Wonder 54


Tanner is one smart kid. When he plays Arithmetic Attack, he actually knows the sums and rattles them off before the screen even finishes loading. I remember when I was kid trying to master basic math functions. “Feel the numbers!” Tia Berry told me.

I think I ended up doing some sort of fancy visualization of clusters of dots. Memorizing would’ve been a lot quicker, in the long run.


I still heard Tanner calling out the sums while I was in the kitchen. It was my birthday, and I was going to bake a cake!


Luna, living in the big house just across the meadow, was the first to arrive.

“That looks like it’s sugar-free, Chaz,” she said, looking at the cake batter.

“It’s date-sweetened,” I told her, “so it’s got both fructose and sucrose. But it’s still healthier than processed sugar cane!”


“Are you expecting a lot of people?” Tanner asked.

“Oh, not so many!” I told him. I started rattling off the guest list. When I reached eighteen names, I realized that, for a little kid who’d just moved here, maybe that was a lot. “But seus avós will be coming, and you know them already!”

“That makes only sixteen strangers then,” he said.


I thought for a moment that maybe I should have consulted with Tanner–or included him in the planning. I’m still not accustomed to thinking as a family.

I confessed my worries to the caterer, who’s someone I know from the diner.

“I wouldn’t worry,” she said. “Look around! Everybody’s having a great time! Besides, you’re the dad. You get to make the big decisions, like when to have parties and who to invite.”


A little later, I found Pai in the living room, sitting alone and laughing over a movie.

“You OK, Pai?” I asked. I was surprised he wasn’t with everyone else.

“You ever see this movie?” he asked. “This one about the ghosts that need busting! It about to make me bust a gut! It’s Gut-Busters, that’s for sure, Carlito!”


I watched the last few minutes of the movie with him, then we walked together back into the kitchen, where all my friends and neighbors were gathered.

“Where are os velhos? It is all the youth! I want to see the more the gray hair!” he said.


I looked around, and sure enough, Pai and Mãe were the only old folks there. That felt odd to me. It’s the first party I’ve had or been to that Tia Berry wasn’t at, the first one without other friends in my parents’ generation.

I watched Tanner, and I thought about how, for him, he’s in a party with a bunch of old people. Grown-ups. But heck. We were just kids yesterday, and our parents were not even as old as we are now.


I worried about Mãe. Pai kept a smile on her face, but she’s still looked strained and worn.


“You feeling all right, Mãe?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, son,” she said. She’d never called me “son” before. “I’ve got a million feelings inside of me, and a million and one echoes. And every single one is telling me that everything is all right.”

Pai wrapped me in a big hug.

“I am so proud of you, Carlos,” he said. “You always do me proud.”


It was a great birthday. I felt surrounded with all the good feelings of my friends, my parents, and my son.

I didn’t know it at the time–though maybe, on some level, I sensed it–but that was the last time I’d see Mãe and Pai. We found out a few days later that Mãe passed. And the day after that was Pai‘s last. I try to feel thankful that Tanner got to meet seus avós and to remember on top of that that our last day together was full of laughter and hugs.

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Wonder 53

It was the morning after the day my life changed: the day I lost my tia and gained my son.

In the kitchen, while I was washing up the dishes, I looked across, and there sat Tanner, the same little boy I’d met at the clinic the day before, a few hours before I got the phone call from Pai that crashed my world.


He sat there with a huge smile on his face, looking up towards the ceiling.


“What are you thinking?” I asked as I joined him at the table.

“I was just… I don’t know how to explain,” he said.

“That’s OK,” I said. “You don’t have to. You don’t need to tell me everything.”

“No, it’s not that,” he said. “I want to say, but I don’t have words to say. You know how you feel like when you’re on your last life on level 9 and you’re really close to high score, but you’re facing about ten monsters between you and level 10, and you really should have died, but then somehow, boom-boom-boom, you get through, and the bells go off, and it’s high score, and you’re like, ‘Man! I should’ve died!’? It’s sort of like that.”

“You mean like gratitude?” I say.

“What’s gratitude?” he asks.

“It’s the feeling of thank you.”

He thinks for a minute.


“Yeah,” he says. “Like that.”

And I felt it, too. I felt, first, that open-heart feeling of raw grief, and into that open heart rushed tenderness and after that, gratitude.

We invited Mãe and Pai to visit. I worried when I called that it was too soon. But Mãe said she didn’t want to wait. She wanted to meet her grandson.

She managed a smile when she came, and I put on my brightest face. But I could see how worn she was.


“You know I’ve dreamed of this,” she said.

“I know, Mãe,” I replied.


