I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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#60. Murmuration: wherein a flock of birds suddenly fly as a shape. Likewise, I suddenly see our race problem that’s always been there but hadn’t murmurated for me yet.

I haven’t mentioned race before because, well, because so far I’ve concentrated on murder and revenge and chickens and Sir Isaac and coffee shoppe drinks and explicit sexual lyrics and courts and Mom, Dad, me, Sam, Clyde, Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Oliver. Hmmmm. Quite a hot mess of narrative threads, but that’s life: tangled. 

I bring up race now because saying nothing about racism is the same as being a racist.

In my opinion.

Our town has 4,325 people. Most of them seem to have a similar genetic background as Mom, Dad, Mimi, and Pop. I’m veering on racist with that “most of them”  statement, but stay with me here, ok?

My grownups gave each other 23AndMe vials and mail-back boxes for presents last year, and the results were as we expected, with a few surprises: Pop is Scottish and Scandanavian (Swedish); Mimi is Croatian (Southern Europe); Dad was a combination of Pop and Mimi; Mom was British (Guernsey Islander) and Ashkenazi Jewish—not a country or region, but Ashkenazis have their own reference population because they’re so genetically distinct; though not distinct to ME, this being the first I’ve heard of this part of my ancestry! All four have a speck of Neanderthal in them too. That’s fun. 

So, pretty European in origins, right? But, our town is lucky also to have a lot of non-Europeans.  Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Mr Grim gave me background on families that I’ve met since moving here. 

Oliver and I are friends with the Jefferson kids. Their families run the the pharmacy, the gas station and the foreign car repair shop. An older daughter is training to be a neurosurgeon and came to speak in Mr Grim’s class this week. (Mr Grim is short for I don’t remember what and he comes from Ukraine.) Back to the Jeffersons. They are descendants of enslaved people and came north during the Great Migration. Barack Jefferson is in Oliver’s class. He wants all his relatives to change their name to a Nigerian one, since who wants to be named after a white slave owner he says, even if he was the President. Gee, if you put it that way, I’d say, do it!

Mrs Nguyen is our Superintendant of Schools. She was one of 120,000 Boat People who fled Vietnam by cramming into boats and ships when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. The boats were good for sailing near shore but not the open seas. It was a humanitarian crisis. The Unitarian Church in our town sponsored the Nguyens, the Hoangs, and the Daos. We have several generations living here now. 

Dr Moon is Korean and Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) and he is our pediatrician. His family came from Korea to Hawaii in 1903. That’s where his grandfather met his grandmother. By the time our Dr Moon was born and educated, Hawaii was a state. 

The Freijes have owned and operated our grocery store for 50 years. They came from Syria. “Freijes Food” has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range chickens and beef or lamb, canned goods, grains, bread, and of course daily specials of Mahshi—veggies stuffed with rice or meat—and kibbeh—think: deep fried, torpedo-shaped, filled with meat. Yum. The Freijes donate food all the time; they have a huge community outreach. 

The Razooks are Lebanese. They are candy makers. I met them at the end of this summer when Pop brought me to their store to watch them make the filling that’s in many of their desserts. It’s called Kashta.  Mrs Razook boiled milk with rose and orange blossom water and extracted the clotted cream at the top. She hugged me.  Mr Razook gave us sample dishes of Znoud El Sit, a fried crispy roll stuffed with Kashta and topped with nuts. Even though I was sad sad sad (it was only a few days after Mom and Dad were murdered), the surprise sweetness of Znoud El Sit tickled my throat and tricked me into laughing. I couldn’t help it.

The Amars own and operate our hardware store. Their daughters are our lawyers. For a long time they thought they were descendants of enslaved people from Africa. Then 23andMe showed their lineage here began with a man named “Tony” from East India. He was captured and carried to the early Virginia colony by a Captain George Menefie who traded Tony for a “headright” entitling him to 50 acres of land. The Amars have been here since BEFORE the Mayflower hit Plymouth in 1620!

One of my classmates is Atika; she is from Somalia. She loves hip-hop, wears a jaunty hijab, and is trilingual—her first language being Kinyamulenge which she learned as a tiny kid in a refugee camp. She and her mother Maryan belong to the Somali American Farmer’s Association and are experts on raising goats and sheep (but, alas,no camels) and fresh vegetables. Atika gave a report to our class recently where she described how the Somalis and several land owners are working together to make sure everyone has access to fresh and organic produce and meats. She explained that to jumpstart their efforts, land owners had donated parcels of land and put it in trust for the Somalis. This gave her people a cushion of security so they could, in turn,give food security to others.

