I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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Month: February, 2021

#29. What It Is About Miss Honey? It DAWNS ON me. Warning: this entry contains a pun, some Shakespeare, and a memory from the way-back seat. All good. I guess this COULD have been a PS to the Kindergarten Troubles entry, but it seemed to need its own space; it’s that important to me. Plus, Pop guessed it in his looooong comment on the last blog piece. (Make sure to read the comments, people!)

In my new bedroom (Dad’s old bedroom here in Pop’s house), my dormer window faces East, and every morning, after the sun clears the hemlocks, it beams into my window and floods me and my quilt with its rosy-fingered light.  I’m bathed in sun. I get a cozy bit warmer.

I’m dawned-on.

(Do you get this? Dawn is morning’s first light? OK. OK.  Of course you get it. Right. Sorry. So, you know what I mean.)

I’m working on a comparison. Stay with me here.

It’s just dawned on me why Miss Honey seems familiar.

She acts like Mom. She bends like a gentle, sweet queen to hold each twin’s hand. She jog-skips like a marathon-gymnast-ice-dancer. And she smiles down at them all at the same time.

Dad used to say Mom was an Earth-treading star with the power to make light the dark. Dad liked to quote Shakespeare; he said this is one of the many ways Mr. Shakespeare describes beautiful ladies. It was one of Dad’s many ways to describe Mom too.

So, Miss Honey brings my memory of Mom out of the shadows. And, like the dawn’s early light, it warms me up. I’ve worried that I might forget Mom. Not forget-forget her, but forget what she looks like. Now I know it’s not gonna happen.

Back to Miss Honey: I’ll come right out and say it: I. Am. Happy. About This.  Or a version of happy. I’ll be able to scramble into the way-back-seat of my memory where Mom’s sitting, just by taking Clyde and Sam to Miss Honey’s classroom every morning.

Isabel Scheherazade (The dawned-on version of Isabel, that is.)

PS. Hmmmm. I might even reveal this to my very compassionate and sympathetic teacher, Mr. Grim—can you believe it, a teacher named “Grim?” It’s like having a surgeon called “Cutts!”  Mr Grim. Mr. Grim! Please excuse me from pre-Algebra.  I need to gaze at Miss Honey. I’m lonely for my Mom.

I never used to be capable of irony. I wonder if all the tragedy in my life is making me more inclined to indulge in it? I  have dabbled with it. Last year I started putting air quotes into my talk, maybe to throw shade on an idea or person? Dad warned me to beware the pitfalls of irony. It’s probably a good idea to say what you mean most of the time, Isabel. Is it because he worried that if I got into irony I would become fierce and bold…and carefree? Oh Dad. I miss you scolding me about using air quotes. I wonder: Is it possible to put the opposite of air quotes around the word miss?

isabelwithlegupwriting.jpg(sketches by my friend Ryan)

#28. The sadness table gets set up in an unexpected place: outside Clyde’s Kindergarten room.

When Dad took me to swim lessons at the YMCA, the first week I was fine. But the next week I hold onto the parking meter and bawl my eyes out. I didn’t know that Going-For-Swim-Lessons was something that happened over and over!  Clyde is confused in the same way too.

Well, Clyde, says Pop. You see, it’s like this. You have to go to school EVERY day.

Clyde’s face falls like a popped balloon. He whimpers; but, what he says next breaks my heart. I want Mommy! I want Mommy!

I’m finding out that my family’s sadness meal is a long one. And the table gets set up in unexpected places. I’m pretty sure we kids have never actually said “I want Mommy” out loud since she was murdered.

It gets real quiet in the hallway.

Just then Sam bursts out of the other Kindergarten room with his teacher, Miss Honey.  (I’m not kidding. Her name is Miss HONEY, just like the teacher in Matilda, the teacher we all loved and wanted, the protection from Miss Trunchbull’s Chokey!) I squint my eyes as they approach. There’s something familiar about the way they look racing up to us, hand in hand. I can’t put my finger on it, though.

