Recently widowed, Judy Schofield jumps at the chance to look after her two grandchildren for six weeks while their parents are out of the country. After all, she’s already raised her own daughter—and quite successfully, if she may say so herself. But all it takes is a few days of private school functions, helicopter parents, video games, and never-ending Frozen sing-alongs for Judy to feel she’s in over her head.
As weeks become months, Judy feels more and more like an outsider among all the young mothers with their parenting theories du jour, especially when she gets on the wrong side of the school’s snooty alpha mom. But finding a friend in another grandmother—and a man who takes her mind off all the stress—almost makes it worthwhile. She just needs to take it one incomprehensible homework assignment and one major meltdown at a time. . . .
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Sue Margolis
“Gran’ma, did you know that a shrimp’s heart is in its head?”
“I did not know that,” I say, noting that my grandson’s upside-down face has turned a worrying shade of red. He’s doing a headstand on the sofa, his body leaning against the back cushions.
“It’s true. I read it in my Amazing Facts book. And butterflies taste things with their feet.”
“They don’t. That’s stupid,” Rosie pipes up. “Now shut up. I’m trying to watch the movie.”
“Yes, they do. And you shut up.” Sam pokes his tongue out at his sister.
“Sam, don’t do that. Rosie’s right. You’re spoiling the film. And I wish you’d get down off your head. Your face looks like a tomato. It can’t be good for you.”
“Gran’ma. Now you’re talking, too,” Rosie pleads. “I can’t hear.”
I whisper an apology.
“I like standing on my head,” Sam says. “And Mum and Dad say it’s OK.”
His parents are both doctors, so—assuming he’s telling the truth—who am I to argue?
“Well, I think you look stupid,” says Rosie.
“You look stupid.”
Rosie has had enough. She reaches onto the coffee table, picks up the remote and hits the off button. “There.” She’s sitting with her arms folded, her face defiant and cross.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Sam says. “I was watching that.”
“No, you weren’t. You were talking and standing on your head.”
“I can multitask.” He sounds just like his father.
“And Gran’ma was talking, too.”
“You’re right,” I say to Rosie. “We were both being rude.” I shoot Sam a stern look, which I’m not sure he can see from his upside-down position. “We’ll be quiet from now on . . . won’t we, Sam?”
He offers a reluctant OK and then tells his sister to put the movie back on.
“No. You’ve both ruined it.”
I’ve apologized. I’m not about to beg forgiveness from an uppity five-year-old.
We’ve been attempting to watch Wallace and Gromit—the kids on one sofa, me stretched out on the other. Rosie had been campaigning to watch Frozen. Sam, who understandably loathes girlie princess films, was pretty vocal about not wanting to watch it. He was campaigning for Spider-Man. I was with Sam on this. Not only has Rosie forced me to watch Frozen so many times that I every time I set the table I find myself singing “who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?”—I also happen to think it’s sexist twaddle. But I let it go. I’ve refrained from telling her that if she makes me watch it again, I will be forced to eat my own head. I have also resisted the urge—as has her mother—to spoil the magic by telling her that there’s more to life than being in possession of a hand-span waist, strange steroidal eyes and a handsome prince.
Since Rosie refused to watch Spider-Man, I suggested a few gender-neutral films and in the end we agreed on Wallace and Gromit—“A Matter of Loaf and Death.”
“OK,” Rosie says, partially emerging from her funk. “You can put the movie back on. But you both have to promise to be quiet.”
“Duh. We already did.” Her brother is rolling his eyes. Since he’s still standing on his head, this looks particularly amusing.
I pick up the remote and hit “play”—only it doesn’t. The film starts speeding back.
“Grandma, what on erf are you doing?” Rosie cries. “Quick, press ‘pause.’”
“I am pressing ‘pause,’ but it won’t stop.”
Rosie leaps off the sofa. “Look. You’re pressing Select. My granddaughter can barely read, but she recognizes every word on the TV remote. She grabs it, hits “stop” and “fast forward” and in a few seconds we’re where we’re meant to be. She pats me on the head. “It’s all right, Gran’ma. It’s complicated for old peoples.”
“Er, excuse me,” I say, grabbing the remote again and with complete accuracy hitting “pause.” “I’m not quite in my dotage. I only pressed the wrong button because I’m not wearing my glasses.”
“What’s ‘dotage’?” Rosie says.
“Nana Frieda’s really old. So is she in her dotage?”
