In Grace Land


My granddaughter Grace turned ten last week. I think she’s happy about it. She isn’t one to call attention to herself by jumping up and down screaming, “Double digits! Double digits!” or anything. Actually, it’s hard to believe that Grace is descended from a long line of loud, opinionated women.

She spent the night at my house a few days ago. We were sitting on the sofa, Gracie watching a movie and playing a game on my Kindle while I read a book and felt guilty. Just as I was thinking we should be doing something more stimulating, she said, “This is nice.” Wait, what? Grace is good with this? Yes! Grace is having a good time!

She is still an avid shutterbug. I can’t tell you how many pictures I have on my smartphone of Grace’s eyeballs and the inside of her mouth, to say nothing of the random strangers she shoots out the car window while I’m driving. “Who the hell is this?” I wonder later, scrolling through shots of sweaty runners and dog-walkers and, oh look, here’s another picture of Grace’s feet. While I remain technologically impaired, she manipulates the bells and whistles on my phone with ease. I think this amuses her, although she is too polite to say so.

Gracie has started playing volleyball and softball, which she seems to like and have an aptitude for. Needless to say, she never complains about the officiating. She still likes to paint and draw. Here’s a picture of me bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mrs. Incredible.


In honor of Grace reaching the decade mark, I rummaged through some things I wrote several years ago but never posted. This is from Feb. 10, 2010, when she was four:

“I helped daughter Jill paint her bathroom on Saturday. It’s a small bathroom that should have taken about two hours to paint but ended up taking five, what with the unplanned trips to Home Depot and the three observers aged four, five and nine lined up outside the bathroom door on two kiddy chairs and one overturned bucket (Christian still in his pajamas and Grace in her tutu and flowered coronet), arguing that they were too old enough to paint. Not that they thought their mother would cave, but I might be co-opted to use my influence on their behalf.  I didn’t crack though. I was firm. I told them they could paint when they come to my house. I have a lot of leftover cans of paint in the basement, so I figure I can just let them have at the concrete blocks, and how bad could it be?”

Well, I never did let them loose in the basement. I’m indulgent, but I’m not a fool.

Ah, Gracie Girl. How did you get to be ten so soon? When did you stop wearing tutus and put on a baseball cap? And when another ten years have passed, will you still sit with me on the sofa and say, “This is nice, Grandma”?



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On Three


My youngest grandchild, Lee, turned three this week. He’s a funny little kid. He keeps his own counsel, although he is always clear about what he wants. This is him three years ago, the youngest of six grandkids and resigned to his fate, as it were…

lee in carseat

Nothing has changed much. He’s not overly demanding (for three), but he will not be deterred. At the moment he wants Juicy Fruit gum. That is my sole role and purpose in life, as far as he is concerned: purveyor of Juicy Fruit gum. It doesn’t matter if I say I don’t have any gum, I forgot the gum, sorry. Five minutes later he is back, wanting gum. It isn’t that I don’t want him to have gum, it’s that invariably he does one of two things. The first is to swallow it.

Lee: Grandma, can I have gum?
Me: I just gave you gum. What happened to it? Did you swallow it?
Lee: No.
Me: Where is it?
(He points to his tummy.)
Me: It’s in your tummy?
Lee: Yes.
Me: No, no, you have to spit it out when you’re finished! Just chew it and spit it out. Don’t swallow it, okay?
Lee: Okay.

I give him another stick of gum. He doesn’t swallow it. This is the second thing he does: after two minutes he spits it out. Then he wants more gum. It’s like playing Juicy Fruit Monopoly. Pass Go, Collect Gum. I can only hope that at some point I will be bankrupt.

He is a smart kid, but sometimes he still has trouble telling truth from not-truth…

Gina: Lee, wash your hands for supper.
Lee: Did.
Gina: No, I don’t think so. Go wash your hands for supper.
Lee: Did.
Gina: Lee, if you don’t wash your hands, no pudding cup for dessert.
Lee: Okay. (He leaves for the bathroom.)

This works because her children know Mom means what she says. She doesn’t raise her voice or repeat herself. You simply will not get a pudding cup, no way, no how. This is starkly different from their interactions with me. He doesn’t believe me when I say I have no gum, and there is precedent for that.

Lee: Grandma, do you have gum?
Me: Oh, I forgot to bring gum! I’m so sorry.
Lee: Grandma, can I have gum?
Me: No, no gum right now.
Lee: Can I have gum?
Me: After dinner you can have gum.
Lee: Can I have gum?
Me: Okay.

Sometimes he wants a Tootsie Roll Pop instead of gum. There is no point in describing what that conversation is like. You have already heard the gum story.

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Because He’s Five, That’s Why


My grandson Bret Jr. turned five yesterday. He marked the occasion by giving himself a Minion haircut (see photo), in preparation for his Minion-themed birthday party. And because, he says, it looks cool. Well, you can see the amazing resemblance…


Come to think of it, my own children were about five when they decided to try their hand at cosmetology, although I don’t recall that they started at the top of their heads, so maybe that’s a boy thing.

He got a fair share of Minion-related birthday presents, of course, and one friend gave him a book on raising chickens, along with a plastic chicken feeder and watering dish. He and his sister are desperate to raise chickens in their backyard. Well, mostly his sister, but he is one of her biggest supporters. You might think they live out on a country road somewhere, but they actually live in a heavily populated suburb of St. Paul. Nevertheless, their father is going to check with the city to see how many chickens they can have, while their mother, who suffers from severe ornithophobia, says she is willing to fry up the eggs. Because that’s how they are. This simply means that I will have to spend a portion of every visit outside looking at the chickens and exclaiming over the chickens and trying to avoid being pecked.

Anyway, Bret. A happy, smart, funny little boy who still assumes his seven-year-old sister knows more than I do about most things but doesn’t follow her around as blindly as he did two or three years ago. He is into action heroes, which is why I’ve had a little 5-inch man lying on the box next to my back door for a couple of months with instructions not to let anyone move him. I don’t.


Yes, birthday season is upon us. I have two more grandkid birthdays coming up in about a week. It wears me out some, but it is seldom boring.


Birthday Season


Birthday season is upon us. We have birthdays throughout the year, of course, but from May 24 to the end of July, it’s birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday. The sons-in-law, present and future, must get sick of it. Even I get sick of it. They’re good sports though. They usually show up.

We celebrated daughter Jill’s birthday at my house a week ago Saturday. It rained hard all day, so no sending the grandkids into the backyard and letting them loose on the wildlife. I have a playroom full of toys upstairs. Sometimes they play in there; more often they haul things out and leave them in various inconvenient places around the house. One of their favorite things to do is jump off the bed in the guest room into piles of blankets and pillows. From downstairs you hear thump, crash, scream, thump, laughing, thump, crying. Someone could be killed up there, but we first-floor dwellers like to pretend all is well right up until the time someone has to administer first aid.

Sometimes they call us from the phone in my room. (Jill last week: “Stop calling me. Do you hear me, Grace? Just stop now.”)

You’d think Lee, who turns two in July, would be a little intimidated, but he isn’t. He’s child #3 and no one has told him he’s fragile. Usually he just does whatever his three-year-old brother, Bret Jr., is doing. Bret falls on the floor, Lee falls on the floor. Bret stomps his rain boots, Lee stomps his rain boots. Bret shows off his Batman pajamas, Lee shows off his Superman pajamas. And so it goes. Riding in the car is interesting. He hates stop lights. The car rolls to a stop, and he starts yelling, “Go! Go-o-o-o!” Also, for some reason, he calls me Grandpa. I tell him, “No, Lee, Grandma. Grandma Judy.” I could be talking to the garden gnome.

Bret Jr. assumed the role of event photographer this time around, which is how I end up with pictures like this:


Cosette piano

Lee away

Maria no

Meanwhile, six-year-old Cosette informed me that by the age of 13, you know everything there is to know. I have no idea what kind of convoluted thinking led to this conclusion. I never argue with her. She’s creative.

I made cupcakes for the party. Well, I always make cupcakes, because the only kind Christian can eat are dairy-free, so that’s the kind I make. This time, however, I found a mystery bag of Baking Flour in the cupboard with a farmer or a sailor or something on it. I think I’ll use up this flour, I thought. So I did, only to discover too late that it was wheat- and gluten-free. Probably no one will even know the difference, I thought. But they did. I cannot be expected to put on the perfect party for every occasion, now can I.

New rule for next birthday: no using Grandma’s artificial fruit as hand grenades.

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The Fourth Star on the Left


I added a star to the tattoo on my ankle yesterday in honor of my sixth grandchild, Lee, now 9 months old and definitely star-worthy. It was a little hard finding exactly the right position for star #6 and then it ended up slightly bigger than I expected, which is the kind of thing that happens to me, but nevertheless I’ll be taking my six-star ankle to the grave, unless of course a seventh star comes along, but what the heck, let’s just put the whole damn galaxy on grandma’s foot.

Today five-year-old Cosette called several times saying we needed to go to Target right away so she could show me what to buy for her birthday, just around the corner next September. I felt guilty saying no until she said, okay then, she had to call Auntie Jessica, goodbye. Her brother Toddler Bret calls me regularly as well. For some reason he always seems agitated on the phone. He left me a happy birthday message recently that sounded like he was being attacked by pirates.

On Thursday I drove for an hour through snow and sleet to watch Christian’s wrestling match only to find it was cancelled due to the weather. (It’s almost May, for cripe’s sake.) Now eight, he just started wrestling and takes it very seriously. He came out of his first practice and told his mother, “I can’t show you any moves, Mom, because I might hurt you.”

A few Saturdays ago, 12-year-old Maria came over to get help building a model of the Eiffel Tower for a school project. I have never built the Eiffel Tower before, but apparently my expertise in this area is legendary. We made it out of shoeboxes, of which I have an ample supply. Well, not really out of the shoeboxes but from hundreds of little pieces cut out, glued together and sprayed heavily with black paint. I figured the Eiffel Tower was easier to build than some other famous structures I can think of. Her friend Madeleine chose the Colosseum in Rome, which her father helped her build out of a laundry basket and I’ll bet that was no picnic.

Which brings us to seven-year-old Grace. The last time she was at my house, she watched me applying face makeup with endless questions about what different products were designed to do. I explained, for example, that due to some unfortunate over-tweezing in my youth, I have to pretty much draw on eyebrows now, and that should be a lesson to her not to go around mindlessly plucking at things, and anyway her eyebrows are perfect so it shouldn’t even be an issue. Always take advantage of these little moments to teach, that’s what I say.


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I’ll Meet You at the Station


Thank God, Cosette’s birthday finally arrived. She turned five last week. For the last three months, I’ve received almost daily phone calls reminding me of her pressing need for more Thomas the Train engines, available in Aisle 2 at Target and if I wanted she would give me directions to the store.

The list was endless. Gordon, Henry, Rocky, James, Emily, Toby, Percy, Annie and Clarabel, Cranky the Crane, Donald and Douglas… “Have you got your pen, Grandma? I’ll wait.”

Of course, her birthday was all about Thomas. The cake, the plates, the decorations, the games. Somehow she ended up inviting every single child in her preschool. I think about 22 showed up; counting the tag-along siblings and cousins, there must have been over 30 kids. They all got little engineer hats and bandanas and, in an effort to maintain order, were divided into groups in the backyard and chugged from “station” to “station” by energetic helpers.

I was assigned to the face-painting station. I don’t ask for these jobs. They just turn up, along with the necessary tools and false encouragement. The boys all chose pictures of snakes and Spider-Man; the girls went for balloons, flowers and Hello Kitty. Unfortunately, the paints were more like crayons, which worked fine when they were sharp but quickly wore down and/or broke, so by the end, the snake was mostly just a green squiggle and Hello Kitty a white blob with a pink bow. They’re preschoolers. They didn’t care.

As for the other grandkids…
Toddler Bret bumped his head that morning and refused to get out of the armchair until he had received an acceptable amount of sympathy. He wouldn’t wear a hat or a bandana and had to adjust to the fact that, yes, there were a lot of presents and none of them were for him. He isn’t all that flexible.

Baby Lee didn’t get a hat or a bandana and slept through almost everything.

Christian helped the “little kids” at the makeshift obstacle course. He has turned into a sensitive, kind, helpful boy and I have no idea when it happened. His friend Gus was at the party too. I figured Gus was somebody’s big brother, but there’s no way to keep this stuff straight.

Grace was my assistant at the face-painting table, where she held the colors and the mirror and offered general instruction and encouragement to the clients.

Maria took a nap. She went to a football game the night before, followed by an all-night lock-in party at school marked by the usual controlled mayhem and little sleep. So now we’ve come to that.

We had a family birthday party after all the tots left, with more food, more cake, more presents. So basically just a full day of fun. I drove home and fell in bed about eight o’clock.

You’d think Cosette would have had enough locomotion for a while. She phoned me on Monday. Toddler Bret hadn’t given her a present yet, she said, so maybe I should take him to Target, as she was missing Cranky the Crane. I told her I’d think about it. She called me on Tuesday. Christmas is coming and she wanted to let me know: she doesn’t have Cranky, Spencer, Elizabeth, the Troublesome Trucks, Bertie the Bus, Bash and Dash, Harold and… “Are you writing this down, Grandma?”


