Tech-Free Games to Play via Zoom

Technology has been a godsend during the quarantine. Sonny and Ace are attending school via Google Classroom and video meetings with their teachers, and they stay in touch with their friends via Hangouts, Messenger Kids, and Minecraft. We order groceries online and pick them up curbside. Our families have gathered via Zoom. We read books on our tablets. We text our friends to offer and accept moral support. Church services are live-streamed. We’ve played JackBox games with friends.

Technology has made it possible to cling to our sanity, such as it is.

Still, too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing, and the truth is that I have technology fatigue. Needing to connect with others yet often depending on technology to do so is a paradox that can be tricky to navigate. While JackBox, Houseparty, and other online game options are fun, classic, old-fashioned games are appealing as well. And for some, a videoconference alone is enough of a burden on their technological savvy; they don’t want to have to expend energy figuring out how to play an online game. 

Enter the compromise: Here are 13 games that can be played via Zoom, Hangouts, and the like yet require no additional technology. (Of course, these games can be played at home as well. No Zoom necessary.) While some of these offer apps as one option, none require them. And they all make it possible to focus on those with whom you are playing instead of on the screen itself.

Battleship. If you own the board game, set it up and play it as usual. But you can easily play without the board game as well; in fact; Battleship first became popular during World War I as a pencil and paper game. So grab a writing utensil, and print these grids to place your ships and record your hits and misses. Ahoy! Directions are included. 

Two Truths and a Lie. Each player names two things that are true and one thing that is not. The others guess which one is false. Try the following categories, or make up your own.

  • Bucket lists: “These three things are on my bucket list: taking a photography class, learning to play the ukulele, and hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
  • Experiences: “I have done these three things: been stung by a bee, won a coloring contest, and gotten four stitches on my chin.”
  • Likes: “I like these three things: Nutella, painting pictures, and playing gaga ball.”

Scattergories. This party game was around long before the boxed version; my mom has fond memories of playing it at her aunt’s house on Thanksgiving. All players work from the same list and write examples of each term that start with a particular letter. If you each happen to own the boxed party game, coordinate the lists and play from that. If not, you can each print out (or screen share) these lists. Find detailed directions here.

A to Z. Choose a category (something you find in a house, an animal, something school-related, a food, etc.), and think of an example from each letter of the alphabet. Use scrap paper or this record sheet. After three minutes, everyone shares their list and crosses off examples that someone else had. Assign one point for each word that remains. 

Boggle. If one of you owns Hasbro’s Boggle game, you could shake the letter pieces and situate the camera so that everyone can see the grid. If not, or if doing so is too unwieldy, print out (or screen share) these Word Chain grids. Alternatively, you could use this resource and share the screen.  

Would You Rather? Take turns choosing another player and asking a question that offers two choices. (Alternatively, everyone may answer the question.) Make sure that the choices are difficult either because neither choice is desirable (e.g., “Would you rather always wear tight shoes or always wear shoes that fall off?”) or because both choices are desirable (e.g., “Would you rather have the ability to become invisible or have the ability to move things with your mind?”).

Hangman (or Snowman, for those who prefer a less gory option). One player draws blanks for each letter of a word or phrase, leaving space to complete the drawing of a hangman/snowman. The other player guesses each missing letter of the word. Each incorrect guess results in another part of the hanged man or snowman being drawn. The player who guesses the word before the drawing is completed wins. Otherwise, the player who chose the word wins.

Yahtzee. Each location will need five dice. (If not everyone has five dice, or if you want everyone to be able to see for themselves what each person rolled, you can share the Zoom screen with this dice roller.) Directions and printable scorecards are available here.

Charades. An oldie but goodie: act out the words to a phrase, movie title, book title, etc., and everyone else guesses. Remember: the person acting out the charade may not talk.

The Last Becomes First. Choose a category (animals, food, movies, books, actors, things found in nature, fictional characters, etc.). One person says a word that fits that category. The next player says a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. (Example: Bear. Rabbit. Tiger. Raccoon. Nightingale. Elephant.) Players have five seconds to think of a word, or they must drop out. The last person remaining wins.

Twenty Questions. Another oldie but goodie. One person chooses an object or a concept. Everyone else tries to guess what this is by asking “yes or no” questions. The guessers can ask up to 20 questions to figure out the answer.

Trivia. Choose questions from trivia games you have at your house, or make up questions based on your own knowledge. (You could also use a trivia generator.)

Courtiers. In this old-fashioned parlor game, one person (designated as the king or queen) begins to gesture with the goal of making the others smile or laugh. All other players copy the gestures without smiling or laughing. The first person to smile or laugh becomes the next king or queen.

