Summer Snippets

Today, as we made our way home from the playground and the library,* Elder Girleen stooped to the sidewalk.

Look, she whispered as I pushed the stroller with its freight of sleeping younger sister up to her, holding her palm out flat for me to see.  A butterfly’s wing. She gave it a second look.  Or maybe a fairy’s wing. She caught her breath.  Could it really be?

Who am I to tell her otherwise?  And why would I  even want to?  The time for believing tattered bits of insect wings to be magic is as short as a seven-year-old’s summer.

Tonight at dusk, as I  headed out for the circuit of the neighborhood that’s become, this summer, my one unencumbered hour, from the shadowy elms in the vacant lot across  the street an owl called, and paused as if thinking better of it, then called again,

Who -cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you?

The musician-who-rents stands outside his apartment, smoking, hand-graffiti’d guitar propped against the building:  tattooed sleeves and skinny pants and Beatle boots and floppy hair.

Hello, ma’am, he says politely as I pass.

And off in the distance is the organ-grinder’s music of the ice-cream truck that idles in the parking lot of the apartment complex labeled derisively by the neighborhood’s gentrifiers as Section Eight. The tune’s almost Do Your Ears Hang Low (aka Turkey in the Straw) but not quite.

According to the neighborhood listserv, any ice cream trucks that might cruise through the neighborhood could really be fronts for drug sales.

Could be, I suppose, could be.

But in the meantime, Turkey in the Straw wends its way through the neighborhood and the cicadas sing out their paen to glorious summer —Hot, hot, too hot — and then begin it all over again.

*our cache of books:  Spoon and Crazy Hair for Younger Girleen, The People in Pineapple Place for the Elder,  Parenting, Inc and Kon-Tiki for me (ruminations on why on earth I might be  Im simultaneously reading parenting polemic and nautical adventure tales being grist to some other mill).

What the Squirrels Left Us, Part II

How much grist for the mill can one person get out of this particular topic?  Can’t this crazy woman stop talking about… squirrels in her garden?

Short answer:  Nope.  We’re not done with ’em yet.

In fact, even as I write this, the aluminum pie plate tied to the front yard apple tree three weeks ago is clattering in the breeze, scaring not the squirrels it was intended to, but with every rattle causing me to pull back the curtain to see what’s going on out there.

The apples are long gone.  Every. Single. One.

The tomatoes — oh, what visions I had of them when we put the seedlings in the ground!  Chadwick Cherries gathered in a bowl like jewels; the Girleens eating them by the handful.

The nibbled train wreck the raised bed of tomato plants has become would make a strong man weep.

And the figs? … Not ripe yet, but with already with a scar bitten into every single one.

Ah well.  Such is life, and as the friendly soul you encounter on the internets when googling “squirrels eating my tomato plants”* is so eager to point out, squirrels can’t buy produce at the grocery store but you can, so they deserve those heirloom tomatoes.

We’ve come to terms with the absolute desolation of our garden (except for the cucumbers, with the squirrels have let be), but my relationship with the squirrels continues.  Continues to be adversarial.

Yesterday, Elder Girleen was safely, happily occupied at the pool with a friend, and because I am nothing if not magnanimous, I said to the Younger Girleen:  What would you like to do today?  I am at your service.

The answer came quickly.  She wanted a cupcake from here, and then she wanted to go to the park.

Your wish is my command, O my Daughter.  At least today. We spent much time selecting a cupcake (Red Velvet, Strawberry, Key Lime, Grasshopper, Vanilla with Burnt Caramel, displayed more in the manner of jewels than any hypothetical produce I might’ve dreamed up); we got ourselves to the nearest park and sat down on a bench by the playground where she gave eating an incredible cupcake an old, messy, college try.

I want to save the rest for later, she explained after about twenty minutes, using extraordinarily sticky fingers to replace what was left of the cupcake in its plastic clamshell container.  She headed for the playground.

I followed, leaving the cupcake in its container and my bottle of water sitting on the bench — took my purse, of course, because I’m nothing if not an intown Atlanta mom, long ago indoctrinated into the lesson of holding on to one’s bag at all times, even when it seems least necessary.

Ah, the playground!  The fodder I can get from squirrels in the garden is nothing compared to what I can wring from playgrounds.   Even they are politicized, fraught — I’m so certain they’re one of the crucibles of 21st parenting culture that I even set my story coming out in the fall issue of Brain, Child**   in one.  (The fact that it’s set in a playground has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I spend a lot of time in playgrounds.)

