Archive for April, 2005
I was cleaning the bathroom this morning when Jane came in to ask me how to pronounce the word "usurp." She had seen it in print a number of times but wasn’t sure how to say it. I told her, and then Rose wanted to know what it meant. So I gave some examples, including: "Or let’s say you’re sitting on my lap and I send you to get a tissue, and while you’re up, one of your sisters climbs in your place."
Rose started to giggle. "A usurper!"
Jane wandered back out with her book. Then Beanie came in and perched beside Rose on the edge of the tub while I wiped down the sink. Bean’s hair was wild; it hadn’t been brushed yet. I sent her to get her hairbrush and when she returned, I sat down on the tub’s rim to tackle her curls.
"Hey!" Bean cried indignantly. "You took my spot!"
Rose cackled. "You usurped, Mommy! You’re a usurper!"
"What’s that?" asked Beanie. Rose explained.
Bean pondered. "I think," she said, "that when a mommy surps, it’s okay."
"U-surp," Rose corrected.
Beanie was puzzled. "No I didn’t. Mommy surped."
"No, U-surp!" Rose insisted.
"I surp? But I didn’t! Mommy did!"
By this point I was choking with laughter. Beanie took my paroxysms for some kind of dismay.
"It’s okay, mommy, I don’t mind when you surp me."
"U-surp!" proclaimed Rose.
Beanie stared at her in disgust. "That’s what I SAID." She humphed out of the room before Rose could get in the last word. I sat there howling. Sorry, Abbott and Costello. Your place in my heart has been surped.
There’s more unscrambling of states going on in our house today…we stumbled upon this cool U.S. map puzzle at Jungle Arcade. Random states fall down the right side of your screen, and you drag them into their correct places on the map, racing to be as fast as possible.
Rose keeps beating me!
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Jane and I went on a “Tree Walk” at our favorite local nature center. The husband-and-wife team who led the walk opened by reading a passage from their favorite book about trees. I was so enchanted by this bit of writing that I spent a long-hoarded gift certificate on a copy of the book, Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees. (I believe he has written a Western North America version as well.)
Here’s the passage, taken from Peattie’s introduction:
Wherever you live, wherever you tramp or travel, the trees of our country are wondrously companionable, if you have a speaking acquaintance with them. When you have learned their names, they say them back to you, as you encounter them—and very much more, for they speak of your own past experience among them, and of our nation’s forest life.
Jane and I recalled these words as we hiked along a wooded path on the fringes of our neighborhood the other day—recalled them somewhat haphazardly, above the strained rattle of Wonderboy’s stroller. A friend of mine gave me a stroller her kids had outgrown, an amazingly rugged jogging stroller, the mountain bike of strollers, the Ahnold of strollers. She bought it in New Zealand, where they take their hiking seriously. I waited impatiently through the winter, eager to take this Strollinator out for a spin. I stocked its basket (which is approximately the size of a Volkswagen) with water bottles, a blanket, diapers, sketchbooks, paint sets. Nature walks, here we come.
Unfortunately it turned out that Robostroller had a flat. We discovered this about halfway down the driveway on the morning I’m talking about, the morning of our first big nature hike of the season. Hastily we formulated a backup plan. The Incredible Hulk of Strollers went back into the garage, and Wonderboy had to settle for a ride in the wimpy umbrella stroller I keep in the minivan, the one with the blue plastic wheels. SuperStroller has giant black rubber wheels with inch-deep tread, wheels that could crush the mall stroller with one roll. The umbrella stroller was complaining about the stray bits of gravel on our paved street long before we reached the end of our development, where the dirt-and-stones nature trail begins.
So there we were bumping our way down the steep path through the trees, and Jane and I were looking for the trees we’d learned to identify on the Tree Walk last month. We can spot a hickory now, not just shagbark but all kinds of hickories, because of the diamond-like patterning of their bark. We hoped for a hornbeam—Jane was enchanted by the naturalist’s description of the hornbeam’s trunk as being “like muscles with no skin.” It’s true, hornbeams don’t have smooth, round trunks; they ripple in slender, wiry curves, like a sinewy arm.
“Mommy, look, a holly!” Jane cried. Beanie wanted to know where, and Rose was proud that she could identify it even though she hadn’t been with us on the Tree Walk.
“Poison ivy!” shouted Bean, not to be outdone at botanical identifications.
“There’s a beech,” Jane told her sisters. “You can tell by the light brown leaves still hanging to it. Beeches like to hold their leaves all winter.” She launched into a lengthy description of the woolly aphids that feed on the sap of a giant beech at the nature center. The Tree Walk guides had pointed out the tree, but it was still too early in the season, too cold, and there weren’t any aphids that day. Jane and I saw them last summer, though, during the butterfly walks which are the highlight of her year. The Tree Walk guides talked about how the aphids look like wisps of quivering cotton on the branches. They did not mention the harvester caterpillar which feeds on them, making it the only carnivorous species of caterpillar. Jane was more than happy to chime in with that information. Whenever we go on these guided hikes at the nature center, it’s like she is E.T. at the moment of reunion with his fellow extraterrestrials. These are her people, these marvelous woodsy folks who know all about caterpillars and salamanders and wood poppies and hornbeams.
Peattie’s introduction to Natural History of Trees goes on to say, “But a name is only a door open to knowledge; beyond lie the green ways of growing and, too, all that makes a tree most interesting and important to man. Almost every tree in our sylva has made history, or witnessed it, or entered into our folkways, or usefully become a part of our daily life.”
Right now Wonderboy is at an age when much of our conversation is about the names of things. He’s been in hearing aids for five months or so now, which means his “listening age” for comprehending spoken language is about the same as a five-month-old’s. We name everything for him, with speech and with sign language, and his world is expanding at a breathtaking rate. And for me, this walk through the woods was full of that same kind of magic connection. The names of these trees are, as Peattie so beautifully puts it, open doors inviting me to relationships, to stories, to a world roots and nests and secrets.
I was not made for this, griped Wonderboy’s stroller, as we rattled our way along the path.
I was born for this, said the look in Jane’s eyes.
Rose found some fortune cookies leftover from a dinner we ordered, gosh, three weeks ago. Ugh, if you ask me. But the girls were thrilled. They tore into them and then Beanie sent up a wail. Her cookie had no fortune. This was tragic.
Rose disappeared. Jane took the the biggest half of Beanie’s cookie and turned away so Bean couldn’t see her trying to stuff her own fortune in the hole. But there was no fooling Beanie. Indignantly she took the cookie away from Jane and disdainfully returned Jane’s fortune. Jane shrugged an “oh well, I tried” shrug.
About this time, Rose re-appeared, grinning like the Cheshire cat. When she is pleased with herself, she brings to life all the cliched descriptions of glittering, twinkling, sparkling eyes. She thrust a slip of paper at Beanie.
“Here’s your fortune!” she announced.
Beanie lit up. THIS, apparently, was no pity-fortune passed on secondhand. This was a real fortune created specifically for Bean.
“Read it to me, mommy!” She handed me the slip of paper.
YOU LOVE WHAT YOU SEE, it said.
Beanie nodded. “Yup.” She wandered away, leaving the fortune in my hands. Rose was still standing there grinning. I asked her how she thought of writing that.
“Oh, it just sounded like a real fortune,” she said. “Plus it’s true.”
Jane laughed. “She’s right. Bean DOES love just about everything she sees.”
They all drifted off to play, and I sat there for a long time looking at that slip of paper, loving what I saw.
I’m on a quest, and I just know someone out there will know what I’m talking about.
In the summer of 1987, I was a counselor at a performing arts camp in Missoula, Montana. One of the campers brought with her a tape recording of her favorite storyteller. I don’t remember his name, but one of the stories has stuck with me all this time and in fact has worked its way into our family lexicon. The tale was about two children who found themselves in a strange land governed by the King of the Raisins. (“He was married to a wafer.”) The raisins are amiable enough despite their aversion to the strange wiggling things at the end of the children’s arms—
“What you got there, worms?”