No-Peek Drawing. Everyone closes their eyes and draws something on a piece of paper. Take turns holding your drawings up to the camera and guessing what everyone else tried to draw.

What other ideas do you have?

Be well, everyone.

 

Have a Scrunchie and Five Minutes? Make a Mask Extender/Ear Protector.

Our healthcare professionals and other heroes need masks for protection from COVID-19. Many wear masks for their entire shift. While this practice keeps them safer, it has also introduced the problem of sore ears; constant chafing from the mask straps rubs skin raw.IMG_2702

Enter the ear-protecting mask extender, which offers a painless place to hook the straps. Such extenders have been fashioned with 3-D printers, crocheted of cotton yarn, and crafted from headbands and buttons. I even saw a suggestion for using detachable bra straps.

If you don’t have a 3-D printer, don’t know how to crochet, and don’t have access to extra headbands (or detachable bra straps) but still want to make mask extenders, you can use scrunchies. (How fortunate is it that scrunchies have come back into fashion?) Oh, and this takes only five minutes.

Ear Protector/Mask Extender  (Here are printable instructions.)

Materials:

  • A scrunchie (If your scrunchies are quite small, you could loop two of them together.)
  • Two flat buttons (¾ inch or larger) (Make sure to use flat buttons with two or four holes; buttons with a shank instead of holes will not work.)
  • A needle
  • Thread

Instructions:

  1. Holding the scrunchie flat, sew a button in the center of one side. (Make sure to sew through the elastic inside the scrunchie. This will keep the buttons from flipping when the mask straps aIMG_2706re attached.)
  2. Sew the second button on the scrunchie in the same way, directly opposite the first.
  3. To use, hold the extender against the back of your head. Put the mask on, hooking the straps around the extender’s buttons instead of around your ears.

And to all the heroes: thank you!

 

Thank you.

Who Let the Feathers Out?

Jewish folklore tells of a man who had spread many malicious rumors, hurting many people. Eventually, though, his conscience got the better of him and he wanted to make amends. He appealed to the rabbi for advice.

“Tell me how I can undo what I have done,” he begged.

“Go home and get a pillow,” the rabbi said. “Take it to a hill, and cut the pillow open. Wave it in the air until it is empty. Then return to me.”

The man followed the instructions. “I have done what you said,” he told the rabbi. “What is next?”

“Return to the hill,” the rabbi said, “and retrieve all the feathers. Put them back in the pillow.”

“The feathers have blown all over the countryside by now,” the man objected. “It is impossible to retrieve them.”

“You are correct,” said the rabbi. “And neither can you retrieve words once they leave your mouth. You can apologize, but you can never fully make amends

. . . . . .

When I was in high school, two girls approached me in gym class, interrupting my watching of the clock.

“You don’t have to respond if you don’t want to . . .” they began, and went on to explain: a rumor was circulating about me. They didn’t think it sounded right, and they wanted to offer me the opportunity to clarify.

The rumor was one of those false ones, as many are. (I had no idea how or why it had started, but rumors are sneaky that way.) They believed me when I denied entanglement in the situation. Watching them stalk across the gym (twice) to set a couple people straight, I was touched by their indignation on my behalf and grateful for their willingness to retrieve a few feathers, even though they had not been the ones to unleash those feathers to the wind in the first place.

It’s still remarkable to me that these girls—who didn’t even know me well—were willing to place themselves in the awkward position of bringing the rumor to my attention. I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing, but then again I’d like to think a lot of things about myself that would be filed under “In your dreams, lady.” (Reality is funny that way.)

I’m not sure what summoned up this memory today.

Maybe it was overhearing Sonny and Ace define gossip at dinnertime.

Sonny: “It’s like that game of telephone when you whisper, ‘My teacher went to Meijer Gardens yesterday’ to the first person and by the time the message gets to the last guy, he hears, “Han Solo loves to eat cheese.”

Ace: “Gossip is like sickness.”

Maybe it’s because a few people whom I care about have been wounded by gossip lately. Needlessly—of course. Unfairly—of course. Because people prefer to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire than to acknowledge that forest fires are set by small sparks—of course.

Maybe it’s because, even as these particular rumors infuriate me, I wonder what feathers I have released, what feathers I have accepted from the wind without so much as a question. In some cases I don’t have to wonder very hard.

Operation “Let the Feathers Remain in the Pillows” coming right up.

