I Am Isabel the Storyteller

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#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 that not being continually sad? Who could be sad with friends like Wilbur the Pig and Charlotte?

Plus, there’s this quiet, huge fact:      

There’s      lots       of       room       in       the       day.     Tons.

Mimi and Pop have made space.

For us.

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.)

#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

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#11b. Old-fashioned Water Pumps: Metaphor alert!

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#11a. A story from the Way-Back Seat of my memory about Dad that shows how pumped he was about Miss Mary’s pump.

Miss Mary’s water pump looks like the one in Little House on the Prairie. In fact, it looks JUST like that water pump LAMP next to my bed–the one Dad made in shop class.  I wish I could ask  Dad if he got the idea for the lamp from Miss Mary’s real pump.

BEFORE everything changed, my family would “come over” to Pop and Mimi’s for brunch or picnics, stuff like that. And every time we come, Dad brings us to the farm to see the animals and, quiz us on how the pump works.

Dad really wanted us to understand, and I’m finally getting it. Here’s what happens the very last time we visit BEFORE. (Which, BTW, is only two weeks ago. Seems more like a decade.)

After cranking the pump handle a few times while the twins and I watch, Dad raises his eyebrow and says, Who can tell me why there’s no water coming out of the pump today?

ME:  Air.

DAD: Right, air’s gotten in, so there’s no water pressure. No water pressure, no water.

(You might notice that the twins aren’t saying anything. That’s ’cause they’re four. They ARE looking back and forth between Dad and me like it’s a tennis match.) 

DAD: So what do we do?

TWINS: Knock on Miss Mary’s door! Knock on Miss Mary’s door! 

DAD: Looking a little perplexed, Er, why would we do that dudes?

TWINS: Miss Mary has water in her sink! Miss Mary has water in her sink!

DAD: He ruffles their heads and fist-bumps with them, and then he says, What ELSE could we do?

ME: Get rid of the air that’s wrecked the water pressure.

DAD: How do we do that?

ME: Like this. And I run back to Mimi and Pop’s, turn on their hose, pour water from the hose into a bucket, and run back up the hill to Miss Mary’s. (The twins watch me like I’ve never done this before and, trust me, if I’ve done it once, I’ve done it a zillion times. Or at least three times when they were around.)

DAD: Now what?

ME: I pour the water into the top here.  (I have to stand tippy-toed to lift the bucket and pour it into this pipe that’s right next to the pump.) Then I pump the handle. 

I pump the handle updownupdown a few times and then, with a great gurgle and splash, water spurts out and into the trough below. The trough’s for the animals to drink from. In fact, one of Miss Mary’s lambs (Pretty funny, huh? “Miss Mary’s Lambs,” like in the nursery rhyme?) scurries around the corner of the barn and starts lapping it up.

ISABEL

Isabelcurlyheadfrombackonchair-sketch by my friend Ryan Grimaldi Pickard

#10. I remember a detail about the murderer.

Right before I confronted the killer, this is the scene at Ye Old Coffee Shoppe:  Mimi thought we should try the round glass-top wire table Belle has tucked in a corner. Since it’s further from the counter and other customers she figured it might work better for the twins. (She and Pop haven’t started to put their foot down yet with their antics. I understand. I don’t how they’ll react to having somebody who isn’t Mom or Dad say “no” either.

Mimi says, Sam, er, maybe you shouldn’t teeter?

“Maybe?” Really, Mimi?  I study Clyde as he moves his chair around on the flagstones to teeter it like Sam’s. I take a break from scooping pumpkin latte froth; it’s still too hot; I scan the rest of the room.

The door swings open and the oxygen sucks out of  Ye Old Coffee Shoppe.

It’s him. The guy. The one who ran the red light. I know it’s him for sure because I saw his picture in the paper the day after he murdered Mom and Dad. Black curly hair, one big eyebrow, whiskers, a faded jean jacket, work pants, and boots.

I watch him order coffee. Belle asks him to repeat what he said. Figures he would be a mumbler.

I see that he’s dusty. Looks like drywall dust, I think.  How the heck do I recognize drywall dust, I ask myself, and a scene from the Way-Back Seat of my memory emerges like magic.

This guy looks like DAD looked that time he fixed the wall in my bedroom–before he painted the rainbows and Mom did the constellations.  I play the memory out in my head as I stare at the killer ripping sugar packets. Four of them. That’s a lot of sugar, Mister, I think. While he dumps sugar,  the rest of him doesn’t move. My image of Dad and the drywall dust comes clearer, like a fog’s blown away from it.

At the end of the bedroom project, Dad is covered head to toe with white. He looks like someone with ghost make-up.

Mom and I laugh at him. (It’s just the three of us at this point in our lives; the twins haven’t been born yet.)  Dad chases us around and makes hooohooo noises. He was so fun.

This guy must be on a coffee break. I’d read that he has two jobs–a floor-polisher and shelf-stocker in a grocery store at night and a builder during the day. Maybe this is why he looks exhausted. Today he must have been putting up dry wall.

I watch him carry the coffee to a table. He pulls out the chair and sits down. He cradles the cardboard cup. He doesn’t sip, just looks into a middle distance. Suddenly, he puts the cup down and puts his head in his hands.

I glance at Mimi to see if she’s noticing either the guy or me, but she’s totally into twin-teetering.

I push my chair back, stand up, and go over to his table. The rest, as they say, is history.

ISABEL

cropped-isabelcrosslegsmaller1.jpg

(sketches by Ryan Grimaldi Pickard)

#9. An AFTERWORD. Get it? Like afterward, but with the “a” changed to an “o”?

One time Dad and I stand next to this huge steam engine that pulls the commuter train between our town and the next one.  I see the engineer and another guy shovel coal into a furnace. Dad says, The coal heats the water, and the steam from the water moves the train. 

I  hear all this huffing and puffing, like the engine is revving itself up for pulling all the cars.

Dad looks down at me and says, It’s called “gathering steam,” Isabel.

I think of Dad and the engine yesterday morning when Mimi comes up to see if I’m okay.

She sits on the edge of my bed and tells me that since Mom and Dad died it’s been hard for her to get up too. I feel bad ’cause I haven’t been thinking about how hard it must be for them.

It’s okay for you to feel the way you do, Mimi says.  It’s because we’re sad. This is what it means to grieve.

I’m about to ask her whether we’ll ever STOP grieving, but don’t think I want to hear the answer. If we cease grieving does that mean we lose Mom and Dad?

Mimi gets up to go back downstairs, but turns back and says, Take your time, Isabel. You’re gathering steam.

If words can warm, then Mimi’s heat my heart.

ISABEL

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