Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Mile Closer

By now you've probably noticed that Colorado has become a second home for me.  Why not?  It's where I was born. So I guess I could say it's actually my first home.

The latest trip to the Rockies was prompted by my desire to attend the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society.  It was my first ACS meeting and I was suitably overwhelmed.  The number of presentations and exhibitors was staggering.  

I spent the first day of the conference wandering around the convention center and the immediate downtown Denver area.  During the afternoon I attended a workshop on communication sponsored by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.  We learned and practiced some techniques for improvisation in speaking to others about science.  In spite of myself, I had a good time.  I find myself resistant to the 'touchy feely' games that are the hallmark of the communication, team building, and leadership workshop.  I don't want to spend my time in the company of others and see if we can get the egg on the spoon across the room without dropping it.  I don't want to toss the imaginary ball to my partner while attempting to communicate the idea of a 'compliment' the manner of my tossing.  It feels pointless.

But there was one thing we did at the end of the workshop that I found rewarding.  It was a sort of storytelling time.  We took turns holding up a blank piece of paper and, using our own words, described a photograph that each of us had in our homes.

One-by-one we each took our turn.  There were happy stories and sad stories some of which moved us to tears.  I wound up going last and up until the moment that my turn came, I wasn't sure what photo I would use.  In the end, I used the first photo that came to my mind.  A sepia-toned photo of my great grandfather.

This particular grandfather was my Mom's paternal grandfather.  He died when I was nine years old.  I remember so specifically because it was the first funeral I ever went to.  It made a huge impression on me and I remember looking down at the casket after it had been lowered into the ground. I must have had a puzzled look on my face.  A man who identified himself as a funeral director assured me that he had done a 'good job' and if I were to dig up grandpa in 100 years, he would look exactly the way he did before he passed.

How creepy was that? 

I know the guy was trying to comfort a nine-year-old girl, but he was freaking me out.  As I walked away from the man and followed my Mom to the car, I wondered why in the world I would want to dig him up.  Then I wondered what exactly he meant by a 'good job.'

Tangent.  Sorry.

This great grandfather of mine had a particularly large soft spot for my mother and me.  When he visited us, he would always buy me Spaghetti-Os and take me shopping for dolls and such.  I remember once when I was about four or five he bought me a briefcase instead of a doll. I remember him crouching down to my level in the middle of the store and asking me very pointedly if  I was sure that's what I wanted.  It seemed so much more useful to me since I already had dolls.  What I really needed was a case to carry them in.  It was red, of course. 

I remember the look of surprise on my Mother's face when I walked in the door with the case and I remember hearing my grandfather say, "It's what she wanted..."  It was.  I had that briefcase until I was in my mid-twenties.  Tragically, it was ruined in a basement flood at a rental house I lived in.

To make it even more tragic, the contents of the case were also lost.  I had long ago discarded the dolls with their clothes in favor of using the case for storage for a large book the same grandfather had given me a couple years after the case.  The book was a huge, hardbound atlas of the world

It was red, of course.*

Inside was every map you could name of a country of the world.  All of the states and many of their major cities.  It was printed and distributed the year of my birth, so some of the names of the countries and cities had changed.  But I didn't really care much for the maps.  It was the first twenty or so pages of the atlas that interested me the most.

In the front of the book was a very brief synopsis of the sciences.  I remember there being a periodic table and an illustration of all the planets in our solar system.  There was a two page spread containing images of all sorts of different rocks.  I remember a drawing depicting a prism and the separation of the different wavelengths of light, but I'm not sure it was really there. 

I remember looking at the picture of the solar system and trying to memorize the order of the planets.  I'm certain I remember annoying my mother 1000 times by asking her to test me.  I could read the words 'Saturn' and 'Jupiter' before I could read my own name.

The impetus for my interest in the first twenty or so pages came directly from my great grandfather.  When he gave me the book, he sat down with me on the couch and we looked at the book together.  He showed me the maps and where both of us lived.  But, then he drew my attention to the front of the book.  He told me that the maps were useful, but the really important part was in the front.  As he began to explain, he drew me out of my tiny world of Mom and Dad and baby brother into the wide world where the wonders of the universe are kept.

This was around the time of the first moon landing.  The whole world was science and space crazy.  My parents had gotten me and my little brother out of bed to watch the moon landing on TV.  When grandpa told me about the planets and the moon, something clicked in my little girl brain.  He pointed at the pictures and told me that this was the future.  Someday, people would go to these places no matter how far away they are and we would see what was there to find.

Grandpa spent probably twenty minutes with me on the couch looking at the book.  Those twenty minutes were my initiation into the process of observation of the world.  He's the reason I am where I am today.  He planted that first seed in me that day with the book and his words.  I was young, but I remember it so clearly it could have been yesterday.

Which brings me back to the graveside and my puzzled look.  I was trying to remember all the things he had said to me in the short time I had known him.  What I wondered about the most was how odd it seemed that the future would happen without him there to see it. I remember protesting to my mother that it wasn't fair that he would miss so many things.  Being a little girl of an impressionable age, I decided that since he would be missing everything, it was my responsibility to see, learn, and do all the things and report back to him when we met again in heaven.

I thought all these things as I sat in my hotel room admiring the mountain view and how close the clouds were to the peaks across town.  On the last day before I left, it snowed and coated the mountains in a shroud of glistening, brilliant white.  I was reminded of the decision I made at my great grandfather's graveside. I wondered aloud to myself what heaven might be like.

Denver isn't heaven.  But, it is about a mile closer.

*Since starting to write this blog about a month ago, I have procured another copy of the atlas and I await its arrival in the mail.  I anticipate a prolonged stroll down memory lane.

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