Not Your Average Nanny

What's Your Number?

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One time I took my young granddaughter shopping and asked her what size t-shirt she wore. She replied, “5, I think, but Mommy knows my number.” She is indeed blessed with a mommy who knows her number, and a whole lot more important stuff about her.


I’m told there’s a movie by the same name, about how many sexual partners a young woman has had. That’s not what I’m talking about here; you can do your own number on that.


The last few days I’ve been in Mary Washington Hospital trying to get my heart rhythm straightened out, something that happens to some of us as we age. I am being treated royally and getting a lot of reading, writing and thinking done, much as I’d rather be at home.


It’s been a long time (thankfully) since I’ve been in a hospital, and a lot has changed. I enjoy selecting my food from a long list of items and phoning my order into the kitchen, just like hotel room service. Well, maybe not quite, as there is neither a mini-bar in my room nor cocktail selections on the list.


My diet is listed as “cardiac” and somewhere in the past few days, “diabetic” has been added as my pre-diabetic status earned me that designation, also. I’ve learned that the nutrition system at Mary Washington Hospital is very efficient. The first evening, I ordered a chocolate ice cream cup, thinking to give it to my partner who loves ice cream. I heard, “You can’t have that. But you can have orange sherbet.” OK, sounded good to me. I explained it to my partner, and he enjoyed his sherbet.


Then I noticed that all my meals arrived with a list of carbohydrates, calories, sodium and potassium values. I read the print-out one day and dumped my tuna sandwich filling onto my salad as I added the no-fat dressing, opting not to eat the calorie-carb rich bread on the sandwich. Hmm, I thought, that print-out was really helpful.


When I ordered my next meal, I asked (I’m getting the drift of who actually gets to pick), “May I have a cookie?”

I heard, “What kind of cookie?”

“Um, oatmeal raisin?”

[Pause, as if reading a list] “Yes, you can have that.”

I bet I wouldn’t have gotten chocolate chip.


The next morning for breakfast, now knowing how this worked, I asked, “Whole-wheat bagel?”

“You can have a half.”

“Fine, that’s enough. Could I have peanut butter on it?”

[Pause] “Yes.”

“Yogurt parfait?”

[Pause} “Yes.”

“Orange?” thinking, who could object to a fresh orange?

“Yes, but that’s your number.”

Apparently I had a number of calories or carbs I could have at a meal, and I’d reached it.


Suited me fine, that was plenty of breakfast with a mid-morning snack of orange. When the accompanying print-out arrived, I was really surprised at the calorie/carb count of the parfait.

Wow, I thought, do I really want to spend my calories that way when I'm home and picking from an unlimited array of choices?


I began thinking about how convenient it is to have a number. How many times in our lives do we wish we’d had someone tell us what a good limit would be to shoot for? Number of calories/carbs at each meal? Number of new clothes to buy in one season, when the closet is already pretty full? Number of times to have your wine glass re-filled? Number of times to back-talk your boss/spouse/parent/whoever? Number of potential dates to keep dangling on a string at one time? Number of times to cut class in college?


We do have a number for most of our life activities, and usually we know what it is. We know when we’ve bought one sweater too many, flirted one too many times at a party, left our kids with a sitter too many times this month. We know when we’ve given our grandkids one too many cookies, electronic devices, dollars to spend foolishly.


I would never suggest that numbers should govern our lives. But I would suggest that sensible numbers might guide us. One too many cookies once in a while is permissible; one too many at every visit is not only nutritionally unsound, but sending a negative number message about self-discipline. A healthy body, a workable budget plan, a basic attitude of tending what’s important -- whether it’s going to class, not calling in on a sick day when you don’t really need one, or maintaining important family time and ties – will keep us all on a better path of life.


Are you on top of your numbers? And incidentally, what a great way to teach us about nutrition, simply telling us the numbers but not making value judgments. Thanks, MWH!

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Whale Season

            Whales have really been news-makers lately. The orcas at SeaWorld have been liberated after much consternation and agitation by animal rights group – or at least no more will be added to the group and those living there will no longer perform. We're all getting a media lesson on why they can't be released into the wild.

            When I lived in Florida several years ago, part of the seasonal rhythm was seeing a blimp traveling slowly a few miles off-shore as they tracked the right whales that came south for the season.

            But those aren’t the whales I have in mind right now. I’m thinking of human whales, or of humans who see themselves as whale-sized. Everyone I know is complaining about having put on a few – or a lot of – pounds this winter. Now that it’s spring and we’re digging out our lighter clothes, it’s apparent that those pounds are there around the middle. Without flannel shirts or sweatshirts over our mid-sections, we must face the reality of the bathroom scale.

