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.





Somebody Else’s Secret

Wrapping the presents, making travel plans, anticipating the gatherings that take place at the holiday season, family members often know the secrets that sit around the tree, along with the gifts. It’s sometimes fun to picture what it would be like to unwrap some of those secrets as you exchange presents. If you contemplate a revelation, make sure that the secret is yours, and yours alone to tell. Read this story about Ruby, a woman whose aunt didn’t follow that simple rule.

Ruby was born in a Displaced Persons Camp after the end of World War II. Her mother was an Auschwitz survivor, and her father did slave labor in Poland. Husband and wife were miraculously reunited in Poland at the end of the war. In the joy of surviving and finding each other, they conceived Ruby.

But what happened next was not so good. Ruby’s parents had been affected by their experiences, and the love they shared before the war did not reignite. As the months drew on, they decided to divorce. They would go to America, the father to his Boston relatives, and the mother, baby in arms, to her Brooklyn family. As part of the divorce, the father gave up his parental rights.

Four years later, Ruby’s mom found a wonderful man, a watchmaker by trade. He adored Ruby and insisted on adopting her and changing her name to his when he married her mother. The couple decided to keep the truth about Ruby’s birth a secret. Her new father wanted to treat Ruby as family, no questions asked. Her mother agreed because she was more than ready to forget her sad past. While they made their pact of secrecy, they did not deny the existence of Ruby’s birth father. His photograph hung on the apartment wall. He was known as Manny from Boston, but only this trio knew his role in the family.

When Ruby’s parents had two more children—sons—the family was complete. Ruby’s brothers had no idea about her origins. The middle child, Ruby’s first brother was a little jealous of his sister and her closeness to their mother. Their intimacy may have been the product of the other secrets her mother shared with Ruby, tales of the years in Auschwitz. Her mother did not mince words about those terrible years, and Ruby came to see her mother as a heroine who survived the brutality with her kindness and forgiveness intact.

Then Ruby’s father died. The family was bereft. They came home from the cemetery and began to sit Shiva, torn ribbons on their clothing, and low chairs to sit on. The mirrors were covered. The murmurs of love and remembrance filled the room.

When Ruby’s aunt, her father’s sister, arrived, she was in a state. As she marched into the room, she pointed her finger at Ruby and shouted, “Ruby, get up from the chair and take off your ribbon. You can’t sit Shiva. You aren’t my brother’s daughter. You were adopted!” The room fell silent as Ruby’s mother went to calm her sister-in-law and change the subject.

There may have been quiet, but there was no peace. Ruby’s jealous brother, the one who had always resented their closeness, was white with rage. He stormed out of the house. He could not forgive his mother for keeping this secret from him. The youngest brother shrugged this off. He didn’t care. He loved Ruby. She was his true sister.

But the older brother left that family emotionally, never to return, even though his mother explained their decision as best she could. His relations with them deteriorated. He rarely visits his elderly mother and barely talks to his siblings. Ruby feels that her brother had divorced them all.

Ruby’s mother is hurt by her son’s behavior, but she forgives him—she is cognizant of the pain her secret caused him. Ruby and her mother are not in a forgiving mood about the woman who did such damage to their family.

I’m with them on this. Husband and father, the watchmaker wanted the secret to be kept, during his life and after his death. Ruby’s aunt may not have considered the harm she would do to her brother’s family, but the secret was not hers to tell.

Keep Ruby in mind if you have the urge to spill somebody else’s beans.

How A Mother’s Shame Can Morph Over Time

As I walked out of my mother’s room in Mt. Sinai hospital that summer day in 1982, I ran into my cousin, who was a surgical resident on her floor. My mother was recovering from the second surgery in six months. The cancer could not be stopped.

“How’s Mom doing?

He shook his head. “She will get out of the hospital this time, but she won’t go home the next time.”

My father left her room and came out into the corridor. Dad and I were on our way out to dinner together. We stepped into the elevator, eyes facing the closing doors.

“What did Charlie tell you?”

“He said, it’s curtains for Rosie.”

Neither of us took our eyes from the elevator door, but we leaned toward each other. I was relieved to know the truth from Charlie, and my dad was relieved not to have to deliver the news to me. We jumped into a cab and headed for a Chinese restaurant on 86th Street.

“Your mother lived a long life,” Dad said as the drinks were served. I nodded vehemently. She had lived an amazing life.

“Longer than you know.” I looked up. “She lied about her age. She’s really 77.”

I was also glad to know that she got all the way to 77. Seventy-three seemed awfully young to die.

“There’s more you need to know, and I want your advice,” my father said as the food was delivered. He had my attention. We both were eating the diced food with our chopsticks as we talked. Small pieces are easier to swallow when you are holding back tears.

“When Rosie was in graduate school, she got pregnant. Columbia would have thrown her out of the Ph.D program if she were having a baby, and you know what her degree meant to your mom. We decided on an abortion.” This was in 1934. Abortions were illegal, but their good friend, an OB/GYN, performed it at home — on my father’s giant desk. They covered the desk with a thick layer of newspaper. I gulped.

“How does that make you feel?” I was fine. “You know, Dad, you and Mom were bound to have only two children, and if she had carried that baby, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. So it’s more than OK.” At that time, over 30 years ago, I didn’t consider the impact that abortion might have had on their attitude toward my brother, who was born two years later. In some way he must have been a replacement child. That might help to explain some of the expectations they had for their son.

There was more to this. My father and mother were struggling over whether to leave that episode in the autobiography my mother was writing. She had become very close to some high-ranking members of the Catholic Church through her devotion to Girls’ Town of Italy, and whenever they visited Rome, they had an audience with the Pope. Now she wanted to keep the story of her abortion secret. A long-ago decision, seemingly made easily, was causing her shame a half-century later.

My dad, an ardent feminist, wanted her to include the story of her abortion in the book. He wanted women who faced the same dilemma to get courage from my mother’s story. He was not at all attached to her friends in the Church. Maybe this was his way to separate her from then. What did I think?

I was torn. As a feminist, I agreed with my father. But as an editor, I have always believed that the writer should make her own decision. I followed the editor’s Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. Including the story in her book would have made my mother uncomfortable. That is the last thing she needed at the time, and so that’s what I told my father. He listened to me. He never bothered her about it again. She didn’t live long enough to finish the book, and it was never published. (Her written legacy was 25 years’ worth of advice columns published in the New York Post under her married name, Dr. Rose N. Franzblau, and it resides in the library at Columbia.)

I can tell this story now, because my parents and my mother’s dear friend the Monseigneur are long dead. The lesson I take from it today is that shame, the great maker of secrets, can morph over time. I think she was fine with these events until she found a group that might judge her, and then she wanted nothing to do with the incident. I can understand that completely. It’s a good lesson to learn. Everybody struggles with revelation and secrecy. Changes in the values of the culture are central to what make something worthy of suppressing.

So what do I think about that sad Chinese dinner in 1982? I stand by my advice. We have a right to our privacy, which is a different thing from a secret withheld from family members. Mom and Dad made that decision together, and they didn’t hide the truth from each other. A woman born in 1902 was not about to tell her children about this, and we all survived.

Finding out the truth about her age was a wonderful surprise. We had always mistrusted what she said about her date of birth. The stories of her childhood and the historical facts never jibed. My kids used to search through her drawers looking for evidence of her true age. They never found it.

When I shared this secret with them, we loved her more. They were pleased to know that their suspicions were valid. And we all got to know here a little better. She was vain, and she was strong, and she lived the life she wanted.