I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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#21. Another person gets added to my complicated life.

 

#21. I know I won’t be able to figure out how to seek vengeance all on my own, so, when a new character emerges like a Hermit Thrush kicking back from the leaf litter; if this were a book, well,  if this were a book, the two would be related.

The way it is with birding for me at my stage is I look for clues. So,  I think I recognize the hop-scrape-backwards dance in the leaf litter. He’s half-hidden though.  I get a better look when he lands on a fallen log in our shrub pile—a bird-refuge shrub pile which Pop deliberately adds to. I know for sure what I’m seeing when it cocks its tail, bobs it slowly, and flicks his wings. I write, HERMIT THRUSH in the notebook.

In contrast, I’m not certain what I’m seeing next.  First I notice Miss Mary’s mule—Sir Isaac (Newton)—coming out of the cow and calf pasture gate, leading a human, or so it seems. Since when does Miss Mary have a helper? Besides us? Nobody tells me anything.

Never saw this person before, but it’s difficult to actually see much of him. Sir Isaac is a huge guard donkey and the guy has a slouchy barn hat, flannel work shirt, baggy pants, huge work boots, and gloves. He’s yodeling Good Moooooooorning, Captain from Mule Skinner Blues, the Bill Monroe song. I watch as he brushes Sir Isaac all over and checks his hooves. He laughs when the donkey nuzzles his neck. I don’t see any mixed flocks but I do spy a Golden Crown Kinglet in the aspens and that Hermit Thrush in the blackberry thicket again.  The guy puts Sir Isaac back in with Molly and Millie and their calves.

The next day I spy him out of corner of my eye while I’m peering at a Carolina Wren singing teakettle teakettle teakettle. He (the guy, not the Wren) is weeding Miss Mary’s fall spinach and kale. Same clothes. I hear him humming while I fix my binoculars on a mixed feeding flock of Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, and (tahdah!!) White-Throated Sparrows in the Crab Apple trees, all of which silences the pretty brown Wren. I cup my hand behind my ear to try to catch what the guy is singing today. It sounds like Let the Harvest Go to Seed.  He finishes with, Darlin’ please remember let the harvest go to seed, so the wild birds and critters will have enough to eat. He looks up from the kale and watches the mixed flock, meets my eyes, and laughs out loud.

I get a look at his face. He’s a kid, not a grown-up. You can tell.

Today I don’t spy him right away (not that I’m looking) but I do see a Cooper’s Hawk clear the entire South backyard (the area with the raised beds and feeders). Then up on Miss Mary’s porch I see Miss Mary in her chaise lounge. He’s reading the papers out loud to her.

Finally! The mystery is solved when the two of them come for supper. “Oliver” is Miss Mary’s grand-nephew. For some reason that is not discussed, he will now be living with her. He’s just turned 14 and going into 7th grade. He’s talltalltall, but without the barn clothes he’s merely a very skinny kid with big feet.

At supper, Mimi, Pop, Miss Mary, Clyde, and Sam either converse or repeat words twice (if you’re the twins) while Oliver and I say nothing. Then Pop asks us to do the dishes (it’s my job anyways). Sam and Clyde ferry plates and forks and bowls and even the centerpiece (!!!) to the sink counter then disappear with their trucks.

This is how our first Oliver and Isabel conversation starts: He holds a glass up to see if he’s dried all the spots and asks, So what ARE your plans for that Preliminary Hearing? 

# 20 Citizen Scientists need to notice what’s around them; this leads me to notice a new character for my life and work.

I’m a birder and I report what I see to Cornell University’s e-Bird citizen scientist project. Ornithologists can’t rely on just themselves to know how the birds are doing. They need scouts, so they recruit the likes of me and Mimi. We became birders because Mom was a grad student at Cornell and got to know how important it was for regular people to pitch in. Citizen Science is way to “crowd source.” Besides e-Birding with Cornell, I could collaborate with Planet Hunters, Landslide Reporter, or Floating Forests, to name just a few.

We submit a daily e-Bird list. Mimi gives me ideas for what to keep an eye out for. For instance, one morning she just said, Watch for mixed flocks of nuthatches, chickadees, titmice. So, with a bird nugget for guidance, I grab our Bird Notebook, the bins (I use Mom’s), the easy chair in a bag, and find a birding spot. I favor the shade made by a graceful, peeling group of Silver Birch at the edge of the woodsy North yard that faces the sunnier, shrubby West yard next to our harvested gardens and Miss Mary’s farm. Lots of different ecological niches. Birding distracts me the way the read-alouds do: my sorrows and the Preliminary Hearing fade into the background.

