Don’t forget your bathing suit…

There’s been a lot going on in my life as summer winds down.  Along with settling into our new digs, Mr. Smith and I celebrated our 41stwedding anniversary. I had a trip down to DC to hang with my grandsons while their parents took a short break and Mr. Smith and I spent a couple of nights in State College, PA, getting to know Eleanor a little better and exploring their new neighborhood.

But the biggest news of the last week is that we nailed down the location for Camp Grandma 2020!  The search for the “next” Camp Grandma usually begins on the drive home from the one that just ended.  I spend many hours on the internet, searching for the location that will fit our needs and our budget. Each Camp Grandma I learn a little more about what to look for in our accomodations.  In 2020, the age range of our seven grandchildren will be from three to ten years old.  While searching for our 2020 spot, I kept in mind their growing interests and abilities.  I wanted a place where they could swim, ride their bikes and have plenty of room to run and play.  It was Mr. Smith who found the winner – a lodge on 34 acres in Ohio with a separate party room.  Swimming pool, hot tub, two ponds – one for swimming and one for fishing – and over 6,000 square feet to spread out in.  When I showed the pictures to our grandsons with the playroom containing arcade games, a jukebox, ping pong and more, they declared it EPIC!  

Now my planning begins in earnest.  In January, I’ll send a letter to each of the grandchildren asking if they have any ideas for me, but my mind is already racing. We will again have Camp Grandma Book Group.  We’ll have painting day and Lego day.  I’m going to have a tea party where the grandkids will all get to choose a teacup from my collection to keep for their own.  There’s a large kitchen that will accommodate some group baking and Henry has requested we make cream puffs.  Adam’s wife, Hsin Yi, has offered to teach a class on making her yummy dumplings.  Since we have so much open yard space, I’m going to put together a Field Day.  I love planning Camp Grandma almost as much as attending!

Eleanor when she heard we found a location for Camp Grandma 2020!

I am as excited as Eleanor. We will share meals, take walks, corral children and have a bonfire or two. I hear it’s going to be epic!

C’est la vie.

Dinner is to the day what dessert is to dinner. Michael Dorris

Adam, Hsin Yi and Eleanor came for Sunday dinner.  There’s something about gathering and sharing a meal with family that makes our new aerial space more our own, claiming our territory so to speak.  I’m always excited when family or friends are coming for dinner.  I love setting the table, making it special, perhaps adding a party favor to create a mood.

A National Geographic article, The Joy of Food, asks the question:  What is it about eating that brings us closer?  Part of that answer is that sharing food has always been a part of the human story; we use it to make friends, court lovers and count our blessings.  

The benefits of families sharing their dinner time is commonly known and well documented.  From better achievement in school, to having enhanced self-esteem, there seems little downside for kids absent a toxic home environment.   Unfortunately, polls reported by NPR in 2013 reflected data where in almost half of those responding found it difficult to share meals on a regular basis.  In 2016 over 60% of households had two working parents so when all the benefits of dining together compete with evening schedules, what are our choices?  As with all the challenges in our lives, we do the best we can. Some days we succeed others perhaps not.  

During part of my stint as au pair to my grandsons, their dad was working at The Washington Post. The nature of the newspaper business often kept him at work past the boys’ dinner time.  My son Emmet dealt with that by being the breakfast guy.  The boys would start their day with their dad and a breakfast he had prepared for them.  One regular offering was over easy eggs with toast with quickly became known as dip-dip eggs! 

Mr. Smith and I had been empty nesters for many years when I commenced my grandmere au pair adventure. We had come to take for granted a tablecloth, cloth napkins, candles and often flowers on the table.  When I became an au pair, I had to pull some tricks out of my bag as that wasn’t really working for the grandsons. They mostly just wanted to blow the candles out!

When it was hard to get them to sit still long enough to eat lunch, I made that into reading time. They were much more likely to linger at the table and eat something if I was reading to them.  Who doesn’t want to find out what happens to the old lady who swallowed a fly???

