Creative Nonfiction: The Helping Lesson

By Cynthia Yancey

You may remember how, on a recent trip to Mexico with my daughter and grandson, I missed out on a golden moment of grandmotherly teaching by forgetting the importance of playing with children or of pulling the puppet off the shelf to speak for me when all of my words were failing. You may also remember how I nonetheless saw crystal clearly the importance of that teaching. It seems grandmothers in general are quite thankful, after missing so many boats to model strength with their own children, to still get another chance when grandchildren come their way.
You may also remember how Sarah’s buddy, Kelly, came to us and seemed to make Atticus considerate without a single word, simply by being a considerate, playful partner. I hope you know the old grandma in me is not too old to learn. I am continually trying to adopt Kelly’s very excellent way of being with children.
You may also remember that I have taken on the responsibility for my grandson, Atticus, every Thursday afternoon and night for a couple of years now. I pick him up at the bus stop in Marshall around three-thirty. Sometimes we go straight to the Stack House Pub in Mars Hill for an early dinner. The kid is always starving after a day of school. If we don’t already have a book, we cruise through the library first to get one so we can read while the Stack House cook prepares our dinner.
At the pub, they have come to expect us to sit over on a bench seat where we can spread out the contents of Atti’s book bag. He takes out his reading log, his book, and my phone to note his reading time. We sit together on the same side of the little table on the bench seat. Then, after ordering, we dive into whichever book for however long it takes for the food to come.
Then we eat, grocery shop, and come home, either to garden, take a hike, or play a game of Asheville-lopoly by a warm fire if it’s winter.
Baseball season is different.
Last week, I was to have Atti at the baseball field in Weaverville by five forty-five for his game that started at six. After the school pickup, I needed to stop by the library to pick up a movie they had ordered for me. The library was en route, so it would only take a couple of minutes, but Atticus was on a tear to get home. He was constantly complaining and whining on the way about how we always have to stop at the library! as if it were a punishment. I told the little shit to put me on a timer and to stay in the car, that I only needed two minutes. It took a little less. But on the way away from there, on the final stretch home, I launched in again on my tirade about becoming a considerate little boy who lives in a world where others also have a few needs.
Atti seemed sincerely exasperated, saying, “You and my mom have both told me all this at least a thousand times!”, agitation in his voice.
To which I responded, “Well, what do you suppose you could do to never have to hear it again?” Then I probably went into a tally of the minutes in the day I was giving him in exchange for the two I needed at the local library. He seemed to honestly not get it.
He was super anxious to get home. You see, his Uncle Jacob had plans to help us assemble his outside basketball goal, which would hopefully help alleviate the troubles related to the ball being thrown inside my house so much. Atti and I had done our best to build this basketball goal of a birthday present the Thursday prior and had gotten the three major parts together. We had the base, the pole, and the backboard separately assembled, but needed Uncle Jacob’s help to actually make it a functional goal. I don’t know how many of you have ever had difficulty putting together a toy in parts, but this basketball goal was one of those where the directions, when finally read after all else failed, were mostly unhelpful. They, in fact, did not tell how to get a pole in parts to fit together in such a way that the backboard would fit onto it. It appeared that pole was not really made for that backboard.
After considerable hammering by two adults with one little boy and a frisky puppy running between our legs, finally the goal was near its completion. Atti and I were only slightly past the last moment to leave and still get to the baseball field in Weaverville on time.
We weren’t the only ones with too much going on at once, it seemed. His dad, who is separated from his mother and yet is intent on helping coach his baseball team, had forgotten Atti’s helmet. I don’t know how many of you have tried to take a kid between three homes (in our case between his mother’s, his father’s, and his grandmother’s) without a lot of success, but we always seem to forget something.
Sarah came to me during the game after a lot of running around and finally having Atti at his post with all his gear, and said, “Chad wants to get Atti from school on all of these baseball Thursdays so he can get him to the game on time with all of his equipment. What do you think?”
I may not have already told you that it took me six months to get my clinic to give me every Thursday off or that I have dedicated that time to my grandson, but it did and I have. How to hold on to those moments, yet not put off his parents with all of their best intentions?
