Like the Turtle

Like the Turtle

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Like the Turtle

Honor the old. Teach the young.

Old Danish Proverb

My grandmother is one of the kindest, most giving and beautiful people I know, but never, at least during my lifetime, has she ever been called “athletic.” The colorful dresses and vintage suits stored carefully in dusty garment bags in the spare room’s closet give testament to both of my grandparents’ younger lives as sparkling social butterflies and first-class swing dancers, but as time passed I knew them as the relaxed and smiling retirees I always liked to visit.

As my grandfather got older he had blood pressure problems, and with them came the trimmed diet and regimented exercise program that doctors recommended. I can say without hesitation (though perhaps not without reluctance) that he is more physically fit than I. I was once outpaced by this cool and casual senior citizen when he motored past me as I panted up a steep hill in West Hollywood. By contrast, my grandmother had to be pestered to take a five-minute walk around the block a couple of times a month.

In the summer of 2002, our family took a thirteen-day trip to China. We expected Grandpa to fare better than Grandma, and for the most part this was true—until we visited the Great Wall.

The Great Wall is just that: great in every possible sense of the word. We traversed stairs of jagged stone, two feet high and three inches wide, ascending hillsides that make a mockery of San Francisco. There were towers with tiny staircases so narrow that only one small person could pass through them at a time.

My young niece and nephew were, of course, undaunted. They ran at full tilt back and forth along the straightaways and gamely clambered up steps more than half their own heights. When we made it about halfway to the tourist checkpoint, my great-uncle and grandfather turned back—the altitude, heat and sheer aggression of the Wall had defeated them. My own quads were burning and so were my lungs; my brother, two years younger than me and quite a bit stronger, wasn’t faring much better. As we struggled to keep up with our niece and nephew, eventually it occurred to us that we’d lost Grandma. Unworried but curious, we used our walkie-talkies to triangulate her location.

She was at the far-end checkpoint. Buying a souvenir. A little plaque that commemorated one’s stamina and fortitude in making it that far along the Wall. Many energetic and athletic young couples, armed with water bottles and expensive walking shoes, had endeavored to make it this far and failed.

We were amazed. My grandfather was astounded. “I was like the turtle,” was my grandmother’s simple, almost laughing explanation. And indeed she was; as the rest of us had scrambled to keep the younger generation in sight, we’d been completely unaware of Grandma’s steady progress toward the far-end checkpoint—a place, by the way, that neither my niece nor nephew had the energy to overtake in the end. I fought my way, exhausted, to also get a plaque. Grandma wasn’t even breathing heavily.

To this day I still don’t know how she did it. Neither does my grandfather. Maybe she’s been hiding her physical fitness all this time, though that seems unlikely. Maybe her Chinese ancestors imbued her spirit with some unnatural strength to conquer the Wall they had built. Or maybe—and more likely—the will we all knew was strong carried her along.

Erin Hoffman

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