            A member of my writing group says we must “embrace our bodies.” Feminists have been saying that for years, but that’s a tall order when we look into the mirror and see ourselves in a shape that’s hard to emotionally embrace. If only we could learn to embrace healthier – not skinny, just healthier – bodies.

            As adults we are setting patterns for our children. As a grandmother I must be aware that the treats I give should be healthy, as least most of the time, especially with the grandchildren I see most often. I need to do more than holler, “Use the small cups” and “Only two toppings” as we traverse the line at the fro-yo store. And more important, I must set an example for them and not use the big cup myself, metaphorically speaking.

            When I attend my grandchildren’s programs, I am appalled to see how overweight many of the children are. Same thing when I go into restaurants – when did we all get so fat? And I’m not talking fast food here, but restaurants where people eat after they’ve made enough money that they must have some sense.

            Recently I’ve spent a little time in medical offices and noticed how heavy people are there. I thought, well, maybe patients are patients partly because they eat too much. Then I notice the staff… Are we doomed to have diabetes, heart disease, other diseases because we can’t control our appetites? The numbers of increase in these diseases are frightening and appalling.

            So what’s my point here? Enough, people! Unite and set an example, grandparents of the world! There’s not a one of us that doesn’t know what we SHOULD be doing – cutting back on sweets and other carbs, eating more fruits and veggies, getting more exercise, shopping from the perimeters of the grocery store where the healthy stuff is. Or for that matter, doing any one of those things would help. Do we have a collective death wish? Because that’s what we’re doing, eating as lemmings flock, looking over the edge of the cliff. Are we a spineless group, following the crowd? That’s hardly the American mystique. Just lazy? Or what??

            Wouldn’t it be nice if we each made just a few little tweaks in our diet and next year the whale season was just about orcas?

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Books, Books, and More Books



I believe the best gift a grandparent can give a grandchild is the gift of reading. Today my partner and I spent a significant hour in an excellent indie bookstore. I love the glamour and variety of the big bookstores such as our Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million stores, but I was very sorry to see Griffin (on Caroline Street) close and we love to haunt Riverby’s downtown.


But this bookstore today – marvelous. I picked out three novels quickly – we are away from home and I need something to hold in my hand for a little while instead of reading from my iPad. Then I found another one or two I needed, plus a coffee table book of nature photographs of the type I aspire to capture. Then Selby came to the cash register with a few he’d picked out for himself and one for me, a memoir of a woman trying out different kinds of churches. I’m working on my next book, a series of interviews with clergywomen called Voices of Women of the Cloth, and he thought I’d like this one for background reading. He was right. We were almost late to pick up the 90-year-old friend we were taking to lunch and we had to leave because I’d already had my credit card out three times by then.


Some of my greatest memories with my grandchildren are taking them to Jabberwocky in downtown Fredericksburg for their birthdays when they were younger. The book rules evolved through the years. The birthday grandchild got to pick out the same number of books as his or her new age, and any sibling chose one. This worked out well as long as I had just one toddler on the excursion. One year, though, there were two grandchildren with December and January birthdays turning seven, and three siblings along. You can do the math on that, but we set a cap on the number of birthday books at six. That still meant twelve books for the birthday grandies and three more for their siblings, but what the hey, fifteen books are better than no books any day, right? Especially if Nanny is paying. These trips gave me insight into what my grandchildren were enjoying at their various ages.


We also had to define what constitutes a book. I stretched my definition of what I thought a grandchild should be reading – childhood classics -- to include anything with quite a few words. There are all kinds of attractive books in bookstores that don’t have many, if any, words in them. But my Nanny-decree was that they had to contain words – after all, it was my money. I could go with cartoon-type books, though. After all, trading comics was a delight of my own childhood – do kids do that anymore? Does anyone else remember dime comic books?


And I’ll admit, after hearing wheedling for many non-book things in a bookstore, I’d usually give in on the last pick of the day and let them get one non-book “book”. After all, I am a grandma and as GEICO says, that’s what we do. One granddaughter who is truly a reader used to check out her stock of chapter books beforehand and order those to fill in the gaps when it was time for her book selections. Now that’s my kind of bookworm. The book-buying expedition took a funny turn the year my middle-schooler-trying-to-turn-Goth grandson asked the sales clerk at Jabberwocky if they had any Stephen King. She very politely suggested he check across the street at Griffin, and I decided that one had outgrown a children’s bookstore. And since I usually forgot my own rules from year-to-year, we had fun setting the terms of each trip.


