Back in the ancient days when our firstborn was an infant, the habit began. Long after I’d put her in her little white crib with the little lambs dancing down the front, I’d tiptoe into Jill’s room. A tiny night-light shed just the right amount of illumination – the moon did the rest.

And there I’d stand, at the foot of Jill’s crib, staring at her tiny form and listening to her breathing. Sometimes, I’d lean over to touch a miniature hand or stroke her golden hair.

Those moments alone with our sleeping baby became the best part of my day. But once Jill had two sisters, life became a battle with time. Never, ever was there enough of it.

I knew things were out of kilter when Nancy, the youngest, made a comment that stabbed me: “You never have time to be my friend,” she said one night in the chaos of bedtime.

Nancy was so casual – so accepting of this fact of family life – that it hurt even more.

Then and there, I vowed to be Nancy’s friend no matter what.

And strangely, I chose bedtime, that general low point in family harmony, to get back to basics. I promised each daughter that if she’d cooperate on baths and curfews, I’d spend 15 minutes with her – just the two of us and no sisters. That last part was the selling point, of course.

Those initial encounters with each child were, frankly, strained. But soon enough, that passed, and 15 minutes was not nearly enough. Three little girls let me into their lives in those wonderful sessions, often unlocking the door to those shadowy daytime hours that I couldn’t share, now that the world had them.

I loved lying on their beds with only a night-light on and just listening. It was the closest thing to free association I’ve ever known. Those wonderful, long-gone quiet times with my daughters came rushing back when grandchildren came along. I was their faithful subject, wanting mainly to serve them. Nothing like this grandparent euphoria had ever happened to me.

But getting the attention of the “magnificent seven” was not so easy after all. This new generation had inherited a different world. Technology had become the rival for their attention, and even on overnight visits with us, they were plugged in. They were all preoccupied with things that flashed and pinged, things they had stuffed into their little suitcases for these visits.

Still, I persisted with the simple idea of bedtime talks. The boys, especially, thought they were, in Sam’s immortal words “…a little stupid.” The oldest of the grandsons, Sam was already slipping away from us at that transitional age of about 10.

So I came up with another idea: I’d turn this “pillow talk” into a game. One night, when he got into bed, I suggested to Sam we play 20 Questions…but with a twist. The subject of inquiry was to be…Sam. And that idea worked.

Two questions in, when I asked about the best and worst things that happened at school that week, it all came tumbling out. Seems that in the schoolyard somebody had been mean to him. That somebody was his best friend. Just in the telling, Sam seemed to feel better. Not wonderful, mind you, but a bit relieved. We talked about why his BFF had acted so unkindly, and how even best friends have bad days.

Four grandkids are now in their teens, and three are in college. But when they spend time with us, they clamor for 20 Questions.

I tread carefully. I prepare the questions in advance. And yes, I keep at least some of them light. But on that long ago night with Sam, I learned that the more things change the more they stay the same. All of us need to be listened to. And nothing can be richer or more meaningful than listening to a child you love.

April 2016
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