From obits to inspiration…

The plans for Camp Grandma 2020 are well underway and it promises to be the best one yet. And as it is with many hits, Camp Grandma has its own spinoff – Dad Camp. It started a couple of summers ago with the father of my three grandsons taking two weeks off work each summer to take the boys on an adventure.

Emmet is now planning Dad Camp 2020 and it looks like it’s going to be so amazing he asked me if I’d like to tag along. It looks to be so awesome that his wife Emily decided she would come along also, so now we’re a party of six! One adult per child. We’re planning to fly to California, rent a van, and take the boys to Yosemite, Yellowstone Park, introducing them to the many wonders of the west. Thankfully, no camping, but lots of hiking, exploring and fun.

When attempting to discuss the financial aspect of the trip with Emmet, he said “I invited you, don’t worry about it.” But, the thing is, I do worry about it. I like to pay my own way but since I don’t currently have a job, I don’t have an income. I thought about when Mr. Smith and I first moved to Ithaca, NY and I was having a hard time finding a paralegal position so I did some temporary work. I decided that after the holidays I would look for temporary work in Pennsylvania to put aside some bucks for Dad Camp.

When I explained my plan to Mr. Smith he responded “Just write the damn book.” One of Mr. Smith’s interesting hobbies is that he reads the obituaries in The New York Times every morning. He often reads about writers, photographers and other artists that he shares with me and these obits have lead us to read various books and check out art that we may not have otherwise discovered. On the morning of our conversation about my looking for temp work in January, he had read the obituary of Dorothea Benton Frank. Ms. Frank was a Southern novelist whose writing career started on a dare. When her mother passed away in 1993, she left behind a beloved family home on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, in South Carolina Low country. While Ms. Frank wanted to keep the house, all her siblings wanted to sell. She asked her husband to lend her the money to buy her siblings out, but he refused. This led her to declare, “I’m going to write a book and I’m going to sell a million copies and I’m going to buy Momma’s house back. And you can’t come in.” His response: “Let’s see you do it.” She wrote the novel Sullivan’s Island, A Lowcountry Tale, sold more than one million copies, and earned more than enough to buy her mother’s house. Unfortunately, it had already been sold do she bought another one on the island instead.

I had been working on a how-to book about Camp Grandma when I stalled out and started a blog instead. And while I like to think Mr. Smith’s “Just write the damn book” is a bit kinder than Mr. Frank’s dare, I hope I can rise to the challenge as well as Ms. Frank. Wouldn’t it be lovely to finish the book, sell a million copies and have enough money to bankroll several future Camp Grandmas and Dad Camps. And maybe get a tee shirt.

C’est la vie.

The gift of giving…

Thanksgiving, 2007.  The succulent Thanksgiving turkey had morphed into turkey tetrazzini and all the pumpkin pie and turkey cookies had been devoured.  Mr. Smith loaded up his car and headed off to his new adventure in Pennsylvania and I remained in Indiana, taking care of and trying to sell our home.  Then 2007 turned into 2008 and I was still taking care of the house waiting for some lucky person to snap up our cozy, charming home and it make it theirs.

 Perhaps you remember 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis, the abominable housing market, the great recession of 2008.  Our house wasn’t selling.  For a while we were cruising along peachy keen.  Mr. Smith was wrapped up in his new position and I had a job that I loved.  We would rendezvous every other weekend and spent a lot of time on the phone.

But then I hit a wall. I was living in a 2,800 square foot home all alone.  I was shoveling walks, taking out trash, attending to all the details of our house on my own and I was getting LONELY! We decided that whether or not the house sold, we needed to set an end date.  We looked at the calendar and our responsibilities and decided another 12 weeks was more than enough of our long-distance marriage.

Having an end date in sight was helpful, but I was still lonely and looking for a way to deal with the weeks stretched out in front of me.  I focused on the “12” and in my usual stream of consciousness thinking I thought – there are 12 bottles in a case of wine.  And the best gift I ever gave found its roots.

