“What are you doing, Grandpa?”
At first, I didn’t think he heard me. He was lying under the great elm in our backyard, his head resting on his arms, his eyes closed. Then he blinked.
“What are you doing?” I tried again.
Grandpa didn’t answer right away. Grandpa was like that. He seemed to think a lot about what he was going to say before he actually got around to saying it. “Taking pictures,” he finally drawled.
That was something else that Grandpa did a lot, too—say things that didn’t seem to make sense, except to him.
“You don’t have a camera,” I observed.
Grandpa tapped his forehead with a long, crooked finger.
I sprawled on my back next to Grandpa. It was a hot day, but the shade of the elm and a cool breeze made me forget that.
“The camera’s in here,” Grandpa said again, pointing at his forehead.
“Well, I don’t have a camera in my head, Grandpa.”
“Sure you do. The trick is knowing how to take pictures with it. Close your eyes.”
I obeyed, certain that at any minute Grandpa would start laughing and tell me it was all a joke.
“Now, breathe in,” he instructed. “Like this.” Grandpa closed his eyes and sucked an enormous amount of air into his lungs, like a thirsty man guzzles water.
I copied him as best as I could. “That makes me kind of dizzy, Grandpa.”
“Good. Maybe it’ll clean out that dusty attic in your head. Now smell.”
“I don’t smell anything.”
“Well, don’t expect it to come up and bite you on the nose. Do it like this.” Again Grandpa closed his eyes and began sipping in air, slower this time, and through his nose, tilting his head this way, then that. A smile crept across his face.
I followed Grandpa’s lead. This time, I detected the faint smell of freshly cut hay. “Hay,” I pronounced, feeling as if I had accomplished a great feat. “But when do we get to the picture-taking part?”
“Now don’t let the pigs out of the pen until you have the slop ready, lad. We’ll get to that in a minute.”
We had never owned pigs, and I didn’t have the slightest idea what slop was, but Grandpa’s message was clear enough.
“Now,” Grandpa continued, “listen.”
“To what, Grandpa?”
I tried. I really did. But there wasn’t anything to hear—at least in my mind. “No one’s talking, Grandpa. There’s nothing to listen to.”
“Son,” Grandpa said softly, “most of what’s worth hearing in this world has little to do with talking. Now, try again.”
I closed my eyes tightly and concentrated. No voices. No words. Nothing. Then I started to hear things. A breeze gently shook the tree, and the leaves above me whistled softly. A robin cheerfully called a greeting. A cricket strummed its one-note song in the woodpile. Sounds tumbled through the grass to me. “Now I see what you mean!” I exclaimed. “There are lots of things to hear, aren’t there, Grandpa?”
“If a man has the ears to hear with, there’s plenty,” he agreed. “Ready for the next part?”
I pulled my shoulders back and wriggled deeper into the grass. “Ready.”
“Feel,” Grandpa whispered.
This time I didn’t ask what Grandpa meant; I just got down to the business of feeling. I soon discovered there was plenty to feel too. The grass—like tiny, green feathers, it gently tickled my bare feet and arms. The wind—it laughed and danced over my face, kissing my cheeks and spinning away. The sun—tiny flecks of heat dribbled through the leaves, leaving warm prints on me like footsteps on a sandy beach.
I revealed these wonders to Grandpa, who listened and nodded with a shadow of a smile etched on his face.
“Ready for the most important part?”
I quietly nodded.
“Good. Now I want you to see.”
“There’s too much to look at, Grandpa,” I protested.
“I didn’t say anything about looking,” Grandpa replied. “I’m talking about seeing. Some people spend their whole lives looking at this and that, and never really see anything. Once you take your first picture with that camera inside your head, you’ll know what I mean.”
For the next few minutes I squinted at the elm overhead. At first, I didn’t see anything—at least, not anything I hadn’t seen a hundred times before. Then, very slowly, colors and shapes started appearing. It was just like those pictures in children’s magazines, with animals hidden in the drawings. You stare and stare, then wham! there’s a turkey hidden in someone’s shoe, or an upside-down pig in the chimney.
At that moment I understood what Grandpa meant by seeing. The edges of the leaves sliced pieces from the sky like tiny cookie cutters; the brown, wrinkled arms of the elm reached toward heaven in silent prayer; the blur of brown sparrows hopscotched like daredevils through the tree.
“Now put it all together,” Grandpa whispered in my ear. “The smelling, the hearing, the feeling, the seeing. Roll it together into one big picture.”
I took a deep breath, smelled the air, heard the leaves gently rustle like giggling children, felt the breeze tickling my skin, and saw the whole picture come together in one big splash of color.
“Click!” said Grandpa. “You just took a picture. A mighty fine one too! Anytime you want it, it’ll be there. Ten years, twenty years—it doesn’t matter. When you want that picture, it’ll be there for you. And you will want it. Someday when you’re feeling down, all you’ll have to do is remember it and it’ll pop right back into your head just the way it is now—the elm, the leaves, the smell of the hay, the feel of the grass prickling at your neck, the whole thing.”
I lay quietly, listening to Grandpa’s words until they faded away on the wind, wondering where they went and if anyone else would ever hear them. “Grandpa?” I finally asked, “do you have any pictures of Grandma? I don’t remember her so well.”
“Lots,” he replied simply. “A man can never have too many pictures of the ones he loves.”
The wind began to blow stronger, spinning around the tree as if confused about where it was heading. The elm, bending ever so slightly, guided the swirling air through its branches.
“I believe it might rain this afternoon,” Grandpa observed.
A distant rumble of thunder rolled over the cornfields in confirmation.
“And if I’m not mistaken,” Grandpa continued, sitting up, “when we were doing all that smelling, I smelled fresh-baked apple pie coming from the general direction of your mom’s kitchen. Interested?”
As Grandpa and I headed inside, it felt good knowing that there was a picture of all this inside my head, a picture I could remember any time I wanted.
And I did remember it, just as Grandpa said I would: the huge, solid elm, the canopy of leaves overhead, the pillow of grass beneath me, the sounds and smells—and one more thing. Something Grandpa had not mentioned was in the picture as well—the best thing in it: Grandpa himself. He was there, too, whenever I wanted to remember him: solid, kind, patient, knowing everything about everything, and taking the time on a warm afternoon to show a young boy how to take pictures with the camera inside his head.