Two-year old Ryan hid behind my legs as “the snort” came up the driveway. The ground vibrated and rumbled. It belched smoke and steam, growled and groaned, engines grinding, treads clacking up the driveway. A suspended grapple with teeth appeared first, looming above the trees like a dinosaur, its hinged face bowed atop a tall neck called an arm, its body read, CAT. It clanked and roared to a stop, quieted before emitting one last cough. Our snort, the name inspired by a children’s book we’d read about a backhoe, had come to knock down our old house. After a final battle with rats in the floors and nesting in walls, we’d about had it with that old place; were ready to start fresh. Our snort was an excavator with a grapple that looked like jaws with teeth; very big ones.
In the silence, Ryan eased out toward the machine, his hands cupped over his ears, tilted his head all the way back and looked up. The driver was up there perched in the seat, hardhat, red suspenders. Ryan called, “Are you here to fix our house?”
Just days earlier we had moved to into the rental unit near the house to manage the remodel. Ryan and his sister lived in a tent in back of the shop with my underemployed son (their father) and unemployed mother, Jan. Ryan was three and his baby sister nearly one. Jan and Liza stayed in the tent most days, rarely venturing out. So, Ryan spent a lot of time with me as I tended the place: trimming trees, planting a garden, climbing up in the seat of my own tractor to turn the compost, feeding the horses and looking after chickens.
“Nope,” the driver stretched out of the cab to hook a hand around the grab bar and jumped down. Taking off her helmet, she shook out her hair. Dwarfed by the immense machine our neighbor Sharon was sleek and taught as an animal. “Sorry. I’m here to wreck it.” Ryan burst into tears.
We were all a wreck at that time, our lives unsettled by disruption: getting ourselves and our household items packed up for the construction project, moving into the cabin, fighting with Jan and Tony, erecting a tent our back for Tony’s family to live in, Jan’s illnesses, medications and depression, social services complaints and we were bleeding money, twice as much as we’d planned for. But most importantly we knew by then that we had to do something about Tony and Jan, because they were driving over the line, heading in the wrong direction.
(This memory and the way the deconstruction aligned with our family’s situation, one deconstruction after another, like the house, was eventually followed by reconstruction. It seemed a relevant thought. Not quite an epiphany. Simply a moment when I paused while editing a nearby scene in my memoir, Fallen From the Nest.) (names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty)
When it was time to transition you two children from my house back to Daddy’s, we only had to move you next door. He had a new baby and a girlfriend, for awhile, his wife. It was traumatic for all of us. Traumatic means that it was an emotionally charged time and we all were uncomfortable. We had to change a lot of things about our daily life. That’s hard to do.
I kept my tongue in my cheek as I wrote this operating manual, hoping it would be seen as funny, looked at, read by your dad and temporary step-mom. I couldn’t begin to write everything I had to say. I had already begun to feel the loss of you and your sister, my little buddies.
I just discovered this again this morning… I try not to give advice, people do not appreciate it. This is not very well-disguised is it? Enjoy a very serious message wrapped like a refurbished vehicle manual! gma
I watched you with you pencil in hand, scratch number after number in the blanks, color in the boxes and flip the page to complete a number sentence. Five pages, two of them with 25 problems lined up like chairs in the DMV. Your mom said you had so much homework, please give him some time. You did it fast. You did it dutifully. You did not do it with interest, engagement and used very little skill. You were a chicken pecking out your twosies. Times tables still get memorized, still get learned, get to become part of your collection of math ideas even when not drilled. That homework was drill. I am glad you are still alive. Drill and kill is not effective. But something in. your classroom was right. You learned these already. You knew just what to write beneath the line where two multiplicands, none over 12 teased and taunted you above those lines. I got this, you told me. Steeling yourself for a dull half hour session with the twos times tables you slogged through the pages, kicking them aside like a dragon trainer only can. You got the twos down. Pencil smoking. Done. I hope next week you get to do the threesies. Or maybe just for fun the text book might mix them up, toss in a few fours or an eight, I mean wouldn’t it be cool if you discovered a relationship between the twosies and foursies? Then watched the numbers in your head dance when an eight times two was something you already knew. Oh, well, its all transitory, isn’t it? Reinforcing, strengthening those neurons, constructing a pathway through that wild math forest in your brain. That’s what homework always was, Maybe always will be. You are a good sport, buddy.