“No, they’re fingers! See?”
(Sound of raisins screaming.) “Ahhhh! Horrible, horrible! But I like you anyway.”
I find myself quoting the horrified raisins now and then, usually while changing a particularly toxic diaper. I’ve told as much of the story as I can remember to my kids, but I long to hear the whole thing again and find out if it’s really as hilarious as I remember it.
Does it ring a bell for any of you? No? Oh, that’s horrible, horrible. But I like you anyway.
I usually keep a picture of the kids as the background image of our office computer, or else a breathtaking Scottish landscape to inspire me. (Darn sporting of Scott to put up with that, I must say.) On the upstairs computer I like to download a painting by an artist we are interested in.
Lately I’ve been a little calendar-obsessed, though, and I decided I wanted one on the computer desktop at all times. Found this nifty web page at Artchive. Nice little monthly calendar over a painting or detail of a painting. This month is a closeup of the hands in Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride.” While you’re at the site, you can vote on which painting will be next month’s wallpaper.
On the upstairs computer, I pleased the kids by downloading this image from the Beatrix Potter website. I’ve always been partial to Mrs. Tiggy-winkle….I think Jane would prefer something from Redwall, though.
The new issue of MacBeth Derham’s Wild Monthly is up! This month’s theme is crabs, a big favorite around here. Rose got a pair of hermit crabs for her birthday last summer. Scott and I had been planning the gift for months—she was pining for a pet. Imagine my horror, the day before her birthday, when I asked her what she’d like for her birthday dinner and she answered promptly: “Crab legs!”
The gruesome pet-and-platter combination didn’t seem to faze her a bit, however. At the birthday dinner, she happily wolfed down her crab legs while animatedly discussing names for her new, instantly beloved pets. (She finally settled on “Pagoo” and “Pagooess.”) She’s going to love exploring the links in this issue of Wild Monthly.
Here’s an excerpt:
Careful planning went into our honeymoon in Mexico. My husband and I wanted to spend time visiting Mayan ruins rather than partying in nightclubs in Cancun. We visited Coba, which boasts the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan, Nohoch Mul. We visited Tulum, the city by the sea, which boasts the “descending god” images that have delighted those interested in extraterrestrials and so-called “ancient astronauts.” We also visited a small area of ruins near Cancun called El Rey…
Read the rest!
Maybe everybody else already knew about this brilliant method of creating a new flower bed, but it was new to me last year, and my friend Lisa, gardener extraordinaire, said she hadn’t heard of it either. If you want to make a flower bed somewhere on your lawn, but you don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to dig up the grass, here’s a neat trick. Use a garden hose to outline the bed, then lay down a thick layer of newspaper (five or six sheets thick) right on top of the grass. Cover the newspaper with mulch. Lots of mulch. If you do this in the fall, by spring the grass will have rotted away underneath the newspaper, and voila, you’ve got your nice new bed ready for planting.
So claims Mrs. Greenthumbs, and I took her at her word. Except it was spring, not fall. Last spring, I wanted to extend the flowerbed that runs along my front walk. It was a boring rectangle, and I like curves. We had a lot of mulch leftover from another project and a mountain of newspapers in the to-be-recycled section of our garage. I followed Mrs. Greenthumbs’s instructions and turned that severe rectangular bed into a graceful double curve.
Of course then I had a funny-looking contrast between the empty new curves and the original bed full of spring flowers. On a whim, I bought a flat of moss roses (portulaca, my favorite flower) and planted them in the new mulch area on top of the newspaper. I just scraped away the mulch in places, made little pockets of potting soil above the newspaper, and stuck a plant in each pocket. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but it did. The moss roses spread all over the new section of the bed. I was thrilled.