I want to say that my mother has been predicting her imminent decline and demise ever since I’ve known her. So you could argue that she’s been in her dotage for the last fifty-seven years. But this isn’t the time for a discussion about how my mum has spent her entire adult life enjoying bad health. So instead I go for a more diplomatic response.
“Well, Nana’s in her eighties, so technically speaking, I guess she is in her dotage. But I wouldn’t say that when she’s around. Plus she’s pretty strong and still gets about so maybe she isn’t quite there yet.”
“Then why does she say she’s ill all the time and that her kit-kas will be the end of her?” I’m laughing to myself. Hearing my grandchildren struggle to speak Yiddish always amuses me.
“And what are kit-kas?”
“It’s pronounced Kish-kas. And it means guts.”
“Nana Frieda says things like that when she gets a bit tired. Don’t take any notice. She’s fine, honestly.”
In fact, right now—despite her numerous ailments—my mother is shopping in the West End. She’s gone with her best friend, Estelle Silverfish, to look at spring coats. I offered to drive them into town. But they said—quite rightly—that even on a Saturday the traffic would be murder. So they schlepped on the tube.
As the film gets under way for the third time, the washing machine beeps from across the hall to tell me the laundry’s done. If I don’t transfer it to the dryer right away, I’ll forget. Then everything will end up smelling of mildew and I’ll need to put it through again. I tell the kids to carry on watching without me. Then I head into the downstairs loo-cum-laundry-room.
I try to ignore the bulging refuse sack sitting on top of the dryer. It’s been there for months, stuffed with Brian’s clothes. Not the decent stuff: the suits, jackets and lamb’s wool sweaters. I haven’t got the heart to bag them up—let alone get rid of them. This is just old jeans, shirts, boxers and the like. Every time I go to the supermarket, I mean to take the bag with me and drop it in the textiles recycling bin in the car park. But somehow it hasn’t happened.
I transfer the laundry to the dryer, set the timer and hit “start.” The whirring of the drum sets up a vibration. A thick navy sock with a yellow toe end falls out of the black sack, onto the floor. It’s one of Brian’s GoldToe socks. He used to say they were the most comfortable socks on the planet. He was evangelical about them. “GoldToe . . . Now, there’s a proper sock,” he’d say to any male companion prepared to have his ear chewed. “It’s like walking on a cushion. The bugger of it is you can’t get them over here, or even on Amazon. I order them from Macy’s in New York. Even with the import duty, it’s worth it.”
He even gave Sam and Rosie’s dad, Tom, a pair to try. Our son-in-law—who shops in American Apparel, wears edgy thick-rimmed glasses and has one of those short-back-and-sides, heavy-on-top hipster haircuts—accepted the seriously uncool socks with admirable good grace.
A few days later Brian wanted to know how he was getting on with them.
“Yeah. Great. Very comfortable.”
Rosie, who was sitting on my lap, whispered in my ear: “Daddy’s fibbing. Mummy won’t let him wear them ’cos she says they’re for old mens. But let’s not tell Granddad ’cos he’ll get upset.”
I gave her a squeeze and said that might be for the best. Not that Brian would have been remotely offended if Tom or Abby had handed back the socks. Brian was many things, but thin-skinned wasn’t one of them.
I pick up the sock and hold it to my cheek. Pretty soon I’m blubbing. It’s been eighteen months since I last saw him. Touched him. Heard his voice. I’m still raw. Memories still lacerate.
For months, Abby has been nagging me to get rid of the sack of clothes. Last weekend when she stopped by for a cup of tea, she was on me again.
“Mum, why is all that stuff still in the loo?”
“Come on. You have to admit I’ve made progress. The bag’s been in my bedroom for months. At least now I’ve moved it downstairs.”
“You have . . . into another holding area,” she said, leaning against the kitchen worktop and taking another sip of tea. “How long do you intend to keep it there?”
“I don’t know. Until I’m ready to part with it, I guess.”
“But it’s just old underpants and socks.”
“I know, but your dad’s clothes help me stay connected to him. Imagine if they were Tom’s.”
She took the point but she didn’t back off. “Why don’t you let me deal with it? There are recycling bins at the end of my street.”
“Darling, I know you’re trying to help, but you have to stop putting pressure on me. I’ll know when the time is right.”
“Somebody has to put pressure on you. It’s been well over a year since Dad died and you still haven’t cleared out his things. How many times have I’ve offered to come and help? You need to do this.”
“To move on.”
“Why does the whole world want me to move on? Suppose I don’t want to?”
