Armchair – Playroom

In April Alaska a certain color palette dominates the landscape – leafless tree branches, dust, and leftover snow tend brown and gray – but a clear blue sky, mountains still white, and sunshine brightened my recent week at Downtown Abbey.

Baby Brother, eight months old, is now such a presence, full of life and love. He’s struggling bravely through teething, and his frequent grin revealed two teeth on bottom and one and a half on top – the last one emerging overnight (from a gum swollen for weeks).

He laughs readily – just waving a diaper over his bare belly brings a string of chuckles! And lying on his back, he smiles broadly and pulses his body up from shoulders to heels in response to a friendly face – Lady Baby calls it his “seal hop.”

He flings his arms wide and shudders at exciting things – food coming or a new large cube full of colorful, movable parts to manipulate. He looks intensely at a resident cat or dog passing by, and grabs a handful of fur when he can. He leaps high and long in his hanging jumper.

Using a “food feeder” to feed himself, he holds a lollipop-like handle and squishes avocado or banana or sweet potato through a cluster of tiny holes in the soft silicone top. He hums with enthusiasm when he eats (like his sister did, and his dad long ago.)

It’s easy to see how the differences between first and second born develop. Lady Baby is loving and helpful and the source of inventive fun for her brother. Baby Brother considers before reacting, waiting just a bit, observing. The benefits of surveying the situation might outweigh being in front.

The Tooth Fairy has twice visited Lady Baby – new bottom teeth! Her clothing style these days eschews girly and dictates sporty outfits, soccer shorts or sweat pants, a ball cap with sunflap (not worn at meals), or most favorite – a thin Ninja hoodie revealing just her lovely eyes.

Mrs. Hughes and I tackled some projects, and I’d like to say we cleared the slow drain in the bathroom sink. But, after figuring out how to undo the sink stopper and the P-trap, and detonating three baking soda and vinegar bombs, we called the plumber. A little more successfully, by working “around the edges” as Maggie O’Farrell says, we sewed hot weather clothes from gauzy muslin for Baby Brother. With Lady Baby’s help, Baby Brother watching from a nearby seat, we began to print the little pilgrim from the Via Francigena on T-shirts for an upcoming family adventure.

The Downtown Abbey playroom now doubles as guestroom – with space for sleeping, playing adventure guys, and, with a wooden rocking horse for footstool and tiny chair to hold a teacup, enjoying a favorite old leather armchair.

 

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Sweet Baby Turns Two

If you ask Sweet Baby how old she is now, she’s quick to answer – “TWO!”

She’s quick to answer about many things these days – using her vast vocabulary of English and Thai words – and some phrases that are a combination of both. She requests a hug in either language and gives great ones in return. With reliable consistency and genuine pleasure she delivers pleases and thank yous. They are always attached to a name (“tink you Shes-tar”).

She and her mom have a really good time – they chatter in Thai, sing together, laugh together. Her dad and I might get breakfast ready, but Sweet Baby enjoys it best when her mom arrives. Sweet Baby eats most everything – she loves fruit of all kinds, avocados (‘cados), rice, oatmeal with peanut butter, and the cream cheese off a bagel.

Sweet Baby deftly employs third person verbs with her name – declaring Sweet Baby going walking, going sleeping, going hiking. And she identifies our activities and belongings – daddy working, Granna Katy’s sweater, Poppa Jim’s hat, daddy’s hat, sunglasses, shoes, phone – on and on. She points to her hair clip (“kee-ip”) and mine. Sweet Baby’s hat is a hot pink ball cap worn with her ponytail through the back.

She’s thin and very strong. (Baby Brother weighs almost as much!) She runs and hikes on those little legs at a great clip – fast, coordinated, and determined. She samples the coming pleasures of snowboarding and swimming with style and concentration.

She’s remarkable with names and faces – repetition might help – after being introduced, she’s apt to repeat “Hi Justin!” (or whomever) multiple times. On her January trip to Thailand, she remembered names of relatives she has met only once. She has an endearing habit of pointing to something that puzzles her, person or thing, and, putting forefinger to chin, inquiring: “it’s ummmm…?”

She shrieked in delight at the sight of her cousins on a recent time together. She patted Baby Brother with affectionate intensity, and was a classic two-year old taking toys when playing with Lady Baby (so grown up at five, amazingly patient and kind with her little cousin).

Sweet Baby’s learned a lot about birthday celebrations – two so far (oatmeal yogurt cake first, fruit tart second). Another evening of candles and treat is in the offing when her Thai granny arrives this week.

Happy Birthday Sweet Baby!

 

 

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Reading

We spent a week at Downtown Abbey in mid-January, a week of snowstorms, skiing for the young family – and much reading. Lady Baby told me when we arrived that she and her dad had begun to read “The Mountain of Adventure.”

I was excited, because from the fourth to the ninth grade I lived mostly in a cabin in the frigid interior of British Colombia, a long way from any place. Reading saved me. And I best remember English author Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series about four children who, in the way of most memorable children’s books, have little parental interference and many exploits.

The children in the books stair step in age: the oldest, Philip, has a magic touch with animals, Dinah is clever, Jack loves birds, and Lucy Ann is littlest (but also brave). Whether you read or are read to, always there is a child to identify with. And Jack’s parrot, Kiki, looms large.

Long before I’d seen either seacoast or mountain valley, I had traveled them in this series. Even now, when in the mountains with our sons, we acknowledge a certain geography – a cave, a waterfall, tents pitched in the saddle of a mountain – as an “Adventure” book moment.

In this book the children are in Wales on their “hols,” and a planned trip with parents on donkeys into the mountains to the Vale of Butterflies, becomes a trip with just a Welsh guide and the children – a recipe for adventure.

Walking in mountain valleys is familiar to an Alaska child – Lady Baby and I talked about last summer, when we hiked together and dipped our feet in that “cold, cold creek.” She loves animals of all kinds and picnics and camping – tents and sleeping bags. She can easily imagine unfamiliar food like peaches in tins and “tongue sandwiches” eaten outdoors in all weather.

Her parents were rightly concerned about reading books where children encounter danger. As we kept reading, I told her that the kids are always safe at the end (she’s been known to reassure me about endings in picture books). And she said she’d looked already at the illustrations (a sprinkling of old-fashioned line drawings I love), and said, “Maybe the children get kidnapped. Let’s read.”

I admit to being as caught up as Lady Baby, a great escape from reality always. “Let’s read that book we are really into,” she’d say. And dear Baby Brother – perfect, chubby, smiling bundle, so good-natured – sat with us often to read.

When you are a smart five and read these books, Kiki is the greatest delight, using a human voice to make fun of various authority figures, screeching like a train or a lawn mower at just the right moment, and delivering giggle worthy commands, “wipe your feet” or “shut the door.” (And Kiki always plays a part in the children’s escape from danger.)

We had a good time with Englishisms like “high tea” and “jumper,” and vocabulary – did she know what a “sheer wall” is? “Like the climbing wall where I go with my dad.” But she really is a narrative absorber, just lets the words flow, getting the gist.

This isn’t exactly an “oh you must read this book” post. Even when we read them with our boys, the books (published in the 1940s and 50s) required editing. For Blyton’s sometimes troublesome identifying characteristics of antagonists, we substituted plain old “bad guys.”

This time I wondered if the girls would seem wimpy, but no. Dinah isn’t fond of the snakes or mice that often peek out from Phillips’s pockets, but she’s very resourceful. The other three all protect Lucy Ann – but because of her youth not because she’s a girl. And, anyway, I don’t think you could convince Lady Baby that girls can’t star in an adventure as well as boys.

The morning we left, Lady Baby told her mom the highlights, describing the inside of the mountain where the children find themselves, the baby goat who attaches itself to Phillip and comes along, and about Kiki.

What a joy to share walking and mountains and reading with this little person. So lucky.

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Tiny Bird, Tiny Girl

Last Friday, on a morning walk in Fort Worden with Sweet Baby and her family, I dawdled while they climbed the steep “up/downs” on the outside of a bunker, and, wondering idly if I could see inside, stretched up to peer in a window. To my surprise, I spotted a tiny pottery bird on the window ledge, sitting on an equally small piece of paper with the typed message:

“If you find me, you may keep me. from, Phoebe Cantelow.”

I wanted to keep it. I recognized its making, and knew I would put it on the windowsill in my workroom with two of its kind already there (they are owls, each slightly different in the way of handmade things).

I felt such gratitude for the happy surprise, reminding me of art making and generosity – a hopeful totem for a new and worrisome year. (I looked up Phoebe Canetlow, and love what she says about starting her working day by making a little bird as a way of centering herself for a day of sculpting.)

Having Sweet Baby and her family here for the Christmas bustle, and for the quiet days afterwards, made me so glad. Sweet Baby is always on the go with language to match. She converses sometimes in expressive and endearing but unintelligible paragraphs. Other times she’s clear: she comes into our house from the Buffalo and declares loudly: “Kay-tee! Poppa Jim! Hi!” She took to mimicking my reply, greeting me with “Hi Sweetie!”

Her parents often say, “gentle” to quiet over-zealous movement, and Sweet Baby smushes the consonants into “gshentil” to admonish us. When the car engine shuts off, she declares: “O KAAY!,” and her “Bye-bye soon” is perfect shorthand for farewells. She is rightly wary of our cranky Frances, and when we go upstairs she repeats with finger to lips, “Ssh, meow sleeping.” With a three-word sentence she warns us “Meow eating food.”

She loved our meals by the fireplace when we all sit at her level at the low down spool table, and eat pumpkin pie (another one). She likes real things best, “helping” to put things away, pushing a tiny grocery cart at the Co-op with flag waving, or caring for her baby girl – putting her to sleep for naps, carrying her in a doll-sized Ergo, and cuddling her in a re-purposed tea cozy.

We spent a day on Bainbridge Island, and while Sweet Baby napped in the pack, we took a long and looping walk in the Bloedel Reserve – winter quiet and winter green. Sweet Baby was overjoyed to see our niece, “M-Ah!,” sitting with her to eat a gooey PB&J at the bakery and holding her hand to walk to the Kiddie Museum.

The family is back to California now, and the new year really begins. But before they left, I tucked one of the tiny owls in the Sweet Bride’s coat pocket (she’s fond of owls).

Thank you for reading “Her spirits rose…,” and all your thoughtful and appreciated comments – this will be the seventh year!

May 2017 bring many happy surprises to you and yours!

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Perfect

Early Christmas morning I managed (with some pride at my efficiency) to get the pumpkin pie for dinner in the oven – and then left it there for hours while we opened presents and ate breakfast. I sent my old friend on Bainbridge a photo of the result, but then she countered with an image from the night before – the charred remains of her Lucia rolls – “425° for four hours.”

Sweet Baby loved it all – from waking up to discover mysterious packages under the tree and a baby girl doll, to having Christmas dinner on Bainbridge with little boys who know how to enjoy the underneath of a festive dining table.

My old friend (who was hygge before hygge was a thing) sent a message at midnight: “The evening was perfect – with all the imperfections.”

Yes.

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Just A Few Days To Go

Emotions fill the holiday season, I know that. But this one is different. I write while preparing for the arrival of our younger son, Sweet Bride, and Sweet Baby – and I recognize the privilege of time and space to make merry. Writing helps me wrestle my thoughts away from the anxiety that much cherished is threatened in the new year.

I had planned to write about Ann Patchett’s new book “Commonwealth,” to say that I read all six hours back and forth to Alaska, finishing as the plane landed in Seattle. In the beginning I was confused, chapters back and forth in time, characters I couldn’t quite keep straight, but by the end it seemed perfect to finish with Christmas and a family cobbled together by love.

I cried watching Patti Smith sing Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony, and I thought of my blue-eyed sons and wanted to write about them, about how astounded I am by them and how grateful for them. They are accomplished and hardworking, and when I watch them care for their own “darling young ones” or hold their wives’ hands, I am undone.

And then today I read “How Does It Feel” in The New Yorker, the wonderful piece Smith wrote about the Nobel event. The link includes the song, and she tells of how she came to sing it, from artful choices and rehearsals through breakfast the next morning. It all fits together to honor art and science, family and friendship. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony.

Most of all, at the year’s darkest point in the season of lights, I write to wish you all kindness, beauty in art and nature, and love.

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A Very Happy Time

A pre-Christmas trip north to Alaska is a cherished tradition now. Several mornings we drove to preschool, where candlelight flickers in the classroom, and viewed the “snowcake” Lady Baby created. We decorated the Downtown Abbey Christmas tree, read many Christmas books, and did a lot of “come let us adore him” around Baby Brother. After her mom laid it out for us, Lady Baby helped me (sitting in my lap, and pushing the lever for backstitching) sew a stocking for her brother.

One day we made Christmas cookies – a nearly all-day affair. Lady Baby can now do all the steps – rolling and cutting and decorating. For part of the time, Baby Brother slept on me in the Ergo, but he woke in time for decorating at the kitchen table.

He’s so long, he’s outgrown the nest I can make for a baby by crooking one knee and placing my ankle on the other. So we used a pillow as a head prop, and he smiled and chuckled (he does that now!) as frosting flew nearby, and Poppa Jim pretended to be stealing cookies.

This year Mrs. Hughes suggested a Saturday morning exchange of our gifts to each other, and Lady Baby was so excited to come downstairs and discover presents under the tree. Outdoors, the North wind did blow in cold and snowy dark till after 9 a.m., inside we sat in the cozy living room by the lighted tree. Baby Brother slept on his dad while Lady Baby deciphered gift tags and dispensed packages – a perfect sampler of Christmas morning magic.

When we reminisced about the cookie making, Lady Baby said: “That was a very happy time for me.”

So me too – the whole trip.

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