Portulaca isn’t hardy here, so I planted bulbs in the new sections of the bed very late last fall. This year you can’t tell where the original bed ends and the additions begin. It has blended into one cohesive bed. I dug into the mulch and found that both the newspaper and the grass beneath it have indeed rotted away. It’s just a flowerbed now.
“Just” a flowerbed. Now there’s an understatement. The girls and I spent our morning painting (very bad) watercolor pictures of the hyacinths and anemones that are blooming between the withered stems of last summer’s moss roses. What a universe there is in that little crescent of land. Last year’s news is nourishing earthworms and windflowers, which in turn are nourishing the imaginations of small children. Not to mention their mother.
“It’s good, workin’. I’m happy. I love helpin’ you.”
It’s not hard to make a four-year-old happy. There are hundreds, thousands of ways. This morning it was that most reliable of kid-pleasing activities: cleaning the bathroom.
I don’t know why I forget, sometimes, how much a small child loves to help with the household tasks I least enjoy. I remember vividly my own joy when my mother first let me clean a toilet with the long-handled brush all by myself. It would have been sometime between second and fourth grade, because we were still living in the house on Uvalda Street. 767 Uvalda, I think, and what I remember most about living there is worshiping our pretty long-haired babysitter, Nadine, who lived next door and whose favorite songs were “Afternoon Delight” and “You Are the Woman I’ve Always Dreamed Of”; lugging my beloved rental cello to school across a pedestrian bridge that rose to Himalayan heights above busy Sixth Avenue; despising as the embodiment of all things evil a squirrel who ate some baby birds in a nest in our front yard; and embracing with jubilant pride the awesome responsibility of scrubbing the toilet with Comet and that Very Important Brush.
The couple of times I’ve watched that Supernanny show, I’ve had to chuckle over her earnest instruction in the use of the “Involvement Technique,” which is a concept so common-sensical one wonders that any parent needs to be formally instructed in its use. And yet I so often forget to use common sense in running the household. I can work faster if I work alone. “Allowing” children to help takes time, patience, and a high tolerance for accidents. I had more of all those things when my first child was little. But common sense says I need more help now than I did when there was only one small person underfoot. And common sense knows perfectly well that letting kids help with housework while they’re still little enough that the work is fun is the best way to ensure that they’ll be willing and able helpers when they’re older.
It’s just that common sense sometimes bails on me when I’m in a hurry.
This morning I wasn’t in a hurry. I’m trying to return to my good Flylady habits—the house is always so much pleasanter, both in terms of cleanliness & order and in terms of joyfulness of atmosphere, when I’m in the Flylady groove. After breakfast I moseyed into the bathroom to wipe down the counter and sinks. The moment my hand touched the spray bottle, Beanie materialized at my elbow.
“Can I ’pray?” she begged. Nothing, nothing appeals to a small child like a squirt bottle. Two or three Flylady grooves ago, in recognition of this fact, I oh-so-cleverly stocked every bathroom with a squirt bottle full of Don Aslett’s “light bathroom sanitizer,” which smells nice and isn’t full of harsh chemicals. I wouldn’t be comfortable turning a little kid loose with a bottle of 409 or Windex. I don’t even like to use that stuff. The Don Aslett cleanser comes in little packets of pink concentrate for you to pour into your squirt bottle and mix with water. Not to sound like a commercial—it’s just that I’m all about finding practical ways to make good ideas work. I read so many inspiring things about childraising and education, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to take those beautiful philosophies and make them functional. Which is why I post so many links and reviews here—when something works, I have to shout about it.
So here’s my shout-out for Don Aslett’s One-Step Bathroom Cleaner. Great stuff. Cheaper than 409, too.
And an unutterable delight to use, so Beanie’s sparkling eyes told me. She squirted, I wiped, she chattered away about a Father Brown story she heard on Jim Weiss’s Mystery Mystery CD—and I had to agree with her declaration. It is good, workin’. I am happy. I love helpin’ her.