In the course of everyday family life involving school-aged children, schedule demands often dictate the shape and form of interaction. Conversation may feel less like an in-depth news interview and more like a quick declaration  aimed at a passenger who has just leapt on a departing subway.  The chance to say “have a seat and tell me all your news” may return someday, but now is not that season in the flowing river of time.

So, it was a particular, shiny little delight, unplanned and brief, to get some conversational time alone recently with my grandson Buddy.  His sister required his mom’s undivided attention for something important, so Buddy came over to hang out with me for a couple of hours.  As dusk began to settle over the neighborhood on the hot summer evening, we took the dog out for a stroll.

Buddy turned 10 when I was away for a few months in a temporary home, and I am still catching up to the people he and his sister became in my absence.  Perhaps it’s the warping of time in our pandemic era that distorts perfectly natural progression, but the changes in both of them have popped my eyes open since I came back to live nearby.

A young man of deep thoughts, Buddy is still not always the first to launch a sociable conversation. As we ambled down the street at the moderate pace natural to summer in the South, I nattered on idly, trying, without pushing, to land on a subject of interest. We approached a patch of woods with thick, spiky green undergrowth crowned with purple and white wildflowers.  A white-tailed rabbit sprang out of the bushes and bounded across the street in front of us in a flash, startling the dog away from his close inspection of a redolent street grate.  “We have a lot of bunnies in the neighborhood,” I offered.  “They drive the dog crazy.”

“Did you know,” Buddy responded thoughtfully, “that kangaroos can’t move their back legs separately?  They have to move together.  That’s one reason why they hop.”  Making my own leap forward to track with this hopping theme, I asked him the eternal, adult-to-kid query: Where did you learn that?  Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he shrugged his thin shoulders.  “I don’t remember; I think I read it somewhere.”

I nodded appreciatively at this nugget, and we continued downhill, where the road is bordered by an intriguing meadow that opens between two dense clusters of scraggly old trees.  You can’t quite view the full expanse of the grass, shrubbery and weeds from the road, and I am curious about what lies beyond the narrow, visible opening. One day you and your sister can bring your boots over and we’ll explore down there, I told him. There might be a little creek we could wade in, but you’ll have to have boots, because there might be snakes.

“Do you know,” he began again, “how to tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes?”  I don’t, I admitted, beginning to feel like a batter in the practice cage who wasn’t warned when someone switched on the pitching machines at high speed.

“Poisonous snakes have slit eyes, and snakes with round eyes aren’t poisonous.”  Anticipating the previous query, he added, “We learned that from a ranger at the park where we went camping.  I’ll take him now,” he finished, reaching for the dog leash, the nature lesson concluded. The two of them went running down the hill ahead of me, leaving me to watch this long-legged, decade-old, human encyclopedia of facts sprinting for the joy of it on a summer night, the dog on his six-inch legs trying desperately to keep up.

When you get to observe a burgeoning young intellect up close, you learn that its beam roams widely, illuminating the joyful, the troubling, and things in between.  Not long before our walk, I stood by quietly as Buddy engaged his mother in a spirited discussion.  She’d been after him to learn a particular skill, and his resistance grew in equal measure to her pleas. This skill had been around for centuries, she reasoned on this particular go-round, and it wouldn’t have survived that long if it wasn’t worth doing.  He dispatched this logic with startling alacrity.  “Lots of things stayed around for a long time that shouldn’t have,” he riposted. “Racism. Sexism.” I could offer nothing here, stunned into silence by this precocious application of logic.

We all think our grandkids are brilliant, right? Hang on, before the chest puffs out too much.  If you delude yourself into thinking one demonstration of intellect forecasts another, a trap awaits.  A child psychologist probably has a clinical term for this, but mine is Office Hallway Brain:  If the noggin contains a complex series of passages, flipping the light switch in one clearly does not illuminate the others. Buddy may argue effectively against discrimination or spot a poisonous snake, but he often can’t find his way, literally, from Point A to B.

