Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Category: STORIES

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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A Walk in the Snowy Woods After the Brain Scan

The eye doctor looked at me clinically, calmly and said, “There does not appear to be any obvious reason why your 6th optic nerve stopped working. Could be just a…

The eye doctor looked at me clinically, calmly and said, “There does not appear to be any obvious reason why your 6th optic nerve stopped working. Could be just a virus and your vision will clear up on its own. But we’ll have to have an MRI done to rule out a brain tumor or stroke.”

This is the kind of thing one hears at the age of 59, a sort of welcome basket to 60 packed with nasty shit I don’t want to think about.

A week before the appointment, my vision had gone double. While driving, the right side of the road looked as if it were in the middle of the road at an angle. A person six feet away looked like twins.

I’ll admit that I’m a worrier.

As soon as the doctor said the word ‘tumor’ I was sure that was exactly what had caused the problem. A friend of mine had told me only recently that if I died today, I’d have lived an amazing life and should have no regrets—especially since I have three grandchildren. How prescient of my friend to predict my impending demise so accurately!

But kicking the bucket now was not, I told myself firmly, going to happen because I’d promised I would be there for my grandchildren for a long, long time.

You have to wonder how many people have similar objections to death, as if the Grim Reaper actually listens.

One minute we’re raising perfectly reasonable objections, and the next we find ourselves suspended in the air looking down at our bodies on the operating table, in the car wreck, or slumped at a restaurant table by the hidden bits of almond garnish we had told the waiter we were allergic to.

The MRI brain scan came out negative. Miraculously, my baseball-sized (it had actually grown to be larger than my whole head) tumor did not exist. Within two weeks my vision started to clear up.

When you hear the word ‘tumor’ from a doctor, though, you can’t ever fully forget it.

The word sticks to your consciousness as vigorously as any stage 4 glioblastoma grips your brain. Trying to force the fear out doesn’t work. What author Siddhartha Mukherjee called “The Emperor of All Maladies” rules the fretful underworld of our everyday existence, and the only way to deal with this reality is to accept it and let the fear flow out as quietly as it flowed in.

With this in my mind, I went snowshoeing in the Vermont woods today after a heavy snowfall.

Even with the snowshoes on, each step took me two feet down, and I began to sweat in the chill air as I churned deeper into the woods. Fresh deer tracks in the path showed they’d been there just before me.

I paused when I reached the Falls. In other seasons, this part of the brook is where water cascades over wide, flat rocks coated in thick green moss. Today, a gap in the snow showed only a peek of the rushing water beneath, and the sound of the water was muffled by the heavy snow that clung to tree branches like a thick white parka. I stood there, listening and looking at nothing, for a long while, until I saw with a start three deer leaping to the left and away up the hill, the sides of their faces and big bright eyes and their broad tan flanks one after the other visible only briefly between the trunks of cedar trees.

The cedar trees….the bark of cedar trees…I stared at the bark of the nearest tree and saw its dark brown color in stark contrast to the white snow all around, and noticed the texture of the bark, the pattern of narrow lines of vertical growth separated by troughs, and the way branches grew out of the bark as if they had muscled their way through a curtain, leaving semicircles of growth around them.

And then like a camera that zooms away from its subject, I took in the whole scene of cedar trees, dozens of them along both banks of the Falls, and the flowing mounds of snow around the base of their trunks, white snow that in the shade of the cedars became light and even dark blue, with the brown corduroy of the cedar trunks rising out of the blue and blending with the snow-covered boughs towards the thick canopy of branches above.

After a time—I can’t measure it in minutes—I trudged back out of the forest and came into the field by my house.

The sun was just starting to come out after the last remnants of storm clouds melted away, so here the snow was blindingly white.

I went inside and ate hot chicken soup by the fire.

#grandfathers #grandparents #NEK

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A letter hidden in a book for fifty years. An enduring sexual mystery.

In the post-World War II economic boom, America mass-produced many things, from cars to TVs and washing machines, but making babies was our most prodigious accomplishment. My parents gleefully did…

In the post-World War II economic boom, America mass-produced many things, from cars to TVs and washing machines, but making babies was our most prodigious accomplishment. My parents gleefully did their part in the baby boom production effort, with five of us boys born over an eleven-year period.

I use a euphemism like ‘production’ in relation to baby making because, like everyone else, I can’t bear to think of my parents having sex. But for the purpose of this story there’s simply no avoiding the word. My parents must have had plenty of sex, and my dad in particular found great joy in it for as long as he possibly could—certainly extending into his later life as a grandfather.

My mom, at that point, was not so interested; I know this because she would proclaim her disdain for sex publicly at the dinner table.

