Fearless Kids and the Woman Behind the Piano

“Kids are fearless.” So says one of my friends, who apparently remembers childhood a lot differently than I do.

I doubt very much that human infants are born to be fearless. If we were, predators with sharper teeth and claws than ours would have hunted humanity into extinction long before we evolved survival skills like using fire, writing, or inventing the internet.

There are certainly times when kids seem to be fearless. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever grabbed a climbing one-year-old off of the kitchen counter, watched a toddler launch gleefully off the side into the swimming pool, or seen a novice six-year-old skier who has no clue how to stop go zooming straight down the middle of the slope.

Or if you’ve ever attended an elementary school music program—something I missed during the pandemic and have been delighted to do again this school year. So far, I’ve seen two Christmas programs and a talent show.

Where I saw a lot of brave behavior. Like the dozen or so young piano players who, one by one, walked out in front of the audience bleachers to play their solos. Some had their pieces memorized, some had music. Some were quite skilled, some were one-finger-at-a-time beginners. Most of them perched on the edge of the bench with their feet dangling because their legs weren’t long enough to reach the floor.

There were kids who recited their own poetry. A tiny first-grader who stood up straight behind a microphone and sang an acapella solo. Rope-jumpers and dancers who skipped and spun and whirled, missed steps, faltered for only a second, and started again with big smiles. Two gymnasts, brothers in kindergarten and third grade, did an amazing routine, flipping frontward and backward and sideways all over a surface of gym mats overlaid with—I kid you not—couch cushions.

All of this might have looked like fearlessness. But from the second row, I was close enough to see it for what it was. I could see the determined little shoulders, the fidgety feet, the nervous eyes—and the huge sighs of relief when they were finished and took their bows. I didn’t see fearlessness. I saw courage.

Courage with something behind it, something that became clear as I watched the final piano soloist. She walked to the piano, had a brief whispered conversation with the music teacher, sat down on the bench, paused, played a few notes, and stopped. She sat and thought, played the same notes again, looked at the teacher, shook her head, and stood up.

At which point the music teacher told us what was going on. This little girl had forgotten her music book. She thought maybe she could play the song from memory. In front of the audience, she sat down and gave it a try. She couldn’t remember it. The applause was tremendous; we were clapping for her courage.

Courage that was supported by the music teacher, that woman behind the piano. She was there for every small performer: Sitting on her chair just where they could see her. Jumping up if she needed to move the bench or hold a music book or turn a page. Smiling with pride as each student walked to the piano. Leading the applause when they were done. En-couraging every child in the most literal and powerful sense of the word.

Which, as parents or grandparents or teachers or plain old random adults, is something for all of us to do.

If kids were really fearless, childhood would be a whole lot easier. Life for a child is mostly a matter of being shoved into one situation after another that you’ve never experienced before. You have no control. You have no idea what to expect. You don’t know the people, the surroundings, the rules, or the necessary skills.

If you think about it, that actually describes a lot of life for adults, too. But let’s not tell that to the kids; they have enough to deal with. Being a child already takes all the courage they can muster.

Courage that needs to be fostered by us, the grownups. Because every toddler who leaps fearlessly into the swimming pool does so knowing mom or dad is there to catch them. The flipping gymnast brothers almost certainly have parents with a high tolerance for jumping off the furniture and wearing out the couch cushions. Every child athlete, musician, or other performer does what they do with the support of parents, teachers, and coaches. Every bullied or abused child who speaks up can only do so if an adult will listen and believe them.

Kids are not fearless. What kids are—with a little help from us—is brave.

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Crinkle-Cut Carrots and Sawheaded Spoons

The average kitchen is full of potentially lethal sharp objects, including knives, graters, peelers, skewers, and jagged-edged boxes of plastic wrap. But the scariest implement in my mother’s kitchen was the carrot cutter.

This thing had a six-inch rippled blade, with a handle above it so the user could press down and whack carrots and other crisp veggies into attractive wavy-edged slices or sticks. Much like a guillotine, actually. Madame Defarge probably had one in her kitchen.

I don’t think my mother had hers when I was a child, but when I was a young adult it struck terror into my heart. Partly because my mother used it to cut carrots into halves and quarters—the long way. Which involved holding the round carrot with one hand so it wouldn’t roll out from under the blade she was wielding with her other hand.

Seeing her do this was bad enough. But even worse, my mother would allow my children—my small, precious children, with their dainty and vulnerable fingers—to use this dangerous object. I couldn’t bear to watch. Sometimes I would have to leave the kitchen, or at least turn my back and stir the gravy.

When my parents downsized, a cautious person might have seen clearing out the kitchen as a perfect opportunity to quietly get rid of the carrot cutter. Oh, no. Continue reading

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Yes, We Have No (Control Over) Bananas

If you truly believe you are a well-balanced, serene, and sane adult who can take life as it comes, here’s a practical little exercise for you. Let somebody else pick out your bananas.

This is not theoretical. I’ve been practicing it myself for weeks now, and it’s a challenge.

I like to pretend that I am not a controlling, rigid person. Never mind that, watching a couple of my beloved grandkids put my good colored pencils back in the container with careless disregard for the precise way they—the pencils, not the children—were sorted by color, I had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue to keep from intervening. (Yes, that is the last time any grandchild has been allowed to use those particular pencils. Why would you ask?)

A few lovable little quirks like this aside, I really do consider myself to be flexible and accepting. Then along came COVID-19 and self-quarantining. Continue reading

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Cheating and the Grandparent Code

Here’s a question for any of you who are parents and especially those who are grandparents. Do you let small children win at games? Or maybe a better question is, how far will you bend in order to let them win?

I do observe and obey the section in the grandparent code that says it’s okay, even obligatory, to indulge the grandkids. “Spoiling them,” people tend to call it, though it certainly doesn’t spoil children (or anybody else, for that matter) to let them know they are wonderful, special, and loved.

But I also observe and obey that other important section in the grandparent code—the one that says part of the job is to maintain high standards. To set an example of honesty and be a role model for integrity. To help grandkids learn that wonderful, special children become wonderful, special adults by learning and doing what is right and honorable.

For example, cheating. Now, it’s perfectly sound grandparenting to play a game in a way that allows a child to win. I’ve been known myself to “overlook” a devastating series of jumps in a game of Chinese checkers. I’ve even from time to time—though it was terribly hard—deliberately not played a high-scoring Scrabble word. Even when it would have given me a triple word score.

But allowing a child to cheat? No way.

I remember playing Candyland with a granddaughter when she was four or five. She had won the first game, she was behind in the second game, and I caught her cheating. She moved her purple game piece to a purple spot on the board several spaces ahead of the purple spot it was meant to land on. I made her move it back. She tried to convince me her move had been legitimate. That didn’t work. She tried pouting. That didn’t work. She gave me her best scathing look. I just told her that cheating spoiled the fun of a game and that I didn’t play games with cheaters. She sighed and flounced in her chair. No one can flounce while seated quite as well as an offended five-year-old girl. Then she put her game piece back where it belonged and finished the game with reasonably good grace. And she lost.

I hope she learned something about integrity. I hope, if she ever reads this—and even remembers that particular game—she knows I am proud of her for finishing it.

I also hope she believes me when I say truthfully that my only purpose in that interaction was to help her learn not to cheat. Honestly, I did not intend any benefit for myself. I did not in any way try to influence the decision she made, at the end of the game, to put Candyland away and get out some puzzles instead.

Sometimes virtue is its own reward. Sometimes it offers unexpected collateral benefits. Like not having to sit patiently through 27 more games of Candyland.

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Bunnies, Eggs, and Earth Day

Among the dozens of Easter eggs that were decorated this past weekend, one of my talented progeny painted the planet. Very well, too. It was an instantly recognizable, if slightly pointy at the North and South Poles, miniature version of the Earth.

This, of course, is not a bad metaphor on Earth Day. One could point out all sorts of appropriate comparisons about this planet’s fragility and the superficial (to it, if not to those of us who populate it) political and racial divisions we overlay on its surface. Feel free to come up with your own; I’m not going to belabor the point.

All I really have the energy for is paying minimal attention to my own little portion of the planet. After a cold and bitter winter, the yard is looking ragged. Last year’s stalks still cover the flower beds. Scatters of gravel—collateral damage from shoveling the driveway—litter the grass. It all looks neglected and unkempt.

But that’s not all. Tulips and daffodils are not blooming yet, but the plants are several inches tall and growing fast. Irregular spikes of bright green grass are prompting me to wonder whether the lawn mower will start. The buffalo grass is beginning to show a dignified soft green beneath last year’s dried curls. I saw two blooming dandelions yesterday. I suspect the thistles are limbering their muscles and polishing their brass knuckles, preparing for another season of bullying their way in where they aren’t wanted. And in the warren under the bushes, where one stout cottontail rabbit spent the winter, now there are three. This morning, after yesterday’s rain, the outdoors smells like growing things and earthworms.

Speaking of growing things, yesterday I got to help a couple of grandchildren color eggs. They took this task quite seriously, and we managed to accomplish it with minimal conflict and no spilled bowls of dye. When we were done, we had several hands full of blue and purple fingers, but there were no stains on the new shirt I unwisely wore, and the dog was the same color he was when we started.

We enjoyed the process. We admired the finished eggs in all their colorful glory. Then, in the spirit of spring, resurrection, and Earth Day (reduce, reuse, recycle), we peeled several and ate them for lunch. Because a boiled egg, no matter how beautifully decorated, is still an egg.

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Paper Reindeer at the Ladies’ Aid

One of the skills in the “things I never particularly wanted to know” category that I’ve learned over this cold, snowy winter is the art of building fires in the wood-burning stove. Among the refinements I’ve figured out is that when you use old paper bags, tax returns, and bank statements for fire-starting, they ignite more readily if you first tear them into pieces.

