The other day in the little park near their house in Carol Stream, Bryce asked me to push him on the swing. Tyler held back, a cast on his arm from the second day of summer camp, though he joined us later. Bryce, meanwhile, has a contusion on his cheek from walking in front of a swing set and getting kicked in the face. It’s been a rough summer camp so far.
Bryce wanted me to push him, partly because it’s conducive to conversation, which he enjoys and which I encourage. That’s one of our main jobs as grandparents: encouragement.
I love pushing swings — with their dad, too, when he was their age, which I told Bryce, who’s curious about his dad so he enjoyed hearing about the playground days of yore. Swinging is a relaxing, rhythmic, back-and-forth activity — like a good conversation in a way, a pendulum swinging to and fro.
Bryce says it feels like he’s soaring into the sky, which is what I liked about swinging, that momentary illusion of taking flight, into a lovely summer sky, full of shape-shifting clouds that resemble things familiar. Cloud sculpting is one of life’s great imaginary exercises because there are no wrong answers. I saw a duck. Tyler spotted a giant turtle.
Then Bryce said, “I miss First Baptist.”
Life is changing for these newbies, as it always does, as it always will. Living is an odd blend of settling in and unsettling. We transition from one comfort zone to something new, which sooner or later we become attached to, then it changes, and we start over again. If you embrace that process, life is easier to navigate. But missing the formerly normal is part of the package because some of what has changed was very good indeed.
For the past three years, the boys have been with me one day a week in Oak Park because mom worked here. The other three days, for the past year anyway, the boys attended First Baptist Preschool, just across Scoville Park from her office. I know Barbara Branch, who has run the school as a labor of love for the past 22 years. The “Rainbow Class,” as their group was known, most of whom were children of color, expanded their horizons since Carol Stream, where they will attend kindergarten in the fall, is much less diverse.
First Baptist, in fact, is one of the most integrated church communities in Oak Park, as reflected by the large stained-glass window in the sanctuary, which depicts the risen Jesus flanked by Abraham Lincoln on one side and George Washington Carver on the other.
Early childhood education has gotten more attention in recent years, but a child’s first experience trying the structured school setting on for size is of critical importance. You want their first go-round with “schooling” to be encouraging enough to keep them marching down that road.
Miss Deborah, their teacher, who’s been doing this a long time, knows how to balance learning and nurturing. The boys liked their class and their classmates and will enter kindergarten right on the cusp of reading.
During Grandparents’ Day, Tyler led the audience in a short meditation in the chapel (“Take a deep breath … Now take another one …”), followed by a prayer, “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better for the positive and the productive, Amen.” And finally in May, graduation — complete with tasseled yellow caps and sashes, and a recording of “Pomp & Circumstance.” Miss Deborah congratulated them on completing their “social and emotional journey with a gracious and open heart.” The students received certificates for particular achievements, ranging from Warmest Smile to Best Table Etiquette. Tyler was singled out as an “Awesome Student” and Bryce as an “Awesome Creative Thinker.” Then they all sang, “Wonderful World” to remind us they’ll learn much more than we’ll ever know.
The cuteness quotient was off the charts, but I was aware of a deeper sensation.
We’re all dependent to some extent on the kindness of strangers, and when they come through for us, we gush with gratitude.
So thanks, First Baptist, for giving my grandsons a head start on the long educational road ahead.
Meanwhile, Mom recently got another job closer to home, so my grandsons’ visits to Oak Park will be much fewer and farther between. In addition to First Baptist, they will miss the hand-crank trains at Rehm Park, the elevator at Maze Branch Library, the water pump outside the Oak Park Conservatory (and saying hello to George the Parrot), the stage at Wonder Works Children Museum, the rainbow sherbet at Petersen’s, the caged coyote and the hikes at Trailside Museum and Thatcher Woods, the spouting whale at Fox Park on hot summer days, the “Choo-Choo Park” tot lot at Randolph and Grove (and our wagon rides to get there), pancakes at George’s Restaurant, running the quarter-mile path around Austin Gardens and performing their adaptation of “Dumbo” on the summer stage (sorry, Festival Theatre, we couldn’t resist), the Brio trains in the main library’s Children’s Department, the piano on the 13th floor of Brookdale where Grandma lives and the pool table on the second floor, and all the commuter trains, garbage trucks, school buses, firetrucks and police cars that delighted them as they roared past.
Not to mention everything in and around my apartment, which served as “daycare central” for the last three years. But that touches on all the things I will miss, and I’m not quite ready for that just yet.
I still see them once a week, but now I’m driving to Carol Stream to make a new batch of memories, which will also break my heart someday.
But that’s what a grandfather’s heart is made for: To be broken, over and over again.