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Passages in Stone

Passages in Stone


A portal between the generations is closed


Shirley and I hiked together in all kinds of weather and on all types of terrain, and we developed a special intimacy built upon those experiences. We spent six wonderful years hiking in many diverse locations throughout the West. She was a grandmother when we met and I was in my 50s, and we quickly learned each other’s traits and behaviors in an environment far removed from normal domestic life. A person has no veneer when they are wet, cold, and struggling at the end of their physical endurance to continue on the trail when a great distance remained to reach the relative comfort of camp or car. We learned each other’s quirks related to preparation for the trail and recuperation from pain, as well as those things pulled up from deep down when the trail is hardest and the going most difficult. However, human pain is the deepest pain.

Shirley had one particular ritual that I had the pleasure to experience. On every trip, she would collect a couple of stones. These were not stones of geologic value, but rather rocks with interesting shapes and swirls or those with varied colors or patterns. When we reached a summit, made halfway, or even took a needed rest, she would peruse the ground around us looking for stones of interest. She would pick one up and run the stone through her fingers, turning it over in the palm of her hand to inspect the rock in detail. If the stone met the standards of some ineffable checklist within, she deposited the stone in a pocket on her daypack for transport back home.

Two fates awaited these stones upon our return. We put them in the great urn by the fireplace that held other stones from other trips. Alternatively, if the find was special enough, the stone was set aside for Chad, a grandson by her son Danny. He was the younger of two fine sons born to Danny and his wife Stacie in central California. Shirley and Chad developed, like every grandparent and grandchild, a special relationship built on the likes and interests of a child as they grow up and become aware of themselves and the world around them. When Chad was six or seven he seemed to enjoy this activity of looking at rocks with grandma, whether at a family outing at the beach or in the mountains. Moreover, Shirley continued to foster this interest.

Shirley enjoyed this activity and shared the stones with Chad whenever the occasion allowed. When together, she would give the stones to Chad to hold and inspect as she related the story of their origins in detail. She would describe where the stones were from, what the weather was like, and what the trip had entailed. He enjoyed this activity, and it gave his grandma a chance to interact with him and look inside the young boy as he grew. Sharing the stories of the stones also provided Chad an opportunity to look inside his grandmother, whether or not he knew or appreciated that fact at the time.

This activity kept the connection between Shirley and Chad intact as Chad grew older. Chad’s mom was cool to Shirley and, at times, Shirley felt excluded from family events as Stacie appeared to keep her mother-in-law at arm’s length. Who knows the reality of the situation; every family must deal with their own set of dynamics. But whatever the reason, Shirley always carried the frustration, in her perception, of having limited access to Chad and his brother as they quickly grew through their childhood years. So when the opportunity presented itself, Shirley used the stones as a vehicle to connect with Chad, to tell him of her travels and adventures, and in this way, she also learned the same about Chad.

And so they came, stone after stone. Small rough stones came from the high passes of Yosemite; rounded stones came out of its watercourses and waterfalls. From Death Valley came samples out of the low salt flats of Badwater, the high trails in the Panamint Mountains, and from the craters of Ubehebe. We gathered stones from every area of the Pinnacles National Monument, from the seashore at Morrow Bay, to the coast at Malibu. From the Los Padres to the San Gabriel Mountains came small pieces of wonder to hold and describe. Shirley gathered stones when we hiked in Southern California: from the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains, from the wonderful Anza Borrego Desert, and from Mt San Jacinto high above Palm Springs.

One hot summer day we traversed a narrow trail above Donner Canyon on Mount Diablo, east of San Francisco. It was dry and dusty and with Shirley out in front, we pushed a real sweat as we trudged our way higher up the slope. She stopped at a turn on the trail and looked down to something at her feet. She bent over and picked up a small dark stone with three bands across the face. She first ran her fingers over the bands and studied the rock as it lay in the palm of her hand. Then, with a look of sadness she tried to conceal, she slowly tossed it to the ground on the side of the trail.

Things change, and time moves on. Chad was now almost a teenager and his wonder over the stones his grandmother showed him, and the stories of where they came from, was now of little interest to him. He had crossed a threshold leading to adulthood and the door of that threshold closed forever; gone was the portal that had connected Chad and Shirley in such an illuminating way over the last six years.

The look on Shirley’s face spoke of pain and resignation. I walked up the trail to her side and we embraced. Feelings of anguish come to all of us throughout our lives. We need to see these passages for what they are, appreciate them for what they were, and let them go. There is beauty in what is brief, and for those formative years that were so important to Shirley, those stones provided special access to the young man growing up before her.

We stood together on the trail for a few seconds, sharing the moment. We lifted our faces from the stones at our feet and gazed over the canyon spreading out below us, and up at the peaks and ridges rising into the blue sky above. We then continued up the trail to discover the unknown wonders that waited for us there.

At home, the urn of stones sits by the fireplace.


urn of stones


(This story appeared in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grandmothers" edition, 2011