I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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# 81 I, Isabel Scheherazade, blogger, memoirist, think I’ve finished this first set of stories, and I explain through a few book characters and some anthropology from Africa via Pop a little bit more about why this is memoir and not just diary-keeping, and why being wide-awake helped, and, well, this is where I experience how hard it is to know when to END something!

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You can see from all these stories, I take after my middle name: Scheherazade.

The other day I came across another character I’m like. Winnie the Pooh. Remember when he eats all Rabbit’s honey and can’t fit through Rabbit’s doorway; so Christopher Robin reads him stories until he gets thin enough to squeeze the rest of the way out? The read aloud sustains him through his “tight” time. (Like Pop’s nightly reads help Clyde, Sam, and me, BTW.)

Being wide-awake for the stories for this blog/memoir sustained me because it helped me sort things out. Here’s how I figure this:

The other night Pop read that part of Stuart Little by E.B. White where Stuart gets a job substitute teaching. On his first day he tosses out the lesson plans and asks the students How many of you knows what’s important?  That’s a great question, isn’t it? Well, my blog isn’t a write-down-everything-that’s-happened diary. I mean, it’s so not FACEBOOK.  I had to figure out what mattered. What was important. I had to be on the lookout for the stories that would make a sound in my heart even when I’m 99.

Scheherazade, Winnie–these connections fit–but today Pop gave me another handle.

He says I’m the “geriot” of the household.  (Gee-roh is how you pronounce it.)

A geriot is the carrier of the important tales. In Africa the geriot gathers the stories and remembers all the details, no matter how tiny. The geriot’s job? Pass it on.

I agree with Pop. I am sort of a geriot.

And I’ve got tons more stories.  I’m thinking that I’ll just keep on the lookout and grab them.

Remember that box Mimi and I found in the attic? There was this little book in there, too. I wrote it when I was in kindergarten, or maybe before. Lots of scribbles and every once in a while some strings of letters. But on the last page was this:

2Bkntnud.

To be continued? Get it?

So that’s what I’m putting at the end of this set of stories:

To be continued. 

 

Isabel Scheherazade 

 

# 80 I, Isabel Scheherazade find out what will happen to Arturo’s Papa. I’ve been almost sick with dread.

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You know how they have those movie awards, where the master of ceremonies with dramatic flourishes, opens a fancy envelope and announces, And the winner is…!!!

For some crazy  reason I have that phrase in my mind’s ear when Pop says he’s just learned the judge’s decision.

(I’m also tying my new Nikes, and I hear DAD speak up from the Way-Back-Seat of my memory: Nike comes from the Greek verb “nikao,” Isabel. It means “to conquer, to overcome, to have victory.”  And while I double-knot, I think, So what would “victory” be in this situation, Dad?)

Of course Pop is NOT fooling around, so there’s NO dramatic pause and NO drum roll. He just says,   Okay. Here it is. Mr. Smith has been sentenced to 18 months in jail, suspended as of right now. BUT during these months, he can’t have any problems with the law, or he’ll go to jail. He also must do 18 months of community service.

How will he have time? I ask to distract myself from how weak with relief I am that he’s not going to the slammer.

Pop thinks Habitat for Humanity has a project he could help with, says Mom. Right here in town.

That’ll work, I say,  since one of his jobs is putting up drywalls. (Remember he’s always covered with drywall dust?)

Later I wonder to Olivia if Mr. Smith knows that I’m one of Arturo’s buddies.

Olivia gets her sneak-and-creep look. He does.

How do you know?

He told Judge Sweeney. I heard.

I give her my one eye-brow-up look. You snuck into court AGAIN?

Olivia flips her hand up and down at the wrist in a let’s not talk about it gesture and keeps explaining. Mr. Smith says, One of the buddies who got Arturo talking again was the DAUGHTER of the people I killed.” Then he chokes up. His lawyer had to pat him on the back to calm him down.

So it’s over.

Sort of.

