Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Kindergarten’

My mother hates Dr Seuss! and other stories

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week my son brought home The Cat in the Hat from his school library, which is fitting because on March 2, Dr Seuss, the great children’s author and illustrator, would have been 109 years old.

He was great. Wasn’t he?

“Oh God, I hate Dr Seuss! He’s the worst!” my mother says. This jibes with my childhood memories; I had a ton of books at home growing up, but not a lot of Seuss. A few, yes: The Lorax, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (but not the first one), and that’s about it. On my mother’s list of forbidden childhood fun, Dr Seuss came in at number two, just beneath Santa Claus. Number three: Play-Doh. Number four: every other toy that was messy in any possible way. Number Five: Fun-Dip or Fun-any kind of candy. Funyuns also. No, she’s a great mom. Really.

Recently when my son took One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish out of the library I realized I had never read it before. At least as a child. After college I worked at Random House Children’s Books, which publishes the works of Seuss: the ones he wrote when he was living and the ones he wrote after he was dead. One of my tasks was tracking the sales of Seuss books. The top title, if I recall correctly, was Green Eggs and Ham.

I did not read that in my house. I did not read that with a mouse. I did not read it with my mother. She did not like it, so don’t bother!

“Why do I hate Dr Seuss?” she said, when I called to ask her. “Can’t it just be fun and simple? Why does he have to be a such a smarty-pants?”

This makes sense. If there is one thing my mother can’t abide, it’s a smarty-pants. “It’s like he’s trying to prove he’s so smart so he goes on and on and on. Sam I am Sam I am who cares? You know me, I want it short and to the point. Not impressed.”

Green Eggs and Ham

Sam I am enough already (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many years my mother worked in the library at our local kindergarten center, so she has a pretty good knowledge of kids’ books. What was your policy on Dr Seuss in the library? I asked.

“Of course kids took the books out, but I didn’t promote Dr Seuss, I didn’t read Dr Seuss. I didn’t tell them not to, but I wasn’t going to read that jibber-jabber out loud. The Lorax, and all that stupid stuff? There’s nothing about it that I like.”

All righty. So, who are your favorite kids’ authors, then? How about Maurice Sendak? “Nope, didn’t like him either.” I almost hung up. I think that Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most perfectly written books, for kids or adults, ever.

“But I love Little Bear [which is illustrated by Sendak but written by Else Holmelund Minarik],” she said. “It’s so sweet and charming. And what else? God, I can’t think, I’m out of the library business. Kevin Henkes [I agree, I love everything he writes]. And Rosemary Wells [Oh that Max and Ruby!]. The Arthur books. Tomie De Paola. I don’t know, something that made you feel happy and cozy and comforted. Or something really funny. I don’t find Dr Seuss comforting or funny.”

“So can I pin this dislike for Dr Seuss on your childhood?”

She pauses. “Yeah, probably.”

My mother was born and lived, until she emigrated at five, in the south of Italy, in a poor, rural, mountain village. It was not unlike the setting of Strega Nona, the Tomie De Paola book which is a favorite of hers. Strega Nona is set in a fictional, fairy-tale Calabria, the region she was from, with its rough edges softened: Catholic and hardscrabble and peopled with goats, stubborn country folk and witches, like her mother, my own Strega Nona, without all the smiling and kiss-blowing.

It’s the kind of upbringing that looks romantic and interesting only in retrospect, from our family’s new vantage point on the U.S. east coast. But at the time, there was little room for romance in a medieval house with no heating and dirt floors. There, I would imagine, you’d seek comfort. Coziness. A simple happiness found at the edge of a desperately practical existence.

Old school.

Old school. My mother’s village in Calabria.

As we were talking about Dr Seuss my aunt walked into my mother’s house. She immediately gets on the anti-Seuss bandwagon: “Oh, I never wanted to read Dr Seuss to the kids either,” she says. “Sam I am? I am Sam? Really?

“And The Cat in the Hat? In our house cleaning up was not an option.”

“Our mother never left the house, so we never got the chance to make a mess,” my mother added. “That’s for Americans with leisure time.” Oh, the zingers you’ll zing.

