It’s a voice I’ve heard somewhere before, repeating words that are vaguely familiar. Carefully. Slowly. Nicely. They are everyday words, faint admonitions usually associated with librarians, teachers, and camp counselors. Where does it come from, this vocabulary of caution, and why is it suddenly issuing forth from my mouth?
And then, catching a toddler about to leap from the back of an armchair, I get it. It’s the Grandparent’s Dictionary of Adverbs, automatically downloaded each time the tinies come for a visit. When their parents take off for a few days of well-earned R&R, the lexicon kicks into high gear. Suddenly, I’m channeling my grandmother.
But it’s not all daunting and fun-stopping. In language as in life, the meaning depends on the context. Herewith, a few definitions from my personal dictionary.
Quietly: At dusk, a trio of deer appears at the edge of the backyard woods, led by an impressive buck. They nibble leaves from low-hanging branches and graze the lawn, as picture-perfect as a nature documentary. The children stand at the window, transfixed for a full five minutes. Wildlife in their Rhode Island neighborhood runs to skunks and raccoons who wait until dark to make their forays into gardens and garbage cans. Here, the deer are plentiful and pesky; a month ago, they stripped the buds from my perennials and decimated a hedge. Tonight, though, I feel like applauding them. We steal onto the patio to watch at closer range. The doe gazes at us, gauging our intent. We stand stock still, barely breathing, until they turn and make their way down the hill. The children wave to them and call out goodnight and turn to look at us as though we were magicians. Can you make them come back, the two-year-old asks. I give my all purpose answer. We’ll see.
Patiently: Another night, we hunt fireflies. It’s an event that requires planning, lengthy discussion, and managed expectations. It doesn’t get dark until 9, a full hour past their bedtime. So, longer naps. We talk technique: cupped hands, stealthy approach, quick capture. Equipment is assembled, pickle jars with tight lids pierced for ventilation. We calculate the odds. Not everyone catches one every time. Some nights, it takes a while.
Pajama-clad, they wait for the first winking lights. The four-year-old deftly snags his first, then three more for his little sister. The jars are filled with grass and twigs and we sit and watch the softly flashing semaphore. The summer night deepens. After a while, the children open the jars and let the fireflies return to their friends.
Gently: The two-year-old sails through the days in our care, but dissolves into tears at the edge of sleep, wanting Mommy. I pull a chair next to her crib and hold her hand and sing: Shoo fly, don’t bother me, for I belong to somebody. Her eyelids flicker, her grasp on my fingers loosens as I pitch the song lower and fainter and finally to a whisper. She will not wake again until morning, but I linger, memorizing her face in repose, the tangle of her hair on the pillow. When I finally rise and murmur “sweet dreams,” it is my grandmother’s voice I hear.
Joyfully: On a blue and gold June morning, we rent a pontoon boat and cruise Norris Lake. The children live by the sea, but this is Tennessee at its best: the secret coves edged with dense forest, the thrill of floating, buoyed by a life vest, in the still green water. Perched on grandfather’s lap, they take turns at the helm and shout greetings to passing boaters. One day you’ll do that, we say, pointing to a jet-skier. For now, we hold them close, towel-wrapped, fragrant with sunscreen and apple juice.