First Day of School

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The day began at 6 a.m. when Gbot, caught atop the box for his Fisher Price Circus in an attempt to extract marshmallows and sugar cereal (which is only in the house due to their inclusion in a Christmas cookie recipe) from the high cupboard, “I am checking to see if the marshmallows and poppers are not soggy.”

And then it was off to the potty. There are guinea pigs in the Montessori classroom, and Gbot adores anything guinea piggish or hamstery, and so I’ve been using that as bait to get him to the potty. For example: “When you go potty in the toilet like a big boy, you get to go to school with the guinea pigs!”

This morning upon successful pottying, he announced, “Oh, the guinea pigs will be SO HAPPY!”

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Not as happy as Mama.

At school, Mbot led the family in one final flushworthy effort.
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And then they were off.

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I was thrilled. I was as thrilled as Gbot and the guinea pigs put together. I didn’t think, “Where has the time gone?” But I did want time to stop.

Maybe it’s having lived through the turn of the century that makes me so aware of the fact that it’s ’13, and to think about everything that happened in the ’13 that I’ve grown up with: 1913. Before World War 1. Before the Model T was in production. Before women could vote. Slavery had been abolished only forty years before. And in forty years, when I’m eighty-five, it’ll be 2053. The early fifties. In the early fifties, my grandpa was only just younger than I am now. He was born in ’15. It is impossible for me not to think of the young boys born near the turn of the last century, who I knew only as old men. Because for the children who will remember me as Great Grandma Etchart, wrinkly and white-haired, Mbot and Gbot will be those boys, who those children will know only as old men. I see this vaster span of time overlaid across every day like a web. And although I know it’s ridiculous, it makes me sad. Can’t we just replay the first day of preschool forever?

A Potion For the Bottoms of Our Shoes

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Day two on the Continent of Great Grandmothers turned out to be more about the great grandsons. I had promised the bots a trip to the beach. We got a late start, though, groggy from the two-hour time change, and I was feeling the strain of trying to do a lot with a little–a little time, a little energy, and two little bots. Navigating from the hotel to the Health Center to various stores for necessities was proving to be a time-eating exercise in one-way streets, endless waits in lefthand turn lanes, and impatient drivers who went for their horns without mercy.

By noon, we’d arrived at the Health Center again, and Mbot asked to come upstairs to get Great Grandma with me. So Solveig ran after Gbot, who seems to have more energy than all the rest of us put together these days, while Mbot and I took the elevator to the second floor and ventured down the hallway to the lunchroom. We found my grandmother as she’d been the day before. Although lunch looked good, she wasn’t eating; she’s uninterested in food and unable to feed herself. We pulled up a chair. I put my hand on her shoulder. She roused, and turned to look at us. I introduced myself again, and Mbot. Her face brightened and she said, “Oh! I was just thinking about you this morning!”

“That’s because we came to visit you yesterday, Grandma. The boys played in the fountain!”

We stayed just a few minutes, because an enormous man asleep at the next table started making some pretty terrible sounds which scared Mbot. No one else in the room seemed to notice. But when Mbot squirmed in my lap and asked to go, I told my grandmother that we were heading to the beach to play in the sand, not to worry because the boys would wear life preservers, and that I would come back later. She asked how my parents were. “Are they meeting you?”

“Yes,” I replied, nodding and smiling. My parents were in Idaho. I hugged her goodbye. She used to give me a hard time about being uncomfortable hugging and kissing–I was, back in my twenties. I could just hear her unthought thoughts: “So this is what a grandma has to do to get a hug around here!”

I didn’t know at the time, but knew it was a possibility, that that would be the last time she recognized me.

We managed to find the local WalMart, where we purchased picnic supplies, life-jackets, a package of Toy Story underpants to serve as swim trunks, and a short-sleeved t-shirt for me, because I’d only brought one and had left it back at the room. Then we went to introduce the bots to the Atlantic Ocean. We cruised west past a shop selling “The World’s Best Quilts,” Tarot Readings, and Accurate Accounting Services (we figured that maybe in Broward County, such a thing might not be assumed. We found the beach, clean and wide, just south of the pier, complete with a life guard who emerged from his life guard stand when he saw Mbot run in the direction of the street.

Florida Gbot profile donut 2

And there we spent the afternoon. The bots waded up to their hips in the waves. Solveig had thought to bring pool towels from the hotel lobby, and they quickly became covered with sand as we sat among the opportunistic seagulls. We buried Mbot’s legs and decorated him with shells. The bots ate chocolate-iced donuts with sprinkles. Solveig and I opened a bottle of screw-top shiraz, which turned out to be 15% alcohol, and drank it out of empty water bottles. It just seemed like a day for treats–to revel in the tangible physical comforts, to swim in Toy Story underpants and get our faces messy and to pursue a buzz in the middle of the day.

By five, I was exhausted, without the emotional energy to visit my grandmother. Back at the room, we found that the latch to fill the tub was broken and so after a group shower (of which Solveig opted out), we camped in front of the computer to watch four episodes of Tin Tin. I ordered Chinese food and it all tasted the same. Mbot made a Chinese food-eating breakthrough when he gnawed the kernels off of the baby corn.

