The Sense of Being Loved

This morning at Family Services for Yom Kippur, the Rabbi introduced the subject of repentance by speaking of love, unconditional love. She suggested that we think of the person in our lives whose love we knew we could depend on, the person who loved us warts and all, without constraint

She was saying that God loves all of God’s creation as much as that person in our lives loved us. God’s love is the bedrock on which we stand. God’s love is what makes us yearn for goodness. God’s love is what makes repentance possible. And life.

My fourteen-year-old grandson put his head on my shoulder.

Like the rest of the congregation, I was looking for that person in my life who accepted me for who I was, the one who “got” me. I found her in my childhood memories, and I thanked her this morning for all the tiny acts of acceptance and approval that helped me grow into the person I am.

With her in mind, I prepared to engage myself in the future tasks I set for myself in this my 80th year. And then another dimension of this love came to me: my unconditional love for those grandchildren. It lightens my load and it gives me strength and faith in the future.

I don’t presume to fathom God’s love, but for a moment I let myself imagine that God might love me as much as I love those children. I felt a rush of energy.

For me, such love brings joy, and from that joy springs my determination to work toward a more just world, so that all people may sense God’s love for them.

Love. Joy. Justice. I wish us all a productive and useful year.

Letters to Camp

Two of my grandchildren left for summer camp at the end of June. One will be away for five weeks, the other for seven. Last year, I began what is now a tradition. I write them every day.

It’s the week of July 4, and I have missed only a couple of days. If you count up all the days they are in camp (take away four at the end of their time at camp) you get a total of 76 letters this summer. Missing a few isn’t the end of the world, I tell myself.

In the spirit of ’76, I’ll tell you why I attempt this crazy thing. You should know that I’ll be lucky to receive a two-sentence note from each of them over the course of the summer. It doesn’t matter.

What prompts this behavior? When I was in summer camp over 65 years ago, mail call made me tense. At that time, parents could send packages of goodies, and so campers who got a box were happy. Kids who got letters were pleased.  And those of us whose names weren’t called got an extra dose of loneliness. I don’t want those grandkids to experience such a moment. So I write letters.

How do I pull a letter together in a patch where nothing much is happening in my life? I write about my day. I write about the dog. I write about the weather. I type a short note, print it out, and decorate it with xxx’x and xox’x and hearts.  Believe me, these are not literary masterpieces. Sometimes I can’t help myself and the notes are silly. Last year the older one showed my letters to his bunkmates. I couldn’t tell if he were bragging or showing them my infernal silliness. So this year I asked him, now that’s turning 14, if he still wanted me to write a letter a day. “Yes, Grandma,” he said. And I knew he meant it.

I tell myself that I do it for them. But of course I do it for myself. This is my opportunity on these long summer days and nights to remind us both that we are always in each other’s world, even if we are hundreds of miles away. I’m approaching my 79th birthday, and so I feel the need to make sure that they feel my presence, even at such a distance. I want them to know that I’ll be thinking of them always.


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.