At the end of a semester of writing, I simply conceded, realizing that this would help me by not having to leave class early. I’d leisurely get to the game, then get Atti home for supper and a bedtime story. Somehow, though, this particular Thursday was not a leisurely one. I was writing about women’s complicity in raising inconsiderate, patronizing men, and it wasn’t coming out at all as I wanted it to. Still, after class I made a pot of Atti’s favorite soup and got to the game just a few minutes late.
Have I told you that I am on call every night for all of the pregnant patients in my clinic? Well, after I got to this game over on the island in Marshall, and after I had sat down on the bleachers and begun to watch so many 9- to 10-year-olds try to pitch and hit and catch the ball without many moments that anyone would call successful, I realized I had left my phone on the charger at home. Dammit! How long would the game last? The calls had been slow recently. I actually had not gotten one for days. There was a back-up. I let it go, thinking someone else would simply have to take a call if one in fact came in.
I sat and watched Atti get walked a couple of times when the other team’s young pitcher was on the mound; then, when the coach was pitching, I watched him strike out a couple of times. I watched these kids mostly walk one another around the bases until well after dark on a spring evening; actually, until well after Atti’s bedtime. When finally Atti and I were back in the car on the way home, he realized that neither his dad nor he had remembered his backpack, which he really needed for school the next day. I figured I’d simply have to attend to that in the morning.
Atti, of course, was hungry. Luckily, that pot of his favorite soup was still warm on the stove. The puppy was also hungry and crazy frisky when we got back home.
When we came through the back door Atti threw his shoes in one direction, his socks in another. I conceded that order is not a value for a 9-year-old, even though for his old grandma it has become important.
Somehow it simply seemed one of those nights when there was way more to get done than time to do it. It occurred to me once again that it was time to teach Atti a bit more responsibility. I managed to get him to clean up the puppy pee while I did the dishes. Then he got his teeth brushed and waited with the puppy in bed for his nighttime story. By the time I got there, we both decided we may as well turn out the light rather than read ourselves to sleep, because it was nearly two hours past the usual bedtime. The little puppy, an Australian Shepherd, is the kind of puppy who is nearly immediately asleep when he gets in bed with his boy. Atti and I were close behind him.
Somehow when the boy falls asleep beside his old grandma in her bed, all feels right again in the world, safe and sound and sweet. But at five-thirty the next morning the puppy must have been hungry again, because she was up in my face licking it as if to say, “What’s up? Are you going to sleep all day?”
To the contrary, I felt more than a little sleep-deprived, yet I knew there was a lot to do, including feeding this puppy. So with a bit of a headache I got myself on up out of the bed. After puppy chow for breakfast and a bathroom break outside, the puppy was ready to go back to sleep with Atti, but not for long. The puppy woke Atti up at six-thirty, then again at seven. By then I had Atti’s breakfast ready. The scent of a savory bacon biscuit filled the kitchen.
The little puppy, Opal, is a whirlwind of energy, and sometimes she seems to pee every step. Atti was doing his part to care for this little treasure of his, but he indeed needed shoes, which we didn’t have, only baseball cleats. I texted his mom, who was asleep in the cabin up the hill, to see if she could help with clothes for the boy. In fact, he really needed his backpack with rain gear in order to attend his nature school, where the kids play almost all day on Fridays out in the woods and down by the creek, come rain or shine. It was to rain most of the day.
I made the mistake of offering to meet Atti’s dad at the store close to his house instead of at a more convenient spot between the two of us, which was a setup for me to be annoyed when we got there and Chad was still not there.
I had been talking to Atti about his old grandma being a little irritable with all the unexpected commotion of baseball season. He had simply said, Grandma, it is very important to me.
While we waited for Chad to show up with the backpack and his rain gear, I got the rental car folks on the phone. I probably haven’t told you yet that my car was in the shop or that I had to get the rental car folks to shuttle me back to my car between Atti’s reading buddy time at school and getting to my clinic. Some days there is really more to do than minutes in the day.
The rental car folks were nonetheless terribly accommodating. Chad arrived, gave Atti his backpack, hugged the boy, and was on his way before I got off the phone. Do you know how rotten it can feel sometimes to be working so hard to get things done, but to leave out the most important stuff? I hadn’t even waved to Chad. Maybe he didn’t care. I don’t know.
By now, it was already time to have Atti at school. We were at least thirty minutes away, and the gas light came on in this rental car. I didn’t even know where its gas tank was. Still, I stopped in Mars Hill, thinking I at least knew that gas station, and I was not likely to make it all the way up to Atti’s school then back down the mountain with however much gas was in this rental car tank.