I used to tell Grandpa, go on ahead, I’ll meet you there. We liked to ride bikes with our kids– four boys, one was your dad. The oldest and the two middles would ride off while the youngest at first, then later one of the middles would stay with me. “I’ll hang with Mom,” they’d call out as if protecting the female of the species. When actually he wanted to see the cool things I always found on our rides. I liked to go slow. Liked to see where I was, watch the trail for scat, evidence of animals about. You can’t hear them unless you slow the wind in your ears. That goes for riding horses, too. Listen, watch, not out of fear, but out of interest, desire to fully know the place I trod, wheeled or clopped along.
So it is with play with our new HighRise building sets. It behooves us to watch, listen and discover what you children are interested in, exploring, wanting to understand and inclined to create. We can be sure that the your explorations will change overtime. So what should you do with that set, that full Team Builder set? I’d suggest, based upon the ages and building interests of the children, teachers make a selection from the set, basic panels first, nothing else, see what they do. Then maybe bring in some airplanes, vehicles or people. I noticed that your sister engaged when I added a basket of dogs to the set.
Yet my three year old grandson was delighted to learn how to connect the pieces. Slotting was a new skill, stacking delighted him. Then he connected his two stacks and stood back to have a look at it.
I noticed little ones liked laying a flat panel on top of their buildings to add his special touch then peeked through the windows. The spaces interested them. I wondered what might this little guy would like to do next? Then he showed me. He shined a flashlight through the holes and windows watching the square pattern change shape and as it projected on the wall. What else could I do with his idea, this schema exploration?
Then you big kids, 6 and 8 yrs tried to hang flashlights and used the one light tube we’d provided and some old fashioned clothes pins with rubber bands. You asked if I had more flashlights. So the next day, I brought in a string of rope lights, LEDs with a battery pack. I added some standard wooden spring clothes pins for attaching the strand of lights. And Voila, you were clipping and unclipping– “wiring” the buildings with light strands into the night. I’ll put some on ETSY for your friends if you’d like. I found a good price. They are pretty sturdy. Way better than little tree lights or the LEDs without the rubber tubing that protect the tiny bulbs. What do you think? Gma
You kids just left for school, the day before Halloween, dressed in your homemade costumes. We put them together yesterday, my little Astrid and Hiccup, dragon tamers, friends on the movie screen and off. Cutting up my old sweats, you and your sister cut and drew and trimmed, too. We climbed the steps of the studio and dug through bins, you wanted real leather, real belts, to really be Hiccup. Your sister was happy with an assemblage of items suggesting her favorite character, Astrid. Whew. Done.
Your step-mom had no time, except for your little brothers costume. He turned three yesterday. His is done. So what happened? We will have to chat later. I listened to your worry, whine and frantic pleas, watched you pace. Of course I will help. Of course. I have to look really cool, Grandma. I want to wear it to school. I can’t wear regular clothes, then everyone will call me a loser.
What? A loser? Where does that idea come from? You could never be a loser, clever, smart, kind, funny, artistic and creative boy full of love. Loser?
Then you cried. “I was in the bathroom and saw “Ryan is a loser” on the door. Somebody wrote it in dark pen. I couldn’t get it off and I didn’t go back to my class because I was mad.” Oh dear, so mean and scary. “So the principal saw me and I showed her. We washed it off.” I was glad about that. you added one last thing, “But you aren’t supposed to write on the school.” Or be allowed to be mean to another child, harass and target him like that. I hope he was counseled, caught and his parents told.
I agreed about that. “You are right and you are never supposed to say unkind things, but people sometimes do. I am sorry someone was having their own bad day and wrote that about you. I wonder if he was feeling like a loser himself? That is sad.
That is mean, you told me. Yes it is. So we got back to putting your costumes together. Grandpa took you to the barn to look at leather tack, buckles and belts and Ellie and I glued little skulls and bottle caps on my old sweats, then all night I tossed and turned.
I hope you feel proud today. Good in your costume, strong, capable, able to stand up and be Ryan in that Hiccup costume. You are a dragon slayer, oops, I mean tamer. You are.
