Those Short Summer Breaks

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I have a princess visiting over this and next week. She’s everything one imagines of royalty: beautiful, poised, self-confident, someone you’re proud to say you know and be seen with. Of course, as is also true of royalty, she can be high maintenance. She prefers to be served her favorite food on her schedule. She counts on her wardrobe clean and at her disposal. She enjoys books read to her, arbitrary trips to her favorite stores, mani-pedis and at least one person with or near her at all times.

Those who know me have already guessed I’m talking about my six-year-old granddaughter, Princess Caitlin. There’s a three-week gap between camp and first grade. Her mom, the original princess and my oldest daughter, Jill, has taken off the third week. She’s excited to get her pix1354681652941daughter new supplies and wardrobe for the start of school, 12 years that neither of them realize zip by in such a distorted span of time it defies any normal understanding we have of days and years.

After all, it was only a few years ago we were preparing Caitlin’s mom and aunt for grammar school, then high school and finally college. And now they’re out in the world doing remarkable things without holding our hand or calling us for permission or even advice. So when Jill asked the family if anyone might be available to watch Caitlin during the two weeks between camp and her week off, I didn’t hesitate to ask for every one of those days.

Caitlin grows more independent by the minute. She prefers Justice, a clothing story, over toy stores, Buffalo Wild Wings over Chuck E. Cheese. She’ll ask for Nutella and crackers too close to dinner time. She has known every word of Olivia Helps with Christmas for at least three years, but she asks me to read it to her all the time. And if I step out of the room for more than a few minutes, a sing-song, “Grandma where are you? Are you coming back?” is routine.

Sure we’re spoiling her. But she’s a loving, caring, kind little person who somehow also knows this time together is special and doesn’t expect everyday life to be as accommodating. At the same time, her grandfather and I know all too well that being able to make this remarkable little girl content so easily is a finite ability. Happiness will be more complicated, her needs something only she can find a way to achieve.

Thankfully, Jill agreed to let us revel selfishly in the little time we have left to soak in all that is Caitlin, fighting over our own time to spend with her. Soon enough we’ll revisit paddy cake paddy cake and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with our new grandson while Caitlin follows her mom and aunt out into the bigger world where greatness awaits her, too.

Eventually We All Win

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Last weekend Xavier and his friend drove to Cooperstown to watch inductions into the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame and see his oldest grandson play ball on the professionally manicured fields. I bet every male there fantasizes belting one over the fence. Xavier and his buddy had the time of their lifes.

For a long time our worlds were easier when we were apart. Life was complicated. We had kids, jobs, bills, college to save for, family, unending disagreements and deafening arguments not to mention the daily challenges of raising two daughters eight-years apart and galaxies away from understanding each other. What worked predictably was the relationship between dad and daughters.

I’d finally started accepting that the pledge, “Eventually that will change” is as over-promised and unrealistic as, “The check is in the mail.” Then last weekend happened. I spent day after unexpected and unplanned day with my granddaughter, as herself and as stand-in to her mom, my oldest, and her aunt—my 22-year-old “baby.”

Some might say this isn’t unusual, but nothing could be further from the truth. First, Caitlin and I hand sewed a pillow! Next, a phone call resulted in her aunt joining us to shop at Wal-Mart. We bought an entire sewing kit, and Jackie only smiled. When we split up to divide and conquer at the mass marketer, I grabbed two bags of our favorite Neutrogena face wipes and so did Jackie. We had lunch at Corner Bakery. Traffic was terrible, but no one evoked even the smallest groan nor did a single eyeball roll. In fact, we chatted right through the bumper-to-bumper finale.

The next day Cait was summoned home by Daughter #1. While driving her there, Jackie called me asking if she and her boyfriend could come over for dinner even though they knew it was only me at home. After we ate, he went downstairs to watch some “guy” show, while Jackie and I sat in the living room watching reality shows, chatting and even sitting wordless and comfortable. I can’t recall a single cell-phone interruption.

The next morning Jill called and asked if I’d look at documents she’d just emailed to me. She wanted my opinion and any minor suggestions, and she called before I was done, so anxious she was for the input.

