Simply See

Home again, and Jane and I are going walkabout.  I have her rigged on my shoulders in the backpack.  Distributed throughout the aluminum frame and snugged straps, her weight dissipates to nothing.  After all, she weighs little more than a good-sized chicken.  As we step into the yard, I twist my neck to get a look at her face and find her looking out over the valley below.  Her eyes are wide and steady beneath the brim of her floppy cap.  How far out of infancy do we lose this gaze, with its utter absence of expectation or prejudice?  What is it like to simply see what is before you, without the skew of context?

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

Some Similar Sunday

Just when you think you’re trudging this road of life and parenting alone, you come across a gem like this.  I’m brought back to the Sunday evenings of my childhood, where we ate not popcorn, but scrambled eggs or a solitary bowl of cereal.  I’m mise-en-placed to any meal with my own children where we rush to throw a paper towel on the spilled pool of milk before it cascades down the cracks between the leaves of the table.  And I’m gleefully reminded how this all must be done with laughter.

It must have been a sight: eight to twelve of us packed around the dinner table, heads bowed over books splayed flat (somewhere a librarian cringes), the pages held open with one hand while the other dipped in and out of the corn, back and forth from bowl to mouth, the rhythm interrupted only when someone refilled a bowl or took a pull at their Kool-Aid.  When your eyes are fixed on text, you tend to fish around with your free hand, and nearly every week someone upended their Kool-Aid.  The minute the glass hit, Dad jumped up to make a dam with his hands in an attempt to keep the spill from leaking through the low spot in the table where the leaves met.  For her part, Mom grabbed a spoon and scraped madly at the spreading slick, ladling the juice back in the glass one flat teaspoon at a time so it could be drunk.  The same thing happened if someone spilled their milk.  Sometimes when I wonder how my parents managed financially, I think of Mom going after those spoonfuls of Kool-Aid like an environmentalist trailing the Exxon Valdez with a soup ladle, and there’s your answer.

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

This is Love

When the other Dr. Meescham was alive and I could not sleep, do you know what he would do for me?  This man would put on his slippers and he would go out into the kitchen and he would fix for me sardines on crackers.  You know sardines?”

Ulysses shook his head.

“Little fishes in a can.  He would put these little fishes onto crackers for me, and then I would hear him coming back down the hallway, carrying the sardines and humming, returning to me.”  Dr. Meescham sighed.  “Such tenderness.  To have someone get out of bed and bring you little fishes and sit with you as you eat them in the dark on night.  To hum to you.  This is love.”

– from The Illuminated Adventures of Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Loss in Children’s Literature

The first book caught my eye from its display, the title singing to my soul, The Poet’s Dog, a novel by Patricia MacLachlan.  The second, I found flipping through the bins of picture books, its title, Until We Meet Again (Susan Jones), speaking to my family’s recent season of loss.  Little did I know how thematically intertwined they both were.

Both titles speak to children bearing and moving through the loss of a loved one.imgres

The Poet’s Dog is more novella than novel and told in sparse prose.  But it is told from the point of view of Teddy, the poet Sylvan’s dog.  And Teddy, while wise and loquacious for a dog, is dealing with the stark life left him by Sylvan’s death.  There is a beauty and simplicity to the unfolding of this tale and the healing that takes place.  Teddy, in saving two siblings from a raging storm, is himself saved by their companionship.  The siblings, Nickel and Flora, and readers don’t find out what exactly happened to Sylvan until halfway through the book, which is really quite wonderful in terms of grief.  Teddy, like so many experiencing loss, comes to a slow realization of the gravity of the absence of his loved one; even slower, comes the ability to share the painful parts of that loss.  He opens up as he comes to terms with it – and it is through the gentle love and presence of the now dear young friends.

untilwemeet-448x600Until We Meet Again, a picture book by Susan Jones, illustrated by Shirley Antak, is told from the perspective of an adorable little boy, made so both by Antak’s rendering and the amazing way he transcends death’s grip on his beloved grandfather.  The opening sequence shows the deep bond and ritual of this grandfather/grandson relationship.  The boy obviously adores the strong influence of his grandfather.  When he first gets news of his grandfather’s eventual demise, he is unsettled, of course, but this midsection of the book sets the stage for the last, when the boy becomes the strong influence.  He initiates and continues all of their special traditions, validating his grandfather, cementing their unending bond, and gathering his own strength for life without him.