For dinnertime, I found it helped to include Eli and Henry in dinner prep and setting/decorating the table.  It was always a huge hit when I would cover the table with brown kraft paper for them to draw on.  They loved creating “placemats” for everyone and assigning seats by writing your name where they wanted you to sit!  They were always happy to build a centerpiece out of Legos, paint on some fall leaves, or help add pine and pinecones to the table.

Eons ago when I was single and living with my sister and her family, she came home on Valentine’s Day with beautiful foil wrapped chocolate hearts that she put at each person’s place. That was the beginning of my love of party favors!  Trying to come up with a favor that coincides with the occasion has given me much pleasure over the years. With my grandkids, I usually stick to a small chocolate or other edible treat for favors and I’m not above using those treats as a bargaining chip to get them to eat their dinner.

New Year’s Eve with the Highland Smiths!

We make memories around the table. Traditions are born there.  Our middle son and daughter-in-law have three young daughters.  On New Year’s Eve, they have cheese fondue and talk about what they were thankful for during the year.  On Valentine’s Day they have chocolate fondue!  During Advent, Becky sets the table every Sunday with the good china and crystal.  My granddaughters all look forward to “fancy dinners”.  In my mind’s eye I see my granddaughters carrying on those traditions with their friends and families.

Who doesn’t love dipping a strawberry in chocolate

One gift my mother did give me is the tradition of all of us sitting down together for dinner.  It wasn’t fancy, but in retrospect I understand how important a gift it was.  Thanks, Mom.

C’est la vie.

“Infinite riches in a little room.” Marlowe, Jew of Malta

Mr. Smith and I previously lived in Pennsylvania, so we were all too familiar with the state’s charmingly frustrating system of obtaining a driver’s license and license plates when you come from out of state.  Based on our prior experience, we went online to check out the requirements and on a sunny Saturday morning we showed up at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation – Drivers License Center.  As you walk in, you are met by their own personal gate keeper.  This person asks what you are there for and checks to see if you have brought the correct documentation.  Why does it seem like they take a bit of pleasure in informing you that what you have brought just isn’t sufficient and sending you on your way for additional credentials? 

On our second visit that same day we were lucky enough to pass go and receive a number and await our turn. Pennsylvania requires proof of who you are with a birth certificate or passport and a social security card. After proving that you are who you say you are, you must prove residency with a lease or mortgage and a utility bill in your name.  As we have only one utility bill and it is Mr. Smith’s name, I had to wait until he had obtained his Pennsylvania license.  He was then allowed to sign an affidavit that I did live with him at that address!  You have to go to a separate tag and title business to get your license plates, but that is a whole other story.

Happily, our persistence paid off and I was finally given a Pennsylvania drivers license.  Obtaining this allowed me to get my coveted reward, my new library card!  Our new digs are less than two blocks from The Osterhout Free Library which was established in 1889 in a vacated Presbyterian church.  Upon his death, Isaac Smith Osterhout, a prominent citizen of Wilkes Barre, provided comfortably for his wife, yet left the bulk of his sizeable estate to fund a public library in downtown Wilkes Barre. There were no empty lots on which to build, so when the church on South Franklin Street became available, the Directors purchased it.  They consulted with Melvil Dewey (famous for the Dewey Decimal system) who visited Wilkes Barre in 1886 and was instrumental in planning the library.  In addition to other advice, it was Dewey who recommended Hannah Packard James be hired as Librarian.  Previously, she had been the head librarian at the library in Newton, Massachusetts for 17 years.

And it’s Ms. James that I have to thank for the fact that I can check books out of the library as she was adamant that the library freely circulate books to the public!  The Directors had intended to restrict use of the library materials to the building.  Thankfully, Ms. James was forward thinking.  On January 28, 1889, the library had its opening ceremony at the new First Presbyterian Church next door.  There was music, prayer, opening remarks and then the guest of honor: Professor Melvil Dewey.  Mr. Dewey’s theme was “The Public Library – The People’s University.”  

