Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Category: STORIES

Moving Boulders in the Brook

Author’s note:  This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and…

Author’s note:  This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and hear the rustling brook that runs through the farm to the lake I’m brought back to a sunny day many years ago when I was helping Gramp with a chore that taught me valuable lessons. Here’s a story excerpted from my book, The Willoughby Chronicles.

I’m lying on the beach reading a Hardy Boys book and Chet’s in the middle of a speedboat race. The sun on my back feels great. I’m not quite hot enough to jump in the lake, but I’m getting there.

“Teddy!” It’s Gramp. Oh, shit, I think, he’s found me. I’m 12 and under his employ this summer to help take care of the family’s rental cottages and land by the shores of Willoughby Lake. When I’m needed, I have to help. That’s it. And there’s no point trying to complain with Gramp. A biplane pilot in the First World War, he flew reconnaissance missions to photograph the enemy lines. In the Second World War, by then a full colonel, he helped Eisenhower prepare the Allies for the invasion of Normandy, checking supplies, stocking warehouses, and generally making sure all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.

This is a man who knows how to get the job done.

He’s used to having his orders followed. Even now, bent with 70 years of living, Gramp’s presence is commanding. He’s tall, with a prominent nose and sharp eyes shaded by his long-brimmed khaki cap.

“Yes, Gramp?” I say.

“Teddy, there you are. I need your help in the brook.”

Gramp is leaning his weight against a thick steel crowbar longer than he is. I can’t imagine what could be wrong with the brook, but all I can manage to say is, “Sure, Gramp.” I put on an old pair of sneakers and follow him.

The brook is always cold, even on the hottest days of August. Cedar and birch trees lean over the banks and shade the clear water and the tumble of rocks. Some rocks are thick with a cushy green moss, some are polished by the current. On either side of the brook, tucked beneath tall pines, my grandparents have built barn-red cottages with fieldstone fireplaces and views of the lake—rental cottages that have to be cleaned each week in preparation for a new crop of summer tenants. Today, Gramp stands on the bank of the brook and hands the long steel bar down to me. I’m up to my ankles in the freezing water, still wondering what on earth Gramp is up to. He peers down into the water, one hand behind his back. “Now Teddy,” he says, “all we have to do is move that rock over to there.”

“This one?” I ask, pointing the heavy crowbar at a boulder that must be 400 pounds.

“Yes, move it over to there.”

“Why?”

He doesn’t answer. My grandfather must be getting senile; that’s the only explanation. But senile or not, I better do as he says. So I try to lift up one edge of the boulder with my bare hands. It’s like trying to budge a mountain.

“No, no,” Gramp says testily, “use the bar. Get under it.”

I use the bar as a lever, and with much gasping and grunting I move the rock about four inches.

“That’s it, you’re getting it. Keep at it, Teddy, keep at it.”

I grunt more, I push, I heave. Sweat covers every inch of my body except my ankles, which are soaking in ice water. After a half hour or so I manage to shimmy the boulder over to the side of the bank. Finally, I can get back to my book, or maybe take a swim.

“That’s just dandy,” Gramp says. “Wonderful. Just dandy. We’re almost done. Now all we have to do is move that rock there, yes—no, that one right there—yes, we have to move that rock over to there.”

The rock he’s pointing at looks like something out of Stonehenge.

I stare at it for a second, imagining Druids performing ceremonies at its base. My protest is breathy and worthless. “That’s an awfully big rock, Gramp.”

“You can do it,” Gramp says. “Just move it over to there and we’ll be almost done.”

It’s always this way with Gramp, I realize—no matter where you are with a job, even if you’ve just started, you’re almost done. It’s a mental trick you can pull on yourself. But I am not done. I have to move this boulder, and that one, and that one, and that one, and this one, and that one, and my hands are soggy and raw from hauling at the rough, wet rocks; my toes are banged up and spongy; I’m an exhausted, sweaty, mindless mess, and all I have to do is move this other rock over to there, and that will be just dandy and we’ll be almost done.

At long last, after seven hours in the brook, Gramp looks me in the eye and says, “Teddy, there’s no substitute for hard work.”

I smile and look down into the shady water. The current is swift and straight right through the center of the brook. And the banks are lined with sturdy boulders that will prevent erosion of the valuable land. This year the spring floods will do no harm. Gramp adjusts his cap and walks off with the crowbar. “Just dandy,” he says. “Wonderful. We’re all done.”

What are lessons you learned from your grandparents? Please post a comment below with a lesson or two so we can learn from each other and help nurture the next great generation.

Comments Off on Moving Boulders in the Brook

Veteran Wisdom

This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me. My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an…

This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me.

My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an American pilot in World War I. His job was to fly over the trenches and take photographs that could be used for military intelligence – a pioneering use of what became known as aerial reconnaissance. I remember seeing a picture he’d taken over Verdun (one of the more notorious battlefields), showing a hellscape of shell craters and smashed trees. Gramp was tall, with an aquiline nose and piercing eyes, always eager to tell stories or sing a song, one hand behind his back while the other accentuated his words like a conductor. In World War II he became a colonel in the Air Force, stationed in England.

My grandfather, Fred Fish, in World War I.

My father, William (Bill) Page, studied radar in grad school at Harvard and put his knowledge of the nascent technology to use as a lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh, an attack transport ship in the Pacific theater in World War II.

On the rare occasions when dad talked about his war experiences, he’d recount the horrors of the battle of Okinawa.

His long face would get a steely, almost detached look as he told of his ship being dive-bombed by kamikazes, the men shouting for smoke to shroud the ship, seeing the planes hurtling towards the ship—so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots—the deafening explosions, a leg floating in the water. I never fully realized just how traumatized dad was by all this throughout his life, an inner demon that would show itself unexpectedly. The color red sometimes made him unhinged with terror. I remember once my mom handing him a bowl of cereal in a red bowl; his face became a horrible mask of clenched teeth and deeply furrowed brow and intense glaring eyes and he shouted, “Blood! Blood!”

My dad (back row, 6th from the right) aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh 1945.

Gramp and my dad were very different people. Gramp was a lifelong Republican, a salesman, a football fan and fisherman. My dad was an intellectual Democrat, a chemical engineer who read voraciously. But through their very different stories ran a shared thread of wisdom that became woven into my memory and thoughts on war.

When I asked my dad what his takeaway was from all his experiences, he looked very thoughtful for a minute, then said quietly, “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty.”

Dad felt terrible guilt over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though the bombings may have shortened the war (and he might have died in an invasion of Japan), there was simply no justification for incinerating children. “War was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen,” he’d say.

Gramp’s thoughts on war were less direct, but just as powerful.

One Easter Day in 1969 we gathered at my grandparents’ house, stuffed ourselves on ham, potatoes, peas—and many pieces of pie—then sat in the living room of their ranch house. Gramp was a master at holding court, sitting in his wing-backed chair, while all around him sat me, my four older brothers, and three cousins (two of them young men). We wore jackets and ties. Somehow the topic of the Vietnam War came up.

“Boys,” Gramp said, “Let me tell you. I was in France in World War I. Well, they called that ‘the War to End All Wars.’ But that wasn’t the end of it. World War II came and we had to go back and fight again.” He raised a finger and wagged it, “You’d think that would have been the last one, but then we had Korea. And now we have Vietnam.” He looked at us intently, all these boys and young men gathered around listening in rapt attention.

“All I can tell you,” Gramp said, “is that it’s always the old men who start wars, and the young men who are sent off to fight them.”

Gramp never told us not to go to Vietnam. Two of my older brothers were eligible to volunteer or be drafted. I was too young. But everyone in the room drew their own conclusion.

Here’s my take. To honor our veterans, I mean really honor them—not just say the words “Thank you for your service,” we need to listen to them. Through hearing their stories and sharing them with our children and grandchildren, we can find the peace that every generation has longed for, and perhaps in the process create the greatest generation of all.