And then Tanner ran out, and Mãe smiled a real smile.

“So this is the boy,” she said.

“I’m Tanner!” he shouted.


“What should I call you?” he asked.

I explained that I’d called my grandparents avó and avô, and he laughed. “I’ll have an avo sandwich,” he said.


Mãe suggested, “You could call me Grandma, but my name is Mae. How about if you call me Grandmae?”

I chuckled. “You’ve got the best name!”


“Do you play chess, Grandmae?”

She’d thought he’d never ask.


Pai wandered up from the beach.

Minha família,” he said. He was all smiles.


We sat and remembered my first visit to this island home, when Pai brought me here to meet meus avós.

“I was about Tanner’s age,” I reminded Pai, “and the island felt like something out of a pirate adventure book!”

“Are there really pirates here?” Tanner asked.


I headed inside to make lunch, and when I looked back over my shoulder at them, I caught Mãe‘s face, unaware. Her eyes were puffy and tired, likely from a night of crying. She looked so drained, it hurt me to see her.


I was about to head back to try to say something, when Pai spoke to her, and she raised her hands and smiled, full of love. I don’t know what he said.


But I could see that it brought her back to this afternoon in the sun, with her new grandchild. I felt at that moment that I hadn’t rushed things. Or that, even if I had, it was for the best. She got to meet her grandson. Minha mãe got to spend an afternoon with the three rapazes in her life: her man, her son, and her grandson.


After they left, Tanner went inside to play games on the computer. I took a swim, and then painted.

As I fit together the swathes of color, I thought about the composition of the whole, made of all the shades, of course, but also made of shapes that intertwine, like emotions.

I can’t be blamed if I rush things. I want to fit it all in, while I can.


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Wonder 30



Tia Berry and Mãe have been really cool with me about school. We decide together if I’ve got to go or not. Lately, I’ve had so many things I’ve wanted to do that I haven’t wanted to spend all day sitting in class. They’ve let me use my vacation days.

I pretty much figured that I’d have to go back to school once vacation was used up, and I was a little disappointed. It meant giving up on this mini-goal I’d set for myself when I was a kid after Pai told me about one of his workout routines.

Tia Berry found me working out in the yard early in the morning.

“Why are you so glum?” she asked.

“School,” I said. “If I go today and tomorrow, it means I can’t do this thing I want to do.”

“Then don’t go!” she said, as if it were that simple.

“Got to,” I replied.

“No, you don’t,” she said. “Mae will write you an excuse for today, and tomorrow, you call in sick! See? You can do what you want to do!”

“But I’m not sick,” I said.

“That’s ok,” she replied. “They’re not like real ‘sick’ days–they’re free days that you can use when you’ve got a good reason! And it seems like you’ve got a good reason!”

So Mãe emailed the principal, counselor, and my teachers, and told them I had a project I needed to do, so I wouldn’t be coming in to school that day, and then, after lunch, I headed out to the gym.

Pai has told me about his monster all-night-long workouts. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to try this. It seems cool to spend all night at the gym working out, then, when the sun’s rising, to straggle home and sleep the next day. What a test of endurance!

That same trainer was there who’d coached me on my first trip to the gym. Man, he looked so buff this time!

“Very observant,” he said when I commented that it looked like he’d be working out. “I’ve discovered the optimal proportion of rest, reps, and nutrition! And, I’m happy to pass on to you everything I’ve learned!”


The trainer gave really good tips. “Breathe,” he said. “Get in the zone!”

It was really easy to get in the zone, somehow.


I felt like I could run forever.

“That’s the ticket!” said my trainer.


“Focus, focus! Breathe! Don’t look now, but your dad’s over there working out.”

I felt proud to be Paolo Rocca’s son, running in my own groove, while Pai was working out across the room. I got one of those weird flashes, like I do sometimes, that I call genetic memory–it happens when I find myself doing something in the same pattern that one of my parents or Tia Berry did. Even though it’s the first time I’m doing it, my cells get this flash of memory–they know this all the way down to their ribonucleic acid. It’s not an illusion: transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is a real thing.


As I was finishing up my run, I glanced over at Pai. I know better than to interrupt him when he’s working out.

“Two acts are the sacred acts,” Pai has often told me. “The exercise of the body and fazendo amor. And do you know the why of this? It is the breath. The breath makes it holy.”


Meu pai isn’t spiritual or religious. So for him to call something sacred means that it really means something to him. I think he’s on to something, though, with the breath. Whenever somebody pays attention to breathing, that bring spirit right into it. I mean, even the word “spirit” comes from spiritus, the Latin word for breath.

I watch my breath in everything I do, and then, everything becomes sacred. Spirit infuses it all.


