Traveling Granny Goes North

On a quick, early June visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby greeted me by taking my hand and asking if I wanted to see some new things in her house.

A play kitchen is the standout – dishes, pots, pans, food – a stove with oven and a sink – everything needed to prepare a meal (wooden tomatoes make pasta sauce, a frilly fabric lettuce is salad) and serve it on her tiny table.

These meals take place in a much-enhanced playroom. One wall is now completely covered with an evocative wallpaper scene – it looks like an 18th century etching of trees in landscape with sky and clouds, all black and white and gray. A new spindle daybed sits under the big windows (with a little stepladder for Lady Baby easy access). A worn Persian rug stretches from wall to wall, and a lace tablecloth gracefully covers another window.

The look is a surprising setting for play – both calm and prepared for whatever excitement takes place in the center of the room, a perfect backdrop for imagination. And there is plenty of imagination on offer! I heard updates about Nick and family, though Baby Boy spent my whole visit in a little cradle covered with a blanket (I’m not sure why).

Mostly we had fun with friends – or outdoors. My painter friend invited us to tea and got out a treasure stash of toys – an old village with little people and vehicles, a cash register with coins and levers that provide much entertainment. My young friend and her mother came to a park with us and allowed themselves to be directed by the captain of a whale-watching boat. (I was the whale). We visited a park where a tall slide emerges through the mouth of a polar bear, each of its legs a tricky sort of ladder.

Daylight madness reigned in June Alaska – excess sunshine at crazy hours. Naps and bedtime became a bit of “our struggle.” (“It’s not time to go to bed, the sun is still up!”) One naptime (still a necessity) Lady Baby simply said “no” about getting into her crib. She told me her “baby brother” was sleeping in there, and she would sleep on the floor.

I agreed, and that night her parents put the crib mattress on the floor with favorite stuffed creatures, making a cozy nest. Recently I asked Mrs. Hughes about the current sleeping arrangement, and she told me that after several nights and naps of floor sleeping (with baby brother in the crib), Lady Baby now sleeps in a big girl bed.

We were always aware of sand running out on this short visit. On my departure day Lady Baby began summer “camp” with little friends – and that distracted. But her mom told me that, when talking about feeling sad that I was leaving, Lady Baby said, with palms turned up in a sort of exasperated and questioning gesture, “I’ve never known anyone who just leaves a house like Granna Katy.”

I’ll be back.

sunglasses with words

So Many Books

So little time – so the saying goes, unless you gain time by flying a lot and spending happy hours holding the sleeping Sweet Baby! After Book III of Knausgaard I texted Mrs. Hughes and asked for a quick recommendation – she suggested “Euphoria” by Lily King.

Reading Knausgaard is a little like enduring some physical ordeal. To turn from Scandinavian cold and gloom to King’s novel transports by Dickinson’s frigate to lands away – a good story replete with rituals, mysteries, and passion in a setting full of tropical heat.

In the novel King imagines the life of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead during a time in the 1930s when she did field work with her first husband, and met the man who became her second. King says she “borrowed from the lives and experience of three people [Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson] but told a different story.”

I have only the barest knowledge of Margaret Mead, so could enjoy the protagonist Nell as her own person without wondering if the depiction of her and the others held true. I thoroughly enjoyed “Euphoria” – the intellectual and romantic heart at the center of it, the characters, the cultural investigation, the excitement of collaboration, and the pain of competition among peers.

Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister” is another book bringing real people to fictional life. It’s an amazing book about the much more familiar (to me) lives of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf. Vanessa is the center of this book, though through imagined postcards, letters, diaries, and narrative, we hear the voices of other Bloomsbury characters – and much about a young Virginia.

Vanessa was the older sister in the Stephens family of four children – the one who stepped up when first their mother died, then their father, then their brother Thoby. The one who would be painter to Virginia’s writer.

In my years of unabashed Bloomsbury reading I could never read enough about Vanessa – she kept no diary, but she wrote letters (often taken up with running a house and caring for a family, and always expressing longing to be in her studio). Vanessa seemed such a whole and admirable person to me – serious about her work as a painter, competent, reserved, beautiful, an unquestioningly loving and devoted mother, and sufferer of a tragedy and a long and unrequited love.

I began Parmar’s book with trepidation, not sure I wanted someone telling me what Vanessa thought. But Parmar has executed this imaginative leap with such excellence.

I’m grateful for these books – and for time!