Andrew is learning his letters. Andrew is our oldest grandson. Andrew is 5.

Recently, we visited his family in La Jolla in the front courtyard at their house. They were wearing masks. We were wearing masks. It was like a masquerade ball, except perhaps without the gaiety and lightness of spirit.

If there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s that visits are not the same with masks. They’re something, but something different.

Nothing takes the place of a face. Little faces that are smooth, innocent and unwrinkled. Big faces that are the opposite, but mean well and are doing the best they can under the rough and wrinkled circumstances. Big and little together are a winning combination.

I remember my grandmother’s face. When we visited her in her condo in Santa Barbara, it was as if she had grandmother radar. No matter that we were traveling from Bakersfield, there were no cellphones and she didn’t know how many stops we’d made or not made, when we arrived, Grandmother Benham invariably would be standing outside her door beaming as if she had won the grandchildren lottery, her arms wide open, sweeping one or two grandchildren in them.

Now I get it. I didn’t then but now I do. Love is good but grandchildren love is divine. It can cure almost everything but death, and even then it gives death a run for its money because it promises the next generation the same reward.

For us, sidelining that connection has been the most challenging thing about the last five months. No hugging, no reading stories, no wrestling and no playing in the pool.

We're in good company, sad company, pathetic company, hand-wringing company but good company nonetheless. I heard a country song the other day that summed it up: “I’m sad only once a day, but that day lasts all day long.”

•••

Like his fellow 5-year-olds, Andrew should be starting kindergarten this month and will in some fashion. In preparation for the days ahead, he has started to learn his letters. Learning his letters, being prepped on his letters and thinking about his letters.

“Andrew, do you want to show Mimi and Papa how you can write?” said Katie.

He nodded, went upstairs and fetched a whiteboard and a grease pencil and somebody else brought an easel on which to place the whiteboard. Andrew stood in front of the easel and with his back to us, started writing on the board. I had to look over his shoulder and my mask and the 10 feet that separated us to see what he was writing.

“P” as in pancake, then “A” as in angel, “P” as in pie and “A” as in alpha.

“Papa.” Me. Me and all the other Papas out there.

He wasn’t finished. Beneath the most important word in his vocabulary, maybe even the first word he ever spoke after the less-important Momma and Daddy, he started again.

“M” then “I” followed by a second “M” and finishing with an “I.” Then he looked at us both. Then at the board.

When he did, even with masks on, I felt as if he was reaching out to us, reassuring us, telling us that masks or not, separation or not, pandemic or not, growing up or not, that he still loved us and would for eternity.

I’m sure I am making more of this than there is. Reading into it what I want to read. However, in the words of director John Ford, “If you have to choose between history and legend, print the legend.” Especially when it makes you feel better.

“Let's take a picture,” somebody said. “Andrew, stand next to the board.”

He did but got a funny look on his face as if to say in the way that a 5-year-old can, “I do not want this moment recorded.”

Then he turned toward the board and erased the words before the photo could be taken. No one said anything. No one had to.

The message had been sent. That’s what I’m going with. "I am reaching out my arms to you. Reach back. I am here."

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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