Saturday, August 12, 2017

Yiayia’s Travel Emergency Kit

Eleni, Amalia and Nico on the roof of their apartment building in Manhattan

Tomorrow  I’m headed to Kennedy airport  to travel with daughter Eleni and the grandkids Amalia (6) and Nicolas (2 ½) on our annual summer trip to Greece—a nine-hour overnight flight. (Eleni’s husband Emilio will be coming later and my husband—Papou Nick-- is already there.) 

Last year’s flight was the worst ever—none of us slept, our fellow passengers hated us and the flight attendants kept asking if there was anything we could do to stop Nico from crying.  That emergency was ended by showing him his favorite TV show-- "Lion Guard"—on my smart phone.

What I didn’t know last year was that both kids were getting over Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (also called Coxsackie Virus).  It hits children, usually under five, and goes away quickly, but in adults it's worse, especially  in older people with a compromised immune system—a good description of me last year by the time we got on the plane. Soon after arriving in Athens, I came down with fever, chills, blisters on hands feet and face, and by the time we left Greece, all my fingernails had come off.  (Eventually they grew back.)

This year’s flight to Athens has got to be better than last year’s, during which Nico, sitting on my lap and on his Mommy’s lap, watched the same Mickey Mouse cartoon five times.  Now that he’s over two, his parents have to pay for a seat for him.  

Amalia will be carrying a very clever travel aid designed for children between 40 and 80 pounds.  It’s called a Boostapak.  It looks like a backpack strapped to Amalia’s back, but turned over, it serves as a booster seat in a plane or car (secured by the vehicle’s seat belt.)  Inside the  Boostapak, Eleni keeps a change of clothes, a neck pillow in case Amalia falls asleep sitting up (Nico has one too), a vomit bag in case she throws up (which often happens on long car rides), a coloring book and some markers. 

Every long trip with little ones is a learning experience for this Yiayia.  Below in italics is an excerpt from a column I wrote in May of 2015, when I traveled with Eleni and the two kids to Florida on the book tour for her novel “The Ladies of Managua”, which she launched while on maternity leave from her job. Back then, Amalia was three and Nico was only seven weeks old.  The things in my emergency travel kit that applied to Amalia then are now more appropriate for Nico, but I’m happy to say that, although he was breastfed until he was two, he never had any interest in a pacifier, so losing the pacifier is no longer a cause for panic. 

(Written in Florida in 2015)
First emergency today: I pulled out a bright red and orange Indian print cotton dress to wear in the Florida heat. On the front was a white spot — the result of bleach or spit-up? From Amalia’s set of mini colored markers, which I carry for drawing pictures on napkins, I matched the color — the spot is gone until the next washing.

Yesterday, I noticed that the toes of my rope-soled espadrilles were starting to flap. Out came my mini-tube of Super Glue gel. I’ve used the stuff for everything from temporarily reattaching an automobile part to re-gluing acrylic fingernails.

Amalia has enjoyed more restaurants at three than I had at 18. She behaves well, aside from bellowing at the waiter, “I want bread and butter and water!” When her restaurant behavior gets too annoying, I hand her my smartphone, which has a series of animal puzzles  which I downloaded for free. She moves pieces with her fingers and is rewarded with electronic balloons to pop. For a real emergency, her mommy has kiddie TV programs downloaded to her phone.  (Update:  Nowadays Nico loves doing the animal puzzles and Endless Alphabet while Amalia has graduated to Berry Rush, Duolingo (for Spanish and English) and Peppa Pig’s Paintbox all loaded onto our phones.

Here are some more emergency tools from my toiletry case:

Band-Aids. Nearly any kind of boo-boo immediately feels better when you apply Band-Aids with a familiar character like Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins, those sisters from Frozen.  These character Band-Aids are more expensive, but can provide hours of fun—with kids sticking them on willing family members. Once, in a restaurant, a young mother complimented me on my colorful “bracelets” applied by Amalia, adding that she often wore the same.

