Being Grand

Did you see the Annie Liebovitz photograph of Queen Elizabeth with her great-grandchildren and two youngest grandchildren, taken to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday? The best part for me is the two-year old who proudly holds the Queen’s purse. That touch makes me ponder the Queen’s relationship with those little people, wondering how the tiny girl felt to hold that important handbag, and what she thinks of her great-grandmother.

I thought of that during the 12 days in April when I got to be close to both granddaughters and marveled at this treasured role.

Sweet Baby and her mother came north to our house when our younger son went to Alaska for a long ski weekend. We did all Sweet Baby’s favorite things, piling blocks, investigating kitchen drawers, climbing stairs and enjoying naps (everyone!). She relished the freedom of the bluff, and trundled a long way down the driveway on her little legs. When she tired, she’d hold up those irresistible arms and get a lift.

On Sunday we all went to the airport together, met her dad, and that family returned to California. Lady Baby’s dad had gone on a ski trip to Canada, so I went north to Downtown Abbey where there is exciting news.

In Lady Baby’s words: “I’m going to be a Big Sister! I’m going to have a Baby Brother!” In September she will be a wonderful big sister – and he a lucky, well-loved, and well-directed baby brother.

Conversation about Baby Brother is ongoing: “My mom and my brother are going to the parent meeting.” “My mom and my brother are going to walk in the pool.”

Lady Baby speaks often of the things she will do for him. She will be sure to fasten her seat belt, so if a car crashes into their car, she won’t tumble over on him. She’ll walk beside him when he rides his bike and put a hand on the handlebars (Lady Baby has a brand new bike of good size with training wheels – we could cover lots of ground on our outings).

Sometimes we played that she is the baby brother, and I am the big sister. As Baby Brother her language is limited, but his desires are complex, so sometimes she switches back to the oh-so-articulate four and a half-year old. She is such a thinker, and she’s working hard to figure out how this will all be.

I know it is the most common thing in the world to be besotted with your grandchildren. I hope the Queen has had long hours of playing and painting and walking the driveway at Balmoral or Windsor Castle.

And I know she loves all those children. I worried when I was pregnant with our younger son that I couldn’t love anyone, ever, so much as I loved his big brother – and then was jolted by an overwhelming feeling of loving the newborn, of loving them both. And so it always is.

It’s so corny to talk about love (do we say that to keep from admitting how important?). It’s complicated and takes so many forms – love helped the young mothers hold down the forts so the dads could go skiing, and love flooded Sweet Baby’s face at the airport reunion. (She clung to him, and her little face crumpled when he tried to put her down to help with the luggage.) And love led Lady Baby out of bed in the middle of the night to get her dad’s wool slippers and put them under her bed (to keep them safe).

The more love there is, the more love there is.

Lady Baby painting

 

“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

telephone 1

Sweet Baby – Practice for Perfect

On an Easter weekend visit to Southern California, fresh spring green transformed the often-brown hills. Blowsy roses, orange poppies, and fragrant jasmine crowded the sidewalk on neighborhood walks. In Sweet Baby’s garden, sweet peas covered the tomato trellis. Brought indoors, their fragrance filled the house.

Just turned one-year old, Sweet Baby is a little little for the whole fun of Easter egg hunts, but I had such a good time living her regular life.

Her cousin Lady Baby sent the best birthday present. A drum, doubling as a container, holds bells, shakers, and textured sticks to rub together. Sweet Baby loves making sounds with the instruments, smiles and sways to the music.

She’s a close observer of all the doings of life – watches each move when you hold her on one hip while making one-handed a sandwich or cup of tea. I love the open armed delight she repeatedly shows when she spots us – a big grin and dash to be scooped up and hugged. And she hugs back the most wonderful embraces, wrapping her little legs and arms and squeezing.

She walks and runs with no hesitation now – circles the dining room table, hides behind a chair, and reappears to our great surprise. Wearing just a diaper and a determined air, she investigated the exam room at her one-year doctor appointment.

When we visited the Eagle Rock library to check out books, Sweet Baby selected a plastic orange and a strawberry from the toy corner and carried them as she explored the library’s aisles of books. At a nearby park we had a picnic in the shade of a big tree.

We spent Easter Sunday afternoon at the Huntington Gardens, joining many little children dressed in Easter finery. After lunch on an outdoor patio (little bites of quesadilla and honeydew melon), we managed to peek quickly at a current exhibition, “Impressionist Gardens,” and then Sweet Baby began to move. Carrying a small, soft Peter Rabbit by the scruff of his neck, down sidewalks and across lawns, she stopped only to pick up leathery leaves.

Sweet Baby practices physical movements with the diligence of an athlete in training – willing to repeat and retry till perfect. For her birthday she received a small climbing structure with molded steps up the side (like a ladder), and a short slide that makes for a quick ride. Sweet Baby doesn’t bother with the steps. To pull up she’s learned to fling herself onto the platform, counterbalancing her weight and locking her elbows behind the edges of the opening. She’s still working on the descent, resisting headfirst and figuring out feet first.

A cardboard packing box provided another challenge. To climb into a box requires several maneuvers and much determination. Hold down an edge, lift one foot high enough to clear the edge, and then figure out how to position hands and get the second foot inside.

We help a little by holding down the opposite side of the box, and watch her concentrate on these moves, not to be interrupted and so satisfied when she’s seated in the box.

Frequently flashing her gap tooth grin at all the goodness in life, Sweet Baby is full of the gift of perseverance – and so much joy.

Sweet Baby and Blue Baby 1

Gertrude Bell

Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.

Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.

Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.

Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.

To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.

We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”

There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.

What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.

g. bell color 2