Comments Off on Veteran Wisdom

The Joy and Stigma of Being a Grandfather

The level of joy that goes with being a grandpa is off the charts. But to be truly honest, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. When I first learned I…

The level of joy that goes with being a grandpa is off the charts. But to be truly honest, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

When I first learned I was going to be a grandpa, the joy I felt was intermingled with something like alarm. I was, I reminded myself, only fifty-five years old. The only grandpa I ever knew was well into his seventies, a wizened retiree and veteran of two world wars who fled Vermont winters for sunny Arizona. Suddenly I was going to be in the same club. How was that possible? I’m certainly not the only grandpa who’s felt this way. Greg Payne, who produces the Cool Grandpa podcast, has related a similar story.

Women also struggle with this major life stage milestone. Just hearing the terms ‘grandpa’ or ‘grandma’ can smash our self-image like a walking cane thrown through a plate glass window. “My mom’s hot and she didn’t want to be called Grandma,” reports Gwyneth Paltrow.  Her mother, the actress Blythe Danner, insisted on being called Woof instead. Think about that for a moment. A word associated with dogs is preferable to one that conveys grey hair.

In my case, while I didn’t relate to the elderly image of grandfatherhood, I did fully embrace my role. I told everyone about it. That included my partners at the marketing agency I co-founded and all our employees. I even shared baby pictures of my grandchild through emails and Slack. When I was in my twenties I eagerly shared baby pictures of my daughter with my co-workers at the Manhattan ad agency I worked at. Why not share photos of my grandkid to people who worked for me?

Big mistake. Or, to put it a better way, what happened next was bad. But it wasn’t my fault.

Right around the time I made my grand pronouncement to employees, the thirty-something general manager of my agency shared a memo with me and my partners about the future of the firm and things that could change. I was genuinely interested in what this bright young fellow had to say. That was until I got to the part of the memo where he stated that I was on a faster track to retirement than the other co-founder of the agency—a man virtually the same age as me.

I was indignant and angry. And I concluded—rightly, I believe—that the reason I was pegged as ready to jet off to sunny Arizona for my winters was because this employee knew I was a grandpa. Retirement is just what grandpas do, right? When I confronted my employee about this he muttered a few evasive reasons for my faster-track retirement, none of which included my being a grandpa.

Would it have helped if I’d called myself Woof?

Now that I have 4 grandchildren I have learned a few things. I’m proud of being a grandpa but generally don’t bring up the topic of grandchildren when starting out new client engagements. When I do bring up my grandkids, the response is generally “Wow, you don’t look old enough to be a grandpa!” This is complementary in a way, but also illustrates just how prevalent misconceptions are in our society. The average American becomes a grandparent at age fifty-five, so I was actually right on time. Lots of people become grandparents in their forties.

As I write this, however, it’s becoming clear that maybe I need to unlearn a few things.

I shouldn’t hide the fact that I’m a grandpa. Doing so is a surrender to the stigma associated with this amazing and rewarding stage of life. Nor should I be the least bit happy hearing that I don’t look old enough to be a grandpa. If someone becomes a grandparent—at whatever age—everyone needs to understand that what defines us has nothing to do with how old we are, or how old we may look. It’s about wisdom. Nurturing the next great generation. And yes, joy.

So, here’s an alternate, non-age-related image of a grandfather. It happens to be a shot of me taking a swim using my new wetsuit in an ice-cold lake in early May. Cold water swimming has tremendous health benefits, and it sure beats crowding into a gym. When I’m not swimming I’m running a marketing agency that helps clean energy companies grow, and I’m many years away from retirement.

This is my story. You have yours. If we share our stories with friends and co-workers, the old stereotypes will fade like photos in the sun.

You might ask, what do my grandkids call me? I’m Grandpa Ted. And I’m sticking with it.

 

The author in very, very cold Lake Willoughby, Vermont, early May 2021.

4 Comments on The Joy and Stigma of Being a Grandfather

Reunion

Seven years ago when I found out I was going to be a grandpa I immediately sought advice on grandparenting. The prospect of being a grandpa seemed daunting. Surely there…

Seven years ago when I found out I was going to be a grandpa I immediately sought advice on grandparenting. The prospect of being a grandpa seemed daunting. Surely there were a million things for me to learn. Books to devour. Professors to consult.

But first, I spoke with my Aunt Lois.

Lois, now 95, is my late mother’s sister. In her career Lois was a much-loved music teacher as well as an accomplished cellist. During WWII she became a pilot to help ferry mail across the United States.

My Aunt Lois during the war.

Most importantly, Lois has 6 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. So I asked Lois for advice on how I could be a good grandfather.

Lois looked thoughtful for a moment, raised one hand and pronounced with gravitas, “Be there for them.”

At first I thought this was just the preamble to a speech. Nope. “Be there for them” was it, not so much a statement as a command. I have done my best to live up to this deceptively simple advice.

Being a grandpa has meant not sitting on the sidelines.

When I take the grandkids to a playground I’m there to play with them, not chill on a bench. In one of our favorite games I play the role of the “Tickle Monster.” I run around trying to catch them, and when I finally do (which requires real work given how speedy these kids are) they get tickled without mercy. Peals of laughter can be heard for miles. But like any good fisherman I release the little ones so they can be caught again.

Hanging out with the kids at home entails all kinds of activities together. Like creating castles out of couch cushions. Or reading The Lorax while snuggled up on the couch first thing in the morning as they glurp milk from sippy cups. Or Goodnight Moon at bedtime, the sound of my voice gradually lowering with the sun to lull them towards sleep and the realm of dreams.

All of this came to an abrupt end at the dawn of the pandemic.

It’s been said (notably well by the writer Paula Span in her article The Year Grandparents Lost), that the pandemic was especially hard on grandparents. Not only did the pandemic cause more deaths among older age groups, it also built a wall between the generations just when everyone needed their loved ones the most. For my wife and I, being apart from our children and grandchildren felt like being exiled to a foreign land. Some kind of Siberian gulag of the soul. Fortunately my wife has proven to be an excellent pandemic buddy despite her leaving countless balls of used Kleenex around the house strewn like wet flowers after a storm (truthfully, the list of my transgressions would require an entire story all to itself, but somehow she puts up with me).

Playground romps and bedtime books were replaced by rations of Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not that the video chats were infrequent; we were jumping on the phone multiple times every day. But too often our calls seemed like constant reminders that we could not really be there with our grandkids.

And all the while we knew they were growing up without us.

That hurt. Still, we reminded ourselves that our parents’ generation had it a lot worse; they lived through the Great Depression and a horrific world war. Surely we could manage through the masks and isolation.

Job one was simply to stay alive. In the case of my mother-in-law, Dorothy, this was unfortunately not possible. After months of near total isolation in a nursing home she succumbed to COVID, alone, in a Providence hospital in September of 2020. Her tragic death made us double down on our resolve to stay safe so we could one day all be together again. Which meant staying alone.

The surprising chorus that ushered in the spring of 2021.

I went to get my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine in March. It was in a big open space of a community center on the North Shore of Massachusetts, buzzing with nurses and volunteers and people like me. For months I’d seen the absolute misery and pain of front-line healthcare workers struggling to help COVID patients in the face of short supplies and overwhelming caseloads. But in the hall that day a different mood prevailed. The space was suffused with hope and happiness, and while I could not see the smiles under the masks of the nurses, their eyes spoke volumes. At last here was something positive and meaningful they could do.

After the quick jab I sat in the hall for the required half hour. And it was there, as I thumbed through emails and posted on Facebook, that a song welled up on the loudspeakers. It was Bill Withers singing Lean On Me. Quiet at first, then building as one by one, like a wave, the nurses, volunteers and patients started to sing along.

“Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on…”

Behind the big sheets of plexiglass the nurses sang and swayed to the music, this rapidly growing chorus of those who had been beat down but were now rising, together. I sang, too. It was an electric feeling, a moment I will never forget.

“Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill
Those of your needs that you won’t let show…”

Within a few months, the second vaccine shot behind us, my wife and I were finally able to see our children and grandchildren again. There were many hugs and tears.

I hoisted my grand girl in the air and carried her on my shoulders…

 

…I chased my grandsons through playgrounds, the Tickle Monster alive again…

 

I met our newest grandbaby for the first time, a lovely girl born in March.

