Alaska Part I: Boom-Crash And Overnight In The Mountains

The California members of our spread-along-the-coast family adventured in Alaska this month, and I couldn’t resist everyone (except the hard-at-work scholar) being together.

On this visit I spent much pleasurable time with Baby Brother. These days he’s all about “boom-crash” – the generic all-encompassing term for any kind of heavy equipment or large truck. First thing in the morning he suggests “playground” (it sounds a little like “King Kong”), which also means the search for machines at work. On many sites in summer Anchorage, giant excavators crawl and compactors pound, busy at their repetitive tasks, carving out foundations by scraping down to measurements determined by a “worker guy” in hard hat and reflector vest.

In one fortuitous sighting, right on Downtown Abbey’s street, a Bobcat operator scooped a whole pile of dirt from a front yard and loaded it into a dump truck, while we watched from the sidewalk. After a “bye-bye boom-crash, see you soon,” we headed home, where, imagination fired up, Baby Brother set to work with a small snow shovel in a pea gravel path.

He communicates remarkably well and appreciates it if people listen and understand. When talking, he moves his hands expressively for emphasis, and gives an arms-shivering shudder to indicate something scary – like the toy Triceratops I brought that moves, or a confused chicken in a cage near a playground that crows like a rooster.

His reflexive please and thank-yous charm me. When I respond to a request like “bagel pease,” he says “tink you Kaytee.” Sometimes he seems to think about how to answer our questions, casting his eyes a little skyward (a look I remember from his dad).

Baby Brother is incredibly good-natured, but when required, can employ what his family calls his Pterodactyl scream – a definite warning of boundary crossed. It’s probably necessary for a little brother to have such a sound, but Lady B does play with him with much patience. She told me that she loves it when she tells him something, and he replies, “oh yeah” – his understanding expressed by drawing out the “yeaah.”

He has periods of absorption in play of his own – Downtown Abbey a wonderland of toys. He loves to be read to, but is often happy to pull books from the lowdown shelf of kids’ books and turn pages while talking the familiar words to himself. His mom told me of his delight upon discovering the book, “Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann” (a steam shovel) on the shelf.

And then there’s Alexa, the new family member. (I admit to getting a kick out of how easily you could summon a song – or the “Hamilton” soundtrack). Baby Brother has a much-loved song “La vaca Lola,” and he asks Alexa, “lexa, play aca lola.” She’s notoriously bad at accents (also two-year old language), but Lady B says clearly “Alexa, play La vaca Lola,” and soon both are singing with her. (It is a pretty catchy tune.)

Early on, before the L.A. family went off to the Kenai Peninsula, we managed two meals all together. During the second one, our sons talked about a fathers and daughters overnight backpacking trip to Powerline Pass above Anchorage.

Mrs. Hughes leaned over to me and asked: “Do you want to go?” I was taken by surprise – but said “Yes, I’d love to go!”

(To be continued.)

 

 

 

Three Days With Lady B and Many Dinosaurs

Lady B came to visit – by herself! A week ago Sunday I met her and her mom at the airport, and after big hugs for her mom (flying on to Oregon), we set out for the train, our first walk of the 15 plus miles we were to walk in the next three days. Lady B let me take her backpack but pulled her roller bag, up stairs and curbs, through crowds, and while holding hands to cross streets (for my sake). She listened to the station announcements, predicted our stop by the route map, and (after placing her ferry ticket for the scanner to read) pulled her bag onto the boat.

Comfortable is the word most coming to mind for her demeanor – even that first day. At ease and brave really – never having been away from home without her parents and never having been to our new house! It’s smaller, but painted red like hers, and full of familiar things. She settled right in.

Relegating the early-rising student to the room upstairs, Lady B and I had a slumber party in the bedroom downstairs. She slept on a blow up air mattress on the floor, cozy with stuffies from here and ones from her suitcase.

We filled the days with reading (an A-Z mystery about London and Windsor Castle), and painting (pottery plates at a cheerful shop on the Winslow Green – hers decorated with a triceratops and mine memorializing the visit with the date and a so-so stegosaurus). On our many walks to and from town, we were always careful to not step on sidewalk cracks (she changed the “break your mother’s back, which bothered both of us, to a zillion other rhyming variations, the best being, “get a pat on the back”).

