We had a very good visit with our Spanish family in October, so we were surprised when Erik floated the idea of bringing Marga and Nora for a visit in November, and even more surprised when he asked us how we would feel about taking care of Nora for five days while he and Marga visited San Francisco.
We snapped at the chance, of course. It is hard being a grandparent from almost 5000 miles away. We still retained some 30 year-old memories though, and were concerned enough about our 60 year-old bodies chasing after a 20 month-old toddler desperate for her missing parents for us to take the matter seriously. We decided to double-team her. I would work for an hour or two early each morning while Nora slept, and then come home and help Betsy take care of her. Betsy would not go into work at all that week. We also enlisted the help of our friends. I borrowed a Dora the Explorer kitchen appliance set from my friend Sandy, along with assorted pots, pans, and pretend foods. Suzie brought me a big basket of baby toys and books. Pam lent us the portable crib she uses when her grandchild visits. We shopped in the used kid toys store, and Betsy even went to WalMart. We put child-protectors in our wall sockets, and installed child gates at both the top and bottom of the stairs. We bought a child\’s chair, a rocking horse, a soccer ball, and 96 diapers, and we sat back to wait. A day later we panicked again, and asked my mother if she would like to come stay with us that week and help us out. It took her less than a second to say yes, which should probably have been a clue for me that her memories of caring for a toddler were no stronger than my own.
Erik and his family arrived from Spain the weekend before Thanksgiving. They went sailing with our friend John on Sunday, and on Tuesday I took Marga and Nora to the Valdese pool so Nora could reacquaint herself with standing and floating in water. Erik worked during the days. His job as a web architect allows him to work from anywhere, and I’m not sure whether his coworkers realized he had fairly radically changed his location between Friday and Monday. I did the grocery shopping and most of the cooking, and we had a good time each day.
On Thanksgiving we drove the 200 miles to my mother’s house. As expected, her perfectly prepared Thanksgiving meal was waiting for us. The large meal called for some long walks, and long walks made Nora fall asleep. Sleeping during the day seemed to mean less sleeping at night, but I was sleeping on the other side of the house from Nora, and was not bothered by her crying.
On Friday, Erik drove to his office in Raleigh and worked there all day. That may not sound like an unusual activity, but for him, well, it only happens about once a year. Betsy, Marga, Nora and I were going to venture into the wild world of Black Friday sales, but Nora seemed to be coming down with a cold, so we stayed home. When Erik returned home from work, we enjoyed a nice chicken enchilada dinner, then sat around and let Nora entertain us.
On Saturday, we said goodbye to my mother and drove back to Morganton. I had to work for a few hours that afternoon, and Erik, Marga and Nora used that time to eat lunch and walk around Morganton. We enjoyed a nice dinner at home that night, and we all went to bed a little early.
The real fun started on Sunday. I woke up around 5:30 Sunday morning, and around 6:30 I drove Erik and Marga to the Charlotte airport. I returned home a little after 9:00 to find that Nora was awake and being carried around by Betsy. She had taken her morning breakfast bottle, although she hadn’t quite finished it. Nora seemed vaguely upset about something, and periodically wanted to be carried around the house into different rooms, almost as if she was looking for someone. Eventually she settled down to the first of her five days with her American grandparents. Betsy dressed her for the day, and the serious playing began. Nora liked the Dora the Explorer kitchen set we had borrowed. It included a telephone with occasional phone calls from either Boots, Diego, or Dora’s Abuela (Spanish for “grandmother”). Nora seemed to especially enjoy getting imaginary phone calls from her Spanish grandmother.
Every couple of hours we put Nora’s smock on her, put her in her highchair, and stuck food in front of her. I had chopped up some zucchini, onion, and carrot and boiled it all. This was pretty much always served as her first course. Subsequent plates set before her included yogurt, pineapple, ham, cheese, banana, bread, olives, apple, melon, cheerios, a cut-up hot dog, and whatever we were eating ourselves.
At about 1:00 pm on Sunday Betsy put Nora’s winter coat on her and placed her in her stroller, and I started pushing her to Martha’s Park. Before our house was out of sight she had cried herself to sleep, so I turned around and went back home. She slept for about 45 minutes that day. When she woke up, she was once again vaguely dissatisfied. She wanted to be carried around the house until it was apparent there were no better options than the one carrying her.
It became apparent fairly early on Sunday that while Betsy was an acceptable parent substitute, I was not – at least, not any time when Betsy was home, which was all the time. We would both play with Nora, then, some time when Nora was mostly playing with me, Betsy would sneak out of the room. Nora may have been happy as a lark playing with me, but the moment she noticed Betsy had left she stopped what she was doing, started to cry, and began her search for her grandmother. This scene was repeated many times. This behavior was understandable. With her normal emotional foundation of Mommy and Daddy ripped away from her, she had latched onto the next-best-thing with an intensified grip, determined not to lose it too.
By 9:00 Sunday night Betsy and I were more than ready for bed, and, fortunately, Nora was too. Our biggest fear going into this endeavor had been the loss of sleep that might come with caring for a baby who was six time zones from her home, and who was not known as a “good sleeper”. Nora was sleeping in the office, just down the hall from our bedroom, and when she cried Sunday night at 2:00 am Betsy jumped out of bed faster than a jack-in-the-box. Betsy sat on the floor next to Nora, spoke to her soothingly, and 15 minutes later Nora was back asleep for the rest of the night. Good job Betsy!
I went to work at 6:00 am Monday morning, trying to get as much work done as I could before Nora woke up. Around 8:30 I got a call from Betsy. She said that Nora was awake, but didn’t want to get out of her crib. Nora wouldn’t take her breakfast bottle, and seemed lethargic and weak. Betsy said Nora hadn’t wet her diaper since Noon the day before, and hadn’t had a bowel movement. Betsy was worried that Nora might be getting dehydrated, since she wouldn’t drink. I reacted like a first-time grandparent, which is a lot like a first-time parent, only with a little more money. After consulting both Google and some mothers in my workplace, I raced to the store and bought five different kinds of fluids intended to prevent dehydration in babies. I bought some of this flavor and that flavor, and some with no flavor in case that would work better. I bought water with nutrients, and lightly sugared fruit drinks. When I got home, Betsy was walking a dull-eyed Nora around the house. Within a few minutes, Nora was drinking from one of the bottles of water I had brought home, and within 30 minutes all of our dehydration fears evaporated.
My Mom arrived early in the afternoon. Any illusion she might have had about Nora showing affection to her now that Nora’s parents were out of the picture was shattered pretty quickly. Betsy was clearly first on Nora’s replacement list, I was second, and my Mom would have to settle for third. Since Nora wouldn’t really tolerate being left alone with her (or left alone with me), she shifted naturally to the role of taking care of the caretakers. I was glad to have her visiting us and spending time with her Spanish great-granddaughter, and soon it became apparent to me that my plan of cooking for Nora and also for the rest of us could use some repair. Taking care of Nora was taking all of Betsy’s time, and cooking for Nora and substituting briefly for Betsy throughout the day was taking all of my time. Fortunately, my mother was able to step in and pretty much carry the load of cooking dinner each night for herself, Betsy and me. She also did a lot of kitchen cleaning.
Nora was very good Monday night. She whimpered once for about a minute in the middle of the night, but then went back to sleep. She slept from 9:00 pm until 8:30 am. Unlike Monday morning, on Tuesday morning she welcomed Betsy’s lift from her crib, assisted amicably with the preparation of her breakfast bottle, and drank almost all of it.
I don’t remember much about the week. I remember it rained all day Tuesday, which made that a good day for going to the indoor pre-school play area at the old College Street School. I remember that we all went out to dinner at the Chinese Buffet on Wednesday evening with my brother David. I know I went into work every day before Nora woke up, and usually returned again later in the day when it was convenient to do so. I remember cooking and preparing food for Nora, and meal planning and shopping for the rest of us. I remember going to bed dead tired every night, and there were some evenings when I either forgot, or it wasn’t convenient for me to have my evening martini. We spent time playing at Nora\’s drawing table, playing with her play kitchen, turning pages of various Winnie-the-Pooh books, matching shapes with holes, petting Sam, putting stickers on things, re-arranging CDs, playing with dominoes, and riding the toy car. Each day time was spent out in the yard kicking the soccer ball, breaking sticks, and climbing in the lawn chair. All of this went by me like a dream. I was almost constantly amazed. As only the backup to the primary caregiver, most of my time was spent watching and marveling as Nora went about interacting with her world. I spent the whole week mesmerized.
Betsy and I knew we were expected to further Nora’s knowledge of the English language while she was visiting us, and I think we did so. We spent lots of time pointing at pictures and saying words, and Nora spent lots of time repeating the words we said. Her ability to parrot new words was impressive, but even more impressive was her apparent ability to understand the meaning of new words after only one or two uses.
I did have two objectives I hoped to accomplish during the week. The first was to teach Nora to say “Holy Cow!” The second was to teach Nora how to participate in a toast. Both objectives were accomplished with ease. It was especially gratifying when I realized that Nora had not only learned to mimic “Holy Cow!” when I said it, but also to initiate it at times when it was appropriate to be amazed by something. I was extra pleased to be able to teach her how to complement her verbal “Holy Cow!” with putting both hands on the top of her head, widening her eyes to their fullest, and slightly rolling her head.