Sam lets go of Miss Honey and takes Clyde’s hand. They turn to face the rest of us with that we-twins-against-the-world stance. Clyde already seems braver with Sam next to him.

Good. Well, then. Pop stands up and takes charge. Here’s what we need to do. The principal looks like she’s going to say something, but Pop–this guy is so cool, he could calm a barracuda that hasn’t eaten in a week–he just keeps talking. Clyde and Sam need to be in the same room. 

When Mimi and Pop registered us, the principal said that it would be “inadvisable” to have the twins in the same classroom. “Twins need to learn to be on their own,” she lectured, like we were school kids. Well, I AM a school kid, but Pop and Mimi? I mean, really. They’re old!

Pop clears his throat. He’s got an Abraham Lincoln look about him anyway, but right now he’s awesome, more like the Lincoln Memorial. I’m sorry. I should have insisted on this earlier. Someday Sam and Clyde can be in different classrooms.  Right now, however, right now? They need each other.

And that was it.  Miss Honey takes Sam and Clyde by the hand, and they head back to her room.

And, sigh! I head back to mine.

-Isabel Scheherazade

isabelwithlegupwriting.jpg(sketches by my friend Ryan)

#27. Wherein I begin the sad tale of little Clyde. ( He’s the twin whose cowlick swirls to the right. Sam and Clyde are mirror image twins.) Pity party hereby ends.

No! No! 

As soon as I recognize Clyde’s caterwaul coming from down the Lower Levels hall,  I’m out of my desk and through the door.  It’s my brother, I yell over my shoulder to the teacher. He needs me.

Get away! Get away! Clyde has plastered himself against the wall outside his kindergarten room.  He swings his arms at a scrum of grown-ups trying to grab him.

He’s like one of Zia’s calves surrounded by the coyotes. (I round the corner into the kindergarten area.) And I’m like Sir Isaac the guard mule. (I was enjoying this excuse to escape my class.) To the rescue!  (I  skid to a stop.)

His teacher, the principal with her big shoulder-pad suit, and the school secretary have him cornered.  I spy Pop’s head going by the outside courtyard window. The school must have called home, so I’m guessing the eruption started inside the room and then spread to the outside.

Like lava.

Pop and I reach Clyde at about the same time. When he sees us, he crumbles like a muffin.

What’s up, buddy?  I give him a hug, and he clutches me like a koala bear.

Hey, boyo, what’s cooking? Pop kneels so his face is close to Clyde’s. He’s the only one of the grown-ups that knows it’s important to be at Clyde’s eye level. Clyde tries to burrow into Pop’s quilted vest.

But wait, it gets worse.

You said I needed to go to school, Pop. Clyde gulps–he has the I’ve-been-crying-for-a-while rash and hiccups. So, I WENT. Yesterday!!

–Uh oh, I’ve got to stop writing and help Mimi. She’s just called up the stairs that she doesn’t have enough eggs for the french toast she’s making for our supper. So I need to run up the hill to Zia’s barn and rummage the nests!! (THIS is a different type of chore, don’t you think?)   I’ll get back to the story as soon as possible.)

Isabel Scheherazade

isabelwithlegupwriting.jpg(This is me sketched by my friend Ryan)

#26. Pity party alert: I’ve got two examples of how school makes me feel. And it isn’t good. I mean the examples are good. School isn’t.

The last time we had a family vacation–two months ago–Mom and Dad brought us kids to Cape Cod. We rented a cottage with its own set of dirt and log steps to a sandy beach which, even at low tide, was funfunfun. But it’s what was in the cottage that I want to write about.

That first day, when I walk into the kitchen, I see this droopy, flannel shirt hanging on a hook behind the back door.  Left-over and forgotten.

Like me. (Um, perhaps I’m exaggerating here. I haven’t been forgotten, although I’m definitely part of a left-over family.)

