In Kids & Family

My sister and I would "come on down" to Ottawa, Ill. every summer for some G&G time.

When "summer programs" meant game shows with grandparents

A version of this blog originally ran in 2011.

School ends in mid-May now, so I started my summer enrichment search last month, but was daunted by the prices of summer programs. Roughly, themed "day camps" are $200-$275 per week, per kid, and often the "day" is from 9 a.m. to around 3 p.m. and you have to pay extra for "before and after camp."

After researching all of the wonderful day camps in the area, a part of me wishes I could afford to send them to art camp and nature camp and music camp for thousands of dollars over the course of the summer. But another side of me laughs at the absurdity of these expensive camps with hours that aren't friendly for working parents.

And then I remember my summers, chunks of which were spent with my grandparents in a small town in Illinois. My sister and I agree that some of our fondest childhood memories were made during the summer weeks we spent with our "Nonie" and "Papa" and yet, there was very little about the experience that was particularly kid friendly.

When I was on a summer visit at 9, almost the age of my sons right now, my grandma gave me a small notebook and a travel-sized Weight Watchers booklet that listed most foods along with their caloric count. She told me my job was to keep track of her meals for the week and to make sure she didn't exceed 1,200 calories. A bookish child, I was thrilled with the responsibility.

Every time she ate something, I wrote it down in the notebook in a self-drawn column on the left side of the page and then wrote the number of calories in a column on the right side. Two eggs cooked in Pam / 190 calories. At the end of the day, I added up the total number of calories and reported to her how she did.

"Next time we go to Pizza Hut, it's the salad bar for me," she said after I gently broke the news it had been a 2,500-calorie day.

On Wednesdays, we went to Weight Watchers where she "weighed in" and received a smile or a little shake of the head, depending on the number on the scale, from a lady in the light blue jacket with two W's embroidered on the lapel.

In between keeping track of Nonie's calories, I spent hours counting her card-playing change that filled a huge jar. Sometimes I made stacks of the same coins and counted it up that way; sometimes I made stacks in certain increments with mixed coins instead. Nonie played pinochle and bridge once a week, so the change amount was constantly fluctuating and she asked me to recount it regularly.

Papa liked to sit in his easy chair and do crossword puzzles or watch game shows. Consequently, I did a lot of both, too. The "Price Is Right" was on at 10 a.m. followed by the "Family Feud" at 11. Occasionally, we watched "Tic Tac Dough" or "Joker's Wild," but eventually we took a break from what Papa called "the idiot box" until 6:30 p.m., when "Wheel" came on and whatever else the networks had to offer, like "Dynasty."

I fantasized about my family going on the "Family Feud" and I was constantly reconfiguring the five people that I would ask to be a part of the team. Also, I tried to decide which last name we would use since we had so many different ones. Snyder? Brunetto? Giori? If I was mad at my sister, she would temporarily be ousted from the fantasy "Feud" team until later, when she gave me half of her root beer popsicle and was back in. For the record, there was no way I was going to kiss Richard Dawson. And I still have "spin the big wheel on 'The Price Is Right'" on my list of things to do before I die.

Papa loved his Schlitz, so every few days, we drove in his Buick to the liquor store for a 12-pack. He always bought us both a scratch-off lottery card or two, and we sat in the parking lot with the air conditioner blasting and scratched off the silvery coating to see if we won anything. Occasionally, we won a dollar or two, and then Papa would let us go into the liquor store by ourselves (this was cool) and exchange the spent cards for money or more cards.

If we declared our cards weren't worth anything, Papa took the card from us, looked at it long and hard, and finally gave a low whistle. "Looks like you got yourself a dud," he said.

The funny thing about my grandfather is that he said very few words – he was more of a whistler – and yet he made a couple of comments to me that I never forgot.

"What, are you writing a book?" he asked me after my zillionth question of the day. I never answered out loud, but his question resonated with the future journalist in me.

He was also fond of lots of expressions, some of which were in Italian and a couple of which aren't quite appropriate for this blog, but one of my favorites, which my mother used frequently during my childhood, was directed at whining kids who always wanted something else.

"Yeah? Well people in Hell want ice water," he said. I am yet to use this one on my own kids, but it's coming.

Papa had cataracts that were always bothering him, so we spent a lot of time in eye doctors' offices. I always had a book about Pippi or Laura or Ramona.

At night, my sister and I would beg our Nonie to climb into bed with us and tell us stories, none of which were particularly age appropriate. One was about her brother who died while working at the carnival. Another was about a stillborn baby boy that she dreamed was drowning after he was buried so she had the grave exhumed and they discovered the casket was filled with water.

"The blue had bled onto the white of his little sailor suit," she told me. (This still haunts me.)

I realize now there were long periods during which my sister and I were unattended, not in a neglectful sort of way, rather more of a small town / grandma needs a nap sort of way. I remember being very young and splashing my hands around in the bird bath, sometimes having my Strawberry Shortcake dolls go swimming. Then, I would crawl around in Papa's garden and pick tomatoes and eat them with those same bird bathy hands. Years later, this completely grossed me out, but at the time, I was "happy as a pig in sh*t," as papa said.

Occasionally, we'd pile into the Buick and go to the "Dairy Dream" (Nonie always called the "Dairy Queen" the "Dairy Dream" because about 40 years earlier there was an ice cream stand of that name) and then we'd miniature golf at one of those run-down courses where you tried to hit your ball in between the windmill blades or into the creepy clown's mouth.

No, I did not go to horse camp or drama camp or art camp. Nobody worried whether or not I was having an enriching summer. Nobody fretted that I might grow up to be uninteresting or less productive because I spent so much time watching "Joker's Wild." I am of two minds about this, but mostly, I am grateful to have spent so much time with my grandparents. The memories – and the writing material – mean more to me than any prize awarded by Bob Barker himself.

Talkbacks

firefly | July 20, 2011 at 10:06 p.m. (report)

Lovely article, Molly. Funny, sentimental, honest and boy do you have a good memory!

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High_Life_Man | July 19, 2011 at 10:25 p.m. (report)

I believe the show was "Joker's Wild".

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rob | July 19, 2011 at 8:03 p.m. (report)

Great article, Molly. Brings back tons of memories for me too.

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gwanes | July 19, 2011 at 5:27 p.m. (report)

Is that really what you got out of this? (Camps for kids are stupidly expensive -- "Just saying.") Anyway, I also have fond memories of not-quite-right time with the grandparents -- problematic, yet priceless time.

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gregrnel | July 19, 2011 at 4:12 p.m. (report)

Perhaps if you cut back on the weed for a couple of months......just saying.

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