Archive for the 'House and home' Category

A new tradition emerges

Almost every weekday I get off the bus and walk home, a matter of some ten or eleven blocks. I use this time to shift gears from a pragmatic, goal oriented, get-stuff-done mindset to an emotionally connective mindset and to center down and prepare for the draining of my last reserves of mental energy. Most days, Angela will be making dinner, and will need me to draw the barbarians away from their siege of the kitchen, where until I get there she often does her work moving one leg between the oven, the sink, and the refrigerator while pivoting on the one Millie’s hanging on.

Last May. The prospect of the fortunate man as he approaches his castle.

For the past year or two it has been my habit to call the house a few blocks before I turn the corner at the bottom of our hill and let Angela know that she can send Mara out. Mara runs out of the house, often without shoes or a coat no matter what it’s doing out, and runs down the hill to meet me. The rule is, she has to wait until she sees me turn the corner before she can come down the street.

When she was a little younger she ran all the way, her hair flapping from side to side and her flip-flops or her bare feet or her sparkly princess dress-up shoes slapping the sidewalk, and hit me with all her force. I had to brace myself to absorb her momentum and lift her into a swinging circle. Then I would set her down and we would walk up the hill while she told me whatever it was that she could hardly wait to tell me all day; they had donuts, she had a playdate with Gwyneth or Lily; she started her swimming lessons; the lady at the store gave her a sticker; one of the cats got out or threw up. It has always been my favorite part of the day.

Over the past year Mara has gradually stopped running all the way. Sometimes she peters out a few yards in front of me, and sometimes a nice rock or a catkin or an autumn leaf on the sidewalk will arrest her downward career completely. For Millie’s part, ever since she learned to walk she is always in the living room waiting for us when Mara and I walk in, waiting with that full-faced smile. She hugs me or hands me something or points at something and says her word for it, and then having performed her welcoming routine she runs off at full throttle to the kitchen and Mommy.

The power of the forefinger discovered.

Lately a new thing is happening. On a few of those nicer days, Angela brought both girls out to meet me. Mara would be running ahead, and Millie would be on her own feet — she insists on walking, and by now she knows that I am out there somewhere, approaching. Daddy returns. Those few outings have engendered in Millie a dissatisfaction with simply waiting inside while Mara runs off out of sight of the big picture window. She now wants to come out, too, and she doesn’t want to come right back into the house. She wants to “mack”, which means walk.

As tired as I am and as eager as I am to get into the house and change into my playclothes and pour me a cuppa joe, I cannot resist Millie’s tugging on my arm. “Mack”, she says. “Mack”. So for the last couple of evenings, Angela has gone back inside to prepare dinner and make me a cuppa (taking my heavy backpack into the house with her, the dear), and I have let Millie drag Mara and me up to the top of our hill.

Tonight I called and Angela said Mara would be right out, but when I turned the corner I couldn’t see her as I usually do, standing on the steep sidewalk outside our house, craning to get a glimpse of me before shooting down the hill. I kept waiting as I walked but she didn’t come out. I stopped and talked briefly about the efficacy of various anti-mollusc tactics with neighbor Brian — out picking kale in his parking-strip garden for his family’s dinner. When I finally came within a few yards of our house I saw under the rhododendron canopy to where Mara’s rainboots and the lower hem of her yellow raincoat moved slowly along our front walk, and beside Mara’s feet tromped a smaller pair, also fluttered over by a yellow raincoat. Mara’s is a little small for her, Millie’s a bit large.

Sisters unwittingly establishing the family tradition of the pre-dinner walk.

My heart did one of those flippity flops I’ve been getting a lot of lately. Mara had actually waited for Millie and was leading her by the hand. She forgets that Millie’s stride is much shorter than her own and Millie biffed on the steps down to the sidewalk, but Mara picked her up and Millie’s excitement about being on an outing eclipsed any inclination she may have had to express alarm about it. I felt pride in my elder daughter at that moment and great hope, and for my younger I felt the thrill of boundaries breached, the expansiveness and vitality of the toddler on a jail-break.