Two younger mothers sat at one edge of the playground, heads close together, talking Montessori.  A nanny waded the shallows, casting alternating glances at her charge, a boy around 4, and the two mothers, who I had a feeling had already rebuffed her efforts at initiating conversation with them.

Want to play hide and seek with me? Younger Girleen asked one of the kids belonging to the public-vs-private-school-debating mothers.

No answer.

Giving up, she took me by the hand and led me to the swings.

A cry of dismay from the nanny.  Look! she cried, pointing.

The first thing we’d noticed when we got to the playground was the sheer number of … squirrels… in the area, and how inured to humans they were.  In fact, if Hitchcock’s The Birds had squirrels in the starring role, the way these particular squirrels were acting might’ve served as the tip-off that something was not quite right at the beginning of the movie.

Long story short:  A squirrel was running across the playground with Younger Girleen’s cupcake, still sheathed in its plastic container.  Up, up a tree, twenty or so feet.  Squirrel and cupcake container tumble.  Container cracks open, squirrel runs off with the plastic container and leaves the crumbled cupcake on the ground.

Don’t touch that! one of the mothers cried.  She and her compatriot resumed their conversation about schools.  The nanny stood beside me.  She told me that she liked my sandals; we discussed the foraging habits of urban squirrels.

Because that school conversation  — I’ve hadit  a hundred times.  But I’ve never, ever seen a squirrel carry a cupcake up a tree.

* And why does one google “squirrels eating my tomato plants”?  Because one can, of course.

**Which was just cited in Judith Warner’s latest NY Times column, rock on!

The Shank of Summer

IMG_2351I admit it:  much of what I know about growing food  (as opposed to the much less trendy purchase of it at the grocery store) was gleaned from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books (You know, Little House on the Prairie) during my formative years.  On the one hand, you have those charming Garth Williams illustrations of rosy-cheeked girls with pigtails and Rockwellian family life and the strong sense that prairies make lovely backyards in which to run barefoot, but then on the other, you’ve got a steady stream of fire, plagues of grasshoppers, drought and crows decimating the corn crop.  

Give a bookish girl a diet of such books when she’s seven and then fast forward twelve years and what’ve you got?  An undergraduate whose final essay for Spanish 103 answered the question What do you foresee for your future?  (translated to English as, alas, Spanish 103 doesn’t stick with you very long) with a scenario that involved a big white house, lots of land, a fruitful garden outside, and kids tumbling around the family hearth like puppies.  I did envision that there might be a desk somewhere in the picture, where I would be busy writing, but otherwise, my vision of the future contained very little that could be considered a … career.  

Ahh, The Garden!  The first garden I remember was the one my parents planted when I was three, when my idea of helping was to dig up a row of peas soon after they were planted to see if they “were growing yet.”  A true child of the seventies, I absorbed all this earthy-crunchy behavior — composting, organic gardening, etc —  to such an extent that during the above-mentioned undergraduate days I baked bread for potential boyfriends (unfortunately,  22 year old men did not appreciate this gesture as highly as they should’ve) and as soon as I moved from GA to Texas, bought a hoe and packets of seeds and attempted to plant a garden in the hardest, grayest, driest, most infertile dirt known to man.  

But life brought me back in Georgia 10 years ago, and since this is the kind of ground I know how to cultivate, I always have a garden.  Some years are more successful than others.  I’ve battled blossom end rot and squash borers and drought myself, but not until this year have I felt like the stereotypical image of the beleaguered farmer, shaking his fist at the damage done his crops by                        (insert pest name here).  Squash bugs have made lace of the leaves of the zucchini.  Pill bugs  have left the immature summer squash to lie like casualties on a battle field.  The squirrels…  

The squirrels.  They started with the unripe, golf ball sized apples:  were not in the least deterred by the aluminum pie plates tied into the tree (the first unsuccessful internet tip) or homemade anti-squirrel spray concocted from cayenne, chile powder, tabasco sauce and murphy’s oil soap (the second internet suggestion).  One drop of this stuff in your eyes and you’d be blind for life, but does it give the squirrels a second’s pause?  Maybe they’re Mexican squirrels, Elder Girleen suggested, referring to their apparent love of spice, as politically incorrect as such an observation might be.

And now they’ve started in on the tomatoes.  And the figs.  My visions of enough tomatoes to gift extras to the neighbors  are going up in smoke.  The fig preserves I’ve imagined lining the pantry shelf:  no go.  

The internet-ordered netting to throw over the plants will arrive next week, but at the rate we’re going, that might be too late.  

Thank God I don’t have to feed a family of four from this endeavor:  2 summer squash and a handful of beans do not much of a harvest make.

Cloudy Weather

IMG_2337The sunflowers Elder Girleen planted along our side fence have grown as high as an elephant’s eye.* 

The fig that was a mere sprout two years ago now obscures one of the dining room windows, creating a curtain that only lets in filtered green vegetable light.  

If the squirrels don’t best us, we will have a bumper crop of apples this year.**  

All due to rain.  

Rain.  We’d forgotten all about it, the past few years were so parched.  But  now we have… not a surfeit, but enough.  Enough to put on high alert my anxiety level about whether Younger Girleen’s fourth birthday party, the Happy Hour we were hosting, and basically any other social event for the past month or so would be rained  out.  

Yesterday, the forecast was for showers off and on all day, and because of that, the minute there was a boxy window of blue sky amongst the clouds, I hustled the Girleens outside.  We took the camera with us; it took us half an hour to mosey a block.  

It was 11 a.m. on a suddenly sunny summer day.  The magnolia tree at the church a block away was doing its best to surpass the usual southern cliches of such specimens:  creamy white blossoms upturned like open faces to the sudden sun;  lemony perfume, faintly present. 

We walked, we stooped, we looked, we poked and prodded.  And through all that — we didn’t see a soul.  

Yeah, there were cars driving by, but not very many, and as far as folks walking, working in their yards — nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  There wasn’t even, this being the neighborhood it is, a single window open through which we could eavesdrop on the sorts of things I remember from summer mornings in my childhood:  piano scales being practiced, radios tuned to talk stations, voices raised in argument or agreement.  

It was as if the human inhabitants of this neighborhood had been… vaporized.  Scooped up by a giant hand and set down elsewhere.  

As of course they had.  The giant’s hand is called Work,  and because of that, our neighborhood, and yours and yours, are completely empty from 9 -5.  They may look like Mayberry from 7 o’clock at night on (as ours does), when out come the dog walkers and the exercisers, but at 11 a.m. on a balmy summer afternoon, they’re Dead Zones.  

Because once a neighborhood gentrifies, you can’t afford a house there unless you have two incomes.  Because if mom and dad are both working, the kids have to be at what’s now called “camp” (it used to be called babysitting) from 9 -5.  Because the engine that drives our economy is consumer spending, and you can’t go out spending unless you’re working, and if you’re out working, you’re not at home enjoying the blooms on the magnolia tree, big as baby heads, as creamy complected as Scarlett O’Hara.

I know, I know, that’s the way the world works, but as I was walking hand in hand with my offspring, Younger Girleen’s still babyish hand confidingly in mine, Elder Girleen’s brown paw in and out of mine as she gestured broadly, pirouetted — I couldn’t help but think how wrong  this is.  

Wrong???  You hypocrite!  

For, the past few weeks, since school got out and staying home and being … mostly just…mom has been the name of the game for me, I’ve found myself front-and-center in an existential crisis.  Who am I?  What’s my point?  What difference does it make if I am walking hand in hand with my daughters pointing out the hawk that just transversed the sky, when I could be out making money, pursuing fortune if not fame, and my kids could be in day camp like the rest of their peers, which they would probably like more, and which would certainly have them fighting less (since fighting is reserved for mom and home, not structured places  like school and day camp).  

A month ago, I shifted this blog to WordPress, and opened up a whole new pandora’s box of widgets I could entertain myself with.  

My favorite has been the Category Cloud that sits to the right side of each post and so convincingly illustrates one’s preoccupations.  It makes me think of a particular passage in Peter Pan,*** when Wendy’s mother is engaging in “tidying up her children’s minds”:

 I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

Motherhood looms large in the map of my mind, I suppose, as does This Neighborhood, and my Category Cloud does an excellent job of showing this. Writing assumes more priority than….say, Politics, but Pubs, or Publications (mine), is writ in pretty small type.  And for motherhood to take up such a lion’s share.  There are many who would look at that and just say:  lame.   

But oh, whither the magnolias, their petals easily a duvet for the fairies,  if work becomes the be all and the end all?  Wither the confiding handclasp of my younger child?

 

 

 

Or maybe none of this really says much of anything profound about what I consider most important, and more about labels, which are only… labels, after all.  

*if it’s a baby elephant; they’ve passed the Girleens and are taller than me now, though.

**Does synthetic wolf urine repel squirrels?  Does it repel neighbors, passersby, spouses?  Stay tuned for our next episode.

***Probably it makes me think of this passage because Elder Girleen has been listening to Peter Pan on tape.

Going Slow

IMG_2314_1First day of summer — our summer, which is defined not by equinoxes nor the wax and wane of the moon nor extended daylight but by the APS (that’s Atlanta Public Schools to the uninitiated) calendar.  

It’s an odd construct, that calendar:  it has little to do with the natural world, and more to do with … God knows what.  I mean, school starts back up on August 10!  When we will still be limp with heat, enervated.  Sapped. The nine-months-on, three-months-0ff school year may have been conceived of as a helpmeet to a farming society requiring many hands during the harvest months, but now the kids have to go back to school in what was once  high summer, according to a timetable as vestigial as the appendix or the stump of a tail.

But all that is months away and neither here nor there — for now it’s glorious summer.  When we can throw off our fetters and live by a more natural clock.*

First day of summer!  The pole beans twine up the bamboo teepee installed in April, two handfuls already harvested, so crisp and sweet they don’t even make it in the house before they’re gone.

The Chadwick Cherry (a tomato) is already taller than even the elder of the Girleens, flaunts an inkling of the fruit to come.  

Ripen.

My intent this morning — before dawn, when the Girleens are still luxuriating in that first summer lie-a-bed — was to marry the sublime to the mundane and mention the Go Slow Hour we’ve helped organize for the neighborhood from 5 – 6 tonight, the viral call that’s gone out for everyone who lives here to celebrate the start of summer by going outside and visiting with friends and neighbors.  By slowing down.  

It seems like a no-brainer, but here on the south side of the interstate in one of the U.S.’s largest urban areas, if you don’t actively think about such things, the majority  of folks tend to view summer not as a time when neighborhood kids are out riding bikes, playing hopscotch, in short doing exactly those things that we used to do back in those halcyon days of the mid-seventies when we were so often left to our own devices but as one when crime rises and they have to batten down the hatches (ie, lock those windows and stay inside).  

Yes, I planned to talk about how we’re all going to head outside with our chalk and bubbles and balls and just why that might be important — which is delineated much better here —  but all that seems the work of a woman with her head still in the lists and musts and shoulds of  the school-year.  

Instead I will drink coffee in my pajamas.  It’s 6:53 a.m.  The girleens are still abed.  It’s glorious summer.  

Ripen.  

*All of us, that is, except The Husband, who dives back into the mainstream after the unexpected break  from it  that started back in November (you know, that rite of passage for certain levels of worker bees these days called being laid off.)

It goes without saying that we’re all extremely grateful he’s back in the swim.  

I also suspect he may be secretly overjoyed not to have to spend the summer at home with two kids, the eldest of whom started, less than 24 hours after school got out, declaiming that she was already bored.  

Clap Your Hands if You Believe

We are at the age: Elder Girleen has left princesses and their overly-sweet attendant glitter and frills far far behind, putting them aside as childish things.

We are at the age: she’s become all arched feathery eyebrows and long strong scraped-up legs, and mind that works and works and works, so quickly that it takes my breath away (would that I had such a mind, still).

We are at the age: for fairies.

Even fairies, poor things, have been painted by the broad marketing brush that colors every stage of childhood nowadays: they populate Target, genus Disney (most specifically, Tinkerbell). Those fairies are of little interest to Elder Girleen, or the other seven-year-old girls who talk fairies over, dissect fairy behavior, and attempt to ensnare them, during recess.

Maybe they (those commercial fairies) are too spunky, too bouncy, too easy. They’re too easily purchased, too easily possessed.

The ones that have cast their glamour over Elder Girleen and her crew are more hypothetical, and thus, more seductive. They don’t like the color red. They might pinch your toes while you are sleeping. They are well-inclined toward girls, but most of the time they can take them or leave them. They are other, they are magic, they are wild.

They are all id, and reckless. They are the part of childhood that’s already passing out of Elder Girleen’s life, so very quickly.

The sort of fairies the seven-year-old girls in Elder Girleen’s set are besotted by resemble most the ones in Peter Pan — and not the denatured Disney version, which rubbed off all the sharp edges and dark corners and left nothing but cute.

No where else is there a better depiction of the engaging and brutal heartlessness that is sometimes part-and-parcel of childhood than in Peter Pan, for it’s a story that, along with fairies of the sort it contains, reminds us that magic isn’t necessarily all sweetness and light.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. Magic isn’t magic if we can get a handle on it, and this is something that our children haven’t lost the knack of knowing.

Of course we don’t ever want our children to want, or to fear. But at the same time, we are so well-meaning, and we sanitize so much!

And how much smarter our children are than we are, to pick the complicated over the easy, the old-school fairy over the new.

Rolling in Clover; or Luck, and Where to Find it

img_21821The more common variant of the saying being like pigs in clover — but let’s not go that far.

But if I had some magic elixir bottled up that could whisk me back to childhood, it would consist of a distillation, an inhalation of the following:

…The scent of the pinpoint-sized white flowers of a privet hedge left to run wild and leggy in mid-June, and the dappled green shade discovered when one crawls behind its interwoven branches…

…The grit-and-spoilage taste of ripe figs, and the way they weep milky tears onto your hands as you pluck them…

and…

…clover, its scent pedestrian, not quite floral; the way it quilt-tops the front yards most of our neighbors wish were lawns instead, a bed calling for a child-sized body to flop down atop it…

So if my childhood (version, happy; there being others as well) were boiled down to its essence, the lovely claret-colored jam that resulted would consist, in part, of the above. As well as southern summer heat, and time spent outdoors doing what I mostly labelled nothing, alone much of the time, even though I had a sibling.

That — what else can I call it but communion? — with nature, even though the nature itself was not all that natural (vacant lots figuring largely in it), was certainly not wild; that freedom — these are things I want my girls to experience.

Oh, I know it may happen in Girl Scouts, when we drive to the mountains, when we make an effort, but mainly, I know, it’s beyond my orchestration, takes place despite me, in the backyard, in the cracks of our life, unplanned.

It has been lamented better and more thoroughly elsewhere, but this fact remains — I live in a neighborhood rife with kids (granted, most of them still infants, given the gentrifying nature of this particular ‘hood) and I have yet to see them engaging in the activity that gave us all such joy when we were in elementary school: walking the neighborhood sidewalks from one house to another, unparented for an hour or two at least. Free to stop and sit the curb and look up at the sky; to look down between our sneakers and track ants traversing dirt clods grown mountain-sized.

Last Friday night the Husband and I lived dangerously, as dangerously as two middle-aged, gray-haired sleep-deprived sorts can, and cast caution to the wind: the two of us slept, soundly, deeply, well, with our bedroom window open wide. To do so was a decision the public safety-minded types among our neighbors — and there are many because when a gentrifying neighborhood such as ours gentrifies enough that it takes two incomes to afford a house, those houses become sitting ducks full of ipods and flat screens and empty of people — would consider folly when feeling generous, and suicide when feeling grim.

Our window open wide. To the sound of motorcycles being raced somewhere not too far away, around 1 a.m. To birdsong, a swelling chorus that, cliche´d as it is, can’t be better described.

Most of the windows in most of the houses in this neighborhood are painted shut. Lack screens. Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to the birds and watching the dawn come and was struck — not for the first time of course, this isn’t a profundity I’ve come up with here — by how sealed away from life we’ve — all of us — become.

And so.

On Saturday afternoon, I let Elder Girleen walk unattended to a friend’s house a block away. The other mom and I co-ordinated; I talked cars and their blindspots with Elder Girleen before I sent her out of my sight.

Out of my sight, which after all is where so much of what my child needs to learn will occur.

The other mother called me when she started back home; I walked outside and one house down the sidewalk to watch for her to dance around the corner and head down the sidewalk toward me. Sat down on the curb to wait, in the clover the neighbor had an hour or so before tried to mow down.

The luck I found was frayed, pressed practically flat by the mower’s roller. But oh my, it had four lovely green leaves all the same.