Friday, April 1, 2011


We have a book called "Houses Around the World," an adorable little National Geographic publication that illustrates all kinds of houses from Igloos to leaf-houses to houses with sliding paper doors. It ends with a very basic Victorian house, typical in North America, where the walls are removed to exhibit the hustle and bustle of a family inside: a mustached daddy whipping up something in the kitchen, a kid jumping on the bed upstairs, free from supervision, a middle-aged mama shaking sheets out the window. The last line of the book is (ahem, from memory) "Do you know what a house looks like? It depends on where you roam. But when a family lives inside, a house becomes a home."

Opal has learned to gleefully shout family! when we reach the last page and the cross-sectioned suburban residence. She then points to the generic family members on the page and proudly lists Ama, Papa, Uncle Kees, Stella, Grammy, Grampy, Uncle Will, Uncle Dave, Alex and Loo Loo and GG!

She recites her family-list whenever it pops into her little mind, which is quite often, while in the car or considering who to invite to a tea party. More often than not an abstract entity joins the list, making a one-time-only cameo appearance, not unlike the stranger who happens to stroll through the background of a family photo, frozen and involuntarily included in the family for just that moment.
It goes something like this:
Ama, Papa, Uncle Kees, Judy (?)...
Grammy, Grampy, Elmo, Loo Loo...

Opal calls my mom and dad Ama and Papa, which is what her 6 year old cousin has always called them. My mom has made the exceptional effort never to allow more than 2 months go by without seeing her granddaughter. On Opal's 1st birthday, we calculated that Ama had flown out to see Opal 7 times in that first year of her life.
(This number doesn't even include the time we flew to Ohio last spring and the time we all met in Hilton Head! And in the 6 months since then, we've flown out once more and Ama's flown out twice more. We are talking about a whopping total of 12 Ama-visits, 6 Papa-visits, 3 Stella-and-Chris-visits and 2 Ohio-trips in the first year-and-a-half of Opal's life. These are impressive numbers by anyone's standards, to be sure, let alone for family who lives 1200 miles across cross-country. Exceptional numbers. Gold star.)

While I was pregnant, my mom witnessed a scene at the airport that troubled her. A small child and her mama emerged from their gate and into the arms of an awaiting grandmother. The child clearly did not know her grandma nor want to go to her, wriggling out of her arms and adhering herself back to mom's leg. After viewing this, Linnie vowed to do whatever it took to assure that her granddaughter in Colorado KNOWS her. And it's safe to say she's fulfilled that declaration with flying colors.

We set up a guest bedroom in our basement with Linnie in mind: beautiful paintings, empty hangers and drawers for her to fill, room in the downstairs bathroom for her toiletries. When she stays with us, Opal interprets any noise coming from below as AMA! When Ama surfaces, preluded by the telling squeak of the stairs, and peeks her sweet little face over the railing, Opal squeals with delight.

Between the visits and the regular Skyping sessions in the interim, Opal has always recognized her Ama. And her Papa too.

Last weekend was the 3rd trip my Dad has made to Colorado and the 5th time he's seen Opal since she's been born. Opal totally knows her Papa. She recognizes the face that blows her kisses and plays peek-a-boo over Skype. The scarlet-and-grey attire and the wide grin.

Opal has always enjoyed spending time with both her Ama and Papa but there was something so grown-up about their respective bonds and exchanges when they visited last weekend. There was something far more complex happening than simply keeping company, being entertained; there was a very clear relationship developing. With communication and understanding and all that big-girl stuff. Eavesdropping from the kitchen, I was awestruck.

Ama is the queen of endlessly noticing Opal's precious idioms which are often airy and easy to miss. She has a grand ear for such details and makes a point of acknowledging each of them so that Opal beams from the dose of recognition. Ama relishes the tea parties, set up with meticulous detail, cups, plates, many-things-acting-as-faux-snacks and a round of thirsty stuff animals. She chuckles and chortles when the whole thing comes crashing down like a sand castle when Baby-zilla comes clonking through. Ama also rides in the back of the car with Opal, always has, and I find myself turning off the radio to listen in on the sacred little world they create. Ama read book, Opal says. They read and they chat and they laugh and they whisper. Opal throws B and Ama tickles Doodle-legs. Ama reports on the priceless exchanges to the people in the front.

In the morning, Papa comes up just after Opal materializes from her room, an early hour when most civilians (especially vacationing ones) are still deep in sleep. They play choo-choo with the plastic laundry basket that Papa fashions with a dog leash, filled with animals and blankets. They make a tunnel out of an afghan draped over the railing and the chair. Papa races to stack the blocks as high as he can before the heavy-handed baby comes down upon them. They read the book with the Golla (gorilla) and Papa plays the guitar for her, encouraging her to strum along. Papa is very conscientious of Opal's space and very careful not to encroach or crowd her, which is not the most common approach for one to take with toddlers, but one she responds to with magnetic eagerness to engage even more.

Ama and Papa both come devoid of any agenda or expectation, undoubtedly the most successful modus operandi when navigating Toddlerville. The outcome is a series of unscheduled gems: doggy-watching from the wagon, a giggle-fit on the swing, an ever-entertaining, kissy-huggy (not without some butting-of-heads to keep things balanced) visit from cousin Max. A hilarious trip to the baby-gym (trampoline!) and a lovely visit with GG at Zaidy's in Denver.
And there was the moment when Opal hollered waterfall! as she peered out the back door with a finger pointed and stubbed into the glass. The snow was melting from the back-porch table and dribbling in a perfect vertical stream to the ground. Sun-streaked and smooth, the perfect itty-botty waterfall. You can't plan for moments like that and they require a highly-tuned audience to be noticed. Connoisseurs, in a way.

For weeks after Ama and Papa leave, Opal wakes up asking, where Amapapa?
Today we were having a tea party, serving primary-colored snacks to her doggie and turtle, when Opal asked with guileless sincerity Ama want tea?

Ama went bye-bye to Ohio, sweetie. Is all I can think of to say, uncertain of how much of this she really understands. But she and Papa love you very much.
And your Turtle looks like he could really use some more tea.


  1. Dearest Heather- I was deeply touched by your blog. I feel so mouch love and joy when I'm visiting you, and I feel like my bond with Opal grows stronger and stronger with each visit. Thanks to Jesse and you for always making me feel so welcome ( I love my room and always sleep so well when I'm there.) Thanks also to the Grimes family for accepting me so lovingly into their lives. Give precious Opal a big hug from me and tell her we'll be having another tea party soon- maybe by Skype. Much love to all of you. Mom (aka Linnie or Ama)