We used to joke that his feet didn’t touch the floor until he was four years old. Friends have wondered where his happiness and smile came from, and most have traced it to his mother, but I put it squarely on the shoulders of his Japanese grandma, because that’s where he was raised.
The day he came home from the hospital she fashioned a kind of sling that fit underneath a loose quilted jacket, and she bound him to it, with his tiny head peeking out from above her shoulder. His consciousness developed between long and loving sessions at his mother’s overflowing breasts, followed by sleep, a diaper change, and an awakening world seen from the back of his grandmother. His first conversations were with her.
Each child is loved differently no matter what you tell yourself, and he was loved by his grandmother as the first son, a tradition baked in the kiln of prehistory, a man who she would serve in a long line of men including her father, her own younger brother who was the eldest son, an arranged husband, the father-in-law with whom she lived for decades and cared for in his floor-ridden, gradual, cancerous demise, the unpalatable brothers of the arranged husband, and of course the husband of her only daughter. That would be me.
The tiny one bound up on her back and carried to the market, to the butcher, and to the fish shop as she pedaled her old red mamachari, however, was different from the other males in her life because him she served without complaint, him she carried on her back with the quiet confidence that although she had never had a son she now had him.
So many times I would hear them talking, him marshaling the first thoughts into words, her listening to the infinite warble on her back with endless patience as she cooked or cleaned and then answered, sometimes just as lengthy, a call-and-response from the fields of time.
The new century
Last Saturday I was returning from a memorial ride for Eli Ritchbourg, a young father who had died of an aneurysm. I had run out of water and decided to refill at the toilets in Santa Monica. The big, clean, spacious stalls are more like small apartments than public toilets, and are much prized by the homeless for that very reason. As I pedaled up I noticed a Middle Eastern grandmother, her head covered in a dark scarf and her body wrapped in a dark, loose-fitting dress that covered the tops of her shoes.
She was holding the hand of her grandson, who looked like he was somewhere between two and three. She had slowed her pace to match his, and he had that funny hitched walk of a kid with a diaper full-to-busting with the overflow of digestion. He was talking, perhaps in Arabic, and it was a lengthy little speech indeed. His grandmother said nothing, but she listened attentively as they headed for the toilets.
In their path was a group of three or four Santa Monica moms, each with a Mercedes-Benz’s worth of kiddy stroller, and each stroller hung with bags, toys, juice carriers, and oversized cup-holders for the the venti triple shot soy mocha latte. The Arab woman carried nothing but a nondescript canvas bag. Where the old grandmother listened, the young mothers snapped and carped and nagged at their children: “Vicent! VINCENT!” along with my favorite verbal torture as a child, “Suzy! Share! I told you to SHARE!”
The children brawled and bawled back, a staccato exchange of brats and their brat-minders, of angry parents and whiny children. The mothers had lovely skimpy outfits that revealed just enough to be sexy and not quite enough to be tawdry, and their hair was pulled back in that casual babysitting mode that takes a solid hour of careful work and makeup to achieve.
The Old World crossed the path of the New World and each was aware of the other. One mother raised an eyebrow, and it spelled out contempt, before she quickly resumed scolding her child for unreasonably wanting to shove a fistful of sand down the other child’s throat.
The stall next door
I pushed my bike into a stall and locked the door. As I zipped up my jersey I realized that the old woman and her grandson were in the stall next to mine; the stalls were completely separate compartments whose walls reach to the ground on all sides. The tops of the stalls opened up about seven feet above the ground so there was circulation of the cool ocean breeze, and what was said next door was perfectly audible.
I paused to listen as the little boy continued speaking, unhurriedly, to his grandmother. After a while he stopped. His question or his story, the one that had been going on since they crossed the open space outside, had ended with nary an interruption by his grandmother. Now it was her turn, and she answered with the same patient, loving tone that I had heard so many years ago in Japan.
What had he been saying? Was he telling her about whales, or about the dead fish he’s seen washed up on the shore, or had he been asking her where the ocean came from, or why the sky was blue?
And what was she answering? Was she telling him about the first time she had been to the sea, or about her grandfather who used to cross the ocean’s desert in a caravan of camels, or about whales and fish and why they couldn’t walk but had to live in the water?
Whatever she was saying, it was patient and long, and it drowned out the cacophony of scolds and whines and sharp rebukes from outside.
I thought about another little boy, my eldest son, who long ago would listen to just such an explanation and then, on the back of his Japanese grandmother, would launch off into another eternal question as she pedaled the bike to the tea shop. Something of the happiness that she had given to him, she now gave to me through this brief eavesdropping, and it powered me in its own way as I rode joyfully home.