Great Grandpa

This pandemic may be called many things—scary, inconvenient, ill-timed, unprecedented. As a mom to two graduating daughters and two soccer-playing sons, the main word is aggravating. “Why now?” they ask. “Why did this stupid virus have to interrupt my final year of high school/senior prom/graduation party/mission trip/soccer season/out-of-town tournament/church camp?”

 

They’re pretty good kids, so after spending some time lamenting the loss of these events and milestones, they sit a little taller with a newly developed perspective. They’ve come to realize trips and parties, while fun, aren’t vital to our survival as a species. It’s an invaluable lesson about how the planets don’t revolve around them and their whims. And it’s a lesson we’re all learning every day as we strive to find better ways to appreciate our blessings and look out for each other like it’s our full time job.

 

I had one of those epiphanies last week when we attended the funeral of my husband’s 94-year old grandfather. We traveled a couple of hours to a funeral home where we knew the attendance would be low. The visitation was family-only, so 15 of us sat in the chapel and visited with mask-muffled voices, as Grandpa lay in his casket at the front of the room.

 

Eventually it was time for the graveside service, so we drove down the road to the cemetery where Grandma is also buried. On the drive, I told my husband how sad it was that more people weren’t there to pay their respects to this amazing World War 2 veteran. A radio operator on transport ships in the Pacific, he was so proud of the fact that he was on the ship next to the USS Missouri when the Japanese foreign minister signed the peace treaty to end the war. After the war and until his death, he lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he worked at the National Lab. (Grandma also worked there as a Guardette tasked with, among other things, making sure everyone had left the building in case of an evacuation. Her time there and her exposure to uranium led to her battle with breast cancer.)

 

Grandpa traveled with bombs and parts of bombs. He was a genius at fixing things—weed-eaters, chain saws, telephones, watches. He was the one they called in to pull wire through buildings and set the locks on giant safes. These were my thoughts as we parked at the cemetery and saw car after car lined up beside us. People were standing around, mostly strangers to us who had gone to church with Grandpa, waiting for us to take our place under the canopy and sit in the folding chairs reserved for family.

 

Then we saw the two naval officers in their dress whites, standing at attention by Grandpa’s flag-draped casket. They were facing each other, as still as statues. As one of the men crisply spun around and stepped away from the group, I noticed he was holding a bugle. At a safe distance from the crowd, he removed his face mask and began to play Taps. Those sad and lonesome notes drifted above us as we looked forward in silence, tears trickling down the sides of my face before being absorbed by my mask. When the bugler returned to the canopy, he removed the flag and worked with the other officer to meticulously fold it into a perfect triangle. Then the other officer held the folded flag in front of my father-in-law and said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Once the offered flag was taken, he snapped back and saluted with perfect solemnity and respect.

 

I had started the day with an unshakeable feeling of sadness that this aggravating virus would prevent a dear man from receiving the deference and appreciation that was due him, but, in the end, I was wrong. Like so much of these last few months, the essential was revealed and lessons were learned. Each of these days which fall under the heading of PANDEMIC CONTINUES will not end in the way I would choose, (because…why should life start being perfect now, anyway?) but when things do turn around and the clouds part and we get a little sunshine where we expected thunderstorms, it’s always worth mentioning.

Roller Coaster Ride

You inhale deeply as you approach the wooden archway. A voice from the speaker above you and to your right is midway through its recording: “…so ride at your own risk. Only you know your limitations.”

 

You pull the corners of your mouth into a forced smile at the child who stands beside you. She has asked you to join her on this journey. It would be pure cowardice to retreat.

 

Together, you weave through the maze of metal fencing to find your place in line. The bars are painted a dark red. Shallow scratches and deep gashes in the paint show the original steely gray underneath. You rest your palms against the horizontal bars at your waist, but pull them back as you consider all of the sticky, sweaty hands that have blazed this trail before you, pioneers in tank tops and athletic shorts.

 

You glance at your child who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You notice that you are eye level now. When did she get so tall or when did you shrink? She leans her back against the bar behind her, looking carefree and relaxed. A clattering sound rumbles over your heads, followed seconds later by deafening screams, and then both sounds are gone in a rush of air.

 

You shuffle forward a few feet. Conversations circle around you. Small children whine about the wait. Mothers remind them to be patient. A girl braids her friend’s hair into a long, tight rope. You turn away when you see a young couple embrace—too much affection in such a confined space.

 

Finally, you see the loading area. You watch people—brave souls just like you—as they board the cars. You fight the urge to salute them and their bravery. The affectionate couple from before is seated and both of them look nervous.

 

“I’m a little scared,” your child says quietly. You fake enthusiasm and confidence. You tell her, “Ah, come on. It’ll be fun. I promise.”

 

The cars return with their windswept occupants, smiling broadly. You wonder if their smiles are from joy or relief or both. Either way, you are encouraged that they returned without injury.

 

Your child slides into the car and you follow her. You attempt to steady trembling hands as you buckle the thick seat belt and pull down the padded bar. The bored, teen-aged park employee walks past each pair and tugs at their restraints. Internally, you question the extent of the training that allows him to operate this giant death trap.