 

“Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend…”

In a way, our grandchildren seemed the same (although bigger). But when my oldest grandson—now 6—grabbed a book so we could read together, it was now him proudly reading to me. The gap of time we’d lost together was suddenly palpable. This made me sad, yet I was also happy—filled with joy, actually—because despite the many challenges of the past year our family had continued to grow and persevere. Our bonds had become even stronger. And once again, with the love and support of all those around me, I can be there for them.

“I’ll help you carry on…
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

 

Comments Off on Reunion

Henry and Charlie’s Thrilling Moon Cat Adventure

Author’s note: When I was a boy my father took great delight in telling me stories at bedtime. Sometimes they were his old favorites, like Winnie the Pooh or The…

Author’s note:

When I was a boy my father took great delight in telling me stories at bedtime. Sometimes they were his old favorites, like Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. But many nights dad would make up his own stories on the spot. His extemporaneous tales were wildly imaginative and each was very different, but all of them involved two main characters—ghosts named Casper and Jasper—along with me and my four older brothers. I lay in rapt attention as each story unfolded, delighting to hear new stories where I and my brothers had roles to play.

Unfortunately none of these stories was ever written down. That was part of their magic, I suppose. They were like unique flakes of snow that spun magically and melted on my mind, never to be seen the same way again. I don’t remember what happened in the stories, but I do recall loving them. And loving the time I got to spend with my father, a man who was always busy with a million projects.

Now, with three grandchildren and one more on the way in February, I’m following in dad’s footsteps. When my own kids where little I made up stories, and did write some of them down (they’re probably in a box in the basement somewhere). But today with the grandkids I have a chance to make my stories more evergreen, and share them with your family as well.

Here, then, is one such story. My two main characters are Henry and Charlie. To me, they are my handsome, smart and fast-growing grandsons. To everyone else they may be simply characters, but I hope that they are as real for you as they are for me.

Enjoy,

Grandpa Ted

It was a day like a lot of other days in Oakdale, Connecticut.

People drove around and bought groceries or shoes. They had Zoom meetings in the basement laundry room, ate macaroni for lunch in front of the TV and had naps or played video games. Henry and Charlie, however, were not going to have a regular day. Why?

Well, I just don’t know where to begin. So I’ll start at the beginning.

Henry, age 6, and Charlie, two years younger, woke up early and went downstairs to play. Pretty soon mom, otherwise known as Abigail, came down and asked if they would like to have one of two things for breakfast. Option 1 was blueberry pancakes. Option 2 was a new kind of breakfast burrito made with BongoBongo beans, grown only in the heart of the great Amazon forest in Brazil where the trees grow very tall.

The boys were tempted by the idea of pancakes, but they’d JUST had them the day before and today they felt like something different.

So they asked for the special Breakfast burrito with the Brazilian BongoBongo beans.

Mom said, “Coming right up!” And within minutes, Charlie and Henry were chowing down on their BongoBongo bean breakfast burritos like dogs who hadn’t eaten in months. They made so much noise eating that their next-door neighbors, Claire and Carl Loosebowel, came over and complained. The Loosebowels were short with wiry black hair, and tended to run everywhere they went.

Charlie looked closely at one of the BongoBongo beans. It was bright yellow and as big as a grape but longer. And it tasted like a combination of chicken and marshmallows.

After they finished devouring their BongoBongo bean burritos (more quietly so as not to disturb Claire and Carl Loosebowel) they went outside to play in the snow.

It had snowed about two feet earlier in the week, and Henry and Charlie had built a big snow fort which they named The Kingdom of Wow.

Well, on this day—which, as I’ve said, was definitely not a regular day—the boys discovered their Kingdom of Wow was for some strange reason way too small to get into. The snow fort had apparently shrunk overnight to about half the size it had been. Disappointed, the boys went inside to tell mom. But just as they were walking into the living room both Charlie and Henry bonked their heads on the ceiling.

Mom looked up at them and her jaw dropped in wonder.

Henry said, “Hey, the Kingdom of Wow shrank. We can’t get in! And why is the ceiling so low in here?”

Mom said, “Oh my. You are so much bigger than you were when you woke up. How is that possible?”

Henry said, “What?” But when he looked at the family dog, Rory, he knew it was true because Rory was now the size of a tiny toy poodle.

Charlie was about to say, “We can’t be getting big that fast, can we?” Even as he was saying this he saw the room shrink before his eyes and felt the top of his head pressing harder up against the ceiling.

“Goodness,” mom said, “You better go outside!”

They ducked under the front door and as soon as they were outside the trees lining the road seemed to shrink down to little shrubs. A sparrow flew by and landed on Henry’s shoulder. Farther and farther down below cars drove through the neighborhood like tiny Matchbox race cars. Charlie looked up at a cloud and before he could say “what the…” his head was in the cloud.

Henry and Charlie’s dad, Ryan, came out on the lawn and looked up at the two fast-growing giants and immediately pictured his sons with college basketball scholarships. With Henry and Charlie now taller than the house, they’d be able to get the basketball in the hoop every time.

Abigail couldn’t believe her eyes.

Henry and Charlie just kept growing and growing, way bigger than their Grandpa Ted. They were now as tall as buildings and they kept right on going. Henry heard a buzzing sound which he thought was a bug going by his right ear, but when he looked he saw that it was an airplane. People on the airplane had their faces glued to the windows as they looked out at him in wonder.

“Um, what’s going on?” Ryan asked Abigail.

A bunch of ideas ran through Abigail’s mind like frantic mice.

Then all at once she knew what had happened.

“It was the special Brazilian BongoBongo beans in the breakfast burritos!” She blurted.

“Really?” Ryan said.

“That has to be it!” Abigail said. “They must be some kind of magic bean that makes children grow!”

By the time Abigail said this, Charlie and Henry’s feet were bigger than the Subaru parked in the driveway. The boys looked at each other and laughed. “This is so cool,” Charlie said. “Yea,” replied Henry.

Just then Henry burped, sending a gust of burpy breath so strong it made a nearby helicopter fly wildly off course.

The boys kept right on growing.

And growing.

And growing.

And still they grew, higher and higher. They looked up, wondering how high they could possibly go. The sky above was no longer blue. It was increasingly dark like a cloud, yet clear at the same time, with little specs of white twinkling out of the darkness like the fireflies the boys had seen blinking in the air on cool June nights in Vermont.

That’s when they realized the lights were stars.

Suddenly just like that their heads popped through into space. They had never seen stars and planets so clear before. Especially the moon. The surface of the moon wasn’t smooth after all. It was not a round flat ball of white like they’d seen out their window at bedtime, but a place with mountains and valleys, and maybe even lakes of dark green blue water shimmering in the sun.

At this point the boys were so big they were able to reach up and grab hold of the moon, and with one big pull they managed to hoist themselves up and set foot on the moon for the first time. The ground was made of grey powdery dust. A small American flag stood a few feet away, with a few stray golf balls around it.

On the horizon the Earth looked like a little blue ball.

That’s when they heard footsteps. Not just any footsteps. GIANT footsteps, each one making a huge crashing sound.

“Hide! Quick!” Henry said. They ducked behind a mountain just in time, because the next second a humungous cat — bigger than a building, bigger than the mountain they were hiding behind, bigger than anything they’d ever seen slinked into the valley. Its fur was brown streaked with rivers of sickly mustard yellow. Its eyes gleamed white like the headlights of an oncoming truck. Its teeth were long and spiked like knives.

The cat growled,

“I’m a kitty who has no pity
Hear me purr while I eat your city
Munch and crunch
Scratch and prowl
When I’m done, you won’t look pretty.”

Charlie grabbed Henry’s arm. “Can we go home now?” he pleaded in a hushed voice so the giant cat wouldn’t hear him.

“Wait,” Henry said, “Look!” He pointed to a little thing that was following the gigantic cat. “It’s a kitten.”

Charlie said, “Oh, so cute.”

“We have to take him home with us” whispered Henry.

The question was, how could they get the kitten without the giant cat seeing them?

This was quite a puzzle. Should they scrunch down and crawl over to grab the kitty? No, the giant cat would spot them in a second. Should they catch the kitten with a net? Well, they didn’t have a net. As the huge cat sat and licked its claws, Charlie and Henry sat and thought. And they thought some more.

That’s when Charlie saw a bush next to him, and hanging from its branches were BongoBongo beans just like the ones he’d had in his Brazilian BongoBongo bean burrito that morning.

Maybe the beans weren’t from Brazil after all. Maybe they were from the moon!

Charlie picked a BongoBongo bean and munched it, savoring the chicken marshmallow flavor. And suddenly right before his eyes Henry grew. Or he thought he grew, but in reality what had happened was that Charlie had shrunk, for in his eyes Henry was now a giant.

“It’s the BongoBongo beans,” Charlie said. “They made us big at home, but on the moon they make us little.”

Henry knew in an instant that Charlie was right. “Hey,” Henry said. “If we’re little we can sneak up behind the giant cat and get the kitten without him even seeing us!”

Henry reached for a BongoBongo bean so he could get small, too, but then it dawned on him that if both he and his brother were little they wouldn’t be big enough to reach up and grab hold of the Earth to pull themselves back to Connecticut. They’d be stuck on the moon forever. The boys talked and came up with a plan B. Henry would just have to stay big, they decided, while Charlie would stay small.

“Ok,” said Henry, “I’ll go distract the big cat while you sneak in and grab the kitten. Then run as fast as you can back to this spot and I’ll get us home.”

So off they went, Henry towards the front of the big nasty cat, and Charlie towards the kitten behind.

Henry walked bravely right up to the giant cat.

“Hey, you big ugly cat!” Henry shouted up at the creature.

The cat’s head turned and as it spotted Henry before him its eyes narrowed and it bared its huge sharp teeth. A hiss like a thousand snakes poured from its mouth.

“Who dares enter the land of the moon cats!” roared the cat. “Speak, or I’ll make you my purrrrrrfect little snack.”

Henry planted his feet defiantly and held his hands behind his back. “My name,” he said confidently, “is Henry. What’s yours?”

“I have no name that you would understand, little snack child,” said the cat. “I am Lord of the Moon Cats. I lay in the warm sun. I prowl the moon night and day. I catch and eat things. I claw furniture without getting into trouble. I answer to NO ONE. Tell me your business quick.”

Henry spotted Charlie running behind the cat towards the kitten, his feet kicking up little clouds of moon dust. Henry had no idea what to tell the big ugly cat, but he knew he had to stall him to give Charlie more time.

“My business?” Henry said. “Funny you should ask. I have very important business. I have to…I mean, what I have to do here, the business is….well, you see…”

“You have five seconds!” screeched the cat, raising a paw and baring its claws.

“Well, since you asked,” said Henry, “I’ll tell you.” He saw Charlie grab the kitten and run.

“I have been sent,” Henry said, “on a mission from the planet Earth; that’s the blue dot up there,” Henry said, pointing calmly, “a mission to find the smartest cat in the universe.”

The giant cat, who had been ready to swipe Henry right off the ground and into his mouth, paused. In truth the Lord of the Moon Cats had always thought of himself as quite smart. He had, after all, out-smarted all the other moon cats in order to become Lord of All. He usually won at board games and was very good with crossword puzzles. The thought of everyone on all the planets realizing that he was in fact the smartest cat in the universe was tempting. He wanted to know more — although his tummy was starting to rumble with hunger and he was not known for patience when it came to snacking.

“Go on…” said the cat.

“Well, yes, of course,” said Henry, wishing at this point he’d never gotten anywhere near this giant beast of a kitty.

“You see, once we’ve found the absolute smartest cat, we will give it a new planet to rule, and provide it with the best cat toys to play with, plus all kinds of delicious food night and day so it will never again have to hunt for things to eat.  It will be able to lie in the warm sun and nap all day AND all night. Now, to see if you might be the smartest cat, you’ll have to take a test and….”

“I take no tests!” screeched the cat, rising up on its hind legs.

“I’m the Lord of the Moon Cats! Only I give the tests that others must pass! So I will ask YOU three questions. If you get them all right, I will be declared the absolute smartest cat in the universe!”

“Ok,” said Henry, “But you must promise not to eat me.”

The cat rolled its eyes, “Oh fine. Here’s question number one. How do you spell cat?”

Henry had just studied this at school, but he was a little nervous with the giant cat breathing on him. He thought and thought.

“Cat begins with. Um, it begins with…C!” shouted Henry.

“And then what?” the cat said, its claws drawing nearer.

“C-A-T!” Henry squeaked in a nick of time.

“A lucky guess!” said the cat, disappointed but still quite sure he’d be eating the boy soon enough. “Question two. What is five plus four?”

Henry counted on his fingers behind his back.

“Eight!” said Henry, “No, nine! Five plus four is nine!”

The cat, which had started licking its huge purple lips at the thought of chewing up Henry, hissed with a great gust of nasty smelling cat breath that nearly knocked Henry off his feet. “Clever boy!” said the cat, “But my last question will be hardest of all, and when you get it wrong I will eat you!”

“Ready!” said Henry, wanting very much to run.

“What colors do you mix to make pink?” the cat asked, raising an eyebrow.

Henry froze. He thought back to all the art projects he’d done with his mom.

They’d mixed all kinds of colors together to make brown, black, yellow, blue – but how did they make pink? Seconds went by. The cat inched closer to him and Henry could hear a low rumbling sound, the gurgle of the cat’s stomach.

“Red!” blurted Henry, knowing at least that red was definitely part of pink.

“Red and what?!” said the cat, coming even closer.

Henry’s mind raced. He knew it wasn’t blue or green or orange. But if red was just a lighter shade it could be pink, yes? What could make red a little less red? Just then he looked down at his feet, thinking hard, and there by his right foot was a white rock.

“White!” shouted Henry. “Red mixed with white make pink!”

The cat jumped up on its hind legs and roared in frustration, clawing the air.

Henry bolted. He ran harder and faster than he ever had before, and when he looked behind him he saw the big kit coming towards him, bounding from mountaintop to mountaintop and gaining on him.

Henry jumped across one final hill and found Charlie crouched by a boulder, the kitten in his arms. He grabbed Charlie and the kitten and jumped lickety-split up towards the blue ball of Earth and managed—just barely—to grab hold of it and pull himself up with one arm, but when he looked down the giant cat was in mid-air jumping after him with one huge paw raised to strike.

The ferocious moon cat’s paw, with claws outstretched, swished with a rush of hot air within inches of Henry’s feet, barely missed him. And with one last pull Henry lifted himself and his brother and the kitten back to the yard in front of their house in Darien, Connecticut.

They were home and safe at last.

The only problem was that Henry was still as tall as a skyscraper and could not fit in their house, while Charlie was regular size.

But it turns out there’s a solution to everything. Because they soon found out that the moon kitten, who they named Bongo, pooped silver dollars. Lots and lots of silver dollars. So the boys gave them to mom and dad, and with all the extra money they built a huge addition on their house just for Henry. (Truth be told, they kept a few dollars hidden in a piggy bank to buy candy with, or cat toys for Bongo).

Charlie and Henry would play together as they always did before their BongoBongo bean moon adventure. In time, of course, Charlie grew to be just as big as Henry. And at some point every day, after playing and playing with all their toys for hours, they’d give each other a hug.

“No matter what,” Henry would say, “You’ll always be my best little brother.”

“And you’ll always be my best big brother,” Charlie would reply.

And Bongo would always be the smartest little moon cat there ever was.

THE END

 

#grandpa

#grandfathers

#grandparenting

 

Comments Off on Henry and Charlie’s Thrilling Moon Cat Adventure

The Accidental Guardian

This true story was first published in Boston Magazine, and later in my book of stories, The Willoughby Chronicles. I return to it now during this holiday time of pandemic…

This true story was first published in Boston Magazine, and later in my book of stories, The Willoughby Chronicles. I return to it now during this holiday time of pandemic separation. Like so many grandparents around the world, it’s likely I won’t see my grandkids on Christmas. But this story reminds me of how we are all connected through our love of family, and the infinite beauty of the simple concept of grace. Enjoy.

