My paternal grandparents traveled a lot. Grammy had become a serious birdwatcher in retirement. As a result, Granddaddy had become a serious photographer, back when that was a very expensive and bulky proposition. They traveled to every continent in their seventies and eighties, taking boats up the Amazon and safaris across Africa. They usually left the country at least once a year.
As each of their grandchildren reached the appropriate age, which was twelve or thereabouts, Grammy and Granddaddy would take them along on whichever trip was coming up. It could be England, or the Pacific Northwest, or wherever.
When my turn came, they were headed to Churchill, Manitoba, by way of the northern American plains. We packed up their International Harvester light-duty truck and wandered our way through the Dakotas and across the border to Winnipeg. Part of the trip took us across Canada by way of the Canadian National Railroad; another flew us to Churchill, on the shores of the Hudson Bay.
One day, we took a small boat out onto the Churchill River, the three of us and our captain perched on plank seats. The boat was completely open, and though it was summer, it was still pretty cold. My thin gloves didn’t do much to protect me, and so the cutting wind quickly chilled my hands.
The rocking of the boat, the pain from my fingers, and the general bleakness of the day all combined to bring out the whiny, surly early teen in me. Mostly because I was an early teen, so those things were never far below the surface. I probably complained, and I certainly pouted, as I hunched over in a shivering ball on the plank seat near the center of the boat.
Granddaddy, meanwhile, was checking his camera gear and film rolls while Grammy kept a lookout for our quarry. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and cursed my lot in life, that I should be suffering so in an open boat on the open bay. I may or may not have composed some angsty, overblown blank verse in my head.
Finally, after what was probably whole minutes of time, we spotted what we were there to see: a small pod of beluga whales, swimming a few dozen feet away in the water, occasionally breaking the surface to blow out sprays of exhalation.
Granddaddy lifted his camera to his eye, sighted, and took some shots. Then he looked over at me, still huddled and grumbling and glowering on my seat.
“Are you going to take some pictures, Eric? We came all the way out here just to see these little fellas.”
I whined something about how it was cold and I was cold and my hands hurt too much to hold the camera. After all, it was a Canon F-1, with a solid metal body that was just waiting to suck what little warmth I retained out through my fingertips.
He listened to my complaints, considered for a moment, then said gently, “Well, I’ve always thought it’s worth a little temporary discomfort to get to do something remarkable.” And with that, he turned away and lifted his F-1 back to his eye.
After a minute or two—long enough to make it clear that this was all my idea, nothing to do with anything he’d said, obviously—I lifted my camera and started snapping my own pictures of the ice-white backs of the whales moving through the cloud-gray water.
My fingers didn’t hurt any less, my nose didn’t run any less—but while those aches are now thirty-plus years in the past, I still remember those whales’ backs, just a few feet away from us. I would remember even without the prints and slides Granddaddy developed from the best shots I got, out there on the waters of the Churchill River.
I don’t know if I ever told Granddaddy how deep an effect that simple sentence had on me, but I’ve heard him say it over the years, even after his death. I heard it as I finally stood atop Fubo Hill in Guilin, China, my body shaking and a fever spiking, and looked down into the Lijiang. I heard it as I adjusted my snorkel and mask in the shallow waters of a Caribbean shoreline and tried to calm my deep fear of open water.
And I heard it when I was learning to soothe each of my newborn children, my eyes sandy and my body aching from lack of sleep, cradling and rocking and crooning to them as we got to know each other a little bit at a time—a little temporary discomfort for us both, but in exchange, the most remarkable thing I can imagine: parent and child, bonding together.