And we all have the rest of our lives ahead of us.

Except for Mom and Dad.

Isabel Scheherazade

#79 I, Isabel Scheherazade, write a respectful letter to the judge.

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In the Redwall* stories, the badgers live long, exert huge strength, and are tremendously honorable. I love them, especially Constance. When enemies threaten, they get the red-eyed blood lust which helps them battle for the good. When the blood lust fades and the enemy’s vanquished, they get hungry. Well, my blood lust has faded too, replaced with a hunger to make this come out right.  So I write my letter to the judge. Here it is:

Dear Honorable Judge Sweeney,

I’m writing in regard to the sentencing of Mr. Smith who on the night of June 23rd ran a red light. He was on his way home from his second job; he must have fallen asleep.  He killed my parents, leaving me and my twin brothers, Sam and Clyde, orphans.

Since 6/23, we’ve lived with Mimi and Pop, Dad’s parents. In the beginning the bowls of sorrow I ate from overflowed, and dessert was always hatred. Then my friend Olivia and I became the official buddies (you need to be there to get how the Buddy program works) to a first-grader named Arturo. This little kid stopped talking when his Mama died of cancer. Through stories and our Little Books, we got him talking. He drew pictures of his Papa and the Zia who came from Italy to help care for him so his Papa could work. (In all of Arturo’s books his first picture always shows the Papa with his head in his hands.) We love this kid, and through him came to love the gentle, sad father. When I discovered that the dear Papa and the hated guy who killed Mom and Dad were the same, I realized Mr. Smith shouldn’t go to jail, let alone have any key thrown away.

Arturo’s Papa has had enough punishment. He’ll serve time for the rest of his life because, even when good things happen to him, right around the corner of his memory will be my dead Mom and Dad. I know this for sure because that’s how it is for me.

So, please don’t send him to jail. Little kids need their parents, or at least one, especially if they don’t have a deep bench like my brothers and I do.  (Zia’s sweet , but she’s very new to how it all works here.)

Respectfully yours,

Isabel Scheherazade.

 

# 78 I, Isabel Scheherazade really sympathize with the problem those blind men were having when they kept misidentifying the elephant they were touching different parts of. (This DOES have something to do with my story, even though there have been NO elephants or blind men–that I know of–so far in the plot. Unless you consider that, in a way, I’VE been blind. Metaphorically speaking. Yes, 10-year olds are into metaphor.)

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Remember Pop said that I could write a letter to the judge about Mr. Smith’s sentencing?

Well, I started right away, but get stuck after I write the first line because, when I read it, the words shock me, like I’ve stuck my finger in an outlet.

Here’s a sample; shield your eyes; the words glare.

Put him in jail and throw away the key.

This guy should be on a chain gang.

If I believed in the death penalty, I’d ask for it. But I don’t, so I won’t.  

This killer deserves to be in jail as long as my parents are dead.

What’s worse than three kids orphaned by one man? Having that man go free.

Leniency? Give me a break!! My parents are dead!!

Get the idea? At some point Pop looks over my shoulder while I’m writing first lines and says, Research “letters to judges” Isabel. Make sure you are respectful. 

Still, even with starting with Dear Honorable Judge, I plead for vengeance.

Then, well, then time begins passing, and things–as you’ve read–happen. Four big things stand out.

# 1. I settle in under Mimi and Pop’s gentleness mantle with all its quiet, steady energy, and love.

# 2. I find out that Arturo’s beloved Papa and the man who killed Mom and Dad are one and the same. When I tell Olivia, she tells me she’d already guessed, but didn’t want to spoil our buddy time by telling ME because she thought I’d start to hate Arturo. It horrifies me to hear her say that. Through Arturo I’d come to admire this Papa of his, even though I’d never met him; that is, as it turns out, I thought I’d never met him.

#3. My ideas shift. I make course adjustments like our Mr. Worlsey, only mine are in regard to how I think about Mr. Smith, not how I use stars to get my boat safely to shore. (At least I don’t think the stars have had anything to do with it. I suppose, in a way, I AM in a boat–like a metaphorical boat? If this were an epic poem?)