Several years ago our town had a refugee influx from the Bosnian War. Because she speaks Croatian, Mimi worked with Mr Grim who had several refugee kids in his classroom. She noticed right away that all the kids didn’t speak Croatian and that they were not best buddies with each other. At the end of the first day, a terrible fight broke out between two of the kids. Turns out their families were on opposite sides of the conflict! Mimi was shocked by the hate in the kids’ faces as they slugged each other. Mr Grim called the families in and Mimi translated, ENOUGH ALREADY!  She decided to use picture dictionaries to teach the kids to read, speak, and write English. Mr Grim asked his sister who runs a chimney sweep company to help out; she added two work crews and hired several of the adults. The situation is defused, as they say. 

I know I don’t have all the groups, but now I must focus on Oliver and what happened to him.

While Zia is all Italian, her nephew married a woman from China—Oliver’s mother. Her family had immigrated to San Francisco, but then a shoe factory owner from North Adams, Massachusetts hired them to work as strike-breakers at his factory. Talk about a surefire recipe for super-charging a race and labor battle! This was 1870. Eventually, Oliver’s mother’s family made their way to Boston’s Chinatown where they thrived. 

What does Oliver look like you might be thinking? Well, he’s cute, I have to say. Tall, jet black hair, wide cheekbones, and no crease around the top of his eyelids—I noticed this last detail because he sits across from me after school in the breakfast nook and, hmmm, I like to look at him. To tell you the truth since I knew Zia was Italian, I assumed he was Italian-American. Shows how much I don’t know. 

So the other day he and I were walking past the courthouse; the twins—thank goodness—had been picked up earlier to go to Dr Moon for a checkup. We’d gone to the coffee shop to chat with Belle and were sharing a giant chocolate chip cookie as we walked home.  All of a sudden a bunch of older kids pour down the court steps, high-fiving each other, and lighting cigarettes. Probably got off with a hand slap mutters Oliver with a scowl. He glances at them and then looks away, but I think he may have caught their attention, based on what happened next. (Not that I noticed what happened next WHEN it was happening.)

My mind registers that they’re talking louder than usual, but I’m so engrossed in telling Oliver about the twins run away attempt, I don’t attend to the scrum behind us. In fact I’m miffed that Oliver does not laugh at the funny parts of my story. 

Suddenly Oliver stops and rounds on the loud kids behind us. He  shakes his fist. 

I do NOT eat bats. I am not your slave. I will not give you an N-pass. This IS my home. My family came to this country in 1870. And it wasn’t the China Virus. That’s crazy talk.

The gang stops too. Everyone’s fists are clenched. 

I’m gob-smacked. First, I’ve never seen Oliver lose his cool. Second, I hadn’t computed the jumble of words behind me; I was so enthralled with my own story. But the slurs and taunts hit the bullseye—Oliver, loud and clear. 

For a split second I wonder if this will be my first rumble.

Instead the kids spit, say F-U Asians, sneer, fist-bump, and cross to the other side of the street towards the station, giving us the finger as they climb aboard a bus. 

To be continued in #61–Isabel Scheherazade 

 

#59. Wynton Marsalis plays “I’ve got a nagging feeling” in the sunroom and I think about Arturo’s breakthrough, beaver dams, and the mystery tugging at my mind and heart.

When Arturo looks at me, smiles, and talks, I picture a scene from the Way-back Seat of my memory— back when I lived with Mom and Dad back when, well, back when they lived:

Beavers have dammed the brook that flows through our back lot, causing the yard to flood and water to trickle into our cellar. Not a good thing. I go with Mom or Dad to stand on the dam and pull out sticks. Actually, I stand and teeter and they pull sticks and steady me so I don’t go into the water. Each year, If we get to the dam before the beaver makes it strong and permanent, all we need to do is pull out a few branches, and then the force of the brook disintegrates the dam. And the beaver finds another site. 

Well, that’s what happened with Arturo. The breakthrough was the little book and his determination to tell the story behind the sketches: it’s like his words were dammed up inside him.

Oliver asks him, So, what are you an expert at? Picking books? Drawing?

I look at him like he’s clueless because I already know what Arturo is great at.

Papa.  He points to the smiling Papa. I make him smile; I’m an expert at it.

Oliver tells me later he was going to ask him why Papa was sad, but then the teachers announce, Time to clean up, kids.

I look at Arturo’s first picture, the one with Papa sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. There is something vaguely familiar about this. I can’t put my finger on it though.

cropped-isabelcrossleg22.jpg

ISABEL who’s got that nagging feeling and also loves Wynton Marsales.

