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Voices / Essay

Lucky keeper

A grandmother’s hopes and dreams for her grandson

Annie Landenberger, when not communing with her grandson, works as a freelance writer, as director/producer with the Rock River Players, and as vocalist with Bard Owl. She retired from teaching and directing at Leland & Gray Union High School in June.


Out the window, the day is damp and gray, but inside this safe, sweet home the light is warm.

It’s morning. In the kitchen space, just several feet from the makeshift couch on which I lie, James, my youngest son, makes porridge for himself and Emily, his wife. This morning, there’ll be some for me, too, and a wholesome smoothie with everything but the chicken coop tossed in.

Up the steps to the loft, Emily goes to finish dressing for work. Tug, the noble rugrat of a mutt, perks his ears as he perches at the end of this mattress-qua-couch to stare me down.

The wood is warm — lush, in fact. The beams are handsome and strong. This is the place we all helped to raise a little shy of two years ago. This is their home until the permanent one is built just a short ways down this alpine-steep slope.

On the beam that traces the perimeter of the house at chest height are lines of half-gallon mason jars filled with kombucha in various stages of fermentation and readiness. A pert wood stove stands alert, awaiting its season.

Contrasting the rich wood are cabinets fronted with wire mesh, corrugated steel paneling, and industrial-style hanging lights. It’s a stunning aesthetic.

* * *

And as I lie here, I am the lucky keeper of Henry, my 4-month-old grandson. My first grandchild. He’s been deposited into my care by Emily, who’s just fed him, and I am delighted that I can be of use — grateful that my being here allows Em and James both a little time with baby-free hands.

I lie with my head and chest on an oversized wedge pillow, my knees drawn to make a “V” of me. And there is Henry — still floppy and needing some bracing, but seemingly pleased as punch to be leaning against my thighs and knees looking right at me. Dialed in.

I see his eyes still wondering what color they will be. His mouth forms little Os now and then, and smiles, too, which come from some place only he knows. He’s casually dressed in a blue merino wool jumper over a mass of cloth diaper under drip-guard-type over-pants.

I hear the sound of James stirring breakfast and Em’s bell-like voice drifting down the steps with its just-so-slight Alabama twang.

Outside a crew is gathering — two trucks have driven up the steep drive, and four men are unloading equipment needed to start laying the foundation for the house. Today’s the day, despite the rain, and, while James is out with the guys, I will be helpful.

Or that’s the plan. Or it’s my hope. To be of use.

* * *

The scent of James’s espresso catches my nose from over in the kitchen atop a funky little innovated stove. Henry smells not at all like sour milk. In fact, he never has. Why do I remember that so keenly from when my three sons were babies?

In contrast, as I nestle my nose into Henry’s softly pleated neck, his baby smell tickles me — fresh, innocent, pure.

I feel him wriggle against my thighs, and his big little hand grasping my index finger to pull to his mouth: He’s teething, and so I’m useful.

The coziness of the moment keeps me rapt. Grey Weybridge sky, down comforter, good night’s sleep, modest yet beautiful place — all meld to a certain perfection.

But the real perfection is in this boy’s eyes. When we first met, he was 2 days old, and I’ve been with him a few times since. But today, right now, he looks straight and deep into my eyes as though he gets it: I’ve seen this thing before. Looks like it’s a regular. It’ll be back. It just might be important so maybe I should take a full scan and remember it.

And I look deep into him. Oh, dear, Henry: How sweet it’ll be to take you camping and hiking. We’ll have a life jacket ready for your first paddle. I want to show you museums and theaters, beautiful places, and towering façades. We’ll browse thousands of photos that will reveal your lineage; we’ll read books that’ll inform your blossoming life.

Henry, I know you’ll help your folks with wood and winter. You’ll gather eggs and feed chickens. You’ll help in the garden maybe even have a plot of your own. And when it’s time to go to school, I’ll be sure you have a snappy new backpack, as that is what grannies do, I think. Although just like your folks, you didn’t come with a manual, and this relationship of ours is new to me.

So for the moment, dear Henry, let’s just be here, you and I. I’ve already sung you many of your papa’s childhood favorites; I’ve used lots of big words, as I did with him and his brothers from day one, and we’ve already read a couple books which you seemed to like quite well. Or at least you enjoyed the corners on your budding teeth.

So now, dear boy, let’s just look at each other to imprint how glorious it is this carrying on of generations.

I am the sum total of those who came before me, and you are the same. You are in a fragile mesh, under a woven shade of love and knowledge, strife and joy, turmoil and tranquility.

And history quirky history. It’s not all lovely; some you’ll never know and don’t need to because life is yours to shape, my beamish boy.

May it be rich and abundant, spirited and wise, ebullient and thoughtful, mindful and free.

And may I be here to share a long, long while of it.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #429 (Wednesday, October 11, 2017). This story appeared on page E1.

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