Until a new character enters my life and distracts me even more.

Isabel

 

 

 

 

 

 

#18. What do you get when you mix socks, underwear, chores, great books, and television? You get one item from this list removed to a closet. Really. The closet.


Socks and underwear, Pop? I bristle like a porcupine. Girls don’t need help with socks and underwear.

Not you, Isabel. Sam and Clyde. You know how they are. 

The guys bounce like Tigger. They think they’re being complimented.

How about “chores?”  I do stuff. 

Tons. You’re a huge help. Pop pats my hand. But I think we can get the boys emptying baskets and setting the table.

I tap the next item. Read aloud? 

We want to read aloud every day after supper. To do it right we’ll need a stack of  good books, so when we finish one, we won’t have a gap before we start another. 

I love the read aloud plan.

Mom and Dad believed in the power of read alouds to tie a family together. Here’s how it worked:  We’d have one book that all of us would lie around and listen to. Dad was reading the “Frances Tucket” series. I’d missed it when it first came out and loved it. We’d gotten to the 4th book. I know the boys didn’t get it completely, but they liked being part of the MomDadIsabel group; it stretched their listening attention span. They’d cuddle up and settle in ‘til the reader said That’s it for now or they fell asleep.  I KNOW they didn’t understand all the plot twists in Toad for Tuesday, but they loved Wharton and George; they cried when they thought George was going to be eaten by the fox. On my own I read other books too. And Mom and Dad also read simpler books to Clyde and Sam when I wasn’t around. If Pop and Mimi read aloud, that will make me happier.

And this supper table one?

No more eat and run. We want us to have discussions. 

We sit and talk already.

Well, we need to PLAN to sit and talk. Right now we jump up because a game or show’s on television. Pop circles the word TELEVISION. We need to cut down. He scribbles tiny numbers in the notebook margin.

We mostly watch Sesame Street, ball games, The Great British Baking Show, ball games, The Electric Company, ball games, Rachel Maddow,  ball games, Carmen Sandiego, ball games, Wild Kratts, ball games.

Which shows?  I ask. I’m hoping it isn’t Little House on the Prairie. Crazily enough, I grew up without knowing this series. With Pop and Mimi, we’re binge-watching all the seasons. (Mom would have disapproved; but all five of us love it.) Also I’m addicted to Earth to Ned: Picture a four-armed alien hosting a talk show with human guests, postponing his invasion of Earth. Think puppets, silliness, irony, attitude—good for adults and kids. (Of course, Mom and Dad never had us watch TV, but I don’t think Pop and Mimi know this and I didn’t think I needed to tell.)

Well, we can’t cut Wild Kratts but still watch the Red Sox. Mimi is shelling peas and has a mulling brow on her.

Cut the Sox? I was just getting into them, too.

In fact, Pop leans forward like he is gearing up for a big hill on his bike. Let’s get rid of it. He sits back, relaxed. Games tempt me, but not if the TV’s gone. He looks at the numbers. I’ve added it upIf we eliminate that hour a day during the week and the games on weekends, we’d gain 10 to 15 hours. 

So, that’s what we did. The TV went in the front hall closet. Anytime I open the door to get my jacket, I can see it behind the vacuum cleaner.

Signing off, or should I say, sighing off–

ISABEL SCHEHERAZADE

Isabelcurlyheadfrombackonchair

 

#19 Adventures in hollowed out trees, beside spider webs with words in them, inside a secret wardrobe, and down by the river with a Trumpter Swan. One of Pop’s rules is a sure-fire winner.

(Way-Back-Seat Story) Once, I traveled with Dad and a swan to hunt down a trumpet. He (this swan born without a voice) needed a real trumpet so he could win over the love of his life. (The Trumpet and the Swan)  Before that adventure, Dad and I make friends with this kid named Sam who lived all alone on the side of a mountain with a weasel and falcon in a hollowed-out tree. (I really like this Sam, but now that I don’t have my old, regular family, I’m bewildered as to why he ran away from a perfectly good family just because it was crowded in their apartment!) (My Side of the Mountain)

(Front-Seat Story) Now, with Pop, we’ve wandered through the door of a closet (called a wardrobe) and emerged in  a place called Narnia. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) Before Narnia, we witnessed a spider save a pig by writing words in her web. (Charlotte’s Web)

Get what I’m talking about here? The rule about doing lots of read-alouds? It’s is a sure-fire winner.