Reporting on the first day of school, his mother mentioned that pandemic restrictions prevented parents from accompanying the students to their homerooms that crucial first time.  As she ushered him out of the car, she encouraged, “Okay, remember, Buddy, room 245.  2-4-5.”  Clambering up the steps to the main entrance, he looked back at her, and she raised a hand to wave and signal a final reminder:  Two fingers, four fingers, then all fingers.  Still, he forgot his room number the second the huge metal door slammed behind him, a clash of cymbals proclaiming his official arrival at Middle School. He was on his own to navigate he knew not where.

Back at my house that recent summer evening, the dog’s walk concluded, he cast around for something else to do.  “Evie,” he inquired politely, “do you play chess?”  I don’t, I answered, instantly thrown back in memory to a day, a half-century before, when my father tried to teach me.  Maybe impatient about the complex analysis and slow pace of the game, or maybe cowed by Dad’s commanding skill level, I couldn’t stick with it.  With a brief swell of embarrassment that turned quickly to curiosity, I turned my next comment a different direction:  It’s so cool that you play, I continued.  Who do you play with?  Do you have your own set at home?  Tell me more.

I used to think the window would be open longer, the period of time when I had the privilege of sharing what I know with these children, where my own life skills, even the smallest, practical things, like how to slice a juicy summer peach, might help them along the way.  How quickly it is changing, in just a flash, to where I may learn (if I keep my mouth shut and listen) more than I can teach.  Maybe there will be other lessons to share later, fewer of the kind you teach with your hands and more of the ones you teach with your heart, and the ones you show with your behavior.  I guess we’ll see.  Meanwhile, it appears my job is changing from instruction and guidance to witnessing, to appreciation and encouragement, and to listening as I walk alongside.

I hope I have the sense to listen.  Because I sure wouldn’t know one snake from another, without a kid to teach me.

He raised his long, gangly arms instinctively, then dropped them again, uncertain.  The study in his light blue eyes was tentative, watchful, hopeful, but unsure.

I looked right into them, longing to restore his comfort, trying to beam away the weight of so many months of uncertainty.  Long, dry, confusing, lonely, frightening months.  The last time we hugged, he was a year younger, inches shorter, shoe sizes smaller.  Just a year?  Across the gulf of this moment, it felt like a lifetime.  It was before the emergence of that precocious intellect, with its crackling wit and love of puns, its astonishing vocabulary, before he asked things like how to use “irascible” in a sentence.  And before he debated his mother issue for issue, flashing terms learned so young in the long shadows of the extraordinary era, out of the deep, omnipresent tragedies of the previous year, terms like “racism” and “sexism.”

Reaching toward him, slowly but comfortably, I encircled his thin shoulders with one arm, then both.  Our Buddy is 10 now, tall, angular, thin, elbows and feet everywhere, an openly tender and vulnerable young soul.  Inside the safety of my arms, he signed softly for a beat or two, then squeezed back in response.

It’s OK now, I said out loud, while wondering if those words would ever really ring completely true to any of us again.  It’s OK, I repeated, mustering more confidence this time, my arms giving the signal that mattered most to this young man, little boy, grandson, brother, son, child of the times, one of millions.  It’s fine to hug me now.  It’s safe.  I’ve had my shot.

 

 

Nothing illuminates the beauty of the average day quite so brilliantly as the fear that the average day has vanished indefinitely, maybe for always.

And so, on the morning after the President of the United States declared the virus pandemic a national emergency, I ventured out to see how my little world would respond to this chapter of reality never imagined in my lifetime.  The strict government guidelines on cancelling large gatherings and restricting business traffic were a few days off yet, so I set out to see what was open, what was closed, and who might be out and about

First stop, the grocery store. Facebook updates had seemed incredible, with notes on shortages, featuring photos of empty shelves where abundance had reigned just days before. It seemed like something that happens in some sad, faraway place we have no desire to visit, yet suddenly, we have arrived there.  Still, this particular grocer—my personal favorite, Trader Joe’s—was ready for the small crowd that gathered for the 8 a.m. opening.  “Good morning!” said a cheerful greeter as customers filed in quietly, hopefully.  “We’re glad you are here today.”  Friendly charm as a talisman against panic?  It was a brilliant strategy.  I could feel myself breathing a little easier.  The woman just in front of me at the stack of carrying baskets grabbed one for herself, then turned around, extending her other arm and offered one to me. “Good morning,” she said companionably, and I accepted the basket, returned the smile, and breathed just a little deeper still.