#58. Buddy the Beefalo gave the twins the idea to skip town: Foiled runaway plan is juxtaposed with feverish man hatching eggs. I love slapping two ideas together—3 if you include dear Buddy.

Mimi’s hanging out the clothes. I watch her from the dormer window seat in my bedroom where I’m painting my toenails  black. I read in an old Reader’s Digest that the color black represents authority and assertiveness and black nails announce I mean business! I don’t think I’d be mistaken for a Goth  or a Morticia Addams wannabe; but would that be so bad, I wonder? 

But back to my story: what’s the opposite of black nail polish? The sun-bright memories I have of “helping” Mom at the clothesline: I was the socks expert. She taught me how to stretch and drape each sock over the wooden rods of a little drying rack I thought she’d bought just for me. Suddenly I hear the twins calling to Mimi from behind the Trumpet Vine trellis. I lean out the window to see what that’s about.

‘Bye, Mimi! We’re running away now.  They have backpacks full of comics. I can see this because they haven’t secured the openings. Mimi has two clothespins in her mouth and is arranging their favorite “blankies” on the line. Holding the blankies in place, she takes the clothespins out of her mouth, giving the twins her full attention. 

Running away?

Like Buddy the Beefalo?

Of course! Buddy the Beefalo! Mimi chuckles, waiting for them to reveal more.

Many months ago, Buddy—a cattle/bison hybrid raised for his meat—had been brought to a small, organic meat processing business to be slaughtered. But he escaped and went on the lam all around us, with an occasional, tantalizing sighting at the end of pastures or in meadows in the midst of forest. People left food for him, feeding him throughout the winter, and tried to lure him with an especially pretty cow, that sort of thing. When he began wandering out of the woods onto a major thoroughfare, efforts to capture him increased. I don’t think Sam and Clyde know he’s been captured.

Okay, Sam and Clyde, but first do a little job for me, would you? More clothespins? Under the sink in the mudroom?

They slip their packs off their shoulders and trudge into the mudroom. Mimi probably can see them bend over and drag the clothespin bag out from under the utility sink. They go out onto the side stoop where the clothesline starts and hand the bag to Mimi. The blankies catch their attention. Are they dry?  Sam asks. Clyde looks like he’s checking to see if he has room for blankies in his backpack.

Mimi shakes her head no and then says, Boys? One more little job?  She shakes one of their socks. Could you get me the little wooden drying rack? She smiles down at them from over the clothesline. Her face looks like a full moon peeking over a hill.

The twins drop their packs again and march back inside. They know where to find the little rack.

I wonder where they think they’re running away to. Maybe they’ll walk to the end of our road and go to Ye Old Coffee Shoppe. (They wouldn’t hit much traffic if they did that.) They might sit on the stools and spin around, maybe get their favorite sundaes:  ice cream with no cherry and no hot fudge. Silly kids.

Clyde sets the rack up in the sun next to Mimi.

How will Mimi nix this plan?

Just as they’re about to leave, she says, One more little job? They slip their thumbs through the backpack straps, just to let her know this better be the last job. Could you hang the socks before you go? 

They shrug and say, Okay, Mimi.

First, they pull the sock right side out; then, shake it so the wrinkles smooth; lastly, they drape the sock over the wooden bar so it hangs evenly.  I’m shocked; Mom taught them the little rack, sock-hanging moves too. While they work, Mimi tells them stories, but I can tell they feel tired and hungry. In fact, Sam yawns as Clyde curves the last sock over the rod.

Mimi says, I know! How about this?  Why don’t we go inside and have a little reading time? With a snack maybe?

Hmmmm, Sam says, but after a little reading time and snack it might be too late.

Too late to run away, explains Clyde, just in case Mimi has forgotten.

Mimi puts the empty basket down. Better yet, she says, taking their hands, let’s go to the coffee shop. We can sit at the counter and get sundaes. Your favorite? No cherry? No hot fudge? 

They perk up like puppets on the same string. And maybe you could read some of these?  Clyde pulls an Unca’ Scrooge out of the backpack.

Mimi catches my eye as I lean out from the dormer; we give each other a wink. I hear her telling them how they actually caught Buddy, did you know, and he lives in a sanctuary in Florida. And we live here, says Sam, our sanctuary!

