My maternal grandfather, Jesse, loved kids, games, and the zoo. At six feet tall—tall for a man born in the 19th century—with a huge bald dome of a head and large hands and feet, he might have been an intimidating man. But he wasn’t. Whenever we visited him in Bethesda and then Sandy Springs, Maryland, he played games with my brother and me for hours. He showed me how to whittle a stick of willow to make it into a flute. When we got older we flew kites and played croquet. He always wiggled his massive ears to make us laugh.
During that time, the big attraction in Washington was a zoo exhibit of panda bears, a rare species of animal gifted from China with black patches over their eyes. My grandparents had met in China, where Jesse had been a Presbyterian missionary. They had returned to America and became practicing Quakers. But still China loomed large in their house—and, to a lesser extent, mine.
By the time the pandas arrived, Grandpa Jesse’s robust health was long gone. He had quite serious heart trouble. My brother and I were old enough to want desperately to go to the zoo but still young enough to cause havoc.
In a tone that meant his decision was final, Grandpa announced that he was taking us to the zoo. My mom and grandmother pleaded for him to reconsider—the health of his heart was at stake—but it was as if he couldn’t hear them. This was something he wanted to do despite the medical risk. It was that important.
I don’t remember much about that day other than sleeping in the back seat on the long drive into town, and riding on my grandfather’s shoulders at some point after having watched the pandas roll around and munch on sprigs of willow tree. I had a balloon in my hand; it was perhaps as happy as any moment I can conjure up from a childhood that was otherwise scary to me.
Some time later, Grandpa Jesse passed away in the middle of the night in his rocking chair. His heart gave way—but not before he took me to the zoo to see the giant pandas.