Sunday, October 30, 2011

True story

Yesterday morning I dropped the truck off to get her winter boots on. My son picked me up and we headed out to Oak Glen to have breakfast at Apple Annie’s, walk off our potatoes and apple pie along the nature trails at Los Rios Rancho, and pick up some Honey Crisp apples and apple cider. As he drove, I told him how well I’d slept the night before, a conversation which progressed into the not-fond memories of waking up to shots being fired in our old Rancho Cucamonga neighborhood. Such things were a regular occurrence back then. Since I’ve lived here on the mountain, I’ve never experienced that sort of rude awakening. Friday night was no different; I read until I was sleepy, then pulled the covers up, cat snuggled lovingly along my side, and fell into a deliciously deep sleep.

Which is why, I suppose, I never heard the shouting or the commotion or the fire engine siren right outside my cabin.

When I returned yesterday, Neighbor Eric came out to apologize if I’d been disturbed the night before.
“No, no,” I assured him. “I had the best sleep—“
“We had a chimney fire,” he said. “Baldy Fire was here, lights and sirens. They parked between our cabins. You really didn’t hear anything?”

I really didn’t hear anything.

Maybe it has to do with the double-paned windows in the loft. More likely, it has to do with how safe I feel, tucked away in this canyon, away from all the predators in the flatland.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ben at 17

On the day of my grandson’s twelfth birthday, I picked him up at his dad’s to take him to dinner.

“How are you, Nana?” he asked politely as he climbed into my truck.
“I’m a little sad, Ben,” I told him with a sigh.
“Sad? Why? You should be happy. It’s my birthday!” His voice held all the innocent concern of a pre-teen boy before the voice change.
I explained to him my sadness came from knowing I had only one year left before he would turn into an ass, that as a teenager he probably wouldn’t want to hike with me any more nor would he deign to hug me in public. He was thoughtful for only a moment before replying.
“If you promise not to be sad, I promise I’ll try”—here he stressed the operative verb try—“not to be an ass when I turn into a teenager, and I promise I’ll still hike with you and hug you. I’ll always hug you. You’re my Nana.”

Within days of this writing, he will turn seventeen. And I am here to say that he has kept his promise—he has no qualms about hugging me in public, and he really has tried not to be an ass as a teenager. (His mother might see things differently, but then, she has to live with him. I don’t.) Actually, he has turned out to be an extraordinary young man, one who loves animals (in particular, wolves), is articulate, polite and personable when meeting new people, and is not reticent to be outspoken on a number of issues, including and especially gay rights. No, he’s not gay; he has been in love with a girl (who was too needy for his free spirit), out of love, and back in again, and he’s comfortable in his own skin. Just don’t say anything anti-gay around him, or you will glimpse a bit o’ the Irish blood passed down to the boy from his great-grandfather.

As for hiking, it is what we do nearly every time we’re together, and while I hike often alone, these hikes with Ben have been my most memorable. Recently he walked the loop with me and we admired the brilliant yellow leaves of the elms as they turn now for autumn. Then as dusk came on we watched for bats and were rewarded by counting more than we’ve ever seen before.

In spite of being a physical kid—he was on his high school wrestling team for awhile and he does Parkour—he is also cerebral, reading every YA book I pass on to him (from Harry Potter to Eragon in his younger days to now the Gone series and I Am Number Four) in a matter of days. He understands literature in a way most of my students do not, and he can converse intelligently about plot, character motivation and other elements of fiction. But I attribute that to his mother’s influence….

When I moved to the mountain, Ben’s chores when he was here with me were minimal:
Help me bring in wood.
Hold the ladder.
Stand on that branch while I cut it.

Four short years later, he is my equal as I tell him:
Bring in some firewood and start a fire.
Use the saw and cut up those branches.
Climb up on the roof and take down the spark arrestor.
Back the truck up over here.

He is a very good driver.

Some weeks ago, he and his mom were going through some things she had kept for him, and he came upon a copy of the Christian Science Monitor. When he asked her why this had been saved as a keepsake, she pointed out the essay I’d written about him for the Home Forum page: “Boy, Uninterrupted.” I wrote it when he was ten, on the day I had taught him how to skip rocks—a skill he has perfected and still engages in. It was my first piece for the Monitor, and it established a great writer-editor relationship for me. Of course, he had never read it, so upon discovering it, he called me to talk about it. And it brought back all the memories of that day… standing on the banks of the Santa Ana River under a shady tree, rejoicing in the blessing of some quality time with this magical boy. I worried, when he was twelve, that he would lose his magic, that the power of his pure, untainted heart would be diminished by the harsh lessons of adolescence. The truth is, he grows ever more magical with every year that passes, ever more comfortable in his skin and his perspective on the world, ever more skillful at skipping rocks… just for the sheer joy of it.