Later that day, Jackie’s boyfriend called to ask if they could come over again. They’d bring the dinner and their laundry (I’d have made an 8-course meal and washed every article of their clothing with an ear-to-ear grin). After we survived the discomfort of the final episode of “The Bachelorette,” they headed downstairs to watch TV.

“C’mon down, mom,” Jackie said. “Leave the dishes. We’ll do them.”

“No, it’s okay. You two have some time alone together,” I said.

“No, mom. You better come downstairs. Drew, tell her she better come downstairs.”

I threw a load in the wash, another in the dryer, folded the warm clothes quickly, and made my way downstairs, where they included me in the conversation.

Yes, dads, daughters and even granddaughters have a remarkable connection. I once read that the love of a daughter is the safest kind of love a man can feel, thus it is a big deal for a man to be the parent of a girl. And what immeasurable value it is for daughters to know they will forever possess unconditional love with one man they’ve loved from the first moment they can recall.

Of course daughters love their moms, too. But daughter and mom share the love of a husband and father and that can be a complicated tango to master over a lifetime. It’s a dance with abrupt pauses and unusual rhythms, and we inadvertently tread on each other’s feet as we work to master it. Often Husband and Mom struggle to manage the missteps as much as Dad and Daughter. Until we realize we must learn and depend on muscle memory, those slip-ups can pile up and be more toxic than anticipated, even among family choreographed from love.

Xavier, his friend, son and grandkids may have had a major bucket list moment last weekend, and I couldn’t be happier for them. But I wouldn’t trade it for the Grand Slam weekend I had enjoying all the riches that only daughters can offer.

The G-Word

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Hundreds of emotions rushed through me when my daughter announced she was pregnant with her first child. Her health, age, future, childbirth, anything a mom can fret about simmered within me throughout her pregnancy. The biggest surprise, though, was the difficult time I was having accepting the reality that I was old enough for grandparenthood.

If that doesn’t prove “youth” is relative, I don’t know what does. As if I couldn’t have passed for a grandmother without my daughters having children. I’d already had practice. My stepson had three handsome kids of his own who I adore. I spent a great deal of time with the oldest when he was young, and it remains among my greatest experiences. Gus is the first little person I didn’t give birth to who enjoyed being with me as much as I loved being with him. Nonetheless, he’s a reminder my husband is older than me, and another Grandma rightfully ranks first in all their big hearts. Bottom line: I avoided the “I’m-a-grandma-now” reality check.

Daughter #2, Niece, Daughter #1, aka Mom, and Cait

Like the teenager who knows everything, I was an early-in-my-50’s mom who still had much to learn but didn’t think so when daughter #1 announced her daughter was due in September, 2007. I was abuzz with busy―baby showers, learning the latest in all things baby, and calling friends, most of who held their Grandma comments to themselves, although I could see the smirk in their eyes.

My daughter allowed me to be with her when Caitlin arrived. I was overwhelmed remembering all the love and happiness greeting my oldest when she was born. My parents and I spent years staring at her, awake or asleep. My youngest daughter, Caitlin’s new aunt, joined us in the birthing room soon afterwards, and I remembered how excited my mom and dad were at her arrival, especially my dad who’d finally slowed down enough to revel in all things infant and toddler. Every mispronounced word worthy of a story, told repeatedly. Then in came my niece, and I relived the joy my grandmother, mom, dad, sister and I felt when she made her debut―the first girl born near enough to hover over since my birth.

I held Caitlin close for a few minutes, introducing her to these women whose blood she shares. I told her about the long line of strong women preceding her, a tribute to those who instilled a love so powerful that those remaining were present now. The notion of missing even the first few moments of this new life unthinkable to each of us who instantly became part of her story through no choice of her own.

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Grandma and Cait

What an aha moment for this mom. Just when you think you’ve experienced all the great stuff in life―job promotions, marriage, rock star kids, beautiful homes, and even the significance of surviving the big 5-0―it’s not a leap to believe any big, magical milestone moments might be behind you.

Silly, inexperienced me. It took a year before Cait could say “Gamma.” Now that she’s getting ready for 1st grade, she can pronounce, spell and read Grandma as her mother, aunt and great-aunt did before her. And, I learned that just when I thought there were no longer any more big life lessons left,  being a grandmother is perhaps the most definitive life-affirming experience.

