Spring is in the Air

Little kids seem so much more receptive to the little changes. Sometimes this can be trying, such as when I use the –gasp!– wrong cup for Eleanor’s milk, or layer on Jeffrey’s blankets in the incorrect order at bedtime. (For the record, it is: cow blanket, polka-dot blanket, and then the blue pinwheel patchwork quilt. Which he then promptly kicks off as soon as I leave the room.)

But there are other times that my kids pick up on the best details in life. There’s a passage in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins in which young Rose walks into her bedroom and immediately notices how the sunset is coloring the room, “with a child’s quick instinct.” That quick instinct — that uninhibited reaction to nature — is something I love in kids, especially when it helps me experience seasonal changes, like this burgeoning spring, through their eyes. (Oh, that old cliché. But it’s true.)

The wind is blowing briskly, and Jeffrey wants to go outside. “I like to play in the breeze,” he says. “Because it keeps me fresh.” He is always wanting to report on the weather at his preschool. “I felt a breeze today, Megan,” he reports proudly. “It must sign up for the weather report and say that it’s windy!”

Our first few flowering bulbs have come up, and our kids are enraptured with them, shining out like rainbow-colored coins scattered in our grey backyard. Poor little blossoms — they don’t stand a chance against my kids’ chubby fingers. Jeffrey made short work of the crocus, while Eleanor is slowly plucking the hyacinths apart. The realities of wilted flowers are hard, however. “Mommy, my flowers are melting,” says Eleanor sadly, tumbling a wrinkly, rubbery pink nub into my hand. “The flower melted, Mommy!”

A few mornings ago Jeffrey was quietly staring out the window over his breakfast bagel, his hand softly cupping his cheek. “Mommy, why is it pink all over?” I asked him what he saw outside that was pink, and he wrinkled his brow in thought. “Everything. Everything is pink,” he said, sweeping his hand across the window in a grand, yet vague, gesture. I looked, and it was all grey to me, but after gazing for moment, I could see it — how the sunlight slanted across the tips of the trees foresting the hillside, and if you didn’t look too closely at one in particular, you could see streaks of pink, like a gauze hung over the spindly, bare branches. It was the budding leaves, the raw pink tone they have just before bursting, the color of baby’s tongue. Birthing is hard, renewal is hard, the struggle to produce something new and gorgeous out of what essentially seems like a bunch of sticks in the mud. I love that Jeffrey can see it, this secret way of looking that he can show me, that we can share.

One of my favorite springtime books:

Rabbit’s Good News by Ruth Bornstein — There’s a big ol’ rainbow of pastels at work in these illustrations, although they aren’t showy by any account.  Little rabbit uses all of his senses, from sniffing the air to listening for birdsong, to see if spring has really arrived.  Then he bounds out of his den to share the news. Little kids enjoy the simplicity of this tale, and like being able to match up Rabbit’s senses with his body parts (“he hears with his . . . EARS!”).  Sweet ‘n’ simple.

Loving and Leaving Pittsburgh: The Phipps Conservatory

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Jeffrey and Eleanor were on spring break this week, and I thought we’d take advantage of the spare time to see the always-gorgeous spring flower show at the Phipps Conservatory. I always try to take some good photos of the kids with the flowers; this is the third year in a row that I’ve done such portraits.

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So many memories of this place! It was one of the places I visited on my first trip to Pittsburgh, back in May 2001. Brian and I were absolutely enchanted with the butterfly forest.

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Over the years, I’ve learned a few hints about visits — go as early as possible to get a good parking spot, watch out for puddles, and never never never pay them a visit on Good Friday. The crowds are horrid on that day.

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Just before Eleanor was born, I took Jeffrey for a visit on that fated day, and it was so stressful. He kept dashing ahead of me (he was only 2 1/2 then) and with my huge tummy, I could barely keep up. There were a large number of senior citizens there, and I was afraid that he was going to knock somebody over. We were attracting curious looks, stares, and a few not-so-quiet “Humph!”s all through the gardens.

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Worst of all, there were two particular ladies that we kept running into over and over again. Every time I had to beg their pardon, I could feel my face getting redder.

I decided to cut the visit short and get out of there, when Jeff decided to run into the gift shop to take a look at the toys and — aaa! — expensive glass objets d’art. Lo and behold, who should be there at the botanical soap display other than those two same ladies again.

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But before I could apologize once more for Jeffrey’s behavior, they both smiled and shook their heads.

“Such a good baby you have,” one of them said. “Most babies wouldn’t want to walk that far without being carried. He went the whole way through without crying to be picked up once.”

Oh!

I’m sure I wasn’t able to mumble much more than a thank-you before running off to catch Jeffrey once again. If only those ladies knew how much their kind words meant to me!