Liza and I worked together on her homework this week. She was so much fun and was willing to try anything to make it happen. She was excited about it not working because when it didn’t funny things happened. She wanted to invent a bike trailer for her stuffed animals to ride in. The cord around her neck and back to the box where she had developed a wheel and axle from garage parts. No not safe, grandpa called from the shop. Its okay because it cant turn. It gets caught in my wheels every time then flips over. So maybe tie the ropes to the handle bars? How about the bike frame? OMG it keeps getting tangled in the wheels.
Then she got the idea to hold the rope out from the wheels with a stick at the handle bars. Still no luck. It flipped. How about the seat gets a pipe all taped on so it has big wings to hold out the rope. Okay. Seems good enough. Whew. Fun project, amazing tenacity and inventiveness.
This is rather like a commercial, only one minute long. I know I know, now I have to do one for you too. Right? That will be fun. gma
Grandpa and I have been working to get ready for a sales opportunity in Seattle at the Reggio Conference. We are sending sets off to Seattle with flyers, price sheets and receipts, which means we had to hurry and develop them. This is the real deal. Very exciting to have this opportunity to get more feedback about the product and start recovering a little investment. We have been discussing how to create a light for the interior, make the structures glow. Lighting that is self contained, maybe controlled simply like a flashlight, or should it be a science learning experience for the children? What do you think, buddy?
Clear window panels are very cool, so far they break router bits every time we make a few. The buildings look great with clothes pins, clear tubes with stoppers. Playing with ideas for inspiring teachers and builders. What accessories do you use with your sets?
The moment the first part of her emerged, I was there anticipating her arrival, a foot. Was that alright a foot coming first? Then her nose, I could see it, slick shiny dark, black or brown? Nostrils flared, I smelled the earth, the sea the universe in her first breath. With a gush, she lay in the straw at my knees, I was wet with her. Mocha, my Arabian mare, her mother, sniffed her, me, her again. We called her Mosaic and later Mozie. I was ready for her, held myself around my middle in wonder, the beauty of it, not a miracle, no, it was so absolutely basic, expected, perfect.
Mocha pulled off the sack and licked her offspring’s head, her face, sides and bottom, becoming her mother tongue, from whom the bay filly would learn everything in those first few months, years and become a horse, a member of the barnyard, an individual being, with her own spirit, but responsibility to her herd.
A quarter hour later she stood, legs like a rickety folding table, a tripod, but four, bamboo in the wind, a kid on skis, a sapling. She nuzzled, nursed and they both laid down. What a morning . Mozie closed her eyes, so Mocha could too.
An hour later I cleaned the stall around them, brought Mocha some hay and started in on the filly’s foot, still a bundle of hair, the pointy ends flattened by her first steps, flattened to get to her mother, her smell, the hay, the barn, the trees shifting in the breeze. Flattened into a tiny strong hoof, ready for the soil outside, the trails, rocks, gravel and the world she’d inhabit, the people she’d depend upon, all of it-interdependence. I took her foot in my hands and ran my hand up her leg, her thigh and down again. I stroked and hummed as I rubbed each of four kegs, her back, rump, chest and belly. As she dried, her dark brown coat caught the sunlight, a scruff of a mane, fluff of a tail black as night with a rhombus of white, on her face, a window into her soul, there it was.
I pressed my cheek against the white, her barely cheeked head an upholstered light bulb that would “dry out” overtime to become a sculpted Arabian, hooded eyes, boned face, a bay beauty. What happened that day changed my life and began hers. When I brought in a flake of hay, she’d rise, assemble her legs and move to me like a dog seeking pets toss my hand with her nose, follow me through the paddock as I cleaned, pushing the blue wheelbarrow full of collected manure, raked up straw. I’d toss acorns over the fence, limbs of trees, stones and pine cones tossed out of her way. She watched me as I groomed her home, cared for her, two moms, Mocha and her human. Like a toddler, she nuzzled the tip of the rake, tried to climb in the wheel barrow, tipped it over and dashed back into the stall then peeked out from behind her mother to review what she’d done.
There were days she’d bite me, my clothes and shoes and pull my laces, tasting her world, testing me. Kicking, charging, nipping, colt behaviors required limits, socializing, and that I find her someone to play with…
I could go on and on today about me and Mozie until I reach her final breath outside on the grass, with me at her feet, stroking her legs, saying goodbye. But, this morning I am thinking about Liza instead. That’s what got me thinking about bonding, how I made a physiological, neurological, deeply emotional connections with a young filly. Connections that kept her following me around the paddock, watching me like a child using social referencing, wanting to know if we are okay, how we feel about the scuffling sounds in the brush, about ourselves. Are we safe?
