Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Tag: grandparenting

Rediscovering Halloween

When our two kids were little and we first took them out trick or treating, I recall sensing the ghosts of my own childhood Halloween memories bubbling up in the…

When our two kids were little and we first took them out trick or treating, I recall sensing the ghosts of my own childhood Halloween memories bubbling up in the witches’ cauldron of my mind. Carving pumpkins into grinning, candle-gleaming jack-o-lanterns. Navigating through spooky garlands of cobwebs to a neighbors door, shouts of “trick or treat!” and of course the pillow cases full of candy. But when our two kids grew up and went off to college, the magic of Halloween left as well.

At best we’d have a bowl of candy at the ready for the few kids who trekked to our far end of the street, or—when even less enthused—we’d leave the bowl on the steps. Sad!

That has changed.

Our four grandchildren have brought about the great rediscovering of Halloween. Like little bats swooping through the night, our grandchildren have dived into Halloween with total glee and brought us along for the ride.

This Halloween we tagged along with my son’s family. One granddaughter, age 3, was a bee, the 7-month-old a ladybug, and my son a beekeeper (complete with professional beekeeper’s hat and long leather gloves). For the bee, this was her first real Halloween experience, old enough to fully appreciate the three-headed Cerberus of costumes, candy and ghoulish decorations.

The night was cold but not freezing, and dark as only late October nights can feel after the brightness of summer has faded and knowing that winter is fast approaching.

Apparitions of fairies, Samurai warriors, vampires and Frankenstein monsters—and one parent in full Elvis Presley tight white leather with sequins garb repeating “Thank you very much”—appeared out of the dark, briefly illuminated by jittery flashlights.

Our grand girl bee buzzed up the steps of a house, apparently not scared by the bloody head of a monster in a bowl of Reese’s peanut butter cups, or a life-sized ghost wafting beneath a maple tree. We carried our youngest grand girl, our ladybug, who snuggled close and stared at all this with a look of wonder; she was at a loss for words, only partly because she didn’t know any yet.

After an hour the bee’s candy bag was filling up with M&Ms, Mars Bars, Three Musketeers, Charleston Chews, gummy bears, you name it. When I was a kid, I ate these treats by the bucket. As a grandpa, I avoided them. Devouring candy was not part of the diet plan and I imagined my yoga and swimming workouts of the previous week evaporating in a cloud of white sugar.

And then a curious thing happened.

We walked up to one of the last spooky houses we saw that evening, the bee rang the bell and shouted “trick or treat!” and a mom held out a basket of candy.

But not just any candy. They were Snickers. I took one.

Later that night, with unhurried deliberation, I unwrapped the fun-sized Snickers and ate it. This was no ordinary Snickers. Its caramel peanut chocolaty goodness was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my entire life. All my past Halloweens and the entire vast volume of candy I consumed as a child were condensed into that one little Snickers bar. In that moment, I grew bee wings of my own and rose off the ground, hovering, before slowly and with some reluctance returning to earth.

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Thoughts on Life and Mortality While Seeing Double at Walden Pond

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays. I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus…

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays.

I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus had far tamer connotations than today), and my entire body broke out in a horrible itchy rash. Days later, while driving, I saw with alarm that the sidewalk on the right side of the road was now at an angle across the middle of the road. An eye specialist soon found the culprit: the 6th cranial nerve behind my left eye had gone on vacation, perhaps because of the virus. This particular nerve is in charge of the lateral movement of the eye, so while I had—and still have—two perfectly healthy eyes, they don’t look in the same direction. My primary doctor emailed nonchalantly, “We rarely know what causes it, and it usually goes away.”

He was right. While I was deeply alarmed that my vision had gone to hell, within about three months I was fully back to normal. I thought all that was behind me.

I was wrong.

On a sunny September day a few weeks ago I started seeing double again. The angle of the roadway was all off, and with the Picasso-like modernism of my multiple vision came a sudden torrent of sheer panic. I put on my reading glasses and looked at my computer screen, and there, too, was double vision. Doing my work as a writer was doubly hard if not impossible. Worst of all, the bizarre vision made me dizzy and nauseous.

My eye doctor confirmed that my 6th cranial nerve was not working properly. And this time I am being referred to a neurologist. In the absence of high blood pressure or diabetes, both of which can cause sudden vision changes, I did not fit the profile of those with double vision.

Doctors are by nature wary of telling patients all the things that can actually be wrong.

They don’t want us to freak out. That’s what the Internet is for. The WebMD site indicates that the 6th cranial nerve can have problems due to things like a brain tumor, stroke, or MS. Of course, the site also explained, it usually goes away within a few months. The neurologist will no doubt have me get a brain scan to check for these things.

And in the meantime, life goes on. I see my body as a ship carrying me through time and space. At any given moment there might be one or more things wrong (a sore tendon in my foot, for example). Like Scotty on Star Trek, I’m dispatched to fix the problem, and I’m usually pleased to report back—in a Scottish brogue—that it won’t be easy but it will get done. It has to.

So the repairs keep happening while I’m hurtling at warp speed through life, working with clients, spending time with my wife and (most important for both of us) being with our four grandchildren.

Fear stalks anyone who hears the word “brain tumor.” But, I’ve told myself, this is what we all sign up for when we are born.

Our little newborn baby hands are too small to hold the pen on the contract that must be initialed as soon as we emerge from the womb, but the contract is binding nevertheless. It states unequivocally that we must accept with grace the good and the bad, the joy and the pain, the love and heartache.

I have a friend who lost a young son to a brain tumor. It was and is horribly sad. He was far too young to be taken from this world. I, on the other hand, am 62. If my number is up (and to be clear, I don’t believe it is), I can have no complaints. How many men get to enjoy being with not just one, but four grandchildren? As my dad used to say, “This is all grace.” There is no alternative to keeping calm and carrying on.

And so it was that within days of meeting with the eye specialist I found myself at fabled Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

I started a regimen back in the spring that entailed mile-long swims four or five days a week. Thanks to swimming and dietary changes I have lost twenty-five pounds since June, and I wasn’t about to stop for anything.

The air was cool—about 60 degrees—the leafy trees along the water’s edge were just beginning to turn red, yellow and orange. I took off the glasses I use that blocks the vision of my left eye so I can see straight with my right eye, and put on my swimming goggles.

Goggles themselves are rarely clear, so putting them on and seeing the familiar blur of the water-splotched plastic lenses was calming, like a visual white noise that partly obscured the reality of my double vision. I jumped forward into the cold water and swam hard and fast, thrusting my arms forward and back, the shock of the cold gradually easing as the exercise warmed me and the waters washed over and around and under me, propelled forward with the knowledge of my potential doom chasing behind, or perhaps it was simply the joy of being in my element again, doing something regular and healthy in defiance of my dysfunctional cranial nerve and the fear of the insidious brain tumor strangling it unseen inside by skull.

My hands pounded in the water, pulling back again and again until I needed a rest, and there in the center of the one-mile long pond I switched from the crawl stroke to the less strenuous sidestroke. Doing the sidestroke, you float on your side, one eye in the water, the other above, coordinating arms reaching and pulling while scissoring the legs.

On my side, the edge of the pond came into starker view.

A painting of fall leaves seen laterally, with the blue sky above and the dark pond below. And with my cranial nerve on sabbatical, the scene was repeated one over the other.

Henry David Thoreau famously spent a year camped beside the pond when writing his seminal work, Walden. As he once wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

There in my double pond on that day, I saw my life.

Not a “life flashing before your eyes” vision but more of a meditation on this whole experience. I think if Thoreau were alive today he’d be one of the people on the beach with his iPhone turned off, or better yet left in the car. When we are really alone with our uninterrupted thoughts we see more clearly. The noise of everyday life is a distraction. Seeing a double shoreline, I knew then, was weird but ok at the same time. I told God that if this is what he wanted me to experience, I was “all in.” I would see both shores and their myriad fall colors. Because accepting whatever comes and letting it flow through my body and mind like the cool waters around me was a way to acknowledge that the pain and anxiety and beauty were inseparable and inevitable.

It’s the contrast between the dark sadness and vivid, beautiful happiness that makes all the good things in life so much better.

