Posted: Mar 19, 2007 12:01 AM

LITTLE ROCK - The morning was bright when the older man walked out of the airport, but his face was overcast.

A grandfather, he had just said goodbye to his daughter and her kids - a four-year-old boy, a two-year-old girl - after a visit he'd looked forward to. The visit wasn't exceptional. They'd fixed some meals together, sat around the dining room table once again, talked about old times, gone to a neighborhood park every afternoon, got the kids together with their cousins for a few outings, taken a wonderful, windy walk across the big dam bridge.

Now mom and kids were on their way back to the big city in the East where she'd married and settled down. The visit was over, and he probably wouldn't see them again till summer.

The simplest things stood out in his mind. He'd watched the little boy playing on the deck behind the house. The boy had picked up a stick somewhere but you could tell it had become something else in his hands - an airplane, a log on which he briefly balanced himself, a baton to ward off the forces of evil. There was a dreamy expression on the little boy's face, which would vanish when the neighbor's dog barked, then return.

Watching him from afar, the grandfather was reminded of how he would play on a rickety back porch long ago, turning the simplest objects, like a stick, into a race car, a Sherman tank, a P-51 fighter making the appropriate noises for each under his grandmother's watchful eye.

A grandfather now, he hadn't thought about that porch in the longest time, but now he could see its every detail - the splintery wood, the water faucet next to it, the screen door that led to the porch and how it sounded when it banged shut.

Things don't change all that much from generation to generation, he thought, watching the little boy. They had gone to see some old friends of his who lived atop a rolling hill along the river, and the boy had taken it into his head to go rolling, rolling, rolling down the hill all the way to the bottom, or at least as far his momentum would carry him.

It looked like so much fun the grandfather couldn't help himself, but threw himself down the hill, too, his jacket twirling with him, his spectacles flying off at one point. He was surprised at how easy it was to roll down a hill. (Stopping was the hard part.) He found his glasses, put them on to see how far he'd rolled, and had to resist the temptation to do it again while his friend brushed him off. He owed the boy a lot, he thought. He'd never have gone down the hill without the four-year-old's example.

And the little girl! The little girl who was named for his late wife. He never said her name without smiling inside. She seemed so much older than her two years. Having an older brother to stand up to probably helped. She was definitely her own person. Girls mature faster than boys, he thought, which confirmed his old belief that they were the superior sex.

Both unremarkable children, he thought, but their every breath was remarkable to him. Then he corrected himself: The little girl did have this habit he'd never seen on another child. Whenever she was about to do anything that required the least concentration - running, jumping, getting in and out of her car seat, thinking hard about how to answer a question, even eating or drinking, she would roll up her sleeves. Every time. Like somebody about to drive a stake into the ground. He couldn't get the picture out of his mind.

Then it was time to go find his car in the airport parking lot. The words formed of themselves, without conscious thought: Every separation from a daughter - and her children! - is a small devastation.