Under the magnolia tree
On most days there is no place I'd rather be than under the magnolia tree in my daughter's front yard. Our resourceful son-in-law, Tom, rigged up a little swing on one of its thick lower limbs. After I pick Charlotte up from day care, I put her in the swing and we play together before supper. It's funny how the day's cares just fall away from me then -- my worries and all the fretting adults do just evaporate. I begin to breathe easier and slower under the magnolia tree.
It's a pretty tree with smooth gray bark and soft elliptical-shaped leaves. The magnolia stands behind a hedge near the roadside and spreads over the driveway. The limbs also reach over the lawn and then back toward the hedge. The road is noisy with homecoming traffic. The cars viciously pound by with their drivers encased in metal and glass, but we are in our own little world. The space under a tree is sacred, especially for grandparents and grandchildren. Generations have always gathered under trees and been photographed for posterity in their brief passing moments. One day Charlotte will see a photo of her bearded grandfather pushing her swing, and I hope that someday her children will, too. Let them study both our faces. No photograph can begin to tell the story of the joy I feel in her company.
When I first strap her into the blue plastic bucket, the little girl impatiently kicks her legs and waves her arms wildly, because she knows fun is coming. Grandpa is going to push her into the air and watch as she glides back to him. Her hazel eyes light up and a huge smile spreads across her tiny face. We are together, and it is a good place to be. I push until we achieve a seamless motion, rhythmic as the pendulum of a clock. It is a short flight in a small world -- a child's world. I try to enter her imagination but of course I really can't. It is sealed off in the innocence and mystery of childhood. We look into each other's eyes as the swing sways to and fro. I can easily stop the swing with my hands, but I can't stop the motion that both joins and separates us.
She talks and laughs to herself. I have no idea what she is saying with her babbling stream of sounds, but it seems to be the expression of joy and discovery. Charlotte points in the air and I try to follow her finger but see nothing. She sees something, though, and is delighted by shadows of light and imagination. We make quite a pair, the older man in his sixth decade, and the ten month old girl who is growing by leaps and bounds. She has nearly outgrown her swing; her sturdy legs now dangle off the edge of the seat. Her force of life at this age is amazing to watch: the crawling and the reaching and the wrestling with language. Charlotte studies everything, touches everything, and tastes everything. The world is like an apple she wants to gobble whole. There is no stopping her now except for these few quiet moments we share. "Slow down and let me hold you," I want to say. "I will rock you to sleep in a world of unrest and uncertainty. Try not to hurry to join the parade of fools. The passing show can wait."
But the magnolia tree doesn't grow apples. It produces a bounty of fragrant lavender-pink, saucer-sized flowers. The tree displays an exquisite evanescence for a couple of enchanted weeks in springtime. Back in May Rose's yard was glowing with flowers. I lifted the baby up to the branches and we looked through the flowers at the blue sky of a new season. Today I study the mossy ground beneath the swing and notice dried leaves and bits of flowers piling up -- the same things that were vital and green all summer. The wind picks up the pieces and swirls them around. I can identify with the brown leaves. My spring and summer are behind me now, but I can see eternal youth in my granddaughter's smile. It is the same smile I recognize in old baby pictures of my twin brother Brian and me. Nice to know the best part of you continues on.
With the rush hour traffic passing and the sun setting, I begin to sing to my granddaughter, who for some reason enjoys my tone-deaf croak. Sometimes I make up my own songs, adding clever verses until everything turns into nonsense rhymes. I usually end up with "Rock-a-Bye Baby," which seems just right for the activity we are engaged in. "Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock". My arms stretch up to keep the swing in full flight. But there is a troubling ending to this simple old ditty, "When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all." We adults sing it to babies and they are unaware that our smiles conceal a certain kind of dark knowledge about the nature of life.
So even in a simple child's lullaby, grandpa to granddaughter, there are shadows. It is a song that reminds us of our mortality even as it rocks a child to sleep. It traces the arc of flight, the complete exhilaration of childhood spirits and of sunny days that never end. It is also a song with an edge. I sit there looking at my granddaughter and I know how hard life can be, how our innocence gets stolen and how our energy eventually wanes. We slowly become less keen for the world. Every day I read the newspaper filled with dreadful stories about war, murder and all kinds of mayhem. I know there are a thousand ways to get lost in life and each of those roads is all too easy to follow. I know that madmen rule so many nations today and innocents die at the hands of soldiers and terrorists. I know that sooner or later the bough does break and the baby falls to earth. Just like the song says. And just like we all do.
Yet coming down to earth is a beautiful thing. Our human nature requires contact with the ground. Charlotte has everything to learn. Not just the subjects that school teaches, but also how to be human, how to share, how to compete, how to listen, how to pray, how to suffer, how to endure, how to enjoy and how to love. It has taken me 60 years to make my peace with life, and sometimes it is an uneasy truce. I would like to tell Charlotte that she will traverse life on the "Yellow Brick Road." I would like all her seasons to be spring, all her songs to be light and all her days to be sunny. But this wouldn't be life, and human love would be impossible in a world that didn't have pain and loss in it.
When I look back at my own life, I can hardly believe that it has gone so fast from the cradle to the classroom, from the schoolyard to the garden, from the swing and the seesaw to the rush hour traffic. I can't even imagine what kind of world Charlotte will grow up in. I fear that some of the things I cherish most -- nature, family and the written word are disappearing into an electronic utopia of virtual reality. Life that is like life, but not life; love that is like love but not love, nature that is like nature but not nature. The future is always uncertain but the young manage to inhabit their own space in it. Charlotte can't hold onto Grandpa's world, but I hope she takes some pieces of it with her on her journey.
We will always have the memory of our lovely times under the magnolia tree. Real leaves, a real tree, and two human beings joined by time and love on a beautiful October afternoon.