Books are precious things. Our fine Rappahannock Regional library system is full of printed treats for all of us. When I used to read to my grandchildren’s classes at Hugh Mercer, before they moved to Lafayette Upper Elementary and were too old to welcome a Nanny reading in their classes anymore, the headquarters children’s librarian always helped me pick out just the right books for language development for the classes. I loved the ones with alliteration and poetry and just grooved on the Llama Mama books. But my favorite was The Seals on the Bus (“go round and round”, of course…).


Now that I’m writing books myself – other than the textbooks I used to write in another life – I am very aware of the effort that goes into producing a book. Some friends in my Water Street Studio Writers’ group author children’s books, giving me an even greater appreciation of that fine skill.


However we choose to do it, grandparents, grandchildren, and books are a trio of love.




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Hi, My Name is Nanny

 I love being a grandmother to my five – well, maybe a few more, depending on how you count – grandchildren.

Two of my granddaughters live a few blocks away from me in Fredericksburg. One grandson lives in Yorktown, another in Blacksburg. My youngest granddaughter lives in Abu Dhabi, wherever that is. I also have a step-granddaughter who considers me her grandmother; she is a freshman at Goucher College. And my late husband had two more grandchildren for whom I sort of functioned as grandparent, and they each now have children. So I am sort-of great-grandmother to three little ones. That’s why I say, it depends on how you count. But if you count love, there’s always plenty of that to go around. I am Nanny to all of them. And my partner has two grandchildren as well, though his are about grown.

I grew up in an abusive home – difficult enough that both my sister and I are now licensed therapists – and the saving grace was my wonderful Nanny, my maternal grandmother. My nanny taught me to sit still in church by bribing me with peppermints, to fry an egg, and to grow a garden. To be perfectly honest, I don’t do any of those things very well to this day but I hope I am the person Nanny envisioned.

My memories include going around her yard cutting what I called “weed salad”, the mixed greens that I now pay a premium for in the supermarket. I can remember her saying when I misbehaved, “Claire Ann, are we gonna have to go cut a switch from the peach tree?” I don’t remember ever being spanked by her, peach tree switch or not, but I do remember straightening up when I heard those words. Or when I was called by both my first and middle names. She was my loving rock, my stability in an unstable world. I am functional today because of her.

My Grampy, Nanny’s husband, was my best friend and hero. We collected marbles and pressed them into the wet cement of a bird-bath we constructed. He was the janitor at my school and sometimes slipped me out to the diner nearby at lunchtime for a treat. He taught me to catch a fish, though not to like how it felt it my hand. He took me to the movies occasionally and to the library weekly.

I had another grandmother and grandfather but they lived in Boston, sounded funny to a Midwestern child when they talked, and didn’t come to see us often. They didn’t fish, bake, or cut weed salad, much less grow a garden. But they did buy me ice skates and books, neither of which was available in stores in the small Missouri town where we lived.

I also had great-grandparents. The ones nearby lived on a farm and I still have on my shelf an oil lamp I used to read by on visits to their un-electrified home. My two great-grandmothers in Boston spoke only Gaelic and one had a mustache on her fierce upper lip so our interchanges were infrequent, incomprehensible and a little bit scary.

So – I was very well-schooled to become a grandparent. I had far better role models for that than to be a parent. I suspect I am a better grandmother than I was a mother, though thankfully my children don’t tell me that.

I welcome the chance to share my thoughts and experiences with you in the coming posts, such as the Mysterious Case of the Missing…, You Told Your Teacher I’d Do What?? Who Do You Love Best, Nanny? Balancing Parenting and Grandma-ing; Just One More ___, Ple-e-e-ze, Grandma? and other such topics. Let’s make this blog a dialogue where we will share ideas, concerns, joys and stories.


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About Claire

Claire and her partner live in downtown Fredericksburg and at their beach place in OBX, which their grandchildren love. When she’s not blogging about her grandchildren, she’s working on her next book, a series of interviews called Voices of Women of the Cloth. Her first novel, The Death Law, keeps her busy speaking to groups about end-of life issues (check it out at, available at Agora Coffee on Caroline Street or at She is very active at Trinity Episcopal Church and does service to armed forces with Red Cross. She is Professor Emerita from Virginia Tech and a Licensed Professional Counselor.


Pouches' Community Corner

The Table at St. George’s

The Table at St. George’s is a market-style food pantry serving the extended local community. Visitors are invited to select their own items from a variety of fresh food, including locally grown produce. The Table’s mission is to encourage healthy eating, build relationships with those in need, and blur the lines between those serving and those being served.