“So instead of getting on with your life, you’re going to stay like this . . . in some weird limbo. I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t,” I said, aware that my words sounded sharper than I had intended. “Because you’ve never had your husband of nearly forty years die on you.”
“I know, but . . .”
“You have no idea what I’m going through. How much I’m still grieving. Every day I decide that this will be the day I’ll get rid of the bag and then I find an excuse not to do it. I procrastinate because it feels like I would be abandoning him, casting him adrift.”
Abby put an arm around my shoulders. “Oh, Mum . . . That’s daft. You wouldn’t be abandoning him. It’s your memories that are important. Nothing could destroy those—certainly not getting rid of a few clothes.”
“You’re right. I know I’m being ridiculous. . . .”
“And you know that Dad would have wanted you to get on with your life. It’s time to start. It really is.”
“And I will, soon. I just need a bit more time.”
Abby sighed but didn’t push it any further. We stood there, not saying anything for a few moments. Then, by way of lightening the atmosphere, she asked after her grandmother. “So, which bit of her body is Nana Frieda complaining about now?”
“Her kishkes seem to have gone quiet for the time being. Right now it’s her legs and her back.”
“I honestly don’t know how you cope. I love Nana to bits, but she’s so bloody needy.”
When she was a young woman, my mother’s ailments were imaginary. In her old age they are real, although—much to her disappointment—not particularly serious. These days my mother doesn’t so much suffer from hypochondria as from hyperbole. The touch of arthritis, acid reflux and slightly raised blood pressure are real. The problem is the drama. Mum never has a bit of an ache or a pain. She is always in agony. When she catches a cold it’s “an acute chest infection.” A headache is a migraine. A stomach pain is gastric flu. You can bet your life that if my mother ever gets pneumonia, it won’t be double—it’ll be triple.
Her GP, the endlessly tolerant Dr. Moore, whom she’s been seeing for a decade or more, might send her for the occasional test. Mum gets straight on the phone to her friends from her seniors’ day center: “The doctors”—note the plural—“have no idea what’s wrong, so they’re sending me for a battery of tests.”
My mother uses illness to get love.
Time and again when I was a kid, I would come home from school to find her reclining on the sofa, forearm draped over her brow. “Judy . . . darlink . . . my back is in two.” Only she pronounced “back” as “bek.” She’d been in this country since she was seven years old and she’d never lost her German accent. “And maybe you could make me a hot water bottle.” Or she would have one of her “migraines” and be in bed with the curtains drawn. In the summer her ankles would swell up so I would be the one schlepping bowls of cold water into the lounge so that she could soak her feet. “You’re a goot girl,” she would say. “Come here for a kiss.” She would make room for me on the couch and cuddle me in her bony arms. Then she would start singing—softly, wearily as if she weren’t long for this world: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. . . .”
I knew that people didn’t die of backache or swollen ankles, but even so I worried about my mother. It didn’t help that she was so tiny and bird like. Even without her symptoms, she gave off an air of vulnerability. I remember taking my fears to my father. I don’t know how old I was—six or seven maybe.
“Daddy, is Mummy going to die?”
He started laughing. “Not unless she gets run over by a bus. I know there’s not much of her and she doesn’t look very strong, but your mother manages to cart huge bags of groceries back from the store every day. She cooks. She keeps the house spotless. Take it from me, the woman is as strong as an ox. Stop worrying.”
“But she’s ill all the time and I get scared.”
“She’s not ill exactly. She gets a bit under the weather sometimes. And then she needs to lie down. That’s all it is. So just be kind.”
“I am kind.”
“I know you are, sweetheart,” he said, cupping my chin. “It’s hard for both of us. But we have to remember what she went through.”
Those words have been the sound track to my life.
Reading Group Guide
1. As the novel opens, Abbey is insisting that her mother try to move on after the death of her husband. Do you think that Abbey is being reasonable? Is she asking too much too soon? Do we, as a society, put too much pressure on the bereaved in terms of “moving on”?
2. When the earthquake strikes, Abbey and Tom ask Judy if she could look after their children while they go to Nicaragua to help the injured. Judy agrees. Even though it works out fine for her in the end, do you think her decision was foolhardy? Do you think her daughter and her husband were being selfish?
3. Abbey and Tom want their son to be a chess champ. They are pushing both children to do many after school activities so they get into good colleges. Do you think the parents are right, or are children pushed too much these days?