Caitlin and now her little brother multiple infinitely the profound love I felt when I gave birth to their mom. I don’t think either my very tired and hard-working daughter and equally exhausted niece can process the concept of so much love. Nor can my youngest who will be a terrific mother after she ventures down the many paths still before her. They have plenty of time. But this mom, who’s more motivated than ever to stay healthy to experience her baby’s babies, too, alternately laughs and cries at that naïve 50-something woman who feared the thought of being called Grandma.

It’s only when we stop learning new things every day that we genuinely have something to fear.

Sometimes life just sucks

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There’s no getting around it. To ensure it wasn’t just me, I googled the phrase. Nope, I’m not alone. Sometimes life just sucks. People you love save hurtful things, and worse, they occasionally take joy in it. Sometimes things seem just great with your kids, and all of a sudden they can’t get out the door quick enough.

Sure, I’ve done lots of things that provoke that treatment. But many times I haven’t. And that’s one thing my parent’s never prepared me for: sometimes life just sucks. People will hurt your feelings without feeling sad about it, or they won’t apologize for something, or they won’t appreciate your efforts when you’re dying for that recognition.

My mom spent the last decades of her life trying to toughen me up. She knew how deeply I loved. She and her mom and her mom’s mom taught me that love. But for some reason I’ve always had a hard time taking the hurt for what it’s worth — something unkind and something I don’t deserve and something I need to learn to walk away from.

If she told me once, she told me a thousand times, “Don’t let people treat you poorly, and don’t let people think you deserve to be treated poorly. You don’t.” At the same time, she’s said, “Own your mistakes. Apologize for them. Make sure your apologies are heard, too.” If anyone knew it took two to cause problems, it was my mom.

I remember one particular conversation with her. She was so worried that I wasn’t “toughening up.” She worried I took everything to heart. I kept saying that’s how I was, and it was okay because I always had her or Toto or my dad, my aunt and uncle — all of them to remind me that I am a nice person and I’m loved by the people that count. And she said, “Doll Face, we all won’t be here one day. You have to toughen up. You have to know that a bully will bully you as long as s/he knows its possible.” It was a Saturday night in our living room in Glenview, and I can tell you where we both sat, and how the light in the room changed as the hours passed, and how her eyes pleaded with me as much as her heart and her words.

I know now she kept on with this conversation so often because she loved me, and she didn’t want me to always feel so hurt by the words and actions or silence and inaction by those I love so much. I know now she probably even then felt the discussion futile, but maybe I’d think twice during these times when it feels like life just sucks.

My mom was so loving and so tough at the same time. I don’t know how she could be both. I know she had more than her share of disappointments, and I know she was a pro at shaking them off and moving forward. In so many ways I’m like my mom. I wish that were one of them.

But I’m SO grateful that I had those countless talks about toughening up to recall. I may not ever succeed in achieving that ability, but I learned about love from a pro. I learned about love from someone who never had to tell me and only through her actions proved what unconditional love is. So if sometimes life just sucks, I hope you have someone to remind you that you are worthy of unconditional love, and you don’t need to put up with those who would hurt you solely because they can. Or judge you as if they were better than you.

I’ve lived a blessed life with so many more wonderful than terrible moments. And to honor my mom, my grandma and my great-grandma, I have to remember that when some bully feels like it’s okay to make me feel bad. Because you know what — sometimes life just sucks. But there’s always someone out there who will love you for all the right reasons. So we have to shake if off and move forward. The bullies are the losers. Not those with hearts so big they can’t be shut off no matter how much they should be.

Some lessons take a long time to learn. Moms — they’re really something. They get that no matter how hard they work to convince you of something, they know you won’t learn some of those lessons in their lifetime. But thank heaven for them. Because that doesn’t stop them from repeating the lesson over and over again. They must know it echoes inside of you until eventually it resonates. They’re right. Sometimes life just sucks, but no one deserves to be treated poorly just because they can.

So whoever it is who loves you without condition and keeps telling you something repeatedly, and you just don’t buy it now, store it away. The truth of it will reveal itself when you need it most. As my mom would say about this and the few other truths that get me through my toughest moments, “stick with me.” Life isn’t always great, but some memories surely are.