The merry-go-round

You couldn't really say that my grandfather, Zalman Podkovnik, ever truly retired. He simply stopped working for the grown-ups and started working for us, the children.

Every morning he got up early and, instead of tramping off downtown, he tramped downstairs to his workroom, lunch bucket in hand. Here, everything he needed, he had. Wood and tools galore. A workbench. Even his Bible. All his life he'd done carpentry in his spare time, and now he was the full-time carpenter for the dreams, games, and lofty notions of all the children in the neighborhood , and we didn't give him a moment to lose.

Whatever we asked for, he made us. Dolls, baseball bats, bookcases. Jumprope handles and ping-pong paddles, sandboxes, doghouses, and even tree houses.

He knew that children were creatures of floppy hands with many empty pockets to put them in, so he never took money for his work, not even from piggy banks. He bartered with our innocence.

Payment was a shy word or smile of thanks. A look of wonder. A radiant silence full of feelings for which the words were not known yet. Sometimes a bluebell, a buttercup, donated by summer, children's best friend.

And there he would stand in his carpenter's overalls with their deep pouches for nails and handy loops for hammers, beaming down at a child, drinking in the gratitude, a tall man with tufts of white hair that peeped over the tops of his ears, as if intensely curious about what his hands were up to. The weariness from his labors fell away, and his pride was almost boyish.

I myself had never been able to think of anything glorious enough for him, worthy of him, to build for me. But I loved to sit for an hour or so every day on one of his sawhorses, at a sort of going-nowhere gallop, and watch him build for others. He never missed a nail. He never got a sliver. Wood just seemed to leap into the shapes he wanted, like magic putty.

When he stopped for lunch he would bestride a sawhorse, too, and talk to me about the Bible. Of all the wonderful people in it, he loved Noah the best.

''You want to build something good in this world, Davie?'' he asked me once. ''Build it like Noah built the Ark. Time was short; people scoffed; his heart ached. But what was time, what was ridicule, what was heartache to Noah? Nothing! All that mattered to him was the task before him. And to that he gave everything he had. Everything!''

You see your grandfather in his pride, you hear him in his wisdom, and you think you know all. But you don't. I found this out when, at long last, I knew what it was I wanted him to build for me.

Overjoyed, I took him to a park nearby and showed him. Sky-blue it was, with cloud-white horses that had bells around their necks, absolutely the most beautiful merry-go-round I'd ever seen, whirling away under a sun dripping envious, butter-yellow drops all over it.

''Can you start today, Grandpa?'' I asked.

He swallowed. ''Tomorrow,'' he said. ''I'll start tomorrow.''

Tomorrow came, and with it an excuse for putting off starting to yet another tomorrow. A whole week of tomorrows and excuses came and went. Not wanting to offend him, but dismayed almost to tears, I offered to charge for rides when the merry-go-round was finished and pay him back. Still, he didn't start.

As hurt as once I'd been overjoyed, I stopped coming to watch him work. One day he found me sitting on a bench in the park, gazing wistfully at the merry-go-round.

He sat down beside me, his eyes sad, sheepish. ''Forgive me, Davie,'' he said. ''I should never have promised I'd build you such a merry-go-round. The truth is, I can't. It isn't the money. It's the skill. I don't have it.''

When I recovered from my shock, I asked, ''Why'd you promise me then?''

He sighed. ''I didn't want you to think there was something I couldn't do. I was afraid you might not love me so much then. I might not be so special. You see, down deep, an old man is afraid he doesn't count anymore.''

''That's silly, Grandpa.''

''I know it. But age has its follies, just like youth. The truth is, being old is no honor maybe, but it's no disgrace either. Every day, wherever in life, is a gift from God.'' He put his arm around my shoulder and drew me close. ''Let's go take a ride on that thing,'' he said, eyeing the merry-go-round slyly. ''I want to get the hang of it.''

A few mornings later I was awakened by the sound of bells. It was coming from a miniature wooden merry-go-round, sky-blue with cloud-white horses, whirling away on the sill of my open window. There was a card attached. It said, ''Dear Davie, enjoy. I made it like Noah. My blessing.'

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