“I did my duty plenty,” she said, eyeing dad with unbridled disgust.

Just how interested was my dad in sex? After he passed away at the age of 92, I found out.

I was going through his extensive library one day and came upon a copy of Masters & Johnson’s book, Human Sexual Response, and as I leafed through the pages I was surprised when a letter popped out, and even more surprised when I discovered it was written to my dad from William H. Masters himself. The masthead shows that it was sent from the REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY RESEARCH FOUNDATION in St. Louis, Missouri.

The letter reads as follows.

“Dear Mr. Page:

We are writing in response to your letter of inquiry dated January 19, 1975.

Regretfully, the monograph discussed in the text HUMAN SEXUAL INADEQUACY has not been published to date.

Sorry we can’t be of help at this time.

Most sincerely,

W. H. Masters, M.D.”

I stood in dad’s library holding the letter, stunned and curious.

My parents were 53 years old in 1975, probably at an age when dad was still raring to go in the bedroom. So, did he reach out to William Masters—in 1975 already considered a pioneering legend in the field of human sexuality—in a desperate attempt to fathom why my mom didn’t want to ‘do it’ any more? Or did he secretly have doubts about his own sexual abilities?

And perhaps the biggest question: What exactly did William Masters not know about sexual inadequacy, or what did he choose not to share with my dad?

The book that held the letter so tight for fifty years did not include any overt references to sexual inadequacy.

Although there were intriguing chapters such as (and I’m not making this up) “The Artificial Vagina—ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY.”

I can only imagine what my mom’s response would have been if she had learned that dad was reading the chapter titled THE REPRODUCTIVE VISCERA—THE VAGINA (page 233). Surely any desire she might have felt to ‘do her duty’ would have jumped out the window and kept on running.

Some mysteries are better off not solved.

ADDENDUM: My wife, who is my toughest and wisest critic, said of this story, “I like it, but what does it have to do with being a good grandpa?” The answer is that I think that we as grandparents are often in long-term relationships, and we can learn a few things about how our parents worked through their marital issues—or didn’t. Instead of having a typical blog that offers advice (“Five tips being a good grandpa!”), I’d much rather tell stories that are rich with the ambiguities of life and let readers draw their own conclusions.

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Grandfather Bill Hears the Call of Nature

To fully appreciate this true tale, it’s helpful to understand my late father’s love of nature. William Page, “Bill” to his friends, experienced the deep woods as a kind of…

To fully appreciate this true tale, it’s helpful to understand my late father’s love of nature.

William Page, “Bill” to his friends, experienced the deep woods as a kind of church. The soaring birch and maple trees arcing over his path in the forests of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom formed the spires of a cathedral, the deep green moss and ferns beneath were holy velvet, the gurgle of water sprouting down the brooks were hushed conversations on weighty matters, the hoof prints of deer a sure sign that he was on the right track. The woods were wonderfully spiritual, without a trace of dogma. When I went on hikes with him, he’d often pause to examine a leaf or a curious formation of rocks.

Dad encouraged his many grandchildren, including my Abigail and Nicholas, to stop and listen to nature, because only nature could tell you everything you needed to know.

This was the man, who, at the age of 75, decided one crisp fall day to hike Mount Wheeler (solo) in the town of Westmore, Vermont, overlooking Lake Willoughby. In a land of craggy mountains, Wheeler is especially rocky and definitely not a place for anyone afraid of heights. At its base, the trail flows like a stream up through a stand of sapling maples, but soon a hiker is confronted by cliffs. The white trail markers on trees are replaced by faint and infrequent smudges of white on boulders. Wet moss often spans across a stretch of rock, making the “trail” a challenge for 25-year-olds and grandfathers alike.

After an hour or so of near vertical ascent, the intrepid hiker is rewarded with a long expanse of open rock above the tree line, with only short evergreens here and there clinging to small pockets of earth.

And it was here along this ridge that my dad hiked, filling his lungs with fresh smelling Vermont air, seeing below the broad undulating valley in peak foliage, and a few miles to the West the five-mile stretch of Lake Willoughby bracketed at its Southern edge by Mounts Pisgah and Hor. No doubt he was wearing his customary khaki shorts and red-checkered flannel shirt. His face was long and thoughtful, broad grey eyebrows like the wings of a seagull above brown eyes that sparkled as he hummed a folksong.

Dad paused atop an outcropping of rock along a cliff near the summit, a kind of pulpit, and suddenly, as he put it, “felt the call of nature.”

He unzipped his pants and unleashed a high yellow arc of pee that projected out and down. He followed the arc as it splashed against a rock twenty feet below that was of such a dark green hue it almost looked black in the shade of a pine.

The rock began to move.