I will grant them their literary tastes. It’s a free country after all. You can have unusually strong opinions about whimsical children’s book authors if you want to. But I can’t let Dr Seuss go undefended on his birthday. Especially now as a parent, watching my five-year-old, newly-reading son, read Seuss books.

As fanciful as Seuss books are, it was Hop on Pop that introduced my son to reading in the most sensible way. The book repeats simple words and then switches the final letter, and encourages kids to note the differences as they are helped along by the bright, silly pictures.

Children’s books serve all sorts of purposes. The books published before Dr Seuss, were, in many cases, cozy and comforting, and those books, like Goodnight Moon, have their essential place. And there were those, too, like the work of the excellent Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House), which took on the real world is a wonderful, honest way.

On the other hand, Dr Seuss, smarty-pants extraordinaire, introduced twentieth-century children to a world beyond the comforts of hearth and home, a world that recognizes the importance of letting your imagination run amok. Yet, they are not just flights of fancy; many Seuss books have essential lessons that burst right through the silliness. Think of The Lorax, The Sneeches, the Grinch, on and on. These books were of little use for my mother and aunt whose imaginations were shaped back in the old country, where they pretty much lived in the sixteenth century.

A few minutes after we spoke, my mother called back. “Here’s another quote for your blog. Everyone says they love Dr Seuss, but do they really?” When we say we like Dr Seuss, are we all just pretending to like something that comes off a bit highbrow? Like jazz, or Champions League soccer? I asked my son when he got home from kindergarten.

“O darling child, may I ask you something? Please, finish your quinoa and locally-sourced beets first.”

“Hm?” Looks up from book of mazes.

“Do you like Dr Seuss books?”

“Yes,” he says, unreservedly.

“Why?”

“Because they’re funny.” (Take that, Mom!)

“Why else?”

“They’re cool.”

OK, I can see that this is going to be the typical cavalcade of one-word knee-jerk responses. Not the burst of enlightenment I thought my research would bring me. But suffice it to say, he likes the books. He wants to read them, or have them read to him. My two-year-old does, too. He even likes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But he’s old school.

“What are else are you going to write about me?” my mother asked. “‘She didn’t bake, she didn’t play games, she didn’t do arts and crafts,’ right?” Well, she didn’t really. Those things aren’t in her bones. But listening is. And she talked to us. Candidly. And all the time. She still does.

So right now I’m going to call her back, for the fifth time today, and tell her: my grandparents schlepped all the way to America so that their descendants could sit around and enjoy piffle like Bartholomew and the Oobleck. So let’s, shall we? Oh, the places we can theoretically go!

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, s...

Happy birthday to you. World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Damning with the wrong praise

English: Boy in front of jungle gym

It’s a jungle out there, kids. (Wikipedia)

Now, I am not usually someone who enjoys taking her husband’s advice. You know what I mean? Girl, I know you do. As a pediatrician, he often pretend-casually tosses me articles and books about child rearing that he comes across, full of what I am sure are good parenting practices. That I am meant to read stat. I know there is a lot of value in these bits he passes on, but part of me wants to say, yeah so? I’ve got a deal with them all day and then read a book about how I’m doing it all wrong after they go to sleep, when I can instead watch a TV show without any talking animals in it? I’m the mother; I know what’s best, right? And that’s the part of me usually gets to say what it wants.

“I think I know what I’m talking about here!” he says in a huff, when I blow off his reading tips. Harumph to you too.

Cover of "NurtureShock: New Thinking Abou...

Cover via Amazon

But I’ll admit that recently he gave me some reading material that I will take to heart (See? I do listen sometimes). In book called NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I’ve promised to read in its entirety just after I read this stack of old Hello! magazines (And also! That DVR won’t empty itself!), there is a chapter called “The Inverse Power of Praise.” The gist: when you praise your child, like we all do, you should praise effort towards specific tasks, and not general ability. For example:

Not: “You finished that whole Lego Star Wars set all by yourself?? For ages 8+? And what are you, FIVE? You are so smart!!!!!!!! Exclamation point!”

Instead: “You put that Sarlacc together all by yourself? I am so proud that worked so hard at that and you did it!”

