One of the first memorable things I learned studying anthropology was an idea called "alternating generations." The theory was that in societies where parents are held responsible for disciplining their children, grandparents could be indulgent playmates. I remember, too, reading in Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword that the Japanese envisioned life as a great shallow arc, in which pre-school children and the elderly are seen as much alike, innocent, indulged, free from the workday grind to which school is an initiation.
I don't recall this sort of thing being at all true of my relationship to my grandparents, who mainly seemed austere and distant figures, models for their own children's handling of their children. My paternal grandfather was a patriarch in a near-Roman mode. I was told that he kept his six children in line by liberal application of a piece of Model-T Ford brake lining when they broke his rules. Grandmother was a bit softer. She changed my life when, one day when I was moping about, she said "You'll like this" and handed me a copy of The Sword in the Stone.
So, I'm not making any big claims here. But "alternating generations" just snuck up on me again. In Granta magazine, to which I have access via Flipbook on my iPad, I stumbled across a poem by Jill Osier.
Across the street, two boys begin to bury
a girl in leaves. Kneeling at her side
they show her how to cover her face - don’t
for get to breathe, I imagine they tell her,
when what they really should say is, Try
to remember the smell of sun through it all. It’s
a rare courtship. I watch her help,
gathering the leaves to her like love,
hiding her self. No matter how many, it’s
the same heavy. One leaf will find its way
beneath her shirt, another will tickle her lip.
What she’ll hear is almost like breathing,
and it must be the leaves. Sounds beyond love,
sounds beyond love… Remember, I would tell her,
there are such things.
By coincidence I had just had a similar experience, captured in the following lines.
My five year old grandson
covers his three year old sister
with pillows and cushions.
Sometimes it's a house.
Sometimes it's a castle
from which one or the other of us
will try to steal pillows,
a monster vs superhero game
of which he never tires.
Grandad? He does get tired.
Granddaughter? Loves being a princess.
But today it's a dinosaur egg.
The first small claw has appeared.
In this dark and crazy world, there are, if only sometimes, moments like this.