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Jeffrey’s behavior has improved much since then. He and Eleanor were a couple of clowns for these photos. Whenever I sat them down and raised the camera, they immediately began to tickle, hug, and make silly faces at me and each other. They are such good buddies!

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William, on the other hand, had a bad cold, so he didn’t get photographed much beyond this:

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But he’s still awfully cute, wouldn’t you say?

To Thine Own Delf Be True

scissors.jpgEleanor has trouble pronouncing the letter s.  She pronounces it like a d, especially when it’s the first sound in a word.

“Mommy, I want some dissors.  To dip something.”  Translation: “Mommy, I want some scissors.  To snip something.”  This takes a little bit of extra processing on my part, and Brian’s, too.  We keep trying to correct her (“It’s ssssssnip, Eleanor,”) and she keeps trying to say it the right way (“ssssssDip”) but the going is slow.

The word we hear mispronounced most often is the word “self,” as in “I did it all by my delf!”  Eleanor has a habit of bragging about her independence at inopportune moments, too:

After kicking and squalling while being buckled into her car seat: “Mommy!  I got buckled all by my delf!”

Or, when we are pouring her some milk, and she suddenly grabs the jug, spilling milk everywhere: “I poured a drink all by my delf!”

Worst of all, when our toilet training efforts backfire: “Mommy!  I made a poopy in my diaper — all by my delf!”

Well, I guess it’s a good thing she didn’t actually need assistance doing that.  But still.

Brian and I have therefore been categorizing Eleanor’s growing independence in two ways.  First, there’s when she actually does something good by herself (like hanging up her coat on her hook, or setting the table.  Then there’s the stuff she does All By Her Delf.  And those are the moments that we are learning to fear.  I’m sure there will come a time when simply hearing the word “delf” won’t make my heart beat faster, but it hasn’t happened yet.  All I can do is have patience, pray, and hope she won’t drive me Indane.

Ella by Moonlight

moon-march-9-2008.jpgLast Sunday evening, we were on the way home from a friend’s house, and Eleanor saw something outside her window.

“Look! It’s the moon!”

It was just barely recognizable as the moon, in my opinion — a bright, thin eyelash of a moon, tipped directly upwards towards the sky. The dark side of the moon could be seen clearly above it, a circle of not-quite sky, the color of a faded black T-shirt. It gave me chills.

“Mama, I’m going to fly up to the moon,” said Eleanor seriously, still gazing out the window.

“Oh, on a rocketship?” I asked.

No,” she said firmly. Eleanor is particular about her fantasies. “With my wings.”

“Will you take a walk on the moon when you get there?” Eleanor was puzzled by this question.

“No, I will fly up there with my wings and grab the moon with my two hands,” she explained.

Oh, now I understood — and I was delighted. I couldn’t help but think of the princess in James Thurber’s Many Moons, who insists that the moon is the size of her thumb, is made of gold, and can be worn on a chain around her neck.

On our car ride, Jeffrey and Eleanor continued to chat animatedly about the moon, and said “Goodbye, Moon!” or “There it is again!” as the moon dipped in and out of our view. I was thrilled again, remembering doing just that when I was a child.

As a parent, there are so many happy things I’ve remembered from my own childhood that I’ve gone out of my way to pass on to my kids — the fingerpainting, the digging up of treasured picture books, the carefully preserved Halloween costumes my mother made for me — that I sometimes forget that some of them, like DNA, will be passed down quietly to them, as a matter of course. As gently and quietly as moonlight streaming through a water-streaked window.

If you haven’t read this one, go directly to your library and find it. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

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Many Moons by James Thurber, illus. Louis Slobodkin.  Princess Leonore is ill, and says she won’t get better unless she can have the moon.  Her father the king is in a dither: each of his blustery assistants, including the Astronomer, the Mathematician, and the Magician, insist that the moon is too large and heavy for this to be possible, and recommend a series of solutions, each more comically outlandish than the last.  Only the court jester, who spends time listening to Princess Leonore’s own theories about the moon, can save the day.  This is a big-time classic — renowned author, Caldecott-winning illustrations — and on my personal list of Books That Must Be Read By Age 13.  BUT — and this is a big but — it’s long, so save it for reading aloud (it must be read aloud) until your kid is six or seven.  Or relish it all on your own.