4. Judy doesn’t want the children to find out about the horrors of the Nazi period. Her mother, who came out of Germany as a refugee on one of the Kindertransports takes a different view and ends up scaring her granddaughter. Should young children always be protected, or should they be made aware - so long as it’s done with care - that the world isn’t always a good place?
5. After the fireworks incident, Judy’s grandson, Sam, says that he wants nothing more to do with Mason and Tyler. This threatens Judy’s friendship with Ginny. What would you do in these circumstances?
6. Do you sympathize with the way that Judy rejects Mike’s advances at first?
7. Judy supports Sam when he is falsely accused. Do you admire that? Do you think that in real life parents blindly support their children too often and that it leads to conflict among parents? Should parents be more ready to accept that their children are in the wrong sometimes?
8. Mike doesn’t want to take sides with Judy over their grandchildren. But in the end, he does and they end up at odds. Could they have done more to prevent this?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I like all her books!
Judy has recently lost her husband and her daughter has come to her needing to go away for her job and needs childcare for a bit. Judy is up to the task to fill her home with some noise and her life with some new things. I am not a mom and don't always love the crazy mommy books, but this one seemed different seeing it through the eyes of a grandparent. I loved hearing how disciplining as a grandparent is completely different than a parent. I also loved reading about how much not only did Judy give to her grandchildren but at the end of their time together how much they added to her life. I would almost say that it was a good distraction that also allowed Judy to start moving forward after a hard loss in her life. I really enjoyed this one. I would definitely pass this book onto mothers and grandmothers, maybe to read together!
Judy Schofield hasn’t been doing well since her husband passed away. Now, her daughter and husband are hoping to do medical work in Nicaragua and ask Judy or Nana to babysit for the six weeks they will be away. While her daughter has a lot of anxiety about this arrangement, Judy takes it in stride and agrees to watch her granddaughter and grandson. Little does she know what she’s in for, despite the fact she raised two children on her own quite fine! The children are cooperative and sweet for the first twenty-four hours. Then starts the bickering, insulting, and hiding of belongings. Meals seem to calm things down but what to watch on TV, what toys to play with, what books Nana should read and when, extension of bedtime, and so much more finally get to Judy and she gets it that she’s going to snapping sharply very soon. Fortunately, she keeps her cool and keeps them from killing each other. Meeting the other Moms at the local school is a challenge. The social satire of this novel is depicted in a funny but real way. One mother insists on overseeing everything, cornering other mothers into volunteering for the next community fair. While the plot is rather novel in the first half of the book, the remainder are pretty much what the reader expects. Yet there is enough cuteness and feistiness in these children to keep the story alive. Just how far can Nana be tortured without losing her cool completely? And what is it about contemporary kids who are never allowed to be alone without something to do? How about just “being?” In one sense, Nana can help her daughter and her grandchildren to realize that life does have a significant purpose and it’s not about social meetings where everyone compares food and clothing or being busy at every waking moment.
I thought that this book would be right up my alley. An older woman taking care of her grandchildren while her daughter and son-in-law leave the country to help an impoverished nation through a tragedy of massive destruction. I thought that this would be a humorous read per the books description - what with an older woman trying to fit in with the modern idea of raising a family and instead I found it to be a book about taking sides, class distinction, no humor to be found and more neurosis than you can shake a stick at. Very unoriginal and done with little finesse. What I did take away from this book is that the parents of these children are quite selfish for putting their careers ahead of their family. I DO understand that what they did was extremely altruistic and I should be admiring them, but I did not. These parents are already helping people just by being Dr.’s and one could have left to tend to this devastated country while the other stayed home and then switched places. I also realize that if both parents hadn’t left at the same time, there would be no book. The Britishisms and slang started to get on my nerves and I had to use my dictionary more times than I spent reading the actual novel. Yes, this book was by a Brit author, I GET IT. But seriously if a book is going to be marketed to the USA then tone down *some* of the Brit speak please. I also found the character’s to be very annoying, dislikable, selfish, spoiled, one dimensional and a bit clichéd. So was the plot (what there was of a plot). Some authors can do a wonderful job of writing simply about the days in the lives of their characters with nothing guiding these character’s but to get to the end of the book -this was not one of these books. I could go on about why I thought that this wasn’t a good book, but it IS a good book, and therefore why I gave it a higher star rating than I normally would have. However, it was just not for someone like me (who is actually the age of the Grandmother) who was raised to believe that family came first in most cases; a career (both mothers AND fathers) came in second. Not always, but mostly. *ARC supplied by publisher.