Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Tag: grandfather advice

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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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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Band of Brothers

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but… After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got…

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but…

After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got a girl dog (Holly), as if this was her way of telling Mother Nature that here, at least, she had some control over things. But Holly was just one small female addition to a situation that was never in control. Today as a grandfather of two grandsons, I understand the special chaos of boyhood, and see it through the lens of my own experience as a brother.

Brothers in an explosive childhood.

Growing up in a house with five brothers, all gigantic and constantly ravenous, was like being in some kind of nature preserve, only the walls could not keep us from spreading our particular brand of mayhem throughout the town of Lexington. My eldest brother, Calvin, made a habit of hacksawing the tops off of the parking meters and using the timing device on his homemade pipe bombs. It didn’t help matters that my father, a chemical engineer, built a full chemistry lab in our basement. Explosions were so frequent that we barely flinched when a bomb went off that shook the whole house.

There was chemistry in our birth order as well.

Calvin was the eldest troublemaker, so much so that we later in life suspected he was the Unabomber. Next was Charles, an Eagle Scout who was always trying to stand up to Calvin, as if saving us from Calvin’s bombs would earn him another merit badge. Then came Nick, the middle brother, who saw himself as the diplomat between his two older brothers, and the two youngest—my brother John and lastly yours truly, sometimes not-very-affectionately referred to as Baby Teddy. John spent much of his childhood looking torn between abject terror and complete indifference. And I, running along behind them all as the firecrackers stuffed into the walls of the makeshift dam in the backyard exploded, was the spectator to the greatest show on earth.

A trial by fire.

We brothers finished each others’ sentences. We tried and failed to avoid each others’ farts. We knew where the older brothers’ Playboy magazines where hidden. We climbed mountains together, and ran down. As the youngest, I wore their hand-me-down shoes, and I cried when they left for college.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King rouses his troops to carry on the battle—

“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

I don’t think it a coincidence that the greatest writer the world has ever known used brotherhood as the ultimate clarion call of unity and love. We five—Calvin, Charles, Nick, John and me—were our own band of brothers, we happy few who thought nothing of devouring an entire pot of macaroni at one sitting, or shot cannons (no, really) packed with gunpowder and nails, or combined the gasses from an industrial blow torch to fill balloons that made terrific explosions when ignited; a trial by fire it was, with mom and Holly, the family’s sole representatives of humanity’s better half, seeking cover.

When I see my grandsons, Henry and Charles, playing and laughing, all of my memories of the times I played with my brothers are right there in the room. The toys my grandsons play with (Paw Patrol!) may be new, yet the dynamic of play is the same. There are times when they will fight over a toy, but I know that behind every shout of “Hey, that’s mine!” is a deep appreciation of what is theirs together, a common adventure into adulthood they will never forget.

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Transformation

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day. “Why do you…

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day.

“Why do you think that?” Nancy asked.

“Because she wasn’t drinking!”

“I agree,” I said, “But it wasn’t just because she wasn’t drinking.”

At one point in the day, Abigail and Henry (my oldest grandson, 3 at the time) pushed a toy stroller with two doll babies into the room by the Christmas tree and I saw Nicholas glance at Shira knowingly and reach out to touch her hand. He could have used a megaphone and it wouldn’t have been clearer.
To think of Nicholas with a baby was in a way even more mind blowing than the thought of Abigail, our oldest, with babies. Nicholas was always someone who took his time in life. When he was in grade school I got frustrated with him for refusing to learn how to tie his sho

My son, Nicholas, with his newborn daughter, Roen Lilah Page.

es.

“Don’t you want to be a big boy and learn how?” I asked plaintively.

Nicholas replied, “It’s easier when you do it.”

In school, Nicholas followed my not very scholarly footsteps. He’d get good grades in things he was interested in (writing), and bad grades in things he hated (math, Spanish), averaging out to a solid C that never reflected his smarts and extraordinary talent. After graduating from High School he went on to major in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His work was amazing, selected by the faculty to represent the whole class. But in his fourth year, he decided that attending class was somehow optional. To urge him on, I appealed to his visual sensibilities.

“Nicholas,” I said, “stop for a moment and picture yourself in your graduation gown walking across the stage to get your diploma. Once you see it, you’ll create a path to make it happen.”

And he did. A year later, he walked, beaming, across the stage of New York’s Radio City Music Hall to receive his diploma.

His transformation from someone who had to be urged to do something into someone who took it upon himself to make things happen was gradual. I could see it when he decided to woo Shira; at first she resisted, but after years of Nicholas’ dogged pursuit, she relented.

Their wedding on an estate in Waltham was marked by an epic torrential rainstorm with high winds. Everyone watched their phones for the minute-to-minute radar weather reports, which showed a break in the rain that would match the moment of their vows under a giant birch tree. Sure enough the rain paused just long enough for our families to walk across the soggy grass, under the dripping canopy of leaves, to see their luminous ceremony bracketed by the red, purple, pink, white and yellow flowers of the chuppah. Just after their vows were said and we started back towards the party tent, the storm of Shakespearian proportions erupted. It made me wonder if their marriage would be a calm counterpart to the rainy wind-tossed drama of their wedding day, or a storm itself.

Baby Roen (Roe) arrived in September. She is a beautiful, beautiful girl with her father’s big brown eyes and Shira’s lovely expressive face. When Roe wails, nearby glassware trembles as if buffeted by gusts of hard sideways rain. When she babbles, I can sense that it makes perfect sense to her, and it is I who must learn her language. When she whacks the little rabbit dangling from the mobile above her and it spins, she smiles at the revelation that things can be moved.

A photo of Nicholas holding his sleeping newborn girl, she snuggled to his shoulder, him looking at the camera with peaceful content, reminds me of all the pictures I’ve had of Nicholas in my mind over the years, the hopes I had for him, the dreams of what he could do if he put his mind to it, the paths towards success I urged him to envision to make real. The boy who didn’t want to tie his shoes had learned the art of loving determination, and because of that his world and mine have changed—the whole world has changed because Roe is now in it with us.

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