“The presumption is,” the book states, “that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that the children do not sell their talents short.” And as Dr. Carol Dweck, who has pioneered much of this way of thinking, says, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game, look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” NurtureShock, as well as Dweck’s research, argues that if a child is constantly told he or she is smart (or, I extrapolate, a natural athlete or musician, say) he won’t risk the damage to his self-esteem by attempting something difficult or challenging, and failing.

The book also quotes NYU professor Judith Brook: “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing.” So the praise, which we can’t help but give, is better directed toward specific goals. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding for failure.”

OK, that’s enough quoting. I think I’ve proved that I read it. Suffice it to say, it gave me pause.

I give C the third degree on the walk home from school every day, and I get some facts out of him, like what he did in gym or math, or some other bit of schoolroom arcana, but it’s hard to put it all together to get a full picture of his day. It’s a mystery, it’s omerta; it’s being five, I guess.

So besides the cryptic comments about “choice time” and “work board” and being the “lunch helper” and all of the other byzantine rituals of school he now holds dear (“I don’t tell anyone when I have to go the the bathroom, I just go!”), my best vantage point from which to observe C’s new life is on the playground after dismissal. I watch him and his friends dash back and forth, leaping and cutting swaths through the air, falling tragically to the ground, then touching black to regain their superpowers, or touching something blue to transfer them.

The hotspot on the playground, for all of the kindergartners at C’s school, is the monkey bars. It’s where it’s at. Daily I watch as six or seven of them clamor over each other, each trying desperately to achieve mastery of this six-foot row of rungs. They look like kiddie versions of the dancers in that old Paula Abdul video where they are all flinging themselves over some scaffolding. But it’s where their whole day boils down; you can see who’s agressive, who hangs back, hear what they really think. I heard a girl there call C “mean” because “he’s blond.” “But you’re blonde,” her mother said. Touche, mama. Or, nanny-nanny-poo-poo, which I am told is the thing to say in these situations, to you too.

Bavarian horticultural exhibition 2010 in Rose...

Now that’s a challenge! Monkey bars of wooden poles, 9 metres high at a German expo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But hey, she’s under stress. Have you, adults, ever tried crossing the monkey bars? It’s hard! I tried it recently and I couldn’t make it one rung without deep pain. But maybe that’s just me. I couldn’t do them when I was a kid either. Maybe its because my parents never praised my effort, just assuming that I would be awesome at them. No, I don’t think that’s it. I think they knew those Olympic dreams were never going to get off the ground.

Since the first day of school, C has been determined to make it all the way across the monkey bars. Every day I watch him wait his turn (“You’re only supposed to go across in one direction!”), and then take his first one-handed swing. For weeks he fell to the ground as he tried to get to the first rung. It didn’t seemed to bother him; he just kept doing it over and over again until his friends called him to some other business. And while C was at the monkey bars, little T was climbing the play structure steps gingerly, then more steadily, to the top of the slide, standing there, then turning around and stepping back down. No amount of cajoling could get him down the slide.

Then one day, T stood at the top of the slide, waited for me to look at him, and slid all the way down. I cheered and hollered. Then, he couldn’t be stopped. And while catching T at the bottom, moving him out of the way of a fifth grader that was coming barrelling down after, I looked over at the bars; C was swinging all the way across.

“Did you see me?” he said, hopping down and running over.

“I did! I did! That was amazing! Wait till we tell Daddy!” I went ape, as it were.

As we were walking home, over the sound of T’s devastated mewling at being torn away from him new favorite thing, I said to C, “Do you see what you did on the monkey bars? You couldn’t do it at first, and then you kept trying, and then you did it! Do you see what you can do when you practice? If there is something you want to do, keep trying…” I hammered the point home in as many ways as I could: you wanted to accomplish something, you made an effort, and you succeeded. Well done. He beamed.

I don’t want to be one of those parents who carries her child through life on a cushion of praise, hands outstretched constantly to break every (figurative) fall. I guess, aside from keeping them healthy, what I want most is to teach my boys not to fear challenges. To aim for goals, and rise to meet them. And to be able to cope, and pick themselves up when they, as they inevitably will sometimes, fail. If they can do that, I think, they will have the tools they need to be in control of their own success, and strive for lives as big and as broad as they want them to be, rather than take a safe, middling, path. They can put to use whatever attributes they might have: intelligence, athletic ability, Lego skills, rather than lean on perceived strengths, taking them for granted.

It feels a little strange to hold my tongue when I want to call one of them smart. “Sweet lord, you are a f***ing genius!” are not words you often hear in our house, unless I am saying them to myself when I’ve figured out how fit all the sippy cups in the cabinet without them all falling on my head. Instead, I try to replace that impulse with a wordier compliment about their efforts, and keep the kvelling in my head.

Hopefully, this philosophy will serve them well. We’ll see. Look, it’s worked for their dad! My not taking his advice? I just don’t want him to get a swelled head! That’s it! It’s not because I don’t want to read articles. No, I do it for you, dear!

It’s the great Halloween anxiety, Charlie Brown

This is real-time anxiety happening here, as I write at the coffee shop while C is at kindergarten. This morning I sent him to his school Halloween celebration as half a vampire.

Weeks ago, C decided he wanted to be a vampire for Halloween. His Dad bought him some rubber teeth and face paint, so he’s set there. So what else does the costume entail? I struggled to think.

I’m not that creative when it comes to sewing or Halloween costumes. And I’ve never really enjoyed trick-or-treating that much. For me, as a nervous kid, it was just another avenue for rejection – who would invite you to their party? Would you have to go out alone? What if your costume wasn’t any good? So you see what my start-point for Halloween is.

The cape was crucial to C’s transformation to vampire. “I’m going to wear my superhero cape,” he declared. It’s royal blue with a big yellow thunderbolt on it.

“But a vampire wears a black cape,” I told him. No. He doesn’t want to wear a black cape. OK.

I looked online to see what a kids’ vampire costume looks like in the marketplace.

No. That’s ridiculous. I just can’t. And come on, I thought, trying to cajole the Halloween spirit out, I can make a costume myself! Isn’t that what Halloween is all about? That should win points. With whom, I should have asked.

I scoured the local craft shops (O look at me! Aren’t I great for avoiding the big-box stores!) for more vampire accoutrement. Since grown-up, sexy lady vampire was out of the question, I didn’t find much. Just an adult-sized wig that I thought I could trim and gel, but it just ended up looking like a shedding black cat. So I bought a white dress shirt, by “Joey Couture,” which felt like tissue paper. I added some navy sweatpants, for comfort. I found a medal he’d won as a party prize. With the teeth, the pallid face, black-rimmed eyes, and blood-red lips (I am confident in make-up, at least), C should be good to go.

Then the notice came home from school. No fake blood. No face paint. Nothing violent. The teeth would definitely be confiscated, ala A Christmas Story. Rats. Maybe I can turn him into a True Blood-style vampire, ala Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgaard). He’s already got the hair and the J.Crew sweaters. No cape and Dracula gear required…no, probably not.

This morning, C gamely put on his sweatpants, his shirt, his cape. “These are the most important parts of a vampire costume anyway,” he said.

We opened our front door and headed to school. Heading down the steps, I noticed someone stole our pumpkin. No jack-o-lantern tonight. Keep going. A group of C’s classmates was walking up the street. A witch, a tiger, a princess. “Are you a superhero?” the witch asked.

“I’m a vampire,” C said quietly.

“He’s a baby vampire,” I said, to the parents, I suppose. “His teeth haven’t come in yet.” I felt the need to make excuses, not for him, but for myself, as I started to get the feeling I let him down, with his dressy-yet ready for gym class-superhero get-up.

When we got to the playground, the place was swirling with store-bought costumes of every variety. More tigers. More princesses. Superheroes of every stripe. A ninja. And C, with his halo of blond hair, his blue eyes and long, drooping eyelashes, hardly looking like a creature of the night. “Are you Superman, C?” asked one of his friends, dressed as a superhero whose name I didn’t catch, resplendent with fake muscles.

“No!” T spoke up, marching up to this macho man, in his Snoopy Halloween t-shirt. “Vam-pah!”