# 4. Then Mimi and I have the comb and crying incident.  And I just let it all go, the tears and the hate. Just give it up.

(This is the part of my story that’s like where the blind men begin to collaborate so they “see” the whole elephant.)

I’m going back to that Judge letter. It matters.

Isabel Scheherazade

 

 

 

#77 I, Isabel Scheherazade, experience what Olivia calls a frisson:* awe, wonder, almost spooky, but not as scary as spooky might be. A Way-Back-Seat memory wrapped around a Mom and Me object. I want to remember that memories attach themselves to pictures, objects, sounds, smells…or combs!!

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Mimi finds the comb tucked in a folded newspaper clipping. Here’s our comb! She holds it up. But what’s this?  she says when she spots Mom’s handwriting in the margin of the paper. “Show to ISABEL. She’ll LOVE  it!”

A French scientist wanted to find out what kind of hair was the snarliest. He had hairdressers count tangles for a week. They found 5.3 snarls per head of straight hair and 2.9 per head of curly hair. 

Mimi cradles the clipping like it’s a bird’s egg.  Your Mom was always on the lookout, wasn’t she.

I twist one of my curls.

Mimi hunts for the date. It’s from June 13th, she says, and then Mimi and I look at each other. It was the morning paper from the day of the accident.

Mimi talks and smoothes the dateline.  She must have read the article and wrapped it around the comb for the next morning snarl-out. Later that day your Pop and I came over to babysit.  Mimi watches me as she figures it out. We came over to babysit so your Mom and Dad could go out to dinner…

…but we never had a “next-morning.”

We keep staring at the article, picturing what it meant and all. Then Mimi shakes herself and says, Let’s do it, Isabel. Let’s attack the tangles.

She gives me her silver-handled mirror to hold while she combs.  I can see her face in it. As she works, we talk and meet each other’s eyes, like when Pop drives the car and looks in the rear view mirror to talk to us kids in the backseat.

I never did the hand mirror thing with Mom, so I like that this is a little different. While Mimi sprays the detangler she admires the comb. The teeth are spaced just right. Who would have thought of double rows? They’re the exact width for the knots! And these rounded tips! Sweet. She has me read the article again. Straight hair was snarlier than curly? She shakes her head. I never would have guessed!

Me either. I hold the mirror at different angles so I can see how my hair was coming along. Looks good, I say.

Mimi sighs. Well, that’s fine then. She hits the detangler spray button and digs into another section of wild hair.

And do you know?

It is.

Fine, I mean.

ISABEL

#76 I, Isabel Scheherazade remember Mom saying that sometimes crying helps wash toxic chemicals out of your body and help reduce stress; this definitely happened to me when Mimi hit the snarl.

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I plunge into How-to-Comb-My-Hair instructions.  And I’m happy. It feels like I’m stepping onto a beautiful trail in a woods I’d never explored before, and I’m not alone. I’ve got Mimi as my hiking partner.

Mom combed it from the bottom and worked her way up.  I take a bunch of my hair in my hand.  Hold my hair a little ways up from the bottom and comb out the knots below. This way you won’t be pulling on my scalp.  I look at the comb. But this comb won’t work; the teeth are too close together.

You’re right. Mimi holds it up. It looks like a bread cutter, doesn’t it? Anything else?

Hmmmm. We had detangler spray.

DETANGLER spray. That sounds PERFECT.  How’d it work?

Mom sprayed a section and finger comb or regular comb it.  Then, most times, my hair would just go into curls. 

So, where might this comb and detangler be, Isabel?

In the attic? With Mom and Dad’s stuff? (Pop put a pile of boxes up there after the accident and said, We’ll sort it later.)

So, Mimi and I go to the attic and find the box.