I was paid weekly back then, so every payday I would buy a bottle of wine to give to Mr. Smith and write a little tag for it.  This gave me something to look forward and I’d spend the week thinking about what kind of wine to buy that Friday.  I chose bottles that had a significance to us – something we shared regularly at a local bistro, a champagne for toasting, something I knew Mr. Smith would appreciate.  It was satisfying and thrilling to watch the lineup of bottles of wine grow over the subsequent weeks.  I would gleefully hide them when Mr. Smith was coming home for a visit.

I booked the movers and did a lot of purging, all the while watching the number of bottles of wine grow. On one of my wine buying trips, a very agreeable salesperson gifted me with a handsome wooden box to present my gift in.  The movers came and packed up all our worldly possessions minus the case of wine which I personally drove to Pennsylvania. I took great pleasure in presenting Mr. Smith with his “house-warming” gift.

It’s over a decade later, the house did eventually sell, and Mr. Smith will still tell you that case of wine with its handwritten, heartful tags is the best gift he’s ever received. Isn’t it amazing that the best gift I ever gave was the best gift he ever received???

C’est la vie.

What’s in your bag Grandma?

I love giving gifts. It fills me with delight to find just the perfect present for someone, something you know they will appreciate and cherish.  Gleefully I choose the wrapping paper and ribbon.  Putting care and thought into the presentation is part of the gift for me, hopefully making the recipient feel treasured.  Birthday, Christmas, and anniversary presents are great, but I do think the best gifts are the unexpected, no occasion, just “saw this and thought of you” gifts.

The giving of gifts has been traced back to primitive caveman culture where it was likely used to show love and affection towards one another.  You might have received an unusually shaped rock or a tooth from an animal.  Even without frilly wrapping or a gift bag, the sentiment was the same.  Someone cares for you.

Mr. Smith and I have selected and given many a birthday and Christmas gift to our three sons over the years, including one present that caused our youngest to yell “It’s not the right one!” on Christmas morning when he was six.  He had asked Santa for a boom box (it was the 80s) and Mr. Smith and I had thoughtfully selected a My First Sony version.  We had obviously insulted his six-year old aesthetics.  The Sony was returned for a shinier, albeit cheaper, model that matched Adam’s Christmas dreams.

At this stage of our lives, much of the fun of gift giving comes from selecting gifts for our grandchildren.  But with the fun, comes a sense of responsibility. I want to support the values of their parents, a sentiment my sister strongly disagrees with.  She views her grandmother role more as her grandson Sam’s co-conspirator.  Not a person who provides the acceptable and safe expected gift, but one that might excite Sam or push him out of his cocoon.  She looks for the unusual books and toys.  The weirder the better…things that a 9-year old boy can find FUN.  Science books about the odd and nasty things, a Magic 8 Ball – every kid needs one – or yet another fabulous stuffed animal that Sam absolutely adores and his parents not so much.  Her motto is the gifts are for the child not the parent, so Sam’s secret desires are respected by his offbeat grandmere.  Perhaps this is the place to let Jeanne know that when my boys were small, I got to the point if ANYONE gave my kids one more stuffed animal, I couldn’t be held responsible for my behavior!

My grandkids have a lot of “stuff”, a lot of stuff.  This worries me some.  When I was five years old, my sister was getting married and my Aunt Ruby gave her a wedding shower.  At the shower, Aunt Ruby gave me a set of wedding paper dolls.  I was surprised and delighted.  I still remember the thrill of sorting out the outfits for the bride, bridesmaids and flower girl.  I was especially drawn to the flower girl ensemble as I was flower girl at that wedding back in 1960.  With the copious number of toys and treats my grandkids have, I wonder if they will have the same enchanting memories as me.  

I don’t want to just add to the endless flotsam and jetsam that accumulates in their room, waiting for periodic cleanouts.  Early in my tenure as a grandmother, I read a cautionary tale from another grandma. Her grandson had a Matchbox car that he LOVED.  He kept his treasure with him and played with it often.  Grandma thought if he loved that Matchbox car so much, she’d just get him the deluxe set.  The lesson here for me was that once her grandson received the deluxe set, the specialness of his favorite car dimmed, now it was just one of many.