The bell rang, and C got in line. He was quiet, but he always is when he heads into school. Yet my sinking feeling was growing. What if I’ve failed him? I worried. What if my poor attempt at making a genuine Halloween costume, with my lack of skills and vision, is going ruin his first schoolboy Halloween? What have I done? Good grief.

My face was a mask of cheer as I said goodbye. “You look so great!” The parade of costumes started moving. “Good-bye, Vampire!”

Even T was in on it. “Bye!” He jumped and waved. “Arrgghh!” He did his best scary monster sound.

We trudged home through the hurricane-tossed leaves. It’s my job, I thought, to fill C with confidence, so he’d be dashing around the schoolyard, cape flying. And just because I didn’t press click on a costume because I thought it was tacky, maybe he feels less-than. And the fears started gathering strength and speed as they swirled through my mind. What if he, because of this botched first attempt, never likes Halloween again? He was so excited about it this year. He drew a jack-o-lantern in the October 31 box on the kitchen calendar. He decorated our house with orange streamers and webs and fake spiders. He told everyone he was going to be a vampire. And now, as they are probably at this moment marching through the school hallways showing off their costumes, is he?

My mother made incredible Halloween costumes for me as a kid: a parrot with crepe-paper wings, the Statue of Liberty, with green face paint and a dyed sheet. I was Halley’s Comet the year it appeared, as a giant painted sandwich board affair. One year I was Where’s Waldo, that was pretty good. And, despite all my worry, when I think back, I did go to parties, and trick-or-treating; I roamed streets with silly string and shaving cream. I did have fun. So this anxiety comes from me, not my experiences – and it’s still in me. As I write, I am making a vow to not dump all that in C’s trick-or-treat bag, as it were.

Maybe Halloween is never going to be like it was in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I’m not going to be able to cut holes in a sheet, throw it over the boys, and send them out into the night, all innocence and sincerity. There are going to be store-bought costumes, and stickers instead of candy, and rules to follow to make Halloween palatable for the modern school day. But it will always be there, and C loves it. So it’s time for me to put aside my inner Charlie Brown, so that C doesn’t become the same: all good intentions sidelined by worry and fear. Better to be like Linus, willing to look a fool in a pumpkin patch, because, pure in spirit, he believes in the Great Pumpkin.

As as for T? I think he’s a Lucy-type, so we better all beware.

A child’s history of time

Sometimes when I drive the boys around town I take intentionally circuitous routes, thinking they won’t notice an extra five minutes tacked on to their journey. It’s an extra five minutes of peace for me, keeping them in their car seats, contained, controlled, unable to leap out and run away or start smacking each other about the head.

But lately, C has been on to me. We are taking the long way home from an after-school trip to the supermarket.

“You’re taking the long way! You’re doing it on purpose, to make me tired!” He knows a few extra minutes in the car will push him into nap territory, which is fine with me. “We live the other way! Turn around!”

But sometimes he is in the mood to relent, to relax, to stare out the window for a while, only to be interrupted by T screaming when he sees a bus or a fire truck. Amid the yelling, C waxes philosophical:

“The first people who ever lived,” he starts, “who were their mommies and daddies? If they were the first people, whose tummy were they in?”

That’s a hard one. “It’s a mystery,” I tell him. “We can’t know for sure, because none of us were there. But scientists can look at clues they find in nature and guess.”

The back seat is quiet. There are no buses around. I can almost feel C thinking back there, trying to unravel time. Another thought:

“So, how did all of this get here?” He flaps a hand toward the window. “Who put the trees here, and the houses? Did the first people do that?”

A lot to wrap my head around while I’m wheel-to-wheel with lunatic Boston drivers. “When the world was new, many many years ago,” I begin, “none of this was here. There were no streets, no houses, just nature. Trees, and rivers, and animals. And when humans came around they slowly started adding things to the land, like farms, then streets, and buildings, so over a long time, things began to look how they look now. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” he said. And he nodded off.

