Close together and far apart

The hardest part of social distancing during a pandemic has been ignoring the little table and chairs in the living room that periodically heave deep sighs of loneliness.

Then there is the basket of children’s books I step over each morning when I raise the shades. They’ve grown surly. Some days “The Hungry Caterpillar” nips at my legs.

On Sunday, I texted a list of my accomplishments to the daughters, just to let them know things are happening at a breakneck pace here, despite the isolation:

Got up early

Answered emails

Hyperventilated while reading headlines

Did workout on YouTube while casting Ina Garten on Food Network to TV

Went to church online

Filled old nail holes in family room with Dap

How about you?

The first and only answer I received in response:

Slept in

Ate breakfast


Broke up fighting

Threatened kids

Separated kids

Started laundry

Made kids read in separate rooms


Heating up lunch

Many of the grands have been doing a great deal of travel despite staying at home and attempting to drive their parents batty. Last week all 11 of them had ballet lessons with the Cleveland Ballet from 2 to 3 in the afternoon, followed by a tour of the Cincinnati Zoo at 4. Normally you couldn’t make it from Cleveland to Cincy that fast, but Facebook works wonders.

Some popped in at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota for an update on bald eagles that follow the Mississippi River.

After that they dropped in for a tour of impressionism paintings at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

There have been music lessons with Zoom and even a jam session for strings.

We shrank the distance between us and the Chicago brood with FaceTime the other night. It was good to see them—up their nostrils, into their eyeballs, close-ups of their tonsils, the ceiling fan, the floor, the ceiling fan, the side of someone’s face smashed against the phone and back to the ceiling fan and overhead lights. It wasn’t the first time a virtual visit caused motion sickness.

The occasional shared video, having some cyberspace family time and “coffee with friends” via cellphone all help to fill the void.

For now, the best way to love one another is to stay away from one another. It is a small thing to do if it helps break the chain of transmission and lessens the suffering and death.

The little table and chairs are sighing again.

“Hang in there,” I whisper to them. “One day, one day soon.”

To Do or To Be, that is the question

I recently read “Things Successful People Do Before 8 a.m.” It was 9:30 a.m. at the time. Successful people were already ahead of me by an hour and a half.

Successful people get up early, work out, eat a healthy breakfast, survey the morning headlines, overview what needs to be done for the day and make To Do lists.

If success were measured by To Do lists, I’d be at the top of the mountain. My life is a never-ending trail of sticky notes. A million things to do scribbled on little pink and yellow squares: project deadlines, appointments to keep, calls to return, errands to run, meals to plan, people to see, things to fix.

So many things to do, so little time in which to do them.

I so relish crossing things off a To Do list that I sometimes add things I’ve already done to a list just for the joy of crossing them off. It creates the illusion of productivity.

See there—a big black line through “Fill the bird feeders.”

A friend floated the idea of keeping To Be lists instead of To Do lists. Scratching through those would not be an exercise in speed.

At the top of my To Be? A better listener, a person who doesn’t just hear, and is quick with solutions, but one who truly listens with understanding.

Recently, I was digging through my purse for a pen when a woman stopped me to say something very kind. I made eye contact, but it wasn’t until she finished that I realized I kept digging for a pen the entire time she spoke. What’s the matter with me? Please don’t answer and, if you do, hold it to 10,000 words or less.

To Be? A person who knows that time is not a commodity, but a gift—a gift given to us and a gift we give others.

To Be? Generous. To freely share all that I have. No strings attached, no thank you expected, simply to give because giving is good.

To Be? Attentive. I know the clerks and cashiers and the produce people at the grocery where I shop by their faces, smiles and voices, but not their names. I see many of them weekly. Common courtesy says I ought to pay attention to their names.

At the end of the day, I nearly always wish I had been more in the moment.

Things on a To Be list won’t be checked off as quickly as those on a To Do list. By the time I get through some of those To Be items, the glue on the back of the sticky notes will be dried and worthless. But slow progress is better than none.

By the way, John is the name of the man who stocks produce in the early mornings.

One To Be down and a thousand more to go.

We’ve got your number

We have a number of number people in our family. Sadly, I can’t tell you exactly how many because I’m not one of them. As non-number people are prone to do, let’s just round up and say it is a lot.

