With all of the turmoil in today’s world between the vile political battles between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, the constant stream of crises in the news on an hourly basis, and the displacement of millions of people due to crime, war, and the ravages of climate change, it’s sometimes instructive to think of times when the immediate future didn’t seem so dire. We have made tremendous progress over the last century, but with that progress comes some extreme pushback by those not ready or able to accept change. When I get overwhelmed by the bad news that just doesn’t stop, I think back to my childhood. I wouldn’t want to go back to that time again or live under the restrictions of childhood, but I am comforted by pleasant childhood memories and the love that my family shared.
Growing up, we were close to my maternal grandparents and were lucky that they lived near enough that frequent visits were the norm. As young children, my cousins and I often spent the weekends with our grandparents, especially during the summer when we’d go on weekly picnics every Sunday. Saturday nights were a little raucous, but once we were in bed, the Perry Mason theme played from Gramps’ den as we drifted off to sleep, and all was right with the world.
My most special memory of my grandfather and me wasn’t shared with my cousins, or my sister, or even with Grandma as she was asleep at the time. I was staying with my grandparents one night because my parents had an obligatory social event in the city and were going to be home very late. I was about four years old. My grandparents lived in San Francisco just a couple of blocks from the path around Lake Merced. At home, at bedtime my mom always tucked the covers under the mattress, so if I rolled over to one side, the covers would stop me from falling out. At my grandparents’ house, the blankets were only tucked in at the foot of the bed, not along the sides, so if I rolled over too far, I’d land on the floor. Most of the time when this happened, I didn’t even wake up. I’d just pull the rug over me in my sleep and keep warm and comfortable.
Gramps was a night owl and tended not to get ready for bed until sometime between two and four in the morning, so on this particular night when I fell out of bed in the wee hours of the night, he was still dressed and heard the thump when I hit the floor. He came into my room, turned on the light, and while looking down at me, asked me if I was OK. I said that I was. Then he asked me if I wanted to take a walk. I said OK, so he got me up and dressed, and away we walked.
It was well after midnight, and the city was asleep. The fog was in, and we walked down to the lake and went along the path for a while. We were bundled up in our warm coats, and I held my grandfather’s hand walking through the mist as we talked quietly. We had the world to ourselves, and it was magical. And it was safe, or at least it seemed so. We didn’t see anybody else out there, just the two of us sharing a walk in the middle of the night. When we got back to the house, I got into my jammies, and Gramps put me back to bed and then also retired for the rest of the night.
In the morning when we all got up, I don’t recall whether we told Grandma about our adventure or not. I was only four after all. Still, the memory of that walk in the middle of the night in San Francisco safe with my grandfather holding my hand has stuck with me throughout my life.
I have many fond memories of Gramps taking my cousins and me to the zoo, or the park, or to Playland at the beach. He and Grandma also came to many of my various childhood activities like my bowling tournaments, school concerts, marching band competitions, graduations, and so on, especially after my father died. They were an important part of my childhood, but of all of those memories, that walk in the mist with just the two of us stands out.
Beyond sharing that time alone with Gramps, maybe it stands out because that’s not something that I would feel safe doing today. At that time, we didn’t have mass shootings in the news every week. People weren’t displaced and struggling to survive in such massive numbers the way that they are today. Most people could afford to live reasonably comfortably, at least here in the U.S. I don’t know if it really was safer then, or if we just didn’t hear about all the tragedies instantaneously the way we do now.
I don’t want to go back in time because I wouldn’t want to remove the progress we have made, but I would like us to go forward to a point where children today could enjoy a walk with a grandparent (or a parent, or a sibling) in the middle of the night without fear no matter where they live.