Always attuned, as I’ve said, to the wonders of nature, my dad was quite surprised and not a little baffled that a mere stream of piss would make a boulder move, but when the rock stood up the realization that it was a black bear—a really angry black bear—gave him a tremendous jolt.

A casual observer, perhaps an owl perched in a nearby tree, would have been hard-pressed to determine who was more surprised, the bear being splashed by this red-checkered demon above, or my dad, who’s hair stood up and turned a whiter shade of grey.

The growling bear started up the cliff towards my dad.

You don’t have to be an MIT-trained engineer like my dad to know this bear was “pissed.”

Dad ran.

In fact, I think he set a land speed record for his age group as he raced down Mt. Wheeler, stopping only briefly to glance back in terror to see if the bear was on his trail, and not thinking to zip his pants until he arrived, safely, back home.

My dad told this story often, making his grandchildren peel with laughter until their sides hurt.

There is no moral to it, no scripture carved in stone. But I suppose we can draw our own conclusions about the wonder of nature, the importance of knowing the difference between rocks and bears, and why staying in shape in your 70’s is a very good idea.

#northeastkingdom #grandparents Proud #dontpissonabear

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It’s Time for the “Green New Deal”

When I saw this picture of me an my granddaughter, Roen, before a lush living wall of ferns I couldn’t help but think of climate change and the world she…

When I saw this picture of me an my granddaughter, Roen, before a lush living wall of ferns I couldn’t help but think of climate change and the world she will live in. I was born in 1959 and Roen was born in 2018. This span of time has not been good for the environment. Scientists have been warming us about climate change for decades, yet no significant progress has been made to stop it. In the same year of Roe’s birth, 13 US Federal agencies issued a report with stark warnings on the environmental and economic impact of climate change.

What are we grandparents going to do about it?

Some leaders are pushing for a “Green New Deal” that will rapidly shift our economy away from the use of fossil fuels, with a corresponding increase in our use of clean energy.

Let’s do this!

I don’t care what political party anybody belongs to. This should not be about politics. The question before us is as simple as this. Do we want our grandchildren to live in a world of increasingly extreme weather? A world where it will become so incredibly hot or cold that survival is at best a challenge, and at worst impossible?

I was just a boy when John F. Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon. To my parent’s generation, it seemed impossible. But the very audacity of the challenge inspired them to go for it.

We must once again do the impossible. Our grandchildren’s lives depend on it.

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In Praise of Grandmothers

Since I relaunched this blog in December 2017 a number of grandmothers have asked, “Is this also for grandmas?” Yes it is! Here’s a post I first published in 2015…

Since I relaunched this blog in December 2017 a number of grandmothers have asked, “Is this also for grandmas?” Yes it is! Here’s a post I first published in 2015 about grandmothers. Enjoy.

My grandmother, Harriet Fish—always just “Gram” to me—was an extraordinary woman.

My Gramp, Frederick Fish, was a successful salesman, and Gram didn’t have to work, but she chose to work hard anyway as a national leader of the Girl Scouts. She met Gramp when they were students at Middlebury College, and married just before he shipped off to France as a pilot in the Great War. She was smart and sophisticated, a lover of poetry and hymns, strong-willed and intense as the gusts that blew in off Lake Willoughby to the porch of her homestead in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Gram’s hair was red, though grey by the time I knew her.

I picture her now at a family barbecue, 1966. Her cream colored dress tightly fitted to her five foot four, wiry frame; her nose angular, hair pulled back, chin up, one arm planted on a hip, a cocktail in the other hand, grinning at the excellence of the day.

She adored her two children—my mom, Janet, and my aunt Lois. She especially loved her grandchildren, the five big Page boys and my three cousins. She adored us all with an unabashed pride. She’d stand amidst my six-foot-six tall brothers and look up at us as if she’d come across a forest of redwoods, and proclaim, “Isn’t this marvelous to have all you boys here today? It truly is marvelous!”

Gram was rooted firmly in her conservative outlook and Church of Christ faith. She believed in God devoutly, while my own mom (perhaps reacting to her strict upbringing, thought all religion “a bunch of hooey”). Gram’s maiden name was Myers. She’d come from a family that had immigrated from Germany in the 1850s, and there had been some conjecture that perhaps the family had been Jewish and converted to Christianity upon arrival in America, something Gram denied.
Gram was a member of the John Birch society until she had an encounter with a member who asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No,” Gram replied.

“Well,” the man said haughtily, “You have all the attributes.”

Gram resigned her membership on the spot, disgusted by their bigotry.

When my mom had her first baby, my brother Calvin, Gram showed her the ropes with an efficiency and thoroughness worthy of a Girl Scout merit badge. Baby bathing, feeding, dressing, holding, check-check-check-check. It was the kind of crash course required for any young mother at the start of the baby boom. Good thing, because mom gave birth to five boys in a row, like a string of firecrackers, between 1948 and 1959.

Mom was thrilled when Nancy and I had our first child in 1986, a girl! It had taken a generation, but the genetic roulette wheel was finally spinning mom’s way.

We lived in a third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, way before this part of the city was cool, and certainly before we were ready to be parents.

We’d read all the parenting books, of course, and Nancy had done her share of babysitting, all of which amounted to roughly nothing as this little baby girl, this totally new thing—our beautiful Abigail—squirmed and screamed in her crib. Was she ok? Why was she making that noise? Was the baby getting the right nourishment from breastfeeding? I remember that feeling of absolute terror of not knowing, the fear that I wasn’t holding her right, that something might break.

It was horrifying to give Abigail a bath.

What if Abigail slipped from our soapy hands and went under and got water in her lungs and drowned? At night, as Abigail lay in her bassinet, I’d lay awake straining to hear her breathe, deeply worried she’d stop.

During this time our telephone became so important to us, because in the dark heart of a Brooklyn night, it was our only link to my mom in New England. The phone was our hotline for all things motherly. Nancy’s mom, Dorothy, was a help as well. But there was something about my mom’s knowledge, warmth and firmness that were especially reassuring.

Abigail, we learned, would not break so easily.

Babies had somehow survived bathing and diaper changing and all manner of sickness for millennia, and Abigail would pull through as well.

When we did manage to span the distance between Brooklyn and Northern Vermont where my mom and dad lived, Abigail was soon in my mother’s total embrace, riding mom’s hip as she stirred dinner on the stove, being tucked in and read to at night. It was as if Abigail was mom’s baby number six, the one right after me, and no time had passed at all.

Last but far from least in my grandmother chronicle is Nancy, my wife of nearly thirty years.

Nancy exemplifies a new breed of grandmother for our time. She is five foot seven, with long wavy brown hair, lively and funny and curvaceous and fit and active. She works out a lot and looks ten years younger than her age. Nancy has an extraordinary strength, and above all a belief that “everything is going to be ok.”

While others are holding their cheeks in tragic parodies of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” over the latest insurmountable worry (honestly, that’s me, I own it), Nancy just marches through it all and comes out the other side. It’s like she has her own force field. An avalanche of boulders would just bounce off her.

Nancy beams when she holds our grandkids—a wide, joyous smile, eyes lit up. “Hi,” she says, “Hiiiii.” And our grandkids beam right back. Who would not?

This past week Abigail had a meltdown.

She’d been working three days a week as a speech therapist at a school for special needs children. Henry had not been sleeping well, often waking up at two in the morning and staying awake for long stretches. In addition, his daytime naps had become a struggle because he refused to sleep on his back and would scream bloody murder for hours in protest. If he was placed on his stomach, he’d fall asleep instantly, but the pediatrician was adamant against stomach sleeping because of the danger of SIDS.

The numbing fog of sleep deprivation, coupled with the drive to excel at work and prepare for the parent teacher conferences, plus the tiny New York apartment; plus the demanding dog; and the cat that didn’t like the dog and resented the baby (to the point where it took a dump on their bed in feline protest); plus [insert worry x, y,z here] all came to a head suddenly like wires overloading a circuit and Abigail broke down in choking sobs. She felt she was doing it all wrong. She was so busy at work and so incredibly tired she was doing a billion things but none of them well. She didn’t even have time to call back her friends who left messages of support. It was all too hard, too much.

Nancy got on the phone with her and helped her through.

Everything Abigail was feeling was normal. Henry’s screaming fits were normal. Abigail herself went through a period where she refused to sleep. Abigail was actually doing a really good job. She was, in fact, a good mom. The grandmother hotline worked again, a line from one state to the next, a voice of experience to guide a daughter through the rough waters. But in a larger sense, a line that extended back to my mom, and Gram, and back through time hundreds and thousands of years, maybe to Eve herself.

Grandmothers, you see, are the glue of the world.

They are the ones who have been there, through all the pain and heartbreak and happiness. They raised their children well, and now it’s all coming back to them; the wisdom they gathered as young parents is blooming again. To love and comfort, to be strong, to gently touch a baby’s head to share a peaceful calm. Grandmas know what temperature to keep the bottle. They know the meaning of each type of crying; they can read baby poop like mystics analyzing tealeaves to foretell the onslaught or retreat of sickness; they can tell us what Google could never answer or dream or imagine.

They know, I think—all of them, every last one—from Boston to Bombay and all the lands between, that everything, every little damn thing, will be. All. Right.

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