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Pages from Grandma’s Diaries: Bret Jr., Part 2


Toddler Bret had his second birthday this week. I think I can still call him Toddler Bret since he just entered the Twos, as evidenced by the minor meltdown at his birthday party yesterday. “Just leave him alone and he’ll stop,” his sister said. Which proved to be the case after everyone – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – studiously avoided looking at him and certainly made no attempt to engage him in speech.

What really brought him around was his mother’s suggestion that he open his gifts a little early. It was an amazing turnaround. His favorite present was a little remote-controlled dog from his 93-year-old great-grandma. It didn’t matter how many times the dog walked off the end of the coffee table, he found it hilarious every time.

He liked everything else after that… the Happy Birthday song and the cake and the candles, which he blew out all by himself because he’s a big boy now. Soon he will be a big brother to someone. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, here’s a few thoughts from the last two years.

December 31, 2009
The most exciting news I got over the holidays is that grandchild No. 5 is on the way. Gina and Bret like to surprise me with this kind of thing. When she was pregnant with Cosette, they gave me a bunch of photos to look at, including one of the dog next to a sign that said, “I’m going to be a big sister.” I thought they were getting another dog, which seemed odd, but not for them.

You’d think they’d learn to give it to me straight, but no. This time they gave me a jar of spaghetti sauce for Christmas. I thought maybe it was homemade. It wasn’t. Then I thought, “What a stupid gift.” Finally, someone yelled, “She’s prego!” There are no Hallmark moments in our family.

September 8, 2010
I babysat for Cosette and Baby Bret Sunday night while their parents went to Stillwater for a good night’s rest. It’s hard to make it through the night at their house, mainly because Baby Bret has some baby reflux thing going on, which is seldom bad enough to wake him up but enough so he complains in his sleep.

The complaints are hard to describe, but they’re enough to set off the super-sensitive baby monitor sitting on the nightstand next to your head. As a result, you’re in his room roughly every half-hour, because maybe he really is awake and needs something. You never know and you never will until you get up and check. I sort of gave up on sleeping after a while, which is why I was washing dishes at 3:30 in the morning.

December 30, 2010
I watched Cosette and Baby Bret last night. He’s a pretty easygoing baby, especially if you carry him around without stopping. I guess he’s hungry a lot, because I’ve never known a baby so determined to suck your face. Which is hard to avoid when you are, as I say, carrying him around nonstop. As soon as his little face gets next to yours, he’s sucking your cheek or your chin or your eye socket. It feels weird. It is weird.

Also, he never stops talking. I call it talking because I don’t know what it is. It’s loud and comes from down in his throat somewhere. Along with Cosette’s never-ending dialogue, it’s noisy at their house. I would be very surprised if that changed in the new year.

January 28, 2011
I’m babysitting for six-month-old Baby Bret tonight while the rest of the family goes ice skating. Haven’t seen him for a while, but I imagine he’s as chubby as ever, and since he obviously can’t propel himself anywhere, I’ll have to lug him around. It isn’t going to help my back, which is still achy from last Saturday night when I slept with ten-year-old Maria, who will sleep smack dab in the middle of the mattress and good luck trying to move her.

He’s a cheerful little guy though, Baby Bret that is, as long as you keep him fed. Which I do whether it’s feeding time or not. My job, I believe, is to keep them happy by whatever means necessary and let their parents deal with it later. It is free babysitting after all, by someone who really loves your kid and doesn’t care what time you come home. Not surprisingly, parents find this very appealing. I figure they can deal with a kid who’s a little off his schedule.

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Grandma Judy Calls the Roll

I went to Maria’s softball game this week. This is her first year playing fastpitch, and I’m thinking she may want to work on her self-confidence in the batter’s box. She appears as likely to wait for the walk as to swing at any given pitch. Not a bad strategy actually, and one I can relate to, but connecting bat and ball seems sort of core to the game. On the other hand, the girl can run once she gets on base.

Christian, who turned eight this week, is feeling miffed that his march to adulthood hasn’t equated to something more than bigger sneakers. As he told his mother, doggone it, he is old enough for the 12-inch sub at Subway now.

Grace was at Maria’s softball game, although she wasn’t exactly in thrall of the action on the field and as a result spent a good part of the time capturing the local color with my camera. Which is how I end up with photos like this of some random bald guy…

and the now ubiquitous, but always riveting shot of Gracie’s feet…

Cosette spent the week fixating on her birthday, still three months away but why wait till the last minute. It was the subject of numerous phone calls, with instructions on finding Thomas the Tank Engine toys (Aisle 2 at Target), the theme for her cake (Thomas the Tank Engine), and where to park when I get to the party (not in the street but in the driveway next to the neighbors’ flowers, Daddy will show me where).