Now in Technicolor!

film-reel.jpgA few weeks ago I checked out Ty Burr’s new film guide, The Best Old Movies for Families. Burr, a film critic for the Boston Globe, is clearly a man after my own heart: this book is all about getting kids to enjoy films from the early ’60s and before. I LOVE the vintage-y vintage, and our Netflix queue is now clogged up with things like Bringing Up Baby and Easter Parade and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

So far, we’ve had great success with Singin’ in the Rain. It took us a couple of days to watch it, and at first the kids were kind of puzzled by the whole thing, but by the time we got to the “Broadway Melody” sequence at the end, Jeffrey and Eleanor were dancing around the room, trying to imitate Gene Kelly and Cyd Cherisse step-by-step. (Really — Eleanor wouldn’t just wiggle her hips to the music, but she would earnestly attempt to mimic the style of dance she was seeing, whether it was tap, ballet, orsingin-in-the-rain.jpg jazzy-jazz-hands-ness.) When Kelly picks up Cherisse and spins her around, Jeffrey tried to do the same with Eleanor. Unfortunately, he kept grabbing her around the neck and shoulders, so it didn’t quite work out.

Eleanor also really liked the “Beautiful Girl” song, where different models show of fashions of the ’20s. She’d pose in front of the television, her blankie artfully draped around her body in imitation of flapper chic. Fabulous.

meet-me-in-st-louis.jpgMeet Me in St. Louis has gotten mixed results — the kids were scared of the Halloween sequence, although they love the “Bamboo Tree” song, and Eleanor has been holding a cup up to her ear in imitation of the 1903-style telephone sequence. As for Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, Jeffrey thought it was hee-lar-i-ous, but Eleanor didn’t get it. I just love the pompous professor, a classic comedy stock character if ever there was one.

The only fly in the ointment so far is that Netflix doesn’t carry any Busby Berkeley films.

!!!

I know! There was a big box set that came out last year, for pete’s sake. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Netflix was MADE for. So, we have to content ourselves with watching the dance routines on YouTube.

We all love “By a Waterfall” from Footlight Parade. Brian and I dropped our jaws to the floor the first time we watched it.

But the kids’ favorite has to be the Carmen Miranda “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” from The Gang’s All Here. And can you blame them? Anything that involves a banana xylophone has GOT to be good.

Yesterday Jeffrey had to have major dental work done — cavities filled, and two crowns on his molars.* He had to go under general anesthetic to get the work done, and he was majorly woozy and exhausted afterwards. On the way home, we told Jeffrey he could pick out any movie he wanted to watch that afternoon. Sleepily, Jeffrey wobbled his head up from the collar of his puffy winter coat.

“I want Singin’ in the Rain, Mommy,” he said softly. The boy couldn’t have made me happier.

*Yes, YES, we DO brush his teeth. Assiduously. And we said good-bye to juice a long time ago. Jeffrey has simply inherited the soft teeth gene from his dad. Let me just state for the record that Jeffrey was amazingly well-behaved for the procedure and didn’t fuss or cry a bit, even though he wasn’t allowed any breakfast that morning.

Night at the Toddler Improv

clown-shoes.jpgA few months ago, Brian and I began teaching the kids about “knock-knock” jokes. I figure that they, along with such other basic elements of comedy such as the horn nose and pie-in-the-face, would be easy for the kids to understand. Then they could make up their own jokes.

Yes, I knew it was a dark path to go down. Because most little kids don’t quite understand what it is that makes a joke funny — the wordplay. For them, a knock knock joke consists of some back-and-forth dialogue, and then some random statement, and then you laugh.

But I say, knowing when to laugh at the end of a joke is an important social skill. In about a decade I’ll get them into Advanced Joke Theory, which includes the false smile and the courtesy laugh.

For now, though, Eleanor tells ONE joke and ONE joke only. Spoken in a single breath, it goes thusly:

“Knock knock, who’s there? It’s a bunny rabbit stuck in the joke-joke tree!”

Yes! Original, indeed! Can you tell that she made it up herself? I can’t quite capture the timing of the thing in print, but the delivery is more like “It’s a BUNNY rabbit stuck in the JOKE JOKE TREEEEEE!”

She repeats this at least once every other day or so. You’d think I’d get annoyed, but it’s become such a running gag, and she says it with such relish, that I can’t help laughing at it. Plus, who can’t find the charm in the idea of a “joke-joke tree”? It’s something cultivated in a Humor Garden, I suppose.

My parents tell me that the joke I told repeatedly as a three year old went along the lines of “A squirrel went up into the tree! And said, Ha ha ha ha!” If anything, I hope this proves that a sense of humor is something that can improve with each succeeding generation. Just watch out for that bunny rabbit.

President’s Day, Part II: The Hershey Factory

hershey-kiss.jpgOn the way home from Valley Forge, we decided to stop in Hershey and do the free tour of the chocolate factory.

Well . . . you don’t tour the actual factory. You go on a ride that shows you simulated factory scenes. And singing animatronic cows.

To tell the truth, I went on this same tour back in the mid-90s, and it was vastly different then. More like a chocolate-based “It’s a Small World” ride. I prefer the cows.

