She was tiny and dark, lithe and nimble. An effervescent stream of seltzer, shot right from the bottle.
The story, as I heard it, was this: that once upon a time, Little Gram, our grandmother Ann Venitsky Chudler, was our own Superman, able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
Well, perhaps not quite. But long ago in raucous games of tag played wild and free on the flat city rooftops, she was an elusive sprite, leaping away from the outstretched hands of her playmates, so fearless that she could escape a tag by literally leaping over the gaps between the buildings.
Our grandmother could fly.
Really, no one ever knew where we were. How extraordinarily wonderful was that?
Equipped with red rubber schoolyard balls and a few plastic jump ropes, afternoons after school we were out and about in the neighborhood, roaming around making up games to play. We lived where flat tracts of land were fast being crammed with Lego like constructions as builders raced from quarter acre to quarter acre.
The rules were that weren’t any rules. So the half constructed houses in our neighborhood became our playground. Games of intrigue, games of tag, we ran up and down the half finished stairs, tumbled through open windows, perched casually and coolly on rooftops. And most memorably, once on a dare I leapt from an upper floor balcony into the soft dirt below. I know all about Galileo’s experiment from the tower of Pisa. Science confirms that I fell hard and fast. But then and now I thought I lingered in the air. I was floating, I was flying.
For our Grandmother, the games of tag are a memory. Around her swirls a hive of activity, husband, children, sisters and family revolve around her center. There is always something to do, someone who needs something. She does it. Tied firmly into an apron she makes porcupine meatballs, ethereal lemon meringue pies. No one ever made a bed better. She grows tough and hearty roses that reach toward the sky. Our grandmother’s tiny feet are now closed into perilously high heels, her feet firmly planted on the ground.
But are they really? Often and always, those tiny high-heeled feet trod a path back and forth to the local library. Curled in an armchair late at night she reads and reads and reads. Alone and in the quiet, there are times she is sure that she is flying.
We face off on an overcast fall afternoon, my middle schoolers and I. They sit; some slumped, some squirmy at their desks. I sit, trying not to slump or squirm, facing them at mine. They are tired and tense. Maybe I am too. For today then, maybe just for today, the lesson becomes looser, more fluid.
I ask them to take out paper and pencils. I want them to draw. They do. I open a book and begin to read. The room is completely quiet and calm, save for the scratch of pencils on paper and the rise and fall of my voice.
“Something above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the graveled carriage drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”
Kenneth Grahame, Chapter 1, The Wind in the Willows
After a time, the bell rings of course. It always does. We shake ourselves and start to move, tentatively, awkwardly, as if waking from a dream. “You know,” said one of the girls said as we were packing up, “That was so nice I almost felt as if I was floating.” I felt the same.
There are so many ways to fly. How wonderful that our Grandmother knew that too.