Ed and Harriet have a zip line that begins at the top of a six-foot ladder tied to a 300+ year old live oak at one end of their backyard. It dead ends 100 feet later into a blanket padded tree at the other end.
High speed zipping through the yard while screaming at the top of one’s lungs is great fun, but not a team sport. Only one thrill ride can occur at a time. Fighting for who goes next gets old faster than they do. Watching is totally tame. Ed, who just turned nine and sister, Harriet, who turns eight next week, wanted more. Some way to scream louder. Get dirtier. And challenge the judgment borders of their visiting playmate/grandfather.
Perpendicular to the zip line was a swing. A traditional, tame, no-thrill unless-you-go-really-really-high, old fashioned rope swing. While Ed seemed happy enough for the moment to just zip, Harriet decided she wanted to do some target swinging. Me? Pushing my priceless granddaughter on a swing is always on the list of great moments. Target swinging? Well, I’ll play.
Imperfect timing with a swift push, Harriet tried to knock Ed off the zip line. Good game, but the zipper had a distinct advantage by controlling the timing. It was no match, however, for Ed’s knucklehead imagination. Pull out the indestructible, but years outgrown and abandoned, miniature John Deere. The game was now for Ed to zip to a spot in the yard, jump to land in the seat of the old toy tractor, while Harriet target swings to make him miss.
Were mom, dad or any grownup other than their aspiring geriatric playmate involved in the game design, a bad idea might have been quickly recognized and dismantled. But mom and dad were doing mom and dad weekend things which makes all of us mature-challenged happy that we aren’t doing the chores that enable our life of visiting glee.
It was a typical spring Saturday in Charleston. The early morning quiet while mom and dad pretend to sleep in. Morning children are wonderful. Sleep a perfect, but temporary antidote for the sugar and adrenalin of the previous day. Everything softer. The light. The sounds. Their skin. Their smiles. Their little voices. The pace of the play. And their imagination. Sweet doesn’t begin to describe these brief moments when they wake and are so perfectly beautiful and open to snuggling. Just to watch them wake makes any admission price worth it. Then the moment is broken and the routine begins.
Dress any way you want, mom is still asleep. Dash out the door for a walk or a bike ride or skateboard ride or a scooter ride to Starbucks for a Times that won’t get read, anything caffeinated with an extra shot for me, and anything they want as a price for being in the world with just them. Time to discuss important things. Share wisdom. Learn secrets. Discover magic. Trust. Imagine. Be. Watch them smile. Watch them look at the world. Wonder. Smile back. And listen to their fears and their delights. Window shopping on the way back while planning the day. As soon as the Half Moon Outfitters opened, we’d be back for the climbing wall.
The John Deere was now properly positioned within Harriet’s target area. Laughing uncontrollably, Ed takes his place on top of the ladder and grips the glide. Harriet, also laughing uncontrollably, is in position as high as her grandfather can hold her. Ed fakes his takeoff a few times. We don’t fall for it. The laughs and the dares continue. We exchange countdowns. We feign and double feign. Who is going to blink and go first? A stalemate? Nah, knucklehead takes off – unabashed and unafraid.
Just as a passer leads a receiver, or a hunter anticipates the duck, we aim for spot of intersection and she’s off with a great push. Ed, in a surprise move, lifts his feet higher to be unreachable by the swing. Harriet adjusts her strategy. She takes out the John Deere with both feet. Ed, already released from the zip line, has no choices. He hits first with his feet. Then his butt. Then his knuckle head.
Silence. Sanity and fear return. We run to him and beg to know if he is alright. Lying motionless in the black Charleston dirt, Ed says while smiling as only he can, then laughing,
“when you do stupid things, you gotta be tough.”*
Postscript: As a grandfather, my role is sometimes an arbiter, most often an observer, occasionally a catalyst, a teacher, an iconoclastic role model, a friend, a memory shaper, but mostly, a trusted and constant confidante and playmate. I’d never put them at risk, but I fear most that they will learn the fear the world seems to want to curse them with, before I can help them laugh at it.
When leaving, I promised to be more mature next time. Harriet, without missing a beat, begged, “No, it wouldn’t be as much fun.” Ed chips in, “lets go for three concussions next time.”
*Ed gave proper attribution for this quote to a neighbor’s dad who had said it while observing a similar Ed crash.