With summer sunshine every day, we ate lunch in town outside under an umbrella, saw the marina and the historical museum (her request because of various artifacts outside the building) and the art museum (to pick out a stuffed otter for baby brother because “he loves otters,” and take a quick look at the book arts room).

One day we drove to a playground with structures for climbing and pretending, and stopped to visit my young friend and her mom. We borrowed their motherload of Lego bins – two generations worth – perfect for quiet times with Poppa Jim in the afternoon. We mostly ate dinners here – spaghetti, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, a lot of watermelon, and one lousy homemade pizza (my failed attempt, quickly replaced by a burrito).

The highlight? A Seattle day to visit the Burke Museum on the UW campus. We walked to the ferry (I was in awe of Lady B’s walking with nary a complaint – 6.2 miles this day), rode the light rail to the U, walked across campus to the museum, and met Poppa Jim after his class. We sat on the Quad beneath huge trees, ate sandwiches, grapes, and chips, and watched groups of potential students on campus tours. (We overheard one of the tour leaders declare the most popular class at UW to be “Dinosaurs.”)

Last summer in Montana, paleontologists from the Burke Museum discovered the remarkably well-preserved head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The staff works on it now (behind a glass window) removing the surrounding sandstone and rock and reconnecting displaced parts to get it ready for display. We were thrilled to be able to enter the room and talk to the head preparator. He told us the texture of the fossil is “classic T. Rex skin” (textured and leathery looking). We peered up its nostril, examined teeth and eye sockets, and learned you can tell the sex of a dinosaur – sometimes.

We explored the rest of the museum, and as we headed back across campus to the train, I asked Lady B why she liked dinosaurs so much. The answer came quickly, “because they are really old and dead but it’s not sad, and they’re interesting!” We got off the train near the Pike Place Market to watch the fish guys toss a salmon, take a photo of Lady B sitting on the giant brass pig, and best of all, get gelato! We walked along First Avenue in the warm shade past Hammering Man, eating our delicious gelato, and speaking of dinosaurs, friends, and super heroes.

It’s always been companionable to be with Lady B, she’s an observer and a good sport, she’s inquisitive and plucky – a fine traveling mate. My painter friend said Lady B made a lot of good memories – I hope so – I know how many she made for me as we walked the routes I take every day, now enriched by her comments and her laugh.

Our last afternoon she packed her bag for an early departure Thursday morning, then made a book for her brother – a complete story of the two of them riding a Triceratops and encountering a T. Rex – with her own handwriting and spelling and, of course, her illustrations. (One is used here by permission.)

 

 

 

Alaska And A Name Change?

For four days in May, while Mrs. Hughes celebrated her birthday with her sister and her best friend in New York City, we flew north to help Mr. Carson hold down the fort. (He doesn’t really need much help.) Chill from the north wind dampened the days of our visit, but didn’t dampen Alaska spring activities.

Pretty much nothing is cuter than a six-year old girl with braids and a ball cap playing her first baseball game (after just two practices). Standing by the dugout full of tiny teammates, I watched the swing and heard the satisfying smack when bat connected with ball pitched by her coach. Braids flying, she headed to first base, a little uncertainly at first, and then swiftly!

One day Lady B’s kindergarten teacher planned an excursion to the Municipal Greenhouse and nearby woods, and asked me to lead a little watercolor demonstration. She provided good materials (that can make all the difference with watercolor) – tiny palettes with six real watercolors, fine line pens and brushes with points. The students didn’t need much direction, and soon scattered around the greenhouse to draw – watercolor paper taped to clipboards – then came together in a circle to paint. The penline and watercolors produced amazed me by their careful observation of shape and color, each unique to its creator.

It struck me that the days of Lady Baby are behind us. That little girl in the orange t-shirt, worn over a red, long-sleeved thermal shirt with Tyrannosaurus rex on the front, seems far from anything with baby in the title. The girl formerly known as Lady Baby has school life and social relationships of her own now – two best friends, a girl with a mop of blonde curly hair, and a boy with dark curly hair and big glasses. Maybe now I call her Lady B, a more grown up title, because Baby Brother (who rapidly outgrows that moniker) calls her Bopal.

We spent great days with Baby Brother while Lady B was at school. Playgrounds please, but nothing is as popular as “owside” – the back yard with swing and slide and balls to kick – or a slow amble down the sidewalk out front.

He loves books – specially ones with pictures of “boom boom crash” providers, particularly enormous bulldozers and crane trucks. Lady B reads to him, revisiting all the favorites (dinosaurs). He laughs with the same joy and relief at the resolution in “Knufflebunny” that I remember from her.

