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Posts tagged ‘Parenting’

Bread and Jam for Frances: An Appreciation

FrancesApologies for the long gap between posts – I have been writing offline, and this winter is making me want to just…blergh. There are no words.

Yesterday, in Entertainment Weekly, I read an appreciation of the great Harriet the Spy as it marks its fiftieth anniversary. I loved that book as a kid, and it will be one I will be sure to read with my boys, not only because it’s amazing, but because it also provides them with a great example of a heroine, as I want to encourage them to read books about the other sex as well.

The article also pointed out that Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban, another story with another smart, crotchety heroine, is also turning fifty this year. And I just wanted to take a moment and profess my love for Frances.

I loved this book as a child, mostly because of the description of the elaborate lunches Albert and Frances (after she gets over her thing about bread and jam) have. They made me pine for a doily under my bologna sandwich, and wish I liked hard-boiled eggs so I could eat a lunch that came with it’s own miniature salt shaker –

“What do you have today?” said Frances.

“I have a cream-cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread,” said Albert. “And a pickle to go with it. And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos bottle of milk.

And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.

And a cup custard and a spoon to eat it with.

What do you have?”

The whole book is so elegant and funny, with Frances’ silly, proto-sarcastic made-up songs that she uses to express her displeasure, and baby sister Gloria who “liked to practice on a green bean when she could.” It captures the essence of childhood, when you are figuring out how the world won’t always bend to your super-sized will and expectations. And it handles a parenting quandary so cleverly, without preaching: if Frances will only eat bread and jam, then that’s what she shall have…until she can’t take it one moment longer. I wish I could be so cool as these cartoon parent badgers.

What I am

Is tired of jam.

Even if I find myself in the middle of a hurry-up bedtime at the end of a very long day, and just want to whip through some board books instead of tackling some of the more wordy, ponderous books in our collection (because sometimes, like this New York Times writer, I’m Tired of Reading Out Loud to My Son, OK?), I will always stop for Frances. She’s always fun to read. And Russell Hoban seems to be the predecessor of another great writer of complicated, endearing young females, Kevin Henkes (Chrysanthemum, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Julius, the Baby of the World). Hoban and Henkes, both men, write as though they must have had little daughters they love and understand well. And my boys love these books as much as I do, and face many of the same travails.

So to celebrate fifty years of Frances, I’m going to have a special lunch. Maybe my cracker-loving sons will take a note and join me:

“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.

“And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.

I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,

and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.

And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.

And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles

and a spoon to eat it with.”

Girl, you deserve it! Happy birthday, Frances!

I saw Mommy dissing Santa Claus

Ho ho...no (Wikipedia)

Ho ho…no (Wikipedia)

Prepare yourself for a special holiday memory.

I’m seven years old. It’s Christmas time. My mother is leaning against the butcher block in the kitchen.

“I have to tell you something,” she said to me. She paused. She struggled to suppress a laugh. “There’s no such thing as Santa,” she said. And then the laughter came pealing out, like Christmas bells.

I think I said, “All right,” and then went on with my childhood. After all, we lived on one floor, so I could see the Christmas tree, and my parents putting presents under it, from my bed at night. Spoiler alert! If that was something people said in 1982.

And Christmas went on, too. We always hung stockings, got presents, and listened to worn cassettes of my father’s favorite carols. We drove around in the evenings to look at the neighborhood lights; we went to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. My father decorated a meticulous tree; my mother made Belgian waffles on Christmas morning. Glad tidings, comfort, joy, all of that.

I asked my mother about this special memory recently, to see if she would admit to it. “Oh yeah,” she said. “If I couldn’t have Christmas when I was little, why should anybody else?” she said in a sing-song voice. Her sense of humor saves her from being the cynic of the Western world.

My mother emigrated to New York from Italy when she was five years old. She was born in a tiny mountaintop town, in Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. The house she was born and lived in was built, like much of the town, around 1450. Dirt floors; smoking fires in the hearth; animals in the courtyard. There may have been a manger.

“There was no Christmas over there like here. We didn’t have much. Definitely no Santa,” she said. “Christmas was about going to church, the presepio [the Nativity scene], and the food.

