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.