The smile that sees the future
My five-year-old, Li’l D, tried skateboarding for the very first time yesterday.
I enjoy being able to get myself from one place to another by skateboard, an enjoyment I think my son will share. Eventually, after all the falling.
I wasn’t thinking about that when I offered to help Li’l D. I decided to stop glaring at a neighbor kid doing skateboard tricks in front of my house for destroying rare (relative) silence and make some noise of my own.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” I grumbled to myself. To Li’l D, I called, “C’mon, kiddo! If you want to learn to skateboard, now’s the time.”
“Really?!” Each of the thousand or so times he’s asked before, I’ve told him he can learn when he’s eight.
He readied himself faster than he’s ever readied himself. We went outside just in time to see the neighbor kid retreat into his home.
I could call it! I told myself. Looking at Li’l D’s excitement, I realized that would be a great way to break my son’s trust.
I spent a few minutes trying to show him foot positions and help him find his balance. This was hard since Li’l D already knows everything, but I persevered. I was pretty stoked to see him trying something that didn’t come naturally.
(I was surprised when he got back on his bike the first time he fell. He wanted to throw in the towel, but I explained that he’s getting better even by falling. I was motivational enough to get him going, and now he’s a pro. He’s not usually so patient.)
After a few minutes, I shadowed him as he pushed himself slowly along the sidewalk in front of the neighbor kid’s house. The board slipped from under him. He stumbled onto the lawn.
I was in the middle of encouraging him when I glanced up on the neighbor’s porch.
What I saw sent jolts rippling through my brain.
It wasn’t shocking. It wasn’t terrifying.
It was beautiful.
An old man in a blue tee-shirt sat watching us from his porch.
On his beaming, wrinkled face was the proudest, sweetest smile I believe I have ever seen. It’s similar to the look I’ve seen on my husband’s face when he watches our sons, or my sisters’ faces when they watch their own kids, but electrified me with its … unexpectedness? With its pure, fully present pleasure?
“Good morning!” I called with a feeble wave. “Um, I mean, good evening.” He waved back without saying a word. His smile softened into a more polite one, but the joyous, electric shocks of connection from his first smile still coursed along my neurons.
He cheered and raised his arms in victory when my son got back on the skateboard.
I tried focusing on my son’s skating, but my mind was locked on my neighbor’s smile.
That is how it’s supposed to be, I told myself. I didn’t even know what “it” was, but I saw the truth of life in his smile.
When I shuffled my bruised but happy little boy back into the house last night, I asked my husband, “Have you seen the grandfatherly guy next door?”
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”
“Huh.” I chewed on that for a minute. “I thought all the neighbors here were terrible because of their yapping dogs, and because of our old neighbors, but I’m pretty sure I was wrong.”
“Yep,” he agreed kindly.
Today, my neighbor’s smile has been ever present with me.
Was the truth that overwhelmed me that we really should be closer to each other?
That we should treat people around us as potential friends instead of impingers on our personal convenience, like Mrs. Jerkface Friday evening?
That we’re supposed to be closer to our elders?
Yes, I think. All of the above. All of it. I’ve read about it. I’ve seen glimpses of it. I’ve tried to find it by thinking myself to it. But I didn’t understand it until saw my neighbor’s unabashed, loving joy at watching my little boy stumble over and over again before getting right back on his–my–skateboard.
I don’t mean we should unhesitatingly show deference to everyone who’s older than us, because I’ve met plenty of hostile older people who know a whole lot less than my five-year-old. I can’t endorse revering age for age, but I can readily endorse the good for all in loving, nurturing elderly people being held close as little ones take bigger, firmer steps into the world.
I was there once, my neighbor’s smile said. Not on a skateboard, but learning how to walk, and run, and ride a bike, and work, and be a dad, just as you will someday learn what it’s like to sit on your porch and watch the younger generations learn what it is to live.
Oh, all the life you have ahead of you!
I want that for my son.
I want that for every son, and every daughter.
I want that for every grandparent and invested older person.
I want it for me. I want it for the world.
And I want you to know of both his beautiful smile and my want, so you can imagine for yourself what it would be like to be surrounded by that–be surrounded by neighbors and friends, not by strangers but by the people of your village.
So you can wonder, as I do now, where to find that village. And what you can do to build it,
helping our children see themselves not as nuisances to be kept perpetually at home
but what they truly are, and what
my beaming neighbor saw: