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The Boxcar and the Bird’s Nest

October 4, 2010


Clare and I are grandparents to six delightful children. We await in eager anticipation the arrival of two new grandbabies in the months ahead.  Being a grandfather brings me much joy. My memories of my own grandparents give me much to anticipate with my grandchildren.

Clare and I, like so many other grandparents, experience a double joy whenever we are privileged to be with our grandchildren. The happy time together concludes in blessed relief when the visit ends.

After spending time with our interesting third-generation family members, I pause to reflect on how they are growing and what they are learning. I ponder, too, how I am changing and what I am learning. In families, education is always a two-way path.

An old Jewish proverb puts it well, “Blessed is the family where the elderly listen to the young, for it follows that in such a family the young will also listen to the elderly.”  Indeed, children are the little professors that grace our lives. How else could we learn the similarities and differences between mud and peanut butter?

After a recent visit with our grandson Ben, I was reminded that tending a toddler cannot be done sitting down. Everything is an adventure! Though we have done our best to childproof our home, there are hazards at every turn. Caring for a child requires quality time.

I remembered something that I learned from Ben’s daddy years ago. Scott is our third child. At the time of this story he was a Cub Scout.  He needed to take a five-mile, in-town hike in order to complete the requirements for an achievement award.  I was required to hike with him, not by the Boy Scouts of America, but by Clare, his mother and my wife.  I had promised to hike with Scott, but my schedule for the week had become an avalanche of unfinished tasks.  Finally, on Friday afternoon, I threw in the towel, shucked my coat and tie, and put on khaki pants, plaid shirt, and hiking boots for a five-mile stroll with nine-year-old Scott.

The gleam in his blue eyes and the smile on his face told me I had made a good decision.  We were off together, dad and son, leaving behind mom and the four other children.  Children in large families often are treated as one member in a covey.  This was Scott’s special, private time with me, and my time with him.

We started walking along the sidewalk away from our home. As if borrowing a line from Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, we came to the place where the sidewalk ends, just beyond the lumberyard at a railroad crossing.  It had been years since I had walked a railroad track.  Scott and I followed the shiny steel rails.  The railroad ties were too close together for my steps and too far apart for his.  We both had to adjust our stride.  I kept a sharp eye and ear out for any train that might need to use our walkway.

Walking with a child requires a slower pace.  A child sees things that adults miss – an old bottle cap, a shiny piece of quartz, a frog in a drainage ditch, a butterfly drinking from a wildflower.  I could soon see that this hike was more than a Cub Scout requirement.  I needed this late afternoon journey, too.

After a mile or so, we came to a place where a sidetrack veered off the main railroad line. Together we followed the spur as it disappeared into a grove of pine trees.  As the railroad siding went further and further into the woods, pine saplings grew between the rails.  Wild daises were blooming in the spaces between the cross ties, a clear indication that no locomotive had rumbled along these rusty rails in quite some time.

Down in the grove of pines, Scott and I came upon an old Southern lady, an abandoned Southern Railway boxcar. We examined the vintage railroad car.  I walked around one side, and Scott went around the other side.  When we met at the rear, Scott looked at me and said, “Dad this train has been here a long time.”

I thought, “How brilliant of my Cub Scout son to recognize that this boxcar has been here a long time.”  In my daddy/teacher style I asked, “Scott, how do you know it has been here a long time?”  I thought he would mention the plants growing between the rails or the accumulated rust on the tracks and wheels.  Instead, he surprised me.

He pointed up to the ladder on the rear of the boxcar, “Dad, look on the ladder.  There’s a bird’s nest.  Dad, a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train.”

Scott and I completed our hike, walking a little more slowly.  Later that night, I shared the story of the boxcar and the bird’s nest with Clare.  We agreed that just as a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train, neither could we build a family if we were always on the go.

Healthy relationships simply require time together at a slower pace.  It is a lesson that I have needed to relearn often. Scott’s son, Ben, has reminded me yet again.

By the way, I have also learned that the very best thing about being a grandfather is getting to be with grandma!

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2010

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