Lessons from my grandchildren
The youngest of my grandchildren, the year-old Alonso, has lately been showing me how to walk. Holding on to my finger, he takes big strides, leading with the left foot. This sends him into a wobble that he then counters with a steady right foot. He loves going up staircases, advancing and retreating at every step until he gets it right. Single-mindedness, perseverance, nerve: His young body seems to be showing him these traits long before his mind has learned to treat them as virtues.
I have recently realized that this is what I most love about being around my grandchildren. They show me what it is like to develop the basic capacities that serve us the rest of our lives. My wife Karina and I have been blessed with four beautiful grandchildren, one from each of our own frugal children. I would have preferred that they had more. But, they all married late, and taking parenthood more thoughtfully than we did in our time, chose to have less.
Our grandchildren—two girls and two boys—are remarkable reproductions of their parents, but they have little in common in physical appearance. For better or worse, I could glimpse a little of myself and of my wife in each of them. They all have Karina’s wide forehead and soulful eyes, and my pronounced eyebrows. Or so I think. One tends to see what one believes is there.
But it’s the evolving character beneath the appearance that I am most keen to know. If Alonso seems to demonstrate enormous persistence and courage born of trust, 5-year-old Xavier, on the other hand, personifies natural confidence and spontaneous charm. Half-Filipino and half-French, and born and raised in Singapore, he seems aware of his infinite capacity to enchant.
He is impeccably courteous to strangers—a dying trait in a post-polite world. When asked to do so, he does not hesitate to hug and kiss people he’s meeting for the first time. But, he also seems to have learned how to deploy this irresistible charisma to get anything he wants. Coupled with his strong ability to focus, this rare gift can be a potent tool for private accumulation, or, hopefully, a positive force for social solidarity.
My two granddaughters, 7-year-old Jacinta and 16-year-old Julia, both homegrown Filipinos in this age of the diaspora, are very different from their foreign-born cousins in temperament and character. Jacinta is shy and fragile, her face and her eyes a mirror of the varied thoughts racing through her spacious imagination. She has the map of the world and the location of planets in her mind, and has mastered the table of elements.
When I am with her, it feels almost like an intrusion to engage her in casual talk. She prefers to draw or to write, or to design mind games and lesson plans. She composes and sings her own songs, and, using basic chords, accompanies herself on the piano. She has begun writing full-length short stories about people with complex characters and unusual names.
I thought she was the most difficult of my grandchildren to befriend until I discovered something we had in common—birds. From childhood, I raised all kinds: pigeons, mynahs, cockatoos, lovebirds, geese, and chickens. Jacinta loves only chickens. One day, she brought home a week-old chick from a fair. She kept it in a box in a corner of their living room, feeding, walking it outdoors, and putting it to bed as though it were a dog. Fully-grown Chickadee later had to be sent to a farm where she could be with other chickens.
To appease her sadness, I got her a pair of bantam chickens that looked like they were plucked straight out of a coloring book. I could not forget the gleam in her eyes. She promptly named the rooster Honey, and the hen Domica. That was seven months ago. The prolific couple have since produced three sets of bantams, every member of which Jacinta has named and assigned to its proper box in a family tree. She has sent back to me all the boys (“because they make too much noise at dawn”), plus the parents so they can roam more freely in my garden. These days, our conversations begin with poultry and end with the meaning of her songs. Jacinta has awakened in me the capacity for awe and the joy of solitude.
I have realized that no child is ever too young to be worthy of one’s full respect. Children are quick to reciprocate every act of kindness from a caring adult, even when they may only be able to express this in the most awkward way. The utter simplicity of what gives them happiness, their ability to move on despite disappointments, and to learn to trust again despite deceptions—these are the things that we usually forget as we grow older.
Perhaps no other child has been written about in this column than my eldest grandchild, Julia. She has been, for me, a steady wellspring of hope and gladness. Whenever we talk, I come away assured that the world is right, that the future of the nation is secure with her generation. She is bright, curious, well-informed, and passionate about a lot of things—music, history, art in general, philosophy, science, food, and the world of books. But the one thing she has taught me all these years is composure. Under all forms of pressure, she appears unperturbed and unbreakable. I wasn’t like that at her age. I think of her as a resilient old soul.
I know that some readers might think it an indulgence for opinion writers like me to be discussing topics of a personal nature, instead of addressing issues of public relevance. I hope this old man may be forgiven for occasionally using media space to communicate the belief that for all the things that make us weary and wary, there is a lot more in life that inspires vitality and courage. Talk to the young, and draw hope.
A Happy New Year to us all!
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