The Spirit of a Child
Updated: Apr 16
The older I become, the more I appreciate life after listening to and observing small children. Our oldest grandchild, Oliver, now almost 13, has been visiting Bill and me at our home in the Northwoods since he was eight months old. He, along with our four granddaughters, Penelope, Olivia, Linnea, and Amelia (who range in age from six to less than one year old), not only bring us happiness, but teach us as well.
The following story is about Oliver.
The summer he turned four he came to visit us with his parents, our son, Phil, and daughter-in-law, Jackie. Already part leapfrog, part rabbit, he kept us busy watching over him while he explored his surroundings.
During the first two days he climbed on and jumped off assorted objects: furniture in the house and small boulders and tree stumps outside. Wild and free in open spaces, he ran as fast his skinny legs could propel his little body.
“Look at me, grandma! See how fast I can run?”
Leading the way, he trotted down the pine-needled path through the trees to our pier, admired the lake and looked for small frogs and fish. He found pebbles to throw in the water and giggled with each successful splash. He raced onto the shaky wooden boardwalk in the marshy area on the other side of our property, unknowingly disturbing the small creatures below it.
He dashed down the slope to the Adirondack chairs that circled our campfire and hopped on and off them in rapid succession. He balanced and tiptoed on smooth, cantaloupe-sized rocks that enclosed the fire ring and looked up to make sure I was watching.
Since I was more turtle than rabbit due to my advancing age, I had trouble keeping up with him and was grateful to catch my breath whenever he slowed down long enough to examine an interesting object.
“Look, Grandma! Come see!
Can I have this rock?
Here is a pretty flower for you!”
I loved how he carefully inspected whatever he touched or held in his hand. “What’s this?” “What’s that?” he asked.
I delighted in his curiosity and envied his energy, confidence, and lack of fear. He helped me see the world through his eyes.
On the third day of his visit, I looked for ways to entertain him that would be less of a cardio challenge for me. I decided to show him something that was not located in his normal work-out territory and was not an object he might climb on.
We hiked a short distance along a wooded trail near our house through an area called Maradan Woods, named after Bill’s parents, Marabeth and Dan. Along the way, Oliver paused now and then to grab a knobby stick, examine lichen on a tree, and admire a few weird looking mushrooms before we reached the clearing and the special pole I wanted him to see.
The six foot tall, 4-by 4-inch wooden peace pole stood in the midst of a sacred gathering place that included a small handmade cross made of wood and wire, a larger Celtic cross made of stone, a gazing ball that reflected the changing sky, a small concrete statue of St. Francis, a knee-high pagoda lantern, a large rock, and some metal plaques lying on the ground. The pole had special meaning for my husband Bill and me. We had purchased the pole, crafted by Trappist monks, at the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, on the way home from my parents’ funeral a couple of years earlier.
That same summer, Oliver, not quite two, had helped Grandpa Bill and me, along with his parents and his uncle Jon, bury Mom and Dad's ashes a few feet from the pole. Instead of running around that day, he had been somber and quiet, mirroring the serious faces of the adults around him and had used his little plastic shovel to add a few scoops of sandy soil on top of the small metal box that held the hallowed contents.
Though time had passed and he was older now, I wondered if I had made a mistake bringing him back to the graveyard. I didn’t know if he remembered the burial or if he would realize it was a cemetery and whether it would scare him.
Uneasy, I gently guided him toward the pole away from the crosses. I said, “This is a special pole that has a message that wishes all people in the world would be nice to each other.”
The pole was actually engraved with the words “May Peace Prevail”, but I didn’t know if he would understand that vocabulary. I also didn’t try to explain that the words engraved on each side of it were written in a different language. Bill and I had chosen Celtic, German, and English to represent our heritage and we chose Ojibwa to honor the people of the Ojibwa nation, the original inhabitants of our land.
Despite my attempt to make the pole interesting to him, Oliver barely glanced at it before he turned and stared at the Celtic crosses and the bronze plaques that lay flat on the ground in front of them.
Sure enough, he asked what I had hoped to avoid.
“Are dead people buried here?”
I had misjudged his four-year-old worldliness.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if his parents had already talked to him about death and I didn’t want to contradict what they may have taught him. I didn’t want him to be frightened by the thought of dead bodies under the ground either.
Having no time to think my answer through, I said, “Bodies aren’t buried here, only little boxes of people's ashes.”
Hearing myself say this out loud, my explanation sound worse than I had intended.
Before Oliver had time to ask how people became ashes, I resorted to my old grannie distraction maneuver. I pointed out one of the plaques on the ground and explained that it was made out of a metal called bronze. He recognized a few letters of the alphabet and I told him the letters spelled the names of his great-grandparents. He looked slightly puzzled so I explained, “Oliver, your great-grandparents were my mom and dad. They met you when you were less than a year old and they loved you the minute they set eyes on you.”
He stood silent for a minute, then said, “I’m sad that they can’t see me and that I can’t talk to them."
Again, I struggled with what to say. Thinking what was true for me, I said, “Oliver, you can talk to them anytime you like. They are still with you though you can’t see them. They are in your heart, in the wind, in the stars…”
As soon as I said it, I wondered if my explanation might cause him to look for ghosts lurking in the shadows. Fortunately, he smiled, raised four fingers toward the sky with a friendly wave and shouted. “I’m four!” and sprinted back to the house.
Calamity averted. Peace had prevailed.
I pushed back grateful tears and smiled. Oliver, instead of lingering in unhappiness, had returned to the joy of the moment and reminded me to do the same.
What have you learned from observing and listening to young children?