My father braced himself against the high wind, his hands shaking with age, his gray hair swept sideways. Rags of mist blew past like tumbleweed over the jagged rocks, and down below, about a quarter mile distant, the Lake of the Clouds came into view, then out, obscured by the fast-moving clouds. It could have been a scene from Macbeth, but we were actually on Mount Washington again—me, my father and my brother, John.

For years, it had been a family tradition that we climb on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, to honor the victims of the blast.

Throughout the 1970s we made it just about every year. Back then all five brothers made the trek, following Dad up the steep slopes of New England’s highest mountain. By last year, though, John and I were the only ones willing and able to go.

Dad took out his notes. It was time for “the speech.”

John and I had heard it a million times before, but somehow it still got to me. Dad spoke of the war in the Pacific. Kamikazes diving at his ship, so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots, the sailors shouting for smoke to screen the ship, the explosions, the horror. He said to himself, “Oh God, just let me live through this day and I will do good things for the world. Just let me live today, please God.” He spoke of the atomic bomb. There was just no way, in his view, to justify the annihilation of a city. Everyone shared the guilt, he said.

There was a time I used to protest: “But Dad, you were at Okinawa. If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb, you probably would have died in the invasion of Japan.”

Dad would shake his head sadly. “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty,” he’d say.

This time, though, I just let him speak. I had the feeling this would be our final trip up the mountain.

Dad said it was our duty to carry on his work. The world needed to better understand human nature so that we could avoid war. John and I sat and listened without talking. The wind made a whistling sound through the crevices, and I could sense the ghosts of our past selves, all the brothers together, climbing over these same rocks.
John and I were just starting to get up, thinking the speech was over, when Dad said, “There’s one last thing I need to tell you. It’s a true story.”

John and I looked at each other, wondering. We’d heard the speech many times before and this was not part of it.

“Something happened a long time ago,” Dad said slowly, “that put things into perspective. I was waiting to board a flight in Los Angeles and this woman—she was a total stranger—came up to me and said: ‘Excuse me. I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I understand you have a ticket for the earlier flight. Would you mind switching seats with me?’ Well, she took my seat. And I took her seat on the later plane.”

Dad paused for a moment. He looked me in the eye.

Then he said, “Her plane crashed. Everyone on that plane died. And I would have died, too, if she hadn’t taken my place. So, you see, this is all grace. All the years since then, grace. Every day I’m alive is a gift. And I can’t waste that gift. It’s too precious.”

John and I were stunned. Finally, John said, “This happened?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Oh,” he replied, “years ago. Before you were born.”

“So what you’re saying is that if this woman hadn’t switched seats with you, I would never have been born?”

My father nodded. “Yes, Ted, you would never have been born.”

I was shocked. Dumbfounded. The whole thing felt like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the old Frank Capra movie.

In the film, a guardian angel named Clarence jumps off a bridge to prevent George Bailey—the Jimmy Stewart character—from taking his own life. At the end of the film, when George hugs his daughter by the Christmas tree and she reminds him that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings, forget it. I blubber like a big baby. All six feet six inches of me.

We resumed our hike, but in the days and months that followed I found myself preoccupied with questions.

If William Page had died young—and I had never been born—what would the world be like? Exactly where and when did this crash take place? Who was this mystery guardian angel who saved my father’s life?

I hunted for information. And what I found blew me away.

My father had escaped the most horrific air disaster that had ever occurred in America up to that time. It was June 30, 1956. A TWA Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided in midair, then crashed into the Grand Canyon. Everyone on both planes died—128 people. The first domestic crash ever for either type of plane. The first civilian midair collision over the United States—and in the wide-open spaces of the Great American West. Americans were used to thinking of the West as incredibly vast, and suddenly, in one split second, the frontier skies had limits.

Hopi and Navajo Indians held a 24-hour prayer vigil for the dead.

The New York Times showed a list of the passengers of both planes. Who was this mysterious woman? I badgered Dad with questions. He remembered she was not from California, and she needed to get home to her family. She was mature. Anglo-Saxon. I scanned the list. For the first time in my life I had an inkling of how people feel when they’re hunting for their biological mothers. After all, this woman, like my mom, was responsible for my existence.

I asked United Airlines for help in finding her, but they said I was looking for a needle in a haystack.

It’s just as well. What would I do if I found her? Hey, folks, don’t feel so bad—your wife/mother/grandmother died, but look what I have as a result?

So I’ll refer to the mystery woman as Kate. I picture her in the Los Angeles airport in 1956. She’s probably medium height, 43 years old, wearing pearls. Her blue dress is classic ’50s. She rushes into the crowded waiting area where many people are trying to get on the nine a.m. UAL flight. The airline can’t help her; the flight is booked. She scans the room for someone she can ask a favor of.

And then, in the same way the flick of a butterfly’s wing can set off a chain of events that lead to a hurricane, her eyelids flutter. Blink, blink. There’s a balding man in a bow tie. No, not him. Blink. That other one there. Hmm. No, he looks cross. Blink. Blink . . . blink. That man . . .

Kate sees my father.

He’s tall, in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt, thin tie. He has Gregory Peck good looks, black-rimmed glasses, dark brown hair neatly combed. Him.

“Excuse me, sir, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

Dad’s a gentleman, always has been. He opens doors for people. Even in Cambridge’s nasty rush-hour traffic he lets people go ahead of him, never swearing, always cool and calm. No matter how much the world swirls around him, he finds a way to be the eye of the storm. So when he sees Kate before him in the hectic terminal, he agrees on the spot. They go to the counter and exchange tickets.

Kate boards the flight.

Out of her window she can see another plane—a beautiful craft with three tails and four propellers. Very distinctive. Kate doesn’t know it yet, but this other plane is a TWA Super Constellation. It will leave L.A. three minutes ahead of her.

Kate settles down to read her book. Perhaps it’s The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, a New York Times Best Seller that week. She thinks, Thank goodness that nice man let me use his ticket.

Kate reads quietly, then falls asleep. About an hour later, the voice of Captain Robert F. Shirley wakes her. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just passing over the Grand Canyon. There are some pretty big thunderheads ’round these parts today, but I think I’ll be able to steer clear of them to give you a better look.”

Kate stares out her window. Her jaw drops in wonder. Majestic towers of rock, and two rivers running deep through the rock. “The larger river is the Colorado,” the captain explains, “and the smaller river—the blue one—is the Little Colorado.”

Turquoise, Kate thinks, like an Indian necklace. How pretty.

At 10:31 a.m. and 21,000 feet there’s a sudden fierce jolt as the TWA Super Constellation and the United DC-7 collide. The tail of the Constellation is torn off, its fuselage ripped open from the tail to near the main cabin door. The DC-7’s left wing is severely crippled.

The Constellation crashes and burns about 1,000 feet up from the Colorado River at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Aboard the DC-7, there is pandemonium. Those not wearing their seat belts are flung into the air as the plane careens.

The captain screams his last words into the radio: “We’re going in!”

Is Kate thinking, I’m not supposed to be here—it’s not my time?

Near the confluence of the deep blue Little Colorado and the muddy Colorado stands Chuar Butte, a 3,700-foot-high pedestal of rock. The DC-7 hurtles toward the cliffs of red-hued limestone, striking with such force that about half of the wreckage scatters over the plateau. During the following week army helicopter rescue crews will brave high winds and treacherous conditions to get to the remote crash site. They find only small pieces of the DC-7. Nothing recognizable has survived.

 

My Christmases are different than before.

Sure, I buy presents for my wife and children, but I don’t really care about receiving anything in return. I already have something that can’t be shrink-wrapped or put on sale. It’s that grace my dad was talking about. Grace—a funny word, not easy to define out of context. For me, it’s the smell of coffee brewing. It’s swimming in the icy waters of Willoughby Lake. It’s swallowing the moon and watching the light shoot out from my fingertips. It’s a passionate kiss I never want to end, that perfect moment in Beethoven’s Ninth when the soloists are all by themselves, soaring. It’s watching my children sleep.

I was raised a Unitarian. You’ve probably heard the joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Answer: Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason. I tend to think that there are rational explanations for things that happen in nature. And that whatever science doesn’t explain now, it probably will in the future.

Kate was, I believe, the Accidental Guardian.

Still, it is not a huge leap of my imagination to think that something happened that day back in June of 1956. Amid the chaos, the Grand Canyon echoed with terrible sounds, from the rumble of thunder to the wail of bending metal, to the final horrific boom of exploding fuel. And yet, above all these sounds, simple and clear, there was the ringing of a solitary bell.

My dad—always the engineer—has a more grounded view. After we had trudged down the mountain he turned and smiled at John and me. He said, “And the moral of the story is: If someone asks you for a favor, do it.”

Comments Off on The Accidental Guardian

Dreaming Goodbye

To appreciate this true story, you need to know a bit about my Aunt Lois. Now in her 90s, Lois is a Vermonter through and through, as down to earth…

To appreciate this true story, you need to know a bit about my Aunt Lois.

Now in her 90s, Lois is a Vermonter through and through, as down to earth as any person you’ve ever met, and not one to make things up. Although she spent her teenage years in Belmont, Massachusetts, she’s really a Vermonter, having raised my three cousins in Windsor, Vermont, and in the summer joining my family at our shared farm in Westmore, hidden in the far reaches of the state known as the Northeast Kingdom; a place befitting its name, with thousands of acres of dense forest, open farmlands with grazing cows, and Lake Willoughby — a five mile stretch of starkly cold water surrounded by rock-ribbed mountain cliffs that hug the shore.

It’s a place without pretense, where the 30-pound trout pulled up from the ice holes in January are in fact 30-pound trout, with no need for exaggeration.

And so it is with Lois. She just tells it like it is. I picture Lois now down by the lakeshore on a late summer day, the wind blowing in from the South to make the white-topped waves roll and rumble against the beach. Lois’ face is long and deeply lined, her fingers twisted by arthritis into bony branches of an apple tree as she gesticulates to make her points. When she starts to tell the story, she’s transformed in my mind to how she was in 1939, tall and beautiful with long wavy red hair.

Lois was in her senior year of high school, and friends with a boy a little older than her. His name was Willard Haskell. Lois had a feeling he was “sweet on her,” but he was shy; somehow he’d never managed to ask her out. When the Second World War began, however, Willard found the courage to enlist in the Air Force. He’d always wanted to be a pilot and this was his chance. The only problem was that Willard wasn’t good at math, and he was worried he wouldn’t pass the tough air force exam. He turned to Lois for help and she tutored him for months. It worked. Willard got into the air force and was shipped off to England. Lois and Willard exchanged a few letters, but gradually they lost touch as the war stretched on into years.

Then one night in early summer as Lois slept in the farmhouse just up from the shores of Lake Willoughby, she had a vivid dream.

She was standing on the roof of Belmont High School, looking up, and the entire sky as far as the eye could see was full of American bombers, their wings tip to tip, sheet metal rivets gleaming in the early morning light. And there, leaning out the cockpit window of one bomber, was none other than Willard Haskell. He was smiling at her, and waving, his long red scarf fluttering behind. The world shook from the roar of the engines, so intense Lois could feel the roof beneath her bare feet vibrating. And suddenly she was awake.

Lois went downstairs, where my grandmother was in the kitchen making breakfast. “You’ll never believe the dream I had,” Lois told her. “It was so real.” My gram listened, shaking her head at the story. “Well, isn’t that something!”

A short time later, the mailman came by, all excited, “Did you year the news?” he asked, “The allies have landed at Normandy. It’s D-Day!” They immediately turned on the radio to hear the whole story. So long expected, news of the invasion was thrilling and overwhelming, to the point where Lois’ dream fell to the back of her mind.

News of the D-Day invasion.

But two weeks later other news came.

Willard Haskell was missing in action and presumed dead, his bomber shot down over Normandy on the morning of the invasion. The same morning that Lois had the dream.

Lois never once in all her telling of the story said that Willard Haskell’s spirit had come to her to say one final goodbye after his plane, riddled with holes and trailing smoke and flame like his rippling red scarf, rammed into the roiling waves of the English channel. A goodbye that could not be done with a phone call. Or a letter. There was no time, of course; no possible 1944 technology. Only in a dream could such a swift message be conveyed, instantly, across continents, faster than wind or clouds, as Lois lay asleep, her red hair fanned across a white pillow on the top floor of a peaceful Vermont farmhouse; only with eyes closed could Willard be seen, waving one final time.

When I checked with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to confirm Willard Haskell’s fate, and I related Lois’ story, they said, “You would be amazed how often we’ve heard of this happening. First a dream, then they get the telegram.”

This made me dig a little deeper into the nature of dreams. It turns out that in Native American cultures there is a widespread belief that in a certain period of dreaming, in that space between deep night sleep and the slow climb towards waking, that spirits can visit us. It’s the time just before the dawn, before eyelids let in daylight, before the flights of imagination have fully come down to earth, a kind of in-between place; and sometimes — with startling and vivid clarity — we see a husband or wife, a mother or father, a grandparent. They touch our hand and say that they still love us. They whisper in our ear that they are all right. That we are all right. That they love us. There at that rare and brief moment, with all the worries of life behind them, they come softly to us and dream their goodbyes. And when we wake, we wonder if it really happened, and we tell our family and our friends, and they shake their heads in wonder with us, and we say that we’ll never really know the truth. But deep down, we know. Deep down, when we dream.

Lois sits looking out at the water, her eyes invisible behind her big-framed pink 1970s sunglasses. Seagulls are swooping close to shore, some hovering in the wind, white wings over the blue sky. And when I ask Lois if maybe, just maybe, this vivid dream she can’t ever forget was Willard Haskell’s spirit saying goodbye, she just makes a ‘tsk’ sound and scoffs, “Well, I don’t know about that.”

1 Comment on Dreaming Goodbye

Pandemic Perspective

One of the things we grandfathers can provide our children and grandchildren during the COVID crisis is some historical perspective, a view that encompasses the lives of our own parents,…

One of the things we grandfathers can provide our children and grandchildren during the COVID crisis is some historical perspective, a view that encompasses the lives of our own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and the myriad struggles they endured.

Here’s a quick run-down of what my ancestors lived through compared with what I’m dealing with.

1863: Albert Kidder Page, Great-grandfather. There were actually two Albert Kidder Pages. The first was in a Massachusetts Civil War regiment. He fell ill from malaria in the swamps of North Carolina. According to family lore his father took the train down south and brought him back to Boston to convalesce. Three days later, Albert died, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Three days after Albert’s death his wife gave birth to a boy, and she named him after his father. Albert Kidder Page became a physician in Boston.

2020: I have to work from home.

 

My grandfather, Fred Fish, with his biplane in WWI.

 

1917: Fred Fish, Grandfather. Gramp, as I called him, flew a biplane in World War I. His job was to photograph the enemy positions to provide intelligence. When I was a kid he used to show me his aerial photos of battles like Verdun. The blasted battlefields with deep craters and shattered, leafless trees looked like the surface of the moon. The most deadly thing of all, according to Gramp, was the biplanes themselves — rickety contraptions with only a joystick for some semblance of control. Shortly after Gramp’s return to Vermont, the Spanish flu killed more people than the war.

2020: I have to wear a mask.

1930: Bill Page, father. Dad grew up in the Great Depression, and his father died of tuberculosis when he was only seven. My grandmother had one of the only jobs women were allowed to have in those days — a secretary with low pay. Dad didn’t talk about it, but I know there were times he and his sister rummaged through trashcans in Boston for food. Dad ultimately was awarded a full scholarship to Tufts, and earned his graduate degree in chemistry from MIT.

2020: My favorite beef, flank steak, is nearly impossible to find.

My dad, William (Bill) Page, fourth from the left, aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh in the Pacific in WWII.

 

1945: Dad was a Lieutenant on the U.S.S. Burleigh, an attack transport ship in the Pacific. The Burleigh was dive-bombed repeatedly by Kamikazes during the hellish battle of Okinawa. On the rare occasions dad told his story, he described seeing the fanatical eyes of the Kamikaze pilots as they sped towards him, the cries for “smoke!” to shroud the ship, the roar of guns and the sight of a severed leg floating in bloody water. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how scarred dad was by the experience. Whenever my mom accidentally served dad food in a red dish, his face became contorted with fear and rage, he’d clench his teeth and scream, “Blood!”