We open it. We’re awed, or hushed, or ultra-respectful..one of those things. It was like we were with Mom and Dad again as we carefully lift out and unwrap Mom’s observation notebooks, Dad’s running journals, a basketball air-pump pin, a pair of knitting needles with one of those fun yarn scarves started on it, Dad’s sheepskin slippers, and Mom’s knee-socks.

Ah! Here’s that detangler! Mimi reads the label, “Blueberry extract, lavender, chamomile extract, and aloe leaf juice.” Sounds yummy!  She sniffs it. Smells good, too.

I pick up what used to be my favorite butterfly and ladybug barrettes. I’m too old for these now. Then I spy Mom’s turquoise barrettes with the matching necklace. Look, Mimi. I hold the necklace up to my throat. Mimi puts the barrettes on either side of my head.

They’re beautiful, Isabel.

We don’t see the comb at first. (And I’ll need more blog-space to tell what we find WITH it. So. Later.)

ISABEL

#75 I, Isabel Scheherazade, explain about explaining to Pop and Mimi about what Mom and Dad did or didn’t do and how it’s hard, all this while Mimi tackles the tangles, or tries to.

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I settle back on the floor; this time I lean against the ottoman with Mimi’s knees on either side of me, sort of like how Miss Mary shears her sheep: pins them between her knees and goes to it with the clippers. Only I’m not bleating. Anymore. And Mimi doesn’t have clippers. Just the comb. She takes a snarl and starts on it like she’s undoing a knot in a delicate, gold chain.

I think, This is going to take forever. But I stay silent.

 

Explaining to Mimi and Pop how Mom or Dad used to do something is hard for me. I had trouble with this just yesterday.

It was breakfast time. Pop is trying to get the twins to do more things on their own like get their own cereal and pour it in the bowl. He’s standing at the ready holding the milk jug, waiting on them to finish pretending to be Lightning McQueen and Luigi, those Pixar car dudes. (They have a tackle-box full of all the cars in the CARS movies which I admit I like too. Hey, when there’s no TV except for the occasional Red Box DVD rental? I don’t fuss.)

Sam (holding Lightning McQueen on his back tires) : OK Luigi give me the best set of black walls you’ve got.

Clyde (making Luigi jump up and down): NoNONO!! You don’t know what you want! Luigi know what you want.

Sam: You do?

Clyde: Black-wall tires, they blend into pavement. White-wall? They say look at me, here I am, love me!

(At this Pop and I laugh out loud.)

Sam: OKOK. You’re the expert. But don’t forget the spare.

So while Pop and I watch this mini-play, he asks me if Mom used to fix the boys’ cereal, or did they do it themselves. I mumble and shrug my shoulders.

Then Mimi comes in the room and says, Let me help, Dearie.

This explaining business is like trying to cross a wild river with the bridge out. Impossible. It’s like I can’t be on both banks at the same time. The Before bank and the After bank.

 

Back to the combing.

I hear Mimi sigh. She holds a batch of snarly curls out so I can them see from the corner of my eye. She gives it a tiny jiggle. I’m sorry, Isabel. I know this will be hard for you, but I need some pointers.

ISABEL

#74 I, Isabel Scheherazade, explain a remarkable thing that happened. It involves combs, curls, and, yes, crying.

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Since Mom’s died, no one’s done my hair. I wash it–of course!–pull my fingers through, maybe put a scrunchie in, and forget it. Not like when Mom was alive.

We had a ritual. She sat on the couch next to our bucket of barrettes and brushes. I plopped down on the rug between her knees and leaned back a little for a hug.  Then Mom combed. Every morning. Of my whole life.

Somehow, at Mimi and Pop’s? Well, my hair hasn’t been on our schedule of to do’s. (I think Mimi just hasn’t thought about it. She didn’t have daughter, and her hair is way short–she gels it to stick up.)

But one morning, recently, Mimi looks at me and says, Oh my goodness! Isabel! Your hair! 

I put my hand up to touch my hair. Wow! It’s big today.

It looks just like your Mom’s. Mimi comes over and pats my head.