To Liza I was a barrier, one that kept her from her mommy, a nagging presence, defined me as “not her mommy” yet she had no other. Everyone needs a mommy. I tried a few nannies, then took the reins myself. There was just me, so, like starting at the foot, not yet flattened for walking the earth, I stroked her, bathed, read, sang, fed her, played, became an unrelenting presence, though unwelcome. As she probably could tell, I was not sure I liked it being the one rejected over and over again. I thought I might have to strap her down, ride her through bucking, twisting, hazardous falls and uncontrolled rage. But like with Mozie, I waited for her to teach me how, like waiting my turn at jump rope, in tune, knees bent, flexing ready for anything, arms ready to catch her.
I tried for awhile, then didn’t anymore, I decided I couldn’t. I was mad at her daddy, a world that left her mother untended, on the streets, a system that failed then dropped Ellie at my door. Was I mad at my mother, or the mother I once was, inaccessible when I reached for her? Or maybe, just maybe I felt the burden of untended hurts of my own so I couldn’t bear to witness hers, confused and thinking it was my own.
Oh, that blue wheelbarrow how is glows in the foggy dew, the rake and shovel now tossed back into the empty barn where an old cat lives today, stalking mice, raiding nests in the eaves, cobwebs in her fur. I close my eyes and remember the smell of damp soil after a rain, the tartness of fresh manure, the flat edge of the shovel worn thin, from scraping at the dry packed soil. Fingers of the rake scratched dust plumes rose, the tang of urine in a mat of hay.
I used to take time sorting the good hay from soiled, remove what was soiled, preserving what could be salvaged. As it is with Liza. I created space for us to sit and take the stones from our shoes, pried open my knees offering her shelter, my hands soft on my thighs, waiting for her to crawl in, she’d stopped seeking my comfort, wouldn’t enter the triangle safety of my lap or drop her head to my lap. We danced around one another like chickens in the barnyard. Her step mom stepped in and she got a mommy again. So I waited to become her grandma. Just that, her grandma. She didn’t seem to know what to do with me, how I could have gone from mommy to grandma. She had quit me.
But then today, this morning, when she stopped in to borrow a pan, I saw she had been following me, using my words, my tone, putting her lips just so. She’d watched my face those first three years to see how we feel, cried when I left her, peeled her off my legs. I hadn’t I noticed. As she heads down the drive, back to her home where her mommy makes apple oat bars for lunch box treats, and you are helping, I have to let go. I did the best that I could, maybe better. It’s time to sell the blue wheelbarrow, clean out the barn. Do grandma’s get children ponies? I have so many things to figure out. gma
You took the pencil in your right hand, between a bent middle finger and the curve of an index and thumb splayed like knees ready to place the line of graphite, the top of the sea lion supine on the wooden dock. You move along the contour of his form all one non- stop line. Then create the posts, the water and dock in simple, supple lines.
I find your way of representing your idea, your way of making those continuous lines amazing because I cannot do so, I never have had such a smooth connection between my minds eye and my hand.
Yesterday you told me that you have a terrible storm brewing in your head about Minecraft and think you better not play it anymore. I ask you about what the storming would say if it could talk. You told me that your step-mom hates Minecraft and for one half hour only on Wednesdays you love it. So you are arguing in your mind about what mommy thinks is a bad game and you are enjoying. Developing morals is hard work. Managing conflicting ideas takes trust, experimentation and problem solving doesn’t it? We talked about what mommy doesn’t like, what you like and wondered together how both of your ideas might share your mind at the same time. The storm, you told me could last for days, I hope not years, you said.
You are so reflective, find your own process as fascinating as I do, I observe while you feel it all. And tell me about it. You feel a punching fight, you tell me, in your middle, and it hurts too much to pay attention at school. I asked your if your teacher knows? You say no, but the storm fights are everywhere in the room. I ask how you know. You tell me that you get hot and hear the screech. I wonder how you can manage buddy! How?
You are on a waiting list for counseling. Daddy says that the man who you will talk to has a l st name Orion. I hope he will be good for you. You have to tell him what you tell me. Tell him about the storm. Draw it for him, my dear one. Draw every demon that haunts you. One line, one line. Whew.