2020: My wife and I ordered a kayak on Amazon but got a notice a few days later that it was actually out of stock and they didn’t know when it would ship.

1968: My older brothers were in constant danger of being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

2020: One of my molars broke in February when the dentist’s office was closed due to the pandemic. I had to wait six weeks to get it repaired.

If my three grandchildren were with me now and not far away in quarantine, I’d tell them this:

“We are all so lucky to have each other. I love you more than anything in the whole wide world, and everything is going to be ok. I hope you will remember this time as you grow up, and look back at wearing funny masks. Bear in mind that when things are harder, it makes us tougher. You never met my mom and dad or my gram and gramp, but they are a part of who you are today; strong, kind, full of laughter and light. They’d be very proud of you. Now, let’s have some ice cream while your mom has a nap.”

1 Comment on Pandemic Perspective

The Day I Burned the Piano

We came back to Willoughby Lake when the world was coming to an end. In March, the virus was spreading fast in ways that proved it had a sense of…

We came back to Willoughby Lake when the world was coming to an end.

In March, the virus was spreading fast in ways that proved it had a sense of irony, turning a conference of Biogen executives into a superspreading bomb. Around the time I learned about the conference I was riding the T (Boston’s dilapidated subway system), packed in with other riders cheek to cheek. The train had broken down and we waited, breathing together nervously, for an hour. It was in that train that our escape to Willoughby took shape.

Within a week my wife, Nancy, and I packed both cars to the gills with pandemic essentials, plus our cat—Worf—named after the security officer on Star Trek, and we headed North on Route 93 at warp factor 5 towards a situation no-one had been in before: a little town in Westmore, Vermont, twenty miles from Canadian border, at the dawn of the new plague.

Technically we were going from our first home, in Lexington, Massachusetts, to our second home. But to me our place in Westmore by the shores of Willoughby Lake in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom transcends the ‘first’ or ‘second’ designation. It’s my center. The roots of my whole being. A resilient branch of my family tree.

In 1907, my great-grandparents, George and Nana Myers, bought 200 acres of land in Westmore for their dairy farm, a sloping blanket of lush fields and dense forests that connects at its curvy apex with Willoughby Lake. According to family lore, George didn’t want to buy any of the beachfront because he didn’t think his cows needed it. Nana told him, “If you think we’re buying that land but not the lakefront you’re out of your mind.” Nana was clearly the sharpest tool in the shed.

Thanks to Nana, what became Willoughby Farm—still owned by the family— includes two beaches with beautiful vistas of the lake and the surrounding mountains. There’s Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor to the south, one big mountain that had been cleaved in two by a glacier, now with the long deep lake separating their rocky cliffs. The ridge of Mt. Hor is called Whaleback by the locals, its shape mimicking a leviathan. Close to the tail of the whale rises Mt. Wheeler followed by waves of undulating hills. At night, the Milky Way is evanescent above all of this, so bright no flashlights are needed to walk barefoot across the fields.

George and Nana ran the dairy farm until the late 1920s. When a young Robert Frost came to Willoughby Lake to write poems for his first book, North of Boston, he asked Nana if he could pitch a tent in one of her fields, and she of course agreed. The family farmhouse, the Homestead, looks out on Willoughby Lake. Frost speaks of the lake in his poem, A Servant to Servants. In my mind’s eye I picture the woman in the poem as my great-grandmother, because in fact she may have been Frost’s inspiration.

“You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water.
I stand and make myself repeat out loud
The advantages it has, so long and narrow.
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five miles
Straight away through the mountain notch
From the sink window where I wash the plates
And all our storms come up toward the house
Drawing the slow waves whiter and whiter and whiter.”

When the Great Depression hit, Nana and George found the dairy business was too tough a row to hoe.

Without new revenue, they’d lose the farm. So the part of the land that George never wanted became their savior. Soon, red and white rental cottages sprouted up along our shoreline like wild roses. For five decades, Willoughby Farm cottages were a summer home away from home for families all up and down the Eastern seaboard. When George and Nana passed on, my grandparents, Fred and Harriet Fish, took over.

Through the 1960s my family would spend summers at our cottage—The Cheerio—a small rectangle packed with me and my four older brothers. In 1969, my grandparents gave four acres of Willoughby Farm to my parents, Janet and Bill. Dad promptly had The Cheerio dragged on logs up onto the land and built a whole new house on top of it. Dad loved nature with a passion, so designed the house to let in as much of it as possible. The entire front of the two story structure is glass, south facing for passive solar heating. My parents added onto the house when they retired in the 1980s and we bought the property from their estate in 2009. But given its history, it’s never felt like a thing we owned, but rather something precious handed down — from Nana and George, to Fred and Harriet, to Bill and Janet, to us. Our two children, Abigail and Nicholas, and their children, are next in line.

The ancestry of Willoughby Farm made our retreat here seem like we were going back in time. The rest of the world was in 2020 trying to figure out if masks were required, while Trump flailed and whined. But we were with George and Nana during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. The 60s and 70s were—and are—equally here. The Hobbit Hole my dad enlisted my brothers and I to dig in the early 70s (by hand) is still at the Western edge of our field, although the only creatures living in it today are bears and woodchucks.

My parents named the house The Hymn in honor of my grandmother who loved to sing them.

Gram was a woman of faith who lived well into her 90s. When she was very old and brittle, and always in pain, she often said her belief in the hereafter took the pain away. That and her love of family sustained her.

The Hymn is like a museum of family things. Wherever my parents traveled to they brought home ceremonial masks from different cultures and decorated the walls with them. Fierce African masks glare across the room at masks from China. Books are everywhere, with eclectic modern titles (The Buying of Congress, Mean Genes, the 911 Report) mixed in with books that belonged to my dad’s grandfather, Albert Kidder Page, who’d been a doctor in Boston in the late 19th century. Livingstone’s and Stanley’s illustrated Travels in Africa can be found snuggled next to The Joy of Sex. Birds of the Northeast and The Complete Guide to Ferns live in harmony with the complete works of Charles Dickens. A dark chestnut-toned antique dresser stands next to a groovy 60s-era chair with sleek blond wood and fluffy cushions. A chalkboard in the master bedroom has been preserved with my dad’s notes. One reads, “The future is friendly because it is us.” A chart shows the date of dad’s birth, 1920, stretching out through the decades to a question mark and the word “finis.” As if his life was a French film (his last scene was in 2011).

And then, of course, there are the ghosts.

People tell ghost stories to send chills up our spines. But here at Willoughby Lake the ghosts are a natural and comforting presence. While I’m at the beach, I might see out of the corner of my eye a fleeting image of my grandfather—always ‘Gramp’ to me—in khaki shirt and pants and cap, pushing a small red wooden wheelbarrow piled with brush down to the bonfire at the water’s edge.

My cousin, Sara, stays at the Homestead, and she hears things all the time that can’t be explained. My great-grandfather, George, died from a hernia in the Homestead stretched out on the dining room table. His wife, Nana, died on the stairs. Some echo of them remains. When Sara speaks of the ghosts she shrugs and says, “They’re good ghosts. They love us. So I’m not afraid of them.”

There was the night I was talking at the Hymn with Nancy about a story I’d read that chronicled just how often 4:00 am—the witching hour—appears in literature. Nothing ever happens at 2 am or 5 am. It’s always 4:00 am. Sure enough, at exactly 4:00 am the following morning the 1950s era black telephone on my father’s old desk in our bedroom rang. When I answered it there was total silence, and I hung up. The phone rarely rings at our house, and certainly never in the middle of the night. When we have a toast before family dinners we make sure to mention my parents because we sense they are there with us (although since the phone incident I haven’t mentioned 4 am).

I can understand why these spirits never left. It’s a really nice place to stay. Despite the late May snowstorms, and the swarms of black flies the size of hummingbirds in June, to those who’ve lived at Willoughby Lake it’s heaven. Or, maybe they all went to heaven initially and decided Willoughby was preferable. It wouldn’t surprise me if Robert Frost came back, too; most nights he’s still scribbling in his tent by lantern light.

When we arrived in March there was snow on the ground.

