Kids’ Stuff

Never too late to share a good story, this one occurred on a hot, humid July morning, before noon. Long ago, yes, but still relevant.

It had been a typical morning. I had walked a couple of miles at daybreak, eaten a light breakfast, read, caught up on TV news, gone through emails, responding to a few, maybe even chatted on the phone, though that I do not recall. On some mornings, yes, a phone call is part of my routine. I place some, answer others. If the discussion is dynamic, let it roam. If not, move on.

I’ve squeezed in a lot of reading and local-history probes since spring, all the while maintaining a yard, harvesting my rhubarb, berries and meaty Romas, tidying the barn, observing wildlife – particularly neighborhood deer at the crack of dawn, when they’re still out – and chatting with neighbors on my daily rounds. All this under a dark, ominous COVID-19 cloud, which complicates social interaction. Maybe this uninvited demon will disappear by summer. I hope so. What a freakin’ fiasco, misinformation swirling like a meandering cyclone.

Personal-distancing measures and fear of infection were palpable and rampant the day I met my new neighbor named Gilead, a 7-year-old boy whose parents bought a home down the street. I out by the barn picking raspberries when I initiated our first interaction with some playful remark to his friend, Erin, a young girl whose parents live next door. The two kids were busy playing near the brook, some 15 yards away, when greeted them. I don’t recall what I said. Something lighthearted. Erin is used to it. I often engage her in light conversation when we pass. I enjoy kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm.

Whatever I said drew the kids’ attention. Sure enough, they had soon joined me, eating berries as fast as they picked them from the opposite edge of a narrow patch split by a slim stonewall. The backyard brook was trickling its soothing summer song as I introduced myself and learned his name. He said I could call him Gil. He lived in a home I pass in my daily rambles. His previous address was Montague Center.

I told him I liked his name, that my late son Gary wrote a song named Gilead. It’s about a road near the Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, where his college friend lives.

“So, maybe I’ll use your full name,” I said. “Fair enough?”

“OK.”

My chore that day was filling a wooden, quart fruit box with berries I force myself to pick daily when in season. I freeze them in flat, layered Ziplock bags, which provide sweet, succulent, off-season breakfasts when mixed in cold cereal, steaming oatmeal and, every now and then, tasty muffins baked in cast-iron pans. The cool-weather treats justify my sweaty summer chore.

As we picked facing each other some six or eight feet apart, I saw Gilead eat a red berry I knew wasn’t quite ripe, thus likely just a tad bitter. Displaying one between my thumb and forefinger, I encouraged him to select only the soft, purple berries, promising he’d be mighty happy with the results. He listened, immediately picked one, remarked how easily it pulled from the stem, put it in his mouth and savored the delicate sweetness. His expression said it all. A satisfied smile. He had learned something worth knowing.

Over time, the kid undoubtedly would have figured out my little lesson on his own. Still, why not expediate the discovery process? Adult intervention doesn’t detract from learning, just speeds the process with a nudge forward. Nothing wrong with that.

After picking the most accessible berries, young Gilead was presented with the same problem that has confronted berry-picking hunter-gatherers since their ancient beginnings. The kid wanted to penetrate the patch of prickly canes to pick the ripe interior berries, but was discouraged not only by thorns but also pesky nettles, which in childhood I knew as seven-minute itch.

“I wish there were paths to the ripe berries I can’t reach,” he said. “I don’t want to touch the nettles.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” I answered. “I don’t like nettles either. I remove them on my side, wearing gloves to uproot them.

“I’ll bet you didn’t know that Indians made rope and string from nettles. The cordage of various widths was used for fishing nets and fishing line as well as baskets, sacks and strong, braided rope?”

Eye to eye, I could sense something wasn’t hunky-dory. Then, peering up innocently through the drooping, tangled canes, the boy dropped the hammer, saying, “You’re supposed to call them indigenous people.”

I should have known better, given his previous place of residence – that UMass bedroom community known to sarcastic Trump supporters as The Peoples’ Republic of Montague Center. In that riverside hamlet, Native American debate is ripe as my purple raspberries. So, of course, the boy didn’t hesitate to object to my insensitive word choice. Indian is no longer acceptable in some circles, where Native American or my friend’s term are preferred.

Ooooops! Sorry, Kid. Old habits die hard.

So, now we are even. I gave him a lesson in berry-picking; he schooled me in 21st-century political-correctness. Hmmmmm? They call that reciprocity, don’t they?

Sixty years younger, Gilead had reminded me that you’re never too old to learn, too young to teach.

Good thing the boy was unaware of my interest in words and language. Had he known, he may have asked whether indigenous is upper or lower case? Whew! The answer to that inquiry could gone a half a day. There seems to be no short answer these days.

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