C, Kindergartener, is really ramping up on a lot of crucial topics that are set to become his everyday schoolboy occupations. He’s getting the hang of writing, a bit of math, and stringing letters together to begin to read. But he is still trying to grasp the the concept of time. Even the true length of five minutes is hard for him to comprehend. When he needs to wait for me to do something for him, like get him a snack or put on his favorite show, five minutes, by his reckoning, is just a count to five. But when he’s only got five minutes to play before we leave for school, those brief counts turn into hours. “That wasn’t five minutes!” He’s admant. “That was five seconds!”

So it’s no wonder that history, stretching back into the fog of time, is something he has a lot of questions about. That’s a lot of seconds, minutes, and hours for him to hold in his head. And so many of his fascinations are in the realm of long ago. So in C’s personal timeline, history looks like this:

First: Dinosaurs, of course. Then pyramids, and mummies.

Immediately followed by: Pompeii. His favorite.

Up next: Castles and Playmobil knights.

Which brings us straight to: The Revolutionary War.

Then: Papa is born. Poor Papa.

My own childhood fascination timeline looked something like this: Trilobites. Mummies. Ancient Rome. Barbarians and the Dark Ages. The 1950′s. And then you’re Back to the Future.

I must have also asked my parents constant questions about time, because on a trip to the Smithsonian, they bought me a book called Life Story, by the great Virginia Lee Burton (most famous for The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel). I still have the book, and when C asks his questions about the Earth, and what came first then next, and how we got here, we read it together. I still love reading it.

My copy.

It has my name in fourth-grade handwriting inside the front cover, and it’s worn. Published in 1962, it presents the history of the earth as a theatre production, set on a stage, in acts and scenes, beginning with a time when the earth was a “red-hot fiery ball of matter,” and ending in the present, as the seasons change on Burton’s family farm in Massachusetts.

The book beautifully unwinds the tight coil of time into a long, gently turning ribbon; it’s a perfect metaphor. At the beginning of the ribbon is a tiny question mark – the very dawn of everything. The ribbon uncoils, introducing our Sun, and Solar System, and then the book zeroes in on Earth, our home, that fiery ball which cooled and shrank, making mountains like wrinkles. A Geologist on the stage hands over narrator duties to a Paleontologist, who announces the Rains, and the tiny creatures that lived in the great seas that washed over the entire surface of the planet.

Image from childrensbookalmanac.com

Page by page, new players are continually added to the theatre of Life on Earth, from trilobites and cephalopods, to the plants of the ancient forests. I remember, as a child, my favorite page was Act I, Scene 4: Life on the Devonian Shores. From about 350,000,000 years ago, to about 315,000,000 years ago.

“Land plants flourished, clothing our once bare Earth in green…The long Age of Invertebrates had come to an end. Seas, lakes, rivers, and streams swarmed with fish — big fish, little fish, and medium-sized. A few even developed lungs and crawled from puddle to puddle on land.”

In the accompanying picture, strange, curling ferns stretched toward a huge sun, while undersea fish with wide eyes and blunt teeth hunted smaller ones. After I got the book, I was fascinated by the sight of ferns. I tried to imagine that plants very much like the ferns I saw around my town lived millions of years ago, and if I looked at them, and tried to block out everything modern surrounding them, I could take myself back to that long-gone time. I felt like I was trying to recoil all of those ribbons, and hold all of time in my head in a little ball, trying to grasp it all at once, and feel its enormity. It was a great feeling; like a mysterious trance.

[C’s current favorite page is Prologue, Scene 4: Introducing first rocks, Igneous rocks. Featuring the world as one giant Vesuvius]

I decorated the inside cover of the book with Pterodactyl ink stamps that my parents bought me on another trip, also when I was about nine. We rented a house in Watkins Glen, on Lake Seneca, in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. When we got to the house, the yard and every tree in it was covered in black caterpillar-like things, about an inch-and-a-half long. A plague of gypsy moths. They were everywhere. And they were inside the house, too. Knowing my mother, I am shocked we did not get back in the blue station wagon and go immediately back to Long Island to spend the week in the sprinker on our smooth, concrete driveway. But we stayed.

