Sunday, March 18, 2007

grandfather puzzle

I sat at my grandfather’s knee and waited. Why are girls always portrayed sitting at the knee of elder men? No matter. He was my grandfather, and I adored him. He was intent, cradling the puzzle delicately and firmly directing its destiny at once. I was restless, slowly filling up with excess energy like water waiting to boil. But I had committed, which calmed my intuition to bolt from the room in search of more exciting diversions.

I watch myself sitting in memory, far from that place and in it at the same time. I see now that I remember it differently than it was. And yet, my memory is accurate. Columbus, Mississippi on a sticky hot summer’s afternoon. I wasn’t used to the hot clinging to me with such determination. No escape. No escape except for my grandfather’s knee, towering over me like a shady oak, where the insistent heat seemed to loose its grip on the top priority of my mind.

He seemed to sit immobile for hours, staring at the marble, perhaps communicating telepathically with it, coaxing it toward the center ring. My eyes darted rapidly back and forth between his and the marble in the puzzle, concerned I would miss the moment and fail to learn the winning secret yet again. I tried to take in everything: his hands, his posture, his gaze, any subtle movement of the marble in its casing, and any betrayal of what he might be thinking. But while his focus seemed never to waver, mine rolled in and out like ocean waves. Who was in the kitchen? Would we go to the store later? When would it be my turn again? Wait. Did he just move? Did I miss it…again?

I remember my grandfather. I remember who I saw him to be in the world. I remember his patience and his quiet. I remember how his humor always caught me by surprise. I remember trying to decipher between his serious appearance and his jovial nature. I remember how he seemed to know every word ever conjured and the many meanings attached to each one. I remember his gentleness and the care he applied to each endeavor he undertook, regardless of its ultimate significance. I remember wanting to be like him.

I had missed something, but perhaps it hadn’t been the secret to conquering the puzzle. I couldn’t yet tell. He moved. I’m not sure if it was his eyes, his hands, or his resolve. But I know he moved. I drew in a breath to ask him but he stopped me as if pressing a pause button with a simple dip of his chin. So, I held the breath and the thought, and I returned to watching his every move. I thought I caught sight of a smile creeping from his eyes to the corners of his mouth, and my eyes darted to his hands. With a swift, confident swish of a motion, his wrists dipped down, reached forward, rose up and returned to their start. Magically, the marble leapt to the center ring and settled there as if it had always been there and would never think of leaving again.

We both released our breath and smiled with satisfaction. At least, that’s how I see it now. At the time, I wanted to learn to beat the puzzle. I wanted to be elegant like my grandfather rather than clumsy like the 7 year old I was. That desire is clear to me as I see my intention doing battle with my restlessness. But the puzzle fades in my memory while my grandfather and I come into sharp relief, floating before me as if we’re still sitting there, him in his armchair and me on the floor looking up at him. I see us shaping each other, learning each other’s styles for living in the world. I see how his approach to the puzzle is lighting a path for me that I am still walking today. I see my wonder at the world renewing his own.

His deliberate movement suddenly melted as if he just stepped, lifelike, from the canvas of an oil painting, to carry on his day. He handed me the puzzle, and I reached for it, surprised he hadn’t carefully set it aside to enjoy his triumph for at least a short while. “Take your time,” he said as he smiled and stood to return to his daily tasks.

I see now what I missed in my own distraction all those years ago. He had chosen his moment. He had been patient, and he actively enjoyed the challenge. He observed it from all angles, and savored it. And then, he literally took his time. Before that moment, I had not realized I could do that, too. Before this moment, I had not realized the lasting value of what he’d taught me on that summery, southern day.

Written by Angela Booker
March 17, 2007