The weather ranged from cold and wet to colder and frozen. The news was not good. Mario Cuomo and other governors were begging for protective gear and test supplies. Trump kept calling everyone an idiot. Dr. Fauci told us we had to flatten the curve—not that we wouldn’t die anyway—but at least we wouldn’t die all at once. And every day I’d look at the buds on the lilacs along our deck for any sign they’d grown; they hadn’t. This fearful, frigid stasis lasted for months. After one May snowstorm, Nancy looked out at three inches of the white stuff and sighed, “Really?”

One week after that storm, when the snow had melted and the lilac buds had actually grown slightly in the growing sunshine, I burned the piano. I don’t think I lost my mind. But you can be the judge.

The piano had been rotting outside by the garage for five years. A family from hell had rented our house, and while they had promised to take their beat-up old Baldwin upright with them when they finally left, they did not. This couple—a school superintendent in Vermont and an out of work metal worker with a gun collection—had left other things behind as well, including bent spoons for cooking heroin (hidden under layers of ash in the fire pit in the field in front of our house, mixed in with shards of one of my mother’s antiques and other things they had broken while in our house). I hated that damn piano because every time I looked at it I was reminded of the dirt bag drug addicts who had turned the house into a squalid pit. So I’d dragged it out by the garage and left it there, meaning to have it hauled away but somehow never getting to it. The piano lay on its side, covered with snow in winter, and each spring slightly more decayed and sad.

In my family, musical instruments have always been treated with reverence.

Our music lifts us up out of our day-to-day worries. And here was this fucked up old piano rotting next to the house, a trashy reminder of the fools who may have pretended to play it, or tried to force their unfortunate children to play it. The instrument of Beethoven and Chopin, of Joplin and Joel, lay like a dead thing.

I think the act of ignoring it was a way to ignore my fury at the renters. I could jest that their staying for nearly a year in our family’s treasured heirloom was no big deal. A way of ignoring the mother’s excuse that she couldn’t pay the rent because her eight-year-old son was really sick in the hospital. The doctors, she said, just couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and it wasn’t looking good. This was told to us when, in fact, the kid was perfectly fine and at home. If you can call a kid fine who’s parents are evil, heartless addicts who left loaded rifles stacked by the open door as their mangy dog wandered in an out, and filth accumulated in the yard.

So, something in me snapped that day and I decided it was time to finally get rid of the piano.

The dump would have charged me by the pound to dispose of it, but all the metal in the sounding board (the heavy part) could be recycled. First, I pounded the piano with a sledgehammer to knock all the wood off the metal. The cacophony filled the air and surely reached across Willoughby Lake and beyond. The wood pieces flew off, bit by bit. Left behind was the heavy soundboard still held within a frame of wood I could not dislodge with the hammer. This chunk I lifted up to rest on its side, and while it was too heavy to carry I was able to jigger it corner by corner with great effort over to the fire pit, where I tipped it over with a final bang. I stacked kindling on top and lit it. Soon it was like a funeral pyre, the body of the piano flaming red and yellow and orange, the black smoke billowing up to the blue spring sky. The air held just a hint of the sweet smell of things beginning to grow, now mingled with harsh gusts of burning wood smoke. Not just any wood. A piano for God’s sake.

Outside that field, the world was still going to hell. But perhaps a bit more slowly than before. We all had started wearing our masks. There were initial signs—very preliminary of course like those lilac buds that were just starting to emerge from sleep—that the number of deaths in hard hit places like Italy had started to fall. The term “maximum death” had entered our vocabulary. There was news that some COVID-19 patients were arriving at hospitals with oxygen levels so low the doctors were mystified that the patients were even conscious, yet many were chatting away and didn’t need to be put on the dreaded ventilators. Somehow we were going to be ok. We were all going to be ok.

I stood by the fire and nudged pieces of wood into the flames to hurry them on. My grandfather stood there with me, his hands folded behind his back as he stared down into the flames at the gleaming gold piano soundboard turning black in the smoky heat. My father and mother sat in lawn chairs with their feet extended to get warmed by the fire. George and Nana were nearby, raking hay into piles. My grandmother—my Gram—lover of hymns, began to sing Amazing Grace and we all joined in.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
was blind, but now I see.”

1 Comment on The Day I Burned the Piano

The Babysitters

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami? My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been…

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami?

My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been having a tough time of it. Grandson Henry—now a long and lanky five-year-old—had come down with a bad stomach bug – the dreaded norovirus. So bad he’d been vomiting non-stop to the point where dehydration gave him double vision.

Abigail was deeply tired and stressed out caring for poor sick Henry while our youngest grandson, Charlie, still demanded attention (as three-year-olds do).

Abigail brought Henry to the emergency room where he needed to be attached to an IV to get rehydrated.

Her stress permeated anguished texts that described how she and several nurses had to hold Henry down as he thrashed and howled when they put in his IV. Henry had screamed, “Help me!” and all Abigail could do was keep holding him down for his own good.

“It’s so hard,” we texted back, “we know.”

I was brought back to the time I had to hold down our 6-year-old son, Nicholas, when he needed a spinal tap to diagnose meningitis. The procedure was so traumatic the doctors gave Nicholas a drug so he’d never remember the experience. I thought, “Where’s my drug?”

Henry made a speedy recovery, just in time for Charlie to come down with the same bug; he began vomiting (apparently all over the place). Abigail’s dog, Rory, was also puking.

To make things even more stressful, Abigail and Ryan had a tropical getaway planned for that weekend.

We grandparents had been lined up months in advance to babysit, and were determined to help them get far from the December New England chill and the puke tsunami.

When we arrived, Charlie was still sick with a fever and totally miserable. He kept saying, “My tummy hurts,” and instead of doing his usual routine—running laps around the house—he was curled up on the couch. Rory kept making “gak” sounds from deep down in her throat as if on the verge of bringing up dog chow like a fire hose. Henry wanted someone to read him a book. Or play Frosty the Snowman on the Kindle. And get him a cup of milk. The picture window in the living room showed the dreary tangle of maple trees in the sloping back yard, grey-brown leafless trunks darkly wet in the slanted curtain of freezing rain and snow.

“I feel so bad leaving you with all this,” Abigail texted from the plane.

“Don’t worry,” Nancy texted. “We’ve done this before.”

Walking into this environment where one touch of a microbe-infested doorknob or sniffle might lead to days of feverish hurling was just part of the drill. Mere mortals would have been excused from this duty. After all, if a five-year-old got so sick he required hospitalization, what would the norovirus do to a sixty-year-old like us? This bug is known for being extremely contagious and tough to kill. It can live on a toilet handle for two weeks, and is so resilient it just laughs at Clorox wipes. The only thing that kills it is industrial-grade bleach like you’d have in the rescue truck along with your hazmat suit in a Congo contagion zone.

Over the course of the next three days we gave Charlie Tylenol and stroked his back, read many books, and watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and other Christmas favorites.

We did dinosaur puzzles and other activities – taking frequent breaks to scrub down our hands with hot water and soap like surgeons.

It kept raining and snowing for days, a nasty wintry mix. And all the while we’d see Abigail’s Instagram stories with her and Ryan’s smiling faces bathed in warm sun, drinks in hand at a beach.

Each picture of Abigail happy and rested was a thank you for the gift that we had brought, this gift that sometimes only we grandparents can provide. A blessed break from it all. A chance, however brief, to relax and take a deep breath. To bask in the sun, knowing that the kids were ok. More than ok, actually. In very experienced hands.

Sitting in the living room in dark Connecticut where the dog was going “gak!” and Charlie was moaning and Henry wanted attention and the cold rain tapped against the windows was a pleasurable duty—an expression of our love and commitment—and I could feel that tropical sun on my face with a warmth I can never fully measure or convey in mere words.

Abigail and Ryan returned after three days, and Nancy and I headed back to Boston. That night Nancy’s stomach started to hurt very badly, and soon she was praying on her knees to the porcelain God, her temperature 101. I tucked her into bed, wondering if I would be next.

Comments Off on The Babysitters

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search

Sign up now to get updates on great new stories!

No sales pitches. Just more stories that will help all of us nurture the next great generation.