Who’s in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Election Countdown: 21 Alternatives to Angst and Fury

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” –Jonathan Swift, 1738

“There are none so blind as those who will not see that the faults of my candidate of choice pale in comparison to those of yours, and that your political party is corruption incarnate, and that a vote for your candidate is a vote for evil, and that no valid reason—not even one—exists to support your candidate.” –Facebook (et al), 2016

Twenty-one days remain until the U.S. Presidential election. Without diminishing the importance of voting or of thoughtful discourse beforehand, these are not the only avenues of change around these parts. A recent bit of well-articulated wisdom (erroneously attributed to C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) points out that arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people we have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

True.

I tell my kids not to worry about other people’s faults, but let’s face it: dwelling on others’ shortcomings is much more satisfying than confronting my own. Another bit of wisdom (rightfully attributed to C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters), notes that we can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about ourselves that are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with us or worked in the same office.

What does advancing in personal virtue, character, and things we can control look like? Those who have ever lived in the same house or worked in the same office with me would probably be glad to sum up what this would look like for me specifically. Maybe I’ll gather the courage to ask them sometime, but meanwhile, here are 21 ideas that would be good companions to anyone’s political positions.

Anyone care to join me in tackling some of these?

  1. Donate food to a food pantry. Here’s a list of what is most useful.
  2. Forgive someone.
  3. Let your encouraging words and compliments outweigh your criticisms.
  4. Send a gas card to someone who travels regularly to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits.
  5. Help a foster family. (Yes, they receive reimbursement rates; no, these rates do not cover the expenses they incur.) Donate your kids’ outgrown clothes to a foster-care closet; bring the family a meal; babysit; invite the kids along with your family on an outing.
  6. Pay for an extracurricular activity for a kid who cannot afford one.
  7. Describe one positive trait of someone who is not your favorite person. Maybe describe three.
  8. Contribute to an ESL class: volunteer, provide transportation, donate books, bring supper.
  9. Be kinder than usual, one situation at a time.
  10. Be more patient than usual, one situation at a time.
  11. Give up your need to be right, one situation at a time.
  12. Be gentler than necessary, one situation at a time, even when you believe you have the right to be harsh. Especially when you believe you have the right to be harsh.
  13. Identify someone who does more than his or her share. Do something nice anonymously for that person.
  14. Write a note of appreciation to someone who is often taken for granted.
  15. Squelch gossip. Don’t start it, and don’t pass it on. Be slow to believe it. Challenge it when you hear it.
  16. Ponder a promise you’ve not yet kept. Fulfill that promise.
  17. If there’s something (recent or otherwise) for which you should apologize, do so.
  18. Rid yourself of sarcasm. (Sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which literally means “to tear flesh like a dog.” Ouch.)
  19. Grant children the same basic dignity and respect that you grant adults.
  20. Give practical help to a single mother who chose to give birth despite challenges.
  21. Make a list of everyone who has helped you tug yourself up by your bootstraps. Include those who taught you what you have come to consider to be common knowledge and skills. Be thankful for these people. Tell them you are thankful.

Vote? Absolutely. Discuss the candidates and election process? Of course. But don’t limit yourself to those things.

“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”  Frederick Buechner

What would you add to this list?

 

 

 

 

 

The Chicory Lady

Last month we went to Comerica Park to watch the Detroit Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins. Traffic slowed to a tangle near the stadium, allowing long looks out the window at dingy scenery. But a clump of chicory grew bravely out of a crack in the pavement against the backdrop of a cement barrier, creating a surprise spot of beauty among tattered paper cups and plastic bags and their trashy cohorts.

Chicory is my favorite wildflower. It grew with grace and vibrancy among the Queen Anne’s Lace in the ditches along the half-mile stretch of gravel road between my childhood home and my grandparents’ red house. Every year I’d try picking some, but even when plunged directly into water the chicory’s petals would close—not so much from weakness, it seemed (it can grow in cracked concrete, after all), but from stubbornness. It didn’t wilt; it folded up, not wanting to play the game of being picked. Chicory: sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool.

An hour after the chicory had welcomed us on the highway, we had found our way through the park and into our seats behind the third baseline. The occupants of the row behind us wore matching blue T-shirts bearing the name of an adult day care center— several senior citizens, flanked by caregivers, out to enjoy the game. Most of them wore name tags around their necks.

Before we were completely settled in, one of the women leaned forward and started fiddling with my bag, which was under J’s seat next to mine. Perhaps it was in her way; maybe she wanted to stretch her legs and couldn’t because of the bag. “No,” she said when I inquired, folding the top of the bag over a couple of times and giving it a pat. “I just want to make sure nobody reaches in and grabs something from your bag. Steals something. That happens sometimes, you know. That’d be too bad if it happened to you.” She smiled, reassured that my bag was as it should be.