When we first arrived I marveled at his mom’s understanding of his language, but as the days passed I began to get it better. He repeats everything said to him – so the structure and intonation becomes more clear, and you realize how much he can communicate, if only his listener understands. He says all the family names, but somewhat curiously, Lord Cromwell became “Bacram.”

It sounds odd to say of someone so young (he’ll be two in early September), but he seems contemplative as he thoughtfully considers things. I say: “Look, chickadees – chick-a-dee-dee-de.” And he listens and looks, head tilted to one side, before repeating the call. It’s easy to be totally silly with him and make up nonsense, eliciting great grins and chuckles.

I loved watching Lady B and Baby Brother greet their mother when she came back. Both brave while she was away – and overjoyed at her return!

*Image used by permission of the artist

Frances I, II, and III

Surrounded by sorting and packing chaos, three stuffed replicas of Frances sit on my worktable. They seem less disturbed by the activity than the real Frances would have been.

Each has a red felt heart on its back side, embroidered with the initials of Lady Baby, Sweet Baby, or Baby Brother. Soon I’ll pack up the stuffies to mail, along with a little note explaining that Frances is gone. She wasn’t friendly to the children, but she was important.

Each Frances is slightly different and wrong in its own way. They looked like her in the paper pattern, but lost resemblance in the stuffing. Little muslin bags of beans weigh them down, so they sit easily, but their floss whiskers sag, and they look disapproving and slightly strange – not cuddly (maybe that’s lifelike). I tell myself the imperfections matter less than their existence.

I’m leery of that impulse, said to grow stronger as we age, to let ideas die, to fail to push against resistance and stalling and overcome inertia. Making these three became important to me as a memorial – the figuring out and stitching were an occasional escape from the tasks at hand, the handwork therapeutic – but also as proof of follow through (at least this time).

The trio stares at me – or past me – multiple reminders of Frances and of making. I like to think of them joining the other beloved stuffed animals with names and history – but I’ll miss them!

 

Joy

In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.

McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.

In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.

He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.

In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.

We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”

Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!

Happy Halloween!

I have heard tell that certain little people will be transformed today – in Alaska we’d find one duckling, and one cowboy riding a horse (that part is important, the horse is handsome) – and in California,  a kitty cat with all the feline moves!

I hope you find some cheerful orange this autumn day – Pumpkin pie remains my favorite orange on a dark and spooky night!

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Summer Into Fall – Checking Back In

At the very end of August, during that season of national natural disasters, we added a family plague outbreak to the litany. We arrived in Anchorage just as Mrs. Hughes fell to what the pediatrician (two days later when both children had succumbed) declared to be H1N1, Swine Flu.

But in the early days, we had fine grandchildren time – we ate muffins and played tabletop hide-and-seek with the plastic animals at the bakery, and we visited the familiar playground, where Lady Baby tripped across the wiggly bridge and walked the balance beam with utter confidence – activities that once gave her pause.

A week from his first birthday, Baby Brother slithered – that’s really the best word for it – a locomotion also described as a “military crawl” – all elbows, arms, and wiggling bottom and legs. Technically not crawling, a kneeless move, he’s speedy nonetheless – circles the house, investigates, and gets in the middle of elaborate Papa Jim and Lady Baby adventure guy set-ups on the floor. His babble intones like proper sentences, and he says little words like woof, dada, mama. (I wonder what he will call Lady Baby.)

That Monday should have been the first day of kindergarten for Lady Baby. Kindergarten! But it wasn’t to be (maybe saddest for her mom to miss that official day). By Friday a photo showed Lady Baby ready – a missing top tooth and a big smile as she joined her friends at her new school. She’s serious about school – told me she would learn things there.

We brought the flu home, and then I, yet again, managed to morph it into pneumonia. Lost days of reading and avoiding forest fire smoke, with murky air and the sun a red ball sunrise and sunset.

Thank you for all the cheerful comments about the blue and white vase series during the summer break. The gallery has asked for 24 little drawings for December, so there might be a few more. They want more blue and whites, the armchairs, and “whatever suits your fancy” – a wonderful thing for a gallery to request.

And I’m ready to work. Welcome rain left clear days, crisp with chill in the mornings, and sunny warm in the day. Autumn in the Northwest is here.

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