Number people often obsess with remembering historic dates, record-breaking high and low temperatures, anniversary dates, what the water bill was this month compared to the same month last year and what a haircut cost in 1994. For a number person, a really good time is approximating how many shingles are on the roof.

My father-in-law was a number guy. He worked as an estimator for General Motors, estimating the time various stages of manufacturing would take to complete. He often did computations in his head and was wary of people who used calculators for simple things like figuring compound interest to the fourth decimal point.

He was also vocal about his frustration with younger co-workers who didn’t know what pi was. Hint: It’s not apple, cherry or blueberry.

Sometimes, just for fun, the kids would throw out math problems for him to solve. Occasionally, he picked up a pencil and did a little scratching on the edge of the newspaper. Others thought he was doing the computation, but I’m certain he was writing down names of those who couldn’t keep up with him.

The husband shares a common denominator with his father in that he, also, has excellent recall for numbers. It’s a convenient trait for a spouse to have, although at times it is like being married to an almanac. He can (and will) tell you the anniversary dates of major historical events, birthday anniversaries in the family (both living and deceased), the last time we both went to the dentist and how many days we have been without rain.

We recently discovered the number gene growing exponentially in one of the grands who is 9. She fastidiously tracks the birthdays of all 10 of her cousins, paying keen attention to the youngest in the brood who is 20 months old. She fixates on the youngest because she suspects this tot will be the last addition to the extended family.

So, she marks the date of the month that little one was born on each page of a monthly calendar. When the date arrives, she takes a few moments to lament that the family is one month closer to being completely out of babies. The rest of us lament that the babies in the family are getting older too, but not with such precision or flair for drama.

I only hope that my birthday isn’t on the radar of our number-loving grandchild. I don’t need anyone tracking my age, as though counting down days to the apocalypse. More importantly, if there’s any crying to be done, I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself.

Junk drawers charging into the future

Competition for space in kitchen drawers is fierce these days. That beloved staple, the junk drawer, may soon be crowded out by something called a charging drawer, an empty drawer wired with ports at the back to charge cell phones, iPads, ear buds and assorted electronics.

You can charge a phone in any room in the house, but the only place you can find a 6-year-old lemon-flavored throat lozenge so old it is stuck to the wrapper is in the catchall drawer.

Ditto for hair ties. Sure, you might find some in a bathroom drawer, but the ones with hair still knotted in them will be in the junk drawer. That’s also where you’ll find felt tip markers without lids, ballpoint pens out of ink, dull scissors and pencils with broken leads.

Junk drawers are not just depositories for random things you throw in on the fly, they are family history. Journalists without scruples have sometimes rifled through trash to find out details about people. If you really want to know someone, go through their junk drawer.

The first thing you notice in our drawer is birthday candles. Some are still in the box, others are mixed with pens and paper clips. There are all colors and sizes, in all stages of deterioration. Some are melted to nubs because they’ve been used before. Now you know—we like to party and are so cheap we recycle birthday candles.

We also like to eat, which is why you’ll find chopsticks, a fossilized fortune cookie, dinner mints from restaurants and a takeout menu stuck to the bottom of the drawer.

You’ll also find plastic drinking straws. We’re hanging on to a few before they become obsolete. The two decrepit steak knives with plastic handles aren’t for eating, but for ripping open delivery boxes.

A good junk drawer takes years to build. Amazon does not sell a plastic ruler with pictures of past presidents on it that is cracked in two places. A ruler like that takes years of getting snagged in the back of the drawer. It’s not that useful for drawing a straight line any longer, but it’s been around so long it’s like family. You don’t dump family.

Need felt pad tips for chair legs, so they don’t scratch your hardwoods? An emery board for filing your nails? A neon green miniature flashlight, book matches, AAA batteries? A gauge to check air pressure in your tires? We’ve got it all in the junk drawer. Somewhere. Dig deeper.

Consider this—charging your phone at various outlets around the house, especially ones near the floor, is good for your knees. Those deep bends may be all that’s keeping you flexible.

Go ahead, empty your junk drawer and turn it into a neat and clean, streamlined charger drawer. But remember this — Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a good junk drawer.

Once upon a time Grandma was a kid

Explaining you were a mommy before you were a grandma to a young grandchild quickly becomes a who’s who of considerable complexity.

“Grandma, Mommy said that you were her mommy.”

“Yes, and I still am,” I say. “I could ask her to unload the dishwasher right now and she’d probably do it.”

“Really?” the child exclaims, wide-eyed.

“Yes. Before I was a grandma, I was a mommy, and your mommy was my little girl and now my little girl is grown up and is your mommy.”

This is the strangest thing the kid has ever heard. Naturally, I try to help by putting it in context.

“Your mommy was a little girl and I was her mommy a long time ago before you were born.”

Turns out, this is a horrible follow-up. There is no more disturbing statement for young children than to hear there was a time when they didn’t exist.

In an attempt to clarify, I muddle things even more. “Yes, I was your mommy’s mommy and Grandpa was her daddy.”

This is too much. Not only is the child to believe that Grandma was once a mommy, but that grandpa was once a daddy. Hey, the kid has eyes and she’s thinking there’s no way the two of them were ever that young!

The child gives me the once over and slowly says, “So you were a mommy . . . Grandpa was a daddy . . .  and Mommy was one of your kids?”

“Exactly!” I shout.

Silence. The wheels are turning.

“Then, before you were a mom . . . were you a kid, too?”

“Yes!” Wisely, I keep my mouth closed about being a kid so long ago it is what we now call the “last century.” There’s only so much backward time travel small children can comprehend.

“So, Grandma, when you were a kid, did you have other kids in your family?”

“Yes. John was my brother.”

“You mean Big John?”

“Yes, Big John was my little brother.”

“How could he be your little brother when he’s bigger than you and we call him Big John?”

“He wasn’t always bigger. As a matter of fact, I am three years older and for a long time I was bigger than he was and I would boss — oh, it doesn’t matter what Grandma used to do to her little brother, because he grew way bigger and he’s still making me pay for teasing him years ago. The main thing is to be kind to your brothers and sisters no matter who is older or younger or bigger or smaller.”

Satisfied, smiling and with a twinkle in her eye, she dashes off to the front room where her cousins are playing and shouts, “Guess what? Grandma used to be a kid!”

Nailed it on the worry front

Our son is building a house. As his parents, we are pleased with this accomplishment, but it has also caused us sleepless nights and worry.

Probably because we know our son. Or at least the kid he was growing up. He was the one who assembled things without reading directions, the one who selectively applied himself in high school and splatter painted a pair of shoes in college and tried to convince us it was art.

Yep. That was the look we had, too. You do what you can.

Today he is a registered architect. He’s worked on small projects, big projects and his company jets him all around to check on all sorts of projects.

Why worry? He does modern, that’s why. Sometimes modern is hard to understand.

His original house design involved using materials like burnt wood and weathered metal.

We asked why he wouldn’t use new materials on a new house. We watch the home design channel; we know those materials are hip, but we asked anyway.

We also worry the roof is flat.

He says it’s not flat, it has a slight incline.

Once it’s finished, we’ll probably drive by after the first heavy snow to see if the snow slid off or is piling on the roof and the roof about to collapse on his wife and kids, and we should evacuate them.

They are building in the middle of the woods and we worry there are trees too close to the house, that the trees will one day be old and brittle and fall on the house.

He cites the species of the trees and says they will live many, many years.

We worry because the house has extremely large windows and we’ve seen the speeds his kids reach and how they ricochet off the walls.

He calmly says the glass is thick and the kids will be fine.

The other night I woke up wondering how expensive an insurance premium might be on a house with wood exterior. I decided to call our insurance company in the morning and ask a few questions. Not wanting anyone to know I was checking up on a grown son, I decided I wouldn’t give my name.

The voice on the other end of the line answered and said, “Hello. Is this Lori?”

Caller ID. So much for remaining anonymous.

An agent fielded my questions and assured me there would be no problem, especially since the location was not far from a fire department.

The husband asked what I found out.

“I found out what we’ve suspected all along—the kid knows what he’s doing.”

“I wondered if that wasn’t the case,” he said.

“No need to mention any of our concerns to him,” I say. “Besides, we’ll probably have a list of new concerns next week.”

When appliances are washed up

We need a new washing machine, but one does not simply dash out and buy a new machine these days, one first does research.

I know this because I tried dashing out and buying one without doing my research. The clerk asked how big, how powerful, how many cycles and how much I wanted to spend. All I could really tell her was my price range. She led me to a small portable machine on wheels that might hold two dishtowels.

Who knew prices had gone up since we last bought one 20 years ago? It’s a new form of money laundering.

Now, having spent weeks doing late-night reading, analysis and comparisons, I realize I did not study this hard for college exams.

Washing machines filling my brain has made me a thrilling conversationalist. I am happy to talk about cubic-foot capacity, spin versus pulse agitation, front load and top load.I can also talk about RPMs, but what shoppers really want to know about is SLPL— Socks Lost Per Load.

Machines have grown more complex in recent years with some models now featuring apps and Wi-Fi connection. Your washing machine can text you the status of the laundry, setting off a ding on your phone or tablet. You then race through the house or rummage through your purse looking for your phone, which is so much more convenient than having to walk over and look at the machine yourself.

Full surrender to smart assistants like Alexa is only a short time away.

Alexa: Start my playlist.

Alexa: Turn on the lights.

Alexa: Check on the laundry.

Alexa: Live my life.

Until smart assistants take total control, we will continue to pore through online ratings and reviews and scroll through questions and answers on everything from light bulbs to shoes and printer cartridges. We all want to know what we’re getting and if it will last.

Both of our grown daughters have gone through two washing machines in their first 10 years of marriage, claiming nothing lasts like it should. Often when they are here, they look around the house and remind us to keep everything that is old. For a long time, we thought they were talking to us about each other, but they mean our old appliances.

We would keep all our appliances if we could, but we can’t. Our present washing machine is so rickety it rocks the entire house on spin cycle. That agitates the dryer sitting next to it and then they both shimmy closer and closer toward the wall until we can’t get the louvered door in front of the dryer open. I can see the clean, warm, clothes, I just can’t touch the clean, warm clothes.

All we really want is a basic washer without all the bells and whistles that is reasonably quiet and stays in one place.

Alexa: Find us a docile washing machine. Then do the laundry.

Heart-shaped boxes held more than candy

My dad gave my mom a beautiful heart-shaped box of candy every year on Valentine’s Day. Big red and pink boxes with swirls of lace and wide satin ribbons.

The beautiful boxes were mesmerizing. I drooled over them. Literally. Chocolate mint truffles, caramels and raspberry-filled. The small candies tucked beneath the quilted paper liner were a beauty to behold.

Mom and Dad weren’t big gift givers with one another, but every year he bought her a box of candy for Valentine’s Day. I think he thought it was just how a guy treated his gal. And she was always his gal.

When I was growing through an awkward phase, my right leg often tripping over my left, and my left leg, in turn, tripping my right, my dad gave me a heart-shaped box of candy, too. It was a smaller version of Mom’s—a pink heart with ruffled trim and a satin ribbon.

Perhaps he thought my awkward phase would be permanent, limit possibilities down the road and it could be the only Valentine’s candy I got. It didn’t matter. Those pretty boxes made me walk a little taller, which was important for a girl who was short. I felt more confident. Like maybe I could finally do the required rope climb all the way to the ceiling in gym class. I couldn’t; but I didn’t care because I had a heart-shaped box of candy declaring I was loved.

Through grade school, middle school and high school, when Mom got a box for Valentine’s, I got a box, too. Even when I went away to college. Even when I moved cross country.

“I’m grown now, Dad. You can stop.”

Even when I married. “I have a husband who buys me candy, Dad. You can stop.”

“I know,” he said on the phone.

“I know,” Mom said, on the extension. It was a team operation and always had been.

Still the heart-shaped boxes kept coming.

Our two little girls began getting boxes, as did my sister-in-law.

“It’s time to stop!” we cried in unison.

Still the boxes came. We stashed the empties on closet shelves, in the dress-up trunk and under the beds. Dad and Mom realized too late in life that they should have invested in chocolate.

Then one year, they called and said, “We’re not sending the heart boxes anymore. We’re not going to be around forever. We’re going to stop now to get you used to that idea.”

They were funny like that. Painfully practical and to the point. A few years later they were both gone.

As for chocolate, we are well cared for by the husband who tends to us courtesy of a nearby local chocolatier.

But to this day, whenever I see a heart-shaped box with a swirl of lace and a satin ribbon, my heart swells and I pray that every little girl might have a dad, or an uncle, or a grandpa who finds a sweet way to say, “I love you.”

All our old heart-shaped boxes are gone now, but the love remains.


The doctor will see you now

I was coaxed into getting a physical yesterday. I hadn’t planned on a physical, but the grands had setup an elaborate city in the basement and needed patients for the clinic.

I was met by a “nurse practitioner” at the front desk. She immediately asked for my insurance card. The kid’s been to the doctor a time or two.

Then I had to verify my name and address. I’ve been her grandmother for her entire life, but whatever.

She did a pre-screening asking if I had any aches or pains.

“From my head to my toes,” I said.

She laughed. I laughed, too. Say that at a real doctor’s office and you’re off to see a specialist.

She asked if I was on any medications.

“Chocolate,” I said.

With the screening completed, I was sent to see the doctor, which meant crawling between two chairs and into a makeshift tent. The doctor was wearing a white coat and had a blue plastic stethoscope dangling around her neck.

“How are your internal organs?” she asked with a straight face.

“They’re all good except when they hit the wrong notes.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Do you have dizzy spells?” she asked.

“No, not unless I stand up,” I said.

She pursed her lips and said, “I’ll take that as a yes.”

She took my blood pressure with a cuff wrapped around my wrist – it was too small for an adult arm.  She said my blood pressure was 40/10. I was good with that. She scanned my forehead with a plastic thermometer and said I had no fever. Just as I was about to crawl out of the clinic, she announced I needed a shot.

That’s when a huge geodome-like contraption made of long plastic poles and colored balls began lumbering across the basement. Three of them maneuvered it to the “clinic.” The doctor busted out a side wall of the tent so she could use one of the poles.

“What’s that for?” I asked.


“Why do I need anesthesia?”

“Because we’re going to give you a shot.”

“Why give anesthesia when it’s not surgery and just a shot?”

She pressed the end of a pole against my arm and said, “Well, if we give you anesthesia then we won’t have to listen to you scream when we give you the shot.”

When I checked out, they said I owed $300. I didn’t mind, considering I’d found $500 in play money on the floor by the cardboard grocery store. It was the only time I’ve ever been to a doctor and left with more money than I came with.

Later that night, I asked the husband if he got a physical.

He said yes, they asked him to fall on the stairs on his way down to the basement clinic and break his leg so they’d have something to treat.

There’s something to be said for knowing what the doctor plans on doing before the appointment.

We may have found our new primary care physician.

Healthy curiosity can be a sick thing

Cold and flu season is here. At the first sneezing fit or sign of a sore throat, the question is not, “How long will this last?” but “Where did I get this from?”

We tend to get vindictive when we are forced to the sick bed. We don’t like it when our orderly lives are disrupted.

Oh sure, we hide the attitude and put on our best pathetic sick-person face but, on the inside, a lot of us slip into detective mode.

I may be weak, fatigued and sweating out a fever, but I can still muster the strength to cruise through a list of possible sources of contamination.

Chief suspects are always the grands—those lovable, adorable little ones we cherish dearly, the same ones who cough and sneeze into the crooks of their arms, and seconds later spray tabletops, countertops and doorknobs.

Next on the list of possibilities, merely by reason of proximity, is the husband. It is never him though, because he’s never sick. It’s one of the more irritating things about him. Always healthy. When you’re not feeling well, the last thing you want is to be reminded of others who enjoy perpetual good health.

Once family members have been eliminated as suspects, I expand the circle to consider the places I’ve been. There’s always the possibility of picking up something at the grocery. Who knows what germs reside on those carts or the produce? Did I really lick my finger to open that plastic bag?

The gym is a possibility as well. It’s easy to pick up something from an elliptical or a treadmill that wasn’t wiped down. Isn’t that ironic? We get sick trying to stay healthy.

Then there’s the ATM. Maybe it was that guy ahead of me in line. It’s going to be hard to track down a stranger.  It could have been the cash itself. Money is a huge carrier of germs.

Maybe it was that kiosk I used to order food. The findings of a recent study on all the microbes found on kiosks are disgusting. The conclusion was never order food at a kiosk. At least not with your hand. Use your elbow.

Maybe it was that friend I hadn’t seen in ages—the one who gave me a great big hug and who knows what else.

Paranoia is a faithful bedside companion to cold and flu season. All the detective work is so exhausting it can add another full day to recovery. Or lead to a complete relapse.

Maybe no one gave me this bug. Maybe I gave it to myself—inhaled at the wrong time, rubbed my eyes with some microbe on my fingertips or yawned wide when a germ caught a ride on an air current and sailed my way.

The truth is there’s no way to know.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop wondering. Or compiling suspects.