The sun was starting to come up, and its gold spun over the bay. I headed out to one of the public easels on the observation deck and painted a landscape. When I watched my breath while I painted, I felt spirit flow through me, that movement of energy and creativity that I love so much. It was one of those moments–I’m going to remember this morning forever.


I still had a lot of energy when I finished that painting, so I got on the treadmill next to Marcus. I tried explaining to him what I’d experienced–this movement into me of inspiration through my breath. I got really excited about the word “inspiration.”

I sort of babbled. “It’s in-spirit! See? Like spirit and breath, and breath coming in and filling you, with breath, and that’s energy, and then with spirit, also energy, and that’s the source of creativity, and that’s inspiration!”

Marcus looked at me like I was nuts.


The morning trainer joined me at the workout machine.

“You’re doing great!” he said. “Good concentration. Now just breathe!”


A few more reps and it hit me all of a sudden. I was bushed. I was exhausted, but I’d done it. I’d worked out all night and into the next day. I can see why Pai thought it was such a cool thing to do. I can see why he thought it was sacred.


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Wonder 29



I’ve been feeling drowsy and dreamy, writing love poetry. What got into me? Somehow, I’ve been nostalgic lately. I blame this book of poetry I’m writing. Together Apart–with a title like that, how could I keep from getting a little sentimental?

So when Paolo stopped by that evening, my heart was already wide open.


Combine my temporary poet’s heart with the man that Paolo is to me–that’s a sure recipe for melted ice cream. Sweet, sticky, and all over you.


Charlie came in while Paolo and I were cuddling on the couch. Actually, we were making out, but we toned it down with Charlie’s entrance.

Charlie didn’t seem embarrassed. I guess he’s used to it by now. Pao doesn’t come over all that often, but when he does, he and I usually end up together someplace, and Charlie and Berry walk around us, pretending we’re invisible.


“What is he making, nosso filho?” Paolo asked when Charlie remained in the kitchen.

I switched on a movie.

“I’m making spaghetti, Pai,” Charlie said. “Do you want some?”

Paolo and I watched the film while Charlie fixed supper.


I love these rare moments when we’re like every other family. Berry joined us for supper, and she and Paolo bantered, the way they do, with him trying to hook her up with every friend and cousin of his, and her dodging each attempt with more and more ridiculous come-backs. By the time I cleared the dishes, Berry was explaining that the true artist finds love within the soul–the soul of indigo and magenta, and so it is in the pigment where the true marriage takes place.

Once the conversation reaches that level, Paolo checks out mentally, and Berry wins every time.

After supper, Charlie went out to paint. I watched him from the porch. Sometimes this boy looks so sublime. I can always see his dad in him, and my dad, too, for that matter. And then there is the quality that is pure Charlie–this essence that no one else but our boy can express.


“What are you painting, Charlie?” I asked him.

“The subject matter is fish,” he said, “but it’s really one of those paintings about oneness and two-ness.”


His dad came out when Charlie was putting away his paints.

“You are looking like the athelete,” said Paolo. “You are working out, yes? It’s not all the painting and the cooking, right, meu filho?”


Paolo got on the treadmill. “Observe,” he said to Charlie, and he set the machine to a high setting.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I am beating our son’s record,” Paolo answered. “The machine, she remembers the best score. Watch. Mine will be the best.”


Right then, I remembered why I was happy with our arrangement the way it was.

Charlie was inside watching a cooking show on TV. I thought for a moment what it might have been like if his dad had lived there. What would our boy be like living with that type of competition all the time?

I don’t think Berry would have stayed, if Paolo and I had gotten married. She can handle Paolo’s teasing for an evening, but if it were a constant, she’d be out of here.

And Charlie without Berry’s influence? I can’t imagine! She’s the one who’s nurtured his artist’s soul.

I felt a quick spurt of giddy happiness: look how it had all worked out! Just like that, my earlier nostalgia vanished. Thank you, reality, for helping me to check my romance on the shelf labeled “Great Myths of the World.”


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Wonder 23



Another birthday. Dad would always ask me on my birthday, “What did you learn this year, baby girl?”

What did I learn, this year? Oh, so much! And it’s what I’ve known all along. Family is more than those under the same roof: family is made of those individuals we move through time with, sharing affection the way we share meals, jokes, stories, and songs.

Berry spent the afternoon learning to play “Happy Birthday” on the guitar.

“It ain’t easy!” she said. “This song is so dang complicated. Let’s sing Frere Jacques instead! I got that one down. Or Down in the Valley.


As soon as Charlie got home, he texted all our friends to let them know the party was starting.

