The boy turned 13. Thirteen begs a question. Is he still a boy?
For a time, back when he was two or three, he would insist that he was a boy. Whenever Cora or I presented him with the proposition that he was a person he responded with a reasoning, “I’m not a person, I’m a boy.”
Maybe he already knew what we all know. Boys can be sweet, if a little mischievous. People can suck. Well, he’s not a boy anymore. He’s a teenager.
He’s a teenager with a shock of hair that cascades to just above a pair of expressive, and ridiculously gorgeous, green eyes. Friendly eyes, look of wonder eyes. Whenever he visits the house, his grandmother, known far and wide, or at least in family circles, as Mama Cora, offers (threatens?) to cut (butcher?) that marvelous cascade of hair. His tousled mop and I say that with affection and, in my baldness, a healthy dose of jealousy, could be something of a distraction when playing AAU basketball. He’d tug on it or push it back or off to the side or keep giving his head a shake. Finally the parents enforced a no playing with the hair during games rule and got him a headband – which from time to time gets lost or forgotten.
His basketball shoes are a size 12 (that is, unless he’s grown another half size since the last time I’ve seen him). He towers over Mama Cora, an admittedly low, barely five foot, bar, and he’s topped his mom.
“Seems like ages ago,” as the trite old saying goes, when I could cradle him in one arm. Well, trite old sayings are trite for a reason – they neatly and conveniently convey a point. It wasn’t ages ago. Just a mere thirteen years. That’s not so much when you’re gnawing on the last year of your sixth decade. Just thirteen years ago, my daughter Jessica gave birth to her first child, Jackson, our second grandchild (the first being my son’s Sophia).
I’ll admit it, Jack has always been the one of my four grandchildren, who I’m partial to. Some grandparents won’t admit to partiality, but they’re just bullshitting. Everyone has a favorite.
In my own defense, you could say that I came by my partiality honestly. You see, three months after Jack was born, I was laid off from my job. It wasn’t a bad thing really, nor was it completely unexpected as it occurred during the Bush Recession. Everybody was getting laid off in that company. I wouldn’t doubt that there was a clandestine pool among the managers, none of whom were issued walking papers, by the way, over who would get axed in any given week. It was death by a thousand cuts and I got slashed on May 10th. No tears. Just a quick call to Cora telling her, “I’m glad that’s over with.”
At the time, we were all living under the same roof until Jessica and her husband could get on their feet. With Cora and Jessica gainfully employed and my son in law at the firefighting academy, I was designated daycare. I was pulling two severance checks a month along with unemployment, so it was a good gig.
Every afternoon, I took Jack to a little outdoor coffee joint to read and sip coffee while Jack slept or played in his stroller. It didn’t hurt that Jack was, as the saying goes, “a chick magnet.” Young moms would come by and ooh and ahh at Jack’s striking blue eyes and big toothless smile, often stopping to sit and talk for a bit. Like I said, it was a good gig. Sure I know what you might be thinking, but it sure beat listening to some retired old mossback rail about liberals, while an unfiltered shmag dangled from his mouth.
Jack and I bonded for four months until I started work again in September. Maybe that bond was manifested one evening when baby Jack went on a crying jag, one of those sustained bawls with no apparent reason behind it, other than being pissed off at the world and everyone in it. He didn’t want any pureed carrots (who the hell does?), and he wasn’t about to be consoled by anyone or anything until I recalled a little trick that my father came up with when my son started a crying fit. Dad would pick Matthew up and walk him around the house, stopping at every picture and painting until Matt’s curiosity distracted him from whatever was bothering him. On a hunch, I picked up Jack and walked out to the backyard, pointing out flowers and bees and bugs until pretty soon Jack’s crying turned to sniffles and snuffles and a little finger reaching out to touch a leaf or a petal.
Kyle started work with a fire department in Marin County, and the family moved to their own place, a strange little place in an equally strange area of nearby El Sobrante. El Sobrante is a little community with an undisciplined border that could’ve been drawn by a couple of Republicans on a bender. It looks less like a town boundary and more like a lost piece to a jigsaw puzzle. El Sob, as it’s sometimes called, has everything from shacks in sketchy areas with tortured, twisting roads to custom-built homes. It was time for Cora and I to deal with the whole empty nest thing again. A year and two months after Jack was born, Jessica gave birth to Luciana (Lucy).
When El Sobrante’s quirkiness became unendurable, Jessica and Kyle bought a house in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Pinole, just one town over.
Things don’t always work out, and so, after Kyle and Jessica split up, she moved to an apartment complex in Richmond. She stayed there for about a year until she moved back home. The idea was to allow Jessica to be a single mom without some of the single mom stress and also to allow her to save enough money to buy a home of her own, no small feat in the overpriced Bay Area.
The kids attended the same elementary school and played soccer on the same fields as my daughter had years before. They grew up on Mama’s adobo and Papa’s meatloaf and groused about anything green on their plates (they learned, early on, how to surgically dissect their foods, deftly removing any offending bits of peppers or mushrooms).
Maybe the bond with Jack was manifested in a little horse made of beads that he gave me when he was five or six. I tacked it on the wall above my bed until it started to unravel a bit. I wasn’t about to throw it away, so I set it aside in my nightstand drawer where it still sits to this day.