I look at Mimi, a lump in my throat, and think, I know.

So, I’ll fix it for you. I found a comb. She sits on her ottoman with her legs to one side, and I sit on the floor in front of her, facing away so she can get at it all. Okay?

I nod. Mimi takes a deep breath and starts. Right away the comb snags a snarl. My hair pulls. I let out a yelp like a dog whose tail’s been stepped on.

And then it’s like this dam bursts. I start crying like I’ve never cried in my life.

Oh, dear girl, what have I done?  Mimi is on her knees hugging me and stroking my head. I hurt you! She keeps hugging, leans back to look at me, and then goes back to hugging as I keep crying. Did I hurt you that badly?

Nope, I sniff. It didn’t hurt that much.

Not that much?

It’s just that–I’m ambushed by another avalanche of shudders and tears. I mean I was NIAGRA FALLS!

It’s that it’s not your Mom combing, right?

I nod and blow my nose on some tissues that Mimi’s pulled from her pocket.

And that’s that. It’s like I’ve suddenly gotten a burst of fresh air by crying and sobbing like there was no tomorrow. I come alive in a way I haven’t since Before.

I tell Mimi the story of the sunfish under the ice.

You’ve been oxygen-deprived, do you think? Mimi’s eyes are twinkling through her tears.

Right–and the snarl?

It hooked you to the aerator?

Mimi gets it.

Not bad for someone with short gelled hair.

ISABEL

 

#72 I, Isabel Scheherazade say Reader! Come look. You’re Going to Love This! Right. Just Open those Eyes and be like a stranger in this place you’ve lived your whole life.

Last winter Mom and I were skating at the quarry.  I skate ahead; then Mom drags me back with “Isabel!” You know the rest.

She’s kneeling on the ice and peering down. I crouch beside her and ask, What’s the big deal, Mom-lady? Better be good. I called her Mom-lady, just teasing, when she asks me to do something I haven’t planned on doing, like skating back over ice I’d just skated over.

Mom points, and I squeal, yes, SQUEALED. A fish! Is it alive? It looked like a stuffed specimen in a science exhibit.

It’s alive, and I think it’s doing okay. See? Mom points, and I see that the fins are quivering. It’s a sunnie.

What do you mean, “okay?” Isn’t it sort of tricky, with the ice covering the water? Like, no air or something?

Well, when the temperature goes down, chemical changes happen in a fish. Its metabolism slows. Since Mom was a science writer, she answers nature questions in full paragraphs. I settle into my crouch and get comfortable.

Mom continues.  What’s happening here is that this sunfish has slowed down to conserve energy. That way it uses less oxygen.

But, Mom, I knock on the ice, which I remember now as being really solid and clear as glass, how’s it get oxygen if there’s all this thick ice?

Good question! Mom puts her eyes right down at the ice level. Look down below him. See those bubbles?  I nod. That’s a spring, and it’s pumping oxygen into the moving water. 

I get my face right down next to Mom’s. Sort of like the bubbler in our fish tank?

Exactly. Also, there’s no snow on this ice, and lots of light is getting through for the plants. So, how’s that help, Isabel?  Remember?

Plants pump out oxygen. I was feeling very smart. Mom has–had–that effect on everyone.

Then she tells me about the winter she was working at Muskego Lake as part of a crew that had the job of opening holes in the ice and installing aerators.

Aerators?  At the time I hadn’t heard that word, but I take a guess. Something to pump air, Mom? Into a LAKE? Why?

That winter the ice was covered with heavy snow.  Light couldn’t get to the plants. They couldn’t produce oxygen. To make matters worse, when the plants died, they decayed. The decaying was using up even more oxygen. Mom chuckles. We had to make sure the fish didn’t all die off, or else there wouldn’t be anything for the fishermen to catch in the spring!  

It worked?

Like magic.  The fish went from just barely alive to lively and in the swim–so to speak.

Mom loved to make puns.

ISABEL

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