Teaching Nora to participate in a toast was begun late in the week, and we only really had meal times to work on it, but it was something she enjoyed doing, and that made the teaching easy. After only two trials, she had it down pat. I would pick up my glass and wait until Nora met my gaze. Then I would twinkle my eyes, smile mischievously, and slowly lean forward towards Nora, holding my glass. She would twinkle her eyes, smile slightly, and pick up her glass. Slowly, slowly our glasses approached each other until they clinked. Then we would raise our glasses high in the air, say “Cheers”, lower our glasses and take a drink. Then – all together now – we set down our glasses, made a big, loud sigh, and dramatically folded our arms in front of ourselves.
One obligation Betsy couldn\’t get out of was meeting the high school student she was mentoring at 4:00 Thursday afternoon. She estimated she would be gone about an hour and a half, and I figured that would be an hour and a half of hell. I knew my granddaughter wouldn\’t like being left by the woman who had been serving as her sole source of support, and I also knew Nora to be quite persistent in her objections when things were not as she wished them to be. I did not think that an hour and a half would be long enough for her to learn to tolerate the stand-in for the stand-in for the stand-in for the stand-in. I was expecting her to cry herself into a stupor and sob herself to sleep.
Betsy left out the front door and Nora saw her go, began shrieking immediately, and was inconsolable for 45 minutes. For the first 15 minutes she did not want me to pick her up, but instead devoted all of her energy to the task of crying hard enough to bring Betsy back. Then for another 30 minutes she did want me to pick her up, and she would reduce her screaming to mild crying as long as I walked around carrying her. Whenever I tried to sit down while holding her, she screamed and insisted on being put down. She would wander back to her favorite screaming spot, from which she both had a clear line of sight at the door Betsy had disappeared through, and was only 15 feet away from the eardrums of both her grandfather and great-grandmother. While sitting, I would lean towards her with my arms extended, and she would lean towards me with her arms extended, but she would not take a step towards me until my butt was an inch or more off the couch. Then I would pick her up and carry her around until I was pooped and had to sit down again. Over and over and over and over. And over and over and over and over.
After 45 minutes, something changed. If something other than having spent 45 tiring minutes crying caused the change, I missed it. For the next 45 minutes, Nora was a pleasure. I played with her for a while, and my Mom played with her for a while, and Nora tolerated us without complaint. When I noticed Betsy drive up, I grabbed two dog leashes, ran out to meet her, and suggested she take Buster and Blue for a walk. It had not been easy getting to the point we were at inside, and I knew it would be over as soon as Nora saw Betsy again.
When Betsy returned, we fed and bathed Nora, and Betsy helped Nora put on her pajamas. We had hoped to get Nora to sleep before it would be time for Betsy to drive to Charlotte and pick up Erik and Marga, but time got away from us. This time I carried Nora outside and we watched Grandma drive away, but I don\’t think that made the separation any smoother. Once again Nora spent several minutes standing and screaming, not wanting to be picked up, followed by a rather long time of wanting to be carried around while she cried quietly. Eventually she stopped crying and made the most of what she had left. Later, when she started crying mildly again, it seemed to be because she was tired. I took her into her crib, laid her down, and sat down on the floor next to her, prepared to wait her out. Within minutes, however, she stopped sniffling and fell asleep. Except for about 10 minutes of crying in the middle of the night, she slept all night.
Betsy, Nora and I were at the breakfast table around 9:00 on Friday morning when Erik and Marga came downstairs. When Erik came into Nora’s view she was stunned. Her memory and comprehension of what she was seeing came together after five or six seconds, and she said “Poppy!” and leaned towards him. Soon Mommy came into sight, and Nora’s eyes lit up even brighter. “¡Elefante!” she yelled, pointing at the outline of the elephant on Marga’s shirt.
All day Friday, and on Saturday until we left for the airport, Betsy and I were back in our grandparent roles. When Nora was hungry, we could feed her if we wanted to. When she needed changing, we could change her if we wanted to. Whenever we wanted to play with Nora, we could. And any time we wanted to leave Nora and go into a room by ourselves, there was always Nora’s mother or father there to carry the load. To paraphrase child psychologist John Rosemond, it is the parents\’ job to provide discipline, and the grandparents\’ job to spoil the child. If the parents stay away from doing the grandparents\’ job, the grandparents won\’t have to do the parents\’ job. I was glad to once again be free to spoil my granddaughter.
It is both wonderful and a great deal of work being a parent. Being a grandparent is just simply wonderful, and both Betsy and I were glad to have our roles back.
At 1:00 pm on Saturday, just before leaving for the airport, and while we were sitting around the dining room table eating pizza, it started snowing. We were all amazed, especially at the huge size of the heavy snow flakes, but Nora was the most amazed of all. “Holy Cow!â€ she erupted. “HOLY COW!!!”