For hours and hours I lie on my stomach on the rug or grass, or I curl up on the couch or chaise lounges. The twins too, but usually they’ve got their Lightning McQueens with them. In the beginning, they move their trucks around, but gradually they’re hypnotized by Pop’s voice and the story. Cool.

Pop readsreadsreads. We decided to get into the listening-to-great-books habit by doing it all day for a few days in a row. We DO take short breaks to hike the woods around Bull Pond and swim in Rock Brook right under Pop’s bridge and go to the playground for some adventure-swinging, but the rest of the day we listen.

And I’m not sad while I’m listening. Except at the end when Charlotte dies. I keep swallowing the lump in my throat. The twins cry.  Mimi weeps. Pop blows his noise and tells us a story about the author, E. B. White. A recorded-books company asked him to be the reader for their Charlotte’s Web audio book. But even he had to read that last part three times before he could do it without crying. Mainly though, about not being continually sad? Who could be sad with friends like Wilbur the Pig and Charlotte.

ISABEL

cropped-isabelcrossleg2.jpg

 

#17. I, Isabel Scheherazade Describe the Meaning of The Preliminary Hearing (or rather I DON’T describe it, because Mimi and Pop aren’t talking about it), and we get ready for (sigh) school. Which I USED to love.

Silence speaks when words can’t got spray-painted on a broken fence picket near my old school. The principal called an all-school meeting to talk about what it meant. Not too productive. But I get what it means now: Because Pop, Mimi, and I can’t seem to find the start-up words to talk about the hearing, silence speaks instead.

I don’t know what a Preliminary Hearing is. I don’t have enough background knowledge to make sense of the newspaper story.  One of Dad’s favorite songs had the line I could fill a book about what I don’t know.  I could write that book!

That said, it’s unbelievable crazy that except for this one, big, silence-wrapped topic—this elephant in the room—our house is full of chatter and action. And it’s all about school.  

Clyde and Sam, you’ve outgrown everything! Mimi says. When they come back from Kids’ Klothing, they’re loaded with bulging bags of little boy outfits.

Pop pulls Dad’s backpack out of his closet. It’s his high school teacher pack. Want to use it?

At first I think no way, but then I flipflip to loving the idea.  It has high corners so I can pack all of my textbooks and notebooks back and forth each day. No dog-ears. If I ever get an iPhone it even has a special pocket and USB port for an external charger. The back is padded; so, very comfy. Hmmm. I think it has a built in headphone jack too. And it’s Dad’s.

Mimi finds some neon laces to spruce it up a bit.  Isabel, do you want to go clothes shopping? She asks while she laces the pack.

I shake my head. No Thanks. I don’t want NEW.

Okay, everyone. Pop clears his throat.  Family meeting!! He sounds just like DAD did right before he made announcements, or gave out new rules, or handed down minor scoldings. Pop taps the side of his coffee mug with a sugar spoon. Mimi. Isabel. Clyde. Sam.  Come sit. I’ve got things to say.

I’m shocked when I have this rebellious thought: You’re not the boss of me, Pop. 

Wassup, Pop? Wassup, Pop?  The twins like to mimic one of their favorite Saturday morning cartoon characters. Bugs Bunny, I think it is. Or, maybe Roadrunner?

We slide into the breakfast nook. Clyde and Sam sit on either side of Pop. I sit across from them with Mimi.

I’ve got a list here.  Pop has his notebook open to a non-recipe page. Yup. Your Mimi and I have made a school list. Ready? He looks at us and gives a big inhale-exhale. Okay then. Here goes.

The twins yell, School! Yay! School! Yay! They toot imaginary train whistles and jump up and down like popping corn.

Pop looks at me. I guess he can figure out why I’m not so excited. It’s scary, once you know what school’s about. New kid. New school. 7th Grade.  These little guys? What do they know?

Pop reads the list. 

  1. Get more socks and underwear. (The twins giggle.)
  2. Make a chore chart.  
  3. Read aloud.
  4. Don’t hurry through supper. 
  5. Rethink the television.

Grrrrr. First silence; now lists.

ISABEL

isabelinchair

#15. I fill in the blanks: “Nothing cures_______ like________.

