at me clinically, calmly and said, “There does not appear to be any obvious reason why your 6th optic nerve stopped working. Could be just a…

The eye doctor looked at me clinically, calmly and said, “There does not appear to be any obvious reason why your 6th optic nerve stopped working. Could be just a virus and your vision will clear up on its own. But we’ll have to have an MRI done to rule out a brain tumor or stroke.”

This is the kind of thing one hears at the age of 59, a sort of welcome basket to 60 packed with nasty shit I don’t want to think about.

A week before the appointment, my vision had gone double. While driving, the right side of the road looked as if it were in the middle of the road at an angle. A person six feet away looked like twins.

I’ll admit that I’m a worrier.

As soon as the doctor said the word ‘tumor’ I was sure that was exactly what had caused the problem. A friend of mine had told me only recently that if I died today, I’d have lived an amazing life and should have no regrets—especially since I have three grandchildren. How prescient of my friend to predict my impending demise so accurately!

But kicking the bucket now was not, I told myself firmly, going to happen because I’d promised I would be there for my grandchildren for a long, long time.

You have to wonder how many people have similar objections to death, as if the Grim Reaper actually listens.

One minute we’re raising perfectly reasonable objections, and the next we find ourselves suspended in the air looking down at our bodies on the operating table, in the car wreck, or slumped at a restaurant table by the hidden bits of almond garnish we had told the waiter we were allergic to.

The MRI brain scan came out negative. Miraculously, my baseball-sized (it had actually grown to be larger than my whole head) tumor did not exist. Within two weeks my vision started to clear up.

When you hear the word ‘tumor’ from a doctor, though, you can’t ever fully forget it.

The word sticks to your consciousness as vigorously as any stage 4 glioblastoma grips your brain. Trying to force the fear out doesn’t work. What author Siddhartha Mukherjee called “The Emperor of All Maladies” rules the fretful underworld of our everyday existence, and the only way to deal with this reality is to accept it and let the fear flow out as quietly as it flowed in.

With this in my mind, I went snowshoeing in the Vermont woods today after a heavy snowfall.

Even with the snowshoes on, each step took me two feet down, and I began to sweat in the chill air as I churned deeper into the woods. Fresh deer tracks in the path showed they’d been there just before me.

I paused when I reached the Falls. In other seasons, this part of the brook is where water cascades over wide, flat rocks coated in thick green moss. Today, a gap in the snow showed only a peek of the rushing water beneath, and the sound of the water was muffled by the heavy snow that clung to tree branches like a thick white parka. I stood there, listening and looking at nothing, for a long while, until I saw with a start three deer leaping to the left and away up the hill, the sides of their faces and big bright eyes and their broad tan flanks one after the other visible only briefly between the trunks of cedar trees.

The cedar trees….the bark of cedar trees…I stared at the bark of the nearest tree and saw its dark brown color in stark contrast to the white snow all around, and noticed the texture of the bark, the pattern of narrow lines of vertical growth separated by troughs, and the way branches grew out of the bark as if they had muscled their way through a curtain, leaving semicircles of growth around them.

And then like a camera that zooms away from its subject, I took in the whole scene of cedar trees, dozens of them along both banks of the Falls, and the flowing mounds of snow around the base of their trunks, white snow that in the shade of the cedars became light and even dark blue, with the brown corduroy of the cedar trunks rising out of the blue and blending with the snow-covered boughs towards the thick canopy of branches above.

After a time—I can’t measure it in minutes—I trudged back out of the forest and came into the field by my house.

The sun was just starting to come out after the last remnants of storm clouds melted away, so here the snow was blindingly white.

I went inside and ate hot chicken soup by the fire.

#grandfathers #grandparents #NEK

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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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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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Transformation

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day. “Why do you…

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day.

“Why do you think that?” Nancy asked.

“Because she wasn’t drinking!”

“I agree,” I said, “But it wasn’t just because she wasn’t drinking.”

At one point in the day, Abigail and Henry (my oldest grandson, 3 at the time) pushed a toy stroller with two doll babies into the room by the Christmas tree and I saw Nicholas glance at Shira knowingly and reach out to touch her hand. He could have used a megaphone and it wouldn’t have been clearer.
To think of Nicholas with a baby was in a way even more mind blowing than the thought of Abigail, our oldest, with babies. Nicholas was always someone who took his time in life. When he was in grade school I got frustrated with him for refusing to learn how to tie his sho

My son, Nicholas, with his newborn daughter, Roen Lilah Page.

es.

“Don’t you want to be a big boy and learn how?” I asked plaintively.

Nicholas replied, “It’s easier when you do it.”

In school, Nicholas followed my not very scholarly footsteps. He’d get good grades in things he was interested in (writing), and bad grades in things he hated (math, Spanish), averaging out to a solid C that never reflected his smarts and extraordinary talent. After graduating from High School he went on to major in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His work was amazing, selected by the faculty to represent the whole class. But in his fourth year, he decided that attending class was somehow optional. To urge him on, I appealed to his visual sensibilities.

“Nicholas,” I said, “stop for a moment and picture yourself in your graduation gown walking across the stage to get your diploma. Once you see it, you’ll create a path to make it happen.”

And he did. A year later, he walked, beaming, across the stage of New York’s Radio City Music Hall to receive his diploma.

His transformation from someone who had to be urged to do something into someone who took it upon himself to make things happen was gradual. I could see it when he decided to woo Shira; at first she resisted, but after years of Nicholas’ dogged pursuit, she relented.

Their wedding on an estate in Waltham was marked by an epic torrential rainstorm with high winds. Everyone watched their phones for the minute-to-minute radar weather reports, which showed a break in the rain that would match the moment of their vows under a giant birch tree. Sure enough the rain paused just long enough for our families to walk across the soggy grass, under the dripping canopy of leaves, to see their luminous ceremony bracketed by the red, purple, pink, white and yellow flowers of the chuppah. Just after their vows were said and we started back towards the party tent, the storm of Shakespearian proportions erupted. It made me wonder if their marriage would be a calm counterpart to the rainy wind-tossed drama of their wedding day, or a storm itself.

Baby Roen (Roe) arrived in September. She is a beautiful, beautiful girl with her father’s big brown eyes and Shira’s lovely expressive face. When Roe wails, nearby glassware trembles as if buffeted by gusts of hard sideways rain. When she babbles, I can sense that it makes perfect sense to her, and it is I who must learn her language. When she whacks the little rabbit dangling from the mobile above her and it spins, she smiles at the revelation that things can be moved.

A photo of Nicholas holding his sleeping newborn girl, she snuggled to his shoulder, him looking at the camera with peaceful content, reminds me of all the pictures I’ve had of Nicholas in my mind over the years, the hopes I had for him, the dreams of what he could do if he put his mind to it, the paths towards success I urged him to envision to make real. The boy who didn’t want to tie his shoes had learned the art of loving determination, and because of that his world and mine have changed—the whole world has changed because Roe is now in it with us.

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