Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maine, in gray.

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall [. . .]
-- Longfellow

And suddenly, the weather has turned. The sky is as heavy steel and there is a freezing drizzle making everything miserable, cold, damp and generally icky. Not the best day, perhaps, to take a walk, but with Blueberry and Buttercup nearly crawling up the walls, (well, Buttercup's version is simply to whine incessantly, whereas Blueberry nearly shakes the house down), I pack up the car full of stroller, child, baby and snacks, and venture down the road to one of our favorite little villages. The passersby in their cozy cars (ok, trucks, as it is mostly lobsterfolk), must think we are a bit crazy, bundled and trundling down the road pushing Buttercup's bright red stroller; a brazen and conspicuous sight we must be in the gray, dark Maine day.

(I confess, she is impossibly cute, despite her somber look here)

Close to Halloween, there is something ethereally spooky about a cold day in an old Maine village. The girls and I are shivering, not just from the cold. This is why Stephen King can write such epically creepy stories. There is something a wee bit haunted about Maine in the off-season, especially here on the coast where we go from bustling to dead in the space of a month or two.

There's also something Puritanical about days like this. Everything seems stark at the end of October, stark and bare and necessary, somehow. Without the ornament of sun or full-flowering vegetation, the world seems like it's plodding home from church after sitting in straight-backed and freezing pews, huddled against in the wind in plain gray woolens, careful not to let its ankles or wrists show, as if, once a brazen summer hussy, it has repented its beauty and become sparse, practical, and recalcitrant.

The mood affects us. It's not unpleasant, exactly, but I think we feel it as we trudge a bit faster than usual. When you're outside in this weather, it's hurrying weather. Hurry, don't dawdle. Hurry, little ones, hurry home to your holes and caves, burrows and bracken-hidden dens. There's nothing to see here, the wind seems to say. Even the usually effervescent Blueberry seems a little somber, focused.

Still, we keep our eyes open for the beauty. The earth's new found autumnal modesty is still unable to hide the remnants of past glory. We keep our eyes open for our "news of the little world," as we always do, and it is still there.

In the last of the ancient variety of green apples clinging to the gray branches.

In the golden pine needle and leaf-strewn puddle, allowing the rain to ripple its dark surface.

In the gentle show of wild rose-hips, a reminder of the roses that were boisterously blossoming throughout the hedges. It is there. It was the sort of beauty you don't notice. Not showy, not full or ripe or obvious.

Longfellow's poem goes on to say that we must have days like this. Gray and gloom there must be.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Without these days, how could we even see the sun? How could we appreciate its warmth on our skin unless we had felt the bite of cold? Longfellow was a true New Englander. He understood the austere beauty of it, its contrast of seasons. He would have approved of our walk.

The afternoon is passing as the old year is. I've been teaching Blueberry about rhythms lately. The day has a pattern as rhythmic as music, as poetry. It's time to return home - the beat of the day calls for it, as much as Buttercup cries to be nursed. Home now, as the rain comes colder, the wind freshens and the steel sky turns to lead.

i am singing the cold rain
i am singing the winter dawn
i am turning in the gray morning
of my life
toward home
---Lance Henderson, translated from Cheyenne by the author

Sunday, October 16, 2011


For thee, my own sweet sister, in thy heart
I know myself secure, as thou in mine;
We were and are—I am, even as thou art—
Beings who ne'er each other can resign. [...]
Lord Byron, from "Epistle to Augusta"

I remember being so happy when the ultrasound technician told us that he was 98% sure I was carrying another girl. I thought, immediately, yay! Sisters! Then I thought, hmmm, sisters. I grew up with three younger sisters and it was both wonderful and fraught with trial. Sisters can be mean. Sisters can be sneaky and hurtful and wreck your awesome stuff. Sisters might not throw rocks at you or give your favorite doll to the family dog, but they might exclude you from their games, make you use the broken teacup at the tea parties, read your super secret diary, or pinch you during church so you yelp and get in trouble. I immediately related to how my Blueberry might feel. Uh-oh. A little crying sister taking over the house! A little mewling, useless bit of a no-fun thing.

For Sale

One sister for sale!
One sister for sale!
One spying and crying young sister for sale!
I'm really not kidding,
So who'll start the bidding?
Do I hear a dollar?
A nickel?
A penny?
Oh, isn't there, isn't there, is there any
One kid who will buy this old sister for sale,
This crying and spying young sister for sale?
-- Sheldon Allan Silverstein

There is something momentous about giving your child a sibling, and finding out I was giving Blueberry a sister made me feel almost sorry when I started thinking about it selfishly. I was three years old when my younger sister was born and for years I was haunted and embarrassed by my bratty voice on an family old cassette tape - "No, me! My turn! Not her. No, me, me." My poor sister was just innocently trying to learn how to coo and babble but the adult in me understands now the desperation in that little three-year old's tone. Listen to me! Hey, I was here first. What the heck is going on here? I can speak in full sentences and that useless lump can only make weird noises. How can you love her so much?

As we grew older, there was the question of "fairness." This, such a silly notion to an adult (life is unfair, kid, etc), is of the utmost importance to children, but when you have siblings, and I think especially to siblings of the same gender, it is almost ALL you think about. We used to measure and compare to no end all our things, parental attention, the chore division. . . oh, it exhausts me to think that this is coming. Everything has to be fair, the same, there can be no question of favoritism. Even if there is no favoritism, children will perceive it or fabricate the illusion of it. I always had the sneaking suspicion that my parents' second child (not me) was their favorite. This led me to wonder if you really can love equally. It's weird, but now I know you can. Until you have at least two children, you will never ever be able to understand that feeling, so I worried that Blueberry would feel that way too. Crap. I am going to give my daughter a complex, perhaps for life. I figured it wasn't going to be easy to transition from this...

(Mama E and Blueberry, pre-Buttercup)

to this...

(Mama E and Buttercup)

When Buttercup came along, I braced myself for tantrums, tears, for having to give Blueberry extra love and attention, extra gifts. Another of my sisters had famously announced at the birth of my youngest sister (yes, this does get confusing), "Yucky baby, yucky Mommy!" But the moment I had anticipated, the moment I said, "Aaah, there it is," and watched my dear Blueberry feel undone and unloved in the presence of sister-interloper, never actually came. Sure, we've seen some little changes in behavior; the need for validation, closeness with her parents, some "showing off," etc., but never have I seen animosity, distress, sadness. In fact, Blueberry has insisted upon hold Buttercup's hands, giving her kisses, singing to her, helping me change her, and lying down next to her whenever they sleep or nap.

(My girls, when Buttercup was about a month old)

It's been the best-case scenario. Blueberry has fully embraced her role as an older sister. She proudly announces to me, "I'm a great big sister!" And sometimes she needs us to confirm that, "I'm being a good big sister, right?" It's really beyond sweet. It makes my heart go to complete mush. The reason I had to write this post today was that, as we were riding in the car (to one of my sisters' houses, oh, the layers!), Blueberry reached over and took Buttercup's hand as she was falling asleep and whispered, "I need to hold my baby sister's hand while she is sleeping. That way she won't be afraid."

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was called Big Sister and Little Sister by Charlotte Zolotow. The book is the simplest and yet most profound of tales about the dynamic of sisters. The "big" sister in the book looks after the "little" sister. She mothers her, watches out for her, cares for her, makes sure she is always safe, wipes away her little sister's tears. The little sister looks up to the big sister. There is nothing big sister can't do. One day little sister gets fed up with being told what to do and runs away and hides. She ignores big sister's calls, even when they come close to where she is hiding. Finally, she hears big sister break down into fearful, inconsolable tears. She decides to come out of hiding and wipe big sisters tears away. She realizes that she is needed. "And from that day on little sister and big sister both took care of each other ..." Big sister needed little sister just as much as little sister needed big sister. Simple as that.

As we grow up, this is what remains. As Margaret Mead says, "Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship." I've discovered, despite not always feeling this way, that it's better to have a sister (or three) than not.

We have each other, always, but really, we need each other.

(Mama E and sisters)

Maybe that's what is so sweet about Blueberry holding Buttercup's hand while she's sleeping. Maybe she's not just being a protective big sister. Maybe she is the one who is afraid when she goes to sleep and the warm weight of a chubby baby hand resting on her girlish fingers is exactly what she needs.

Sometimes I say I’m going to meet my sister at the café—
even though I have no sister—just because it’s such
a beautiful thing to say. [...]
Karin Gottshall from "More Lies"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pumpkin "Festibal"

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."
-- Henry David Thoreau

It may seem overly quaint, almost too preciously New England-y for a town on the coast of Maine to hold a Pumpkin Fest every year in October. It is, a bit, but strangely, it's also fun, amusing, and wonderful to have an entire town turn itself upside-down for a field-grown vegetable, er, fruit. (Berry, actually? Really?) I do enjoy seeing the pumpkin turned into art and decoration around town...

Here's the fun part. It's not just prettily carved and painted pumpkins. It's also giant pumpkins made into boats captained by foolhardy but admirable locals...

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Or my sweet Blueberry's ultimate favorite event...

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Yup. Giant pumpkins smashing into old cars. Awesome. Seriously, that is why we go to Pumpkin fest. It's fun to walk around town, admiring the handiwork of our friends and neighbors upon the bulbous berries of late fall, eat unctuous pumpkin donuts and drink cider, perhaps do a little showing off of our own sweet pumpkinhead...

Or play a little Pumpkin Plinko...

... but at the end of the day it's all about giant pumpkins smashing into old cars.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease ...

from "To Autumn" by John Keats

To start out with Keats may not be the best way to begin. His lines aren't quite as boisterous as I'd like - not quite as long and lithe and lovely the way I think of the autumn, but they are beautiful. He manages to stuff into his line the exact words you want to think of when you think of autumn. "Load, swell, plump, fruit, apples, gourd, hazel..." wonderful. I taught Blueberry to yell that first line, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!" because it just has such a good "mouth feel." The way the s's slip on your tongue and the alliteration is just gorgeous. Just like a big poetic bite of apple pie or spoonful of spiced pumpkin soup. I digress. Keats has a way of bringing out this on-the-verge-of-cliche romanticism in me. I feel rich and old-fashioned when I read Keats. Autumn is rich. I've suddenly noticed autumn; I never paid much mind to as a child and young adult, preferring the showy glory of spring and summer. But autumn is rich, mellow, heavy with ripeness and spice. Perhaps I'm getting old, hence my new fondness for autumn and the Romantics. Autumn used to excite me because of the smell of new books, the plunge into new classes, the beginning of semester zeal that grabbed me. Now it's more of a mellow appreciation, to borrow Keats' word. A time to enjoy the briony blackening on the vine, to watch the harvest burden the shelves and stalls of our local farmers market, to think about gathering in, storing, making fast the plenty.

It's easy to become discontented, I've noticed. I see it in my sweet Blueberry even. She, in her honest way, wants more, demands more, the more she sees what others have. You look around your home, your life, and instead of seeing what is present, you see lack. I recently, if you've been reading my posts you'll understand, went through a binge of cleaning out stuff. Unloading. I took a lot of Blueberry's toys to our local Goodwill, clothes and shoes to the Planet Aid box. It felt great. Blueberry wasn't so sure. Things she'd rarely played with suddenly became precious. I tried to explain to her that if we had less, she'd appreciate what we had more. That concept, clearly lost on a four year old, appealed to me. I really thought it was true. Less is more, right? The less you have, the less you need. It makes sense.

The truth is that we don't have less. One quick ride in the car on a sunny autumn afternoon to our local farm market proved me wrong. Blueberry got out of the car and ran amongst a veritable sea of pumpkins and gourds, exclaiming, "Look at all this treasure!"

To look around at the bounty of the harvest, to see it as treasure along with my daughter, suddenly filled me with a rich contentment. We're incredibly fortunate to live where we live - the bounty of sea and soil is ours for the taking, for the storing, for the stocking up and tucking in. We were able to buy eggs, honey, syrup, tomatoes, strawberries (yes, in October!), grapes, gourds, pumpkins, zucchini, flowers, cider and apples. All grown or harvested right here. It was humbling and satisfying to see what lay waiting for us to gather.

We got to fill our baskets to the brim and then some. We got to take it all home and stow it tidily in the refrigerator, cupboards, pantry. Blueberry helps me joyfully unload the baskets and says, "Wow, we have enough for a feast!" It's true. This is the season of overflow. Of vines and branches dripping with fruit. Nature puts on an almost gluttonous funeral feast for the dying year and we get to reap her bounty. We are the kings of autumn.