Mimi is a genius. It reminds me of a story Zia told Oliver and me the other day. She likes to watch us from her little back porch while we “work the cattle” at the end of the day. Here’s the story:

Back in 1949 (do the math, Zia is no Spring chicken) Zia was reading a Scientific American article about chickens and eggs. I forget where the hens were, but this farmer’s wife had 50 eggs that needed to be incubated. Her husband was sick with a fever and lay listless in bed. She wrapped each egg and placed them one by one along his entire body. (I also forget how she ensured he wouldn’t roll on them, but needs must, I have a deadline and can’t go over to the farm for this detail!) After a few days, 49 of them hatched and they were able to go to where she’d prepared bedding and a few willing hens to chicksit them.

Zia came down the porch steps and took Sir Isaac from me at the end of her strange story. Mimi, Pop, and I are like that feverish old man: we’re the warmth and security you kids need to get you where you need to go. Needs must! (Zia and I lovelovelove Agatha Christie’s mysteries, where Miss Marple is always and forever saying this phrase.)

So to pound this point home? Mimi’s ruse with the twins was an action example of brooding the eggs with the feverish man…

Cross that out; my readers aren’t numbskulls.

ISABEL

isabelinchair

 

# 57 Even though they are fabsolute (absolutely fabulous) about the chicken project, Mimi and Pop don’t know everything. For instance, they didn’t get the Taylor Swift cardigan ad.

Before Pop put the TV away, we sometimes ate breakfast with “Morning Joe” (and Mika) on the MSNBC channel. There was this Taylor Swift ad. It’s looking kind of chilly out today. What am I gonna wear? Taylor wonders. Then she slides open huge, white barn doors to reveal a slew of sweaters—all exactly the same: white cardigans complete with trios silver stars sewn onto the elbows. I think I’ll go with (lots of deliberation) a cardigan, she decides. I knew that the white cardigan is the nub of the joke because “Cardigan” is the lead single of her album Folklore. But Every Single Time the ad was on, Pop and Mimi would say I don’t get it; why does the closet contain only white cardigans? What is it with this girl and all those sweaters? Finally I took them in hand, showed them videos of Taylor Swift singing “Cardigan” and explained that it was a joke and, likewise Capitol One is the only choice for a bank, this all being in service of the sponsor, Capitol One.

We had a few laughs looking at YouTubes of another Taylor Swift ad. It promoted her Lover album. She played a waitress at a diner as “Me” played on the jukebox. It was like they were touring Mars; I had to explain so much.

But it’s only the very contemporary and superficial items they are clueless about. They have a deep well of knowledge for all the rest.

An example? The chicken project. Not that they knew about chickens, but they knew chickens were Just What We Needed.

I’ll give an update on the dear creatures: They arrived in the mail, something that’s been happening since 1918! Chicks are mailed the morning they hatch and can survive up to 3 days without food or water because immediately after they hatch they ingest the nutritious egg yolk! When they arrived at our little post office by ground transportation, we got a call to come pick them up. Our Postmistress, Mrs Grim—wife of Mr. Grim my teacher—was being serenaded. We opened the box and stood spellbound.

Sam counted One, two, three, four, five, six…seven. One two three four five six SEVEN! We had only ordered six chicks.

Then Pop informs us, Er, they send one extra.

Even I don’t get it at first. One extra, like a bonus, thanks for being our customer sort of thing? I’m a little puzzled that Pop is so tentative but all of a sudden I get it. Oh, in case one DIES.

And then we go pin drop quiet thinking of replacement Mom and Dads.

Our school should substitute raising chicks for that class they have in the upper grades where the kids have to carry a RealCareBaby Simulator to teach them what it’s like to be a parent. (Like it’s so hard to know that babies are a 24/7 deal, people? Who doesn’t know this?) It’s a learning aid to teach early childhood, parenting, infant health lessons, and sex education. (It used to be call Baby Think It Over or BTIO, for obvious reasons?) It’s like a smart phone, only it’s a smart baby that uses wireless programming to track and report on the caregiver’s behaviors, like care events, mishandling actions, time in a car seat, clothing changes, etc. Oliver is helping with our chickens and he and I are going to put a PowerPoint together on this idea and present it to the school board. He also just read this over my shoulder and says I am clueless if I think EVERYONE thinks about bringing up the baby when they engage in baby-making behavior. He’s such a know it all. (He’s also SUPPOSED to be picking Sir Issac’s hoofs; I already curried the burrs and thistle.)