Intermingled with my prayer, I saw a memory (captured in my mind like a perfect photo) of my two grandsons, age 7 and 5, running across the beach at our place in Vermont. In the background was the deep blue lake and evergreen mountains, and the boys were looking up excitedly at the sky because an eagle was there not more than fifty yards overhead flying north, and they shouted “the eagle!”

In that memory was the awareness that life is just as finite as this second. The perfect alignment of eagle, grandsons, a glorious summer day. Here, now.

Chances are, the neurologist will find nothing alarming in my brain scan. My 6th cranial nerve will tire of its extended vacation and come back to work with renewed vigor. My perfect vision will return. Or it might return for the most part but I’ll need to wear glasses like most people.

But no matter what happens, I hope I can learn from Mr. Thoreau. I’ll keep swimming right up until the pond freezes over (I have a wetsuit, after all). And if I learn very well, then I will know that it’s not about what I look at that matters, but what I really and truly see.

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The Mouse Autopsy: How Grandparents Can Nurture the Next Great Generation.

What do we learn from our grandfathers and how do we learn it? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. While my four grandchildren swirl and dash…

What do we learn from our grandfathers and how do we learn it? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. While my four grandchildren swirl and dash around me on these warm summer days by the lake, I know these times together are fleeting. What will I remember of this when I’m older, and what will they remember as adults?

While remembering and sharing stories has become easier thanks to the Internet, it’s still a challenge to create genuinely memorable and wisdom-rich experiences. This is something I’m working on (I know I have a lot to learn). My dad, however, was a born master at creating unforgettable experiences that helped shape my children to become the wonderful people they are today.

I invite you to come back with me to a summer day in 1999.

My wife and I were up at my parents’ house in Northern Vermont with our son and daughter. The house, which dad designed, has 9-foot tall windows overlooking the mountains. Nature is everywhere – and there is a lot of it. This neck of the woods is chock full of every variety of critter, and quite a few of them make it their business to get into the house.

Mice were the bane of my mother’s existence. Mom was a big, tall woman who loved watching Julia Child and cooking up feasts for me and my four older brothers. The sheer volume of food cooked and consumed in the house probably attracted the mice to have their own boisterous family gatherings. Mouse traps and poison were the preferred methods of extermination, yet neither worked well enough to rid the place of scurrying vermin. So when a mouse did meet its end, mom was jubilant. “Got one!” she’d exclaim.

On the day of this story, mom had sent two mice to meet their maker. “Got two!” she said, pointing with two fingers.

My dad, an MIT-educated chemical engineer, had a lifelong fascination with science. At the urging of one of his professors he learned the habit of always asking ‘why?’ So much so that when I was growing up, the word WHY! (always all caps with exclamation point) was taped to every mirror in the house.

Well, dad wanted to know why the two mice had died, but instead of asking mom he enlisted my children to conduct a science experiment. Dad explained to my wide-eyed offspring (13 and 10) that they would perform an autopsy on the mice to ascertain the cause of death. Necks broken in a trap? Poison? Something else?

Dad brought the kids out to the driveway, our de facto laboratory.

There, before my astonished and delighted children, dad stapled the mice to a big board, arms and legs splayed out and belly up. He handed my kids scalpels and told them where to cut. I looked on from a distance, chuckling and shaking my head. In hindsight the scene was like some kind of CSI Vermont episode.

In short order, both mouse stomachs were revealed to be chock full of little pink pellets of mouse poison. This was a real ‘aha’ moment for my kids. While it was just two mice, the forensic process was truly scientific in nature. My kids learned that being curious is the first vital step in discovery. In time, and with enough effort, all the secrets of the world could be revealed.

The lesson stuck.

Many years later, when my daughter spoke at my dad’s memorial service, she credited the mouse autopsy as a key experience that sparked her interest in science, and ultimately inspired her to get her Masters (speech pathology). Every child she teaches is living a more rewarding and capable life because of my daughter’s scientific viewpoint, the demand to ask WHY!, the insatiable hunger to know.

What are experiences you had with your grandparents that stuck with you, and why? What experiences are you creating now? Please share your ideas here so we can learn from each other.

My dad, William (Bill) Page, and the word he sought to teach his children and grandchildren.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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

 

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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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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 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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