A Party? No Thanks!

Another birthday, the eightieth since my actual day of birth, is looming.

If I have my way, there will be no party celebrations to mark the occasion—no gathering of friends, no gifts, and most mercifully, no public rendition of that ubiquitous birthday song by a bored, yet dutiful, cadre of restaurant servers.  Rather, the occasion will be marked by a fond embrace from the one who has been alongside for all but the first twenty of those eighty anniversaries.

For me, the party tradition has gone on too long.  It’s not only over now, it’s overrated.

The last big celebration I remember was on my twenty-first birthday, when my parents planned a party to honour the passage of their firstborn from boyhood to manhood—as if it had happened all at once on that given day. 

In 1802, Wordsworth memorably observed, The child is father of the man…, and so it has always seemed to me.  But truth be told, in all the years spent being a man since then, I don’t believe I ever left the boy behind.  He lurks behind the adult mask, only rarely emerging, as though fearing he’s no longer welcome.  But I still search him out sometimes, if only to reassure him.

I don’t really remember that twenty-first birthday party, of course, it having occurred almost sixty years ago.  But I do have photographs to remind me of the momentous occasion—washed-out Kodachromes of people who meant the most to me back then—some gone now to their spiritual reward, others, like me, to lingering adulthood.

My mother and dad grace several of the photos, beaming with parental pride (I’ve always chosen to assume), both of them decades younger than I am now.  How can that be, I wonder, and where did those years go? 

My siblings—a brother and three sisters—all stand with me in other pictures, our arms around each other, full of that relentless, youthful optimism that has not yet encountered the eroding onslaught of time.  It did assail us eventually, of course, but so far, all but my brother have survived.

A couple of close friends were present at that party, too, both mere weeks older than I, and eminently wiser (or so I imagined, given their earlier entry into manhood).  Both remain  fast and true friends to this day—and they, too, like me now, have reached the end of their eighth decade.  Imagine!

Most dear of all in those faded photos is my high school sweetheart, smiling happily, if a tad uncertainly, still getting to know the large, somewhat strange family whose son she was keeping company with. 

On that day, we were still two years removed from the moment when she would accept my offer of marriage, and she, I’m sure, had no idea right then that such a fate awaited her. Even I, it must be said, had only begun to suspect she might be the one. That longed-for wisdom prevailed, I suppose.

Anyway, that’s the last big celebration I recall.  There have been many so-called milestone birthdays along the way—the thirtieth (Never trust anyone over thirty!), the fortieth (Forty is the new thirty!), the fiftieth and sixtieth (the golden years, so dubbed by those who couldn’t avoid them), and even the seventieth (entry point to the last of the three stages of life: youth, adulthood, and You’re Lookin’ Good!). 

But the milestone birthdays never impacted momentously on me.  Each was just one more marker in a so-far-endless progression of years, gratefully attained, yet no more important than any of the others.

Among the most special greetings I receive on every birthday are those from my two daughters, both of whom endearingly insist that I’m not old, I look terrific, and I’m every bit as good as I once was.

“Hmm,” I tell them, “maybe I’m as good once as I ever was!”

For the past twenty-one years, I’ve been further blessed to hear from a younger set, my grandchildren, five in number now, who cannot for the life of them understand why there won’t be a big party on my special day, with balloons, and cake, and lots of presents.  Not to mention the goodie-bags they used to get at their friends’ birthday parties when they were younger.

“Don’t you like parties, Gramps?” one of my granddaughters once asked.

“Don’t you have any friends, Grandpa?” my grandson chimed in.

But I always told them I’ve had more birthdays than I have friends and family combined, and that on my birthday, I’m more than content just to have my grandchildren loving me.

“Oh, we love you, Gramps,” they affirm.  “But grown-up goodie-bags might still be a good idea, y’know.”

I do know.  My goodie-bag has been overflowing for eighty years.

To Make An End

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.  
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
                                                                    - T. S. Eliot

As another year draws to an end, and with it the approaching close of my eighth decade on this journey, I know I am among the most fortunate of my fellow-travellers.  For sixty years of my passage, I’ve been accompanied by the wonderful young woman I first met when she was but sixteen.  She is young no more, of course, but as W. B. Yeats wrote in When You Are Old (almost as if he had her in mind)---

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

I still do.