Bret Jr.
Toddler Bret remains as exuberant as ever. Recently he conked me in the head with a cookie. (I know it shouldn’t hurt, but it did.) We were at a birthday party where they passed out big hard cookies in plastic bags, an open invitation to reckless cookie swinging and I should know better than to bend down to talk to a toddler in those circumstances. It wasn’t as painful as the time Toddler Christian broke my nose, or even the time Toddler Maria clobbered me with a hair brush, but it smarted. So don’t go giving toddlers potentially harmful cookies in plastic bags. Just don’t.

A small bird has built a small nest in the ivy growing up a pillar outside my front door, and now I can’t get up on a ladder to pull the wayward ivy off the house without risking being pecked in the eye. And so it goes.

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Grandma Judy’s Birthday

Grandma Judy had a birthday this week. She doesn’t care much for birthdays anymore and would prefer to forget them altogether, but people keep making her celebrate anyway.

Grandma Judy’s idea of a good birthday is finding an expensive present to buy herself. This year she bought TWO presents (because she deserves it): a silver bracelet from Turkey and a black corded clutch purse from the 1940s. These things help Grandma Judy feel a little less irritated about life. She bought some shoes, earrings and books too, which didn’t count as birthday gifts, but what the heck, she was out.

Grandma Judy’s family took her to Red Robin Gourmet Burgers for dinner, an excellent choice when your party includes five children under age eleven, including a toddler who gets mad if you put the wrong food in front of him. Grandma Judy finds her grandchildren highly amusing even when their parents do not.

Grandma Judy’s grandchildren gave her several wonderful homemade drawings to help her forget how much she doesn’t like birthdays. These children are the most precious things in her life. So if there is a lesson to be learned here, I guess it would be: if you are going to get older, better get yourself some grandkids. Also, there is no harm in surprising yourself with a nice birthday gift.


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Try the Punch, Judy

My granddaughter Cosette celebrated her third birthday last month with a party in their backyard attended by eight kids, two infants and twelve adults. You need extra adults. Like everything else, Cosette has her own ideas about birthdays. She likes the cake and the singing part but has surprisingly little interest in opening presents. There we were, twenty-odd people gathered in common cause, people who had thought long and hard about what a three-year-old who never stops moving might like, had shopped and wrapped and picked just the right greeting card, people waiting to see the expression of joy on her little face when she opened their gifts, and all she wanted to do was hit a plastic ball off a plastic tee. Her father finally put the tee in the garage. It helped a little. Not much.

My assignment for the birthday party was to put on a puppet show. This is an excellent example of the things my children don’t mind asking me to do. I have never expressed any interest whatsoever in puppetry. I am simply available and not likely to refuse. So I went on the Internet to learn about puppet stuff.

There is no shortage of politically correct puppet show scripts online. There is a shortage of funny puppet show scripts online. I finally found an old Punch & Judy script. If you’re old enough to remember Howdy Doody, you probably remember Punch & Judy. They’ve been around for about 300 years and never in that time had a problem with family violence. Besides beating each other with sticks, they (baby)sat on the baby, put the baby in the oven to dry and perpetrated a number of other abuses against the baby. Naturally, I had to take all that stuff out (I also had to change their names, as my daughter didn’t want a puppet named Punch and I didn’t want one named Judy), but it was still a pretty funny script.

Punch & Judy, before puppets were cute, bland and PC

I went shopping for hand puppets. Nothing fancy. One boy, one girl. Apparently puppets are not the hot toy this holiday season, because I couldn’t find one in the seven-county metro area. Back to the Internet. Lots of puppets – dogs, cats, cows, bears, bees, mice. Humans? Not so much. I tried making sock puppets, paper bag puppets, even dish towel puppets. In the end, I ripped the heads off two old dolls in the basement, added some fabric, and voila! Two puppets who couldn’t hold their heads up.

Show time. Puppet theater set up on the grass. Little people lined up in front, big people in back – a group, fortunately, with few or no expectations. And despite several theatrical mishaps, such as props rolling off the stage into the audience, the show received rave reviews. This is what I learned: 1) try to have at least one dress rehearsal, lest the puppets go out there and forget their lines; 2) don’t use anything that’s round or has wheels as a prop; 3) it’s okay if you forget #1 and #2, because the kids don’t care anyway – just make a lot of noise and send enough objects flying through the air and they’ll think it’s hilarious.

As we say in the theater: fini, thank God, fini.