 

It’s too late to turn back now. The cars rumble away slowly, teasing you with their nonchalant speed. You know this is a trick. You know this ride is designed to rattle your fillings and challenge your bladder.

 

The car climbs the steep hill with a repetition of clicks. At the top of the hill, you have only the briefest moment to assess the situation. In that moment, you calculate the risks and search your memory bank for any relevant news stories of crashes and negligent park staff. Then, you fall. The rapid descent lifts you ever so slightly from your seat. Your heart races and your stomach drops.

 

You chance a look at your child next to you—her eyes shut tight and her hands thrown into the air. She smiles. You scream. You find that you are grabbing her arm, involuntarily. The fear you felt before for your safety has been transferred to fear for hers.

 

When the ride is jerked to an abrupt end, you step out of the car and onto the platform with shaky legs. “That was fun!” your child says, as she bounces up and down with the release of pent-up energy. “Wanna do it again?” You manage a weak smile in response.

 

The endless recording continues as you exit the archway: “Only you know your limitations.” You chuckle at the thought of fully knowing something as fluid as your limitations. You follow your child away from the ride, watching her long legs manage a smooth, assertive stride and you wonder where this confidence comes from.

 

Suddenly, you wake up. It was all a dream. You’re not at an amusement park, but safely in your bed. As you examine the feelings of riding those ups and downs with your child, you realize that it’s May and your child is graduating from high school. Eighteen years of being her mom, and then this. Though there are giant question marks looming overhead as big as thunderclouds which seemed to be raining down their periods in the form of hail stones, you know there are sunny days ahead, just as you know that you are the proud parent of a Class of 2020 graduate.

Birdsong

We sit on the front porch—my son and I—as we quietly wait. Our lunches sit atop two T.V. trays. We slap our arms when we feel a bug come to rest on our skin. The mosquitos are in full force after the early morning rain but we don’t complain. We only wait.

The sharp smell of bug spray mingles with the more pleasing aroma of hot dogs, our not-so-nutritious lunch that happens to be his favorite.

A book sits on my lap. It’s the book I read him twice yesterday. It tells the story of a little girl who explores her backyard. In the book she discovers friendly ladybugs and a caterpillar in a cocoon. She finds spiders spinning webs. She sees a baby bird that has fallen from a tree and the little girl’s mother replaces it in the nest, safe and sound.

The little girl describes different ways to feed birds which is why we were in the kitchen just half an hour or so ago slathering pine cones with peanut butter and rolling them in birdseed. And just half an hour or so before that we were at the store buying birdseed and a new birdfeeder.

I dragged a stepladder from the garage and set it up under a tree on uneven ground. As I wobbled slightly on the top step hanging the birdfeeder and tying the pinecones with green yarn to the branches, my son said, “Careful, Mama. Careful.”

So now we sit and there is no bird in sight. The swelling and then fading sound of cicadas vibrates all around us, possibly mocking our efforts that may have been in vain.

I look at my son. His plate is empty and he stares towards the trees expectantly. He’s rarely this still and quiet. I silently pray. “Just one bird. Please. Just one.”

Our yard is normally full of birds but it’s a hot, muggy afternoon and they stay away. In my head, I know they will come back. Big blackbirds will scare away the smaller songbirds and squirrels will eat more than their intended share. This has always been the way, but right now I want him to see the birds. I want to protect him from disappointment. In my heart, I know that he will be sad and I begin to regret setting him up for this defeat.

Most of us are wired to protect those who are younger and more vulnerable than ourselves. This is a good trait. This is humanity being humane. But there are times when we mothers go a little overboard. We scoot every obstacle out of the path and make sure there is only smooth sailing ahead. We forget how good it feels to find our own way out of a sticky situation—problem solving and conflict resolution in action—so we don’t let our children do the same.

I want to tell him all of this while also apologizing for the disappointing nature experiment. Instead, I step inside and bring out a shoebox of toys for my son to play with while we keep our front porch vigil. He shakes his head and climbs in my lap.

We watch a bee dive into a flower and two snails crawling slowly along the brick steps. A small twig falls from a bush onto a web, bouncing the spider resting in the center.

I give my son a ten-minute warning before naptime in case he wants to play. I study his face for signs of sorrow but I see none. He seems satisfied in spite of the outcome. This is encouraging. I know that there are bound to be disappointing days ahead, just as I know there will be lovely and magical moments, too.

Just before we step inside to prepare for his nap, we see a tiny, gray chickadee flying high up in the branches. We stop and sit on the step, watching to see if it will find our offerings. It flies up to the feeder, nibbles, and flies away. Then it returns to the feeder and chirps. A few more chickadees arrive, darting back and forth tentatively.

Soon, two cardinals join them and the chickadees flutter away. My son smiles up at me with bright white teeth too big for his little face and lays his head on my arm. I fight the urge to weep, partly because he will hush me for being too loud and scaring away the birds.

Eventually we go inside and he lays down for a rest. I find the record of bird calls his grandpa gave us and play it for him on his sister’s record player while he naps. I like the idea of him drifting off to sleep with birdsong echoing in his ears.

 

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