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Batman to the Rescue

A grandmother moves heaven and earth to soothe her grandson in the midst of a meltdown.

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

It was not yet 8 a.m., and the Batman pajama crisis was in full bloom. Jonah, my 5-year-old son, was sobbing over the loss of his favorite pajamas, which had been tossed down the incinerator chute by his grandmother after a bathroom accident had rendered them unsalvageable (at least in her mind). My 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was clinging to her grandfather as he tried to comfort Jonah. And my husband and I were 5,000 blissful miles away, sunning ourselves on a secluded stretch of beach in a remote village in Turkey.

It was Day 2 of our kids' 10-day stay with their grandparents in Manhattan. Our long-awaited vacation, a year in the planning, was going off without a hitch. The home front was a little more complicated.

My friends had been stunned to hear that my parents had agreed to take care of a toddler and a preschooler for a week and a half. "Boy, your parents are really going to hold this one over your head," one mom at preschool said to me.

Actually my parents had always loved looking after Jonah and, later, his sister, as long as one condition was met: The children had to be delivered to and picked up from their home on East 61st Street. Like many New Yorkers, they seemed to believe that it was just a quick jaunt through the tunnel for me to get to their apartment from my home in central New Jersey, while the trip for them to New Jersey was a harrowing, hours-long trek.

But for a 10-day baby-sitting commitment, we would have driven them to Maine. At our picturesque resort by the Aegean Sea, we slept late, spent hours in lounge chairs by the pool actually reading the books that had gathered dust on our bedside tables for years, watched R-rated in-room movies and enjoyed X-rated marital activities. Needless to say, after five years of nearly uninterrupted parenting, it was bliss.

Before our departure I had spent weeks preparing for the children's deployment. There were lists of preferred foods, descriptions of bedtime rituals, phone numbers of New York City friends who could help in an emergency, a letter authorizing my parents to make medical decisions for their grandchildren. But I had not prepared them for the pajama predicament.

Jonah is a tenderhearted kid who can get teary at the prospect of an old cardboard box being thrown away. I have sewn up holes in his favorite socks after an offhand comment about getting rid of them was met with tears. He bawled when I mentioned that his pink footsie pajamas were too small and needed to be retired. (We compromised by leaving them hanging in his closet.)

It can be exhausting keeping track of and fulfilling all of your child's idiosyncrasies — the turquoise cup must be hand-washed three times a day because it is the only acceptable cup in the house today, the cream cheese must be spread on both sides of the bagel before it is closed to make a sandwich, the only vaguely healthy food he likes — matzo ball soup — can only be eaten on Shabbat.

And my mother, of course, had no idea that the soiled pajamas she disposed of would provoke such an outpouring of grief in my sentimental son.

My mother is a loving grandmother, but she is not one to coddle. When Jonah threw a fit last year in her apartment as I was leaving to meet friends for dinner, she admonished him to think about my welfare. "Your mom needs some time alone with her friends," she told him. "You should tell her to go have a good time."

She could have seized on the pajama calamity as an object lesson in accepting the curveballs life throws you, in learning to live by the rules of someone else's house. Instead she dispatched my father to ask the doorman if the pajamas could be rescued. I can't begin to speculate about the means used by Vinny, one of the building's most devoted staff members (and a father of five), to carry out the search. Half an hour later the elevator doors opened on the 12th floor. On the floor sat a bundle wrapped in plastic.

The rest of their stay with my parents was a piece of cake. The kids shopped for toys at FAO Schwarz, ate Famous Original Ray's Pizza and played soccer in the hallway (a novelty for two suburban dwellers). Jonah even went to a Broadway show, though he was most excited that the taxi he rode in to the theater took credit cards.

When I suffered pangs of guilt for leaving the kids for so long, I told myself that this was a special time with his grandparents that Jonah would always remember.

I hope that is true, but the person whom I am certain will always remember that special time is me. It wasn't just their love for their grandchildren that prompted my parents to extend such a generous invitation. It was their love for me. To care for, entertain and, yes, even coddle my children while I was off relaxing with my husband, that was the real act of love.

The Batman pajamas — after four washings on the "extra hot" setting and a dose of lemon juice — have recovered remarkably well and are still Jonah's favorites — for the time being. So Mom and Dad, can we talk about next year? I just heard about this little island off Cancun … .

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann (GJ93) is a writer and editor at Princeton University. She lives in East Brunswick, N.J., and is writing a comic novel about motherhood called Egg.

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