My Grandchild's First Sleepover

I worried that at night, when homesickness tends to intensify, my granddaughter would cry for Mommy and Daddy. I was prepared to not get much sleep.

Preparing for my granddaughter’s first solo sleepover at my apartment bore a certain resemblance to welcoming a head of state or some other V.I.P.

At the supermarket, I laid in provisions: the breakfast cereal she liked, cocoa for hot chocolate on a cold afternoon, ingredients for baking projects. I’d been buying secondhand books and toys for a while, but now I ordered additional art supplies and a simple board game.

What else could help occupy a 4-year-old over 24 hours? Bulbs! We could plant daffodils in the still-soft dirt outside the front door and watch them produce flowers next spring. I drove to a garden center.

This all should have happened earlier, no doubt. But whenever we’d considered it in the past few years, the prospect of hauling a toddler and her gear from Brooklyn to my suburban New Jersey town on public transportation felt daunting.

Even a day trip, which her mother and I had pulled off just once, involved a wearying number of trains and transfers. Then the pandemic hit and none of us was using public transportation anymore. Plus, much of what I wanted to do with my granddaughter — see a kid’s movie, breakfast at the local cafe, visit the neighborhood bookstore — was now off-limits.

I spend a day a week caring for Bartola (a family nickname, a nod to Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon), so we had spent lots of time together nonetheless, at her home. She and her parents and I had isolated from everyone else for months, but not from one another, so through spring and summer and into the fall, I kept driving to Brooklyn. With her parents trying to work from home without any child care, I was needed.

Then came my daughter’s November birthday. Before it got too cold, wouldn’t an outdoor dinner a deux at one of their favorite places be a welcome respite for her and her husband? The last time they’d eaten out alone was in June.

I could have babysat in Brooklyn, as usual, but now that meant a very late drive home. Besides, a slumber party at my place had gotten easier. Bartola no longer needed a crib, diapers, a stroller. When we broached the subject, she said yes, she wanted to have an overnight at Bubbe’s house. (It’s Yiddish for grandmother.) We figured it was time.

So we hatched a plan. After picking her up at preschool, half a day on Friday, I would drive Bartola to Jersey. She’d stay overnight. Her parents would rent a car and drive out Saturday afternoon and we’d have dinner together. Then they’d all head home.

A sound plan — but I still found it hard to quell some anxiety. This would be her first time away from home without her parents, and I knew firsthand what could go wrong.

I thought there was a chance she might balk early on, when her dad strapped her into the car seat in my Subaru and we drove away alone.

I worried more that at night, when homesickness tends to intensify, she would cry for Mommy and Daddy. Bedtime is never a quick process with Bartola, even in her own bed. I was prepared to not get much sleep.

My fears had less to do with her reaction to the proposed slumber party than with our family history. As a kid, Emma had suffered painfully from homesickness for years.

I had still-vivid memories of going out to dinner with my then-husband, and coming home to answering machine messages from Emma, who was at a friend’s overnight or on a trip with another family. She would bravely, quaveringly, tell us “I’m fiiiine” and “I’m having fuuuun” when she so clearly wasn’t. Later, her counselor at sleep-away camp wrote us about how articulate Emma was, at cabin meetings, about her homesickness.

Possibly you’ve been the parent getting the please-come-get-her call at an ungodly hour. Or the host placing the call. My friend Carol recalls waking up, the morning after her son hosted a couple of friends overnight, to find two boys in sleeping bags, not three. It turned out that one had called his parents at 2 a.m. and they’d picked him up while Carol and her husband slept through the whole drama.

So I was braced for a similar crisis — except that I couldn’t be driving Bartola back to Brooklyn at 9 or 10 p.m., and her parents had no car. Whatever happened, she and I were going to spend the night together in Jersey.

Well, here’s a lesson. We drove out, and Bartola was fine. We played, read books, walked around the neighborhood, played, drank hot chocolate and played. We had a mac and cheese dinner, followed by ice cream. Also, we played.

Then, after a shower and a story and a bedtime song (she requested — uh-oh — “Remember Me” from the movie “Coco”), Bartola went to sleep on an inflatable bed without incident.

Her parents, meanwhile, had a fine birthday dinner alone, though they were eating in coats and scarves. I got a text from Emma the next morning: “OMG, we slept until 10:30.”

By that point, Bartola and I had already walked to the playground. We never did get around to muffin-making or bulb-planting.

But what mattered was that Bartola was totally chill and cooperative and happy — up until 10 minutes after her parents arrived, at which point she predictably melted down three times in two hours.

Of course. When you’ve had to be a Big Girl and suck it up for your first pajama party at Bubbe’s, you feel free to regress once Mommy and Daddy are on the scene.

But she rallied, and showed her parents around my neighborhood. We had a takeout dinner together, with candles to make it feel special. We repacked the small cadre of stuffed animals she had brought along — though we seem to have misplaced Superhero Mouse — and I sent them off with waves and blown kisses.

Everyone had a fine time, and Bartola fell asleep in the car on the way home.

I was exhausted too, but delighted — and reminded that kids are individuals. We shouldn’t expect them to develop or behave the way their parents did, the way anyone else does.

Bartola is her unique, inimitable self. She strikes up conversations with strangers, thinks skeletons and scary movies are fun, loves olives and broccoli. That’s not what her mother was like at 4 or at 14. Message received.

Now we are talking about the next sleepover at Bubbe’s. (Yes, she could have trouble on the second or third visit that didn’t arise on the first. We will deal.)

As we were walking down a Brooklyn street the following week, Bartola said she wanted to come to my house again.

Sure, I said. I would love that. Pretty soon it would be winter and maybe we could play in the snow.

Bubbe: We could go sledding.

Bartola: We could build a snowman!

Bubbe: Yes, we could.

Bartola: We could go skiing!

We don’t have a ski slope in my neighborhood, I had to confess. But I promised that there would be plenty of hot chocolate.

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