Caves, pogo sticks and Pancake Strawberry Shortcake

Birthday partyOnly a 5-year-old boy would have the good taste to request his mom’s Perfect Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes for his birthday dinner — accented with Star Wars decor, of course. Older Daughter obligingly whipped up a batch while Younger Daughter sliced the berries and made sweetened and real whipped cream. Family and friends sat down to the feast, even husband JP, who although he’s successfully sticking to a low-carb eating plan, cheerfully made an exception for Older Grandson’s birthday party. It’s what grandparents do. And only a 5-year-old boy would request the following for his special day: A trip to a nearby state park to explore a cave, a visit to the local children’s science museum, a pogo stick, Legos (always on any list he makes) and a dinosaur model that includes bones, muscles and a pink squishy stomach and other mysterious parts. Of course, all requests were granted.

Responsible Concern for the Environment v. Grandparenting

Hmmm ... “Toy Story,” “Cars” and Angry Birds. Must have been 4-year-old grandson Nolan’s birthday — with presents from Kacky and John wrapped in all his favorite things. And even though I believe in minimizing consumerism (except for shoes, of course, and the eternal quest for the Perfect Pair of Jeans), ignoring commercialism (but I really want to try the Cover Girl makeup that both Ellen and Sofia Vergara like), reducing waste and refusing to buy into the must-buy mentality (although I’m on the lookout for a simple yet flattering khaki skirt so please let me know if you stumble across one), none of that matters when my grandson wants the latest Cars play set. Grandparenthood triumphs — trumps green living. On the other hand ... it did feel pretty good when Older Daughter and I decorated a plain and basic bakery cake with Angry Bird toys Nolan ALREADY HAD to create his asked-for Angry Birds birthday cake. Recycling does have its place.

Shopping Is Fun! That Is, if You Go with the Right Person

This photo was taken about eight minutes after the store opened, and three minutes after this corner was full of shoppers plopping bargain-priced boxed Christmas trees in their carts. They then moved on to the tool aisles, while we stayed and picked out poinsettias and evergreen wreaths in relative peace and quiet.

I like shopping. I like bargains. But I also like sleep, which I guess is why I’ve never done Black Friday. That, and as a newspaper reporter I always worked the day after Thanksgiving (& was damn lucky to get Thanksgiving off) and simply couldn’t manage both power shopping and deadline writing in the same day. But now that I live the financially challenging free & flexible life of a freelance writer, I can get up at 2 a.m. and hunt those door-busting deals with enthusiasm. And with Older Daughter, who talked me into going with her this year for my first Black Friday experience. “It’ll be fun,” she said. “It’s relaxing. Really.” Given all the scary stories I’d seen through the years, I was skeptical, but this is the young woman who has produced two of the Cutest Grandbabies Ever in the History of the World, so I figured she knew what she was talking about. Turns out she was correct:  Black Friday shopping — the way she does it, at least — is fun and stress-free. Her secrets? First, she researches and prepares by studying all the newspaper circulars. She knows which stores she’ll go to to buy specific items and which stories she’ll go to merely to browse. From her years of experience (she has stood outside in freezing sleet and spent hours in barely crawling checkout lines), she knows which stores to avoid when and which stores are worth  some discomfort and crowding. Second, she also knows in which stores you’ll find the most helpful and best-trained Black Friday staff (Home Depot excels at this) and in which stores you’re pretty much on your own because the yawning uninterested employees couldn’t care less. She knows how to ask about truck arrivals and restocking times and “do you maybe have any of these in the back?” She knows to grab anything you’re interested in while you ponder and discuss the competing merits of a Rock Star Mickey versus a Let’s Rock! Elmo — and she knows to put the rejects back where they belong so others can ponder them, too. Third, she has a great attitude and never gets upset or tense, even when the last pair of size 8 Tom’s Chocolate Canvas Women’s Classic at 25 percent off is gone before she can get to it. She simply switches gears and goes for the Brown Metallic Woven Women’s Cordones instead. No problem. She also approves of frequent treats, so she had me at “And as soon as Starbucks opens and if we’re doing well at that point …” Plus, she was also correct that being out in the pre-dawn hours with other for-the-most-part good-natured shoppers is sort of fun. On the other hand, it probably has a lot to do with who you’re with. Thanks, sweetie, for including me in your annual holiday shopping kickoff. I’ve already started saving up for next year.

Children’s decor

If you’re looking for an awesome gift for a favorite child, consider one of these rugs. I’d seen them in stores before but never really thought about them until Older Daughter and her husband brought one home from an Ikea trip — and 2-year-old grandson Capt. Adorable thinks it’s the best thing ever. He’ll run his toy cars and trains along the roads and is learning to point out such things as “cactus,” “whale,” “tent” and “soccer field.” And you have to love the rug’s global view. I mean, you’ve got a desert next to snow-covered volcanoes, with a high-rise city across the way flanked by a circus tent and an igloo being neighborly with an old-school hotel. And don’t forget the castle, the beach and the cozy little New England village — all accessible by your wheeled vehicle of choice, which in the Captain’s case usually is a John Deere tractor, Digger from Bob the Builder or either a Percy or Thomas train engine. The Captain’s parents got it for $14 and he’s already gotten like 500 times that in play value.  Plus, you’ve got instant room decor! It’s win-win-win. My favorite route is to start at the igloo, take a run straight up to the greenhouse, peek in at the castle, tour around the village square and then park at the soccer field. But your mileage may vary.