I have long loved libraries and learning more about the history of my current library has endeared it to me.  The Information Desk provided me with a fascinating booklet of their history including facts like – In August of 1937 a man spent eight days in jail for not returning eight Osterhout library books.  When the books were returned, he was released.  I’m happy to state I have never done any jail time for overdue library books!

But my favorite story is that to mark the Library’s upcoming 50thanniversary, a woman who wished to remain anonymous gifted the library with a book truck in 1938.  The new Dodge truck chassis was custom built to hold about 1,000 books!  And you know how I love a bookmobile

C’est la vie.

Au pair for a pair plus Sam…

So, I’m not exactly sure how to start this…I don’t want you to feel any pressure, at all, we’re just gathering options.  I feel the need to offer because it might be something you’d be interested in, but please feel free to just write back laughing at me 🙂   This is the beginning of an email I received from my son, Emmet, on January 27, 2014.  It was also the beginning of The Great Grandmere Au Pair Experiment! 

Bedside flowers and handmade card waiting for me on “move-in” day!

In early 2014, Emmet accepted a position at The Washington Post.  He and his wife, Emily, both left their positions at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, sold their house there, packed up their family and moved to the Washington D.C. area.  Emily knew that after getting settled in, she wanted to pursue employment, setting her sights on The Humane Society of the United States.  They also knew daycare for their three little munchkins wasn’t going to be cheap but were still a bit taken aback when they found out how brutally expensive the going rate was.  They briefly considered a nanny but that didn’t feel right for them.  So, they decided to ask me. 

And if you eat your lunch, you get ice cream!

Obviously, there was a (huge) part of me that wanted to step up to the challenge.  At that point in time, Mr. Smith and I were living close enough to D.C. that commuting home for the weekend wouldn’t be overly atrocious. And there was the always looming possibility that we would be transferred even closer sometime in the near future and I would be leaving my paralegal position anyway. So, we talked. We discussed all the pros and cons.  They included an abundance of time with my grandchildren vs. time away from Mr. Smith, daily wrangling of three boys under the age of five vs. nightly cocktails and dining with Mr. Smith. But I think he sensed the heart of the matter when he said, “I’m afraid if you don’t, you’ll look back and regret it.”  With Mr. Smith’s blessing, I said yes to the experiment! 

We spent many a morning or afternoon playing Playdoh

Later, I wasn’t oblivious to the looks I received from some people when I told them what we were planning. But those who know and love us weren’t surprised. Emily obtained her coveted position at Humane Society of the United States and it was game on. From the start, the goal was to be a stepping stone, helping out until the twins started kindergarten.

Brothers and bubbles!

I will say right now, IT WAS HARD!  I was almost 60 and corralling three active little boys under the age of five was exhausting.  After starting my new D.C. challenge, there were many stressful phone calls to Mr. Smith during the early days, “I’m not sure I can do this!” It was a huge adjustment from my normal lifestyle to constant demands of three small children. Throw in a dog and two cats and I was way out of my comfort zone. I also had concern that my stricter style was different than their parents.  Then somewhere along the way I had a lightbulb breakthrough – I’m not supposed to be like their parents, I supposed to be me, their grandmother, here to offer another dimension to their lives.

Rainy day baking with Eli and Henry.

Luckily, I like challenges. It gives one an opportunity to know what you are capable of.  Over time we all settled into a routine.  D.C. is HOT in the summer, so after breakfast became our time for a trip to the park. There were two neighborhood parks within easy walking distance. One contained a rarely used old tennis court that was fenced in and provided a great spot for racing cars and keeping kids contained.  When the park fun waned, we would head home and into the air conditioned play room. After lunch, Sam napped while the twins, Eli and Henry, enjoyed quiet time, occasionally falling asleep.  This would give me an opportunity to throw in a load of laundry, do a bit of cleaning and prep some dinner if needed. Late afternoon (or the witching hour as it came to be known) would often mean a repeat trip to the playground.

