The first Christmas Scott and I were married, I gave him an electric guitar. Now, this may seem like a ridiculously impractical present to give a guy who lived in a small apartment above elderly, amiable-but-strict landlords. But I knew he’d always wanted to play the guitar (he was already a fantastic drummer), and it was our first Christmas as man and wife, and we were expecting our first baby, and I wanted to give him something really, really special. But an electric guitar, you’re saying. Ah, but the thing is: you don’t always have to plug it in. And from my exhaustive research (which consisted of a phone call to Scott’s buddy Chris, the guy who’d played lead guitar in Scott’s college band), I knew that an electric guitar is both easier to learn on (you don’t have to press down on the strings as hard) and—when not plugged into the amplifier—actually quieter than an acoustic.
So I had my plan. An electric guitar. Ah, but what kind? Kids’ books, I knew something about. Houseplants, I knew. If you needed to know what kind of gesneriad would thrive best in your kitchen, I was your girl. But what I knew about electric guitars could fit on the leaf of an Aeschynanthus lobbianus. A bit of sleuthing was in order. Fortunately I had that expert knowledge of children’s literature to call upon. What would Nancy Drew have done? Aha, she’d catch Ned reading a Musician magazine and casually pump him for information. Gee, that’s a swell one! Which one do you like? From this brilliantly excuted detective work I discovered three important things: 1) any self-respecting would-be guitarist would want the kind of guitar favored by Eric Clapton; 2) Eric Clapton’s favorite guitar was a black Fender Stratocaster with a white pick guard (whatever a pick guard was); and 3) a real Stratocaster was stratospherically out of my price range.
What to do, what to do. When flummoxed, Nancy would hash it out with George. Aha! Another call to Chris-the-supercool-guitar-player was in order. Unlike George, Chris actually had some useful information for me. I could buy a far-less-expensive Stratocaster knockoff (also made by Fender, of course) called a Squire. He even told me, bless him, exactly where in Manhattan to go for the right model and the best deal. The reasonable price included an amplifier with which Scott could annoy his mother by plugging in and cranking up to 11 on our next visit to his parents’ home. I’m such a good wife.
So one hellishly frigid December evening I trekked downtown to the Big Intimidating Manhattan Music Store and marched my pregnant self to the counter to ask for a black Squire with amplifier please. Chris (bless him!!) had even called ahead to ensure that the proper color combo was in stock. The manager had told him, and I quote (almost): “Yeah, we got a freakin’ million of ’em.” Perfect. But oh no! The nice if slightly condescending sales clerk informed me that they only had all-white Squires. The black model was sold out. “But, but,” I stammered, and then I remembered that Nancy Drew would never stumble timidly over her words in a situation like this. “But,” I said in a firm, forceful, never-been-intimidated-a-day-in-my-life tone, “the guy on the phone this afternoon said you had a freakin’ million of them.”
Condescending Sales Clerk Guy’s eyebrows raised. “Hold on, ma’am,” he murmured, picking up a phone. “I’ll check with the stockroom.” Ma’am! He’d called me ma’am!! Victory was mine! At age just-turned-twenty-five, I looked all of sixteen—and not exactly an imposing sixteen, either. (I was beginning to look like an undeniably pregnant sixteen at that point, and I was growing accustomed to seeing people on the subway make a little triangle of glances when they looked my way: belly to face to left hand. Well, at least the boy had the decency to marry her, their slight head-nods seemed to say before they studiously looked anywhere but at me for the rest of the trip. They never offered me a seat, either. I guess they figured I’d made my bed and could darn well stand in it. I toyed with the idea of making myself a maternity top that said, “I’m 25, married, and I have a master’s degree!” but that notion seemed to shoot its own proclamation of maturity in the foot, so I never followed up on it.)
Anyway, back to No-Longer-Condescending Sales Clerk Guy. His phone call to the stock room brought bad news. They had had a bunch in stock, but a sale ad in the paper that morning had wiped them out. Only the all-white ones left. No more black ones in stock before Christmas, but if the guy I was giving it to wanted to bring it back in January and exchange it, no problem.
Ah well, it would have to do. I bought the white guitar (with free amp) and stood at the door of the shop with my two very very large parcels, wondering for the first time how I was going to get this equipment home to Queens. During rush hour. In the—oh no, it couldn’t be true—slight rain that had begun to fall. Make that sleet. Of course. The odds of my getting a cab were about as great as the odds of my being able to wrap this guitar in the leaves of the afore-mentioned Aeschynanthus lobbianus. Neither was there the remotest possibility of my spaghetti-arms having the fortitude to lug these giant boxes home from the subway—assuming I could even MAKE it to the subway, which, major wimp that I was (and remain) appeared doubtful. What now? It was at this crucial moment that I discovered Nancy Drew had deserted me. I have never forgiven her for it.