In my opinion, chickens and children are the same, with a few obvious differences of course. Both never get over a bad start. A good chicken start includes: a brooder, heat lamp, bedding, lights, feeders, and waterers. In the beginning they stay in the brooder until they’re big enough for the coop—about 6 weeks, when they’ll have most of their “juvenile” feathers. The timing works since we’re having to redo parts of the chicken run; Oliver and I discovered a few more potential predator access points. The brooder is Sam and Clyde’s old crib—they slept head to toe in the same crib until they went to “big boy” beds. Also, like with human babies, we have to pay attention: Are they too quiet, panting, wings extended? (Too hot) Are they evenly distributed in the brooder? (Just right) Are they crowding under the heat source and doing a distress calling? (Too cool) Are they gathering in just one place? (Check for drafts) We had to teach them to eat. We placed feed on squares of paper and then, once they got the idea of eating feed, we switched to feeders. And fugetaboutit if you think you can economize and use bowls instead of feeders. Chicks will kick the food out and the bedding in. Think baby in a high chair with finger food. Empty, clean, refill feeders and waterers; repeat. Change the heights as they grow. Change the food as they grow. Make sure they have their vaccinations! Pick them up and cradle them. Chickens can recognize up to one hundred human faces and they keep track of who feeds them and hugs them up. And, yes, it does take a village: All of us do the chicken project; it takes ten hands, five hearts, and five minds—well, 12, 6, and 6 if you count Oliver. (Can you tell he’s still reading this over my shoulder?)

Another serendipity is this: Arturo has chickens too! (Spoiler: He and his Papa and his Tia (Peruvian for Aunt) eat them, so instead of naming his chickens, he hugs them and now that he’s talking, he talks to them too.) We ARE naming our chicks. Oliver found a list of the 150 most popular chicken names. Pop thought we could call them all by the same name until we see what each one’s personality is. I mean, who can tell them apart right now anyhow. Sensible idea but Sam and Clyde don’t understand. They think they’ve named them Chicken Nugget. Egg Nog. Jewel. Turkey Lurkey. Drumstick. Muffin. Daffy or Daffodil, but they don’t know which is which. I don’t like names that make you think of chicken on a menu, but you know how it is with naming things. Mimi said her mother and father couldn’t decide for months what to name her. Of course, eventually they did. But when she had to get a copy of her birth certificate from the town hall before she married Pop, she saw that instead of her name it still said Baby Girl!!

Isabel Scheherazade, grandkid of Pop and Mimi and interpreter of Morning Joe advertising to the Baby Boomers

#56. Judge letter draft two, written after the fading penumbral eclipse has flamed my anger. My murdered Mom and I were going to watch this together.

Dear Honorable Judge Welch,

My Mom and I had a date to stay up all night on this particular night. We were going to watch the entire Penumbral Eclipse. Just in case you don’t know how big a deal this is, let me explain. I assume you know the essentials? The moon shines because its surface reflects the set-sun’s rays? I ask because some people think the moon just up and shines on its own. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth comes between the sun and the moon and blocks sunlight from directly reaching its surface. A PENUMBRAL lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align in an almost straight line. The Earth blocks some of the sun’s light from directly reaching the moon and covers a part of it with the outer part of its shadow. This is known as the penumbra.

And Mom has missed it because Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto ran a red light and murdered her and my Dad. And he’s still on the loose and they’re up in Heaven or some such place depending on your personal beliefs. Perhaps they have a better seat for the eclipse than I did. I spent the hours watching it from my window seat, all alone.

This brings up the fact that since my parents were killed by Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto, I have not had a good night’s sleep.

The sentencing hearing is coming up soon. I urge you to give him the maximum. A life’s sentence. After all, my family has been dealt a life sentence of missing my Mom and Dad. Ad quod damnum.*

Sincerely yours,

Isabel Scheherazade

*My friend, Oliver has researched this concept. He was in your courtroom recently asking to be emancipated—tall, dark straight hair, olive complexion, very smart, but too young to be set free? He told me that he thought the penalty for Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto should correspond to the damages inflicted. The Latin—in case you want to look it up in your legal Latin book—is ad quod damnum—according to the harm would be the translation. One life sentence for another life sentence?

# 55. Mom and I were going to watch the penumbral eclipse together, but since she’s been murdered, I have to watch it alone which is forcing me to sit in that middle seat of our van with all the crash day and court day memories. Not good.

From my dormer window seat, I study the giant Hunter’s Moon, squinting my eyes to see if the penumbral eclipse has started.  Mom was eagerly anticipating this night. We’ll watch it together, Isabel is what she promised. Hey, who knows; I am experiencing the Mom-is-nearby feeling. I hear her voice as if from the great silent void of space saying, On its southern-most edge, Earth will move between the set-sun and the full moon. This will allow us to see the outer part of Earth’s shadow. And there it is, Mom—our penumbra! It’s getting clearer and clearer.

But missing Mom is putting me in that middle van seat of memories; in real life Mom and Dad kept that seat folded down in order to fit the double-wide twin stroller; so, as a metaphor it works, since I usually want to bury the horror of the crash day and now the court day. But like the penumbra sneaking into view via my peripheral vision, I revisit a scene sliver from the court caper. As Pop and Mimi were marching me outside, I glimpsed the killer in a shadowy alcove beyond the metal detectors. He was lit from above by a chandelier missing most of its lightbulbs.

Here’s what I saw: the killer is hunched over like he’s carrying a load on his back—burdened, as they say in books. Too pooped to pop as Mom used to say when she was pregnant with the twins. Another man, his lawyer maybe, supports him on one side. On his other side, more in the light, is a tiny lady dressed in layers of bright, colorful clothing: a square woven cloth that covered her narrow back and shoulders, secured in front with what looked like a sturdy diaper pin; an embroidered skirt with several other skirts underneath; and a vibrant hat loaded with beads, sequins, and bric-a-brac. She pats his back as they walk. Is it his mother? She looks like an illustration from my National Geographic magazine on Peru.

His suit is strange. I think it’s too small for him, like he might have gotten it for his wedding years ago and then grown up. You can see his white socks and all of his wrists. His hands shake, just like that time in the coffee shop.

The scene gets fuzzy along with my and Mom’s penumbral eclipse, so I crawl into bed. Even though I punch pillows and yank covers, I’m not as filled with venom and vengeance as I was immediately after Mom and Dad were killed. Maybe it’s because of the chickens or Sir Isaac or Oliver or maybe even Arturo. My madness is more muted.

But not so muted that I’m giving up on seeking revenge. Pop and Mimi go on and on about different laws and shades of meaning, blah-blah-blah. No disrespect to Mimi and Pop, but Mom and Dad are dead because of this guy.  I want the judge to put him in jail and throw away the key. Darn. The problem with thinking about this now is that it riles me and I can’t sleep.  I might as well get up and write a Judge Welch letter.

#53. Toad for Tuesday is one of our family’s all time best read alouds: poignant, just enough tension, and a primer on friendship and how it builds. We read it to Arturo.

Arturo is signaling. His teacher says this is Very Significant.

Oliver and I are reading Toad for Tuesday to him. Warton, the toad, has been owl-snatched. He’s a captive in the nest cavity where a calendar on the wall is marked with the owl’s birthday. TUESDAY.  So the task for Warton is to be brave and use his wits before B-day. What’s happens today in the story is that Warton makes tea for himself and the owl and asks if he may call him George–the owl says no one ever calls me anything and sips his tea. So it seems like things might be improving for Warton; but after the tea? Whammo! The owl says don’t think I’m not going to eat you on Tuesday and flies off.

This was my first chapter book; Dad read it to me; I remember wishing the author, Russell Erickson, had turned it into a series. Since then, good news! He’s written more books with the characters of Wharton and his brother Morton. Mimi and Pop are reading them to the twins, and, I admit it, I do my homework nearby so I can hear. Hey, if Oliver can read Ramona and her Mother at his age, I can listen in to a master storyteller.  Toad for Tuesday is a finish-in-two-or-three sittings sort of book (65 pages) and it doesn’t reek of the Early Reader or Books for Beginners type of controlled vocabulary with questions at the end. (Those are dreadful; as a reader I wasn’t damaged by them, but for kids who were struggling? I thought they did the opposite of kindling a love of reading. Really.)

I stop for a minute because it occurs to me that Toad for Tuesday might be too scary for Arturo, even though Sam and Clyde weren’t really scared at the scary parts. They just hugged up to Pop and said keep reading, keep reading!!  

But just in case, I ask, Hey, Arturo, is this too scary?

We think he’ll just peer out at us from under his arms. Remember I said he’d emerged from beneath his desk, but maybe I didn’t include that he keeps his head BURIED in his arms–unless we’re folding books.

So when I ask him this question–wowee!–he looks UP and shakes his head NO.  We have to ask him again to make sure because he doesn’t shake vigorously like a dog who’s just come out of a lake; he just turns his head a tad to the left and a tad to the right. It’s like we’ve been having a conversation near that Civil War soldier at Coe Park, the one next to the canon, and suddenly the statue comes alive, looks down, and waves his arm.

It isn’t talking, but it sure sounds loud.

Isabel Scheherazade 

isabelinchair

 

#54 Like the tiny tug freeing the 220,000 ton cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, my “little” book could dislodge our buddy’s gigantic problem.

