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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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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Zucchini Skillet Cakes for Baby Brother

Well, not directly – transformed into mama’s milk for him, but the rest of the family loved these cakes. During his first week, his other grandmother brought several terrific meals to Downtown Abbey – this was my favorite.

The recipe (here) is in “Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen,” and in keeping with how behind I feel in most everything, except in being a thrilled granny, I haven’t yet made it – but I ordered the book!

Just a few hours before her brother’s birth, Lady Baby was floating with her mom in a swimming pool, along with her dad and aunt. It was that quick! Her parents went directly to the hospital, and her auntie dropped Lady Baby home on her way.

We settled in to wait, played a matching game over and over, walked to the bakery for bread, and picked a bouquet from the neighbor’s garden. We received the first magic photo mid-afternoon, and in late afternoon drove to the hospital. Lady Baby carried the flowers and after attaching visitor stickers, we tiptoed to Labor and Delivery. Love and smiles filled that room!

The siblings look remarkably alike, her mom called Lady Baby a feminine version of this robust boy, and they seem to share temperament – peaceful and accommodating. We only stayed a little while, but what a privilege for me to see so soon this brand new lad.

Lady Baby wanted to call her teacher from the hospital parking lot – and left a succinct message: “My baby brother is born.” She sang an exuberant song about Big Sister and Baby Brother all the way to pick up pizza.

At home we played more matching game (I always lose), read a lot of books, bedded down the animals, and slept all night. In the morning we made cookies, wrapped a bulldozer, and made cards for Baby Brother and mom. (Days later Lady Baby told me: “I don’t like being alone in a house with just one person unless it’s one of my parents.” Given that reality, she was really brave.)

Baby Brother came home that day, and fall descended with rain and cold. In keeping with the season, Lady Baby started sniffles, so for the first few days could touch only her brother’s feet (good-sized feet) and watch all the ministrations to him. Her comment: “It’s a lot of work to take care of a baby.”

Such joy to watch this new and lucky boy join his loving family. He sleeps (!) and is a real armful. As I held him and Lady Baby sat close to play Uno, Mrs. Hughes (to return to Downtown Abbey names) cooked the zucchini skillet cakes, and Mr. Carson made a tasty version of ranch dressing to accompany. Good! (And terrific the next day.)

I would like to make these, I will make these – soon.

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Summer Alaska

In July we overlapped with Sweet Baby and her parents during a visit to Anchorage. She is three years younger than her cousin Lady Baby, whom she clearly adores and admires, always watching and imitating when she can.

At Lady Baby’s soccer game (nothing is cuter than three and four-year olds in tiny but still oversized soccer shirts on a mini soccer field, chasing a small ball, sometimes in the right direction). Sweet Baby sat rapt, holding a soccer ball and staring at the jolly chaos on the field.

At home the two cousins pushed doll strollers full of babies and “stuffies” around the house. And they went to the playground together – Lady Baby runs on the jiggly bridge, climbs to the top of the netting, swings high, and whizzes down the steep slide. Sweet Baby watches, and following encouraging instructions, “do this slide,” “come up here,” does her best to keep up.

One weekday, those not at work headed north to Rendezvous Peak at Arctic Valley, (the original Anchorage ski resort). The hike is perfect for little legs, just a mile and a half above the timberline from the parking lot, up to a saddle overlooking a dramatic view.

Both girls started out walking – Sweet Baby holding one of Lady Baby’s fingers (refusing to hold a whole hand, Sweet Baby willingly clasps just one finger). When Sweet Baby paused with her attendants to drink mom’s milk and load into the pack, Lady Baby said: “Let’s go!” and began to run up the trail.

At a small bridge over the creek that runs through the valley, Lady Baby told me she wished she had a little house right on the bridge, and that I could have another one right next door, and that the doors would always be open between them. Below she’d have a beehive with friendly bees, and maybe she’d be the queen. We allowed as how it would be nice to dip feet in that creek on the way down.

Apple slices helped our upward momentum, as she chatted and climbed, eager for us to stay in front. The trail is narrow and sunken in tundra, full of bearberry, tiny ferns and many wildflowers to either side. We spoke of blueberries, and found two ready to eat.

The others caught up, and we scouted a flat spot for lunch of egg salad sandwiches, chips, and chocolate warm and soft from the pack. Lady Baby found a wide dip in the tundra with a stand of yellow arnica covered with dozens of orange butterflies.

Lady Baby maybe thought we’d head down after lunch (I could have warned her that the Trail Boss always finishes the up). By then I’d worn out the naming of plants, attempts to encourage staying in front, my songs and stories (even the one about hiking the trail with her father when he was small, and in a patch of heather stretched his arms wide and twirled in a perfect Julie Andrews “the hills are alive” moment). The trail got steeper and led to a sit down declaration, “too tired to go on.”

Poppa Jim and Sweet Baby’s parents began the miraculous hike-saving game of hide-and-seek: “We’ll close our eyes and count to 20.” Lady Baby darted on – running full-tilt uphill! She can hide in stands of dwarf fireweed and be gleeful when discovered.

Trying to hide, I laid down on the fragrant tundra cushion, looked at the blue sky, and remembered other days on this mountain – meeting my husband here as beginner skiers and bringing our sons to ski and hike. The past combined with the present to fill me with gratitude.

Lady Baby soon led us to the top – proud of the climb – but more so of her hiding prowess. The downhill walk is easy with Anchorage in view far below – and the promised wading creek.

Oh Alaska water is cold! But we did it, held hands, stepped gingerly on gravel to a flat sun-warmed rock, and cheered.

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