Snakes and roses: Grandmas poems of wonder years

In the hallway of Jacqueline Bandel's Oakland home hangs a photograph of a little girl.

She's "wearing plaid shorts, grinning and holding a snake," says the mother of a daughter who's now grown.

It's the same picture, rendered into a deft line drawing by illustrator Camille LaPointe, that illustrates Bandel's newly released hardcover "In and Out the Window: Childhood in Verse."

"I don't know if [the snake] is dead or alive," says the mother of four — her youngest is now 35 — and grandmother of five. "Someone pulled it out of the garden. My husband said, `Who wants to hold the snake?' and each child took a turn."

The verse that accompanies the picture is titled "Guess Again," and goes like this:

"Today I'm going to find a rose/That's blooming red and full/And take some scissors to the stem,/Then cut and give a pull.

"I'll tiptoe in to Mother./I shall not make a sound./I'll put my hands across her eyes/And say, `Guess what I found?'

And Mom will say, `A lizard?'/Or `A beetle?' or `A snake?'/And I will show her my red rose/And laugh at her mistake."

Bandel wrote the verses for her children and grandchildren, selecting photos from her scrapbook to go with them.

"Scotty has a tricycle./He rides uphill and down," begins a poem titled "Fair Trade." It tells of a boy who liked to pedal uphill backward.

The author began writing these poems when her oldest child was 4 or 5. Motherhood and editorial jobs kept her busy for years, and she shelved the poems until her grandchildren were about the same age.

"On Being Three" tells about Bandel's granddaughter throwing a ball "fifty feet — up to the sky!" Of the same grandchild, Bandel wrote "Rachel's Good-Bad Week," which traces the woes of being sick and the joys of getting well.

She takes her role of grandmother seriously on other levels, too. Last spring, after a trip with her husband to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Bandel wrote in a newsletter to family and friends:

"Imagine the comfort in denying that, on the tree-lined hillsides that bordered European and Russian villages and cities, grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers holding on to the tiny hands of their little ones were required to dig their graves, then undress in preparation to be shot…

"Imagine if I could … see a Star of David necklace on my granddaughter and not associate that religious identification with untold agonies."

Bandel's own grandparents, fleeing pogroms in Hungary, reached Ellis Island at the turn of the century. Her mother's father founded Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham and helped start the Jewish Welfare Federation, which became the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

At Passover her grandfather would read the Haggadah in Hebrew. "My dear grandmother didn't know my cousins and I left the table" to play hide-and-seek in the bedroom," Bandel recalls. "We'd have a great time while the adults kept reading, then go back for desserts."

She passed on to the next generation her flair for having fun at mealtime. In the verse "Who Wins?" a child muses:

"When I eat dinner/It's always a race/To see which gets more/ My tummy or face."

Even her promotional tour is playful. Kids who attend her readings get to don costumes and act out the various verses.