“By the way, Mae,” he said, “Grades are in, and I got an A!” Even more reason to celebrate!


Charlie’s grandparents came from the island. We didn’t get a chance to visit much. Carlo spent most of his time out in side garden with his neighbors from the island.


Every birthday, my dad would also ask me, “What did you give this year?”

What did I give? It doesn’t even feel like giving when it just comes out naturally.


I gave Charlie a lot of time.

Berry and I have stuck by our original decision to let him pursue his interests. He’s become a musician. We gave him so many days and nights when he could practice all day. Now he’s composing. Given a choice, he’ll always turn to his violin.

When I hear his talent, it would be so easy to pressure him to be a professional musician, but Berry and I have both decided that we’ll just support him in going the direction that he wants to go.


My dad’s third birthday question was, “What do you dream for the coming year?”

I dream of warmth. This love inside me–I’m not damming it up. This year, I dream of letting this warmth spread like sunshine, wherever it wants to go.


I watched Berry meander through the party crowds, gathering the dirty dishes. When she’s helping, she’s happy. That’s one way  of spreading the warmth.


Paolo’s mom made a side comment to me in the kitchen. “Seems to be an abundance of young single men here, mãe de meu neto.”


I guess she didn’t like to see her son, the father of her grandson, there with our other single guy friends.


“To my sister!” Berry called as the party was winding down. Everyone cheered, and I felt, suddenly and surprisingly, shy. I’m usually one to just laugh and deflect the attention. But feeling all eyes on me, including the eyes of Paolo’s parents, made me feel like a five-year-old again, and I darted off to the bedroom, hoping for a few moments alone to collect myself.


I ran into Paolo instead–or rather, into his arms.

“Mae,” he whispered, “you are to me always meu Mae.”

“Can you stay awhile?” I asked Paolo. Suddenly, I had this wish for us to be a family, and I could hardly wait for the guests to leave, so it would just be Charlie, Paolo, Berry, and me.


Paolo and Charlie talked about music–not futebol, but Berlioz.

I love to watch Charlie talk with his dad. I enjoy tracing the genetic patterns, seeing my dad’s nose on a face shaped like Paolo’s. But even more, I love the warmth in Charlie’s eyes.


Charlie’s stayed best friends with his dad. I wonder if they’d be this close if Paolo had lived with us during Charlie’s childhood, instead of just down the street. Because Paolo had his own home and his own life, separate from ours, I sensed a respect and a tenderness that existed between the two that the pressures of daily life never had a chance to erode.


And that same tenderness exists between me and Paolo, too. When I don’t have years of resentment built up over piles of dirty laundry, or morning breath, or forgotten bills, all I have instead for the father of our son is gratitude and love. Feeling this is the best birthday gift.


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Wonder 16


“Chazzie’s teacher called,” Beryl said. “They’re wanting to test him again.”


“Because he’s so smart but his grades don’t reflect it.”


“That’s so ridiculous,” I said. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gotten into this program with Charlie. I know I felt I needed the prenatal care, but what if I actually didn’t need it? Now, the program administrators feel like they’ve got a right to our lives.

I’ve had good luck holding off the testing so far, but I realize that when Charlie moves up to secondary school, we’ll probably have to accept the full range of intelligence and physical fitness tests. Part of life. I guess, if we’re not completely cut off from the rest of society, there will be parts of it that we need to comply with, even if we don’t agree with it.

Paolo dropped by just about the time we were expecting Charlie to get home from school. While I fixed snack, he and Berry sat in the kitchen and talked.

“The administration of the test of the intelligence is the awesome idea!” Paolo said. “O menino, he is the genius. This I know. It is from the mother of him. Mae, she is the genius, and so the son of her will be the genius, too. This is the biology.”

I shuddered a little. Labels. Charlie is a boy. That’s plenty.


Paolo looked out the window at 3:15.

“Ah! The boy genius is at the home!” he said, and he went outside to greet his son.


I watched him encourage Charlie. Sometimes, Charlie gets this look like he doesn’t really agree with what you’re saying, but he wants to be nice and go along with it. That’s how he looked then.


Then I could see that he was raising objections with his dad. He doesn’t do that often, only when he feels he has a definite point to make. I wondered what they were talking about.


Paolo left when Charlie pulled out his homework.


“How was school, Spud?” I asked when I saw that Charlie had finished his schoolwork.

“It was great, Mae!” he said. “We’re learning about angles and stuff in math. I like it because I know how to kick better in futebol and where to stand when I’m goalie.”


We went swimming before supper, while Berry cooked up spaghetti.

