Three Days in May, Birth of a Bookclub

Tuesday: My friend Tina was telling me about a little book group that she, and Leigh and her grandson Quinn had formed. I thought it was wonderful idea, three generations reading and talking about a book they shared. It fits right in to the ideology of  Unconditional Love.

Wednesday: I asked Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlan Collection and former librarian at Bank Street, if she thought the idea had any merit.

Thursday: Here’s the launch of the Grandparents Book Club. 

More to come.

Down the Generations at Ellis Island

I have a special feeling about Ellis Island. The very thought of it gives me chills. When I visited a decade ago with my friend Mary, we stood on the balcony, looking down at replicas of the benches on which the frightened immigrants sat, waiting to see if they could enter America. I wept.

In 1902 a woman named Rachel sat on such a bench, infant daughter in her arms. If the baby coughed or seemed a little warm, Rachel would be denied entry into America. Fortunately, Rosie didn’t cough, and they got in.

Rosie was my mother. The daughter of poor immigrants, and orphaned at the age of 17 with four little sisters to care for, she made her way. Working after school to support her little sisters, going to college, a Columbia PhD, and some fame as a regular columnist for the New York Post. She was a commanding presence. And she represents the glory of Ellis Island: America as a beacon to outsiders, immigrants, and refugees, creating new vistas for millions of families.

But there’s more to my story. On the evening before Mother’s Day, my older son and I are heading to Ellis Island.

David will be in his tux and I will be dressed to the nines. We will board a special ferry, get off at Ellis Island, and attend the gala fundraising event in that very hall. It’s because my son, the great-grandson of the woman who carried her baby through this room, is among the men and women being honored this year by the Ellis Island Association. Here is what qualifies you for this honor:

The ELLIS ISLAND MEDALS OF HONOR are awarded annually to a group of distinguished American citizens who exemplify a life dedicated to community service. These are individuals who preserve and celebrate the history, traditions and values of their ancestry while exemplifying the values of the American way of life, and who are dedicated to creating a better world for us all.


And what has he done to receive such an accolade? Well, he is the founder of StoryCorps, the largest archive of human conversations in the world. And what stimulated him to create this?

My mother. She was a great storyteller, and she sure had stories to tell. When he was 11 years old, David took his little tape recorder and interviewed my mother and her sisters about their childhoods. Then we moved to New York, and the tapes were lost. David asked after them for years. We never found them. So now, thanks to David and my mother, nobody ever need lose their conversations with elders.  We have StoryCorps.

This is the chain of the generations: an immigrant woman carries her baby through the portal of Ellis Island into America. Her great-great grandson stands to receive an honor in that room.

I will be granddaughter, daughter and mother on the eve of Mother’s Day, and I will weep that night—tears of pride in my son, gratitude to the grandmother I never knew, and appreciation of my outrageous mother.

Mother’s Day in America is full of flowers and brunches eaten in noisy restaurants. Perhaps we mothers might take a moment to consider the chain of our mothers. It reaches back in history, and embraces the future.

Happy Mother’s Day

The 10 Commandments for New Grandparents

1. Praise the new parents. Repeat the praise.

2. Don’t like the name? Never complain.

3. Never criticize your daughter-in-law. Ever.

4. Remember that you are no longer in charge.

5. They aren’t doing it the way you did? Relax. It’s their turn.

6. House a mess? Don’t say a word. Nothing to eat? Pack a snack.

7. In a crisis, stay calm and hold the baby.

8. Sleep-deprived new parents are also fussy babies: give them love and acceptance.

9. When things get tense, get out of the house.

10. Complain to your friends, not your kids.

Torah Practice

Sitting at the end of the table, with the tutor on my right and my grandson to my left, I watch and listen as he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. It’s time to prepare the Torah portion. He’s a serious child, always has been, and he attends to the singing and the reading with concentration. He surprises us by his sweet voice. He’s 12 ½ and that voice may change by the time of the event, but now the notes are soft and clear. My heart turns.

I feel my father’s presence at the table. My dad was dead long before Benji was born. In fact, he died just months before Benji’s father’s Bar Mitzvah. I remember telling my son Josh’s tutor, a rabbinic student, that my dad was on the brink of death. She suggested that we could do a quick ceremony in the Coronary ICU while my father was still alive. Of course not. Josh must have a proper service and a party.

I remember thinking, as we drove home after that sweet, but sad (for me) ceremony and the party, “We did it!” I knew then that my life and the life of our family would suffer pain and change. I feared for my future. But my son’s future I began to imagine with joy.