Both these titles tackle a topic that is usually met with the awkward shrug of a smile, the stammering silence of not knowing what to say.  The subject matter is the stuff we try to shield our kids from, not books we willingly hand them.  But as with any tough topic, the children dealing with death need them right now.

Ironically, I chose not to share them with my children right now.  Perhaps I am being naive in thinking I can protect them from the direct blow of death for just a bit longer, but they’ve yet to be at a funeral.  They blessedly haven’t felt the stinging sorrow of a daily hole in their lives.  The deaths dealt to our family recently have been on their periphery.  But to know I have such gentle and poignant resources in literature should I need them – I’m glad the literary universe conspired to bring them both to me in the same lending cycle.

 

Everlasting

Natalie Babbitt is one of my favorites.

Sure, she’s written some great books, classics even.  But I didn’t read Tuck Everlasting as a kid; not until I was an undergrad, maybe even a teacher.  I do remember the ethereal glow surrounding the cinematic fountain of youth.  There was, continues to be, a magic connected to her stories.

But Natalie Babbitt was most magical to me when I heard her speak.

She was part of a panel on the craft of writing for young people at Rhode Island College, one of four published female authors in the field. She was the eldest, the most distinguished in terms of titles and staying power.  She was also the most emphatic, matter of fact, and unapologetic.

The question was posed to the panel: what is your writing routine?

Each in turn, the first three authors stated that one must write everyday; the secret to their success is continuity, establishing a routine; treating that time at their desks as a job.

Babbitt then stated, she was a mother.  Writing everyday wasn’t always possible.  Kids got measles.

She wasn’t trying to refute what the other authors had already said, just stated it straight out.  The way life was.  The reality of her writing life – or lack thereof.

In the midst of the chaos of three small children at the time, I instantly fell in love with Babbitt.  She’d never hold my hand and tell me it was okay to skip writing time, but she understood the realities of life with children, of real life, of days when life got in the way.

Countless times, when mothering saps my focus or free time, I see Ms. Babbitt, sitting in her spot at the long rectangular table at the head of the room, unapologetically sharing her secret to successful writing.  I suppose, it’s that there is no secret.  There is no perfect time – but there are also no excuses.

Natalie Babbitt got it done and masterfully so.  There is hope for me yet.

babbitt

In memoriam: Natalie Babbitt July 28, 1932 – October 31, 2016

At the Intersection of Love and Passion

If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and for long enough, she can remember pretty well everything that has made her happy.  The fragrance of her mother’s skin at the age of five and how they fled giggling into a porch to get out of a sudden downpour.  The cold tip of her father’s nose against her cheek.  The consolation of the rough part of a soft toy that she has refused to let them wash.  The sound of waves stealing in over rocks during their last seaside holiday.  Applause in a theater.  Her sister’s hair, afterwards, carelessly waving in the breeze as they’re walking down the street.

And apart from that?  When has she been happy?  A few moments.  The jangling of keys in the door.  The beating of Kent’s heart against the palms of her hands while he lay sleeping.  Children’s laughter.  The feel of the wind on her balcony.  Fragrant tulips.  True love.

The first kiss.

A few moments.  A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment.  And to love someone without measure.  Explode with passion.

A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be.  But after that, how many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves?  How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud, without a sense of shame?  How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia?

All passion is childish.  It’s banal and naive.  It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us.  Overturns us.  It bears us away in a flood.  All other emotions belong to the earth, but passions inhabits the universe.