So, what is a grandparent to do?  I love hearing the happy squeals of my grandkids as much as the next person.  The excited “thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Mr. Smith and I will never forget Facetiming with our granddaughter, Emily, when she was opening her birthday gift from us, a box full of Fancy Nancy dress up clothes.  She started yelling “Fancy Nancy, Fancy Nancy” as soon as she saw the box beneath the wrapping paper.  The dress she was wearing was over her head and off within seconds and she was donning her new dress-up ware. So, I have to remind myself that she doesn’t need a never-ending stream of dress-up accoutrements from a store, she’s pretty happy with some of grandma’s old costume jewelry.

I love the idea of giving experiences, not gifts, but as a long-distance grandparent that is not always easy.  Mr. Smith and I have been leaning towards giving the grandkids an individual gift for their birthday and a group gift at Christmas.  We’ve given museum memberships and zoo memberships.  We bought Christmas concert tickets and attended a children’s concert together one year.  

Christmas 1960. Me, my sister Jane and my brother Alan.

When the grandkids were very young and had no idea they were even getting presents, it was easy to just give a check for their education accounts and maybe a book.  That doesn’t work the same when they are six and nine! They have Christmas and birthday lists and know more about what’s out there than their grandpa and me.

We have gotten good at consulting with the parents with regard to birthdays and Christmas, but what about when we go for a visit and it’s not a holiday.  There’s still a huge part of me that wants to bring them a gift. I started getting that under control a bit when my son, Emmet, told me no more!  Our grandsons love Legos and we were in the habit of taking them a new set whenever we visited.  Keeping Emmet’s instructions in mind, on our next visit to the boys, I printed off directions from the Internet on how to build a candy dispenser from Legos you already have.  I brought some little bags of Skittles and told the boys if they built the candy dispenser, the Skittles were theirs.  They got busy building and it was fun when the dispersers worked and out popped a Skittle! There is a plethora of ideas online of things kids can build from their stash Legos.

I have no guilt bringing them books or craft items.  I’ll take a premade kit or gather items needed for an idea I have, and we spend time together figuring it out and constructing things.  We’ve made bath bombs, clothes pin dolls, and LOTS of seasonal decorations.  A special food project can also be a way to connect without arriving with big gifts for everyone.  On my last trip to D.C. I took a little fondue pot and some chocolate.   After the fun of watching the chocolate melt, we dipped strawberries and graham crackers in the chocolate and made a wonderful mess!

Since all my grandparents were deceased before I was born, my grandparenting example is my Aunt Ruby. While I don’t remember one specific Christmas or birthday gift that she gave me, I do remember the bride and groom paper dolls and other little treats she gave me along the way because she saw them and thought of me.  I do remember being excited to see her each and every holiday we could be together.  But in the end, her unconditional love was the best gift I ever received.  I hope that is the gift my grandchildren feel I have given them.

On Wednesday’s blog, I’ll tell you about the favorite gift I ever gave someone.

C’est la vie.

Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else. Fred Rogers

Several people have asked me how retirement is going.  The thing is, am I retired???  I left my last position in New York because Mr. Smith and I were relocating to Pennsylvania, not as the result of a conscious decision to retire.  Taking a cue from Peggy Olsen of Mad Men, I tried to leave with panache. 

Now ensconced in my apartment in Wilkes Barre, I must admit looking for a full-time position in the legal field at age 64 leaves me a bit nauseous. Research shows the opportunity usually goes to the younger, more attractive candidate! Do I really want to put myself through that?   But realistically, people get many of their feelings of accomplishment and sense of value from their career.  Who am I if not a paralegal, a contributing part of a legal team?  If someone asks me “what do you do?”, I’m not comfortable saying “I’m retired.”

As I go through my days settling us into our new digs, looking for a gym, a doctor, a hair salon, etc., I ask myself, am I retired?  I’ve certainly enjoyed the “honeymoon” phase of retirement, being able to say yes to comings and goings without counting my vacation days. I’ve been able to spend some time with my mother-in-law, my sister and all my grandkids.  My time with Mr. Smith is better than ever as I don’t have to worry about getting laundry, cleaning, etc. done on the weekends or take up our evening time with trips to the gym. I already have a gig in November to go and stay with our awesome granddaughters while their parents take a short break and it was so much fun to just say “yes” when they asked.  