The container ship wedged in the Suez Canal got freed thanks to divers, tugboats, dredgers, backhoes—like the mouse who gnawed the lion free from his rope trap. Our first grade buddy’s mutism is due to a gigantic ship of a problem and I’m betting it will be one of us little players, including our buddy, who dislodge it.

Arturo’s teacher said that Expert Books might inspire him to switch from signals to speech. So, using a  little book, I demonstrate.

Arturo, I peer under the desk at him as I re-crease the folds so I can sketch more easily, I’m going to write about how I’m an expert at patting Zia’s sheep. 

Page One: First, get the sheep’s attention (not hard, if they are itchy and see you coming). The sheep will come to you. I draw a sheep and a stick figure waving.

Wide-eyed and all-ears, Arturo scrambles out from under and wriggles onto his chair.

Page Two: Put your fingers all the way in the fleece, as deep as you can. Rub your fingers back and forth vigorously I quick-sketch my stick figure with her stick hands buried in the sheep’s fleece. The sheep is grinning.

Page Three: Go from one end of the sheep to the other (it doesn’t matter which end you start with). If the sheep wants you to scratch both sides it will turn. My sheep turns around. I use arrows to show this.

Page Four:  If you do it right, the sheep will wag its tail (if it has one). I make wag marks on either side of a stubby tail.

When I’m done, Oliver asks Arturo, Did you like the book?

He nods YES! 

Want to write one, too? An Expert Book?

He nods YES! again.

Oliver says, What are you an expert at, Arturo?

He sighs. (His first noise!) Then he takes the pencil from Oliver and starts to draw.

And he is a good artist.

He sketches a little kid–curly hair, giant eyelashes, and the one eyebrow–who pulls a book from a bookshelf and carries it to his dad. The dad is at a table with his head in his hands. The little kid leads his dad by the hand to the couch where the dad reads the book, and at the end, the dad is smiling, and the kid is talking. We know he’s talking because Arturo draws a speech bubble and writes a string of random letters and little squiggles in it.

And while he draws?  He TALKS! (Funnily enough, his pictures are so good we don’t really NEED words, but, hey, who’s complaining.) He narrates his story. Out loud!

We go ballistic. We show the book around to the class. Arturo “reads” it aloud, adding more details with this second edition—like his Papa sits with his head in his hands every day. After a few minutes of celebrating, Oliver says, This is a really good book, Arturo. They fist bump.

He says, Thanks, Oliver.

I tease him and say, Hey, Arturo, I said it was great, too. Aren’t you going to say thanks to me?

Arturo looks at me with what might be the sweetest smile ever. Thanks, Isabel. We do a finger-pinky pull.

–Isabel Scheherazade,  expert at expert books cropped-isabelcrosslegsmaller2-e1358962249154.jpg

PS. This seems like such a normal topic, even though Arturo’s situation is, well, DIRE. But it feels good to worry about a little kid with a sort of little kid problem (selective mutism). Um, on second thought, his is NOT a regular, little problem, but it IS a change from Court Capers, lying, cheating, and trust issues. (Pop just read this over my shoulder and patted me on the back.)

#52. Ramona and Her Mother: if you’re missing your Mom, says me, Isabel Scheherazade, read this Beverly Cleary book again. It’s beautiful and—can I say this in my title?—ordinary. Beautifully ordinary. Sigh.

Ramona and Her Mother: If you’re missing your mom, read this Beverly Cleary book again. It’s beautiful and ordinary. Beautifully ordinary. (I used to wonder what the country song lyrics meant when they sang about “yearning”; I get it now.) When Oliver and I were searching for more books with mothers for Arturo, I pulled Ramona and Her Mother out of the twins’ read aloud pile. Although we decided it was too long for us to tackle with Arturo, I took a few hours and reread it. I remember Mom reading it to me when I was 7. “I couldn’t get along without my Ramona” was one of Mom’s “make peace” things she’d say to me when I was miffed at her and storming around thinking I must have been adopted. We’d laugh and I’d come in for a hug. I told Oliver about Mom and me and Ramona and Her Mother. He’d never read it and asked to borrow it; he was sheepish about asking. I joked, Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone Mr Cool is reading Ramona. I think he was thinking about his mother and how she nevernevernever told him she couldn’t get along without her Ramona. Poor Oliver.

Oliver and I ended up reading tons of mother books to Arturo, but today’s read is a Richard Scary book, one of Sam and Clyde’s suggestions. It has lots of little pictures. Me, I don’t like this kind of book much, no real plot. But, Arturo creeps out a little farther from under the desk to find Goldbug, a tiny little gold cricket. He’s a tease. He’s on every page but you need to scrutinize; scrutinizing a Richard Scary cannot be done from waaaay under a first grade desk. Way to go, Goldbug!

Next, Mrs. Stanley (Arturo’s teacher) suggests we fold a few Little Books with Arturo. After the Richard Scary book, he’s retreated but cranes his neck to see what we’re doing.

You can fold one of your own if you get up here, Arturo buddy-boy. Oliver taps his chair seat. 

Guess what? He does it. 

First, he looks at Oliver and me for a whole minute. And then, hurrah! He pulls himself up onto his chair. We get a good look at him.

He’s tiny. Clyde and Sam are maybe twice as tall as he is and they’re a year younger. He has black curly hair and glasses, miniature, round glasses that stay up somehow. It must be the long curvy earpieces because his nose is the stubbiest nose I’ve ever seen. He’s got funny eyebrows. They meet in the middle. He’s a one-eyebrow kid!

Arturo watches Oliver do the first fold. Then he takes a fresh sheet of paper and does it, too. He goes step by step, waiting for him to fold or cut. He is very good at folding for a first grader. I don’t think I could have done this when I was his age.

Later on, at home, after she hears all about the out-from-under-the-desk success, Mimi says, You’re communicating.

I don’t think so, Oliver snorts. He didn’t say a word!

I’m pulling out my homework and he’s getting up from sharing brownies and milk to go home to the farm. Oliver, he had to watch us fold—think about it—and then do it. And remember when he couldn’t do the center fold cut? Remember? He held it up to you and raised his eyebrow?

That was cute: his one big eyebrow. Oliver gives this some thought.  So, hand gestures and eye-brow raising is communication? 

I give him our family’s signature one-eyebrow lift and I settle in to do my math homework. It’s a start. 

#51. Letter to the Judge First Draft: Beverly Cleary said kids haven’t changed much; they still want a father and a mother in the very same house. I have neither.

Dear Honorable Judge Welch,

Ramona, Beezus, Ralph the Mouse, and Henry Huggins were my friends when I was a kid. Now they’re stacked with other Beverly Cleary books we’re reading to Sam and Clyde. I loved this author. One time she talked at my old school. During the question time, someone asked her if kids had changed since she started writing for them. She said, “I don’t think their inner feelings have changed. They still want a mother and a father in the very same house.” I agree, but, thanks to one man, my twin brothers and I have neither.

I use my dead Dad’s jog-to-work backpack as my school backpack.  Unlike Dad, the backpack is in good shape except for the fraying fabric laces that my grandfather (“Pop”) replaced with no-tie, reflective, elastic-lock laces. (Sam and Clyde—our 5-year old twins—have new rainbow Lock Laces for their sneakers. We’ve decided to hit the pause button on teaching them how to tie; they’re stressed enough for now.) As I watched Pop lace up the backpack and sneakers I remembered that Dad also used Lock Laces to keep the twins out of the cabinets—to keep them from getting into poisons and such. I don’t know if my grandparents’ cupboards need to be protected from Sam and Clyde, but it’s been a steep learning curve for Pop and Mimi (our grandmother); I’m not sure they’d think of Lock-lacing the cabinets. I maybe should do a safety check on my own. They are trying as hard as they can to have our backs, but it’s all happened so fast.

I used to watch Dad load his backpack each school morning. He kept his thermos and lumpy objects away from the part that would lie against his spine and for that spot he used a backbone-comfort pouch that he packed with his lesson plans. He stored heavy books in the very bottom. For instance, even though he didn’t like using anthologies for his Lit classes, occasionally he assigned a story from one and carried it back and forth. PB&Js, apple, and keys he slipped in the zipper pouches on the waist straps. He tucked his mittens, hat, and scarf in the side mesh pockets. 

Monday through Friday he’d shrug it on, adjusting the straps just tight enough: snug, but not so tight that it restricted his arms. Then he hugged and kissed us kids and Mom and jogged to his high school.

Monday through Friday I follow the same routine: pack it, slip it on, and do the tighten-adjust manuvers. 

I love to wear it because I can feel his presence, like he’s watching my back, as they (I) say.

I hate to wear it because it reminds me that he’s dead.

He and my Mom are dead because one guy ran a red light; my parents were extinguished by a murdering killer. Well, I guess that’s a tautology, or some such, as Dad would say. But I wrote it that way on purpose, for emphasis.

Please impose the toughest sentence you can think of on Mr. A. Spinoza Carlotto.  I know in our country we do not do beheadings and I know Mom and Dad were against the death penalty, but I wish the worst for him, that’s for sure.

Respectfully yours,

Isabel Scheherazade

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