That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk.  Our dignity.  The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.

 

from Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Pietro

 “Excuse me . . . miss.”

The way he addressed me, I almost thought he mistook me for a clerk. The blue and white check on the shoulder of my rain jacket flashed as I turned and reminded me it looked nothing like the blue polos of the store employees. He spread his fingers across the bridge of his nose.

My glasses. I forgot them.” His index finger moved to the half gallon of milk he held in his hand and its mottled hieroglyph of a date stamp. We peered at it together.

March 26th,” I said.

Today’s . . . the . . . 11th,” we said together, the last part punctuated by the speed of certainty.

He tilted his head back and forth as if weighing the amount of milk against the weight of days.

That gives you time,” I said.

I’d seen the same dance from my grandmother countless times. What was an easy decision for me – to throw two full gallons of milk in my cart for my burgeoning family – was agonizing to a single person afraid of pouring sour dairy down the drain.

We laughed, relieved to have solved this problem together.

Eh, the basket, where do you get them?” he said. At least that’s what I thought he said. The beautiful lilt of an Italian accent rounded the edges of each word. I went through the convoluted description of obtaining a shopping cart from the coin-fed chain contraption all because of one misunderstood noun.

Oh no, the pasta. Pasta fagioli?” He uttered a few other phrases to clarify what he was seeking, which included Germany in there somewhere, I think. I finally nodded in assent and scanned the signs above the aisles, pointing to the next one over.

Pasta!” I said.

Next aisle, ah yes. Thank you very much.”

After he shuffled off and I resumed the task of picking out paper towels, his voice carried over the rack of metal shelving separating us.

Pastina,” he said. “Pasta. Pasta fagioli.”

Pastina? You mean little pasta?”

For pasta fagioli,” he insisted. “In Germany.”

This is all the pasta we have, sir.”

He had found a clerk this time, but I could tell she was as thrown by his accent as I had been. And obviously hadn’t been raised on the tiny bits of pasta Italian families added to their soups and fed buttered to their babies in high chairs.

Armed with the knowledge my Italian husband and his family had fed me with, I figured I’d better hightail it over to the pasta aisle and intervene. I’d failed translating the first time, but maybe this time, I could help. Plus, I needed some campanelle of my own.

Pasta fagioli,” he said again to the confounded clerk.

They both looked at me as I approached. “You mean in a can?”

My Italian relatives would cringe at my suggestion, but the way he kept repeating it, I thought maybe he wanted some ready-made.

No, no, the pastina, to put in the pasta fagioli.” His thumb and forefinger made a small gap of light to show its size.

I had assumed that’s what he had wanted all along. Even though he was elderly and shopping alone, living perhaps presumably alone, a man who requested his type of pasta by the Italian name of the dish it was destined for, in a voice tinged with his mother tongue, would want to whip up a batch himself.

The clerk repeated that what was in the aisle was all they had. I agreed that I didn’t see it, nor the ditalini I instinctively knew would also work.

Sorry,” she said as she moved back to the front of the store.

Are you Italian?” he said.

My husband is,” I said.

Your husband,” he repeated as if processing the information.

Yes.”

What is your last name?”

I’d had this conversation many times before in supermarkets, nursing homes, and once a cab ride in Rome. It was not an interrogation. It was a sharing of roots; whether common ones or airing your own; a sense of pride; a tradition borne across the world.

Basile.”

He was not the first one to stumble on my last name, but his was not due to pronunciation. Once his hearing clarified it, he pronounced it more precisely than I could.

Calabria, Campagnia, Sicily?”

I knew, of course, where the maternal and paternal shoots of my husband’s tree hailed from, but struggled to find the short answer in the middle of the supermarket.

Rome.” I decided on the branch that bore our surname.

Ah, Roma.”

Si,” I said.

He smiled.

And you, you are American?”

I shouldn’t have been thrown by such a question, especially coming from someone who certainly did not sound like a native English speaker. Yes, I was American, but my family had been for three generations now – and that was the most recent immigrant branch.

Yes, Jennifer. My family is Irish,” I said.

The Irish,” he said.

My genetics must have been ingrained with the biases my ancestors dealt with, for I was almost afraid how he would react. I wanted to assure him with my grandmother’s assurance made just fifteen short years ago, that Irish and Italians marry well.

My daughters,” he said. “I have two. One she lives upstairs from me. The other, she lives in New York. She married an Irish man. Kevin O’Rourke. He’s a good man,” he said. “Even though, you know.” He paused to make a guzzling motion with his thumb and pinky extended, then laughed. I couldn’t tell whether this was an indictment of his son-in-law or the Irish in general.

Well, I don’t,” I said. “Especially now,” I quipped, indicating my pregnant belly.

He smiled. “A boy?” I couldn’t tell whether he was rooting for a boy as any Italian relative I’d encountered during any of my pregnancies did, or if he was just wondering whether I knew the sex of the baby.

I don’t know, yet,” I said. “We already have three daughters.”

He indicated pleasure rather than the surprise that admission usually met.

And what is your name?’ I asked.

He extended a strong hand spotted with age. “Pietro.”

It’s nice to meet you, Pietro.”

Yes, you have a good day now,” he said. “Good bye, ciao, auf wiedersehen.“

His litany of multilingual greetings threw my mind into a tailspin. It spun wildly for the words to wish him a good day in Italian.

Perhaps he mistook my pause for confusion, for he explained ‘auf wiedersehen’ was from the German. I realized I’d never asked exactly from where he’d hailed. He was obviously tied to Germany as well as Italy.

Si,“ I agreed.

He laughed. “Ciao, bella.“

As he left, I turned back to the pasta. Not only did they not have pastina, there was no campanelle either.

– Jennifer Butler Basile, 2016

Bigger in her Head

“When we first lost our house, I told Reba, ‘I just want things to go back to normal.  When is that going to happen?’

‘Soon,’ she promised.

Soon seems awfully far away.

‘Your mom’s on medication that makes her tired,’ Dana Wood explains.

‘What’s wrong with her?  She’s never been like this.’  I’m trying to get a breath.  I feel sick to my stomach all of a sudden.

‘The early diagnosis is that she had something called a severe depressive incident.  That can happen when people are very stressed and then something tough happens and they can’t bounce back.’

I sit down.  ‘Like not getting the job she was counting on?’

‘Exactly.  It was the last straw, and she shut down.’

‘She made it bigger in her head than it really was.’

‘That happens often, Sugar.’

‘But it’s not normal, right?  Normal mothers don’t do this!’

‘What I can tell you is that most people sometime in their lives make something bigger in their heads than it really is.’

‘But they don’t end up in the hospital!’  I’m trying to breathe normally, but it’s hard.

‘Sugar, the doctors and nurses here know how to help.’

That doesn’t tell me anything.  ‘How long does she have to be here?’

‘A week, probably.’

‘Then what?’

‘We’re not sure yet, Sugar.’

I’m getting tired of this.  ‘I want to talk to somebody’s who’s sure.’

‘I’d feel the same way if I were you, but right now, no one’s sure.’

I have another question, but I’m not going to ask it.

Could this shutting-down thing happen to me?

almost home— from Almost Home  by Joan Bauer

‘Sweetness and Light’ Amidst the Darkness

“’So what new stuff are you going to plant in the garden, Mom?’ I ask.

‘Plant?’ Mom says. She looks out at the yard and shrugs.

‘How about if we make a list? Marcy said it was good for you to make lists and cross things off. When you first got home, you made lists.’ I stand up to go get some paper and a pencil. I want Mom thinking violets, daffodils, tulips, bright colors flashing in her brain.