My family’s weekly trip to the recycling center in Florence, Alabama — shamefully, our own nearby town doesn’t recycle — usually is simply one more item on the to-do list, but every once in awhile we’ll stumble onto a mystery. Such as a recent visit when we found this collection of remote-control toys carefully placed on the recycling altar and bravely waiting the recycling-forklift fate. We were immediately nosy intrigued and wanted the backstory. Were the robot, monster truck and fire engine broken? Was it a punishment: “If you hit your sister one more time, we’re taking your new toys to the recycling center?” Was a revengeful woman somewhere gloating over finally getting rid of her husband’s/boyfriend’s obsessions? Or — and this is the explanation my family favored — had we inadvertently stumbled onto some sort of Toy Story-esque rescue operation that got halted as we humans approached? And as for the Bob Marley poster … well, use your own imagination. I got nothin’ — except to say, “Let’s get together and feel all right.” (Which is the only Bob Marley song I know and that’s because of the Jamaica commercial. But I really like it.)


Talking ElmoOur grandson, 16-month-old Capt. Adorable, Sesame Streetloves his Elmo Live. I mean, this Elmo really is amazing — he sings, he dances, he has jazz hands, he sneezes, he tells jokes, he asks for help getting up after falling over and then thanks you for helping him. It makes for a fascinating and entertaining 10 minutes or so …  until the Captain decides to figure out exactly how this thing works and what he can do to make it un-work. That’s when Elmo goes back up on a very high shelf and it’s on to the next thing, like what happens when you dump out a whole box of Cheerios on the kitchen floor.

Kota the Triceratops

triceratops-dinosaur1Oh my goodness. Have you seen the TV ad for Playskool’s Kota the Triceratops? This thing is a riot. My college-student daughter and I thought it was a joke when the ad came on — as if we had somehow unknowingly wandered into Saturday-Night-Live territory. We literally were rolling on the floor laughing — mainly because we were already sitting on the floor watching TV, but still. This 2 1/2-foot baby dinosaur roars, moves his head, blinks his eyes and opens and closes his mouth. Kids can climb on his back, give him hugs and even feed him (it is a him, right?) with greenery he comes with. I mean, I realize that kids love dinosaurs and as far as we know, a triceratops never actually ate anybody, but I don’t know — the image of sweet little children jumping up and down and squealing with the delight at the sight of a three-horned foot-stomping plant-chomping dinosaur is somewhat unnerving. As is the $300 price tag. Check it out yourself at

baby-in-box-0071On the other hand, almost-8-months-old grandson Nolan Thomas Behel was content with chewing on an empty box of diapers the other day. In fact, this was more than a chew toy (and let’s not dwell on possible toxic components of diaper-box cardboard). His mom — my older daughter — looped one of her stretchy exercise bands (you can see a bit of the green in the photo behind Nolan’s head) through one of the box’s handholds and pulled baby and box around their apartment, thoroughly delighting both mom and baby and befuddling the confused cats. I can only imagine what the cats would think of a roaring, laughing and blinking baby dinosaur. And would chewing on a triceratops be as much fun for Nolan as chewing on a box? I don’t think so. Whoo-hoo — $300 and cats’ sanity saved!!!!

American Girls

samanthaMy 22-year-old daughter and I were looking through the latest American kirsten1Girl doll catalog this weekend and started getting nostalgic. Back in the early 1990s — about 15 years ago — when we lived in Athens, Tennessee, she and her now 24-year-old sister loved these dolls. Me, too. Every birthday and Christmas we added to our collection with clothes, accessories, books and furniture. I even made some of the doll clothes and — I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true — on a few occasions we were a complete mother-daughters-dolls matching set. Ouch. But we had fun. Among the three of us, we had the original three dolls: Kristen, the pioneer girl; Samantha, the Victorian girl; and Molly, the World War II girl. We then added Felicity, the Colonial girl; and Addy, who escaped slavery with molly1her mother. Almost all of our friends in Athens had them, too, and we’d have lovely tea parties with girls and dolls. Wonderful, wonderful memories. But the girls got older and gradually put away “childish” things. When we moved to north Alabama in 1995, the dolls stayed packed up and I’ve only sort of peripherally kept up with new American Girl dolls and the shifting emphasis from historical characters to contemporary Just-Like-You dolls. But when I noticed this past Christmas that the newest doll is Depression-era Kit Kittredge whose date is 1934, I knew she’d be perfect for my mom, who was born that year. The doll even looks like my mom, and Kit’s clothes and accessories seem straight from my mom’s Illinois childhood. My daughters and I are having fun getting back into American Girl collecting. I can’t wait until I have granddaughters to buy for, too. We’re sad beyond belief, however, to hear that Mattel — which owns the company now — is retiring Samantha. That’s a shame. Seems as if learning from the past is more important than ever. So long, Samantha. Thanks for being such a vital part of my daughters’ childhood. We’ll miss you. Click here to read more Samantha farewells: