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Category: children’s books

the nesty girl’s guide to real estate

when you grow up curled into armchairs, with your nose pressed to the pages of fairy-tale storybooks, absorbed by the drawings of magic cottages tucked in the woods…

when you grow up meandering about the pond across the lane from your growing-up house, poking around in the woods you call your own, making logs into beds, and the seed pods of wildflowers into your make-believe kitchen…

when you grow up with a grandma who lives in an old fine house, with secret stairs and itty-bitty passageways, and an upstairs porch with creaking wicker chairs and fireflies dotting the summer night’s air…

when your idea of a heavenly summer as a 10-year-old girl is to spend it with cardboard boxes and your very best friend, cutting out fabric bits, and gluing and dabbing on paint, building a dollhouse that stretches from june straight into august’s last hours…

when all of those synapses have been connected somewhere along the way, when all of that cozy-cottage DNA courses through your chromosomes, well, you don’t look for a place to lay your head quite like the rest of the world. you don’t get wowed by granite countertops or showers that look as if they might lift off and whirl to outer space.

nope, you tend to poke around in peculiar uncharted ways. you know when you’re home when you hear the ping go off somewhere deep inside your noggin. you wait to feel the pounding there in your chest. matter of fact, you must have a light meter tucked back behind your eyeballs, because you always, always pay attention to the way the sunbeams filter in through the windowpanes.

you become over the years a decidedly undeniably nesty girl.

you turn into a someone who draws oxygen from dappled light dancing on old floor boards, who finds herself charmed by the newel post at the bend in the staircase, who spies clawed feet peeking out from under the victorian bathtub and you can’t wait to climb in.

you, very much so, find places to live by heart.

and you are over the moon when along with all of those lumber and glass particulars, you discover the person who owns the place is clearly a kindred spirit, a brand-new lifelong friend, the soulmate you’ve been searching for, without ever asking.

and so it was that we stumbled upon a charmed treetop aerie the other afternoon, one that will be our home for a year, the holy sacred place we’ll come back to night after night, as soon as we launch our big back-to-college adventure in cambridge, massachusetts, 02139.

as much as, just a few weeks ago, i could barely imagine leaving this old house that owns a piece of my soul, i discovered this week what i’ve always known: four walls and a roof are only the beginning.

what makes a place home are the whispers you hear when you tiptoe in through the doorway. what makes a place home is the way some invisible hand reaches out and cradles the tenderest parts of you.

and as we motored about the twisty winding streets of old cambridge, i knew, soon as we turned around the corner of putnam and franklin, that suddenly something felt familiar, not foreign, even though i’d never been there before. maybe it was the pie bakery & cafe we passed just before taking a left turn at the white picket fence. maybe it was the cobblestone sidewalks. or the victorian laciness of the woodwork out front.

as soon as the front door opened, and a gentle man ushered us in, as soon as we passed the statue of st. jude tucked in one of the bends in the three-story staircase, i found myself sighing deep down inside.

once we walked in, once i saw the way the sunlight fluttered on the old floor boards, dancing through the leaves of the trees that harbored most of the many, many windows, once i noticed the old brick column, a chimney from the downstairs fireplace, once i saw the cherry dining table with room for all of us and a few of our friends, i was starting to cross all my fingers and toes.

then, i tiptoed into the book-lined office of the very kind man who had opened the door, who had shaken our hands and left us alone to look about in quiet.

i spied there on his desk the covers of books with titles that gave me goosebumps, each one some combination of poetry and divinity, the two subjects i’ve long said i was heading east to study. i felt tears welling up in my eyes.

i hadn’t expected any of this. i’d more or less abandoned the hope that my long string of real-estate magic could take yet another miraculous turn. real estate, they tell you, is all about hard cold numbers: dollar signs and square feet. it’s about making the deal, signing the contracts.

except when it’s not. except when you’re a soulful spirit and you don’t work in worldly ways. you wait for the tears to spring in your eyes. you wait to feel that thumping thing there in your chest.

you don’t need dotted lines, on which to scribble your name. you don’t need security deposits to promise you will keep from banging holes in the walls.

you, an A-number-1 nesty girl, you know when you’ve stepped into a hallowed chamber.

you know, right away, when the fellow offering you two kayaks and a canoe, along with passes to all of boston’s museums, and 11 months in this treetop two-bedroom, two-study apartment, complete with bird feeders at two of the windows, you know he’s the saint and the spiritual guide you’ve been secretly waiting for for so many years. (especially when he starts to list for you the monastery in walking distance, should you be inclined toward “smells and bells,” as he joked, meaning the incense and vespers, and then goes on to tell you about the abbey not so far away, along the south boston shore, where you can rent a hermitage for the night, should you care to be holed up with your pen and your prayers in utter silence.)

you didn’t need all the running around to the bank and the notary public. all you needed was to stand there and shake hands, a deal is a deal — when it’s of the heart, that is.

you didn’t need some 10-page typed contract. you simply accepted the invitation of the lovely fellow and his lovely wife to come back that evening for a glass of wine at the candlelit table on the back deck where the mockingbird kept up his night song, and all of you began the unspooling of your life’s story, and the very first threads that would stitch you together for years to come.

and so it is that we now know where we’ll hang our hearts this coming school year, when all of us go back to school in cambridge.

and so it is that once again i am witness to the truth that if you never extinguish the pilot light of faith in undying old-fashioned goodness, it will up and surprise you, surround you, and illuminate your path in pure unfiltered luminescence.

and that’s how nesty girls do real estate.

if i were to write up the real estate ad for the lovely place we’ll call our home, it would go something like this:

2 bdrm, 1 w/ skylight where you can absorb the lullaby of gentle summer’s rain. kitchen w/ bird feeders at 2 windows. windowseat tucked into corner. back deck tucked into the tops of trees, looking out on a flock of gabled roofs where mockingbirds and robins perch for evening song. bookshelves stocked with every cookbook you could dream of. complete, chronologically-catalogued case of sacred music. old quilts on beds. hardwood floors that glow in sunlight. birdsong from 4 a.m. till sunset. church bells, 2 blks. away, chime on the hour. herb garden. climbing roses. lifelong friendship included. floorboards and ceiling beams appear to have absorbed years of poetry.

how would you write the real estate ad for the place you call home?

illustration above is the frontispiece from “the tasha tudor cookbook: recipes and reminiscences from corgi cottage.”

my not-so-secret garden

i’ve been under the spell, i do believe, since that long-ago sunday when i should have been in church. but instead, i rubbed the thermometer on my bedsheets, allowed the friction there to be my accomplice in the charade of sunday-morning fever.

now that the statute of limitation’s surely well expired, i can confess my sin at last: i’d feigned the fever so i could stay in bed with the book that stole forever my heart, (and, apparently, my soul) and, yes, my whole imagination.
twas then and now, frances hodgson burnett’s “the secret garden,” with pen and ink and watercolors by my enchantress, tasha tudor.

twas the book that took me down the sinner’s path, and opened up a lifetime’s looking for, believing in, the dappled path to paradise.

oh, who could go to church, sit stiff in wooden pews, when instead i might tiptoe along behind orphaned mary lennox as, at last, the robin redbreast showed her the long-lost key to the long-locked little door that opened into the long-still garden, where once upon a time heartbreak happened and the old once-beautiful garden was left to die of sorrow.

indeed, instead of whispering my morning prayers, my heart leapt up and out of me, traveled off to english countryside. was there inside the garden walls, where ivy hung, “a loose and swinging curtain.” peeking through the “fairy-like gray arches” of the climbing roses, tangled over trees in slumber, swinging down in “long tendrils which made light swaying curtains.”

so it says on pages 92 to 96, where i barely breathed the first time through, nor just now as i read again the words that birthed in me a life’s-long enchantment with secret nooks and crannies where fairies dart from leaf to leaf, and robins lay their sticks, their curls of birchbark, where sky-blue eggs are laid, are hatched, where wee small beaks just barely make a chirp when mama comes with worm.

oh, i am enchanted, yes, by the secret garden.

and just beyond my kitchen door, where a summer ago and long before, was gnarly bush and weeds that grabbed you by the knee, there seems to have sprouted a patch as enchanted as any i have ever known.

i cannot keep myself from there, where fronds of fern tickle me on the shin, and hydrangea drapes before my nose. i’ve a curly-barked maple that is home, already, to the robin and the red bird.

just this christmas past, i discovered tucked between a weeping hemlock and that maple a bird-house bench, one built for me by my beloved friend, jim the builder, and left one afternoon before a giant snow blew in. i had no clue it was there, till two days later, when, out shoveling before the dawn, i caught a glint of early-morning sunlight shining off the copper-topped birdhouse peak. and there, with snow cascading down, i wept. overtaken by the tiptoeing-in of the humble builder who had faith i’d find his gift and hadn’t thought to pester me, inquire, had i found it, had i found it?

ever since, it’s my preferred spot for taking mugs of steamy morning coffee. or mid-day lemon waters. or sips of wine, as sun’s long last rays bid the garden, “good day.”

or, if i can’t bear the few-steps walk to the bench, i might plop my bottom on the blue-stone stoop, just beyond the kitchen door, just down from where the basil and the thyme and the flat-leaf parsley grow in the wooden box along the windowsill. sitting there, i am eyeball-to-eyeball with the butterflies that land in the unnamed bush, or atop the country mailbox that holds my garden gloves and clippers.

and, best of all, my meandering walk, with blooms of creamy white and fronds and leaves of grayish-green and silver-green and almost lime (who knew how many shades of green there are?), at last has the proper entrance i have dreamed about, well, forever and ever.

there is now, at the south end of my not-so-secret garden, a perfect arch, with arbors on the side, and bentwood top, where you might look up and watch the clouds, the sun, the stars, play peek-a-boo.

not yet do the roses ramble up.

but they will.

old roses, dusty pink, tissue-paper vintage roses. the ones from storybooks and block island, that faraway place a ferry’s ride from rhode island’s coast where winding lanes are lined with old stone walls and miles of rather ancient roses have been forever rinsed by sea-salt breezes, so the color’s nearly drained, and just a whisper’s left of palest oyster pink.

it is the place i’m drawn to morning, noon and dark at night. i’ve been known to stand there watching moonbeams on the mopheads of hydrangea. i tiptoe out before the dawn, just to be alone, to absorb the misty earth in morning prayer. i dart in and out all day, watch the light play shadow games.

we each, every one of us, need a secret sacred place to hope and dream and cast our prayers on passing breeze.

those of us who scatter seeds of holiness, who tuck them in the loamy mounds of garden, we are blessed with bursting forth of bulb and branch. we endure the heartache of the dying stalk, the one we cannot resurrect, not with all the love and faith we know how to muster.

there are lessons to be taught from every garden and the paths that meander through.

and, oh, to be among the ones who understand the volumes of truth nestled there among the trailing vines, the fairy-like arches and the light swaying curtains that come in many shades of green.

oh, to be grown up and, after all these years, still hold dear the secrets of the garden. even when it’s not so secret, after all.

bless you, holy garden.

where is your secret sacred place? the plane of pillows by your window? the armchair that wraps around you? the middle step on your front stairs? or perhaps you too have a slice of enchantment that grows just beyond your kitchen door, or way out back where no one knows you hide?

we are deep in festivity here at this old house, with birthday on top of birthday, a whole pile-up of cakes and candles, and digits clicking ever forward. today’s the one that belongs to the father of my boys; two days from now, my little one turns nine. just day before last, my most beloved brother david blew out candles right alongside the nation’s president. and two days before that my papa would have been 82. thirty years ago he died. be still, my ever-broken heart…..now healed enough to love and laugh beyond my wildest dreams…

pssst, don’t forget the green eggs

as the self-appointed director of whimsy around here, a role i relish, really i do, i hereby declare today a day of national honor and import and food dye. it’s green-eggs-and-ham day, for cryin’ out loud. at least at our house, it is. and technically, kosherly, it’s green-eggs-and-turkey-bacon day, thank you. has been for quite a few years now.

but today the green eggs are greener than ever, and the ham it is hammier. for today the cat with the hat and the mischief tucked under his mitts, he turns 50. which means the ol’ wily fellow with the stripes on his stovepipe was born a mere 58 days after moi.

matter of fact we both came to the planet within a full moon or two. which means the two of us have seen just about the exact same show over the last half century. although i’ll bet he’s been in more bedrooms.

the cat with the hat is just the latest excuse to wake up my boys with a bang. there are, come to think of it, quite a few bangs in this cottage we call home sweet home. in fact, sometimes it downright rattles under these rafters. just ask the one who sneaks out for the early-morning train, ever scheming to wake up with no more tympany than the splash of the oj gurgling into his glass.

mind you, it’s all in the name of silly. and silly is not such a bad name. what with all that there is to worry about, to feel afraid for the world as you take in the news, a little silly is just the inoculation you might need to keep from going under.

especially when you are 13, and mindful, and you think very big thoughts much of the time.

you need a mama who’s nuts. and so, i offer myself, wholly, completely; exhibit a, in the she’s-nuts department.

i think i learned nuts from my aunt. my beloved, wonderful, kooky, aunt nancy. i wanted more than anything to wake up at her house every morning. to go to sleep hearing the sound of her house-rocking laugh.

aunt nancy, whom my papa called noo, she made, among other eccentricities, jell-o that jiggled 1,001 fruits, nuts, marshmallows, whipped cream, mayonnaise, even cole slaw, i swear in that jell-o. and cakes that oozed super goo. she penned love notes, too, that oozed the same goo, only not sticky.

every day at aunt nancy’s was reason for joy. every day was a new definition of what in the world could be done to make you laugh silly.

my own mama, her sister, tended toward serious (a quality i have come to hold dearly for her rock-solid stance in a wobbly world). at our house, jell-o came three ways and three ways only: straight, whipped, or laced with mandarin oranges.

although she did pull her pranks now and then, my mama she did. i remember one april fool’s pouring green milk on my o’s. my mama, she giggled. from back by the stove where she tried to keep a straight face.

so maybe this green gene comes as a birthright. maybe i got it from her.

all i know is that life is a wonderful thing when you’re little and someone much bigger than you gets all silly.

so the eggs will be scrambled in green. and the seuss books, scattered all over. the cat’s hat will be worn, will be tipping.

and we’ll all settle in for a reading of the little red house, with the blue swaying tree. the house where the sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. so they sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day. and then something went bump! how that bump made them jump! how the cat in the hat, he stepped in on the mat, and said to sally and friend (forever left unnamed except for the first-person, i): “i know it is wet and the sun is not sunny. but we can have lots of good fun that is funny!”

not a bad cat, that cat 50 years old. you might bake him a cake. you might break a few eggs. just make sure that they’re green. that cat likes green eggs with his ham.

hey look, it’s eggs that are scrambled and green! bet you’re glad you weren’t here for breakfast….

reading by the light of the double dd

not a creature was stirring as i looked out the window into the night. not the ‘possum. not the waddling raccoon. not even an owl, the ol’ nightcaller himself.

it was so cold and so quiet last night, you could have heard a snowflake falling. only it was so cold they were up huddling in clouds.

the moon, just a sliver away from the full snow moon, draped its blue light on what in the day had been white. cast shadows, like night lace, all over the lawn.

i could have stood there for hours, locked in my moon meditation. but i thought i heard rustling from the room up above. so i took to the stairs in the dark, just past bedtime.

ah, yes. a creature was stirring, all right. a boy with a beam powered by double-d batteries. a boy in his bed, with a book on his lap, turning the pages with one hand, holding his moon with the other.

seems we were both locked in moonlight meditations. only his offered forth the story of a worm, a worm who keeps track of his days, of his doings.

seems the pages, the pictures, the underground dramas were too much for the boy with his head once kissed, left snug on the pillow.

he was reading by flashlight, a time-honored rite. only this boy’s no fool, he had backups stashed all around him. three tubes of turn-on light. just in case.

he was deep into the earthworm when i came upon him. he barely looked up, barely flinched. certainly didn’t try hiding the light.

i could not protest; in fact, i just melted. rather like a moonbeam on the frozen earth just out the window.

there is something about stumbling upon a child caught up in a moment of childhood, of wonder, of total absorption in a world that is defined, is outlined, only by him.

it’s like watching a child catch a snowflake on her tongue for the first time. or cupping his hands ‘round a firefly.

who teaches these time-honored tricks? is it somewhere deep in our wiring: stop, behold wonder. use your whole body to grasp it, to taste it, to touch it.

to drink it all in by the light of the moonbeam you hold in your hand.

my whisper today is that each one of us, with children or without, discover, re-discover, the magic of stumbling upon wonder and doing our darnedest to hold onto it, to catch it, to tuck it in a jar, to steal a few sacred moments, under the light of the snow moon, ascending, and carry it like a flashlight in our back pocket. where someone obviously had been carrying his.

you can always pull out a little wonder, cast its light on the dark of the world that surrounds you.

from tasha’s bees to me

a box arrived over the weekend from vermont. anything from vermont makes me happy. but this particular box said it was from tasha tudor, who is pretty much my hero. she might be the loveliest illustrator of children’s books that ever there was. think “secret garden.” she’s the one who painted the garden that pulled you in, and all these years later has never let you go.

tasha is my hero as much for how she lives as for how she puts color to paper. she lives at the end of a perilously-steep, much-potholed road, in a timeworn cedar-planked farmhouse–just like one built in 1740 in concord, new hampshire, one that caught her considerable fancy.

but her house, on the crest of a hill, the inside a labyrinth of rooms with low-slung doorways and uneven floorboards, is one that her son seth built for her, using only hand tools.

seth and his mama are both, they like to say, “a bit reluctant to live in the twentieth century.”

tasha, who is 91, lives purely. you might say she lives simply, but that would be to discount the bone-thinning work it takes to live the way she lives. she is old yankee through and through.

she cooks on an old black cookstove, roasts a turkey in a “tin kitchen,” a contraption she describes as a reflector oven, set in front of the fire. (“barricade the bird from corgies and cats with a firescreen,” she warns, right in the midst of her roasted turkey recipe, a recipe for which she insists a fireplace is required, not optional.)

she eats what she grows in her tumbly riotous garden. raises goats for milk and butter and cheese. wraps herself in shawls to keep away the cold.

when dusk rolls in through the windows, she lights her rooms with beeswax candles, candles she has dipped in autumn, after she cleans the hives so the bees can begin again.

which brings us back to the box that came from vermont over the weekend. it was sent by my sister who is married to my brother in maine (don’t be frightened by that construction; i just constructed it, but it seems right, more right than saying, sister-in-law, a term too clinical for me). it was sent by becca. but it came from tasha.

yes, tasha dipped the candles that now are at my house, now lying on my window seat. maybe it was her children who did the dipping, or maybe one of her grandchildren, some of whom live in cottages nearby. whoever dipped, it’s close enough for me.

and so, as i opened the box, unrolled the sturdy brown paper, i watched six nubby, knobby hand-dipped sticks of beeswax roll toward me. they are in pairs, their wicks still joined, their wicks all tumbled together.

i was dumbstruck by the candlesticks. by the bees’ hard work. by their purity. by the fact that they were dipped and came from tasha’s bees, bees that sucked the nectar from tasha’s enviable and magnificent garden, the garden that has long been the muse for all her painting. the garden that is a muse for me.

the candles got me to thinking about bees. i happen to love bees. i did some reading. soaked up all kinds of wonderful things about bees, about beeswax. i will tell you all about it tomorrow, because this seems to have turned into a tale about tasha. which is a good thing.

which is a pure thing.

please come back tomorrow for another pure thing, a bit about bees, a bit about beeswax, the less considered thing about bees and their labors. honey, of course, being the bee thing that tends to get more of our time and attention. because it’s a sweet thing. of course.

turn the page slowly

come in close. crack open the cover. take in the book. finger the paper, the color, the type. hear the page crackle. as you lift it, you turn it. you turn the page slowly.

drink in the story. take note how the words are unfurled on the page. feel the thump of the poem as it beats with your heart.

at its best it is poetry, tucked in those pages. tucked between covers. awaiting your fingers. awaiting your heart.

some of the books that i love best, have always loved best, are books for children, children’s books. books meant to be read curled up in a lap. curled up in a corner. curled up in a chair with a lap like a mama.

i have loved children’s books, collected children’s books, since long before i had children. and will keep doing so, i am certain, long after those children no longer fit in my lap.

i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the thumbelina page in tasha tudor’s book of fairy tales, the one i have loved since i was so very little, curled in a corner, the page in my lap. on the page that i love, the little spit of a girl floats on a red tulip petal, two wisps of perhaps a cat’s whisker for her oars. she has been floating on that page, trying to get to the edge of the bowl that is wrapped in a bank of bleeding heart, and lily-of-the-valley and sweet yellow pansies for 46 years, since 1961, when tasha published the book, and probably near the time that my mama gave it to me.

it might have been thumbelina who made me love books. or maybe my mama.

because today is a day at school in which all children are reading, or being read to, in hopes that illiteracy can be wiped out in schools not far away, i pulled two of my favorites off of the shelf.

they would be, for now, the beginning and end of my favorites, for one, “what you know first,” by patricia maclachlan, engravings by barry moser, has been my favorite since i stumbled upon it years and years ago in the stacks of a dusty old book store, a used-book store with the marvelous name aspidistra, squeezed in next to a hamburger joint at the not-so-quaint corner of clark and wrightwood in chicago.

the other book, “ox-cart man,” by donald hall, illustrations by barbara cooney, i call the caboose of my favorites only because it’s the last one in the door. it should have been a favorite for a long, long time. but i only just came upon it, waiting for me on a table at just about the coziest, most thoughtfully considered place to find children’s books in all chicago these days–the sweden shop, on foster near kimball, where my dear friend sandra has resettled after closing her own much-loved and missed shop, sweetpea, where some of the best books on my shelves were ever-so-reverently slipped in my most hungry hands.

“what you know first,” is pure heart-breaking poetry. a child is leaving the prairie; the family farm, sold, or, probably, lost. you hear the child’s voice, ache for the child, as he or she, i can never tell which, leaves behind an ocean of grass, endless sky, a cottonwood tree, even uncle bly who sings cowboy songs, eats pie for breakfast. i’ve always heard echoes of “the grapes of wrath” in these few pages, a grownup novel of loss and leaving behind boiled down to its rich, pure essence, in words a young heart can’t help but feel. the black-and-white engravings, i could study forever. could frame and hang on my wall.

“ox-cart man,” a poem that originally appeared in the new yorker, of all places, on oct. 3, 1977, quietly unspools a powerful tale of a man, his wife, his son and his daughter who work all year to gather, to grow and to make goods that he then sells at the market, drawn there by the ox and the cart. it is a book that pounds home the lesson of true economy, you use what you have, you sell what you’ve got, you buy what you need, you start over again. in a disposable world, these pages can’t be fingered often enough.

the u.s. poet laureate billy collins wrote of hall: “[he] has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.” barbara cooney, one of my truest heroes (she wrote and illustrated “miss rumphius,” which teaches us, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful”), won the caldecott medal for her ox-cart illustrations that remind us of early american paintings, new england quaint.

the power of both books is that they are quiet, so quiet. plainspoken poetry. they are books you can’t close when you get to the last page. you just sit there, holding. holding your breath. holding your heart.

holding on to the power of a poem, poured out on the page, a page best turned oh so slowly.

please forgive me if i rambled. bless you if you got to this bottom. please take a turn. tell us your best children’s book. go ahead, gush.