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The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter 1: A Long Journey Starts

The four-week vacation, the longest we'd ever taken, had been planned for months, a combination of hikes in the Swiss Alps and the color and history of southern Italy. Just about every night that summer either Maggie, my wife, or I read stories to Nicholas about the classical world, the other parent going through The Tales of Amanda Pig and such with his four-year-old sister, Eleanor. Greek gods, Roman soldiers and ancient buildings, what clothes they wore in Pompeii, how quickly the legions could move, how they kept food cool in hot weather, where they fought, this was the staple fare of those quiet summer nights.

Nicholas thrilled to stories of heroes risking their lives for the common good, was puzzled by the cheap tricks of gods who ought to have known better, and laughed at Cupid's mischief. He was pained by the story of Persephone, imprisoned all winter in the underworld. When the blinded Cyclops ran his hands over the sheep Ulysses and his men were clinging to, I thought he'd burst. He seemed to grasp the meaning underneath the stories: the fatal flaw, the good and bad in us all, life's fragility, but its higher purposes too.

All this was his way of life. His core games were dressing up and doing great deeds as St. George of England, a pioneer on the Oregon Trail, or his most enduring role, Robin Hood. All were supported by the props that imagination and needle and thread could supply. The broom handle was the quarterstaff, the sign of Ye Olde Blue Boar Inn was tacked to the bedroom door, the longbow came from Kmart. Then Robin and Maid Marian-sometimes two Maids Marian-and a pickup group of merry men would set off to conquer evil, often squabbling among themselves about what they would do with it when they met it.

At parties we held, he would put on his best clothes - blue blazer, light-colored shirt, clip-on bow tie - and with a small pad of paper and stumpy pencil take drink orders in illegible writing. On hikes near our home in Bodega Bay, California, we would keep one eye open for sneak attacks by the enemy army or, on the beach, their navy.

Our local library allows thirty books for each card and we had three cards. My memory of the first days of the summer of 1994 is of Maggie bumping up against the borrowing limit with every possible variation on the Italian scene. I was allowed one novel and she got one of those pulp love stories. (Doesn't she get enough romance at home?) For Nicholas and Eleanor, there were a few books like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, a story about a town whose food comes with the weather-overcooked broccoli one day, a record-breaking fall of pasta another. But the rest of them were Greek myths for children, Roman history for children, maps of the ancient world for children, junior versions of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, stories of travels in Sicily, archaeological digs, famous buildings, and picture books of modern Rome.

We read to the children, read to ourselves, swapped tales over meals. On one long car journey we took that year, Nicholas wanted so many stories read to him from D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths that my spells as a passenger in the back seat with him are a complete haze. But not, as it happens, to him. Weeks afterward he would remind me, for example, that the echo we heard was a girl who had talked too much and been punished by only being able to repeat other people's words.

We all loved traveling. I've done a lot on my own, and as a family we'd walked on volcanic craters in California and the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, seen waterfalls as different as Niagara and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, canoed in Canada and rafted in Idaho, seen Indian rain dances in New Mexico and immigrants' toys on Ellis Island, and spent long, sticky days in both Disney World and Disneyland. In Europe, Nicholas had stormed the invasion beaches in Normandy, hiked on the shoulder of the Matterhorn, visited Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the Loire Valley, and climbed with us (when no one was looking) to the top of the lighthouse on the extreme northwest tip of Scotland, the area where my mother's ancestors, the McKays, have lived since the Middle Ages.

But of all places abroad, he liked Italy best-the theatricality of the settings, its exuberance, and its uninhibited love of children. For his age, he'd seen a lot of it. He'd splashed in the sea at Portofino, taken walks around the melodramatic peaks of the Dolomites, and got his socks wet in Lake Maggiore. He'd tramped around Pisa and Florence and Verona. We'd all been together in Asolo, the hill town where Browning wrote "God's in his Heaven, all's right with the world," and I'd say that for us, sitting under the awning of a restaurant on that hot, still day, and chatting quietly amongst ourselves, it was the literal truth. He'd marched around the giant chessboard in the town square at Marostica, where people dress sumptuously as knights and castles and pawns to reenact classic games. At six years old, he was silenced by the power of the mosaics in Ravenna. He always said his favorite city was Venice-after Bodega Bay. But this was the first time he had been as far south as Rome, and with a mind crammed with gods and heroes, he was on edge to see it all.

This pint-sized classical education didn't have some of the practical results I'd hoped for. His room remained messier than the Augean stable. He continued to watch far more television than we'd have liked, was frequently exasperated by his sister, and wouldn't eat his crusts. To the end, he resolutely refused to widen his diet beyond his basic likes-bread and butter, plain spaghetti with Parmesan cheese, carrots, water, and vanilla ice cream, with salami and pâté thrown in for balance, and very, very little else.

The learning, however, went deep. Nicholas loved the thought of striding along Roman roads, bringing back the Golden Fleece, and playing with the idea that thunder and lightning were Zeus getting mad at somebody. Staying high up in the Alps on the first part of the vacation and walking through the early snows, we were mountain folk, never conquered by Rome, proud of our traditions, such as - my idea - not whining when it rained. On visits to the valley, in the once-Roman town of Martigny, with its ruined walls and reconstructed amphitheater, we reverted to being Roman soldiers due to return to Italy in a few days at the end of our military service.

That return was one of the high spots of the vacation, a sleeping car from Geneva to Rome, rushing through Italy overnight. At one point, I awoke to find the train in a station and, peering through the window, made out the name: Domodossola. The Frontier! "We're in Italy," I whispered in case anyone was awake. In the darkness, I fancied I heard a sleepy, contented sigh from Nicholas' bunk.

It's true the reality did not put us immediately into Elysian fields. On the first and only day he spent in Rome, there were the usual tired feet, elusive bathrooms, and a long search for Super Mario ice cream. But the paved roads at the very start of their journey to the ends of the earth, the triumphal arches with tales of victories in mysterious lands, and the soaring columns, looking vulnerable to a strong wind yet standing through centuries, all worked their spell on an imagination eager to be spellbound.

The next day, we picked up the little rental car at the railroad station, filling in forms we couldn't understand, including two insurance policies, one for damage, the other for theft. We got off to an early start and spent the afternoon among the ghosts of Pompeii, Nicholas serving us with a make-believe meal at the counter of an ancient fast-food store decorated with a picture of his favorite Mercury. If there was a sign that the next night the messenger of the gods would carry his story to the four corners of the world, I missed it.

We stayed overnight in a small hotel in Positano, which hung from the cliff (333 steps up that interminable flight of steps, wasn't it?) above the Mediterranean. We had a wonderfully happy meal by the quayside, local seafood, local wine, local fruit for us, some of the same for Eleanor, plain spaghetti and Parmesan cheese for him. He loved it. Then a quick bet: how many steps did we come down? His guess, wildly inaccurate, meant we had to count each one going back up and no mistakes allowed. Maggie, naturally, had come closest. I, as usual, tried to cheat, changing my guess when it became clear how far off I was and being scolded by everyone. I cried when the winner was announced. Even an endless flight of stairs was fun. I really regret being unsure of that number now: he would be disappointed by such sloppiness.

On the last day of his life, I had just eaten breakfast on the small balcony when he came out of the bedroom, dressed in pajama pants, hair ruffled, sleep in his eyes. "Hello, Daddy," he said drowsily. "Hello, little boy. Close your eyes and come and have a look at this." He screwed his eyes extravagantly shut and I guided him onto the balcony. "Now look." We'd arrived in the dark the night before, so this was his first clear view of the cliff we were on, dropping sheer to the sea, the mountains behind stretching high above us. "There's the restaurant we went to last night-let's see, what did you have for dinner? It wasn't the octopus, was it? Or the fishhead stew? Oh, now I remember, spaghetti and Parmesan cheese." Later, Maggie took the children to the beach and they came back with the exact tally of the stairs, happy to prove yet again that my estimate was hopelessly wrong. "But Daddy, I have something to tell you," Nicholas added eagerly. "When I was in the water, some of the sea splashed on my face. When I licked it off, it tasted really good. So, there's another thing I like." We added the Mediterranean to the meager list of foods he would eat and decided he was well on the way to becoming an epicure.

Late in the morning, we set off for Paestum, site of some of the best-preserved Greek temples anywhere, a place, fittingly, at the intersection of heaven and earth. The journey was a series of improvisations, detours to avoid bottlenecks, lunch by the side of the road at one of scores of possible pull-ins, a last-minute decision not to visit a view we'd read about, dozens and dozens of apparently random choices. When Maggie and Nicholas were on their own for a few minutes at Paestum, they saw four white doves, symbols in that place of message carriers from the gods. When two of them flew away, she told him it reminded her of children leaving home and, thinking of that far-off day, gave him a special hug.

He gave us one last example of the lessons he'd learned that summer, the dual names, Greek and Roman, of the classical gods. Inside the biggest temple, the core of the pantheon, he announced, "Look, I'm Zeus." Then running outside, onto Italian soil, "Now, I'm Jupiter." Even then it was a memorable moment. Now it has a touch of divinity about it.

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