Next up: the announcer asked us to rise for a soloist’s delivery of the national anthem. We stood and listened, except for the aforementioned woman, who sang. Her friend stage-whispered to her, self-conscious: “I don’t think this is sing-along time. I think this is listen-to-the-singer time.” The woman was unmoved. “But I’m going to sing, though,” she said. And she did.

During the second inning J took Sonny, Ace, and their cousin to get their promised hotdog and soft drink. They returned bearing three hotdogs but only one soft drink; it seemed that the other two had spilled. (Don’t assume that the demise of two soft drinks was not a problem. It was. I assure you.) J got the boys seated and headed back to the concession area to redeem the soft drink situation. The woman, who had overheard the dark reports of being handed soft drinks with no tops in a tray that didn’t hold the cups securely, was concerned—concerned enough to lean over my shoulder.

“Do you need some water up there?” she asked. “It’s so, so hot. That sun is just beating right down.” I thanked her and said that we’d be fine; we had brought plenty of water with us, and besides J would return soon with replacement drinks.

“Are you sure?” she said. “It’s very hot. You could dry right up. You all need to drink something. You’ll dry up otherwise.”

That she didn’t have any water to share didn’t matter. She thought she did, and if she had, she would have shared it.

“Well, all right,” she finally conceded.

Now she pointed to Ace.  “I’m afraid that that hotdog he’s eating is just going to squirt right on out of that bun,” she said. “It’s sitting too loose. Can you poke it back in tighter? It’d be awful if he lost it. He’d hate that.” She watched closely until he stuffed the last bite safely into his mouth. Relief.

Perhaps inspired by Ace’s snack, she tried to order her own hotdog from the vendor touting refreshments in the aisle ten seats away. “Just toss it to me,” she hollered. “I’ll catch it!” The vendor believed her.

“Did you say you want ketchup with it?” he asked, reaching for a hotdog.

“No,” she said. “Said I’d catch it. Just toss it my way.”

One of the caretakers snapped off the transaction with a shake of his head and dismissive wave to the vendor, who caught on and continued up the steps.

“Hey!” the woman objected. “I’ll get you back for that. I get people back for things like that, you know!” The caretaker, not unnerved by her threats, turned his attention to urging her to put her name tag back on.

“Why?” she said. “I don’t need a name tag. I know who I am. So do you.”

“It’s in case something happens. Then someone will be able to know where you’re supposed to be.”

“I always know where I’m at,” she said.

One of our players hit a double. A tap on the shoulder. “He can really hustle his bustle, can’t he?” she said. “Look at him.” She nodded approvingly—whether at his hustle or at his bustle, I wasn’t sure—before leaning back and cheering.

At the seventh inning, when the last call for beer sales was announced, she offered to buy a beer for anyone who thought that sounded good. The caretaker: “No beer.”

“Why not? This is our last chance. I’d even buy you one.”

“You don’t have any money with you, and besides you don’t need a beer.”

Grumbling. “No beer today, I guess. Maybe next time,” she apologized to her friend. They both stood for the seventh-inning stretch and danced together to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the little bit of “Brown-Eyed Girl” played before the game resumed.

Then she leaned forward and adjusted my bag again. “Got to be careful, honey. Someone could just reach right in and grab something. That’d be too bad.”

The eighth inning came to a close. The caretakers stood up and announced it was time to go.

Another shoulder tap. “You have such nice boys there,” she said, nodding toward my sons and nephew, who were eating cotton candy sprinkled liberally with Skittles. (Don’t ask.) “I’ve been watching them the whole game. They’re good kids. I’m so glad they’re having fun! Look at them having so much fun!” She smiled proudly.

Wise caretakers, getting while the getting was good, before the throngs clogged an easy exit. But I was sorry the group was leaving. I liked the woman who’d conversed with us, who had wanted to help us, whose vivacity had spilled into our row. She reminded me of chicory. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool. She reminded me that those who shun kindness as indicative of weakness are not seeing straight.

I want to be like her when I am old. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. (Sorry, Sonny and Ace.) Nobody’s fool.

Her kindnesses were small—attentiveness to our bag, concern for our drink and food, offers of humor, encouragement regarding the kids—but flowed from her naturally and relentlessly. She reminded me of a line from a book I read years ago. The book’s title and author and even the topic have long escaped me, but this bit of wisdom sticks:  “You don’t just wake up a sweet old lady.”

Clearly this lady had had practice.

Clearly being like her requires practice also. Guess it’s time to get started.

I’m going for a walk tomorrow. I hope I will see some chicory. It won’t work to pick any, but maybe I’ll take a photo. It would be a good reminder.

 

 

Who Were Those Caped Boys?

