The Working Waterfront

Christmas expectations are child’s play

Grandchildren set the pace at the Fernald place

By Barbara Fernald
Posted 2024-02-01
Last Modified 2024-02-01

After three years of missing out on being together for the holidays, I asked our sons and their families if they would like to come home to Islesford for a family celebration. They agreed, as long as they could still be in their own homes for Christmas morning.

One family arrived at 3:30 p.m. on Christmas and the other family arrived the next day on the 11 a.m. boat, along with a goose to cook for our big dinner that night. I was ready!

In the weeks before, I spent days sorting through decorations I hadn’t used in years. I decorated a Christmas tree. I set up three little table-top scenes with my collections of gnomes, penguins, snowmen, Santas, and a variety of tiny trees. I lit up various spots around the downstairs with all the tiny lights I could find.

As the grandkids progressed with their creative play all through the living room, a line of gnomes and snowmen shed tears…

My expectation was that our grandkids, ages 5, 5, and 7, would walk into our house and be mesmerized by the decorations and lights. I wanted it to be magical for them. I hoped they would find the table-top tableaus irresistible. I pictured us creating stories and talking with their daddies about Christmas memories from when they were that age.

Talk about a set up! I was so busy getting everything “just right” for my own vision that I never even considered everyone else’s reality. As soon as the first two grandchildren arrived, they asked to get out the old Playmobile toys. I said, “Um, OK, but look at these little Christmas figures. I was thinking these would be really fun to play with and kind of special because they’re old and I only have them out at this time of year. You each could claim your own spot and make little scenes and the figures could visit each other.”

“No thanks, Gramma. Do you mind if we get out these blocks?”

Inside my head I alternated between silent screaming at the amount of toy and holiday clutter and repeating a mantra of love and acceptance. I still had a chance to impress my third grandchild the next day…

Upon the arrival of family No. 2, my third grandchild blew right past me without even saying “Hi,” so excited was she to get to see her cousins.

After lunch and presents, out came the same old toys that always come out at Grampa and Gramma’s: the large set of cardboard blocks about the size of shoe boxes and the old Playmobile toys with horses and figures and a tremendous number of tiny accessories.

On every visit these two sets of toys are used to create complicated tales, from fights over forts, to escaping floods on barges, to moving everything to a new territory to build a new fort.

As the grandkids progressed with their creative play all through the living room, a line of gnomes and snowmen shed tears of dashed expectations from the windowsill. I was the only one who noticed.

Looking back, it was a great Christmas with family. How lucky we are that our sons still want to come home to the island with their families? It’s not easy uprooting kids during the holidays.
The goose was smoked to perfection and the family dinners were everything I had hoped they would be. We all ate extremely well. We had exuberant games of “telephone” and “killer winker” and all of the grandkids ate enough dinner to have dessert.

It seems the familiarity of Grampa and Gramma’s house is what is special for our grandkids. The cardboard blocks and the busted up Playmobile set are always there waiting. They are the toys their daddies played with, and they are not something the children have at home. All I have to do is sit back or participate to observe their creativity.

At the same time as I was learning my lesson about expectations, I came upon a poem entitled, “A New Year’s Blessing for Realists” by Nadia Bolz-Webber on her blog The Corners. (

One line, especially, stood out to me: “May you expect so little of the people in your life that you actually notice and cherish every small, lovely thing about them.”

Sounds like a plan for 2024 to me!

Barbara Fernald lives on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island). She may be reached at