Sam and I shared many a croissant while his brothers were at preschool.

The attached carport became our patio where the kids could have al fresco lunch and in the evening the adults could sip wine under the party lights strung from post to post.  Thursday night was always our Chinese carryout night, allowing us to share and connect before I was gone for the weekend.  

We spent many an hour on this fenced in tennis court. I believe here the twins are teaching Sam how to chuck things over the net.

One thing that made this adventure doable was the layout of their house.  The basement had been remodeled and I had a great bedroom and the best bathroom in the house!  In the evening, the playroom became my living room if I wanted to read or watch TV alone. While the adults spent many a congenial evening together, it was great to have my own fortress of solitude should I need it.  

Off to kindergarten!

My weekends back home were spent relaxing, catching up on my home work, and dreaming up new projects to delight my three charges.  Mr. Smith was sure to always have some bubbly chilling when I arrived and made me scrumptious dinners. Without his support this experiment would not have been successful. It was a challenging 16 months to be sure, but I got to share moments with my grandchildren I never would have otherwise.  The adults all grew really close and learned to negotiate two generations living under one roof.  Or in the words of Emmet, “Emily lived with her mother-in-law for 16 months, lived to tell the tale, didn’t get divorced, and still speaks to her!”  We are lucky people.

C’est la vie.

A Woman of Much Importance…

The famous Aunt Ruby walked into my life two to three years before she did in Stormy’s. She was the beloved sister of the man brave enough to date and later marry my mother, a struggling divorcee with five energetic ragamuffins between the ages of 2 to 11. 

Mom, her new husband, and her five little ones – August 9, 1953

We children where introduced to her around 1952.  We all climbed into dad’s silvery teal Mercury and drove from Indiana to Ruby’s house in Illinois. Like her brother, Ruby was quiet and I thought quite dignified, yet we discovered her quick humor when we would tell her our bad kid jokes or act out as brothers and sisters often do. As we grew to know her, she became a treasured member of our cabal.  She kept our secrets.

Mom and Dad with Aunt Ruby, the matron of honor and Uncle Ike, best man.

She eventually began to fill the role of an absent grandmother. It was comforting sitting next to her while engaged in absorbing child–adult conversations.  Like my dad she was very intelligent and could add to any subject our youthful minds would conjure. 

For all her attributes, to me, an inquisitive preteen, the most valued was her frank honesty. It was an absolute boon to us kids.

As children we had been surrounded by adults who were not always judicious with the truth. We received answers that were often meant to mollify us and telegraph the idea that we were not included in family decisions. My mother was known for stonewalling and refusing to answer our questions, while making us think we should never have even asked…

When Aunt Ruby entered our lives, things changed.  Ruby, when queried, would look you in the eyes and answer honestly with further explanation should it be needed. When my mother realized this, if we asked her questions about the dreaded sex or biology subjects, she would quickly suggest we “ask your Aunt Ruby”.  Eventually we would go to our Aunt if she was available. She opened our minds to other ideas and opinions. That gift, both she and my dear Dad gave me, was the okay to be honest about situations. It occasionally causes consternation to me and others especially when they disagree.  But right or wrong I usually have some opinion…(ask my siblings and friends).  Thank you Aunt Ruby.  


It’s just her nature…

Perhaps you have noticed in many of my postings I often mention a special person. Growing up, I didn’t have grandparents, but I did have my beloved Aunt Ruby. She was my father’s sister and the best woman I have ever known. And she loved me unconditionally.

A young Aunt Ruby.