“We didn’t have these endless supplies of food, everything was very limited. So whatever sugar or honey you had, you saved for Christmas.” My grandmother made Calabrese Christmas sweets, things we still love to eat, mainly variations on fried balls of dough dipped in honey or sugar: scalidi, struffoli, zeppole, turtiddi. And Christmas cookies. My husband likes to joke that cookies in my family are basically hard pieces of bread with sprinkles on them. But when you think about how getting sugar would mean walking an hour to the market town, it doesn’t seem so strange.

“And then, La Befana would come for Epiphany.” La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, in the form of a witch, left over from Pagan times, who comes on Epiphany Eve in January and fills stockings, certainly not plush ones with Snoopy on them like mine, with oranges, nuts, and candy. These things, part of my own children’s daily lives were cherished treats in Calabria. If you were bad, La Befana brought you coal. So that part translates. It’s the only part that does.

“When we got here, we didn’t speak English. We just didn’t get how Christmas was done,” my mother said. “The first year, we didn’t have a tree. We certainly didn’t have presents. Later we did have a tree, but Christmas was always a hard time. Your grandfather worked in construction, remember, so he was out of work all winter. So things were very lean until he could work again in the spring.” My mother was the youngest of five, with two sisters who were much older. “When they started working in the factory [they were seamstresses], I would get a doll, or they would make me a dress or a sweater. But still, the presents were the least of Christmas.”

Even in New York in the booming 1950s, where they had come to escape the want of the isolated villages of the Italian South, they still would hold sugar and honey in reserve till Christmas. I can see why the idea of Santa – even now, when we can dump entire pots of store-bought honey on trays of scalidi – would make you laugh, a little bit.

“But when we got married and you guys were little, we did Christmas the usual way. Your father always had that kind of a Christmas. Your grandparents would put up the Christmas tree on the 24th after all the kids were in bed, so they would wake up to a big surprise on Christmas morning. It was special for him. And Christmas was always special for you, too. But as for Santa, I don’t know. I just could never get into it.”

We gave Santa Claus lip service growing up, but I don’t have any memory of really believing, waiting for him to materialize in our house in the night. We didn’t have a chimney, so that didn’t help either. The presents, in my mind, were always from my parents, even though they kindly wrote “from Santa” on the labels. I have a friend whose parents did not go in much for Santa either. “We worked hard to buy those presents,” her mother told me. “Why should Santa get all the credit?” A fair point.

As for my all-American kids, two boys, ages six and three, are excited about Santa Claus. As is their privilege. And I encourage them to believe. But what I don’t want, especially when I think of how Christmas used to be for so many in my family, and how it still is for so many people, is for the focus of Christmas to be receiving gifts.

Instead, let it be sweet treats, bright lights on cold nights, being good to each other. My three-year-old is thrilled to screaming at the sight of Christmas lights glowing in the dark; I would rather him hold on to that wonder than the mystery of a man in red bearing judgment, and Legos.

That’s not to say those two will wake up on Christmas morning to a house full of nothing but the smell of good cheer. I look forward to treating them at this time of year. What I don’t want is to dangle the old man in front of them as a threat, and tell them he’ll turn the sleigh around if they are not good; if they don’t stop yelling; if they don’t pick up their toys, or eat their vegetables. That doesn’t seem right.

So, how to handle Saint Nick? Short of calling the boys into the kitchen to deliver some bad tidings?

“Am I a good boy?” my six-year-old asked me the other day. I could see he was apprehensive of the judgment that was coming, the ups and downs of his behavior that year dancing through his head.

“Listen to me,” I held his face, looked him in the eyes. “You are a good boy. Let’s end the suspense. Santa is coming for you.”

His eyes widened. “But can he see what I am doing? Can he see me when I do things that aren’t good?”

“Santa can see that you have a good heart. You are a good brother. You are a good friend. Even good boys make mistakes sometimes, and he knows that. Everybody makes mistakes. But he knows you are good. So just keep showing him the good boy you are inside, OK?”

I guess the best thing about Santa is that it gives you something magical to believe in, in the bleakest nights of midwinter. So let him believe. But also let him believe in the good within himself, year round.

And let him believe that Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us. And has the same handwriting as me. Wouldn’t that be magical?

 

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: Holiday Kids’ Table Menu

A cone and holly.