Not that I feel sorry for myself or anything, but, besides the I’m-a-forgotten-shirt comparison I thought of another example of how I feel about school. It comes from the way-back seat too.

Dad says, You need a brother break, Isabel; let’s go fishing! He shows me how to plop my line in the water just behind a rock or a log. This is a favorite spot for trout, he explains. They like to stay out of the fast-moving water. I spy a big, old trout lurking in the shelter of a rock while the water rushes around him.

At school, I’m like that trout.  Kids stream around me, nobody notices; no one steps out of the main flow of people to make me comfortable.

That’s a Mimi word, by the way: comfortable.  She says, “Anyone visiting at our house has to be made to feel comfortable. It’s not enough to be polite; you need to go out of your way to make whoever it is feel at ease.”

Well, I’ll just say this: the kids at my new school haven’t heard of Mimi’s rule.

isabelcrossleg21.jpgISABEL (sketches by my friend, Ryan)

# 25. First day of school blues. “Get through it,” say Mimi and Pop. I’ve got a Way-Back Seat memory of other situations where I used to get through hard stuff.

School started today, sad to say. We registered last week and got a tour. The principal showed our two families around. Mimi, Pop, Zia (we’re all calling her that now), Oliver, me, Clyde and Sam. The principal walks backwards while she faces us and talks, like a college kid giving a tour. She carries a walkie-talkie; I don’t know why we didn’t laugh about this, but, well, we weren’t seeing the silly side of things. She wore a shoulder pad suit and high high heels; I have never had an authority figure who wears such.

This is a K-12 school.  I’m worried. The twins will be out of my sight in the Lower School wing; how will they find me if there’s trouble? I’m in the Middle School. Oliver is part-time in the Upper School and part-time down the street at the vocational-agriculture school. I’m not sure why he’s so far ahead of me when he’s not that much older.

The new school is the one Dad went to, so that’s good. It’s had a few addition, solar panels, and community garden plots since then but it’s still has one of each grade except for the two small kindergarten.

My teacher must have told my classmates about Mom and Dad; everyone’s quiet and acting careful like they’re tiptoeing on glass, even though they’re not. Kids go silent when I come near.

Mimi and Pop told me this new-school startup is something I just have to Get Through.

It’s like the time I hiked with Mom and Dad to the meadow side of the Rock River Spillway. (We wanted to see the stone fish ladder–another story; later, though). To get there, we walk through woods loaded with pricker bushes.  When a thorny tangle blocks the way, Dad or Mom hold the branches up one at a time with as few fingers as possible. Clyde and Sam scoot underneath; we three big people bend over and follow. No one gets snagged, it just takes a looooong time to get to the fun part of the hike where the water rushes over sparkly rocks and the meadow is full of flowers. (And the fish ladder and little pools full of little fish who bypassed the mill!! But, like I said, later for this.)

We expected pricker bushes or obstacles of some sort on our hikes, and I guess Mimi and Pop think I should expect thorny stuff at school, too.

The comparison isn’t exactly the same.

I’m alone at school; no big Dad or Mom to protect me from the thorns.

isabelcrossleg21.jpgIsabel Scheherazade (sketches by my friend, Ryan)

# 24 I like the idea of being a spinner of plates and stories. Here’s a Way Back story about how I got to be a plate spinner; I’m still working on the story-spinning.

Running away ISN’T in my game-plan (right now at least); but, if I did run away, I’d join the circus. I could be a plate spinner. (The Ring Master would announce me this way: Isabel Scheherazade, Spinner of Plates and Stories.)

I can spin two plates on two poles; Dad and I were working on adding one more—three poles, three plates. I stopped breaking plates once I understood how the physics of  how to keep the plate twirling, and…um…also when I switched to brightly colored, glow-in-the-dark plastic spinning plates.

