90: The Third Sunday in August

90: The Third Sunday in August

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

The Third Sunday in August

Sometimes our grandmas and grandpas are like grand-angels.

~Lexie Saige

Trembling, I knelt on the playground in front of my four-year-old son. “What did the old man say to you?”

“Move!” my son shouted. “And then he poked me with a stick.” He jabbed his little fingers into his ribs to demonstrate. But he couldn’t have been telling the truth. We were at our family reunion, for goodness sake. No one would hurt him there.

When I was a kid, I counted down the days until that reunion. Every August, on the third Sunday, rain or shine, the extended family gathered at the same private grove in the town where my grandparents lived. The place always seemed as much a part of the family as the attendees — like hallowed ground. The facilities there were, and still are, rustic at best. But that was what we loved about it.

For my cousins and me, one of the best things about the picnic grove was the playground. Nestled beneath hundred-year-old oaks that soared fifty feet in the air, and arranged helter-skelter on uneven rocky ground, the equipment seemed like it had sprung up in the middle of a forest somewhere and we’d just happened upon it.

The swings were suspended from heavy chains before plastic sleeves prevented pinched fingers; the merry-go-round was unforgiving wood and threw kids off like a bucking bronco; and, when waxed up properly, the bump in the middle of the mile-high aluminum slide would send us into the air.

We cooked our meals on a huge outdoor fireplace. Grandfather Russell arrived early in the morning to chop the wood and start the fire so it would be good and hot by lunchtime. By the time we all arrived, he’d have set up a lawn chair near the fireplace where he would listen to the Phillies game on the radio while he smoked his pipe, tended the fire, and observed.

It was always a magical day, in a place where we could run free, safe from the outside world. I don’t think it occurred to any of us kids that things would ever be any different. But they changed quickly.

The year Grandfather Russell died we set up his chair and his radio in tribute and tried to go on as usual, but there was a heaviness in the air. A loss of innocence, in a way. We did the things we always had, but it just wasn’t the same.

By the time I got married and had a son and took him to the reunion for the first time, I viewed the rustic charm of our location differently. Instead of being a fun adventure, it seemed like a hassle. The food wasn’t appropriate for a toddler, the fireplace was a hazard, and the playground was a deathtrap. Instead of seeing it like something out of a Disney movie, it seemed like something the Brothers Grimm dreamed up. And since the relatives in my grandfather’s generation had followed his lead in quick succession, there weren’t as many family members and the air seemed thick with emotional memories.

The reunion became a time to mourn. I dreaded it. But for my son it was all new. The thing he loved most? The playground, of course. He explored, but I couldn’t watch. That outdated equipment was so dangerous!

“Let him go,” my relatives urged when he ran to the sliding board. “You did it by yourself when you were a kid.”

But what if he fell? What if he scraped his tender little shin on the serrated metal rungs climbing up to the top? And it was windy that day. What if he got pelted with a hail of acorns and let go?

I held my breath. His maiden voyage went well, but the second time around he hit that bump and caught some air. He flew off the slide and was propelled forward a few steps before falling face-first in the dirt, just the way I had once upon a time, just the way all of my cousins had.

He picked himself up and dusted himself off, but that was his last trip down the slide. He decided to kneel at the bottom and drive his toy cars up it like a mountain. Good. He was happy and I didn’t have to worry. I was sitting about twenty-five feet away from him, talking to relatives, when all of a sudden my son jumped down from the end of the slide and ran like his hair was on fire.

Before I could even get to my feet, a deafening crash shook the ground. A limb from one of those mighty old oaks had broken off and fallen on the bottom of the slide, precisely where my son had been playing with his cars. The echo still rang through the grove when I reached him.

He wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t even scared. I was terrified and shaking. “How did you know that branch was going to fall?” I asked him. “What made you run away?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “An old guy told me to move.”

“What old guy?”

He shrugged again. “Rusty. He poked me with a stick and told me to move.”

I’d been watching him like a hawk. There was no old guy around. No one poked him with anything. And no one was named Rusty. But why did my four-year-old son smell like he’d been smoking a pipe?

It couldn’t have been what I was thinking.

By now, other relatives had gathered around. It took two grown men to move the oak branch off the slide. My son remained calm. It never occurred to him that he could have died — that the branch would have hit him if he hadn’t run away.

I was shaken, and we left the reunion early that day. That night, I quizzed my son again about why he’d moved before the branch fell, but he never changed his answer. “Rusty poked me with a stick.”

The next year, when we went back to the reunion, I watched and I waited. I sniffed around for my grandfather’s pipe. I looked for a sign that he was around, but there was none. Why had he come last year and not now? Maybe the answer was simply because we needed him last year and this year we didn’t. Or maybe the answer was that he was always there, observing the way he used to, and when his great-grandson was in danger he was able to act.

I wondered, too, how many other long-gone relatives patrolled that picnic grove. More than a few, I’d guess, given that none of us has ever suffered more than a quickly forgotten bump while playing there, despite the ancient and dangerous playground and all those old trees.

I still go to that reunion every year. Now I go for two reasons: to see the relatives that I still have, and to feel closer to those I don’t. Maybe the air really is magical there, laden with memories, awash with the kind of love that transcends death, alive with connections that will never end.

~Tracy Falenwolfe

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