Now, 35 years later, I see how things worked out. In some way, my grandchildren feel like the gifts I received in recognition of surviving those years.

We are at the table. Benji is chanting the first section of his Parsha, struggling to bind together the melody and the words. My father, a man who knew the entire Torah by heart and sat in synagogue shaking his head when he heard a mistake from the Torah reader, is sitting beside me. He’s not judging Benji’s errors. He’s singing softly with him. He knows that this beautiful boy has a soul he would embrace.

Rules? What Rules?

The phone rang at 7:30 one Saturday morning. “Hi, Grandma.” It was my son, and the phone was on speaker. His kids were listening.  “You never let me watch Jaws when I was a kid, right?” “Oh, yes,” I replied. Phone silence while his six-year-old and nine-year-old took this in.  “Can I watch it now?”  He asked. “When is your birthday?” (I knew the answer). “December 5,” my son replied (he’ll be 52). “You can watch Jaws after your birthday.” “OK, Grandma, thank you.” We hung up.


Who sets them, who enforces them, and how do we grandparents deal with rules? I’ve learned a lot during the years I was writing Unconditional Love, talking to grandparents, parents, and grandchildren. Parents must set rules and try to get their children to follow them. We need to be mindful of those rules, but we also have the joy of offering choices to our grandchildren, all of which are fine with us. So it feels to them as if there were no rules.

This weekend I was with some grandmothers whose grandchildren visit overnight. One proudly told me that there’s a sign in her kitchen, “Abuela has no rules.” The other told me that her grandchildren were delighted with the fact that when they visit Oma there are no rules. The children relish the freedom they experience when they sleep over. If they want to stay in their pajamas all day, that’s fine. And if it’s Cheerios in bed for dinner, that’s also OK.

What they may not notice is the order that lies beneath their sense of freedom.

It’s not really No Rules. The kids know that they have to be good. They can’t hit each other. They can’t throw things. If they take off their shoes at home, they are likely to shed their footwear when they get to Grandma’s.  No Rules really means, “I’m fine with the choices I’ve offered you, honey.” Children get to choose among good alternatives. Who cares where dinner is eaten, so long as the cereal isn’t spilled. Who cares what’s worn, so long as it is warm and comfy.

That’s how it is when my grandchildren stay with me.

So when my son invokes my authority, in order to stop his kids from watching one of the scariest movies ever made, it means something to them. He could have just put his foot down. But invoking my authority made it easier for him to the protective father he is.

That’s a splendid use of Grandma rules, don’t you think?

Our Hill of Beans

I knew my 6-year-old granddaughter wanted to cook with me, but the opportunity was hard to find. I worry about hot pans and heated ovens, knives that are sharp and liquids that spill.

One Sunday afternoon it happened. Her TV time had run out. She wanted more, and I couldn’t let her. Her mom was away and her father was at the supermarket. I stood in front of the TV so that she couldn’t see the screen. Her eyes were narrowed, and her mouth was turned down. She was angry. She strode into the playroom and jumped on the couch, arms folded. “You’re mad at me,” I said. “That’s OK, but there’s no more television.” “Humpf.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes and then I had a brainstorm. “Want to help me fix the beans?” She sat up, interested. I had brought haricots vert for dinner. I love that bean. It’s thin and tasty with hardly takes any cooking.

“Come,” I said, “let’s snap the beans.”

What child could turn down such an invitation? She followed me.  I washed the beans and put them on the kitchen table between us. I showed her how to snap the nasty tip of the bean. She liked it, but then commented that it would be faster if we had a knife and just chopped them all off at once. At that moment I had a brainstorm.

“Oh, no,” I said, “for hundreds of years grandmothers and granddaughters have been sitting together, snapping the ends off the beans. Even in the time of George Washington.” Mazie was interested. “Even when grandmas wore long dresses down to the ground and granddaughters wore aprons.” Now I had her. We snapped in peace. As the pile of snapped beans grew, Mazie gave me a look. “Could I try one?” “Sure,” I said (they were well washed). She liked it. Could she have another? Of course.

Then I suggested that she try a third and really taste it, so that she could compare the taste of a raw bean with the taste of the bean we would cook for dinner. I told her that soon I’d bring peas for us to shell. She could taste them raw and cooked. And in the summer we might even try a tiny bit of raw corn, and then compare it to the cooked.

Later, at dinner, my granddaughter tried the cooked bean. Oh, did it taste good, with just a little salt and butter. Then she had another. And another.