The other day, as I squatted in front of the stove solemnly tearing paper with utterly irrelevant precision into halves and quarters and eighths, I was reminded of my mother.

What I remembered was a specific occasion, possibly a baby shower but more likely a meeting of our Methodist Church Ladies’ Aid Society. In either case, it was a sedate afternoon party for women, with a few little girls along by default. We were expected to remain quiet, well-behaved, and in the background. In exchange we got refreshments—most likely watery punch and homemade cake—and the chance to listen in on grownup conversations. Continue reading

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Did I Sign Up For This?

Even though so many of our New Year’s resolutions get tossed out the door before we even take down the Christmas lights, January is still a time of beginnings. Fresh starts. Clearing out of clutter. Reorganizing. Building new habits.

Well, I’m doing all of that. And I hate it. My whole life needs to be reshaped, but not in a way I initiated or would have chosen.

My beloved partner of 14 years was hospitalized in early October for a severe infection. After a series of complications that included dramatically severe reactions to medications and a high-risk surgery, in mid-November he died.

So my reboot for this new year means adjusting my days around the huge empty space where he used to be. The man I woke up with, hiked with, enjoyed deep conversations with, and worked crossword puzzles with (I did names, puns, and references from classic fiction; he handled geography, science, and French.), is gone.

Gone too soon. This active, younger-than-his years man left so much unfinished. Research projects not completed, students not graduated, grandchildren not grown, trips not taken, and so many conversations and experiences not shared. He left behind memories, stories, sadness—and a whole house full of artifacts of his life.

One of them is this school picture from first grade. That sweet, tentative smile and the vulnerability of those eyes behind the big glasses just melts my heart. I want to reach back in time, scoop that innocent darling child up onto my lap, wrap my arms around him, and tell him some things he couldn’t know back then. This is what I would say:

“You are going to have such a wonderful life. You will grow up to be a man of honor and integrity that people trust and respect. You will have a long, fulfilling career doing work that you love. You will travel to many of the fascinating places you are just beginning to learn about. You will be a learner and a teacher, helping shape the lives and work of people all over the world. Of course you will have hard times and disappointments and pain; everyone does. You will also have much happiness. Many, many people will learn from you and love you and be grateful for your part in their lives. Your life will be rich and full, and the things you do will make the world a better place.”

The long-ago photograph of an endearing little boy captures just one moment in a full life. Then, too, his painful last weeks were just one tiny segment of that life. The distance between the lovable child he was and the beloved wise elder he became was a long, rich path.

I’m so grateful that I was able to walk part of that path with him. This new beginning of a new path that I’m coping with now is hard. I didn’t want this transition I’ve been handed. There are so many painful moments: I find the stub of a play we attended in the pocket of a coat he’ll never wear again. I pick up a page of unfinished research notes in his handwriting. I walk by myself on a trail where we held hands the last time I was there. It’s all hard. It all hurts.

And it’s all a fair exchange. This difficult life change wasn’t really forced on me at all. I chose it, as one of the inevitable possible consequences of choosing to share life and love with someone else. No one made me take the risk to open my heart. I did it myself. I would do it again. The past 14 years of partnership, conversation, laughter, and love were worth it.

Categories: Family, Loss and Healing | 16 Comments

Deciding Made Easy, In One Easy Lesson

For two or three months now, a green plastic bottle cap has been collecting dust in my car. Along with a few pennies and a couple of mints, it sits in the flat little compartment by the cup holder that is probably meant to hold parking-meter change.

The cap is from a bottle of Sprite, I think. Since as an infrequent soda-sipper I don’t pay much attention to the finer points of bottle cap design, I’m not sure about this. Besides, I didn’t get this cap by personally emptying the bottle it came from. It’s in my car because it was a gift.

I received it from my five-year-old grandson when he taught me how to flip a bottle cap so he could defeat me in—er, challenge me to a cap-flipping contest. He demonstrated exactly how to tuck the end of your thumb under your curled forefinger, balance the cap on top, and flick up your thumb to send the cap into the air. It also would work with a coin, he explained.

How, you may or may not wonder, does a person get to a grandparentish stage in life without ever having learned the proper way to flip a coin? Continue reading

Categories: Family, Odds and Ends, Remembering When | 3 Comments

If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | Tags: | 1 Comment

Dusting Off The Family

The family has all been banished from my workspace. No more eyes on my computer screen to know when I’m working and when I’m playing online Scrabble. No more distracting smiles in my direction while I’m sitting in my comfy chair with my pen and notebook. No more hanging around in my office.

The only one left is a single grandchild. For the sake of family harmony, let me hurry to add that this isn’t due to his particular place in my heart. It’s due to his particular place in my office. He’s on the inside wall.

The others, on the outside wall and just around the corner from it, had to go. But truly, it was for their own protection. The siding crew starts work on our house tomorrow, and we certainly don’t want family members bouncing off the walls when the thumping starts.

Continue reading

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