‘Thinking about spring tires me out, Chirp,’ Mom says.

‘But in May we can pick lilacs!’ I say. ‘We love picking lilacs.’

Mom reaches for my hand. ‘Just sit with me, honey.’

I sit back down.

I need to stay patient with Mom, especially since her new psychiatrist just told her that he thinks her depression is chronic, which means it will never completely go away. She’s been depressed at different times in her life and will probably always struggle with it. That’s news she needed like a hole in the head just two weeks after gettting home.

Three black-capped chickadees play follow-the-leader around the rhododendron bush. I can’t tell if Mom’s watching them.

‘You don’t have to pick lilacs,’ I say. ‘You can just keep me company when I pick them.’

Mom puts her arm around me and squeezes tight. When I look at her face, tears are streaming down.

‘Listen, Chirpie,’ she says, brushing the tears away like they’re pesty no-see-ums. ‘I need to tell you something important, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘You’re a really special girl. A beautiful, strong, special, special girl. You know that, right?’ She’s gripping my arm.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Good,’ she says. ‘It’s important.’ She lets go of my arm. She rests her hand on my knee. ‘When I was a girl, my mother loved to tell me what was wrong with me. I made no sense to her at all.’ Mom stares out at nothing. ‘Luftmensch.

Luftmensch?

‘It’s a Yiddish word. It means a dreamer. From my mother, the worst thing a person could be.’

‘But didn’t she like some things about you?’

Mom doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally she says, ‘My hair. My mother liked my hair.’

Wind whips across the yard. The grass shivers.

I touch Mom’s hair, but she doesn’t look at me.

‘She didn’t love me,’ Mom says quietly. ‘That’s just the simple, hard truth.’

A crow screeches, and all three chickadees take off into the air at the exact same time.

‘Wow!’ I say.

Please, Mom. Please, Mom. Notice.

‘Wow,’ Mom says, with a little smile.

We watch the chickadees until they disappear into the trees.

‘Lilacs are my favorite flower,’ Mom says.

‘I love them,’ I say

‘Me too,’ she says.

‘They smell so good.’

‘Like sweetness and light, Chirpie.’

I put my hand in Mom’s pocket. She reaches in and holds my hand. It’s sweetness and light, our hands together in her warm pocket.

— from Nest by Esther Ehrlich

You Can Tell a lot about a Man by the Car He Drives

“And there were very likely people who thought one could not interpret men’s feelings by the cars they drove.

But when they moved onto the street, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. After the accident Ove bought a Saab 95 so he’d have space for Sonja’s wheelchair. That same year Rune bought a Volvo 245 to have space for a stroller. Three years later Sonja got a more modern wheelchair and Ove bought a hatchback, a Saab 900. Rune bought a Volvo 265 because Anita had started talking about having another child.

Then Ove bought two more Saab 900s and after that his first Saab 9000. Rune bought a Volvo 265 and eventually a Volvo 745 station wagon. But no more children came. One evening, Sonja came home and told Ove that Anita had been to the doctor.

And a week later a Volvo 740 stood parked in Rune’s garage. The sedan model.

Ove saw it when he washed his Saab. In the evening Rune found a half bottle of whiskey outside his door. They never spoke about it.

Maybe their sorrow over children that never came should have brought the two men closer. But sorrow is unreliable in that way. When people don’t share it there’s a good chance that it will drive them apart instead.

Maybe Ove never forgave Rune for having a son who he could not even get along with. Maybe Rune never forgave Ove for not being able to forgive him for it. Maybe neither of them forgave themselves for not being able to give the women they loved more than anything what they wanted more than anything. Rune and Anita’s lad grew up and cleared out of home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. ‘And one can’t drive a Volvo all of one’s life,’ he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever. And for that maybe neither Ove nor Rune forgave him.

So there were certainly people who thought that feelings could not be judged by looking at cars. But they were wrong.”

– from A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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