As twice before, Millie grabbed my hand and started pulling and telling me she wanted to walk. So Mara and Millie and I walked up to the top of the hill. It had rained today and the ground was wet and the giant earthworms that sometimes emerge after long-awaited rain were stretched out from the edges of the sidewalks, their corrugated bodies glistening in the light of nearby streetlamps, their toes in their holes. We learned that if you touch them they zoom back into their dens — all the way back in, suddenly, the same way sea anemones retract their feelers instantly when you reach a finger to touch them. None of them had stretched so far that they were fully outside their hole, which I found remarkable. It made me wonder what they were doing, since they obviously weren’t going anywhere. Maybe they’re taking worm baths. Mara, who used to put slugs on her forearm while she hunted for more and did not know to be afraid of spiders, is now a bit more spooky about creepy and crawly things, and declined to touch them. But Millie was enthralled with the power that her forefinger exhibited, and touched every single earthworm that Mara found for her.

I guess it’s just a done deal now. For the foreseeable future I will be diverted from my front door every evening long enough to go on a short mack.

And behold, they ate of them

A few weeks back I wrote about the way Mara seemed to be charmed when it came to windowsill propagation and backyard farming. In that post we made much of the fact that she had thrown a handful of wasted spuds into a patch of unamended soil — one might be excused for using the word “dirt”, normally anathema to plantsmen — covered them over and forgotten about them, and from this unfretful sowing came four large and verdant potato plants. True, it was I who remembered to toss a little water their way when the heat finally came in August, but I almost didn’t because I didn’t really think new potatoes were hatching under there. As you saw in the post, potatoes were indeed growing — Yukon Golds — and we gathered them up at summer’s end.

Mara enjoys the fruit of her labors. That's face paint on her cheeks, by the way (a different story).

I just wanted to report on the end of the story, at least for this year. Knowing that the way things go around here Mara’s spuds would have rotted in the garage — a sort of fitting circular journey since that’s where she found the original bag Angela had abandoned there — before we ever did anything with them, I suggested we bring them upstairs and whup ‘em up! Mara and I washed them, I sliced the littler ones into home fry chunks and the two largest ones into French fries, and Angela baked the home fries up with some fish sticks the next night. (The French fries we’re saving for another occasion.) And let me just testify, these potatoes were delicious!

I’m so tickled about the way this all went down, I just had to take a photo. I don’t know, it just blows my mind that Mara did this. It seems like she was a baby a minute ago, and now she’s practically growing food by herself. To produce sustenance out of the earth is one of Ye Bigge Thynges, is it not? Okay, I’ll stop yapping about it now.

Just growin’ stuff

A year or so ago, Mara got curious about the apple seeds that tumbled out of the many Honeycrisps and Pink Ladies we eat around here, wondering whether you could grow them into new apple trees. Apples are not grown from seed, because they do not “breed true” from seed. That is, the seeds of an apple have a different genetic composition than their parent, so that if you grow an apple tree from seed, you will not know what it looks or tastes like until it fruits. For this reason, a farmer coming upon an apple tree grown up wild in his hedgerow will always wait to taste the apple before he chops it down. You never know when the next Granny Smith will emerge. This is in fact how the Granny Smith apple was discovered — growing wild in Australia as the result of a chance hybridization. The discoverer, Maria Ann Smith, had the foresight (and good taste) to cultivate it, which is done not by seed but by cuttings.

Like the forlorn seeds thrown out the window in Jack and the Beanstalk, these spuds throve where we tossed 'em.

Nevertheless, Angela showed Mara how to lay a damp paper towel in a clear-sided glass and then wedge the seed between the glass and paper, so that they could watch it sprout a shoot and a root. All you have to do is remember to keep a little water in the bottom of the glass so that the paper towel keeps wicking it upward to surround the seed with moisture. Unfortunately, several attempts that they had started together failed after one or two true leaves had emerged. Oh well. Kids don’t have much interest in long term projects like that anyway, right?

One day I came home and saw one of Mara’s clear plastic drinking cups on the kitchen window sill with a wad of damp paper towel not very carefully folded inside it but applying enough pressure on a little apple seed in there to keep it moist. I asked Angela and she thought I had done it. Then Mara blithely stated that she did it; she had wanted to try growing an apple tree again. We kept it watered, and it sprouted, first the root, then the shoot with its cotyledons — the starter leaves that are folded up inside the seed. In a few weeks it had true leaves on it and the root was thriving. It lived on the windowsill for months, until we finally transferred it to some good soil in a little pot. It’s out on the deck now, having put on several inches of stem that has turned woody over the summer. She did the same thing — on her own, and by her own initiative — with pear seeds and got several to sprout and grow small pairs of true leaves before they expired in the hot sunny windowsill from dehydration as our busy summer advanced and we neglected to keep an eye on them.

We were a little startled that Mara had done all this all by herself. It’s exactly the kind of self-directed learning we want to encourage in our daughters. I used to work in nurseries and botanical gardens, and had at one time considered making a last ditch to get out of deskwork by being a nurseryman on my own, but it didn’t work out. If Mara or Millie became a plantsman I’d be extra happy — I say ‘extra’ deliberately because I will be happy whatever they do, as long as they are happy in their work.

These are just the ones that pushed up out of the ground.

A while later Mara noticed a sack of old Yukon Gold potatoes that Angela had abandoned in the garage. My roommate Dave used to leave the last bit of milk in his half-gallon carton in the refrigerator and buy a new one, then when you’d ask him how long he was going to leave that older carton there he’s say, “oh, is that mine?” And he wasn’t being cagey. He just didn’t recognize his own carton after a certain amount of time, no doubt something to do with a subconscious fear of rotten milk. I used to tell him he had dairy myopia. Angela has garage myopia. Once she puts something down in the garage, she can never again perceive that item with ocular vision. I jokingly told Mara that those potatoes were “past eatin'” and that we should plant them in the ground. This idea seized hold of her, and she begged me to help her plant them.

I told Mara that these were not the best spuds for that, that nurseries sold “starter potatoes” just for that purpose, but she insisted, since we would just throw them out anyway (she was mistaken in this: I would have let them sit there and grow tentacles just to see how long Angela would continue to not see them. Jeff and I once did this with a potato that Kip left on top of the fridge when we all lived together in the Spoon, and it eventually looked like a green hairy spider, its shoots hanging down the sides of the appliance, before we gave in and asked Kip to put it out of our misery. Not surprisingly, he could not remember having had anything to do with it.)

We took the four wrinkled, knobby spuds outside, scraped some holes for them with a trowel, tossed them in and covered them up. What you’re supposed to do is create a situation in which you can keep covering the plant with more soil as it grows upward. As the plant chases the light upward, it leaves bunches of tubers along the root. I did not have time to make a “potato chimney” (a stack of tires, such as a real man living in a semi-rural area might have lying around, would be perfect for this) so I told Mara not to expect much. It was truly a slap-dash operation.

Harvest.

But the patron saint of plantsmen, if there is one, must have been smiling upon Mara’s latest growing enterprise, for within days great green shoots shot up and unfurled big green leaves. We didn’t have to water them through the spring and most of the summer because the sun didn’t come out until August this year, so mostly we didn’t pay them much attention. But the plants grew vigorously and put out lots of foliage, and during August and September I watered them whenever I watered the pots on the back patio and we could see the potatoes pushing out of the soil. I assumed that what we saw emerging were merely the humps of the originals we had planted, but if I had bothered to look closely I’d have noticed that they were smooth and brown, not green and wrinkled. They were brand new tubers. Still, we didn’t even mound up the soil over them like we should have. I figured it wasn’t really worth doing since we weren’t “really” trying to grow potatoes, it was just one of Mara’s quixotic experiments.

But when the tops died back and it was time to pull up the plants and see what we had, I was shocked. The ground was full of potatoes. A few moderate-sized ones and a lot of little ones, and even a honker. I guess I expected that since we had basically flouted all correct procedure we would get very little return, but I was wrong. Mara harvested a basketful of doughty little spuds, grown by herself. Mara was very pleased, and not at all surprised. I was bowled over and determined that next year we are going to “do it right” and see what golden harvest awaits.

Nurturing the entrepreneurial drive

Mara has wanted to have a lemonade stand for a very long time. I can’t remember where she got the idea — maybe we gave it to her — but she has asked about it periodically for a year or two. It has recently become imperative that she raise more scratch than her allowance will add up to since it was announced that her friend Gwyneth is going to have her birthday party at the new American Girl store, a place where high quality outfits can be purchased for one’s upscale American Girl dolls. I guess you can rent the place out. It’s genius, really.

As I have tried to envision the lemonade selling enterprise from time to time I have always foreseen impediments. We live on a steep hill that gets busy traffic at certain times of the day but that traffic is usually going too fast to notice sidewalk vendors. There are well-travelled, level streets nearby, but one is a sort of wasteland next to the freeway and the other would mean setting up in front of someone else’s house.

Big tippers. Moving dads stop for a thirst-quenchin' draught.

Also, we don’t live in a neighborhood — or a time, or a world — where I would feel comfortable leaving my young daughter unguarded sitting at a table with a box full of money and only a stack of paper cups to defend herself with, so wherever this happened it would mean that one of us would sit with her for hours, and wouldn’t that turn off potential customers? After all, the classic lemonade stand has such powerful draw because here’s this kid sitting all alone, or maybe with another little kid, and they are sitting there waiting in all the young faithfulness of little Americans who will someday be entrepreneurs. Or at least that’s the story we overlay on the scene, because that’s what we hope for them. We see their hand-painted sign as the first flimsy sail they hoist against the dreary odds that say they’ll just be a cubicle or factory worker; it’s an indication of their trust in the system we have bequeathed them. We have to stop and buy. No matter how badly we’ve mangled our own chances at self-agency in life — and maybe precisely beCAUSE of that — we have to pitch four bits in for the next generation.

But when dad or mom is there, that image could change in the potential customer’s mind to one of serf and liege, where the cute kid is actually being used as a ploy and the parent is waiting (in the shade, reading a novel) to collect the day’s winnings. Our teeth grind when we think of this other scenario, as well they should. Grrrr!

Well, it couldn’t be helped. Mara doesn’t even really understand money yet, at least not how the denominations work, and would need help making change. We decided to take turns helping Mara with her stand, which, after all, we would place on the strip outside our house, slanted be it ever so. I leveled the table and umbrellas (and Mara’s chair after she fell off of it once) using leftover blocks of wood — (oh, the sweet vindication of the saver!) — and our friend Hillary came over to help Mara make signs and generally be part of it all. We worried only slightly that an unlicensed food business might arouse the attention of the health department, which happened to a seven-year-old girl in Oregon a while back.

Mara understood that she would have to pay us back the “bank” of quarters and dollars we set her up with and also reimburse us for the lemonade, but that everything after that would be hers to pocket. She would charge 50 cents a cup. She lugged her old toy cash register outside and an OPEN/CLOSED sign, and before we could even get the lemonade and cups out some of the neighbors Angela had emailed started showing up.

Settling in for the long haul.

Sales were brisk. Her second party of customers, two dads who were moving their daughters into a rental house up the hill and happened to see Mara’s stand as they were driving off, gave her five dollars — “a fiver” she called it already — and didn’t want change back for two drinks, a four dollar tip! We quickly went through two pitchers of Minute Maid® pink lemonade.

Then the street was quiet and the sun beat down and there was nothing to do for a long time but sit on the chair, which is really difficult for Mara to do. But if we thought she would ingest useful, real-life lessons about the value of money and labor…well, we didn’t really think that and it wasn’t an issue. People stopped every once in a while throughout the afternoon, despite the fact that we parents, Hillary and 14-month-old Millie were all picnicking under the cherry tree right behind the stand. Mara ended up with $34 at the end of the day, and after reimbursing us our $8 n0-interest investment and paying for five cans of lemonade, she walked away with $19 for a day’s adventure.

The health department suits never showed, but if they had, we’d have schooled them in American tradition. We’d have made them a deal on lemonade they couldn’t refuse.

Bygone

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…”

– The Book of Revelation

It is my usual policy not to tell people my dreams. I have told people my dreams in the past only to realize how boring and silly my most hallowed-feeling dream must sound to the hearer, even to my wife who knows me best and truly wants to know the dark fictions that swirl in my head when I sleep (or, she might add, any time).

For me, the impulse to describe a dream comes from a desire to share the intense emotional experience running through it, which is ultimately impossible. We inhabit our dreams as a unique spectator and specter, at once the co-creator and the recipient of the experience. The emotional current we wish to share with others only runs through the dream like a wind blowing through a ghost town, so that what ends up happening is we go to great lengths describing what takes place in the dream, and what the dream looks like, and all the odd impossibilities…

…it was my first grade teacher, but the teacher was also the can of peaches at the same time — somehow in the dream I just knew that and it made sense — and the label on the can was her speaking…”

…but the feeling of the dream is almost impossible to convey.

Usually.

The old neighborhood early in the new millennium, courtesy of Bing. In this photo the house I grew up in still stands near center with a bright rim of white gutters. Mark's house is the boxy one near the bottom at center.

But there are dreams that seem to speak more clearly and their “scripts” are more easily transcribed with their emotional content intact. I usually wake up right after such dreams. I’ve had a number of them lately and the one I had last night woke me up and compelled me to write it down because upon waking I realized it was a grief dream about my father who died two weeks ago.

The eye of my dream was flying low over my childhood neighborhood, and in this moment the eye of my dream and the “I” of my dream were the same. It was me hovering there, and I saw that almost all the houses I knew, whose rooms and yards I had played in, were gone, leveled to the ground. All the trees and shrubs and gardens and lawns had been bulldozed and the neighborhood was a vast tract of upturned earth, bright and clean in the morning sun. Though my own side of the street was just out of my view, I could see that my friend Mark’s house was gone, my friend Chris’ house was gone, and the Fessers’ and Castners’ houses were gone. My friend Ribby’s house still stood but it had been moved backward on the large lot to become a wing of some monstrous new house that was to be built there. The neighborhood was being rebuilt new, nearly from scratch. (For all I know all this may be happening in actual fact, since I have not visited the street since my parents moved away, but it is true that my own childhood house was razed shortly thereafter and replaced by a new larger one.)

A place I knew well. It's hard to tell in this picture, but the escarpment visible at the bottom is actually the far side of a wide ditch that would fill with stormwater during heavy rains.

Outlined in the dirt were some of the concrete foundations of some of the old houses. These were buildings that my father and my friends’ fathers and the other men of my neighborhood had worked on and added to over the years, reshaping them to their purposes in that confident way of the men who had returned from the midcentury’s bloody wars. In a sense, they created this neighborhood by starting families in it, populating it with us children who crawled over it like ants and knew every corner, every bush and berry, every climbable tree, every accessible crawl space and attic and unlocked shed. A four-dimensional map of a complex universe became distributed among the minds of the children I grew up with, and it was a universe largely created by the hands of our dads.

But here it lay upturned like a furrowed field, bare and ready for a new crop. I found my friend Mark where, in olden times beyond the dream, we had often played — outside near the place where my yard sloped down and met the street, near where the mailboxes had been, a part of my yard we called “the ditch”. He was still a teenager. We commiserated for a minute about the changes taking place in our neighborhood, this apocalypse, and then Mr. Hall drove up the street. The “actor” playing Mr. Hall was not physically the Mr. Hall who lived at the near end of our street in my childhood (and whose house in this dream was still his residence and still intact); he was taller, thinner and had longer hair but in the dream I didn’t realize that. He had not aged at all, and as he pulled up and got out of his car we could see there were tears in his eyes. It was suddenly no longer bright yellow morning, but blue dusk, the end of time.

A slice of Wonder bread, a loyal mutt, and thou my dad. What more? Where Vicky's tail is wagging will be the corner of the workshop my dad built. It will be there thirty years and then it will vanish without a trace.

Mr. Hall came over and scooped me up into his arms — he was normal man-sized and I was still myself at my current age but somehow I had become physically smaller — and he carried me back and forth in front of where my house would have been. He carried me the way you carry someone when they are unconscious or sleeping or dead, and I let my head fall back and I relaxed into the feeling of being carried that way and it felt wonderful and right and comforting and very ancient, and I cried for all the loss and the gone-ness of things I loved, and with my eyes closed I murmured “Thank you” to him.

This is about the same viewpoint I looked from in my dream, and everything in it was bare earth. As this recent Bing image shows, the dream was not so far off. Six of the 16 houses on the street have been replaced -- nos. 1, 6, 8, 9 (mine), 10 and 15. Happily, Mark's house (11) is still there, as are Ribby's (14), the Casteners' (13) and Chris' (16). The goliath at 15 replaced the Fessers' modest rambler.

And then he set me down and tried to carry Mark the same way, but the dream had changed into a comedy by then and Mark was no longer Mark but a very small wiggly child — about the smallness and wiggliness of my 14-month-old daughter Emilia — and Mr. Hall could not comfort him.

I woke after that, with the heaviness of change and time over me, and even though I had earlier posted about being unsure when it would ever be right to bring these things to my blog, my first thought was to write this down. For myself, for my daughters and for anyone who has experienced loss and the somber truthiness of dreams.


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