I looked around, encouraged at the sight of full produce shelves, banana bunches brightly curled in piles of riotous yellow and ruby apples nearly spilling over their bins. Bread shelves were lined with plump, fragrant bags.  The amiable spirit of the crowd as shoppers spread out among the aisles seemed, indeed, to help stifle any urge to snatch multiples for hoarding, and I observed no one piling carts high.  I leaned over the freezer section to snare a particular favorite, frozen organic blueberries, and met the eyes of a woman acquiring raspberries from the adjacent bin.  “Good morning,” she said with a congenial nod, and I marveled at this group of strangers, so bent on offering civility.  Determined to respond in kind, I admitted, “I’m so glad to find my blueberries this morning! I was afraid they might not have any.”  For this, I received an empathetic eye roll. “People need to BEHAVE,” she answered firmly, with the authority of a sixth-grade teacher who brooks no foolishness from hormone-mad adolescents.  “They need to wash their hands, only buy what they need, and BEHAVE.  Now, you have a good day,” she concluded briskly, pushing her cart in the other direction.

A few aisles over, I was disappointed to find the shelves for canned goods nearly empty.  No beans or diced tomatoes for chili, not on this day. I stopped a box-toting staffer who was motoring past.  “No beans at all today?”  I asked sadly.  “We’ll be full on this shelf later today, closer to closing time, ma’am,” he said, shifting his carton to the floor briefly so he could face me.  “I’m sure you don’t want to make another trip, and I’m really so sorry.  We were caught by surprise by all of this, like everyone, I guess, but we’re starting to get a handle on it now.  It’s going to start getting better in the next few days.”  I get it, I answered with a shrug, thinking how hard it must be to disappoint so many people.  “Hang in there.”  He hoisted his carton again and grinned back at me as he sped away, adding, “You do the same.”

Next stop:  some professional attention for the toenails. It seems astonishing now, but just six days ago getting a pedicure still seemed like a logical, not risky, thing to do.  Is it petty to crave a pedicure during a national crisis?  Quite possibly, but I elected to view it as fuel for the local economy, and the urgent imperatives of social distancing were a day or two away from commanding the national consciousness, at least around here. I crossed the street to the popular nail salon that takes walk-ins and is regularly patronized by nearly everyone I know. On a pre-pandemic Saturday morning preceding spring break and beach plans for many families it would have been hopeless to get in without an appointment. Stepping underneath a large American flag prominently placed at the entrance, I pushed open the door and walked into an empty salon.

“We are very glad to see you,” said the smiling proprietor.  I followed him to a chair and caught a whiff of disinfectant as I sat down and waited for the technician.  As always, the place was sparkling clean, and I was impressed with the careful precautions—gloves, masks on all technicians, sterilized instruments– throughout the process, though I knew those had long been there and were not instituted to combat our national problem.  A few customers trickled in, probably a dozen or so on a morning when there would have been three times that many.  With smooth, exfoliated feet and sparkling toenails, I passed him again on my way out the door.

“Thank you,” I said, and paused, gesturing around the wide space.  “I hope things go OK for you, that people still come, you know…” I trailed off, struggling for something appropriate to say in this unknown territory. Nodding, he gestured in a similar manner and answered in a heavy Asian accent, “We have lots of space, we spread people out, we be very careful.”  I regretted that I couldn’t understand everything he explained, but his conclusion was clear as a bell.  He paused and gazed at me warmly, looking me straight in the eye. “It be OK,” he said, “It be OK. This is America.”  I turned to go, overwhelmed by the ache in my heart, uncertain if I smiled in goodbye.  Ducking again under his large American flag, I felt tears welling up and trickling out as I made my way to my car.  Whether they were droplets of appreciation, of sympathy, or of sheer terror, I can’t know.

And, of course, a few days later, the flag continued waving above the door emblazoned with this sign.