I’m not homesick, exactly. Homesick is more like that time I went to Nature’s Classroom and missed Dad’s grilled cheese.*

And, I don’t know if there ARE any good towers to explore around here The ancient wooden fire tower at West Lake is no Hogarts’ Astronomy Tower.  I would love to climb that steep spiral staircase, pull on the iron ring-handled door leading out onto the crenellated ramparts, the parapet and all that. But that’s in a book. This is life.

What if I treat “unexplored tower” as a metaphor—a message about something else?

My mind wanders to Harry Potter and how sad I was when I finished the series…

All of a sudden it seems like a big hand–a Dad-size hand–is on my back, nudging me. I straighten up and start to talk out loud.  

Or maybe it’s that I’m HEARTSICK.  Not HOMESICK. Hmmm.  HEARTSICK for Mom and Dad. 

The words “unexplored tower” still puzzle me, but I’ve always thought of puzzles as a kind of pump. Mimi has a pump in her little catfish pond. It’s got a photovoltaic panel that uses the energy from the sun to run its motor, so it can squirt the pond water up into a fountain. (Besides getting good air into the water, it makes rainbows too.)

So. I’m pumped.  And I’m catching the sunlight. Energized.

I find a t-shirt and jeans.  I pull on my socks.

An Unexplored Tower could be anything explore, or find out about. Or do.

I tie my sneakers tight, so I won’t trip on the laces.  

It could be like a quest or a job. It doesn’t have to be a real tower. 

I go back to the first lace and double-knot it.

I know exactly what my quest will be.

Revenge. I will seek vengeance on the guy who killed Mom and Dad.

I double-knot the other lace and stamp my foot back to the floor. I do a mental inventory. Hey, this is good. I can’t feel determined AND heartsick at the same time. I’ve found a “tower” to explore!  I race downstairs, but stumble on the last step when I wonder if Dad would agree with my cure for heartsickness.

Well, he isn’t here now, and I do.  I do agree with myself, that is.

ISABEL

* See my comment in the comment-reply section for Dad’s recipe for grilled cheese. It was Pop’s originally, so he was able to pull it out of his recipe box when I asked about it today.

isabelinchair

# 16. I, Isabel Scheherazade Solve the Mystery of the Missing Paper and Another Mystery Pops Up in It’s Place.

Is it possible that the papergirl hasn’t come yet? Not likely. I’ve just arrived at the breakfast nook for breakfast. Something’s up. The paper isn’t spread out in the usual messy, comfortable manner. It’s weird to see Pop and Mimi without a “table cloth” of newsprint under their elbows. No comics for the twins. No editorial or quirky story under discussion. 

It’s unusually silent too. The twins look from me to Pop to Mimi and up to the bookshelf at the window end of the nook.

As I pour Cheerios I spy the paper out of the corner of my eye, HIDDEN, sticking out a bit from between a cookbook called How to Cook Everything New and Revised and Pop’s notebook, also new and revised, of the recipes he’s creating for the five of us.

I can just make out the top part of the headline and the date.  (Okay. Okay. I know my blog-readers are probably saying, Right, Isabel, how can you read the print on a paper that’s been hidden? Easy. I bet you can read a sentence even if all the vowels are removed? Or the letters are scrambled in the word? Well, me too. Only difference is I’m reading the TOP half of each word. Put a card halfway through the headline below.  See? You CAN read it!)  I make some guesses and see that the headline says:

                            Preliminary Hearing Scheduled for Traffic Fatality.

I pretend I don’t see the paper, sprinkle blueberries on the toasty o’s, slice in a banana, add the milk, sit down, and dig in. I’m halfway through when Mimi and Pop say they’re taking the twins off to get their teeth brushed. (We have to go to Dr. Moon for shots and school checks.)  Teeth-brushing will take a while, so I reach up to the bookshelves and yank out the paper. I spread it out after pushing my bowl to the side. No more appetite for Cherrios. The Killer’s picture is above the fold in the center of the page. He still has that dusty,  jean jacket look about him.

The article says the Killer’s “Preliminary Hearing” will be in two weeks.  At the courthouse on Main Street. Right down the street from the school. Right after school starts.

Could this be my chance to seek revenge? I must go to this hearing and, er, well, I don’t know what I’ll do. What’s a hearing I wonder?

And why did Pop and Mimi hide this important information?

Isabel Scheherazade

Isabelcurlyheadfrombackonchair

(My sketches are by my friend, Ryan.)