Nothing to be done but stand on a streetcorner and pray, then. It took me ten excruciating minutes to drag myself and my packages to an uptown street, where the cabs would be heading in the right direction to get me home. And then I stood there and prayed with all my might. And watched cab after cab zoom by. Finally, finally, about the time frostbite was settling into the tip of my nose, I spotted a cab whose rooftop sign indicated it was not carrying a passenger. Recklessly I left my giant boxes sitting on the curb and I stepped into the street, waving a frozen arm. The cab pulled over. I exhausted the last of my feeble strength in shoving the guitar and amp boxes into the backseat, and wearily, gratefully, I climbed in.
“Astoria,” I told the driver as he pulled away from the curb. Abruptly he pulled back over to the curb and stopped the car.
“Sorry, miss,” he told me (the imposing Ma’am having abandoned me along with that traitor, Nancy Drew). “I don’t go to Queens.”
“What do you mean, you don’t go to Queens? It’s part of New York City! New York City cabs go anywhere in New York City!”
“Sorry, miss. If I go to Queens, I’ll never get a fare back. I lose too much work that way, you see?” His voice was kind, his eyes gentle and apologetic, conveying his deep regret at having to put the needs of his family above my own.
On a warmer night, I might have been swayed by sympathy. It was, after all, only my second year in New York. I wasn’t a hardened city girl yet. And frankly, with a wimpy constitution like mine, there wasn’t much chance of my becoming one.
The forceful Ma’am-voice had worked to good effect on Sales Clerk Guy (sort of). Summoning it once more, I said sternly, “I’m sorry, but you have to take me to Queens. It’s the law.” At least, I was pretty sure it might be the law. Maybe.
The cabbie shrugged. “No, miss. I’m very sorry.”
Miss? Miss??? That was MA’AM talking to you, buster, and don’t you forget it! Um, except he appeared not to have noticed Ma’am in the first place. Drat it, and I’d had such high hopes for her. Another disappointment, just like that fair-weather friend, Nancy Drew.
Fine. If he wanted a Miss, he’d get a Miss. Miss, in fact, came very naturally to me. Miss was tired and hungry and cold and also beginning to worry that it was getting pretty late and her beloved would be heading home from the office soon, and what if he got there first and she didn’t have time to hide the presents? At this critical point, Miss did the only thing she could do. She burst into tears.
“You have to take me,” I sobbed. “I’m pregnant!”
There. I admit it. I played the pregnancy card—AND I cried—and I’m not proud of it, but it did get me home. The cabbie even carried my boxes to the front stoop for me, bless him.
Triumphantly (though still sniffling a bit) I stashed the packages in our neighbor’s apartment—utterly unaware that they were already hiding Scott’s present to me.
Which turned out to be, believe it or not, an electric keyboard. Because he knew I’d always wanted to play piano. Yes, it was our own little everything-but-the-pathos O. Henry-style Christmas, and it was beautiful. He was surprised, I was surprised, we were both thrilled with our gifts and quite proud of our spousal astuteness. In the months that followed, each of us devoted hours to the pursuit of our respective instruments. Then spring came, and I had the baby, and that was pretty much the end of my piano career. I play a mean “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” though.
Scott, on the other hand, continued to hunker down with that guitar (we did indeed exchange the blah white one for the ultra-cool black model) every night for the next, oh, what’s it been now, eleven years? And he got good. Really really good. One guitarist I know told me Scott is “the rhythm guitarist of his dreams.” It’s that drummer training, you know. Once in a very great while he even plugs into the amp. I can’t tell you how he sounds when plugged in, because I head for the hills at the mere on-click of the amplifier. Not a girl for loud noise am I. I mean loud MUSIC. Not noise.
Definitely not noise. When he plays for us of an evening while I’m feeding the kids or, say, nursing a baby, or resting my pregnant-once-again bones beside the fire and pretending I know how to knit, I know without a doubt that I am the luckiest woman alive. I thought I was giving him this great present all those years ago. I didn’t know I was giving myself a much bigger gift. A man who fills his home with music is a treasure worth far, far more than even a real Fender Stratocaster—worth more than Eric Clapton’s old “Blackie,” autographed and everything. Wonderboy stands at his daddy’s knee, staring up in open-mouthed delight at sounds that even he can hear. Our three girls dance, whirling like winged maple seeds on the wind. He plays the songs I love to sing and never winces when I butcher the lyrics.
I had no idea, all those years ago, that what I struggled to carry to that Manhattan streetcorner wasn’t just a pretty cool gift for my husband—it was the soundtrack of our marriage, the timbre of our lives to come.
November 21, 2005 @ 3:08 am | Filed under: Books
A forum friend just posted a link to a happy find she made—a Christmas book by one of my all-time favorite authors, Maud Hart Lovelace. We are HUGE Betsy-Tacy fans in this house; Betsy is as dominant a role model as Anne Shirley and, yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her merry, sometimes quixotic nature; her ability to laugh at her own mistakes (of which there are many); her passion for writing; her loyalty to friends; her stubbornness; her tendency to put her foot in her mouth—all of these qualities bring the ring of truth to the character of Betsy Ray, and since the Betsy books are semi-autobiographical, that’s no surprise. Maud was writing in a frank and affectionate way about her own childhood, and the result is a series of books that live and breathe.
So to discover a Maud Hart Lovelace story I haven’t read yet is a wonderful treat! It’s called The Trees Kneel at Christmas, and Irene describes it as “a beautiful story about a Catholic Lebanese family living in Brooklyn in 1950 or so.” I can’t wait to track it down! Thanks for making my day, Irene.
The Betsy-Tacy Books:
Betsy-Tacy and Tib
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
Heaven to Betsy
Betsy in Spite of Herself
Betsy Was a Junior
Betsy and Joe
Betsy and the Great World
And more books set in Deep Valley:
Emily of Deep Valley (my absolute favorite MHL book)
Carney’s House Party
Winona’s Pony Cart
The Betsy-Tacy Society
Maud Hart Lovelace Society
I came across this poem and thought it would make a lovely accompaniment to the walks we’ve been taking along the little wooded path that fringes our neighborhood. Lots of oaks and beeches there (and maples, hickories, and dogwoods, too, but they aren’t in the poem) and lately our walks have been of the leaf-crunching-and-collecting sort. I thought Beanie especially would like the poem, and as I began to recite it to her, on a whim I changed “Mary” to her name. She beamed like I’d given her the moon. That was yesterday, and she has asked for “her” poem approximately once every waking hour since then. So I guess it’s a hit.
When Mary goes walking,
The autumn winds blow;
The poplars they curtsey,
The larches bend low.
The oaks and the beeches
Their gold they fling down
To make her a carpet,
To make her a crown.
—Patrick R. Chalmers
Here are some links to more autumn-themed poetry:
DLTK’s Holiday Activities
In recent months (especially since people found out I’m expecting another baby), I’ve been asked a particular question by several different people. It seems possible that others have wondered the same thing, too, so I thought I’d post the answer here. The answer is, “No.”
Okay, seriously, the question. A couple of friends have asked whether, given the amount of time required by Wonderboy’s various medical issues and Early Intervention, we are going to have to think about putting the girls in school. How can we go on juggling PT, OT, speech/hearing therapy, bunches of doctor appointments and keep writing books and keep homeschooling the girls?
It’s a fair question, coming from friends who love us dearly but don’t live nearby. If you hang out with us in person a lot, then you probably already see why “Heavens no!” is the answer to the question. It’s a question that springs from the perfectly understandable assumption that homeschooling takes a lot of time. Which is to say, it’s an assumption born of educational experiences which involve establishing long, set periods of time each day for the study of seven to ten different subjects. If you’re supposing that we must sit the girls down at the table every day and teach math, teach writing, teach history, teach science, etc etc etc—at three different grade levels—then I can absolutely see why such an arrangement would seem difficult under our current circumstances.
But homeschooling doesn’t have to be anything like that. It can be; I have many homeschooling friends who do make use of traditional school methods and schedules at home. But for us (and for many thousands of other families), homeschooling is something entirely different from school. It isn’t a section of our day devoted to learning by traditional methods (or more accurately, teaching by traditional methods)—it’s a lifestyle, it’s a way of learning as you live and living as you learn. It’s discussing Shostakovich over breakfast and solving complicated math problems in your head for fun on the way to the grocery store. It’s snuggling up with your 4-year-old several times a day, a few minutes here and there, to listen to her read a Bob Book. It’s being 8 years old and falling so in love with Liberty’s Kids on PBS that you spend six whole months writing letters to your mother in the character of a Revolutionary War-era British girl living in Philadelphia, fully expecting your mother to keep up her side of the correspondence. It’s reading a book of Greek myths until it quite literally falls apart, and deciding (at the determined age of six) that you need to learn to read Ancient Greek. It means giving your mother no peace (determined 6-year-old that you are) until she manages to track down a child’s Greek primer for you.
