Once Upon a Time...
and they all lived happily ever after.

How many times in your life have you heard or read a nursery story that began with these words, "Once upon a time..."? As a 71-year old, I cannot count the number of times that "Once upon a time..." was used by my mother during WWII when she tucked me in after reading some nursery rhyme. I have had 3-children of my own, all of which are adults. One of them has a college age student, Ayanna. When Ayanna was young, I read stories to her that began with that classic idiom, "Once upon a time". In the past couple of years, two more grandchildren came into my life: Jack and Owen. I have tucked Jack in bed after reading a story...many that began with "Once upon a time".

Jack and Al reading

The "Once upon a time..." idiomatic phrase can be traced back to at least 1380 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In those 600-years, imagine the number of children to whom have had that phrase introduce them to a bedtime story. Imagine also the number that have heard that in a language other than English.

Now that you have the etymological setting clearly in place within your mind, allow me to tell you a true story, which does not begin with "Once upon a time". Ann and I go to Indy every week to babysit for our two small grandchildren. It is a hoot. We are having the time of our lives.

Owen playing

It is funny how children affect you in such a positive manner. It is equally true how adults assist children in helping them grow up to be adults. Ann and I love that two-way relationship with our two toddlers. That two-way relationship occurs every week and has since Jack was born nearly four years ago.

Al, Jack, and Owen reading

Last week, Ann and I went to Indy to care for them for the day. I do not recall what cute thing Owen did, but I looked at Jack and said, "Jack, I remember when you did that...." Then came a most interesting reply from a child who will be four years old this summer. Jack turned to me and said, "No, say, 'Once upon a time....'"

Jack was obviously concerned about correcting my sentence. Why? What provoked this paraphrasing of my comment...a comment that I had made to him many times before? Nonetheless, something floated around in his head that forced that response: "No, say, 'Once upon a time....'"

Al and Jack talking

It was not long before Jack's correction was forgotten and back to playing trains, reading, or his art appreciation class that I am teaching him. A couple hours later, I inadvertently said about something that Owen did that Jack had done the same thing when he was Owen's age. In less than a nanosecond, Jack replied with the same correction, "No, say, 'Once upon a time....'" After being corrected again by Jack, I finally learned my lesson. Whenever I reminisce with him, I know the correct idiomatic expression.

Later that day, Jack and I went to the grocery story. He knows the places where he is to hold my hand while walking around traffic, crossing the streets, etc. We walked to the door of the grocery store and Jack let go of my hand and went into the store first. We were going down an aisle and unexpectedly, Jack reached up and held my hand. There was no problem; he just wanted to hold my hand. We picked up a couple of things and returned home to play.

Having learned how to preface my memories of Jack, I sat him on my lap and said, "Once upon a time when you were staying over at Ya-Ya and Papa's home in Crown Point, I remember tucking you in bed and kissing you good night." We have done that dance hundreds of times. Nevertheless, as I left him in the room, Jack was crying. His cry was not a normal cry...something was really upsetting him. I went back and asked why he was upset. He was scared of something. Something traumatized him. Therefore, I rubbed his back for a while. He was still upset that he reached out his hand to hold mine. I laid down next to his little bed. His little hand held my forefinger tightly as I attempted to comfort him.

Jack was upset but so was I. He did not have to suffer, and it troubled me. I told him to go to sleep and that I would not leave him. I laid there for a couple of hours until I was sure he was asleep. Gently, I tried to pull my finger from his small hand. Asleep he was, but his grasp did not allow my hand to get free. The harder I tried to pull away, the harder he grasped my finger. I stopped my attempt and laid back for probably another hour or so. I will never forget his terror, and I was determined not to add to his fear. He could trust me.

I told Jack about how much I liked his holding my hand in the grocery store. Then I said, "Once upon a time" and told him about that that bedtime of his holding my finger. I recalled how concerned I was about his fear. I told him that we can hold hands anytime and that he can trust me to be there for him and for his brother.

As I drove back that evening, I thought about Jack's traumatic experience many months before. His parents and the entire extended family love him and Owen. Nonetheless, with all that love and support, he was scared. I thought about other kids who are far less loved than he and his brother and what they must be facing on a daily basis.

I will not be able to be there for every child as the child grows up and faces an often-unfriendly world. Nevertheless, Jack and Owen can grow knowing in spite of all their fears that their family loves them. When we returned to Indy the following week, I intentionally prefaced any of my reminisces with "Once upon a time...." I hope that our time together with Owen and Jack will result in being able to say "and they all lived happily ever after."