Here’s how it works: Plate spinning, according to Dad, relies on the gyroscopic effect. To help me understand gyroscopic, Dad and I lie on the floor and watch a toy top. It spins from the side, Isabel. When the energy’s on the right side, the top’s heavier on that side and tries to fall over. But! It doesn’t because the weight moves to the left side and tries to make it fall that way. 

I watch so hard my eyes almost crack. I say to Dad,  And that keeps it upright?

Until the friction between the top and the wood floor slows the spin–see, it’s wobbling left to right now?

The top fell over, but I got up and spun my first plate!

Dad was a good explainer.

I tell Pop how Dad’s description of the gyroscopic effect helped me.  We’re watching Clyde and Sam get their tops spinning. Pop tells me he’ll try to follow Dad’s example and explain things.

You could start with explanations about HEARINGS, Pop, I almost say. But don’t.

Since Dad’s murder, I haven’t practiced plate-spinning—I’d need to practice if I ran away to the circus—but I like using the plate-spinning metaphor whenever I’m feeling burdened with chores, which I’m not really.  For sure I’d never consider emancipating myself. Poor Oliver.

 Isabel Scheherazade

isabelcrossleg2

(sketches by my friend Ryan)

#23 Oliver’s incredible backstory

We’re all holding our breath: the birds, the cicadas, Sir Isaac, me. Oliver is finishing up his “backstory” as he describes it. Earlier, he’d asked me to help with the mule. (After a day in the pasture, he needs currying and hoof-picking.) We’re set up at the rolled-open barn door, Sir Isaac tethered on either side so he won’t take charge of us while we brush and pick. Now Oliver and I stare at each other over Sir Isaac’s sway back.

This was how he began:

I thought you might want to know how I came to be living here. It will help you understand why I can help you.

My parents are polar opposites. Literally and figuratively. Dad floats on an observatory in the Arctic to study climate. Sometimes he and his team are frozen in the ice for months. He’s trying to learn how heat moves through the ocean, ice, and atmosphere. Very important in this time of climate change.

This is a selfie my Mom took with a gentoo penguin, so that’s the ANTarctic. She scans the stars with her telescopes searching for fundamental particles. During the day she studies ancient air bubbles trapped in the ice and penguins too, I guess.

They told me last year that while—“of course”—they’ll continue to love ME, THEY were getting divorced. I haven’t seen either one in two years for more than an overnight. I don’t think they’ve seen each other at all. I try to FaceTime with each of them once a month, but the reception at the poles is bad, especially if there are storms.

My first 7 years I had Zia, er, Miss Mary. She owned our house in Boston and lived on the top floor. This was before she took over the farm here.

What does Zia mean?

Zia means “auntie” in Italian. Oliver pauses to hand me another kind of curry brush and continues the saga.

Zia was my everything. She remembered my doctor appointments, knew my favorite foods, read to me, walked me to the parks, bought us both scooters so we could get places fast, started me in kindergarten, picked me up every day.

Then my parents got huge research grants. At opposite poles. And at the same time, Zia inherited this farm from her sister, my Dad’s aunt. “Perfect timing,” she told my parents, “Oliver can live with me while you’re exploring!”

No,they said, “thank you for being the nanny for the last 7 years, but it’s time for Oliver to go to boarding school.I think they didn’t want to admit that Zia could take over all the parenting of little me.

You’re kidding. I’m gobsmacked, to stick with my love of Scottish words. Boarding school, you’re kidding.

Most boarding schools only allow 7-year olds as day students. But my parents found Ramsey Hall. 147 acres, 32 buildings, a St. Bernard mascot, and no hazing. It was okay. Just lonely. No one hit me or abused me, kids or adults. Our house elder-parent taught me to play chess. I got into basketball and baseball. And reading. I started out by going to new friends’ houses on weekends and holidays, and once to Zia’s Boston brownstone. Then my parents decided this farming me out routine reflected badly on them because someone always asked, “where the heck are your parents?