We went to Watkins Glen State Park, where we bought the stamper in a gift shop at the end of a gorge trail. I don’t know if it’s still there, but at the beginning of the trail, I remember a railing with a timeline on it that took you further and further back into history with every step: past the fifties, the birth of Papa, Lexington and Concord, the plague, and the pyramids. To 350,000,000 years ago. And at the end of the railing, you emerged onto the trail, in the gorge, and back at the dawn of time.

This wasn’t like looking at a backyard fern and blocking out the garage and the concrete and the chain-link fence. The primordial world was all around us, without interruption, unbound. There were fossils in the huge walls of Devonian shale that formed the sides of the gorge, which was cut into the earth by a gentle creek flowing on and on over eons. There were plants – huge trees, as well as ferns and mosses, that had been growing there always. And the sounds – rushing water, wind in leaves – were the same sounds the first people must have heard as they walked through that same place thousands of years ago. All that was new were the railings that contained us, stopped us from falling down below, to a bottom I couldn’t see. And the gift shop, that was new too.

English: Watkins Glen, New York

Watkins Glen, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was enrapt, there in the gorge. I felt like I was actually winding back the clock, seeing what life was like before there were streets, and towns, or even foot-beaten trails in the woods. It was amazing. And now, as I listen to his questions, his car-ride conversations, I see C trying to to get to that same place, trying to wrap his head around history, or rather, wrap up history in his head, just like I used to do. I can sense him entering that wonderful trancelike state, playing with the ribbon of time between his fingers.

I need to take him to that gorge. And Pompeii. And a million other places.

As an adult, how do you get that back? How do you let your mind become unbound, unconstrained, uncoiled? How do you allow yourself to imagine the hugeness of the earth, of time, of everything? How can you keep that nerve that lets you believe you can hold it all in your head? Can we do this, can we thread it between traffic jams, and to-do lists, our grown-up cares?  Or do we need to achieve this through our children, let them out of their restraints, watch them as they try understand the world into which they were dropped?

Wheels Over Indian Trails

When my children remember being small, what images will come to their minds? Memory comes on like the pops of flashbulbs, one image, then another, until the light stays on to make a continuous picture. For me, Memory Number One is at age three, in my nursery room classroom, a dark room in the basement of a church. Cubbies and fingerpaints. The face on box of Munchkins. A set of stairs in the room that rose to a window, where we’d crawl out into the light, to the playground. Pop.

Next I’m in the car in the parking lot behind Miller’s Hardware in Lynbrook, New York, listening to “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tenille. Pop. “I will! I will!” Pop back to nursery school: the water table, plastic smocks, a Thanksgiving feast, a paper pilgrim bonnet, a turkey made out of an orange. Pop. There was a kid I dubbed “Ned the Head.” It was apt. He had a blond bowl cut. Where is he now? I think my mother knows but I won’t ask.

From when C was a baby we tried to take him on all sorts of adventures, thinking what he saw and did from birth would inform his character forever. He was eight months old when we took him to England, for a wedding, and we thought that though he’d never remember it, somehow the fact that he first saw the sea at the Jurassic Coast in Devon would always live within him. Maybe he’d grow up and crave ice cream cones with Flakes stuck in. Maybe he’d be a Hardy scholar. Maybe he’d buy his mother a retirement cottage in Lyme Regis. Nice thoughts.

C and his Dad at Beer, in Devon. Look over at the sea, C.

But subsequent, post-age-three trips to the beach in Long Island and Cape Cod have laid themselves over these first memories, and those trips pop into his head when now, at age 5, he thinks of the beach. Digging for something he calls “fish yolks” in the primordial ooze at the Brewster salt flats, throwing rocks into Gardiner’s Bay, or the surfside playground at Hither Hills. Pop.

The tide goes out in Brewster.

Now T is two, and we are on our own in the mornings before his nap, while C is at kindergarten. We trudge home after drop off. He plays trucks, blocks, looks at his books while I clean up breakfast, get started on the laundry. I think, I could take him to the farm/playground/Science Museum. But then, I think, ah, forget it, he won’t remember it anyway. The lot of the second child.

