“Somebody’s are there,” Steven said as he clambered out of back seat. He sounded disappointed.
“Maybe you’ll have some boys and girls to play with,” I said.
“There aren’t any boys and girls,” he whispered. “It’s a gramma.”
We’d made it our goal to visit every park and playground in town that summer, and had been to half of them when we found one that quickly became our favorite. It was in the middle of a quiet neighborhood filled with towering maple trees and had everything we wanted in a park … a jungle gym the perfect size for a 5-year-old, a grassy field for running, a sandbox for digging, and a bench that was perfect for eating our snack. We’d visited the park half a dozen times, and always had it to ourselves. Until today.
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happy and sad
She was wearing a black cloth coat despite the warmth of the day. Her hands were folded on top of the wooden cane that rested across her lap. She smiled as we approached.
“Beautiful day,” I said. “Do you mind if we join you?”
“That would be nice,” she said, sliding to her right even though she was already at the end of the bench. I sat at the other end and Steven climbed up between us. I pulled a bag of animal crackers out of my backpack and handed it to Steven. He removed the clothespin that held the bag closed and popped a cracker into his mouth.
“What’s your name?”
“Steven,” he said through a mouthful of giraffe.
“My word … that’s my son’s name! How do you spell your name, Steven?”
“That’s how my Steven spells his name. Do you know what your name means?”
Steven looked at me with a “do you?” look. I didn’t.
“It means ‘crown’. Do you know what a crown is?”
“It’s a hat that kings wear.”
She laughed a soft dry laugh. “That’s right! You’re a very smart young man.”
Steven looked at me and beamed, and I beamed back. “Can you say ‘thank you’?”
“Thank you,” he repeated dutifully.
“Do you live around here?” I asked, fumbling to poke the end of the straw through the hole in the top of a juice box.
“The yellow house,” she said, nodding to a tiny house the color of daffodils on the edge of the park. “Sixty years this fall.”
Steven bit the leg off an elephant: “That’s even older than you, Dad!”
“Do you still have family here?” I asked.
“My husband’s been gone for many years. One daughter in Arizona.” She leaned toward Steven, who slurped impolitely from his juice box: “MY Steven lives in California. We used to walk over to this park every day. This was the edge of town back then. The trees were just little twigs. Look at them now …”
Her voice had become a whisper, the fragile sound of dry leaves skittering across pavement. She pulled a Kleenex out of the pocket of her cloth coat, dabbed at her nose and looked out over the playground. I knew she saw her son and daughter running and laughing at the new park on the edge of town.
“Any grandchildren?” I asked.
“Two girls and a boy.”
“Do you get to see them often.”
“Not as often as I’d like.” She adjusted her glasses to give her hands something to do.
“Does that make you sad?” Steven asked. If we’d been sitting behind a table I would have nudged him with my foot, but she gave him a smile that made her eyes sparkle. “Some things make you happy and sad at the same time,” she said. “Have you ever felt like that?”
“Uh-huh. One time I had a goldfish, but he died,” Steven explained. “It made me sad that he died, but I still remember him, and that makes me happy.”
I adjusted my glasses to give my hands something to do.
“You’re a smart young man,” she said again, covering his soft, smooth hand with hers. Steven let her hand rest on his for a moment, then slid it away and reached into a plastic bag decorated with brightly colored balloons and circus bunting.
“Do you want a cookie?” he asked, pulling out a rhinoceros.
She held the cracker with a trembling hand and took a delicate nibble.
“I’m glad I met you, Steven,” she said. “We used to walk over to this park every day …”
“If we come back to the park tomorrow,” Steven asked on the way home, “can we bring two juice boxes?”
I looked in the rearview mirror. In the back seat Steven’s face was beaming. Over his shoulder, in the distance, a small figure in a black cloth coat sat on a park bench.
One hour together had changed them both.
Dan Conradt, a lifelong Mower County resident, lives in Austin with his wife, Carla Johnson.