After dinner, she and her brother were allowed to watch one TV show before bath time. Mazie took the pile of leftover beans with her. She came back with an empty bowl.

There’s nothing much to this story: an old lady, a little girl, and a pile of beans. But how often, in this time of screens and apps, do we have a chance to snap and taste and do a bit of time travel together?

The Gin Game

I had lost him. My grandchild was nine years old, and suddenly he wasn’t mine any more.

We had been so close. I saw him every week of his life. We went to the beach on our winter vacation, and when he was a toddler, he slept in crib in my room, so we could have breakfast together before the parents woke up.  Later, we would stretch out next to each other on our chaises and comment on the shape of the clouds as they flew by.  Now he didn’t come to sit with me on the beach, and he didn’t want to sleep in my room.

I couldn’t understand what I had done, and I was miserable. The last dinner was a cookout on the beach. I sat at the table with his mother. “This was such a great trip,” she said. “You think so?” Tears filled my eyes. She looked surprised. “I’ve lost Benji. He doesn’t want to sit with me on the beach. He wouldn’t stay in my room. I don’t know what happened.”

“He’s growing up,” she said. “I know that, but I’m lost,” I said. “You’ll just have to up your game,” she told me.  I had no idea how.

Our plane was delayed the next day, and we had hours in the airport. So the parents took the children into the gift shop. Benji came out with a deck of playing cards.

“Want to play gin, Grandma?” I nodded, shuffled, dealt. We played all the way home. That was the year of gin rummy. I kept a rolling score on a pad of paper, and we played every week. After an hour of cards, he was ready to talk again. By the end of that year, he got tired of the game, even though he was winning by hundreds of points.

But I was the winner. I got him back. It only took a gin rummy deck and a little card sense.

The Bezos Brothers: The Incredible Impact of Grandparents

A Grandfather’s Legacy

Sometimes I wonder what my legacy will be. I know that the grandchildren will remember me. I’m so much a part of their lives. And I can tell when they’ve been talking about me behind my back. Sometimes it’s fine, other times, not so great. It turns out that I’m famous for not being able to keep a secret. From time to time my nine-year-old granddaughter will recite a litany of the secrets I shouldn’t have told. I listen with puzzlement. How could I have done that? The merriment on her face, though, shows me that she and her family have understood my sins and they’re now part of our family legend.

Will telling secrets be my legacy? I hope not. I think it should be the songs, and the stories, and the trips, and the encouragement, and the hugs and the dinners. But I don’t know what it’ll be.

This came home to me when I watched the conversation between the Bezos brothers, whose grandfather was a rancher. Pop could do almost anything, and when he was stuck, he’d figure out some new way to solve the problem. He was fearless and competent. The farm, the cattle, the fences, the ranch itself was a great, big wonderful puzzle that he encountered every day.

Do you think Pop planned that to be his legacy? I don’t knw. I think he was glad to have the grandsons with him every summer on the ranch.  I think he was too busy to consider legacy. The boys as they grew up were a help. I bet he was glad for that. Jeff Bezos credits Pop for all his (considerable) successes. Pop’s way of being, finding a problem and solving it, trying again when the first solution fails—that sounds like the grandson, all right.

So maybe we shouldn’t worry about legacy. Let’s stay in the present, mending whatever kinds of fences we encounter, dealing with whatever problems come up, and being ourselves—because that’s what grandchildren understand. They have x-ray vision for who we are. That will suffice.


The Burden of Keeping a Secret (Interview)

From Minnesota Public Radio

If you need to keep a big secret, here’s a tip: Invent an alternate story to tell, and tell it so often that you believe it yourself.

That’s one of the strategies identified by author Jane Isay, who lived for years with a whopper of a secret: that her husband was gay. The couple kept the truth from family, friends — even from their own children.

The toll that a years-long deception can take led Isay to write a book, “Secrets and Lies: Surviving the Truths That Change Our Lives,” in which she chronicles what happened when her husband of 15 years told her the truth about his sexuality.

Through experience and research, Isay has learned why brain science argues against the ability to balance a secret and an open life at the same time.


When my husband’s secret became my own, I learned the slow torment (and occasional titillation) of the secret keeper. In maintaining our decades-long deception, I grew to understand—and ultimately overcome—the identity-warping nature of secrets and lies.

Discovering that someone you love has lied to you and kept a secret feels like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Such is the circumstance of the finder, the person to whom the truth is revealed. The arc of your life is altered in an instant. Suddenly the present makes no sense and the future is impossible to picture.

Read the rest of the Psychology Today January cover story here.