Wiping - and rocking - the tears away

I could hear our son sobbing downstairs. Within moments, small feet, barely audible on the carpeted steps, led to the study where I sat on an old rocking chair. I had closed my eyes, hoping to create a pocket of space in a day cluttered with life's daily tasks.

"What's wrong, honey?" I asked, lifting our 5-year- old onto my lap.

He proceeded to report on the mishap of the moment while I stroked his hair and rocked. I didn't say anything, having learned long ago that words sometimes cloud feelings.

My grandfather had taught me that gestures were stronger than words. At our son's age, I, too, climbed up on this old rocker in moments of distress - onto my grandfather's lap.

A small man, with brown-rimmed glasses and a few threads of gray spanning the dome of his head, he simply held me and stroked my hair or rubbed my arm. I nestled my head into his neck.

In a chaotic post-war world, Grandpa was the voice of reason, but his voice was rarely heard in words. One heard it in a glance or a touch. I could hear it in his silence amid the turbulence and tears of others in a home still mourning the losses of war. Words spoken to my mother or grandmother often provoked tears or disapproving looks. Grandpa knew when not to speak.

The rocker became my island of peace, where words weren't needed. Under the soft touch of my grandfather's hand, I settled into the slow, rhythmic rocking of the old wooden chair with its slatted back. I loved nothing more than to fall asleep on Grandpa's lap as we rocked.

In the spring, Grandpa carted the rocker out to the screened-in front porch. On warm nights, we rocked gently, watching the fireflies burst quickly on the air like tiny birthday candles.

At those times, a calm descended over us like a protective blanket. I didn't want to hear the words from the women inside as they fussed and fretted and disagreed on adult issues. I especially didn't want either of them to summon me to bed.

Most often, it was my grandmother who came to get me. White-haired and stout, with a thick cotton apron stretched across her wide hips, she took my small hand and urged me off Grandpa's lap with a gentle pull. She lacked Grandpa's tenderness.

But when he watched her step down into the porch, his eyes spoke to her in a voice of admiration and love. I knew even then that to him she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

In the fall, we lugged the rocker back into the house and rocked together in front of the television, watching Boston Red Sox games. The Red Sox were Grandpa's second great love.

"Time for bed, Dolly," he would say, using his pet name for me.

His voice, low and gentle, gave bedtime an allure that was lacking in the strident calls of my grandmother or mother. Those declarations were among the few words I remember Grandpa voicing.

Once Mother and I began a new life in the South, visits to my grandparents were reduced to holidays and occasional summers. The old New England home on the hilly street receded further and further. Visits became even less frequent in my adult life, when a family of my own and a career kept me busy 1,500 miles away.

Phone calls with Grandpa proved to be inadequate, since we lacked a history of communicating in words. With gestures alone, he had eased my journey through childhood in difficult times. Only his quiet touch reassured me that things would go well.

Among the items Mother gave me after my grandparents passed away were a crystal candy dish, an antique doll, and a diamond brooch. Beautiful items, these treasures were all familiar relics from my grandparents' home.

But Grandpa's voice was not in any of them.

"Where is the old wooden rocker?" I asked Mother.

"Still in Grandma's house," she said. "Why?"

"I have fond memories of it," I said.

"Do you want it?" she asked. "It's decrepit and never was worth very much."

"I'd still like to have it," I said. For me it was the most valuable of the mementos.

That staid, wooden rocker has accompanied my husband and me through numerous moves, always finding its way to a cozy nook, far from the center of the action. Its rhythm has allayed the fears and disappointments of our children, one or the other curled into my lap as we rocked.

At times, in their teenage years, each turned to the solitude of the rocker, its soothing rhythm mitigating the trials of adolescence.

With our children now grown and off to adult lives of their own, I continue to retreat to my grandfather's chair, where his language of gesture once calmed the unrest of a small child.

The lessons learned on that rocker later eased the difficult times of the adult woman on a journey through marriage, motherhood, and work.

My grandfather, in his gentle way, taught me that silence could be healing. Only rarely in my adult life has the spoken word evinced the power of my grandfather's silence.

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