Friday, September 23, 2016

Reflections in the Middle of the Night

My grandfather and I lived four hundred miles apart for the first 17years of my life. However, we saw each other at least once and often more times each and every one of those years.

In 1964, I was beginning my first year of college in the city where my mom grew up and my grandfather still lived. This turned out to be a very good thing because when I arrived at the dorm to check in, I learned I didn’t have a room waiting for me. My grandfather was the first person I called.

Together, we scoured the Lowell Sun for apartments to rent, drove around to check them out, and finally discovered the one that would become my first home away from home.

Pa Toohey relaxing at the camp
That wasn’t our first shared experience. Not by a long shot.

In the late fifties, he was adding a second room to “the camp”—the small cabin located near Cobbetts Pond in Windham, New Hampshire. I was his assistant doing what young assistant’s do—which was try not to make the job any more difficult than it already was. When we were done, we’d go down to the lake where I would swim and he would just relax after a hard day of having me for an assistant.

Still, this wasn’t even our first experience at the camp.

In previous years, he’d taught me the fundamentals of horseshoes—how to hold them, how to throw them and how to determine the winners. On other occasions, he’d shown me where the best blueberries could be found or how to use a rope tied to a tree to keep the hammock swaying back and forth. Best of all was when he’d let me roll his cigarettes in his Top Cigarette Tobacco Roller.

But we went back further than that.

Early on, he’d introduced me to the pigeons—showed me how to hold them, round them up and load them into his car. Together, we’d take them for long rides, release them and then race them home. I still have the picture of the one he let me pick for my own.

A few days ago, I was doing something that caused me to recall an even earlier event, an event I don’t remember but am certain must have happened.

My grandsons, Brayden and his ten-month old brother Ethan were staying with us for a few days. It was four o-clock in the morning and I had gotten up to feed Ethan his nightly bottle.

As we sat in total silence and almost total darkness, our eyes met. Thoughts of events, yet unseen or even imagined became as real as the bottle we were both gazing over. We were both, in our own way, enjoying the moment when suddenly I was caught off guard by this memory of what likely could be the earliest shared experience between my grandfather and me. I couldn’t have seen it coming because I didn’t remember it ever taking place. Yet, there it was unfolding in my mind, just as clear as day, as if it were happening right at that moment.

It was a time, when I was very young—too young to do anything for myself. The best way to describe something you don’t remember happening but know must have happened because of everything else that happened after it, is that it was the start of something big.

The scene unfolds this way. Sometime in late 1946 or early 1947—we were visiting at my grandfather’s big house or he might have come to my little house.

My mom, having bathed and fed me, was putting me to bed.

“I hope he sleeps through the night,” she might have casually said as she passed me around the room for my good-night kisses. “Today has really been a long one.”

“Look,” I imagine my grandfather saying, “We’re all going to hear him when he wakes up but there’s no need for you to get up. I can feed the little stinker if he starts crying.” My grandfather talked a tough game but was a real softie at heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Don’t you think I know what to do?”


“Okay, it’s settled.”

Of course, at some point, I did wake up and began to wail like there was no tomorrow, which is usually the case when a baby wakes up in the middle of the night. I’m sure everyone did hear me but everyone except my grandfather turned over and went back to sleep. He had the situation under control.

There, in the early morning darkness, he and I stared across the ridge of my bottle into each other’s eyes. Neither one of us spoke because he was a man of few words and I was a baby of no words. He wasn’t a singer so there probably wasn’t a sound to be heard. That didn’t mean something wasn’t going on.

He may have been thinking about all the good times we’d eventually share at the camp or maybe the pigeons. I’m sure hunting for my college apartment didn’t cross his mind. I probably thought, in whatever manner a baby does his thinking, that I was a very lucky boy.

Now baby feedings are a common enough occurrence. Everybody does them. But those that happen at 4 a.m. are different. Maybe the hour causes them to seem more like a dream. Likewise, bonding experiences are nothing new either, but each one is different. This one was certainly getting crowded as I held Ethan in my arms, while imagining my grandfather holding me in his arms.

Everyone was in the room—my grandfather, me as a baby, me as a grandfather, and of course, Ethan, whose eyes were darting back and forth and looked to be telling everyone in the now-crowded room, “This is my bottle, so don’t even think about making a move on it.”

Any way I looked at it, I was the middle link in a five-generation bonding experience. As his brother Brayden has been fond of saying in the past few months, “I didn’t seen that coming.”