At age eight, she experienced a devastating train-auto accident that took the lives of her parents and baby sister, leaving her and my father orphans. As a young mother, she suffered through the loss of her two youngest children in separate accidents. Despite these hardships, Aunt Ruby never succumbed to bitterness, but remained a warm and kindhearted person throughout her life.

There is much I don’t know about this gracious and thoughtful woman. In my child-like way, I though she existed just for me! And in many ways she did, always more interested in me than in talking about herself. The few stories she told me of her life always were told with her innate sense of humor. She once told me of hitchhiking from Illinois to Texas with her husband and their two-year old child during the depression because they heard there might be work there. They ended up with more money when they arrived in Texas than when they left Illinois because so many people wanted to give her son a few coins. Her very nature led her to be amazed that strangers generously gave them rides and money, not looking down on the family or resentful of their current circumstances.

Rock-a-bye Stormy…

She was known for her gorgeous hair that changed from brown to a startling beautiful white mane by the time she was 19. With her twinkling blue eyes and comforting arms, there was never a doubt in my mind that she would do anything for me.

Aunt Ruby, her brother Ray (my dad), and me.

Aunt Ruby was aware of my contentious relationship with my mother, particularly during my teen years. At age 15, I called her one day and told her I had run away from home. She didn’t miss a beat. She simply said, tell me where you are and we’ll come get you. Even as an obnoxious 15-year old, I felt sheepish telling her “April Fool!”

The reason she said “we’ll come get you” is because she never had a driver’s license so would need her husband to drive her. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t know how to drive. She once told me of driving a Model T and trying to run over a woman her husband, Uncle Ike, was “stepping out” with. I said “stepping out?” and her response was “You know what I mean!”

Throughout my life I have often wondered just what made Aunt Ruby such an exemplary human being and the best aunt I could hope for. Luckily for me, it seems to simply have been her nature. Whenever I find myself in a particularly challenging or uncomfortable situation, I tell myself to channel Aunt Ruby. She was a true lady.

Aunt Ruby with my first born, Emmet.

While I’ll never know everything I would like to about my beloved aunt, I will always know this. I loved her unconditionally.

Read the blog on Wednesday to find out the effect this wonderful woman had on the five children my mother brought into her marriage to Ruby’s bachelor brother.

C’est la vie.

Wednesday update…

The summer is flying by! I still have some summer fun activities on my to-do list and as tomorrow is August 1, I’d better get rolling on those or before I know it the leaves will be changing…

Three Sons and a Mother Book Group One thing I’ve had more of since I left my job the end of June is time to read. That’s not true for my sons so we have morphed our book group into a four seasons group instead of monthly. We still keep connected about books, but there’s less pressure to get something finished if they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities. This season’s read is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. We haven’t discussed it yet, so I’m eager to hear what they have to say. I finished it early and passed my copy onto Elliot. When he looked at the cover he cringed and asked if his brothers were EVER going to choose a book that wasn’t filled with “anguish”!

The Little Philanthropist Olivia has spent many hours of her summer running her lemonade stand. She is donating one-half of all income from the stand to The Humane Society of Northwest Indiana. Often assisted by her sisters or cousin, she has met her initial donation goal of $100 and has set a second goal of $200. She is currently up to $132 and I have no doubt she’ll succeed! As her grandma, I couldn’t be more proud…

My New Best Friend Everybody can use a best friend and here is mine! City living is different. You park in the parking lot across the street and have to haul your groceries (and wine) across the way, into your building and up the elevator. I’m happy to have a best friend who is always there to help. Although I am wondering if she’ll require snow tires in the winter!

Progress! Mr. Smith and I are settling in and are excited that we will host our first Sunday dinner guests in our new home this coming Sunday. Adam and family will come for a visit. We’ll walk along the Susquehanna, keep Eleanor from climbing on windowsills and enjoy time with family.

And speaking of family, please visit my blog on Sunday when I introduce you to the woman who has been the greatest influence in my life and my prime example of loving with your whole heart.

C’est la vie.