I visited my grandmother the next morning, leaving Solveig in the room making costumes for the bots out of The Wall Street Journal. She was dozing in front of the TV when I arrived. I took her to sit in the courtyard, in the gentle sun and soft fresh breeze. We walked around the lake, through the rose garden, and sat by the fountain again. But this time, when she woke, now and then, she didn’t recognize me. She talked quietly to herself, a sililoquy I couldn’t understand. I read to her, as she dozed, from a biography called The Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts. I’d bought it at the airport; she’s always loved biographies. I held her hand and told her more about the boys but it was my own sililoquy. And at eleven o’clock, I returned to the room to finish packing. It was time to leave.

Driving to the airport, Mbot said, “I wish I could send all of this away. The trees, and the beach, Great Grandma.”

I could tell Solveig was slightly disturbed by this seemingly nihilistic desire. But I have learned that when a bot doesn’t seem to make sense, ask questions.

“Send it where?” I asked.

“Send it home with us,” he replied.

“Me too,” I agreed. Except for the impatient drivers and one-way streets.

“I wish we could just hop and be here with Great Grandma.”

“Me too,” I said. “We’d have to hop REALLY far.”

“Hmm,” he mused, in problem-solving mode. “Maybe I could make a potion for the bottoms of our shoes.”

It is a lovely thought, isn’t it?

I don’t think I will have another chance to see my grandmother. But Mbot has, out of the blue, started talking about her, almost every day since we returned–counting his grandmas (three!), remembering her silver hair, and that “all the grownups were eating kid food. Hotdogs, soup, pie…” We took pictures, and a video, that first day, and so that will help him remember, too.

And he’s getting a chemistry set for Christmas, so he’ll be working on that potion.

We Are Going to Another Continent.

Evening flight to grandma, mercifully uncrowded. Honorary Aunt Solveig knits. Mbot draws a picture of the wing of the plane out the window. All is calm.

We are in Florida. It is not, techically, another continent, as Mbot told his teacher yesterday when I pulled him out of preschool early to make the plane. But it might as well be one, because we are entering a foreign world: the world of the old.

My grandmother turned ninety-six on Saturday. I’d seen her last when Mbot was five weeks old. At ninety-one, she’d flown to a family reunion in Idaho. She’d been very much herself–slightly shorter, slightly whiter, slightly slower. But the same lightning sense of humor, keen intelligence, and outspokenness was in full display. “You look good,” she would say. And then, “Are you sure you’re not too skinny?”

But time changes everything, and things fall apart.

I have been attempting to visit her since Gbot was born, just three years ago. But several factors held me back, one of which was that I, a self-made expert at visualizing, and then enacting extensive travel plans that include one adult (myself) and an unmatched set of under-two, or under-three year-old seat-mates, simply could not visualize the bots and I making the journey. But in the past ten days, several sereptitious occurrences colluded to help us on our way, among them, my friend from second grade, Solveig, agreed to meet us in Denver and accompany us. She is a good sport, with an endless supply of humor and a cunning resourcefulness that can include a corkscrew when necessary.

In the days prior to departure, I steeled myself for the worst: I knew my grandmother might not recognize me and if she did, it wouldn’t last. I knew she might just doze off. I feared she would be smaller even than I remembered, bedridden, wearing hospital garb, confined to a room. I wondered if the staff kept her nails pretty and her hair–which always, in my memory, looked nice (although at a price–my grandfather used to kid her about her “lightning rods,” which is how he referred to her curlers).

Our plane touched down at close to midnight, and so we got a late start the next morning, arriving at John Knox Health Center close to noon. Solveig and the bots played on the grounds while I went up to her room. She wasn’t there–I was surprised to hear that she was at lunch. I ventured down the hall to a windowed room in which maybe thirty elderly people, in various states of aging, sat eating a meal that didn’t look too bad.

I recognized my grandmother immediately. She looked remarkably similar to the photos my parents had taken the year before. Her hair was well-taken care of. She was wearing fresh, clean clothes, including a very pretty red knit jacket that matched the vest I’d left in the car. A nurse was helping her eat dessert, a piece of lemon cake. I bent down and put my hand on her shoulder. “Grandma,” I said. “It’s your granddaughter, Betsy. I’ve come to visit, and I’ve brought my little boys, your great grandsons.”

She looked up, took me in, and said, “You’re so skinny!” I laughed with relief. No matter what I’d heard about her good days and her bad days, the incoherence over the phone, the tendency to get agitated–this was still Grandma.

Much of what followed didn’t make sense, but much did. I wheeled her inexpertly down the hall, into the elevator, and out the door onto the grounds. The weather was lovely–low seventies, the sun not too bright, a cool, fresh breeze. A few minutes later we came upon Solveig with the bots.

Something about the children seemed to awaken her synapses and bring her alert. She worried aloud when one of the bots would disappear behind a rose bush, or the fountain. “Thank you for helping me keep track of them,” I laughed, and she laughed too. Maybe not at that, but does it really matter? “Bring them to dinner,” she said. “Children are enjoyed,” she said. “They’re so much fun.” Mbot, who has always loved the smell of a rose, asked to smell one in the rose garden, and I picked one, held it to his nose, to Grandma’s. A look of pleasure crossed her face.

