Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bad Grandma

We are sitting knee-to-knee at the top of a long flight of stairs that runs from the first floor of my daughter's Los Angeles home, to the second. There are three bedrooms up here; two are empty -- the adults having left for the night. And the third, where my 6-year-old grandson was supposed to be slumbering, has just been vacated.

"Call Mommy and tell her to come home," he says, one hand on the banister and the other wiping fresh tears from his face.

"No, I'm not," I say. "Mommy needs a night out."

His tears, which I believe are as false as those of a screen idol, slide from a trickle to full faucet. I am impressed with this talent.

"I want Mommy," he repeats.

"I can put you to bed," I say. After all, I had already fulfilled the prescription left by his mother: We cuddled under the covers, I flipped the pages of a favorite book and read dramatically -- playing all of the characters in different tones of voices -- and, I kissed his sweet forehead before twirling the light knob off and slipping out the door.

"Call Daddy. Call Isaac. Call Faith," he said. His father, brother, aunt; I waited for him to add the postman, gardener, housekeeper -- anyone but bad Grandma.

"I don't feel safe," he said, tossing a grenade. I smiled as I heard a sentence likely gleaned from kindergarten warnings.

"What can I do to make you feel safe?"

"Call Mommy."

"You're acting like a bully," I said. My grandson paused his tears for a bit and turned to look at me. He couldn't believe his ears, and his luck.

"You shouldn't call me a bully," he said. "That's not allowed at school."

I could see the scoreboard in my head, and his hometown team was trouncing the visiting one. Then, came my next foul: I started to cry. Not false tears as I believed my grandson was producing, and not sobs, just wet whispers of defeat.

"You win," I said. We had been at this for 30 minutes and I was ready to wave the white flag. "Let's go downstairs and call your mother."

When we reached the guest room where I was spending the night, he hopped in my bed, smiling as if he had been designated Most Valuable Player.

My cell phone had already received a text from my daughter. "How did everything go?" she wrote. "Were you able to put him to sleep?"

Self-pity turned to pique. My second born -- the recipient of decades of my love and devotion -- had predicted I'd encounter difficulty in putting her own second born to bed. She knew I was fresh at this, having lived in different cities for all of his young years. Why had she not warned me? Why had she allowed me to enter the game like a player without proper headgear?

I returned her text: "I failed. He wants you home."

"On my way," she sent back.

When I turned to tell him the good news, he was fast asleep on my bed. His mother arrived, shook her head, and then carried him upstairs.

The next morning, my grandson and I greeted each other warily. Instead of pouting, I opted to put the previous night's episode behind me. "What would you like for breakfast?" I asked, kissing the top of his head. "We have Cheerios, or if you prefer, waffles." I was acting Diner Waitress in a game we often played.

"Cheerios," he said, evidently also eager to erase our evening dust-up.

The next day after I returned to my Los Angeles apartment, my daughter phoned. "He said you called him a bully and that you cried."

"True and true," I said.

"You shouldn't have done either," she said.

"I was unprepared," I said. "I didn't plan my reaction and couldn't help my tears."

"You're the adult," she said. "You should've known better."

My shoulders sunk as I felt another round slipping away. "I'm sorry," I said. "I wish it had turned out differently."

That evening, I sent my daughter a text. "How about I come over early tomorrow and give him breakfast? You can sleep in."

"That would be lovely," she typed back. We were not opponents after all. Obviously, the three of us had regretted our actions, words, and wounds, but remain deeply attached.

Now, because my daughter is an award-winning TV writer and director, the unfortunate scene just described could possibly be fictionalized and turn up in one of her episodes. Luckily, I can first report it here, from my POV.

So score one for grandmas -- good, bad, and somewhere in between.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


The freight elevator is reserved for Friday between 10 and noon. A member of the maintenance crew has already been to my apartment and removed from a hallway closet two folding doors and wire shelving.

For my part, I've shifted its contents to a different closet in my 582-square-foot studio. Soon, a pre-owned Everett Upright Piano, with bench, will occupy that empty area, which once housed a handful of sweaters, a mat for morning stretches, a pail, broom, and dry mop. Instead of a wave of a hand like some ordinary wizard, I have used wit and brawn to transform a once humble space into a music room.

"How long have you been playing?" the eager salesman had asked as we climbed two flights of stairs to review pianos in my price range.

Catching my breath, I had said, "Oh, I can't really play. I'm a perpetual beginner. All I want is to learn how to play Rogers and Hart." He hesitated, perhaps wondering if I was serious in my search, then shrugged whatever and continued up another flight.

I didn't think he needed the history of my piano quest, but I'll tell you: Neither my first husband nor I played, but because we believed a house filled with music was a bonus, in 1970 we bought an upright and offered lessons to our daughters.

From the moment six-year-old Faith sat down on the bench; she treated the instrument as if it were her long-lost twin. (Her sister, Jill, tried lessons, but quickly decided to leave that particular talent to her sibling.)

My draw to the piano didn't occur during those years; it wasn't until another time and place that I decided to take lessons. It was the '80s, and the upright had been exchanged for an ebony baby grand. I can still see that handsome piece, with its wing-shaped lid, which seemed to send its notes soaring.

I wish I could remember the name of the young man who was my first teacher, and led me through Alfred's Basic Adult Piano Course - Level 1. But in 1990, when my first marriage ended, the baby grand and lessons exited, too.

Tommy and I first met in 1996, and we learned we had the same favorite song: Rogers' and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind." That commonality, plus others, led to marriage and another piano. I was never able to smoothly play our tune, but I could pick my way through George Gershwin's, "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

I can still see -- and hear -- my wannabe crooner standing at the side of our Yamaha, belting out "The way your wear your hat..." Like an aged nightclub duo, I'd I search for the right keys while my sweetheart patiently waited for me to catch up to his lyrics.

After Tommy died in 2012, I sold our house. The piano went, too, as part of an estate sale. Because I was moving to a studio apartment in River North, I believed there'd be no room for the instrument. Or, maybe I thought any images of our schmaltzy showbiz scene would be too hard to bear.

During my nine-month stay in Los Angeles, my roomy one-bedroom apartment could've housed a piano, even a baby grand, but I never desired one. It wasn't until I returned to Chicago, and in a conversation with a friend that the thought came up. I must've been gloomy the day of our lunch, because she advised: "Find something to make you happy."

Happy. Then, clear as day I heard Tommy's tenor: "The way you haunt my dreams,
no, no, they can't take that away from me.
" I saw the two of us in the dining room alcove where the upright stood. I heard us laugh as I struggled with chords.

"A piano," I told my friend. "A piano and lessons; that made me happy."

So, once the pre-owned Everett comes home, and I hang portraits of jazz giants on walls where wire once hung, I plan to host "Sing Along Sundays." By then, I'll have purchased a few songbooks and those who can squeeze in, and are willing to play piano, or sing, will bring alive Rogers, Hart, Gershwin, and others of that era.

During those times, perhaps our chorus will imagine ourselves in a favorite musical. And because my mind's eye knows no limits, I'll see Tommy there, too. Maybe by then, I'll be adept at our favorite song, and I can accompany him as he sings, "And wish that you were there again, to get into my hair again, it never entered my mind."