When we toured C’s kindergarten room before school started, it struck me how so many things hadn’t changed since I had been in kindergarten myself. I remembered the little colored plastic cubes they use to learn math. The calendar with numbered, changeable cards. Still the same. Pop. While C sat at a table and he and his new classmates stared shyly at each other, checking to see who would be the first to glue colored macaroni on a birthday crown, I chased T around the room while he took it upon himself to try out/destroy kindergarten. He grabbed at the calendar and I was brought back to that old room. Pop.

I heard the songs my teacher, Mrs Kurtzer, would bang out on the piano. “Abraham Lincoln kind and true. You did the best a man can do. Abraham Lincoln, we! Love! You!” I think she might have made it up on the spot. She did her best. There were the transparent, colored records she would play for holidays; an orange one for Halloween. Red for Valentine’s Day. The foods she would bring for each letter of the alphabet. Carob for C. It was the last gasp of the seventies. E was a tough one: “Edam Cheese.” I can still hear her say EEE-dam, and I think that’s the only time I have ever eaten it. Pop. Pop. The flashbulbs are getting closer together, and they must be for C now too. I must be careful what I say to him, I think. He’s going to start remembering it now.

That night I had a dream about going back to kindergarten. I was a parent this time, and I think I was supposed to be there for C, but it was definitely my classroom back in Oceanside, N.Y. In Mrs Kurtzer’s room there was a circle made out of black linoleum laid into the floor. We used to sit around the circle. In the dream, it was torn up; I could see where the circle had been, in an outline of crumbling, funny-shaped beige lino stuck in the old ruts. On top of the old circle was a big, colorful rectangular rug, like the kind we saw in C’s room. It made me sad to see that old circle, such an indelible image of school in my mind, carelessly ripped up and covered over. I had trouble falling back asleep after that; I had to go downstairs and watch a sitcom on TV at 3am.

Besides the typical flashes of school and home life, my early memories stem from our family’s frequent trips into New York City. It was probably then that I developed my abiding love for New York. Even now those first memories come back to me in a heady rush and make me miss the old place, more than usual. And for some reason I remember the journeys in and out more than I remember what we did when we got there, things like seeing the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, going up to Columbia to see my aunt and uncle, or eating lemon gelato at Ferrara’s in Little Italy during the San Gennaro festival. Instead, it’s the Southern State, crossing into city limits on the Cross Island, a huge full moon over the Belt Parkway one night on a return trip from Brooklyn.

But most of all, it’s this -

English: John Fekner © 1979-1990 Wheels Over I...

By John Fekner. © 1979-1990 Long Island City, NY. Pulaski Bridge overpass at the Queens Midtown Tunnel.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The stenciling, in my memory, was more faded than it is in the image. When I see it in my mind the peeling paint is surrounded by a riot of traffic, grafitti, and slapped-up posters on the busy way into the city from the suburbs. On these trips, leaning back on blue leatherette in the back of a station wagon, I would anticipate this overpass and prepare myself to read this slogan. It filled me with dread. It couched my ever-present excitement to go into the city with sadness, and I went under the river feeling blue. But I guess if you love New York, that’s part of what you love; the melancholy, the ghosts of all the things that are lost, the dust heaps. The brutal passing of time, the bad dreams you have to live with if you want to press forward. Without that, the city could never be the continually changing fascination that it will always remain. And I’ll always mourn those indian trails, buried under a thousand levels of dust and asphalt, like I’ll mourn those palimpsests of early memories, my own and my children’s.

Right now, T is sweetly asleep. C is at school, sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on a brightly colored rug, tracing letters and learning songs, his head filling up with all wondrous and new things, and out will go the old. Until recently, he could still recall moments from his toddler days, but now, like me, he can only reach back to three. And I can already see, when we talk about nursery school, his old memories are popping like bubbles. He can no longer remember a time before his brother, but that’s as it should be. Later, after school, the three of us will go to Lexington for haircuts and ice cream, and play ball on the Battle Green, a patch of grass where, years before, something very different happened. Pop. While they fill their days with childhood concerns I’ll watch and remember, and act as steward for their early years, so those memories can one day, unlike indian trails, rise to the surface again.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 488 other followers

%d bloggers like this: