Off North Road
In the beginning the boy was just another skinny kid, tough as nails, full of sinew. His mother says he always showed up in grammar school class pictures among the smaller kids. His grandparents disagreed, said he was a tall skinny kid. In any case, when he finished junior high school, he started a growth spurt, and before anyone realized the fact, he had grown to be 6 feet and 7 inches tall. In high school, after a year or two of weight lifting, he'd bulked up to 220 pounds or more. His shoulders are huge and he proudly demonstrated to us, the grandparents, his exercise center in the old basement playroom and his ability to press (reps) at 180 pounds, and max's to 250.
Something else accompanied Conor's changing physique. Since his childhood, shyness had prevailed. Seventy years ago, as a kid myself, I had been used to hugging as long as I could remember. All the grandparents and aunts were great huggers, either for boys or girls. I knew when we got out of the car at Gramp's house that the aunts and others would flow about us like a swarm of bees, everybody hugging and kissing. When we were small enough they even lifted us off the ground. I remember the awkwardness of being clutched to the bosom of my aunt as she smothered me in kisses. I breathed a great sigh of relief when her grasp released and I could move toward the house.
Conor, the small boy, could not abide this behavior. When we visited him as grandparents, he would disappear to the basement playroom until these welcoming ceremonies had abated. Later, on his way to becoming the friendly giant that he became, his shyness softened. Toward the end of visits with us, his grandparents, he would show up at the driveway as we finished packing up the car to return home. He would slip into the group, standing quietly beside us waiting the end of the visit, as the last bags were loaded into the car for our trip home and I would become aware of the slim guy standing close and waiting until I touched his shoulder. The act was equivalent to my hug and he would nod his head. I felt I had received one in turn. I don't remember the exact timing but on a future visit he not only gave hugs to everyone but hugged me as if he were a bear grasping a tree with a honey comb in upper branches as a reward if he could climb to the top.
Now Conor is applying for college and hopes to continue playing basketball wherever he goes. Every time I see him he gives me the monster hug. Christmas day this year at Conor's home was nearly over; we grandparents, the extended family and a group of young people, neighbors and friends, gathered around the spent dinner table talking and musing over the happy day. The tree had been laden with bounty. Most of the wrappings had been gathered up and put out of the way. The remains of a gorgeous roast had been carried to the kitchen but Christmas presents continued to appear from late-comers.
Conor sat across the table with one of the late-arrival gifts which he offered over to me. "Papa Russ," Conor said. "You remember the summer a couple of years ago and the wrist watch at Menemsha Pond, don't you?" Of course I remembered. I had loaned him my watch as he pushed off the beach in a kayak for a paddle out on the pond. He had disappeared from view for an hour and I returned to the shore to see if he was OK. He was OK but later revealed that he had kicked away from a spider which surprised him emerging from the bow of the kayak. In the process, the craft overturned and the watch disappeared in the murky deep water never to be found.
At this point at the table on Christmas, I was surprised with his recollection of the long forgotten watch, a 20-dollar Swiss. He pushed his gift, a new watch better than the one he had lost, toward me. I was so touched that I started around the table to give him a hug, forgetting for a split second the reaction I was about to provoke in this boy-giant's response. I felt his entire weight of 220 pounds clutching me as if I were a 10-pound package of hamburger. I didn't know then that he had tripped over someone's leg at the table, thus propelling us helplessly backward. We brushed by the stair railing at the end of the dining room, through the arch to the living room and, in a free-fall with Conor's full weight still clutched about me to a bare oak floor. I banged successively and hard on my hip, my shoulder blade and back of my poor skull with Conor still clutched about me. I felt as if I were having a very rough day with Al Jefferson and the Celtics.
The room silenced and then erupted with concern. I was surprised I could hear and recognize voices and felt around my body without much active motion while appraising the damage I thought must be obvious. However, I seemed to be in one piece. I was stunned, to say the least, but rolled over without pain and decided I had better get to my feet before someone started hauling me back to the locker room. The room spun about a little and I felt unsteady, but I returned to my chair and looked around. I was OK. Poor Conor looked as shocked as I had been.
Providentially, the drama ended as abruptly as it had begun. We must have participated in the biggest hug either one of us had ever sustained. I hope his promise will be to become the gentle giant, at least off the basketball court, with his grandfather.