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Sitting Firm

by Julia Sneden

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time with my grandchildren while their parents were out of the country. Among other discoveries, I found out that there’s a big difference between a pop-in Grandma and an in-loco-parentis Grandma.

A pop-in Grandma lives not too far away. She may be involved in frequent, brief bits of baby sitting, but she never loses her glamorous status as Special Person. Having enjoyed exuberant greetings, jaunts to the ice cream store, and the bonding activity of board games, she is happy to leave the day-to-day grunt work to her grandchild’s parents. She can get away with being indulgent and irresponsible. Confrontation and discipline aren’t something she thinks much about, which is probably why I’ve enjoyed being a pop-in Grandma for many years.

It’s a far different story for a Grandma who is serving in-loco-parentis for a few weeks. (That’s a Latin phrase meaning “in the place of parents,” although that “loco” part could certainly be stretched to mean something else). She’s no longer a patsy, the fun woman who buys the child swim goggles he’ll never wear when he begs at the drug store. She worries over nutrition and bedtimes. She is really tired at the end of the day, but lies awake reviewing tomorrow’s list of birthday parties, piano lessons and play dates. She hasn’t a clue about what to buy for the birthday of a child she doesn’t even know, but wades in and makes the purchase anyway, remembering only after she gets back to the house that she should have bought wrapping paper and ribbon, too. She delivers one child to the party, and quickly drives five miles to pick up another one after a gymnastics lesson. She adapts rather quickly to the considerable comforts of her children’s house, but when it comes to the kitchen, she must open nearly every cupboard and drawer before she finds the cookie sheet or the utensil she needs.

If she’s as lucky as I was, she has a notebook put together by her daughter-in-law, with lists of all the activities for each day, maps to unscramble the unfamiliar city, and phone numbers of friends and teachers. This became my bible, and the only time I really panicked is when I misplaced it for a few minutes. I assiduously penciled in new information, and crossed out arrangements that changed at the last-minute.

For the first week, the children were angels. Remembering my own children, I wondered how my son and his wife managed to produce kids who never squabbled with each other, and were unfailingly polite and helpful. Then, somewhere around the eighth day of the venture, an argument broke out.

“You’re always so BOSSY,” the little boy said.

“Well, you’re not doing it right,” his sister countered.

They bickered back and forth, until I finally intervened.

“He started it,” she snapped.

“Did not,” he shouted. “SHE did.”

“I don’t care who started it,” I said. “I’m interested in who’s grown up enough to stop it.” Both children looked at me blankly as they figured out my response, and then they began to laugh. So did I. It’s an effective measure, one I learned early-on when I was a teacher. Unfortunately, if you use it too often, it loses its punch. By the time my recent period as Grandma-in-charge was drawing to a close, both children would join in as I said: “... grown up enough to stop it.” They also rolled their eyes as they joined the chorus.

All told, I really did have a good time during my stay with them, and I think that they did, too. Together we weathered (a) the 16-year-old’s birthday party at the swimming pool; (b) leaving the nervous 7-year-old in a gymnasium full of children she didn’t know as she started choir camp; and (c) the 4-year-old’s ear ache which kept him awake for several hours. Grandma was pleased to find that she could still exercise her long un-tapped parental skills for (a) tolerance, (b) resolve, and (c) comfort, empathy, and the administration of Tylenol.

It wasn’t until the final evening that I faced a serious challenge. We had been at the swimming pool all afternoon, a thrilling time for the youngest, who discovered for the first time that he could jump off the diving board and slide down the big slide into the deep end. He was full of himself as he did cannonball after cannon ball, and even a front flip off the board. When it came time to go home, it took several calls and even a scowl to bring him to the deck, where I wrapped him in a towel. He was exhausted and shivery, but utterly happy.

“Can I have some animal crackers?” he asked, as we walked by the concession stand.

“You MAY,” I replied, “but not to eat now. We’ll keep them until after supper, for dessert.”

“Okay,” he agreed.

No sooner were we in the car than he began agitating for the crackers. When we got home, he brought me the package. “Help me open it,” he demanded. The edge of the plastic was wet and dented where he had used his teeth in an attempt to get at the cookies.

“After dinner,” I said. “Remember? Those are dessert.”

“But I’m hungry. I want them NOW,” he whined.

“Dinner is about ten minutes away,” I said. “You go and get changed; we’ll eat right away, and then you can have them.”

There was a wail and a foot stamp, and suddenly he and I found ourselves engaged in a real battle of wills.

“I want them NOW,” he repeated loudly.

“Sorry,” I said, “dinner first, cookies later.”

“I won’t eat dinner. I WANT MY COOKIES!”

I kept moving up the stairs, animal crackers in hand, as I said pleasantly: “Not now. Change your clothes now, and you may have them right after dinner.” He stormed by me to his room, slamming the door.

“Won’t eat it,” he yelled through the door.

“Fine,” I said calmly. “You know I don’t make you eat what you don’t want.” There was a tense silence as I went to my room and got dressed. It saddened me that there was to be a temper tantrum on my last night there, but I was determined to win the battle even if it did destroy my indulgent, pop-in image. As I stepped into my sandals, he appeared in the doorway, smiling and fully dressed. He sat at the table cheerfully, his old, goofy self, and ate a good dinner.

I opened his animal crackers and passed them to him for dessert.

“Thank you, Grandma,” he said. I let him take them into the playroom to eat in front of the TV while he and his sister watched a short video. The children trooped upstairs, brushed their teeth, and settled down for a quick story. Suddenly he looked up at me.

“Grandma,” he said, “Can I sleep with you tonight?” I had forgotten how quickly the young recover.

“Of course you may,” I said.

“He snores,” said his sister.

“That’s all right,” I said. “So does Grandma.”

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