#14. I, Isabel Scheherazade find a bookmark on a special page of one of my favorite books and I THINK I’m getting a message from Dad. Can this be possible?

I’m still in bed gathering steam when my eyes land on one of my old storybooks–Beauty and the Beast.  I love all the versions of that story, this one especially. When Dad read it to me, he said, This is one plucky girl. Like you, Isabel.

I think about this and mutter, USED to be, Dad; I USED to be a plucky girl.

I’m not feeling plucky these days.

I spy a feather bookmark. Dad put feather markers on important pages in his books and mine.

I get out of bed, pull Beauty and the Beast off the shelf, and open it to the page with the feather.  I stroke it smooth. It’s brick red on its topside and pink below.

I remember when Dad stopped at this page and places the feather in the crease, a very serious look on his face.

Isabel, listen up; this is important. He taps the words. Keep track of it, okay? He was always advising me to keep track of this or that.

This is the sentence: “Nothing cures homesickness quicker than an Unexplored Tower.”

See what it’s saying? Dad asks me. Then he reads it again.

I trace the sentence with my fingertip like Dad did. I can even hear his voice. “Nothing cures homesickness quicker than an Unexplored Tower.”

To tell you the truth, back when Dad was rereading the quote I didn’t get what was So Big about this sentence. I was more interested in finishing the story before I fell asleep.

But, now, here in Mimi and Pop’s house, my eyes prickle and a warm feeling fills my head while I stare at the words, it’s like Dad is reaching out to me in a comforting way from the Way-Back Seat of my memory.

I lean into the magic of it all and whisper, Why’s this so important, Dad?

ISABEL

isabelwithlegupwriting.jpg

#13. I have another thought about the daily treat at Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe

I’m piling up a small stack of things I never did with Mom and Dad.

The stack sits in sun and shade. When we do something new with Mimi or Pop, it reminds me that I never did this with Mom and Dad, and that reminds me that they’re gone. Sort of like a chain reaction.

I explain this to Mimi, while I stir my pumpkin latte. I watch her face.

She sips her hazelnut coffee. Isabel, she takes a breath, after a while? Well, after a while, I hope that when we do new things it won’t always come with the sad thought…She hesitates.

I finish her sentence, With the sad thought that Mom and Dad are dead, you mean?

Mimi nods.

I think, THAT will never happen. But I don’t say this to Mimi.  Instead, I gulp the top froth; it gives me a milk mustache that gets the twins laughing. I’m about to say, Mimi, we’re not there yet, but then I just can’t help it; I start laughing too when the twins give themselves chocolate mustaches. Then Belle, who was drinking a Blueberry Smoothie, comes over with a blue mustache.

Like I said: sun and shade.

ISABEL

cropped-isabelcrosslegsmaller1.jpg

#12. A funny story that acts like that splash of cold water that primes the pump (metaphor alert)…

Every morning Pop says to the twins, Did you put on new underwear, boyos?  (He doesn’t call them dudes like Dad did.  That’s good. It would be confusing.)

The twins salute and say, Yes siree, Pop. Yes siree, Pop. (We think that because they’re twins they repeat their answers.)

But you know how little boys can be smelly? Well, Clyde and Sam REALLY smell on this one morning, so Pop brings them into the bathroom, thinking maybe that they didn’t wipe. Or something like that.

Mimi? he calls out. Come here a minute, would you, Dearie?  Mimi and I do question marks eyebrow wiggles at each other. I give her the I dunno shrug. (I am so not the expert on smelly 4-year olds. Geez.)

She goes down the hall to the bathroom. I hear lots of  Pop-Mimi-Murmur-Murmuring and Little-Boy-TalkTalkTalking. Mimi goes upstairs and comes down with two pairs of Elmo underpants.

After a while they march back to the kitchen.

Pop says, Now remember, Sam and Clyde. “New underpants” means that you take OFF the old ones. You don’t just add a new pair.

And we start to giggle.

Giggle! Gushing Giggles. Like that water that whooshed out of the well after we primed it. And we get active: The twins show me their new Elmos and drag me off to play Tonka Trucks and Matchbox cars with them. Mimi stuffs smelly underpants in the trash. (Guess she’s not going to try to recycle ’em which is very unusual for her.) Pop calls to her to come sit outside with him for a while.

It takes giant, big minutes for all the chuckles and activity to subside.

Neato. Or sort of neato anyway.

ISABEL

Isabelcurlyheadfrombackonchair-sketch by my friend Ryan

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