Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer with the Eternals

“Mom, are we there yet?” came a sleepy voice from the back seat.

“Not yet, bud.” The car fell again to relative silence, pervaded only by the hum of the tires and the dull whisper coming from the turbocharged v8 a few feet in front of us. I was myself fairly sleepy. Six and a half hours is plenty for some of our species, but I for one do very badly with less than seven. Drowsily I mused to myself about the childishness of the question just asked by my nephew. I remembered when I myself had tired my parents with similar questions, intermixed with occasional observations of how long this trip was taking, how hot or cold it was, and so on. Amid my musings came again the soft blackness of sleep, and time disappeared.

I awoke quite suddenly to the music of Smash Brothers Melee being blasted across all eleven speakers in the car. Trumpets rang, violins brought a tremolo to grand heights and then fell again, contrasting the triumphant singing of the hundred person choir that stayed at a steady fortissimo. Normally, this music inspires a certain excitement in me; Super Smash Bros. Melee is arguably my favorite video game of all time. But this morning, I regretted the fact that I was in a car with people far younger than myself who also love this game. My niece and nephew are eerily able to simply ignore fatigue and tact entirely in pursuit of another KO or the bestowal of a few more trophies. They simply could not have missed the fact that my younger brother and I were fast asleep when they decided to fire up the gamecube. I was sitting directly to the left of my niece with my mouth open, emitting a loud, pungent breathing sound. But what is tact, when there are new fighters to be discovered? Can one doubt the immense satisfaction that comes upon defeating an overgrown and version of Bowser, the King of the Koopas? Of course not. And so, brushing the cobwebs out of my head and mouth, I brandished my controller, and got to smashing.

My grandparents’ house was now mere minutes away, but I was all but oblivious. I was dueling my younger brother Joshua, and for the first time in at least seven matches, I was winning. Smash Brothers Melee matches, or Smash battles, as we call them, can truly become very engrossing; they are furiously fast paced, and require such intense concentration and amazing timing, that the outside world often fades into an unrecognizable and unimportant blur of time and space that remains unnoticed until either the battle is at an end or that unimportant blur imposes itself forcefully.

“Daniel!” came the ringing voice of my sister from the driver’s seat.

“Yeah? What did you say?” I intoned mindlessly, eyes still glued to the 11X6 screen.

“I said, can you get your stuff together? We’re just about there, and I don’t want you guys goofing around for ten minutes when we get there just getting your junk together.”

“All right,” I said in a resigned tone as my brother struck the fatal blow to my struggling fighter. I set the controller down, turned off the gamecube, and began picking up the remains of my makeshift breakfast and various other bits of trash and victuals.

We soon arrived at my grandparents’ house, and after some heartfelt greetings, we set directly to work. The task at hand? Split and stack three and a half cords of firewood, pick apples off of five heavily laden apple trees, harvest the grapes, and take home at least one of the many forty pound-plus banana squash growing in my grandmother’s garden. The labor force? Well, I had a strong suspicion that ten minutes in, it would include everyone but my niece and nephew, who are two well-cushioned youngsters. But to my surprise, the more I asked them to do, the more they exceeded my expectations. It was not easy work, either; while my ten-year-old nephew obviously lacked the strength or the coordination to do any of the splitting, he willingly pitched in in the stacking of the wood that Joshua and I and my grandfather had split.

After helping for a while with the wood stacking, my sister, my grandmother and my niece took to the less physically demanding labor of harvesting apples. After a while, I looked over, and I saw something amazing: three generations of women of my family, working together to take in a harvest, each working with the same level of commitment and speed, including my niece. It was an oddly nostalgic moment for me…My grandma is getting on in years, and her body is steadily giving way to the irrevocable flow of time. Her once straight back has become bent under the weight of thousands of difficult days, and a hip injury of long past has sadly left her with a broken gait. We don’t know how much longer she will be able to walk, or see, or breathe…I suddenly thought then of my grandpa. I glanced at him quickly as he stood in the cloudy light, and I nearly choked on my own emotion as I wondered how many more winters this precious man would be preparing for.

“Daniel!” my brother shouted through the noise of the splitting machine. “You all right?” I shook myself out of my reverie, only then noticing that I was staring blankly at a log near my feet.

“Yeah…” I yelled back, picking up a good size log to put in the machine. “I’m fine.”

Soon it was lunchtime. My grandma had gone to great lengths to make it delicious and filling for everyone, including my niece and nephew. This was a task indeed; even my sister has difficulty finding things that her children will eat reliably. But eat they did. The lunchtime conversation went fairly steadily between my sister and my grandparents, with the rest of us mainly interested in replenishing lost stores of energy. Suddenly, to the surprise of everyone, my nephew spoke.

“Food tastes better after you’ve worked hard.”

“Yes, it surely does.” My grandmother agreed. And the conversation continued. That was the second serious surprise of the day that came from a young boy whom I had thought I knew very well. At ten years old, the young man had certainly done a fine job of gaining the respect of his uncle.

When the time came for leaving, we gathered around the car to give the customary round of farewell hugs. The clouds that had been steadily darkening as the day wore on were now finally shedding their first heavy drops of rain.

“Thanks a million, you guys.” My grandpa said. “We appreciate what you did more than you could ever know.” My grandma echoed his words, and gave us all a long, tender hug, insisting that we come and see them more often. We all agreed that that should be the case. And then we got in the car and drove away, waving to them until we could not see them anymore.

Even after they’d faded from my vision, I kept seeing them both, my grandma, bent and aged as she was, working hard next to my sister and her daughter, my grandpa, solid as a stone wall despite his years, standing, ready to split another log, in the dusty, golden light of a sun about to be swallowed by the coming storm.

Now, much later, I still see them there, as brightly as though it were yesterday. Time will, of course, march on. But some things are beyond even the long, grasping fingers of time’s influence. Some people will never be subject to its corroding and destructive touch. And some, one must hope, will never forget them.

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