Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Candles and Cakes


Zoe, our five year old granddaughter, had an overnight with us several weeks ago. It was just the two of us that night. I fixed bulls eye eggs for dinner and had already lifted my fork when she said, “Grandma, it’s Friday night. Don’t you think we should light the candles and say the blessings?”

Right. The child had brought with her a small challah. Together, we put the candles in their holders, found the matches, poured the wine. I was about to strike the match when she said, “First we have to take a deep breath and welcome Shabbat.”

Right again. After dinner, we went upstairs to read a few stories together until it was time for her bath.

“Grandma, I’d like to relax for a while.” She leaned back in a bubble filled tub and sucked her thumb.

“Sure, Zoe, take a soak.” I twirled her hair into a wet bun at the top of her head.

“Let’s have a conversation.” Zoe pushed the whirlpool button on, then off.

“What would you like to talk about?”

“Do I get to pick because I’m the guest?”

“Sure.”

“How do you know when someone dies?”

Her question took me completely by surprise although I knew death had been on her mind for some time. She misses our dog Emma and often asks questions about a grandmother she never knew. She knows her uncle is seriously ill. I wanted to give her just enough of an answer but not too much. After all, she’s five years old and you never know the genesis of a five year old’s questions even if you think you do. Remember the Art Linkletter story about the little boy who, after asking his mom where he came from, learned the basics of sex and babies when all he really wanted to know was where he was born, Chicago or Detroit.

Not wanting to give her more information than she needed, I said, “A person stops breathing when they die. That’s how you know.” Satisfied with that answer, she asked if we could bake a cake together in the morning.

What I find so astounding and wonderful about this child is her capacity to consider the harsher realities of life and, in a breath, swing fully and with complete abandon to the joys.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Wyoming Crone

When friends and I meet for morning coffee once or twice a week, we talk about the usual stuff of politics, movies, travel plans. A few days ago it was wrinkles, face cream and the ravages of advanced middle age. That conversation made me think of an incident on a trip our family took years ago.

We rode into the Yellowstone wilderness on horseback with our three sons, then all under the age of ten. The wranglers pitched our tents and prepared our meals. Looking for a family pioneer experience, we'd given no thought to the isolation, lack of medical facilities or danger. We rode forth in blistering heat, rain, then sleet and finally freezing cold. On day five, we reached the pinnacle of the mountain range. From our vantage point, we saw the rivers flow in opposite directions from the Great Divide. Along with the mules and wranglers, our group had stopped our horses in a long row to rest and enjoy the magnificent view.

Hail, the size of golf balls, then pummeled us. I remember thinking we could have been lying on the beach in the French Riviera for the same money. I sagged in my saddle. My back ached and bottom hurt, the hail stung and more than anything, I wanted a cup of hot coffee and my own bed.

I heard the horse and saw the dust clouds even before the woman rode past. She sat tall in the saddle on a magnificent stallion, her back rigid. White hair hung past her shoulders from beneath a wide brimmed, worn leather hat trimmed in feathers and beads. Her long thin face was creviced and tanned. She stared straight ahead, as if we were invisible. And then she was gone. After five more excruciating days, we arrived back at the ranch and flew home. But the vision of that woman remained a powerful memory, although it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand why.

She projected a quiet strength and confidence, comfortable in her own skin and place in the world. Unconcerned, like the rest of us, about weight, wrinkles and face cream, I suspect she was too busy living with stalwart clarity to ponder the meaning of her life.