Also with me for fifty-plus years of my journey have been the two magnificent daughters who have graced their mother and me with their love, their friendship---and increasingly now, their protection against the failings of age.  When they were little, we made a pact to hug them close for as long as we could, then let them go when time dictated.  As you might expect, the hugging was easy; the letting-go was hard.

But it has been written that when we love someone, we should set them free, and if they come back, then their love is ours forever.  That has certainly been the case for us, for which I’m eternally grateful.  Our girls are women now, but as I’ve often told them, although they are no longer children, their mother and I will never stop being parents.

In due time, those women brought two wonderful men into our lives, and with them produced five wonderful babies of their own---four granddaughters and a grandson for us.  It was as if the cycle started up again, but with my wife and I one step removed this time---loving them, wishing the best for them, but somewhat distant from the immediacy of their lives.  We strive to remain relevant, of course, and they, in return, take pains to make it so.

Kahlil Gibran wrote of that in his meditation, On Children---

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

And in that last line lies the very essence of the joy and sadness, both, that are implicit in our lifelong journey.  Things begin.  Things end.  Things begin anew.  Or so it has always been for me, and will be for some time to come, I fervently hope.  But there will eventually come a moment, I know, when no next beginning will follow the final end.  Despite my reluctance to face that day, I do not fear it.  My approach to its inevitability is summed up in this final stanza from one of my own poems, I Haven’t the Time--- 

I haven’t the time for anger or rancor, or grumbling, self-pity, or frown.
Life’s about living, getting and giving full measure before it winds down.
When that day is nigh, as ‘twill be by and by, I hope it will be widely said,
That as man and boy, I strove for the joy of living until I was dead.

My closest companions along the way have certainly brought that hope closer to reality than it might otherwise have been.  To paraphrase the late Queen Elizabeth II, my dear family have been my strength and stay the entire way.  As we enter into 2023, I hope for all of you who read these posts that you will feel as blessed as I, and that the ending of this old year, no matter its triumphs or tragedies, will be a new and happy beginning for you.

To make an end is to make a beginning.

Happy New Year! 

The Reasons For the Season

It’s hard to believe, but this soon-to-be-upon-us Christmas will be the eightieth time I’ve celebrated the festive season with family.  I have no memory of the first five or six such occasions, and most of those that came after are a hodge-podge of recollections jumbled together across the years.

Although my extended family was a blend of Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian church-goers, Christ was never the centre of our celebrations back then; family was always at the centre.  As a youngster, I was taught all about the virgin birth—the trek to Bethlehem, the sojourn in the stable, the babe in the manger, the shepherds and wise men who visited the creche—but the visitor I most looked forward to every year was Santa Claus.

It may amuse you to know that I still believe in the spirit of Santa, that jolly, old elf who freely gives us presents while taking nothing in return (save, perhaps, for cookies and milk).  I still hang up my stocking every Christmas Eve.

It may surprise you to learn that I still believe in the teachings of the Christ-child, too, despite the fact my knowledge of them springs from English translations of the writings of men (no women, alas), who told their tales in Hebrew and Greek long after the storied crucifixion.

It seems to me those teachings can be crystallized in two succinct statements attributed to Jesus: Love one another.  Treat everyone else as you would like to be treated.  There are world-religions other than Christianity that preach similar sentiments, of course, but I fear I know less about them than I’d like.  Nevertheless, I dream sometimes of what our world might be like today if all of us, regardless of creed, could adhere to those two maxims, person-to-person, nation-to-nation.

Despite my belief in his teachings, I confess I cannot be sure Christ was the divine son of the god to whom we attribute our creation—that beneficent father-figure who reigns over us from on high, portrayed so majestically in magnificent works of art over the centuries.  I simply don’t know if Christ really turned water into wine, raised Lazarus back to life, rose again from the dead, or will return someday in rapture and glory.  I was taught these things, never with any proof offered, though—because true faith requires no absolute proof.  Faith and proof are each other’s antithesis. But no matter; whether one believes Christ was divine or not, the truth of his teachings shines through for me. 

It pains me when I hear so-called Christians take those teachings, impart their own twist to them, and then insist that everyone else adhere to their interpretation.  I’ve read the entire Bible, some sections repeatedly, and I’ve yet to find the condemnation purported to come from Christ’s lips that is used by judgmental Christian proselytizers to justify the stances they spew forth on such issues as marriage equality, abortion, feminism, and science education, to name a few.  The Christ I know loves everyone.

Nevertheless, despite my difference of opinion with such folk, I respect their right to believe as they do—so long as they do not seek to interfere with my right to do the same.  Christ, it seems to me, invited people to accept his teachings; he did not force them.  It is wise, I think, to be wary of those who use Christ’s teachings to further their own ends, to rend us asunder.

Lest I appear to be doing that here, let me clarify that I am not; I am simply riffing on my understanding of the meanings of Christmas.  Both my continuing belief in a Santa Claus, and my endorsement of Christ’s two great maxims, are important aspects of the celebration for me.  But I readily acknowledge that others may feel differently.  I begrudge no one their right to hold and profess their own beliefs, even to disregard mine, and I do not seek to impose mine on anyone.  

In addition to the influences of Santa and Jesus on my understanding of Christmas, there are others whose interpretations reflect my own.  For example, in his famous story, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens described the occasion thusly—a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

Kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant, open hearts—these words echo the intent of Christ’s teachings, do they not?  It’s a pity such sentiments surface so infrequently in our interactions these days, except for a brief time at Christmas.

Another artist, Elvis Presley, released a song in 1966, written by his friend Red West, whose lyrics included this plaintive call—

Oh, why can’t every day be like Christmas?
Why can’t that feeling go on endlessly?
For if everyday could be just like Christmas,
What a wonderful world this would be.

Anyway, buoyed in the spirit of Christmas, I’m looking forward to my eightieth celebration with renewed hope that the true reasons for the season will once again manifest themselves—and, I fervently wish, pervade the new year to come. Surely then, we would find the way, know the truth, and approach the life to which we aspire.

A wonderful world it would be, indeed!

A Canadian’s American Thanksgiving

“You’re Canadian, right?  From Canada.”

“Right,” I replied.  “And right again.”

My neighbour from across the street continued, “So you celebrate two Thanksgivings, right?  One at home and one here in Florida.”

“Right again,” I smiled.  “On both counts.”

“Well then, I sure hope you got enough to be thankful for,” he said as he sauntered away.

I found myself thinking about that as I lay barely awake in bed this morning, long before dawn, wishing I were still asleep.  In Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of every October, and this year we had gathered, as usual, with our two daughters’ extended families—numbering twenty-two with our granddaughters’ boyfriends added to the mix.

I first dated my wife when she was a lissome lass of sixteen, and neither of us ever went with anyone else after that.  For sixty years, we have celebrated Thanksgivings together, and once upon a long time ago, hosted the family events.  But we are honoured elders now, along with the other grandparents, and at our age, find the celebrations a tad tiring, if still wonderfully joyous.  When someone asked what we are thankful for this year, we agreed on the big five—our family, our friends, our two homes, our financial security, and our continued good health.  And then we raised a glass to the hope they will continue for some time to come.

American Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every November, some six weeks after ours, and so, being in Florida by then, we celebrate it, too.  More quietly, though, as if somewhat apologetic (as Canadians are wont to be) for our privilege and good fortune.

As I lay abed this morning, pondering these thoughts—half-awake, wanting to be asleep—I could sense more than see my wife beside me.  Both of us were lying on our backs, she snoring ever so gently—as I had likely been doing, too, before stirring.  And it slowly dawned on me that we were holding hands, our fingers loosely interlaced by our sides.

I smiled quietly into the darkness of the pre-dawn bedroom, acknowledging, not for the first time, that this is what I am most thankful for.  No matter where I am.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Boomer No More!

Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery.  One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue.  Indisputably incorrect.  Not founded upon fact.

Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!

Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world.  Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.

Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964.  Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling.  Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest. 

Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people.  This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years.  We are not exactly a fecund family! 

My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers.  We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted.  Just as I always did prior to learning the truth.  As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual.  By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.

“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all.  Alas, that hope has been forever dashed. 

It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them.  Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts.  After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century.  It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.

The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw.  After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present.  My two daughters are gen X-ers.

Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers.  One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort.  The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.

Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world.  In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following.  My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.

Can you imagine how I feel?  I’m part of the silent generation?  I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it.  It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.

But, you may ask, why do I care?  Why is this of such import?

Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own.  The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings.  Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites.  Male primogeniture reigned.

Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families.  Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers.  The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.

[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur.  Ah, well…]

In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.

There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family.  Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life.  Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream.  In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.

“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges.  Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where.  Without me.

And so, ‘tis true.  I am a boomer no more.

Fathers, Fathers Everywhere

There’s going to be a gathering of three clans at the home of my eldest daughter and son-in-law this coming Father’s Day—Burt, Cherry, and Whittington.  With a combined age of 233 years, the three patriarchs (of whom I am one) boast of seven children (four of whom are themselves fathers) and nine grandchildren in total (some of whom are shared).

Those grandchildren, in addition to their patriarchal lineages, share ancestry from six families on the distaff side—Arnold, Eaton, Romig, Rowsell, Sakeris, and Wrigglesworth.  We are a discrete gathering, to be sure, but one big family, and it will be a happy coming-together.

Father’s Day has changed for me since I was a child, the eldest of five siblings.  In the beginning, I suspect I didn’t truly know what we were celebrating, given that all of us loved our father every day.  It was simply a party-day for some reason, and we all joyfully joined in to present Dad with our homemade gifts and cards.  He appreciated those more, I think, than the presents we purchased for him as we grew older—although he always had a softness for candy.

It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I began to appreciate what it meant to be somebody’s Daddy.  The enormous responsibility that entails was never lost on me, but it paled in comparison to the happiness and sense of fulfilment it brought.  And so, as my own daughters grew into young women, so too grew my appreciation of my own father and his role in shaping my life.

He lived into his 92nd year, mentally sharp to the end, and never lost his sense of humour.  Near the end, my mother asked him in a gentle whisper if he’d like her to sing to him.  “Not particularly!” he whispered back, the ghost of a smile gracing his face.

She sang him out, anyway, as he must have known she would.

Until I became one, fathers were always older men than I.  With remarkably few exceptions, I remember the fathers of my childhood friends being much like my own father—distant at times, there when it mattered, working-men dedicated to providing for their families.  They embarrassed us on some occasions, swelled our hearts with pride on others, and we never doubted their love for us—except maybe occasionally when they wouldn’t let us borrow the car.

I felt the same about the man who became my father-in-law—whom we lost way too soon—and I consciously tried to model my own behaviour as a father on those two men who were most prominent in my life.

It seems to me, even now, that it took a whole lot longer for me to grow up and move out from under my father’s purview than it did for my daughters to do the same.  My childhood lasted forever, or so I remember it.  But my girls were there—those precious, sweet babies—for such a short time, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone to men of their own.  To this day, I have a picture of the two of them, aged four and two, on my dresser.

“You’re not children anymore,” I tell them now.  “But I’ll never stop being your father.”  And I cling to that certainty.

I suspect the same sentiment is true for the other two patriarchs who’ll be joining me this coming Sunday.  One of them has three sons, the other a son and daughter.  All of those sons are themselves fathers now, which has led us to the startling realization (at least to me) that fathers are no longer the older men in our lives.  With the passing of our own fathers, it is younger men who now fill the role.

And in that reality, we old men are blessed.  The four sons, as fathers, are all loving husbands, dedicated to their families.  Hard as it is to believe, two of them are already retired from their life’s work, and branching out into other pursuits.  And without exception, they have loved and honoured their fathers and fathers-in-law from the beginning.

Over the next few years—years I trust I will be around to enjoy—I suspect there will be even younger fathers joining our combined families.  Grandsons and the young men who will marry our granddaughters may, with their partners, bring more children into our midst, great-grandchildren who will grace our lives.  At this point, I find it a happy circumstance that the number of fathers in our families is likely to increase.

By a matter of mere weeks in one case, and by a few years in the other, I am the eldest of the three patriarchs—the seniorem patrem familia, I suppose—but there is no doubt that such a distinction matters little.  All three of us are held in equal esteem by our respective children and grandchildren.

This coming Sunday, if everyone were able to attend, including sons- and daughters-in-law (and perhaps boyfriends), we would number twenty-five in all—seven of whom would be fathers, three of those, grandfathers.  Alas, some are too far distant, some grandchildren will be working, some in-laws may be with their own fathers at similar gatherings.  But whether with us or not, all will be there in spirit, and we shall raise a glass to the fathers among us.

There may come a few moments on Sunday when we three old men will find ourselves sitting off to the side, watching and listening to the antics of the younger ones, no longer as integral a part of the hubbub as once we were—a few moments when we may look at one another, smile knowingly, and silently acknowledge our shared status, a status none of us, perhaps, ever imagined we would occupy.

In so many ways now, I believe I have become my father.  And that accomplishment makes me happy.  I think Dad would be happy, too.

Happy Father’s Day to all of us who are blessed to be fathers and sons.

The Great Pur-tenders

I see them reading in bed when I come in to say good night.

“Let’s play the pur-tend game, Gramps!” Jacob suggests, burrowing down under the covers, brown curls framing his sweet face, his book cast aside.

“It’s pre-tend,” I say.  “And sure, we can play one game before you guys go to sleep.  Three turns each.”

“You go first, Gramps,” Travis says, snuggling into his own bed, a smaller replica of his older brother, his book also forgotten.

“Okay,” I say, screwing my face into what I hope resembles a fearsome snarl.  “I’ll huff an’ I’ll puff ‘an’ I’ll blow your house down!”

“The big, bad wolf!” Travis shouts immediately.  At six years old, he is ever competitive and eager to beat Jacob, older by a year, to the answer.

“Right,” I smile.  “Your turn.”

“Okay…hmmm…”  After a moment, using his deepest voice, he says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood…”

“The giant!” Jacob cries before he can finish.  “The giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk.”

“You hafta let me finish, Jake,” Travis complains, indignant at being cut off.

“Don’t worry, Trav,” I say soothingly.  “If Jake can guess them early, it means you’re doing a good job, right?”

Travis smiles triumphantly, pleased by this revelation.  “Right!” he says.  “I’m a good pur-tender.”

“Pre-tender,” I say patiently.  “And now it’s Jake’s turn.”

Jacob has his riddle all ready.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Travis doesn’t reply right away, furrowing his brow as he tries to come up with the answer, so I say, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“Wrong!” Jacob crows.  “I get another turn.”

“Wait, wait, I know it now,” Travis argues.  “It’s the wicked, old queen who gave Sleeping Beauty the poison apple. She turned into an old hag!”

“Not fair!” Jacob pouts.  “Gramps gave it away!  He pur-tended to know the answer so you could get it.”

“Hey,” I protest, “that was my best guess.  And it’s pre-tended…which I didn’t do, by the way.”

“Okay, my turn,” Travis says, oblivious to my persistent corrections.  “You won’t get this one!   Wah…wah…what’s up, Doc?”

“Bugs Bunny!” Jacob says.  “That was easy!”

Crestfallen, Travis says, “Yeah, but only ‘cause I can’t stutter!”

“Bugs Bunny doesn’t stutter,” Jacob says.  “That’s Porky Pig.”

“Okay your turn, Jake,” I intercede quickly, heading off a potential squabble.  “This is your third round.  Make it a good one.”

“Okay, here it is.”  In a harsh, threatening rasp, he bellows, “Who’s that clip-clopping across my bridge?”

“Billy Goats Gruff!” Travis exclaims.  “That’s the troll under the bridge!”

“Very good, Trav,” I say.  “Now it’s your third turn.  Can you stump us?”

Adopting a lilting, sing-song tone, he says, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go!”

“The seven dwarfs,” Jacob shouts, eager to beat me, even though he’s used his last turn.

“Which one?” Travis says, wanting to stump his brother.

“All of ‘em, right, Gramps?”

“I think so,” I say.  “They all went to work, unless Sleepy slept in.”  My intended joke falls on deaf ears.

“Okay, that’s three for me an’ Trav,” Jacob says.  “But you got two pur-tends left, Gramps.”

This is the standard pattern when we play, which usually allows me to end the game without complaints from them about having to go to sleep.

“I have two pre-tends left,“ I say, “so here’s my second one.”  In my best attempt at a high-pitched cackle, I croak, “Who’s that out there, eating my house?”

“The witch, the witch!” the boys yell in unison.  “Hansel an’ Gretel!”

“Right,” I smile.  “You guys are great at this game!”

“Yeah,” Travis agrees.  “We’re the great pur-tenders!”

Pre-tenders!” I say, for what feels like the umpteenth time.  “You guys are great pre-tenders.  You remind me of an old song, and I’m going to use it for my final riddle.  Then it’s bedtime.”

“Sing it, Gramps,” Jacob urges.  “Sing it for us.”

They’ll endure anything to avoid having to go to sleep, I figure, but I sing the song anyway, tailored just for them.

Oh-oh-oh, yes, you’re the great pre-te-en-ders,

All cozy and ready to sleep,

You’ve played your games and you’ve guessed the names,

And now you must lay down your heads,

Pre-tending you’ll start counting sheep!

“That’s Little Bo-Peep!” Jacob yells, excited to have an answer for the last one.  “She lost her sheep, right?”

“You got it,” I laugh, hugging him, feeling his fleeting kiss on my cheek.

When I bend to hug Travis, he whispers, “I love you, Gramps.  We don’t have to pur-tend ‘bout that.”

Softie that I am, I feel my eyes filling up.  And this time, I don’t attempt a correction.

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

diversity1

Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

track1

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

track2

That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Five Cousins

Longer ago than I care to think, the final one of our five grandchildren made her entrance into the family.  She joined an older sister and brother, and two cousins, both girls.  Because the five of them live close to each other in the same town, they’ve spent a lot of time together and have grown quite close.

Ranging in age from seventeen to eleven, Ainsley, David, Alana, Naomi, and Abbey were the subjects of a book I published some years ago, a collection of poetry for and about them.  Titled Five Cousins, the book spun tales of their adventures at the various stages of life they had by then attained.

3 Cousins cover

Each of them received a copy from me one long-ago Christmas—signed, of course, with a suitable inscription.  At the time, the younger ones enjoyed having the poems read to them more than reading them themselves, but either way, their peals of laughter warmed the author’s heart.

Each of them had a section of the book, titled with their name, containing half-a-dozen or so poems with such titles as:  Ainsley Starting School; It’s David’s Day; Alana’s in Florida; Oh, Naomi, You’re the One; and Little Abbey’s Walking Now.

Over the years, these five cousins have seen a good deal of us, their Nana and Grandpa, often at our retirement home in Florida.  In one of life’s everlasting mysteries, they have grown older by leaps and bounds each year, while we elders have hardly aged at all!

[pause for muffled snickers of disbelief from amused grandchildren]

Regardless, it is a fact that three of them are now taller than we are; the eldest is off to university this fall; the second one will join her next year; the next two are halfway through high school; the youngest will soon enter junior high; and every one of them eats gobs more than we do!

As they have grown, their lives have gravitated less toward us and more to their friends; their interests have shifted away from us to their myriad interests and activities; the time we spend with them now is less than it used to be.  They face their futures now, rather than focusing back on what has been.

IMG_3292

Happily for us, they visited us in Florida this year—perhaps for the last time all together, as their lives will increasingly take them along paths diverging from ours.

That is natural, of course, and as it should be.  But their inexorable journey to their own destiny has me thinking I must write another collection of poems about them, and for them, before they leave the sanctuary of childhood for the last time.

I could do it for each of them separately, beginning with the eldest, and follow up for each succeeding one as they reach the age she is now.  Or I could do it as I did the first time, with poems about all of them, suitable to the stage each finds her- or himself at right now.

I think I favour the second option, given my own age.  Time, I increasingly find, is not to be taken for granted.

Anyway, here are five short pieces I have already written about them, collectively rather than individually, in haiku form.  The poems attempt to express my love for these five cousins, my hopes for them, and my unabashed pride in them.

smiling photographs

on the refrigerator—

loving grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

free your grandchildren,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

grandchildren

Five Cousins e-book – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

A Panhandler’s Christmas

[first posted December 2016]

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren came to visit.

Merry_Christmas_on_the_Beach

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

panhandler

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Out of work   Homeless   Anything helps   Thank you

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

xmas panhandler

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.