Conquering the jungle gym on an autumn afternoon

It was an early au­tumn af­ter­noon, and it was just the two of us at Jo­nah’s back­yard jungle gym. This grand­son, with the thatch of dark brown hair, al­ways has had a spe­cial place in my heart be­cause he is in that un­en­vi­able middle child po­s­i­tion in a fam­ily of three boys.

Jo­nah is the gentle son, the dream­er, the poet. On one side of him is Danny, the red-haired little fireplug. On the oth­er is Sam, the lead­er of the pack by vir­tue of his seni­or­ity. So many times, Jo­nah has had to bull­doze his way to at­ten­tion, and so many times, he has simply re­treated in sur­render.

But on the jungle gym, Jo­nah shines. Without too much fan­fare, this grand­son can scramble to the very top of the back­yard gym, one re­mark­ably res­ist­ant to the ab­use of three boys. He can hang, up­side-down, from places that make my heart stop. He can clam­ber, hand-over-hand, across what seems to me like per­il­ous rings meant for a cir­cus ac­robat.

That jungle gym is Jo­nah’s home­land, the place in the world where he seems to feel the most in his ele­ment. It is his spe­cial little king­dom.

And on this day, he wanted so much to trans­form me from cau­tious grandma in­to brave play­mate. He wanted me to climb in­to that world.

I wasn’t buy­ing.

“Come on up,” Jo­nah pleaded from his perch high above me. “You can see everything!”

With my feet planted firmly on terra firma, I offered my string of ex­cuses.

I was too old.

I would hurt my already tricky back in the climb. I was wear­ing the wrong clothes.

Jo­nah looked at me sol­emnly, those hazel eyes clouded with dis­ap­point­ment. More than any­thing, this little boy wanted me to do it. To prove to him­self and me that he could be my ment­or, my guide, my coach.

I am, by nature, cau­tious. I hang back from any­thing that smacks of danger. I am de­cidedly not dar­ing, nor am I brave.

And I’m not easy with heights. Nev­er have been. So there we were, a grand­moth­er and her be­loved grand­son, at a stale­mate on a fall af­ter­noon. Al­though this was nev­er spoken, Jo­nah would have me test my­self — and trust him to see me through. I was on the brink of dash­ing that hope.

We could have gone on and on, but when Jo­nah looked down at me with such ab­ject sor­row on his won­der­ful little face, I felt a seis­mic shift.

This climb would mark not just a test of spunk; it would say, again without spoken words, that this grand­son could care for me. That he, the little middle guy, was some­body mighty strong and brave him­self. I knew how much that mes­sage would ul­ti­mately mat­ter to Jo­nah.

So when I looked up at the boy on the top of the mon­key bars and said, “OK, teach me!” his mega­watt smile was all the in­spir­a­tion I needed to start my climb.

I would love to re­port that ma­gic­ally, mas­ter­fully, I conquered that jungle gym and its bars grace­fully and deftly. That all ter­ror sub­sided.

But that would be a total fab­ric­a­tion.

With Jo­nah ur­ging, coax­ing and ca­jol­ing, I held my breath and prayed. I made my way more like a tor­toise than a gazelle. Sev­er­al times, I lost my foot­ing, and sev­er­al times, I did the jungle gym equi­val­ent of get­ting back on the horse. “Go, grandma!” Jo­nah shouted. And I did.

Then it came — the mo­ment of con­quest of my Everest — a wooden play­ground piece in a sub­urb­an back yard. My hands trembled as I reached out to hug Jo­nah, who was shout­ing his de­light at my tri­umph.

For one long mo­ment, we held on to one an­oth­er, madly, de­li­ri­ously happy. The dec­ades that sep­ar­ated a little boy and his grand­moth­er van­ished. Our joy was un­re­fined. And oh my, what a view.

Not in the lit­er­al sense, of course. All I saw from the top of that jungle gym were oth­er back yards in the dwind­ling sun­light.

But for Jo­nah and me, the sym­bol­ic view was mag­ni­fi­cent.

We’d done it.

And on a fall day in the twi­light of my life, and the sun­rise of his, that was quite enough. ••

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