Grandma, about 60 years ago.
Grandma, about 60 years ago.

Earlier this summer my cousin, Sara, and I sat on my aunt’s couch with my 86 year-old grandmother between us. We asked her questions and then listened as she talked about her life growing up on Seneca Street as the eighth of ten children, about playing hopscotch and paper dolls, about how she wished she had stayed in school past the age of 16. She told us about rationing during World War II and about how my grandpa bought his first Ford and then started “coming around” to see her. She admitted her years of worry and how she’s not ashamed to say she’s “done a lot of praying” for her children, grandchildren, and now her great grandchildren.  This woman whose life has centered around her family, her table, talked about how she preferred a full table, a noisy house. “I was always glad to see you coming, and hated when you left,” she said. “And the more that came the better.” She lived a life of practical hospitality — always making enough dinner for whomever she expected and then some extra for any guests — or strangers — who might walk through the door.

It was a beautiful day of listening to a woman who isn’t always the first to speak, one who is usually standing in the kitchen while she pushes everyone else to have a seat, one who has never given a lot of unsolicited advice.

My family is very close, but not overly affectionate. We are rational, Midwestern apple farmers. We gather — whoever is able to make it — weekly, but few “I love you’s” are spoken, though they are known. Few hugs are given, unless someone is leaving for months. We value stories, laughter, and being together, but we don’t always know how to say all that. We are good at showing up, but not always good at talking about it.

So, when my cousin brought up the idea of inviting my grandma for an interview, I hesitated. I quietly worried Grandma would think it was silly, worried she wouldn’t want all that attention, all that feeling. But as Tuesday afternoon ended, she must have thanked us no less than 10 times.

I’m still processing that afternoon and there are 10 more essays I could write about the experience, but my mind keeps coming back to that simple act of acting questions and then being quiet enough to listen. I’ve been thinking about all the questions I’ve missed asking because I’ve been busy talking, doing, or thinking.

As a teacher, I do lessons on questioning. I encourage my students to ask “thicker” questions as  readers, to dig deeper, to push more. I more often need to take my own advice.

When my own sons ask me a question, I’m too often too busy to listen or looking for the quick answer, the right answer, instead of questioning back, instead of taking the time to stop and wonder together. While a bit of space from my kids is healthy and needed (those times when I say: go down to the basement, outside and I don’t want to see/hear you for 30 minutes), it’s those moments I slow down to sit with them, to be with them, that they have a chance to say the things I don’t hear amid life’s usual background noise.

In this wild world of violence and terror and division,  (and that just covers the presidential election) we may need to stop and ask more questions. When someone says something we disagree with, our initial bent is almost always toward defensiveness. But maybe we don’t need to fix it. Fix them. Maybe we can just ask more questions.

There is almost always more brewing below the surface than we can first see — and a lot of ground can be made up in the space created between questions and answers.

Grandma's first selfie, after our interview this summer.
Grandma’s first selfie, after our interview this summer.




broken image

It was just a few minutes after I had shooed the boys outside when I found them – all three – peering down into a trash can that had been dragged into the garage. The teamwork and silence were a clue that this scene needed further investigating.

At the bottom of the bin I saw a small robin, struggling for breath. The details were fuzzy, but involved a Nerf gun, the bird (which I gathered from later confessions may have been injured or slow) and its transport to our garage.

For an instant, I wondered if this was just a “boys will be boys” moment, but as I looked into the faces of my little guys and down at that little creature, I found my eyes glassy and my voice shaking. Their original faces of bewilderment turned toward panic, and my oldest began to cry, promising “I didn’t mean to”and “I didn’t know.” My middle, whose emotions mainly display as anger, turned bitter, his voice short, and voluntarily lifted the bird and carried him back outside to the green grass. The bird still made no attempt to fly.

For the next several minutes, we had a few more tears, a little more anger, and too much lecturing from me. By filling the silence with noise, I justified moving on quickly from anything too messy. By telling my kids how they should feel, I rescued them from what they already felt. By naming the situation before they could process it, I found a way to assure them – and myself – everything was okay, when maybe it wasn’t.

Leaving the bird be – with hopes would miraculously wake from its daze and fly away – we all piled in the car to run off to whatever thing we had planned next. Driving out of the neighborhood, with a bit of fresh air coming through the windows, I finally remembered to quiet down, perhaps long enough to allow room for some empathy, some room to just be broken.

It’s a tricky path to navigate.  Protecting my kids’ innocence, while still wanting their hearts to be tender enough to ache.  Remembering my job is not to squeeze them into a mold.  Restraining from fixing my third grader’s spelling errors so he can write his own drafts before Mom gets out her red revision pen.

In a broken world – with war and unrest and children sitting alone at elementary school lunch tables – I desperately want my boys to be safe, happy, and loved, but I also want to allow them to feel discomfort; to not be so protected, numb or self-absorbed that they don’t recognize the pain of people around them.

It’s moments when we stare down at a dying bird or overhear a news report on school shootings that our little ones need a chance to ask a few questions. And while I’m not advocating trading in PBS morning cartoons for CNN, it does seem like kids deserve adults willing to wrestle with them through the hard stuff. Though I want to protect my sons from pain and harm, I also want them to see that the world is bigger than their neighborhood and that there are tragedies bigger than running out of Frosted Flakes in the morning.
On returning  home, my oldest son went back outside to check on the bird.  I wobbled between trepidation and pride as I watched through the window as he stooped to pick up that little creature, walk it slowly to the trash, and then make his way back into our door.

Guest Post: Margaret

In honor of the final weeks of summer, here’s a piece by a good friend and fellow teacher-writer, Jen Haberling.  Enjoy! ~


I didn’t know then how wise this woman was.  I didn’t realize how much her influence would permeate my own mothering.  Her sass is infamous.  Her one-liners, legendary.  And her red bikini, well, that’s another story altogether.  Margaret Ann McPhillamy Schaeffer, the youngest of13 Irish children, runs through my veins.  Her grit, her work-your-hands-to-the-bone mentality, her youthful attitude, her charisma and confidence, her competitive nature.  And sometimes even her flair for the dramatic.  I am proud to call her my grandmother.

Sharing shopping and lunch with Grandma was a tradition that my mom instituted while my sister and I were young, filling my elementary-librarian mom’s two personal days. The three of us would drive from Kalamazoo, after conspiratorily calling in “sick” to school, to meet in Grand Rapids for shopping, mostly at the ever-elegant Rogers Department Store, then head to Arnie’s for lunch, then more shopping at Woodland. I looked forward to the tradition every year, as I knew it would pad my middle school closet with Izod and Calvin Klein and ESPRIT.  That tradition had waned into my college years, though, as Mom’s cancer enveloped and finally defeated her frail body.

Grandma rarely called me, especially in my early married days, but I always looked forward to seeing her and sharing some time catching up.   It had been at least 15 years since Grandma and I had spent the day shopping and lunching.  On this day, however, it didn’t seem to be a leisurely shopping excursion she was after.  “Jen,” she said as I picked up the phone.  “Pick me up.  I have something I need to get at the store.”  The urgency in her voice led me to believe she needed a prescription refilled, or was out of milk– or maybe even out of beer.  She had lost her ability to drive in her early 90s, so I knew this must be an excursion that required a ride.

When I arrived, she met me at the top of her steps, the front door latching behind her.  She had one foot in my car before I could even greet her.  “Let’s go,” she commanded.  “I need to show those ladies at the Y a thing or two.”  I had no idea what Grandma was up to, but this didn’tseem to be about prescriptions or milk or beer.  Whatever she was up to, her competitive nature was clearly in control.  She clutched her handbag and directed me to 28th Street with curt and pointed turns, no time for chit chat.

We pulled into Rogers, walked through the haze of old-lady perfume that hung in the entrance, and headed straight to the juniors section.  This was not where I expected to go with Grandma. “Where are the swimsuits?”  Grandma asked.  I knew Grandma had a funky style all her own, but juniors-sized bathing suits?  The look on the clerk’s face following Grandma’s inquiry confirmed that I was not crazy– though Grandma might have been.  The clerk tried to steer Grandma to the older-woman section, but she would have none of it.  As she surveyed the racks lined up like summer-time soldiers before her, she demanded, “No– I don’t think you understand.  I want a red bikini.  Not an old, skirted grandma suit.  I want a spicy hot, resort-style, red bikini.  I have to show those ladies at the Y that I still have it.”

As she plucked three or four hangers from the rack, she invited me into the dressing room to help her select just the right style.  These were no modest tankinis.  They revealed more about my grandmother than I had ever seen.  As she adjusted her voluptuous bosom into the cups two handfuls at a time, she added a running commentary warning about the dangers of thinking oneself old, mingled with the wisdom of staying in shape.  “It’s all in your outlook, Jen,”  she reminded.  “You are only as old as you think you are.”   This was one of Grandma’s many mantras.  She kept pace with women a third her age, swimming daily and walking everywhere.  Her vanity revealed itself in her Este Lauder skin care regimen and embarrassment when anyone saw her hair prior to a proper combing.

I will never forget the look on that clerk’s face as she up-downed my 93-year-old grandma at the register, handing over the Baywatch-style, ruby-colored scraps of fabric.  I was clearly more self-conscious about this purchase than my grandma.  The clerk’s confused grimace haunted me all the way home, until I had time to call my sister and relay the unbelievable story, celebrating this vivacious woman who was the matriarch of our family, who I would later come to admire instead of question.

The notorious red bikini.  Like Grandma,it’s a story that will live on in the collective McPhillamy history.  It makes appearances at nearly every funeral or cousin gathering.  I’m sure she did show those ladies at the Y a thing or two– probably more than they wanted to see.  And she certainly showed me how to live well, to embrace myself, to walk confidently and to wear the red bikini with flair.