At the pump, I pulled out my wallet. And can you believe it? My credit card was not in my wallet.
“FUCK!” came out from underneath my breath.
By then Atti was on top of my lunch and my income tax returns in the back seat. I have probably forgotten to say that a visit to the accountant to pay my income taxes was on my list of things to do that day.
I was quite near my wit’s end, but did my damnedest to politely and firmly say to Atticus, “Darlin’, I need you to get in the front seat. Take my purse and search for my credit card. I’ve got to go give the gas attendant the few dollars I have in my wallet to get enough gas to get us to school.”
Lo and behold, he did. Next thing I knew, the attendant was helping me at the pump, putting $5 worth of gas in the car, and Atti from the front seat was handing me a stack of eight cards, including the one required to access my bank account.
“They were all right here together, Grandma.”
All of those cards we accumulate for who knows what reason had fallen out of my wallet, rather than being stolen at the baseball game the night before as I had hardly had time to fear.
It’s funny how things can suddenly feel more ordered. These days it’s hard to get around town too far without a credit card.
We were on the road to school again and I turned my grandson to say, “Atticus, I want you to know how wonderful it is when you help. It felt a little like a crisis back there. I mean, if I hadn’t had a couple of dollars, and no credit card, and ALMOST NO GAS, how were we going to get to school? But you helped and I am so thankful! Now here we are back on the road!”
He beamed.
We arrived forty-five minutes late and went straight to the reading room, only to find our reading buddy was not there at all. I had brought a book a friend had sent me in the mail that I had wanted Atti to read me. The friend is a retired music teacher. Her book, The Very Droopy Honey Bear, is about a bottle of honey that was half-empty and was therefore making the bear very sad.
I noticed how focused Atticus was with books. He, like all of my family, struggles some with his reading, but now in third grade he was finally seeming to get it. After finishing the Droopy Bear book, I went over to the other classroom to find the geography book we had started the week before when I ran into his teacher, Ms. Brittany. She asked if I had read the book Atticus had written that week and would be reading at their publication party that afternoon. I had not.
She handed it to me, saying, “It is a takeoff on The Little Red Hen and IT IS AWESOME!”
So instead of reading geography, Atti read me his very own book, The Helping Lesson.
You know sometimes in life, when you very least expect it, and if you are willing to wait patiently and steadily keep working it, things may fall together for you.
I looked at this little handmade book, written and illustrated by my grandson, who seemed to be the star of his third-grade class’s publication party that day. He had penciled ever so carefully the bold letters of the title, then inside in four or five pages was his story of a mother with four children, two boys and two girls.
The mother was making a cake and wanted some help. She asked all of the children to help, but the boys roodly responded, “we’re too busy with our video games.” In my grandson’s story, the girls helped their mother. Then, when it was time to ice the cake, the mother again gave the boys a chance to help. Again, they were rood and self-absorbed.
About that time the narrator had his say about those boys needing a CONSEQUENCE. When the cake was all ready to be eaten and the boys, of course, were hungry, the mother said, “No, no. Only those who helped get to eat the cake.”
Then the final line, coming from Atticus’s 9-year-old mind, was, “and after that, everyone helped with everything all the time. The end.”
It was one of those moments when the past few months all seemed to flash before me. The kid had gotten it. Both his mother and I may have had to say it a thousand times each, but finally HE GOT IT AND THEN WAS READY TO TEACH IT.
So often, I want a really tight hug from Atticus and he is simply too busy or distracted or too cool to give me one. But this day, after reading and snack time were over, when I turned to him to say I’d better head off to get my car and all he knew I needed to do, he squeezed his old grandma really tight. And in that moment of my very busy day, I believed that in the end it can all fall together if we will just keep at it long enough.

Cynthia Yancey was an English major before she became a mother then a medical doctor. Now after working for over 30 years in the trenches of public health, from the Himalayas to the Andes to her downtown clinic in Asheville, NC, she is writing the stories of her life. As to awards, she received the Suzanne S. Turner Unsung Heroine Award in 2011. She has also written a children’s picture book entitled Zak and Niki: A First Look at Rising above Racism, published by Grateful Steps in 2015.