Ramsey kids from other countries usually have special arrangements to stay on campus for long weekends and school breaks if they don’t have other places to go. I became a permanent part of that group. On weekends I stayed and ate bagged meals and the elder parents supervised me. When I got older I was enrolled in special programs and camps away from the campus for Christmas, Spring, and Summer vacations.

What’s older? How old?

Hmmmm. I was 9 for my first whole-summer expedition to a Montana farm. One of my teachers grew up there and his whole family hosted about ten of us. I can still picture it: plowed land, old buffalo wallows, Lewis and Clark trails, flatlands, coulees, and hills. We helped on the farm in between hikes and camp-outs on the Bear Paw Mountains and the Little Rockies. I remember daylight lasting late into every night. The wind blew all the time too. In fact, when we went exploring, our leaders kept an eye out for places to get out of the gusts. We’d head for what are called shelter belts: rows of trees. I got tossed around in that wind, not having had any of my growth spurts as yet, so I loved those tree rows. I still keep an eye out for shady groves with armrest-roots and a generous canopy.

During this “introductory Oliver” speech I didn’t learn all the places he’s been, but he told me that when he and his Zia came for supper the other night he was overcome with peace and happiness because of the paint color in the Keeping Room.

Paint color?

One of my favorite all-summer camps was an expedition to Bryce Canyon—it was where I first got acquainted with mules. Our group explored slot canyons—fins, and spires called hoodoos. We had a geologist on the trip. I learned about the erosional power of frost-wedging and the dissolving power of rainwater that shaped Bryce. It gave me the idea that maybe I was getting twisted by the erosion and dissolving of my family. But whenever warm sun hit the deep red-orange spires of rock, I found a cliff side or rock wall to lean against. It gave me positive energy. I couldn’t believe it when I walked into your Keeping Room and, whammo!, there it was again, the comforting, warming color of Bryce.

(I think it’s called “Tuscan Sun,” but no matter.)

I’ll summarize the rest of what he said:

All this time, Zia had kept in touch with him (lots of letters, cards, cookies, knitted mittens, and a steady stream of good books). Occasionally she would just show up at Ramsey and take him out for a walk and lunch. But his parents were, what’s the polite word? There isn’t any. They were jealous of her. And completely absent. They had given up orchestrating all the Oliver details themselves and had hired a law firm to be in charge and make decisions; to deposit money and arrange everything—what camps he goes to, which school friends he can visit, where he spends school breaks.

But, enough already! Oliver decides to take charge of himself by doing something called emancipation. He was 12 going on 13, but even at that age he realized his parents and the law firm made poor decisions—some of them straight out of Charles Dickens, for heavens sakes: like he could play his guitar in Central Park on his own? But! He needed to check the appropriateness of the playlist with the firm. Seriously?

So, Oliver Googled the ins and outs of how to do this. He went to court. He represented himself. He used his “allowance” for court fees. But, after he filed all the papers and presented his case, his judge ruled Oliver was too young to be emancipated. He could “reopen his file” when he was 16 if issues hadn’t resolved themselves. But Oliver had made an impression on the Judge. So, before he issued his final decision-with-instructions, this judge spent a lot of time in chambers with the lawyers and the parents via zoom. (They hadn’t even bothered to come in person.) But Zia was there constantly. A lot of the adult talk was out of earshot of Oliver but he figures everyone except her got reamed out.

The marvelous upshot of all the judge’s efforts is Oliver’s current situation.

The law firm was fired except for the deposit-the-money part. He thinks his parents still have parental rights, but Zia was given legal custody of him until he is 16 when he can apply to be emancipated if he wants.

When he finished, I look at him carefully. Sir Isaac had locked his knees and was snoozing—did you know mules snore?

Oliver, I whispered. I had no other words. Oliver.

Oliver nodded and sighed. So, Isabel. I know a thing or two about courts. I think I can help you out, if you’re willing.

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