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Seeing the world through the eyes of a grandchild

We think of our trips with our kids' kids as springboards to the future. The children, however, simply call them "the grandkid trips."

We want them to be formative; they want them to be fun.

Talk about a generation gap!

We began taking our grandkids traveling eight years ago, when both of us were 60. The rules we set for each child have been simple:

We'll go when you turn 15. You choose the place, but no U.S. destinations, cruise ships, theme parks or war zones.

Our travels have been formative, all right.

We smile at the memory of the gray, showery afternoon we all got testy during our Ashley's trip to Australia. We had some downtime and decided a hike in the woods was in order. Ashley was a bit homesick and wanted none of it.

She grumbled from the time we started out until we got to the top of a small ridge and looked down to see what can only be described as a desert, a huge bowl filled with brown-sugar sand, inexplicably dumped in the middle of a forest.

Ashley took off running away from us down the
hill, wildly. When she reached the bottom, she began writing her name in the sand in huge letters: A S H L E Y.

Then she looked up at us and grinned.

We suddenly saw our Ashley Wallace mostly grown up, ready to put her mark on the world. And none of us was grumpy any more.

We also recall with grandparent shrugs how easily her brother, Max, cajoled us into renting bicycles for an afternoon in Beijing.

Too much traffic, we said. Too dangerous, we warned.

"Pleeease,'' Max said, "just to say we did."

We caved in and pedaled ancient rented bikes down broad avenues packed with other bicyclists and cars spewing all sorts of exhaust into the city's polluted sky.

We didn't tell Max that we were scared the whole time.

But we have told him we're proud of his vow to return to China. He was struck by the enormous dam being built on the Yangtze to harness the floods and reduce the pollution that cuts short the lives of millions who live along the river.

The dam may be an answer to an environmental disaster, but it has drowned hundreds of towns and displaced millions of people.

One afternoon, we arranged for him to meet kids his age, two girls and two boys, at a Xi'an museum. The Chinese teens, who wanted to practice their English, came into the room giggling and poking each other, as kids that age from most cultures do. Soon, Max sat tall in the midst of them, grinning a little awkwardly.

He broke the ice, asking, "Do you play soccer?'' They did!

"Do you play a musical instrument?'' Yes!

He plays a bassoon, Max continued, hoping for another coincidence.

What's that?, the Chinese teens asked.

Max says he'd like to go back, to talk with the people about what the dam has meant to their lives. And maybe to look up those kids in Xi'an.

We note the differences in the grandchildren's generation and ours when we think of our New York grandson, Luke Halter, as he clambered over bomb craters left as a war memorial above the D-day beaches in Normandy. He stopped suddenly and exclaimed, "Hey, this is really weird! I feel like I've been here before."

A few minutes later, he remembered why and said, "It's just like this World War II video game I have at home, craters and German bunkers and everything."

We'd gone to France for two reasons: Luke was several years into learning the language in school, and he was particularly interested in medieval warfare.

We refer to that one as our "knights-in-shining-armor grandkid trip."

The language part didn't go as well as any of us had hoped. We would ask Luke to translate the menu for us at dinner, and send him to ask directions of people on the street. One afternoon, after several tries at finding our way to the hotel we'd booked for the night, he gave up.

"They don't understand my accent, and I can't get but a few words they say," he complained.

But he high-fived us both when we left France on the train through the Chunnel for England and Wales, where the language was, as Luke said, "good ol' English."

We didn't tell him how many of the people in Wales still speak the Gaelic of their forebears.

We saw how much more we have to learn from these youngsters at a stop in Hiroshima, during our trip to Japan with Luke's sister, Casey.

She was moved to silence by the skeleton of a building left in its ravaged form after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in an effort to bring a quick end to World War II. Japanese and foreign visitors flock to the site, which is surrounded by a park dedicated to peace and the hope that that day never be repeated.

So Casey was shocked when a Japanese couple handed us a camera and asked us to take a picture of them posing in front of the memorial. And she was baffled when we asked them to return the favor.

The site was holy, Casey said as a protest, the cause of so much suffering, and we Americans were at fault. Taking pictures like that was out of line.

We explained that the family that asked us to take their photo obviously didn't feel that way, and we didn't feel to blame for what had happened here.

Casey gamely posed with us, but she wasn't convinced.

When we look back on that afternoon, we realize how fortunate we were to have her remind us that Hiroshima is a holy site and a somber reminder of the misery war unleashes.

We have two more grandkids with whom to travel. They're now 11 and 12 and haven't decided where they want to go when they turn 15.

But we can't wait to see what part of the world they take us to. And we are eager to see what we'll discover about ourselves, and the children, along the way.

The MacDonalds are retired members of the Seattle Times news staff. Sally was a reporter. John was the paper's travel editor.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a grandchild 05/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 12:06pm]
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