In the past, to reach our far-flung children and grandchildren, we made Facetime calls to those far away, in-person visits to those close by, and occasionally traveled long distance. In 2020 everything changed. We still interact online but don't know when we'll be in our California son's physical presence again. We still see our Florida daughter's family online but now socially distance from our Wisconsin daughter's family when we see them. Now, evading autumn allergies, we've reversed the last two approaches, Facetiming Wisconsin and visiting the Florida gang, masked, in person. Everyone keeps growing older, so we at least gain some sense of time passing even as daily housebound routines seldom suggest it is. Online and social distance connections are nowhere near close enough but they restore our awareness of what we value most.
My reading keeps reinforcing that feeling. Sue and I shared Dave Barry's Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog, a funny, thoughtful book about adjusting to ageing and making life more meaningful. Its intimate, urgent ending has substantial power. Among advice drawn from each lesson, the most essential might be, "Be grateful for what you have. (It's probably more than you think you have.)" I find that reminder necessary in these days of pandemic and political turmoil— as you worry over what you, your neighbors, and your country might readily lose, it's easy to overlook what you already have.
Almost simultaneously, my bedtime reading confirmed that perception. "Tears, Silence, Song," Rebecca McClanahan's essay about living in Manhattan in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, ends quietly focused on her relationship with Marcella, the daughter of New York friends. "Marcella loves patty-cake and nursery rhymes," she writes. When Rebecca sings to her, "she nods in rhythm or makes the motions with her hands—'The Wheels on the Bus,' 'Old MacDonald,' and her new favorite, 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider.'" She suspects that the parents "sense that I need Marcella more than she needs me" and recounts hearing the child on occasional phone calls. "The child's words were not the point. It was the lilt of her toddler babble, the song of someone who knew nothing of the attacks, whose whole world was Mama, Dada, cookie, milk, my, go, bye-bye." The essay ends with Marcella settled on Rebecca's lap on a park bench.
"Marcella's head began to bob in rhythm. She wanted a song. Her hands were busy, her fingers weaving, wiggling. She wanted the spider song, starring the itsy bitsy hero who won't take rain, won't take no for an answer. I placed my hands in front of hers to show her how to make him climb, up, up, up. I hadn't sung in a long time and my voice was rusty, but her bobbing head told me she needed the words, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again."
McClanahan is grateful for the moments with the child, grateful for the perspective those moments give her in regard to the world around them both.
I was at once grateful to her for reminding me of my own encounters with the itsy bitsy spider. Pondering a response to the question Mary Oliver asks in her poem, "The Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?", I'd found an answer in moments with two young granddaughters.
"In Florida, Eliza, now two, lets me push her in a swing attached to a tree in her front yard and listens to me sing. When I get to the end of lines in "The Wheels on the Bus," I hear her quietly echo the last words—"round and round," "swish, swish, swish," "shh, shh, shh." When I sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider," she indistinctly mutters some of the lyrics. I see her hands moving, fingers wiggling for the spider's climb up the waterspout, the rain coming down, the sun coming out, and the spider climbing again. She smiles and looks at my hands, expecting me to do the finger motions with her, and laughs when I do.
"In Wisconsin, a few days later, Lilly, now three, sits with me at the counter island in her kitchen, finishing her lunch. She asks me to sing and, after a couple of nursery rhymes, I start "The Wheels on the Bus," which she knows well. Her fingers wag back and forth like the wipers on the bus, and she holds two forefingers to her lips for the shushing. She asks for "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and readies her hands for the finger motions, singing along with me and with her eyes encouraging me to do the hand gestures, too. She smiles approvingly as I raise my fingers."
My moments with my granddaughters were not in troubled circumstances like those both McClanahan and Barry experience, but gratitude doesn't depend on such occasions, only on paying attention to what you are given, what you have. Out comes the sun and dries up all the rain and the itsy bitsy spider climbs up the spout again.
Note: The full essays can be found in these journals and books.
Barry, Dave. "One Last Lesson," Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019: 195-235.
McClanahan, Rebecca. "Tears, Silence, Song," The Kenyon Review. New Series Vol 38, No. 3 (May/June 2016): 67-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24784279
McClanahan, Rebecca. "Tears, Silence, Song," In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2020: 70-85.
Root, Robert. "Wild and Precious," Under the Sun. June 24, 2015. http://underthesunonline.com/wordpress/2015/wild-and-precious/
Root, Robert. "Wild and Precious," Lineage: Reading the Past to Reach the Present. Postscript Writers Press, 2020: 148-151.