The Universal Notebook: 'The old baboon by the light of the moon'

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We all come into this phenomenal, mysterious world wired differently. Our experiences, our families and our educations help to shape us, but we are who we are a priori.

I learned this elementary lesson in identity when we had children, and I was reminded of it last week when our six grandchildren came overnight to help celebrate my birthday.

It takes time for a new parent to understand that the world is no longer about them, and some never do. But a grandfather has had years to accept the fact that he now plays a supporting role in the lives of others.

The concerns I often express in this column about injustice, prejudice and the petty politics of self-interest are not for myself, they are for my grandchildren. Nothing those in Washington or Augusta say or do is going to directly impact an old white man like me, but the profound mistakes of the shortsighted will determine the reality that the children I love will inherit.

My grandchildren, all as bright and beautiful as everyone’s grandchildren, are such interesting and distinct individuals. They grow and change and yet remain constant at their cores.

Jackson, like me the first born of his generation, is thoughtful and a worrier. As a toddler he played with language in intriguing ways and at 6 he has developed a focus that is impressive. He is a builder and can follow directions for hours as he constructs fantastical mechanical beasts out of Legos.

Alda, 5, is nurturing and has a fine sense of fairness. She is a gentle child, good with her siblings, and does not approve of the wild rumpus that sometimes ensues when all of the cousins get together. She prefers caring for her dolls and doing arts and crafts projects.

Islay, 4, possesses a wonderfully original mind and constantly comes up with observations and insights that suggest she is an old soul. The other day, she observed that “You can’t get back the things you waste.” Independent and resourceful, she can entertain herself for hours, quietly narrating her play to herself.

Henry, 3, is all boy. He is the most physical of the grandchildren, very coordinated at 3. I see him as an athlete with a sensitive side. He loves to roughhouse, but his feelings are hurt more easily than his sturdy little body.

Luna, 2, is still a lovely mystery to me. I see her mother in this beautiful little blonde being. Part of the Luna mystery is that I still can’t quite understand many of the things she says as she invents the world for herself.

Hazel, 1, is just plain stinking cute. She is a good-natured, sociable little one, constantly holding her arms up for someone to lift her into the adult world, but woe to anyone who crosses this sunny little tike. “No’s” and “don’t’s” bring on storm clouds, thunder and lightning.

One of the chief pleasures of being a grandfather is curling up on the couch and reading to the pile of kiddos cuddled together for a better view. My grandchildren rarely get to watch television. Their parents don’t plop them down in front of the TV when they need a little time to themselves the way I used to do. As a result they are very much creatures of the book and possess impressive attention spans.

I don’t recall either my parents or my grandparents reading to me the way we read to our girls and now read to the grandchildren, but I do remember my Bampi Gibson telling me stories about rabbits that came out to play at night on the Mackworth Island causeway visible from his window. He also taught me silly songs like “The Animal Fair.”

“I went to the animal fair./ The birds and beasts were there./ The old baboon, by the light of the moon,/ was combing his auburn hair./ The monkey he got drunk,/ and fell on the elephant’s trunk./ The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees,/ and that was the end of the monk, the monk, the monk.”

Now I sing songs to my grandchildren that my long-dead grandfather sang to me. It tickles them when I improvise and insert their names. It’s all nonsense, of course, perhaps even nonsense of questionable content. But to me it’s precious because it’s children born in the early 21st century staying in contact with family born in the late 19th.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.