A few years ago Sonny and Ace received superhero capes for Christmas. Red, blue, and yellow capes, one with an S and one with an A: Super Sonny and Super Ace. They zoomed around the house in them, a preschooler and a toddler, valiantly coming to the aid of stuffed animals, each other, frogs, their parents. Grapes. Pencils. They rescued anything that needed rescuing.

Cape-wearing waxed and waned at our house and then went dormant a time. But then Ace took up the A cape again. He wore it everywhere, usually with his trademark rain boots. Story Hour at church. The grocery store. The apple orchard. Relatives’ houses. Bed.

The bathtub.

Everywhere.

People notice capes, as it turns out. Observers often smiled or even commented, which seemed to mystify Ace a little. He didn’t wear it for attention; he wore it because it was his cape. It was part of him, like his hair. Of course he was wearing it; why wouldn’t he?

Two years ago Ace faced screening for Young 5s; he felt nervous about what this process would require of him. He did not want to go. He dragged his rain-booted feet. Finally (finally!) we were out the door, but then he turned and ran back in—only to reappear sporting the cape, which seemed to shore him up. Thank you, cape!

He continued to wear the cape to the grocery store, to relatives’ houses, to the apple orchard.

Everywhere.

Last spring he had an early soccer game. Too early for his liking. He wore his cape over his gold AYSO uniform in the car, having agreed to doff it when we reached the soccer field. But when it was time for the game to start, he didn’t want to play. He hunkered down on the tired grass and shut down, cloaked in red and blue felt. But his coach, who was a wise coach, knew that soccer games for five-year-olds are more about the five-year-olds than about soccer. He hunkered down in front of Ace, getting eye to eye.

“Don’t you want to play today?” he asked.

Ace shook his head.

“Will you play if you can wear your cape?” he asked.

Ace nodded.

“You can wear your cape,” he said, and glanced over at J and me. “He’s five,” he stated. “He can wear it if it helps.”

So Ace played, slightly out of uniform—or not, depending how you look at it..

He wore the cape the rest of the day.

And he continued to wear it, though less and less. Meanwhile, Sonny’s cape hung, untouched, next to the bathrobe on its hook in the bedroom.

This past winter, Ace hopped out of the vehicle onto the grocery store parking lot on Saturday morning and hesitated. He glanced around.

“Just a second,” he said. He tore off his cape and laid it on his booster seat before pulling the door shut.

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

After our shopping trip he put the cape back before buckling up for the drive home, and he wore it the rest of the day. And he continued to wear it, though less and less.

This spring Sonny and Ace’s school had superhero day. Sonny thought he might dress as Batman. Ace had a harder time deciding. He has a Laval costume, but evidently Chima are not superheroes, and apparently it was rather ridiculous of me to even suggest it. His ninja costume might work, he conceded; ninjas aren’t exactly superheroes, but they are close enough.

Then I suggested his A cape.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to wear that cape anymore.”

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

He decided to wear the Spiderman costume from the bin in the basement.

The next morning Sonny reconsidered his Batman choice. “I’ve dressed as Batman enough times already. Maybe I’ll just wear my S cape instead,” he said, running upstairs to retrieve it. He came back down and stuffed it into his backpack between his lunch and his homework folder. “I love this cape,” he said. Ace nodded, understanding.

There is probably a word to describe where my heart went then. I’m not sure what it is, but I know my heart traveled there by cape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Grandpa’s Birthday

“I wish I could call Grandpa-Great,” Sonny said the other day. I wish so, too. Especially today, which would have been his 100th birthday.

I thought of him the other day while reading an article on minimalism. (He probably would have been bemused that this philosophy—which, for most of history, was just the way all people lived—is now considered a) the latest trend and b) something that takes work to achieve.) In any case, minimalists would approve of the handful of belongings he chose to keep toward the end of his life. Of course, when you are a nonagenarian and live in an assisted living facility you don’t need a car or specialty cleaners or an extra pair of boots or plates or half a can of spray paint that, who knows, you might use for something someday. You don’t bother with shelves of books, and any extraneous furniture is just in the way. When you’re 97 you’re satisfied with one TV; it doesn’t occur to you to acquire the army of devices that rule the rest of us.

Still, even for a 97-year-old, he traveled lightly. Almost everything that was packed up after his death harbored significance.

His chair. Grandpa often expressed concern that the kids would be bored while visiting him, as he didn’t have any toys. But no worries; who could be bored in a room that featured not only Grandpa-Great but a remote-control lift recliner, which he freely allowed young boys to operate as they chatted?

“We flew a kite yesterday. It was striped and shaped like a bird. Did you ever fly a kite when you were a boy?” (Up went the chair.)

“Yes.”

“What was it shaped like?”

“Like something that didn’t want to fly. We made our own kites, and they didn’t work very well. But we made them anyway.” (Down went the chair.)

“Did your mom let you watch PBS Kids while she took a shower?”

“No. We didn’t have TVs.”

“What did you do instead?”

“We fixed our kites.”

He would point to his collage of photographs, many of them over half a century old, and tell of the people they featured. “That was your Papa and his horse. He loved that horse . . .” And stories poured forth from the comfort—and entertainment—of the chair.

A framed print of a bird in flight. This piece of mass-produced art seemed inconsequential until my dad and uncle took it down to box up. Discovered taped to the back of the print: a sheet of notebook paper on which Grandpa had hand-copied the poem “To a Waterfowl”  by William Cullen Bryant.

Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
      Thy solitary way? . . .

. . . He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
      Will lead my steps aright.

It can’t be a stretch to presume that that he words he had copied on notebook paper (and likely in his memory also—“We used to memorize things,” he said once, and proved it by reciting a few lines of Shakespeare) gave him assurance. The print must have served as a ready reminder of this comfort.

A desk. Its contents were the usual: Pens. A letter opener, its handle engraved with the name of bank, both the engraving and blade dulled by decades of letter opening. Paper clips, because every desk houses paper clips even though most people seldom use them. (Do they?) But also, tucked farther back:

A small toy horse, one leg broken off. The horse had been a gift from his parents upon their return from Mayo Clinic around 1923, when Grandpa was seven. The memories of receiving the toy horse in a time when gifts were rare (“We used to get one thing for Christmas, and we were happy” he mentioned once) must have been inextricable from those of the devastating diagnosis that his father also brought back from Rochester. How often did Grandpa hold that horse during his father’s last months and in the first months without him? In any case, he kept it for over 90 years, remembering.

A Camels pack, still holding a few cigarettes, circa early 1950s and deliberately crushed. Although Grandpa was frugal and seldom wasted anything, he’d apparently quit mid-pack and saved the evidence for over 60 years. I wonder why he kept them. To recall a battle he’d won? To remind himself to avoid destructive habits?

A treasure trove of treats. Fun-sized candy bars, mints, jelly beans or candy corn or miniature candy canes (depending on which holiday was in the vicinity) squirreled away for his great-grandkids. Although he couldn’t remember our names at the end, he never forgot the candy. “Make sure the boys get some candy before they leave,” he said. “Did they get some candy? They can have more than one.”

And, of course, he left behind memories, too many to mention. But one that stands out is one that he deliberately planted. When we were kids, he and Grandma would ask visiting grandchildren to read aloud from the Bible after supper. The reader was free to choose the passage. (This did involve risks; just ask the hapless grandchild who, as a young teenager, let the Bible fall open randomly and started reading before realizing too late that the passage was one of those embarrassing ones about lust. Oops. If you ever wanted to hear Grandpa laugh, you could just ask him to tell of how his grandkid, blushing and stammering, read aloud about harlots in front of the familly.)

But one evening during a visit, instead of asking my sisters or me to read, he chose the passage himself and asked us to listen closely. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .”

He unpacked each metaphor for us—“when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim . . .” But upon concluding (“ . . . and the spirit returns to God who gave it”) he did not expound further. He was confident that we understood his message, which was subtle but clear.

As were the other messages he left us, woven into his few remaining belongings.

So his spirit has returned to God who gave it, and although I can’t help wishing he could have held out to celebrate today, I am glad to have so much time with him, and I am glad that Sonny and Ace knew him and remember him. I am thankful for him—what he gave when he was here and what he’s left behind.

Happy birthday, Grandpa.

 

 

Have You Been Half Asleep, and Have You Heard Voices?

Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name.“The Rainbow Connection”

Why yes, Kermit. I have. (Or, if not half asleep, then fully asleep.) To wit:

“Mom! Mom! I think I’m going to throw up!” (And it was so.)

“Mom! I heard a noise that sounded like a villain. It sounded like ‘Mwa ha hahahaha!’ Can you check the closet?”

“Mom. Mom? Did they really catch all those guys who bombed Paris?”

“Mom! It’ snowing! Look out the window! Is that enough for a snow day?”

“Mom, have you seen my library book? Tomorrow is library day.”

“Mom? This little piece of skin feels loose. It didn’t feel loose before.”

But usually the voice calling my name at all hours of the night is my own.

“Laura. You could read one more chapter of that book, and then you would fall asleep.” (Delusion lives on.)

“Know what, Laura? They may have caught the guys who bombed Paris, but what about the next such guys?”

“Are we becoming one of those over-scheduled families that I vowed we’d never become?”

“Why did you Google that symptom? Why why whywhywhy?”

“Would Sonny and Ace tell J and me if someone were hurting them?”

“I should have done that differently.”

“Your list of resolutions for 2016 is stagnating. Get a move on.”

“Eep. The Tooth Fairy. She’s supposed to come tonight. Please let there be a dollar up here somewhere so I don’t have to go downstairs. Is that a dollar on my dresser? No, that’s a receipt. Sigh.”

“Know what? You aren’t very patient.”

“Know what? You need to be more organized.”

“Know what? Now that there are only seven more minutes until the alarm goes off, you’ll probably finally fall asleep.” (And it was so.)

What voices keep you up at night?

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord,
At the end of the day. – “Lord of All Hopefulness”

 

Shelving the Elf

“I know what I really want for Christmas.
I want my childhood back.” –Robert Fulghum

. . . . .

“Mom,” Sonny asked the other day, for the third year running. “Why don’t we have an Elf on the Shelf?”

“Oh, we just don’t,” I answered. I’m not opposed to Elf on the Shelf; in fact, it looks like a fun tradition. Whether or not it would serve its purpose as being a Santa spy, we’d all enjoy its creative poses. But the truth is that I don’t need one more thing to remember each evening, especially in December. The Elf would probably forget to relocate and would languish for days in one place and J and I would have to make excuses for his slothfulness. Who needs that? We already have to do that for the Tooth Fairy.

Part of me worries that the want of Elf on the Shelf will develop one of those small, secret resentments that kids harbor into adulthood—the kind that convince them that their childhood was incomplete. But the other part of me seeks comfort in the fact that those of us who grew up before Elf on the Shelf was a Thing turned out just fine (or, if we didn’t, it wasn’t because we didn’t have Elf on the Shelf). I wonder how Elf on the Shelf would have even ranked among my general memories of childhood Christmastimes.

The kitchen smelling of tangerines and wood smoke and cinnamon and butter cookies.

Church Christmas programs: Snaking our way up the narrow, chilly stairwells and into the sanctuary that smelled like old wood and furniture polish, the wave of relief after I’d recited my “line” and now it was Jodi’s or Amy’s turn or Michelle’s turn, the individual boxes of Bridge Mix distributed afterward.

Dividing said Bridge Mix into equal piles, one pile for each day until Christmas, and then eventually breaking down and pilfering the larger pieces (those with caramel and fruit and malted milk filling) from the piles so that by Christmas Eve there remained only one scanty collection of wrinkled little chocolates harboring raisins or peanuts.

Going to my grandparents’ house during our no-TV years to watch Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.

Collaborating with my sisters to make Christmas presents for each other.

Visits from my long-distance grandparents. Grandma brought everyone their own Cool-Whip container full of homemade caramel corn. She and Grandpa would sit quietly, watching the action and smiling at all their offspring.

Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” complete with motions (don’t ask), at my uncle and aunt’s house on Christmas Eve. Then singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with my uncle holding out the phone receiver so my grandparents, if they weren’t visiting that year, could hear us three states away.

My mom waking us up on Christmas morning by playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the piano, and my dad singing along.

Walnut Whirl coffee cake for Christmas breakfast. That stuff is good.

Spending Christmas Day at my local grandparents’ house, the kids’ table rocking with laughter and mashed potatoes and Jello and turkey, and afterward the whole clan packed into what was, now that I think about it, a not very large living room for the afternoon.

The aroma of blue spruce and candles.

My grandparents’ tree adorned with a combination of big old-fashioned Christmas lights (the kind that burned you if you touched them), newer small ones (safe to touch), and a variety of ornaments of all ages—including an elf fashioned from a roll of Life-Savers that was eventually chewed open by an enterprising grandchild. Once, while decorating, my grandma asked my grandpa to put the angel on top of the tree. “Oh Marian,” he said. “I can’t lift you up that high.”

(Okay. Like Robert Fulghum, I kind of want my childhood back now.)

If Elf on the Shelf—or cookie-making, or carol singing, or tree decorating, or visiting Santa—is fun, why not do it, and enjoy? If not, don’t. Or if you forget or don’t have time, no worries. There will be something else—probably something you are not even orchestrating—that you will find yourself enjoying instead. There will be other things that your children will think on fondly someday when they want their childhood back at Christmas.

As Sonny was drawing the picture for this blog post, he suggested again that we get Elf on the Shelf. “We should get one. Why don’t we have one?”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think we really need one right now. We can have Christmas without it.”

And we watched this together, because that’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, all!

 

One Lace Tablecloth

My grandma loved to crochet. Once, during a visit to Iowa with my dad in the late 90s, I admired the lace tablecloth on her table. “Oh, do you like it?” she said. “I’ll make you one.”

I cherished the offer. Still, that was the visit in which she kept forgetting that I’d already eaten breakfast. She repeatedly asked if I wanted certain household items that she and Grandpa weren’t using anymore, and although I gave the same answer every time, it didn’t seem familiar to her. She often seemed a little perplexed over references to conversations from within the past hour. Eventually my eyes locked with my dad’s in silent acknowledgment that we could no longer hope that Alzheimer’s would withhold its sinister fingers from her. So I knew that she would not remember her offer to make me a tablecloth, let alone be able to undertake such a project, despite a decades-long history of skillful needlework.

On the plane back to Michigan, I mulled over the visit and Alzheimer’s and her offer and her many previous crochet projects. A few days later, she phoned: What were the dimensions of my table? What color thread did I prefer—white or ecru? And the following week, the same phone call. And then another. Each time I answered the questions, surprised that she had not forgotten the tablecloth, each time knowing that creating an intricate crocheted tablecloth would be too confusing for her at this point.

A few weeks after the last phone call, I received a package. It was the lace tablecloth. Behold:

tablecloth

My grandma died 10 years ago tonight. I miss her.

She loved crocheting, birds, the color blue, and beautiful things. She took joy in feeding others—in feeding them lavishly. (Lavishly, I assure you.) This year’s Thanksgiving dinner featured two of her famous pies (peach cream and apple), compliments of my sisters, and everybody got all excited.

She wrote regular letters to my sisters and me when we were kids, telling of farming and church dinners and birds and coffee with her sisters and the upcoming Tulip Festival and construction on the highway and that Gramp said to say hi. Of family reunions and upcoming visits, and what would we like for dinner when we came? She often included newspaper clippings: “Thought you would like this,” she’d pen on the clipping in her distinctive handwriting. Or, “This reminds me of you.” Her letters invariably included three sticks of Juicy Fruit, one for each granddaughter. (In the winter the gum had grown brittle from traveling for days in the cold; in the summer it would be melted and we’d have to put it in the freezer for a while if we didn’t want to have to scrape it off the wrapper.)

Grandpa and Grandma had two sons. I often wish I could compare “mother of two sons” stories with her. Ask what she would do. Inquire whether her experiences had been similar. Laugh and shake our heads together.

She once mentioned that when my dad and uncle were young, the TV would mysteriously break on the first day of summer vacation and not work again until the first day of school. It’s hard to imagine what was on TV in the 1950s Iowa that would inspire her to divest the television of its tube for the entire summer. Didn’t they only have three channels back then? Surely not all of the few options would have even appealed to kids. Surely my dad’s and uncle’s indulgence in TV would have been minimal anyway. But long before “screen time” was even a term, she hacked it off at the knees. Even a meager amount would not be allowed to muddle up an Iowa summertime. So I probably wouldn’t need to ask her opinion on today’s “screen time” practices.

I would like to ask her if people ever told her that she should add a girl or two to the family, and if the implication that two boys weren’t good enough irritated her. But knowing her, she probably didn’t care about other people’s opinions on this topic.

I would like to tell her of the time Ace took a toad into the house and of his passionate protests as I chased them both back outside (“I only lost him once so far, and it’s okay because he didn’t poop!”), and then wait for her to tell me a story like it.

I would like to tell her of Sonny’s extensive rock collection—none of the rocks may be discarded (none of them), because one is shaped like Australia, and another probably contains gold, and one of them sparkles and it’s so cool, and that one is a souvenir from our vacation. All of them (all of them) are special. I’d like to tell her about this and then listen as she tells a similar tale.

I would like to ask her at what point in any particular ruckus she’d kick her sons outside. (Even if it was snowing hard. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

I would like to ask her whether she ever stood outside her sons’ bedroom at night, listening to their whispers and soaking up their brotherhood.

She would write letters to Sonny and Ace, and tucked along with the letter would be two pieces of Juicy Fruit and several newspaper clippings (do they still make those?) telling of toads and snakes and rocks. “This reminds me of you,” she’d note.

The evening after she died, J and I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah, its significance magnified and resonating among my swirling memories and emotions. Maybe someday the Messiah will cease to remind me of her, but that day has not yet come.

I wish she could have known Sonny and Ace and that they could have known her. But this morning I showed them the lace tablecloth and explained how it came to be. On the way to school we talked about Grandma some more. (“Tell the story about the huge lunches she packed that week she babysat you and your sisters!”) And tonight I played selections from Handel’s Messiah and told them the words were true.

I look at the tablecloth, and I hear her words from the newspaper clippings: “This reminds me of you.” I hear the Messiah: “This reminds me of you.”

Lots of things remind me of her, and for that I am thankful. Especially tonight.