Pre-Thanksgiving

When my daughter was four, she went through a period when she wanted the same handful of books read aloud each night. One of these books was Peter Spier’s ornately drawn picture book without words about Noah’s ark. The book was a hand-me-down from her cousins, and it was the only Bible story I think we ever read to her. The Old Testament’s grief and struggle doesn’t seem the cheeriest childhood bedtime reading.

But she loved the two-by-two of the animals, the dove with the olive branch, and Noah patting the soil around his vineyard at the end.

Yesterday, I picked up a gardening book at the library and read parts of it aloud to my daughters. The yard at our new-to-us house is fairly flat, blank slate. Envisioning growth, the three of us all agree on this common point: grapes.

Dreaming of a small vineyard, years in the tending: November. Thanksgiving.

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Librarians Rock

5 hours of interlibrary loan training? Really, the best thing about library conferences is the decency of fellow librarians. Smart, witty – definitely quirky – exuding a capability far beyond the circulation desk. Usually women, many of these librarians are likely equally handy shoveling a roof or driving a tractor.

Better yet, wandering deep in the state library stacks, I found a row of the Little House books, and remembered when I first discovered these in second grade. Shelved in the Ws, the books were on the bottom shelf. Even now, I remember my intense happiness at finding so many of these novels.

The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Vermont Currency

My neighbor offers to pay me to stack her wood. I reply she can’t pay me, but I would stack it anyway.

The woman and I stand in her yard, looking eye to eye. I am inches below five feet. In her seventies, the woman seems both tough and fragile. She asks what she’s going to have to do for me – cook, is that it?

Without thinking, I say something that surprises me: Maybe you should just be happy with this? Why not do me a favor and allow me to do this?

She thinks this over – there’s an actual pause – before she agrees.

It’s an interesting and largely unspoken contract. She’s an attorney; I’m a writer. We’re each divorced. Both small and scrappy, accepting help is a reluctant relief.

The next morning, while I’m cooking noodles to pack for my daughter’s lunch, my neighbor appears at our double glass kitchen doors. I’m in trouble, she says.

I ask her in, cautioning her not step on a kitten.

She’s closing on her house at noon, and behind in packing. When my daughter heads to school, leaping the cemetery fence, I walk over to the neighbor’s and take a look. Then I walk back to my house and shout for my teenager to wake up. Your help is needed! In a bit, my long-legged girl walks over drinking a can of this orange juice she keeps buying, takes a good around, says, Hmm, and then, Where’s the packing tape?

A skilled packer, when we run out of cardboard boxes, she goes out to the woodpile, empties plastic milk crates, and loads those with the iron skillets. We pass a fat black marker back and forth between us, to label the boxes.

Written on my summer fan
torn in half
in autumn.

– Bashō

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Specificity in Writing

Like many people I know, I cut my early reading teeth on Little House on the Prairie, and reading the new fictionalized version of Ma (er… Caroline) brings back the days when reading a chapter in a real, fat book was a very big deal.

The book is an interesting take beyond the troupes linked with each character – blue calico and blonde hair with Mary, a red dress and brown braids with Laura, Ma and the china shepherdess, Pa with the gun, baby Carrie and her beads, even loyal Jack warning his growl – into the grownup terrain of a woman in labor.

At the end, I remembered Jacqueline Woodson saying that she insists her writing students know all stories have a specific place and a time. Not long after the Osage left their land, here’s sometimes naughty, sometimes sweet little Laura taking one last final look at the cabin her father built in a sea of virgin grass, as their wagon rolled away.

The wagon lurched as Charles jumped down, then shuddered with the loosening of the rope at the back so that Laura and Mary could peep out through the wagon cover. For a long moment it was still. The Caroline heard Charles’s footsteps, receding instead of approaching. She did not trust herself to look forward again if she looked back, but she turned. Laura and Mary crowded the small keyhole Charles had made in the canvas. Past their heads, a narrow swath of the cabin was visible.

– Caroline, Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller

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Surprise Visitor

I went out to the garden yesterday morning for frozen sage for breakfast omelets, and my neighbor walked up from her woodpile and asked for a favor.

Without thinking, I said yes. Sunny and sharply cold, the morning was already filled with the radiance of a bit of fresh, sparkling snow. The grass crunched beneath our boots.

My neighbor’s moving, and her pump organ needed interior storage for the winter. The old, exquisitely crafted organ was made in Brattleboro, in the Estey Factory, near where I worked in college at a nursing home.

My brother, who’s visiting, says, Where are you going to put an organ?

I was on my way to work, so I mention that maybe he and my daughters could manage that one particular detail. We’re laughing at this unexpected turn of events. Who imagined an organ would arrive today?

Not one of us play. When I come home from work, the girls tell me how the neighbors’ two friends carried the organ up the icy hill and into our house. My youngest lifts the keyboard cover, puts her feet on the pedals, and pulls the stops. My brother and I look at each other. The melody, even from her untrained hands, bellows deeply, soulful.

My brother says, Wow.

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Radiance

My 12-year-old went wild with the row of tiny icicles along our roof. They’re back! It takes me a moment to figure out what she’s saying. When I do, I jam on my boots, step out, and reach up for two tiny sticks of ice.

Inside our sunny kitchen, I offer her the icicles. She shares them with her kitten. The ice melts quickly – it disappears to wet fur, and then that’s all.

The kitten wraps his paws in stray yarn. Our day moves along. First sprinkles of snow: beautiful.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

– John Steinbeck

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Ocean Waters at 80 Degrees?

The other night, I drove home in my fossil-fuel burning Toyota, thinking about the library program I’d just attend where a meteorologist kept returning to our “weird weather.”

Standing in the back of the Woodbury Town Hall, a righteous old building whose front door swung in the frosty night, I drank hot tea, shivering a little. He had data – reams of it – and reading one particular chart, I noted the sharp curves right around the year 2050. I couldn’t help but think, We’re seriously fucked. What kind of world might my daughters inhabit when they’re 40, wandering through their lost-in-Dante’s-miserable-woods? What kind of world will your daughters and sons, your grandsons and granddaughters inherit?

I’d like to write that the stars overhead, when I walked into my house, reassured me, but – their distant beauty notwithstanding – the firmament did not. Today, again, pondering the unclear future, I reminded myself that where I’ve always failed is when I narrow my vision to fear, to repugnance, to outright hatred. Here’s all these contradictions, like driving my car to an info session on carbon emissions. Isn’t this the way of the human realm?

Like a muscle, deepen imagination.

Beyond the low iron fence (of the graveyard), cows graze…
All that brute flesh wandering close to graves –
how calm it is –
like two hands about to touch.

– Howard Nelson

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Domesticity at our house…

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