Today’s post was going to be about children and memoir storytelling. I had it all set up like this:

The perfect granny picture. We're reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The perfect granny picture. We’re reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The post would be the third in a series of how my grandchildren are my spiritual teachers. The first post (2011) was about learning attention and proprioception (awareness of the body) from a baby. The second (2013) focused on learning to become one with nature. I would continue the tradition of borrowing from other writers, like Wordsworth, and Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott to enhance the depth of my own experience. I love these little essays and wanted to write another like them.

But it was not to be.

In preparation for a talk I am giving Friday night called “I Love to Tell the Story,” I created a literal story board:  copies of pictures that appear in my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

the literal story board

The literal story board.

I thought Owen, now age three, would select photos he was curious about and want to hear stories.

Alas, he was much more interested in his new Hello Kitty coloring book. In the 2.5 hours between the time he awoke and the time Stuart and I strolled him and Julia to school, Owen didn’t ask for any stories. Instead, he shed some tears. He:

  • cried because I wasn’t in bed when he came to wake me up
  • cried because Julia was playing with the bouncy ball he instantly decided he needed to have
  • cried because the stripes on his socks were too wide

Was all lost?

Of course not! Even in their tears, Owen and Julia teach Grandma and Grandad. They give us gifts different from the ones we hoped for. But they amaze us by wisdom we can neither predict nor demand.

ready for a ride

Grandad buckles up skeptical Owen while Julia waves.

What spiritual gifts have we gained from a week of intensive grandparenting?

I. Let go of expectations.

Sometimes grandparents forget what to expect at a certain age or develop expectations of what will or won’t be fun for a child.

Wise parents know that children run according to their own feelings and needs. They have their own timetables for everything. Often, by going where the children are instead of insisting that they come to you, you get to explore places you would not have gone otherwise. Those places may be better than the ones you anticipated in advance. In the process, you start asking what you might need to let go in your own life.

As Dr. Stephen Cowan says, “Each season, each stage, each little rhythm of our life is a matter of letting go. This allows us to get rid of what we don’t need to make room in our lives for new information. Learning to let go is not always easy and each child has his own adaptive style and timing. Nature favors diversity.”

II. Practice in reframing.

Tears flow easily for three-year-olds. And they give way just as easily to smiles. Sometimes a little creativity is necessary. For instance, I discovered, along with Owen, that:

  • it’s easy to pop back into bed and start snoring so that Owen gets to wake you up and clap his hands when you rub the sleep out of your eyes. His offer to make you coffee will jump start your day better than caffeine.
  • a bouncy ball can bounce two ways; a brother can bounce it to a sister.
  • questions re-orient thoughts: “I wonder if any of the other socks in the drawer look like they want to be on Owen’s feet today?”

III.  Take time to smell the roses, literally and figuratively.

Such a cliché, smelling the roses. But how often do we do it? Owen examined every one of these flowers, seeking names of types and colors. He filled the glass with water and noticed that the flowers drank it with their stems. He sniffed the roses on the table.

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

He also exclaimed about the buds about to pop on the trees outside. Every day he examines them to see how much progress they’ve made.

His wise mother allowed Owen and Julia to dig in the dirt in the front lawn and asked them questions about what they saw.

Soon we will travel back to Virginia. We will leave with all of our senses tuned tighter (and our backs a little sorer). We will often hear imaginary laughter. And we’ll stride back into our own world with these two stepping stones to wisdom firmly in place:

Steps under the sink.

Steps under the sink.

I haven’t drawn any morals from this story related to memoir or to writing. But I’ll bet you can! What lessons in wisdom have you learned anew from your own children and grandchildren? Or have you had other teachers of the same ideas? Do tell!

Shirley Showalter


  1. Marian Beaman on April 9, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Reading your essay today, the first quote that came to my mind: “The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. . . .“ Actually, this post was meant to be just as it is, Shirley: Pre-meditation is pretty futile where children of this age are concerned, a bit of wisdom they have already taught you.

    About books: In a anticipation of a house-guest perhaps long-term, I asked all the grandchildren to help me sort through the stacks of books we’ve read together at our house since they’re little. Richard Scarry’s Animal Nursery Tales was on the to-keep pile. We’ll donate a few others.

    Stages of chlidhood pass quickly. Owen and Julia will be in a different phase when you and Stuart spend such an extended time with them again. (Grateful parents, I gather!) Pretty soon we’ll be hearing about their first mystery trip.

    And what’s not to like about a Grandma who fakes sleeping to please her Grandson! God is so gracious to give us a second chance to experience parenting with all of our senses engaged this time around.

    I love the literal story-board idea: the verbal & the visual, a fail-safe recipe for firing the imagination of your audience on Friday.

  2. shirleyhs on April 9, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Ha, I almost started this essay with that very Burns quote, Marian.

    Thanks for starting off the conversation here. I am still building our children’s lit library, building on the books Anthony and Kate enjoyed, wishing that we had kept one or two that went into the garage sale/Good Will pile.

    “God is so gracious to give us a second chance to experience parenting with all of our senses engaged this time around.” Amen!

  3. Kathy on April 9, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    You are so right. We get a second chance with grand parenting. So much easier to stay focused on only the little ones. So wish I could have been as focused when my children were young. But love how we get to spend the quality time now.

    • shirleyhs on April 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks, Kathy. You put your finger on one of the best gifts of older age. We have the ability to focus our attention because we are less worried about mid-career issues and social expectations. We can follow along as our grandchildren follow their noses. Thanks for your comment. Happy to have you here.

  4. Kathleen Pooler on April 9, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    Wonderful post, Shirley, a breath of fresh air. It all reminds me that we need to be present in the moment so the moments become our presents. Grandkids do it best.It’s these precious moments that matter the most. Owen has it right and he is a great teacher. Now you have all those lessons to ponder during your “recover” period. 🙂

    • shirleyhs on April 9, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      The moments become our presents indeed, Kathleen.

      Recovery period, what a good idea. 🙂 My form of recovery when we leave is a book talk on Friday, a week of having Mother as a house guest, and then the whole extended family together for Easter. After that, I’ll need some quiet time, but it’s all deeply good.

  5. Elfrieda Schroeder on April 9, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    We’re on our way to Heidelberg, Ontario to visit four of our grandchildren and their parents (our daughter lives there), so your wise counsel came just at the right time. Our grandchildren in Ontario are a little older (11, 8, 6 & 3). We usually spend two weeks because it’s such a long trip to get there, but have learned it’s best to spend only one week with our children and find lodging elsewhere for the second week. The second week we tend to get annoyed with each other! Anita has lovely in-laws who are our best friends, and they put us up the second week!

  6. shirleyhs on April 9, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Elfrieda, you made me chuckle. Family togetherness can lead to a little claustrophobia and strained nerves over a long period of time. But you seem to have found a perfect solution. I hope you have a wonderful time in Ontario. I remember the great picture of you and a whole group of grandchildren some time ago on your blog. You obviously are providing them with deep roots.

  7. Barbara McDowell Whitt on April 9, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Shirley, your account of your and your husband’s morning with Owen and Julia is heartwarming.

    I love the way you said in your reply to Kathy, “We can follow along as our grandchildren follow their noses.”

    We had a beautiful sunny day in the 60s here in Alexandria, Va. While my husband and our daughter painted the dollhouse they are making for our granddaughter’s second birthday, Natalie and I went outside to our condo’s back patio.

    Natalie followed her nose to sticks, fuzzy pods, and small pieces of dirt, rock, cement and tile. I followed along, sometimes holding her almost 21-month-old hand and other times just walking near her. She is one and I am 71. My husband’s and my joy about our only grandchild never ceases to amaze us.


    • Shirley on April 10, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Barbara, children are a lot like puppies, aren’t they? And there can be no greater joy than witnessing new life in our latter years! Thanks for offering a lovely word picture.

  8. Sharon Lippincott on April 9, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Your post reminds me of the reaction my then toddler grandchildren had fifteen or sixteen years ago to my first attempt at memoir. I wrote about memories of my preschool years thinking they’d mean something to kids that age. They started squirming within two minutes, so we went back to their books, but their daddy enjoyed reading my stories. Lesson learned: my writing is best received by adults, though a more recently born 8-year-old granddaughter had a ball reading Adventures of a Chilehead and made sure her mother read it. So you never know.

    • Shirley on April 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

      Ha! Yes, the time for memoir story telling can’t be forced! Like a good, hot chile, it has to join the rest of the dish at just the right time. I’m so glad your granddaughter enjoys Adventures of a Chilihead. She’s inheriting more than recipes!

  9. Richard Gilbert on April 10, 2014 at 6:38 am

    I so enjoyed this glimpse into your and their world. The urgency of their emotion. It makes me remember when my daughter was really little and fought sleep so hard. It was so poignant to me to see her physical need for sleep fight with her desire to stay awake and keep experiencing the world.

  10. Shirley on April 10, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Wonderful phrase: the urgency of their emotion. Yes. And the many shades of it as they eagerly leave behind sadness for joy. Pierces the heart. The urgency of experience, too. Sleep seems like a waste. Except to the grownups!

  11. Jennifer Gorman on April 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Your story of the roses reminded me of when my son, now almost 17, was three. On the walk to his big sister’s school bus stop and home again we would pass a neighbor’s huge yellow roses at the sidewalk right at his eye level, and Joe would stop and study them intently and ask me, “And God made the flower, Mommy? How? Why???And Jesus helped God, Mommy??” Yes, God made the flower. I don’t know how, but yes, Jesus helped. He did it because He loves us. Joe digested this thought a minute, and then asked, “Did Jesus have to wear big boy underpants too?”

    • shirleyhs on April 11, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      I LOVE this story, Jennifer. That sounds exactly like something Owen would say.

      And now is the time of maximum theological curiosity.

      Blessings to you and your son, now truly a “big boy.”

  12. Janet Givens on April 16, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Hi Shirley, A little late to the party, but I saw the lights were still on … The quote I thought of is, “Man plans; God laughs.” I could actually feel your ability to stay in the moment, and to appreciate the very fragility of our expectations. Climbing back into bed just so Owen could have the pleasure of waking you up! So simple. You made me homesick for my own grandchildren, whom I’ll see again in just one week. Isn’t grandmother-hood just the greatest (following is short order with Kathy’s observant “recover period.”) yes indeed.

  13. shirleyhs on April 16, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Yes, the lights are still on! I’m glad you get to see grandchildren soon also. Our whole family will converge again at my sister Sue’s house on Easter Sunday. I’m sure Owen and Julia will love the dogs, cats, and cows on the farm.

    Blessings to you and yours — and happy recovery!

  14. Five Gifts Grandparents Can Offer Children on September 22, 2014 at 9:02 am

    […] again when his sister Julia entered the world, I was a skeptic. Afterward, I started blogging about the joy they have brought us. Blissful bonding after Owen’s birth in […]

  15. Carol Bodensteiner on September 23, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Going with the flow – another way of saying Letting go of expectations – is the lesson I re-learn from my 5 & 3-year-old granddaughters each time they visit. Their very short attention spans lead us to the Prairie!, the bikes!, the horses!, the playhouse!, the balls!, the cherry tomato plants! Their joy in each brief experience teaches me to take joy in each moment, too. I can relax after they’re gone home.

  16. shirleyhs on September 23, 2014 at 11:05 am

    We have grandchildren close to the same ages. They put exclamation points after everything — even the things that upset them. Transparent emotion everywhere all the time. Helps us remember when we didn’t wear so many layers of protection over our deepest feelings. Thanks for reminding me too of the exclamation points in this day, this moment, Carol.

Leave a Comment