Over the years I’ve taken Jack to school and to practices. I watched him take a stab at baseball. It never caught on, likely because his coach for two seasons was a mean SOB named Arnold. He was short on praise and teaching, and long on punishment and berating and was probably responsible for ruining the sport of baseball for countless dozens of kids. (I heard recently that, after a number of complaints, he was bounced from the coaching ranks).
My daughter often calls her son, “a good egg,” and he is that. He has an uncanny ability to read someone’s mood. When his mom is feeling down about something he’s quick with a hug and a consoling word. When his five year old cousin buzzes around him like a fly, repeating, “Jackson, play with me,” Jack will let out a sigh and play with the little boy.
Jack may be a “good egg,” but even the best egg can turn out a runny yolk sometimes. There was a period when Jack’s table decorum would embarrass a Visigoth freebooter, causing all eyes at the table to glare in his direction. Don’t like the asparagus? Just give it a few chews and then spit out a green glob in front of everyone. I guess you could say he was pragmatic about it. I mean, what the hell, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. He has a habit of wiping his hands on his clothes. It started with the shirt, but he found that it’s more clandestine to surreptitiously give a quick swipe on a pant leg. Hell, what’s wrong with that? It’s environmentally friendly – saves on paper.
He can be forgetful; a jacket, schoolwork, soccer cleats, water bottle, school I.D. Drives his mom nuts. When he started middle school, there were a few times when he’d be halfway to school and then call me up to tell me that he’d forgotten his computer or his I.D or a book. Whatever he’d forgotten, I’d drive it down to him and reassure him that I wouldn’t rat him out. I thought I was fooling my daughter, but she knew that I was covering for Jack and so one morning I got the, stop covering for Jackson, he’s gotta learn the hard way lecture. She was right, of course, but that didn’t stop me from covering for Jackson.
A little less than a year ago, April, it was, the two of us went on a night tour of Alcatraz. Before going to the boat, we went to Molinaris, an old school deli in North Beach. You know an old school deli, right? It’s got the salamis hanging from the ceiling and display cases filled with meats and cheeses and Italian delights like ravioli and lasagna and focaccia. The rear counter has a bin heaping with crusty sandwich rolls and somewhere in back, meatballs and sausages are simmering in a thick red gravy. The shelves are stocked with canned tomatoes and sauces and wines and sweets from Italy. The smell is, well, it’s the smell of an old school deli. It’s a unique, delicious smell that can’t be described. You just have to experience it for yourself and once you know the smell, you’ll never forget it. Kinda like being initiated into an exclusive club. Jack didn’t know what an old school deli was until he walked in and his eyes got as big as a pair of medium pizzas. A woman working the counter noticed Jack’s amazement and asked him, “Wanna work here some day?”
When we got to Alcatraz, I couldn’t keep up. Lost him once. Thank god for cell phones. Couldn’t imagine the conversation with my daughter.
“How was Alcatraz?”
“Good. I lost your son though.”
“Where is he?”
“Somewhere on the Rock. Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere.”
The next day Jack and I played one on one basketball. Didn’t matter that I was a good half a foot taller, I couldn’t stay between him and the basket. He’d fake left and then go right – right past me to the basket. After fifteen minutes, I thought I was going to die. I was grateful when he sank the winning bucket.
By that time, Jessica was house hunting and I knew the days were numbered. They were biding time until the school year ended and then they would move to their new house. By the end of June, they were in their new house in Suisun, 25 minutes or so away. “It’s not like we’re that far away,” said Jessica. And they’re not far away. Still, it’s not the same. How could it be? It’s an emptier house now. The vibrancy of youth moved up the interstate.
I turned Jack’s room into an office but I kept some of the things he didn’t want to take with him. There’s a Steph Curry piggy bank, a baseball trophy and a few soccer and basketball medals. Like many boys, he was enchanted by space and the universe. One Christmas, Jess gave him an astronaut desk lamp. He didn’t want to take it with him and I was glad to keep it. There’s still a galaxy of stars stuck to the ceiling and the planets of the solar system stuck to the closet doors. The room is neater but it misses the boy who used to live and play in it.
I worry about my grandchildren, all of them. I worry about the world that’s being left to them. We have so-called adults in Congress clutching their pearls over a national debt that we’re “leaving for our grandchildren,” as they like to put it. They lose their minds over the petty things of the present while ignoring the greater perils of the future. If they were honest they’d admit that they don’t really give a shit about anybody’s grandchildren.
I wonder sometimes which of my grandchildren’s milestones I’ll be around to see – and be lucid enough to appreciate. I never thought I’d be a great-grandfather (at least one who’s still above ground) until I did the math and realized that Sophia will hit her thirties in fifteen years. Soph at fifteen – damn. I’ll be 85 then. My own kids will be middle aged –damn. Jack’s only three years behind Soph, and Lucy’s just a year behind Jack. Maybe I’ll see a gaggle of great-grandchildren. And Zack? He’s five. I suppose maybe I’ll hang around long enough to see him graduate college.
Eighty-five seems doable. Anything over 85 is a crapshoot. Who am I kidding? Anything from here on out is a crapshoot.
The boy turned 13 on the same weekend that San Francisco held its annual Lunar New Year Parade. Lunar New Year always brings to mind the time we went to the New Year celebration with Jessica, and the kids who were at that time still very little. Jack wanted a balloon in the worst way and he was overjoyed when he got one. When we got back to the car, he accidentally let go of the balloon before the door closed. Jack was inconsolable. It broke my heart and it still does every Lunar New Year.