It means that when you discover your little brother is hard of hearing and—talk about surprises!—spent the first ten months of his life unable to hear much of the chatter going on around him, you immediately dive into the study of sign language. Your mother ditches the family German lessons because the little brother kind of needs to learn English first. Sign language becomes a family passion. By the time you’re ten, you have completed a college-level ASL intro course online and are hungry for more.
Learning permeates the day, every day. There are no summer breaks because there is nothing to break FROM—who ever stops learning? It would be like taking a vacation from eating.
Neighbors often say to me, “I could never homeschool because it takes so much time.” I joke that I couldn’t send my kids to school because that takes so much time. You have to get everybody up at the crack of dawn and rush around getting dressed and packing lunches and stuffing backpacks. You have school clothes and play clothes, twice the laundry. You have to figure out when to fit in doctor and dentist appointments. You have to schedule time for parent/teacher conferences, school fundraisers, checking reading logs, helping with homework, volunteering in the classroom, and on and on. And if you have several kids, you have to juggle those things for all of them. I know this is true because I have lots and lots of friends with kids in school, and these are the challenges they discuss. Being an involved, committed school parent takes a great investment of time.
The school kids around here probably spend more time on homework than my kids do on table work in the course of a day. When you’re learning one on one, it can happen more quickly. There isn’t any reason to have extra work for practice at home, because you already are home and your parents know whether you understand a concept or not. If you’re having trouble multiplying fractions, your mom can suggest you triple a cookie recipe. It’s amazing how quickly you master a skill when you get to eat it afterward.
We have loads of reasons for homeschooling, definite and serious and passionate reasons. But if I were to set all of them aside and address the question purely as a practical, time-management matter, I’d say we’d be nuts to give up the freedom and flexibility this lifestyle affords us. The appointment-juggling would become more complicated if I had school and bus schedules constraining us. Plus I’d be sending Wonderboy’s greatest therapeutic aides (and the joys of his life) away for the bulk of the day. His sisters are deeply, eagerly involved in his various therapies. His first speech/hearing therapist considered Jane her right-hand man in Wonderboy’s sessions. He has made huge strides recently, and I am convinced this is due in large part to the delightful motivation and modeling he receives all day long from his sisters.
Like I said, I get where the question is coming from. If homeschooling required six hours of concentrated instruction time five days a week, we’d be in trouble. But a lifestyle of learning is a whole different kettle of fish. Wonderboy has brought an awful lot of learning to this house. We learn because of him, for him, from him. I affectionately refer to him as our Unit Study on the Brain. Rose calls him her Favorite Thing in the Whole World Which I Love Even More than Horses and Dolphins and Both my Hermit Crabs Put Together.
So. If you’ve wondered whether this will all get too complicated at some point and we’ll have to lay our ideologies aside and put the kids in school just as a matter of survival—now you know. We have an immensely good thing going here. But I really appreciate the concern, honestly, and I’d rather people did ask the question. It gives me an excuse to gush about how much fun I have all day long with my fabulous children.
Chill, blustery morning here. No one felt like going outside, except for Beanie who was hoping to encounter another snake on the nature trail today. We startled one on the path earlier this week, causing him to scoot for the creek. I told Bean I doubted any snakes would be out on a shivery morning like this one, and she decided the walk wasn’t worth undertaking without the snake.
Rose was in a yarn mood, having just re-learned how to knit yesterday after an eight-month hiatus, so we all got out our knitting baskets and crowded onto the couch. Wonderboy serenaded us on the piano, tapping out a descant to the wuthering wind. Really a very pleasant way to pass the morning. Rose worked on the scarf she is making for herself, and Jane and I commenced a new project. This one goes in the So Cute I Might Die department. I stumbled across this free pattern for knitting a gnome baby which is simple enough even for my haphazard knitting skills. That’s a picture of the finished doll up there—not MY finished doll, you understand; that one was made by the nice lady who provided the pattern. So far mine is only a pair of legs and a smidgen of belly. (When I knit with the kids, I personally get very little knitting done.) But it’s getting there. So adorable. I’m using some leftover Peace Fleece wool from my short-lived weaving days long ago. What’s funny is I think it might be the very same yarn used in the sample doll in the picture. Sure looks like it.
If I get very brave (and it isn’t a total disaster) I might post a picture of the finished project. Watch this space in about, um, three months. (Factoring in my standard interruption and distraction rate.)