Many people talk about retirement as a time to reinvent yourself.  I see it more as an evolution, to develop parts of your true self that may have been put on a shelf while attending to the demands of working life. And who’s to say you can only retire once???  If I come across an opportunity that sparks my interest, I’ll go for it.

Michelangelo said the masterpiece was always within the marble and his job was to get rid of the excess.  I like to think of my remaining years – my third act – in this way.  I need to shake off the excess – societal values, etc. – and find the masterpiece within.

C’est la vie.

Everyone counts…

I made another quick trip to Michigan last week, toting another load of treasures we’re not quite ready to part with but don’t have the room for, to store in my ever-accommodating sister’s basement.

Per our usual way, Jeanne and I made the most of our short time together.  We did a little shopping, watched a couple of movies including an enlightening documentary on Halston.  Such talent, such exquisite clothes!

We went out for early cocktails and fried brie…

Then returned to my sister’s cozy home and made tasty caprese salads with fresh summer tomatoes and amazing basil from the plant out on her patio.

Jeanne is an active member the local League of Women Voters. The last evening of my visit we attended a presentation sponsored by the League.  Margaret Leary, Librarian Emerita from University of Michigan Law School spoke about the 2020 Census.  In the past, I thought the decennial census was simply keeping track of population. I was amazed that it is so much more. 

I didn’t realize the U.S. Constitution mandates that everyone in the country be counted every ten years starting with the first census in 1790.  The census results are used to reapportion the House of Representatives, determining how many seats each state gets.  State officials use census results to redraw the boundaries of the congressional and state legislative districts in their states to account of population shifts.

And it’s about the money. The distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds, grants and support to states, counties and communities are based on the census data.  I had no idea the funding for crucial programs such as SNAP, WIC, Head Start and the Federal Pell Grant Program was allocated per the results of the census.

2020 is the first time you will be able to respond online, by mail or by phone.  By law, the responses to U.S. Census Bureau surveys are kept completely confidential.  There were questions and answers at the presentation about the double encryption of data which was way over my computer skill level, but it left me believing I would be safe answering online.  The law is very clear that the information collected by only be used for statistical purposes and no personal information may be shared.   All Census Bureau staff take a lifetime oath to protect that information and any violation comes with a penalty of up to $250,000 and/or up to five years in prison!

The evening left me with an altogether new perspective and respect for the census.  I look forward to performing my civic duty and instead of viewing it as one more thing to do, I will cheerfully participate and be happy to be counted!

C’est la vie.

There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves… Tom Wolfe

Isn’t it interesting how the mere mention of something can bring memories showering down on you. I’m on another quick trip to my sister’s and the night before I left for her house she sent me a text message asking if I liked shrimp dishes with pineapple. And just like that, I was back in the summer of 1977.

That summer Star Wars was exploding at the theaters, the Commodores were crooning Brick House, and I was having a very special guest over for dinner. I had been living out in the country with my sister, but that summer I found a charming summer sublet in Ann Arbor and decided it was time to dazzle Mr. Smith by inviting over for a home cooked meal. The only thing was, I didn’t know how to cook! When I was living at home with my parents and my mother was out for the very occasional evening, I would prepare hot dogs with Kraft cheese slices wrapped in a crescent roll and baked to a beautiful golden brown. I thought I was quite the chef.

I wanted to up my game a notch or two so I asked (badgered) my sister about what I should make. We decided on sweet and sour shrimp with brown rice. I shopped for my menu, cleaned my apartment and added colorful fresh flowers. The evening of the dinner finally arrived and since I was just a touch nervous, I starting sipping a little wine. I was pretty confident about throwing the veggies and shrimp into the wok to saute, but I was concerned about the rice. I knew the correct proportions, to bring it to a boil, put the lid on and cook for 45 minutes. What could go wrong?