Welcome back to Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe, where we serve only the finest, locally-sourced foods that your kids will be sure to love.  Just eat it over there, at the kids’ table, please.

Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? At holiday time, Fussy Mother’s makes no distinction. Any time of the day is right for these holiday favorites!

*****

Advent calendar chocolate upon waking, today’s square only, I said

Homemade popcorn garland Ninja Turtle band-aids

Dreidel gelt from last year everybody wins

Freshly trampled snow, cancelled school, 2003 Cab Franc

Grandma’s gingersnaps IKEA checkout, allen wrench, mmmm Swedish Christmas

Candy-cane shiv KNOCK IT OFF

Seven fishes stew minus seven fishes  so, spaghetti then

Spit-roasted elf-on-the-shelf watch it, Elfie

Carrots for reindeer take these from my lunchbox

Cookies for Santa Daddy looks sluggish today

Spiral ham not as fun as it sounds

Christmas Day Lasagna better on Boxing Day, everyone knows that

Neighborhood berries, so bright and red eat just one more and you will be dead

New Year’s champagne at 9pm

Happy Holidays from Fussy Mother!

English: A group of children at Christmas dinner.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Previous seasonal, wholesome menus from Fussy Mother:

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: Today’s Menu

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: First Day of School Menu

The spoiled child: how do you surprise younger siblings?

Spoiler alert! Six-year-olds love Star Wars. Particularly in Lego format. I was that age myself when The Empire Strikes Back came out. I remember the tie-in Happy Meal I received.  And I remember being lined up in a school hallway with my first-grade class, and the hot topic was Darth Vader, I think, and his relationship to uh, somebody, I won’t spoil it for you in case you are one of the few people in the world who hasn’t seen the movie.

Oh wait a second, I just Wikipedia’d the release date for The Empire Strikes Back. Revision: the movie I remember being discussed in the hallway, actually, wasn’t The Empire Strikes Back, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark. [That's right, I remember now: everyone just called it "Raiders" to sound cool, and no one cared to discuss the theatrical re-release of Cinderella I had seen...right right.] In any case, it was some adventure thing I didn’t care about and didn’t see. It’s Harrison Ford in some macho role or other. It’s all the same to me. The Happy Meal was definitely TM George Lucas, though.

Rats, that would have been a great lead-in to this post. But I digress. Back to the point: it occurs to me, as I look around my house, where I live with a six-year-old boy, and a three-year-old boy, and their Star Wars-loving father, Lucas detritus is everywhere. There are Lego Star Wars figurines strewn about the floor in every room, some with heads, some not; the series DVDs are never far from the TV set. When we play in the backyard, we don’t need swings, or even a ball; all that’s required is a few large sticks that become lightsavers (“They’re lightsabres! Even I know that,” I keep telling them). Roles are assigned, and there’s a battle royale; the boys alternate being Luke Skywalker and Hans (sorry – Han!) Solo, and I am usually assigned C3PO, or Princess Leia, and halfheartedly swing my sabre while trying to make the point that Princess Leia doesn’t need saving; she’s fighting bad guys too.

Even when the six-year-old is at school discussing the minutiae of the planet Hoth with his compadres, and we’re at play on our own, the three-year-old still wants to pick up some sticks and fight bad guys in space. He still wants to be Luke Skywalker through most of his day.

When my older son was that age, he was more interested in The Wiggles: things that were cozy and sweet.  His father didn’t introduce Star Wars to him until he was well over the age of four (he waited as long as he could stand). Things are different this time around; with an older brother around to worship and emulate, the little one is growing up so fast, all consumed with the epic battle for good over evil, so he can stay in step with his idol.

Those “few people in the world” I mentioned earlier, who have not seen the Star Wars franchise? Aside from grown-ups who don’t care for space games, who else can those people be, but little brothers and sisters? And how do we stop them from being exposed to secrets they are not ready to learn yet? Like the fact that you-know-who is you-know-who’s father?

As much as I like to make fun of my family for their adulation of George Lucas, the Star Wars films (and no, I don’t mean the ones with Hayden Christiansen, I know I know) are absolute classics, and it is one of the wonders of childhood to watch them and revel in their big moments. It’s almost like Christmas morning, the look of surprise on the face of a kid when the moment of truth comes in The Empire Strike Back; it’s like unwrapping an enormous gift. But it can only happen once.

At three, my little one is not ready for that revelation. It’s one thing to play at using the Force in the backyard, but he is simply too little to watch the films, where the violence is of a much more intense variety that a backyard twig fight. But when the background noise of his daily life with big brother is all Star Wars, all the time, how do we make sure that he will stay unspoiled, so that he can enjoy that moment to its fullest, gasp-inducing extent when he is ready for it?

This conundrum goes beyond Star Wars as well. My six-year-old’s teeth are falling out at an alarming pace and I, as Tooth Fairy, like to leave him a surprise under his pillow from time to time instead of cold, impersonal cash. But the three -year-old, as my personal shopping assistant, is very astute, and saw the special electric toothbrush I bought for his brother and tried to hide at the bottom of the cart, behind boring things like toilet paper and vegetables.  Did he make the connection the following morning when the same toothbrush appeared? If he did, he still doesn’t have the words to express it. But someday, perhaps sooner than he should, he might just put it all together.

And how will he believe in Santa, when his brother no longer believes? And the Easter Bunny? Not to mention every other book or movie his brother will read or see ahead of him. It’s powerful ammunition to have, this information, and I hope it is a long time before big brother realizes that he can wield it.

In the throes of busy days, I can’t police every moment. I can keep him from watching Star Wars on TV, but I can’t ensure that the boys’ playacting is spoiler-free. For now, I can only rely on the fact that three is still very young.  As incredible as his capacity to remember every kind of detail is, his ability to forget is almost as strong. He was, as I am sure he has forgotten, a baby not too long ago. But then again, they change and grow faster than my parenting can keep pace with, so that might not be true for very much longer.

Tomorrow morning, the Tooth Fairy will likely have been here. And that (spoiler alert!) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sticker book might look awfully familiar to a little certain someone. Maybe I will just stick to cash.

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: First Day of School Menu

Apologies from Fussy Mother that the cafe (and blog) have been closed for so long. We have relocated our establishment from suburban Boston to coastal Connecticut over the summer.

In honor of the First Day of School in our new town, Fussy Mother presents a special menu, filled with the flavors of our new seaside surroundings, and sprinkled with a dash of the glee that accompanies the sight of a school bus heading away from the house.

So please, enjoy.

Breakfast

(NOT served all day)

Local berries lightly picked over

Three–hundredth consecutive daily waffle real syrup: Mrs Butterworth’s will be detected and refused

Alphabet cereal educational, when tired of three-hundredth consecutive waffle

Blueberry scones from the supermarket in our old town (not available)

Yogurt if you want to be a big strong boy

Eggs any style don’t you dare

Box lunch

Nutella sandwich does that count as nut-free

PB&J “for babies”

Heirloom Wheat Thins moving-van aged, summer

Baby carrots also made the journey

Loving note from Mom feel free to disregard

Round-trip Go-Gurt let’s not kid ourselves

Fresh water BPA free, good first impression

Monsters, Inc. juice box available next week

Nutella

Nutella (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After-School Snack

(served al fresco)

Snake jerky street pressed

Fisher cat poop never heard of such a thing in Boston

“10-foot diet” berries red, STOP!

Fresh clams salt marsh, local guy, bucket, good luck

Resident grasshoppers down the hatch

Dinner

(two-bite mininum)

Connecticut pizza universally better than Massachusetts, whole reason for moving

Untouched pasta affront to Italian mother

Most expensive available organic sausage SIT DOWN

Macaroni and cheese everyone else in the world likes it but you

Breaded chicken ditto

Quiet lobster roll at marina, sunset in your dreams

Easter candy finish it before Halloween

Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East...

Our new environs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The legend of Zelda and Zoe

Zelda with her new boss, Zoe.

Zelda with her new boss, Zoe. Note: not my mother pictured, but our dear aunt Pom Pom.

It makes me sad to think of how most of my daily childhood treasures have probably ended up in a trash heap somewhere. Well, I’m not the only sad one; think of the Toy Story franchise. But it’s sad nonetheless. Whatever happened, for instance, to my Communist Barbie? Someone had to play Miss U.S.S.R. in our makeshift Miss Universe pageants in the basement playroom. So I cut off her matted blonde hair into a spiky do, and Barbie became a breadline-hardened Brigitte Nielsen that always came second to Miss U.S.A. I can pretend she’s keeping other similarly-shorn, well-loved Barbies, Kens, and Skippers company in a cozy daycare somewhere, but, more likely, no claw ever could save her from the fires that awaited.

As you can tell by my lack of respect for Barbie’s golden locks, I didn’t have the most girly of girlhoods. I slept in a yellow bedroom, and wore red and gold Danskin playsets to nursery school, or plaid kilts. My mother didn’t care much for pink, or princesses, which is fair enough. She also wasn’t that sentimental about things, nor did she ever imagine that these toys that she eventually tossed had hearts and feelings of their own. A wise lesson for a harsh world. I tried to take that lesson on, but I still can’t ever throw out a piece of paper with my mother’s handwriting on it, no matter how many school worksheets of mine would have been recycled, if recycling had been a thing when I was in school.

Now, as I fill acid-free boxes upon boxes with my son’s kindergarten scribbles, I realize I have to relegate some to the great recycling bin in the sky, if I don’t want to appear on an episode of Hoarders. And I understand my mother’s drive to declutter; I can hardly see clear to the end of a day if I need to wade past piles of kid stuff to get there.

So the best drawings get kept, and the coloring sheets and letter practice go. I wonder which of my boys’ possessions will still be here when we are all older? I have a few ideas (a scruffy teddy bear, a huge bin of Legos no one will ever make sense of again, a tattered copy of Captain Underpants).

Never to be recycled.

Never to be recycled.

My two boys like to get fawning attention by kissing the odd baby doll, and cruise each other toward bruisin’s in a doll stroller I bought them, but they are really not interested in inheriting mine. Though Communist Barbie got tossed just as the Berlin Wall came down, my childhood baby doll Zelda is still around, and she’s found a new home: with my sister’s daughter, one-year-old Zoe. It was meant to be! The two Z’s, Zelda and Zoe, zestily zipping together to Zanzibar, or Zagreb, or somewhere. New Zealand.

My parents gave me Zelda when I was a baby. She wasn’t fluffy, or pink: she had a hard plastic head and arms, yellow hay-like hair, and a red and white dress. And I schlepped her around the house dutifully like many a baby would. And now, Zoe sweetly does the same. Zoe and Zelda.

IMG_7229

I asked my mother why she named my doll Zelda. Surely that name wasn’t on the box. I though maybe because she wasn’t the daintiest of baby dolls, or looked slightly witch-like, that the name fit. It was too soon to name her after The Legend of Zelda, the videogame, so that wasn’t it.

“We decided that we were going to start at the end of the alphabet,” my mom said. “So I thought of Zelda. There was that girl, Zelda, on Dobie Gillis, I think I got the name from her. Zelda was always the smarty-pants in the gang.” My only other association with the early 1960’s TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, is that Gilligan was on it, as the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. But the show was cancelled long before I was born. Long, I repeat, before.

dobiezelda

I appreciate that my mom chose to name my doll after a “smarty-pants,” and not some gooey, helpless, princess type. Thanks to Zelda, and my mother, I consider myself a smarty-pants to this day. It’s not a bad way to be. Because Wikipedia was invented for such smarty-pants who need answers fast, I decided to look up what happened to the original Zelda, the actress Sheila Kuehl.

It turns out she went to Harvard Law School and became the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature! Way to carry the flag for the smarty-pants of the world, Sheila Kuehl!

I am glad that my Zelda, saved from the fire, is now with my little Zoe. And hopefully, starting with Zelda and her raggedy endurance, I can pass onto Zoe all the things I learned since the doll was my own: to start with the back of the alphabet, go your own way, be a smarty-pants, and take care of what’s important, what’s your own. Especially, future Zoe, your poor old aunt. Will you take future me to the library and the diner when my future sons have forgotten to call? Please, future Zoe?

[This post was written for the WordPress Daily Prompt: Prized Possessions. Question: Describe an item you were incredibly attached to as a child. What became of it?]

Fussy Mother’s Locavore Cafe: Today’s Menu

 

Légumes

Welcome to Fussy Mother’s. All menu items are micro-local, carefully sourced from a five-block radius of Fussy Mother’s. Menu items vary seasonally and with the vacuuming schedule. 

Libations

Snow local boot mud, Massachusetts gravel

Housemade yogurt shake milk-flavored, November sippy-cup

Apple juice half town tap water, virtuous

Dregs recycle-bin wine bottle

Beginnings

School gym Cheerio native dust rabbit

Couch Goldfish damp leather sous-vide, oatmeal-crusted owl-head bowl

Year-old robin’s egg nest of pencil shavings, shredder paper

Shaped crackers native Lego

Backyard scourge mint call it basil if you want

Fridge-aged baby carrots lightly orange, dry

Stop & Shop Cereal Bar unwrapped, no TV

Apple squeezer stained car seat, I-95

Additional Goldfish when I get around to it

lego

Middles

Lunchbox contents available till dinner

Freezer chunk brown, ice crust, saddish peas

Sidewalk pine cone rain-stewed, not poop

Native dumplings plastic bag, 1994 Nissan, organic soy sauce

Found PB&J bitten, French-like jam

Meatballs backyard tomatoes, grandmother watching

White oak acorn mash driveway shards, chipmunk pee

Braised chicken cookbook-sourced, yuzu, wild rice, asparagus, deal with it

Sal’s pizza you liked it yesterday

Roasted farm share root vegetables for decoration

Afters

Girl Scout Cookies pushiest local troop

American chocolate fun-sized, Halloween 2011

Pez Spider-Man, with please and thank you

Mandatory apple peeled, or “whole bites”

Cheese plate wrapped stick, finger pinches of grated romano, no thank you

Your table awaits.

Your table awaits.

God forbid you provide your mother with gratuity 18% of the time
You won’t eat eggs so we don’t have to worry about how raw or cooked they are

Enjoy!

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)

A mid-winter’s whine

Boston Winter 2

Ugh (Photo credit: DanielCon)

[WARNING: this post contains a Downton Abbey spoiler. I know it seems weird but it comes up. Thanks!]

I don’t care if that blasted groundhog saw his shadow and said that spring was coming. It’s not, OK? I can see well enough out my window, you wretched ball of fur, and here in New England we are still in the deep, bleak, midwinter. And I’m coming out of my own personal burrow, filled with muddy boots and half-heartedly made indoor crafts, to tell you: winter with little kids…sucks. I was trying to think of some other, more elegant way to say it, but it sucks. That’s what it does. So, Punxatawney Phil,  you can tell all those old dudes in top hats to just calm down. We’ve got a long way to go.

I know I’m stating the obvious, but can we just commiserate for a minute? Maybe five? Can I ask you to read a few of my invernal complaints? Before I became a mother I used to love winter. The silence of the falling snow, and how it looked blue in the dusk. Cozy evenings in front of the TV watching The Sopranos or whatever drama everyone used to carry on about at the time. I remember, one President’s Day in Cambridge, we got 27 inches of snow. That’s OK! we said, all rosy cheeked and cheery, and we put on our boots and marched out to dinner down the middle of the street. Throughout the harsh winter, our daily routine would just go on, with a little added inconvenience, maybe, and a lot of romance derived from gazing at hushed scenes of trees covered in white.

Now, even without 27 inches of snow, even on just an average winter day, having kids makes winter wickedly more complicated. For starters: tack an extra million minutes on to getting ready for school, or going anywhere, to pull on snow pants, boots, hats, mittens, and huge winter jackets. Remember the scene in A Christmas Story, in which the mother heaves and grimaces as she puts her five-year-old into snow gear? “You can put your arms down when you get to school!” All these years later, and even in these salad days of high-performance heavy weather gear, it’s still just as much of a grind. It’s like a full-on wrestling match before 8 am. And still the geniuses at all the gear companies that produce such beautiful catalogs cannot engineer a mitten that will stay on the mitts of a two-year-old who wants to eat an awful lot of filthy snow on the way to school drop-off.

Now tack on another million minutes, maybe more, for all the additional tantrums that winter brings. I’ve realized, after spending so much time indoors with two little boys in the cold and day-shortened dark, how much good it does them to spend their free hours out-of-doors, as they do the rest of the year. How good it is for their spirits to just throw on a pair of sneakers and run outside, unencumbered by layers of clothes, and patches of ice, and blistering wind that can knock a child down (and did, just yesterday). Plus, a poor two-year-old, no matter how much he wants to go outside and play in the snow, spends much more time out there on his face than romping around. So an intrepid expedition out into the snow, like the one we had this morning, is usually very short and cold and involves carrying a doubly-heavy toddler in boots up and down stairs and over snowbanks that he has just fallen into. Tiring. I may just have a tantrum myself. I wouldn’t put it past me.

Enough already.

Enough already.

Once indoors, and stir-crazy, we are scrapping over toys, doing crafts for five minutes before tossing them aside, or taking magic markers to walls, before it’s Movie Time! Somehow, letting your child watch TV for a while so you can get some peace or do some chores sounds less bad if you call it Movie Time! rather than Several Episodes of Max and Ruby Time! On the bill today, while the little one sleeps and I write this: The Empire Strikes Back. And by the way, I will say this to you since I can’t say it to my son, I SO DO NOT CARE what happens to whomever on the ice planet Hoth! I LIVE ON THE ICE PLANET HOTH and it sucks so I don’t need to hear any more lectures about it thank you.

So there’s the slog of coats and boots and falling over and buried cars and no parking and crowded supermarkets where everyone is shopping for Armageddon and school snow days and weeks on end where we pass the same colds around to each other and cancelled travel and playdates and weak sunshine and then Downton Abbey has to go and end and SPOILER ALERT Matthew up and dies so you have to transfer your crush to Dr Clarkson (you’re too good for her!) and it’s months until Breaking Bad starts again so there’s nothing on and I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! Is it Easter yet?

Still, as wearying and frustrating as winter is, I know that what we go through these days is nothing like what people once suffered before central heating and Patagonia puffer coats were invented. Times when winter meant an autumn of preparing and stockpiling food, which you hoped would last, and might not; when homes and lives were much more vulnerable to the cruel, harsh elements, and were often taken by the deep cold. It makes me think of the old poem Beowulf, which I love, and picture in my mind to be set in a perfectly dark world, where it’s always a cold night in the north of Europe. Where the only brightness comes from within the mead halls, glowing gold with fire and drink, yet still open to attack from beasts, like Grendel, from the edges of consciousness. In the poem, and in those dark days, lives were measured by winters survived. Life was harder. You think I’m in a bad mood? Just look at Grendel’s mother. And who could blame her?

Grendel's Den: now a pleasant watering hole in Harvard Square (Wikipedia)

Grendel’s Den: now a pleasant watering hole in Harvard Square (Wikipedia)

Now, we get through winter, wrapped in blankets of heat, and electricity, and TV weathermen who warn us, with great alarm and fancy graphics, to prepare for every inch of snow and gust of wind that might threaten our cocoons of comfortable existence. But even though that immediacy, that shivering rush for survival, is gone for most of us, winter still gets under our skin. No amount of Gore-Tex can change the fact that nature is still our master. It changes our moods, our outlook; it governs our daily lives. We’ve got cabinets of snacks to sustain us and can go buy watermelon once the winds let up, but those winters of old are still out there, they’re in our bones and the way we bristle at the weather report. With every ice dam or snow drift we battle, we are like the people of Beowulf, “deep in their hearts/they remembered hell.” Even if hell for us now might mean the cable going out.

I know what some of you might be thinking: “Why don’t you move to California or something if you hate winter so much?” No, I’m not doing that. Have you seen Annie Hall? And don’t worry, April and May will pass soon enough and I’ll be on to complaining about schlepping kids around in the heat.

Five Uninterrupted Minutes? The title is self-explanatory. I’ll explain anyway

The kind people at WordPress send all manner of emails to its users to help us trudge our way to successful blogging. Which I appreciate; I need all the help I can get. If WordPress has any advice on how to get two little boys to brush their teeth without slapping each other, I’d gladly take that too.

One of those emails is the Daily Prompt. Usually I don’t take the prompt, because I am working on something else, but today, I will:

Explain why you chose your blog’s title and what it means to you.

I started this blog nearly a year ago because my husband started one too, and I figured, well, if marriage be a battle, I can’t let him beat me on this one. I have always considered myself a writer, but wasn’t writing much post-children, and so the gladiatorial spirit of marriage spurred me to action.

So a few days after his (very good, I must admit) blog went up, I registered at WordPress as well, not knowing what I was going to write about, and not knowing when I would do it. But I figured facing a virtual empty page, looming in cyberspace, might help get me going again.

And I told myself, I don’t need to write the Great American Novel. At least not yet. The blogging format is forgiving; speed is of the essence; it’s more important that you put something out there, that’s decent, and readable, then closet yourself with anguished draft after draft. So I thought I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself, or require myself to set aside hours on end to write. I would try to get hold of an idea, whatever it was, and spend five minutes (metaphorically – more like 20) writing it, closing my eyes, and pressing Publish. And if anyone read it, that would be great; and if not, then at least I was doing something, rather than upsetting myself about all the time I spend not writing.

So I just picked a title that illustrated one of my main obstacles: time. One of the things I find most challenging about motherhood, especially stay-at-home motherhood, but it certainly applies to working parents as well, is that I cannot finish one task without being interrupted. Just writing these sentences, my two-year-old, T, has required my attention five times. Five times I’ve lost my train of thought. Five times I’ve had to start again. Wait, I have to get him something, I’ll be right back.

OK. It’s like that old commercial for Mirena, that IUD (I know), where a bubbly woman is standing in front of a rapidly changing background listing all the things she would do in five years (“Move…to Memphis!”), and it ends with her saying, “Finish a book. Finish a sentence!” That commercial always annoyed me with it’s teeth-gritting cheerfulness, but I guess it’s aimed straight at my demographic (like the Honda CR-V). Because (wait, there’s T again) I cannot finish a damned thing without being interrupted.

And that lack of forward motion is frustrating. Overall, my life as a mother is hurtling forward, no many how many times I stumble in a day. The boys keep growing, learning new things; they get better all the time. But, from hour to hour, there are so many fits and starts. Someone falls over. Someone cries, won’t put their shoes on, spills something, needs something, has to be somewhere. So the laundry is always half-folded, there are dishes in the sink; breakfast (which I didn’t even eat) to clean up; emails to catch up on; on and on.

And so, not having time to while away hours finding the most perfect, just this side of twee blog title, the kind I envy and can’t come up with on my own, I called this blog Five Uninterrupted Minutes. Which is what I would need to find to get my writing moving forward, just one small step at a time.

Now, this is not the greatest title, I can see now. It’s long. It’s kind of whiny. And it’s incredibly easy to misspell Uninterrupted. I’ve done it three times already today. But I’m stuck with it. And I’m still looking for that time, so it fits.

There are so many things I should be doing this morning instead of standing at my sticky kitchen counter, writing this. I meant to go to Target to buy animal crackers for C’s 100th Day of Kindergarten Celebration, which technically must be pushed back two days because of this infernal snowstorm. But, in the narrow, post 27-inches-of-snow streets of Boston, the traffic is still bad, and I don’t think I can get out of my driveway much less make it to Watertown. I also need to buy paper towels, tin foil, garlic, which I forgot at the supermarket yesterday because I was distracted by repeatedly crashing one of those carts with a Cozy Coupe attached to the front (Why?!). I also have to buy nail polish remover, because I got halfway through removing my toenail polish and starting again when I reached the bottom of the bottle. (What color are the most stylish, harried mothers wearing these days? Essie’s Power Clutch!)

But one thing that the blog has done for me in the past year, as it forces me to find those Five Uninterrupted Minutes (got to go back and correct spelling), is make me stop, and take a few minutes for myself when I can. The dishes can wait. The phone can ring, as it’s doing right now. The house and its contents, human and otherwise, do not have to be in perfect, spit-shined condition for me to take some time to write. And that’s been a good lesson.

Nevertheless, my five minutes is up. This is my fiftieth post, and I hope in the next few days I can post another, something that’s been sitting half-finished in a folder for a while. That will feel good. The snow is melting, the flu is retreating, spring is coming. Down the line, the kids will get older, and the five minutes I look for will expand to ten, and fifteen, as they aren’t so little and don’t need me so urgently, every minute of the day. And as overwhelming as that can feel now, I’m sure I will miss that feeling someday. But right now, there is a dirty diaper with my name on it. That I won’t miss so much, I can tell you.

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