Entertainment. Each child has his own favorite shows, whether it’s about trucks and trains, dinosaurs, or the beloved (by me and Amalia) “Doc McStuffins”, a girl who treats ailing toys while giving out health tips. Update:  Amalia now scorns Doc McStuffins as babyish, but longs to watch “P.J. Masks” and “Shimmer and Shine”—both of which her parents don’t allow.  But as I told her the other day, “The reason God invented Grandmas is to let children do things their parents don’t let them do--when the parents are out, or in case of emergency.”  Recently, when I was babysitting the two, I let them watch an episode of a certain taboo cartoon, and when the parents came in, Amalia stayed mum, but Nico, who rarely comes out with a whole sentence, burst out with “I do watch P.J. Masks!”  As his mommy observed, “Loose lips sink ships.”

One TV cartoon show that never fails to absorb both kids and yet has their parents’ approval is “Lion Guard.”  Nico knows the names of all the jungle characters, but I still can’t keep them straight.

Diapers. Most toddlers, at a certain age, become obsessed with the subject of poop. I generally travel with a flat, fold-up plastic potty seat for both sanitary and convenience reasons. But lately, Amalia scorns it, saying she can use a regular-sized toilet seat. When I bought the delightful book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi and Amanda Mayer, she made me read it over and over. As for babies in diapers like Nicolas, there seems to be a growing trend toward cloth diapers and diaper services. Eleni and Emilio used them in both Manhattan and Miami (better for the environment and for the kid, etc). But even the most adamantly environmentalist parents have to use disposable diapers for travel — so eco-friendly parents insist on Naty and/or Seventh Generation organic diapers. 

Snacks. Whether headed to the South Pole or to Grandma’s house, we pack a supply of juice boxes and Amalia’s go-to snacks—Cheerios and Goldfish. She’ll eat strawberry yogurt as long as there aren’t chunks of strawberries(!) and it tastes best if Dora and Boots are on the container. I make sure that her flip-top plastic water cup really is watertight. (General rule for all things plastic—if it doesn’t have “BPA free“ printed on it, avoid it like the plague. )

An extra pacifier. The essential in every Grandma’s travel emergency kit is an extra pacifier. With first grandchild Amalia, I didn’t realize that pacifiers come in different sizes, and a panicked dash to the nearest pharmacy ended in disaster when I bought the wrong size. Wise grandmas know to get one of those straps that attach the pacifier to baby’s clothing and to carry an extra, just in case.  (Update: No more pacifiers, hallelujah!  One clever Mommy had a “farewell party” for the pacifier, tied it to a balloon and let it sail away while everyone waved good-bye.)

We also travel with a small bottle of children’s Tylenol, a thermometer for kids and small packets of hand wipes and baby wipes

And, of course, an iPad that allows us to access programming for kids when needed. Parents inevitably quote the rule about letting toddlers watch no more than one hour of screen time a day or their brain will be destroyed. As soon as you, a grandma,  realize that a TV set or computer screen will turn your granddaughter into a hypnotized zombie and give you some precious quiet time, you’ll start to feel like you’re her drug dealer. But you’ll do it.  

Now if only someone would invent barrettes for toddler girls that actually stay in.

Update: I promise to report on how the nine hours to Athens on an airplane goes this time, and if you have any tips on how to stay calm and in control when traveling with children, please pass them on!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Older Women and the Rules of Society

(I posted this exactly two years ago, both here and in the Huffington Post, but I think it's still as relevant today.)
  On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Maria Agustina Castillo returned to Sacred Heart in New Orleans, where she attended high school under the strict supervision of the nuns in the early 1950s.

“I feel like, as women, we’re always trying to figure out the rules of the world around us.  We’re raised to listen to the rules of society, as opposed to men, and I sort of realized by the time you figure out the rules, they’ve all changed.  Older women carry so many worlds inside them—both the societies that don’t exist anymore and themselves at a younger age.  I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored.  People of that age stop worrying about what others think.”

When I read those words last Sunday in an interview in the Worcester Sunday Telegram, they struck me as deeply wise, because they encapsulated many things that I’ve learned in my 75 years.   And I was doubly impressed because that statement came from my 40-year-old daughter, Eleni Gage, who was being interviewed about her newest novel “The Ladies of Managua” by reporterAnn Connery Frantz.

Eleni’s book is about three generations of women in Nicaragua and the secrets and tensions between them.  Her favorite character is the grandmother, Isabella, who was sent as a teenager from her home in Nicaragua to finishing school in New Orleans where she learned things like how to get into a cab properly, how to set a nice table, and how to make fudge.  This character is based on Eleni’s Nicaraguan husband’s grandmother, who is still alive today to dispense advice on proper behavior.  Isabella, in the book, is the mother to Ninexin, a heroine of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution. She lost her husband to a bullet, is devoting herself to building a new Nicaragua, and is frequently reminded by her daughter Maria and others, “You couldn’t have been a good revolutionary and a good mother.”  As Eleni commented to the Telegram, “Guilt is hard to escape, especially for women.  You’re expected to do certain things, raise your kids in a certain way.”

Years before Eleni was born, I discovered the difficulties of learning the rules of the game when I married a man from a close-knit Greek family.  I was a very naïve Presbyterian from Minnesota.  Nick and his sisters had suffered starvation and worse during the Greek civil war and eventually escaped in 1949, coming to Worcester, MA to join their father, a cook, whom nine-year-old Nick had never met.  As retribution for engineering the escape of her children from their Communist-held Greek village, Nick’s mother was imprisoned, tortured and executed. (He told her story in the book “Eleni” which was later made into a 1985 film.)

Once I married Nick in September of 1970, I realized I was involved in a game to which I did not know the rules, especially after our son Christos was born ten months later.  We lived in an apartment in Manhattan but would drive nearly every weekend to Worcester, MA, to visit Nick’s elderly father and his four older sisters.  I was always breaking rules without realizing it.  At our son’s baptism, which culminated in Greek line dancing while Nick’s father Christos balanced a glass of Coca Cola on his head, I was wearing a long dress. In church, while my baby was being dunked and tonsured, and holy oil was put on his hair, I would nervously, in the front row, cross my legs.  Every time, my father-in-law would stand up, walk across the church and tell me in a stage whisper that I was not supposed to cross my legs in church. (It was a long dress, people!)  Also, when I took the baby home, while the party was still rollicking, I washed the holy oil out of his hair.  Big mistake!

Nick once told me, in the early years of our marriage, that a Greek wife must always be ready to feed unexpected guests at a moment’s notice.  And I have never been a good cook. But luckily he is.

Over the next 45 years I learned—to cook moussaka, to do Greek dances, to speak Greek.  And I had two daughters, including Eleni—although having a son first, Christos, gave me a major boost in the eyes of the Greeks. (The three requirements Nick spelled out when we decided to get married, were 1. Quit smoking, 2. Name the first two children after his parents and 3. Marry in his Greek Orthodox Church.)

Well I did all that—It helped that The New York Times sent our family to live in Greece for five years while Nick was their correspondent in the Middle East.   Along with our children, I learned the language and the rules of the game.  Years later, back in the U.S., when strange odors emanated from my teenaged son’s closet, I wasn’t surprised to find in the pocket of his church-going suit a bulb of garlic that one aunt had hidden against the evil eye.  It’s now an ordinary occurrence to have my future read in my coffee grounds by one of Nick’s sisters and, when things seem to all be going wrong at once, the kids and I regularly ask another aunt to do an exorcism against the evil eye.

Eleni said in last week’s article that, as she was growing up, I would point out rituals and celebrations to her—the rules of our game. She became so interested in them that she majored in folklore and mythology at Harvard, learning things she has put to good use as an author of three books. (Her second, “Other Waters” was about an Indian psychiatrist in New York who thinks her family has been cursed.) 

It was very gratifying to learn that my early efforts to discover the rules of the game sparked a lifetime’s education and writing career in my daughter. (Well, the Telegram’s reporter referred to me as “Jane” instead of “Joan” but whatever.) The part of Eleni’s statement about older women that gave me the greatest encouragement was: “I like how they (older women) are kind of uncensored. [That’s me, for sure.] “People of that age stop worrying about what others think.” [I hope that will be me, as well!]