When Mr. Smith arrived I handed him a glass of wine. He started flipping through my record albums to choose some tunes for us while I worked away in my tiny kitchen getting dinner ready. Everything was going swell until smoke started rolling out of the kitchen, prompting Mr. Smith to poke his head in and say “Do you know what you’re doing in there?” To this day I swear my sister never told me to turn the heat under the rice down after it came to a boil! Instead of lovely fluffy rice I had hard scorched ugly rice! An ugly disappointing mess. I felt my attempt to appear sophisticated and chic had failed miserably and that instead I looked like a bumbling idiot. Ultimately, we dined on shrimp and vegetables and a second bottle of lovely wine that Mr. Smith had brought. He was very gracious about my lack of culinary skills and we had a splendid evening. Perhaps he knew that night that if we married, he would need to be the main cook and lucky me, he has become a fabulous gourmet partner who never burns the rice.

Notice my sister’s beautiful, fluffy rice!!!

Luckily my sister also did not burn the rice and our dinner was fabulous. Two shrimp dinners decades apart joined by memories.

C’est la vie.

Your children make it impossible to regret your past… Anna Quindlen

Recently while visiting with my youngest son, Adam, he inquired if I regretted being a stay-at-home mom. I always knew I wanted children. It was how I saw myself, though I had no true inkling of the demands and challenges of parenthood.  Often in the early years as a mother of three very active boys, I would be reminded of my mother-in-law and how she managed eight children and would ask her about her experiences of wrangling such a brood.  

Pat and her brood of eight.

Pat was a stay-at-home mom in the 50s and 60s when keeping a “perfect house with perfect children” was the expected norm.  It was a difficult goal with a large family. But then, “the times they were a-changing”, and cultural expectations relaxed. In retrospect while my mother-in-law was working to supplement their family income, she acknowledged that she wouldn’t have been totally happy being at home.  She required something more than just taking care of the children and the house, something for herself.  She worked part time while the kids were young, moving into full time employment when they were older before she returned to school to pursue a degree in fine arts.  

My path was similar to hers. I was home with the boys, only taking a part-time job in a flower shop when Adam, my youngest, was in kindergarten.  Part time work and a busy family life kept me satisfied for many years.  As the kids got older, I realized I wanted something more than part-time work as a florist. I went back to school when Adam was in high school, pursuing a paralegal degree.  I obtained my degree and secured my first job in the legal field the year Adam went off to college.  And despite the demanding hours and stress, I loved it.

Having watched way too much Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver as a child, I entered into parenthood with rose-colored glasses.  While I survived the daily domestic drudgery and isolation of early parenting, I never did vacuum the house in heels and pearls like June Cleaver.  I didn’t serve Martha Stewart gourmet meals, but nobody went hungry. And while I our house wouldn’t have passed the white glove test, no one died from dust or unvacuumed carpets.

Emmet and me.

One concern I did have about being a stay-at-home mom was whether my sons would grow up with a cliched view of marriage from being raised in a fairly traditional home.  Luckily, Mr. Smith is a rare man and set a brilliant example for his sons.  All our boys know how to cook, change a diaper and clean a toilet.

Elliot and me.

There’s nothing like snuggling a baby, but I thought parenting became more interesting and fun as the boys grew older and their personalities and interests emerged.  You could see glimpses of the person they would mature into. My life became infinitely better when they became more independent and were all able to buckle themselves up in the car and go to the bathroom all on their own.

Adam and me.

Unfortunately, even a middle-class life like our family had, now often requires two full-time incomes. The U.S. remains the only country in the developed world that does not require employers to offer paid leave for new mothers.  Our Canadian neighbors grant new mothers one year of paid maternity leave. New mothers in Finland are entitled to up to three years’ worth of paid leave! 

So I’m thinking instead of “mommy wars” between stay-at-home moms and working moms, it would be amazing if that energy would go into forcing the U.S. to step up and invest in maternity leave and child care. There is so much evidence that it would foster a more productive, healthy and creative workforce it just seems like a no brainer. 

So, Adam, my answer is that any regrets I might have are far outweighed by the rewards.  And I’m grateful. Grateful to the women who came before me and broke the societal molds, making it possible for me to have a choice.  Grateful to have been in a situation that allowed me a choice not available to everyone. And grateful to have come out the other side of parenting with three amazing sons.

C’est la vie.