Charlie and I raced. I won when we swam backstroke or freestyle, but he actually beat me when we swam breaststroke. He’s very fast, and he’s got a great kick. I guess having an athlete for a dad has given him physical strength, agility, and fast motor connections. I hope he keeps up with sports as he gets older.

“Did you learn anything today?” Berry asked him over supper.

“Sure,” he said. “Did you?”

Beryl thought for a moment. “I did,” she said. “I learned that when we’ve discovered characteristics that we love in one person, we will often look for those same characteristics in others.”

Charlie thought for a moment. “You mean the way I try to find how other kids are artists like you?” he asked.

“Just so,” she replied.


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Wonder 13



Saturday morning. I was so glad to have our boy at home and not off at school all day. He came up to me while I was playing chess and asked me to read him a story.

We wandered over to a bench in the Commons, and I pulled out one of the books I’d written.

“This is a story about my dad,” I told him.

“Did you live with your dad when you were a kid?” he asked.

“Yes, Berry and I both did. But this story is about when he was a boy, before he met my mom. Before he was my dad. It’s called ‘Crab-pot Willie.”

Charlie closed his eyes, and I began the story.


“Early every Saturday morning, Willie rowed his dinghy out to the fishing boats in the bay.

“‘Got any fish-heads for me?’ he called, and the fishermen hoisted down buckets of fish heads.”

“Fish heads?” Charlie asked.


“Willie said thanks and rowed out to a small blue and yellow buoy bobbing in the middle of the cove. Attached to the buoy was a line, and Willie pulled and pulled. Sometimes it was so much work, for seaweed would get tangled up in the line and to the wire box that was attached at the other end, and Willie would need to use all his strength to pull the wire box out of the water and hoist it into his rowboat. This wire box was the crab pot, and into it, Willie would pour some of the fish-heads, then down it goes!  Back to the bottom of the bay. And off Willie rowed to the next blue and yellow buoy bouncing in the cove.”

“What do you do with crab pots?” Charlie asked.


“You catch crabs!” I said.

“For eating?” Charlie asked.

“Sure, or for selling. That’s what my dad did.”

I read the rest of the story, which told of a frightening day when a storm brewed up while my dad was out in the bay checking the crab pots. The story had a happy ending, though, for my dad was brave, like he always was, and he had such a good harvest that the family had money to buy brand new shoes for every family member that winter.

They even had enough left over to buy a pair of new shoes for Charlotte, their neighbor.

“When Willie and his family, and Charlotte, got home from Sears, each one wearing their new shoes on their feet, Charlotte said, ‘Willie, we’ll call these shoes Willie-shoes, and every squeak of the sole will be to thank you.'”

“‘Naw,’ said Willie. ‘Don’t thank me. Thank the crabs. And the restaurant chefs that bought them. And the fishermen who gave me the fish heads. And the fish whose heads they gave me. And don’t forget the machines that stitched the shoes, and the workers that packed them in boxes! There’s a whole world goes into our wearing these new shoes on our feet!'”


“I wish I could do something helpful for our family,” said Charlie, “like my grandpa Willie did for his.”

I thought for a moment about what Charlie could do.


“You know,” I said, “there is something that would be a big help! The other day, I had to put our groceries on the tab, because we didn’t have enough money to pay for them, but Berry sold some paintings to the gallery, so now we do have money! You could take some money to the store and pay our bill with Mr. Fennis.”

“Could I really?” Charlie asked.

“Sure,” I replied. “If you feel brave enough. It’s a big job, for you’d need to go all the way through the tunnel where the lower courtyard shops are. But it would be a big help, for me, for Berry, and for Mr. Fennis, too, who wants his money, surely!”

“I can do it,” Charlie said.

I gave him the bills to pay our tab and watched him run down the hill towards the lower courtyard.


Once he passed through that tunnel, he’d be out of earshot. I thought for a moment about all the adventures my dad had, even as a little boy of Charlie’s age. Times were different then, and Frank and Sylvia, my paternal grandparents, trusted the wide world to make a place for a small boy. They trusted, too, in my dad’s resilience, strength, and ingenuity.


I walked home, calculating how long it would take Charlie to make it to the store, how long he’d likely spend window shopping, talking to Mr. Fennis, and meeting new people.

He should be home in half-an-hour, I figured.

Thirty minutes passed, and each minute after, I worried. If he wasn’t home within the hour, Berry and I would head out and fetch him. But we had to give him that time. He needed to be able to have an adventure and to complete that task on his own.

After forty-two minutes, I saw Paolo and Charlie walking towards home. They were deep in conversation. Charlie looked so serious. Somethings, I guess, a boy saves up to talk about with his dad.


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