Nearly an hour into our visit, sitting by the fountain, she looked me, our faces twelve inches apart. “You know,” she said, “you look a lot like my granddaughter, Betsy.”

“I am your granddaughter, Betsy,” I said.

And we stared at one another, her bemused expression revealing that memory was attempting feats that mostly it had just grown too old for. At that moment, Mbot ran from the fountain. He held up his wrist, devoid of the red, heart-shaped sillyband he’d chosen from the airport store silly-band pack the day before. “Mommmmmm,” wailed Mbot. “Gbot threw my heart into the water.”

Oh, I know how you feel, I wanted to say to Mbot. I think I did say it, with tears in my lashes. “It will be okay,” I said to him, next. “I have another.” I felt how big a mother’s heart has to be. I felt like a magician able to pull a heart out of my sleeve whenever there is a call for one, and that as a mother, I have an endless supply. As a mother, and now, as a granddaughter. I was taken care of, all those years–am still taken care of, to some extent, by my own mother, although she lives three states away. And now it’s my turn. I am the grown up. Because, I think, of the role reversal, in my grandmother’s presence, I saw myself more as a grown up than I do in the presence of my children.

Just twenty minutes before, she had known who Mbot was when I’d introduced him. They’d held a brief conversation. She’d watched Gbot run and play. “He will be a fine man,” she said, smiling. At another point, she smiled again, admiring his hair.

Later, she looked at me and asked, “How’s your writing?”

I told her, briefly.

“Did you write any today?” she asked.

“Not yet,” I replied, not thinking of the notes scrawled across the palm of my left hand, or the ones I’d texted to myself on my phone.

Mbot asked to accompany us when I returned her to the social area on her floor. We left her sitting by a table. She hadn’t wanted to face the TV. (Like grandmother like granddaughter). We hugged and kissed her goodbye. She smiled and asked if “they were meeting us,” and I just said smiled and said yes. I turned back before we turned the corner to the elevator and she was still sitting, hands in her lap, just sitting, looking within, and I knew we had been lucky to have come on a good day. And I couldn’t help but feel that our coming had help make it a good day.

We will go back tomorrow.

Gbot and Spruce Bear sleep their way to another continent.

Having WeeBots Means You Have…

The thing about having young kids is that it usually means you’ve got old parents. And older grandparents. If you still have them at all.

The interesting thing about blogging several times a week about a certain topic is that it’s like a job: you concentrate on your subject and you leave the rest behind. But the other interesting thing about blogging is that it’s not quite that simple. Because you generally do it in your kitchen, which is in the middle of your home, it sometimes demands  some asides.

The beauty of being so crazily preoccupied with wiping poop from every surface, keeping weeBots from bicycling into the street when they are not even riding real bicycles, and facing down a constant pile of this morning’s dishes and yesterday’s Spiderman underpants is that I don’t have time to think about much else–like the grandmother I love, who lives in Florida, in a facility that we have all entrusted to her care, for x thousands of dollars of her savings a month. A place in which, as of three weeks ago, she has been judged too old for independent apartment living, and too young for the “healthcare facility,” which is the last step on the staircase to heaven. But there is no room in the in-between place, although one assumed that of course there would be, when it came to that, and so she has been placed in the healthcare facility. There is talk about moving her to the in-between place once an opening becomes available, but it is general knowledge that people who go into the “healthcare facility” do not come out.

We are all worried.

My grandmother is ninety-five, and has good days and bad, but the last time I spoke with her, in December, she was the woman I have always remembered: intelligent, funny, interested, and opinionated.

For forty years, I have lived over two thousand miles from her. She met Mbot once, when he was five weeks old. She has never met Gbot. I keep thinking of bringing the Bots to Florida; of getting on two planes and staying two nights and leaving a memory of ruckus and rampage, but the airfares are prohibitively high, and the flights very long. And the bots have been very small. I have not been up to it.

But neither am I up for the scenario of my grandmother leaving this place without meeting Gbot, feeling his squirming body wriggle from hers. I wonder what that would actually accomplish, who I would really be doing it for. Mbot would remember her, maybe. Gbot would not. But she would know, now and then, that she had held her youngest great-grandchild. 

My mother and I were talking today about the enormous expense my grandparents had put into the advanced-care facility. “And to think that they were so frugal their entire lives,” said my mother of her parents-in-law. All that money going to this facility that, we observed wryly, seemed to be failing her now. “Grandpa and Grandma’s idea of splurging was buying the Happy Endings sundae at Friendly’s,” my mother remembered, we laughed.

“And to think that x thousand dollars a month can’t even really buy you a happy ending,” I said.

We laughed again. Laughter’s powerful because it signals that you share a reality with the person you’re talking with. It make the world not quite such a lonely place.

The Happy Endings sundaes were too small to share. Even though my grandmother never wanted to order one of her own–she would always “just have a bite” of my grandfather’s. We all laughed at that, too, because we knew that whoever shares a sundae with grandma has to beware. We all want way more than just one bite of what’s in front of us.