But the fun thing this time was watching Jeff & Ella’s reaction to the ride. They didn’t quite understand what was going on, until our little cable car turned a corner and revealed rows of conveyor belts towing wrapped candy bars along. Then. . .

. . . well, it was like they had had some immense epiphany. They smiled and cheered rapturously, and burst into spontaneous applause. “So that’s what this is all about! To make CANDY!”

At the end of the ride, we told Jeffrey he could pick out one piece of candy from the gift shop for the ride home. He said he’d rather just go on the ride again. So we went again . . . and then again. After which, I was ready to kill the cows. But there was applause every time.

Valentine Roundup

We spent a good part of the week constructing lacey construction papery thingies to mail off to grandmas, be handed over to classmates (which usually results in their immediate destruction) or taped on our dining room wall until St. Patrick’s Day or Easter, whichever holiday compels me to re-decorate first.

But check this out:

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This is a valentine that Eleanor made. Brian and I had been spending a lot of time coaxing Jeffrey to scrawl a “J” on each of his valentines, and in the middle of this, Eleanor decided on her own that she would like to write an “E” on her valentines. See those shaky blue laddery things? That’s the letter E. I’m so proud of her!

The best part is that Eleanor narrated her E-construction, in a perfect imitation of the way I try to teach Jeffrey to make his letters:

“You make a big long one, then one part of a letter E, then another bottom part of a letter E, then another part of the letter E, then another part of the letter E, then another. . . ”

This thing might be on the dining room wall until June. Oh, how I loves it so.

Organizational Skills (Two-Year-Old Version)

pink-shoes.jpgEleanor LOVES preschool. Even though we are almost halfway through the school year, she still gives an excited little jump whenever we tell her that she’s going. She loves her teacher, loves to play with the preschool toys, and she especially loves her lunchbox.

“I get to go to preschool?” she squeals. “With my lunchbox?” Oh, the glee.

But do you know what? It looks like some of that preschool goodness is rubbing off on the girl. Owing to the fastidiousness of the cubby-and-hook coat storage system at school, Ella has become a stickler for stowing her stuff at home.

“I’m taking off my cooooooat!” she yells as she marches into the house. “I’m gonna hang it uuuuuuuuup!”

The problem is that she doesn’t have the fine motor skills to open the coat closet. So she usually just hangs it on the doorknob. Fine by me. But today . . .

“I’m done hanging up my coooooat,” she sang across the house. “Now can I hang up my shoes?”

Shoes?

“You can take them off if you want,” I reply. “There’s a tray in the kitchen you can put them on.”

“No, I want to HANG THEM UP,” she replies stoutly. I hear the scritch-scritch sound of Velcro shoe-straps, and when I enter the living room a few minutes later I find — yes — a shoe hanging from the closet doorknob. As in, the doorknob is inside the shoe . . . but there’s just one of them. I glance around on the floor for its mate, but there’s none to be seen. I figure it will show up sooner or later and go back to the kitchen.

Where, to my surprise, I find another shoe — hanging on the basement door’s knob.

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Baby Shoes by Dashka Slater, illus. Hiroe Nakata.  The premise of this cutie is this: Mom gets Baby some new shoes that are sparkling white. However, through the course of the day, the shoes get soiled in a variety of ways — brown mud, red paint, green grass stains — until they resemble a rainbow. While I have to wonder at the wisdom of buying a toddler white anything, there’s no denying the fun to be found in this book’s bouncy story.

Gender Socialization Rears Its Ugly Head

pink-haribow.jpgIt’s happening. The trying, testing time that every parent of a toddler girl fears — something that will cause countless moments of stress and anxiety in the months to come.

Eleanor is developing a preference for the color pink.

Yes, indeed. When given a plastic plate and cup for dinner, it’s whinewhinewhine unless it’s a pink cup and plate. When choosing a hairbow for the daily ponytail, she insists that it be a pink hairbow. When she found my dispenser pack of paper label, she only wanted to take out and stick the pink labels all over the furniture.

“Pink is my favorite color,” she says, relishing the ability to say so.

Don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I’ve been all Princess-A-Go-Go since she was born. I’ve thrust diggers and trains at her. We read stories about pirates.  Don’t look at me.

Well . . . okay. She was a princess for Halloween two years ago. And there’s been a growing collection of pink toile-y garments in the dress-up box, swelling like a Pepto-Bismol-colored fungus. But really. It’s The World that’s done this. Not me.

“I want to wear a bib, too!” she shouted last week, as we tied a bib around baby William’s neck. Which was followed by our requisite Evil Eye and her faux-meek “A bib, pleeeease.”

Brian went into the kitchen and emerged with — horrors! — a green and orange bib.

“Nooooo! Not that one!” she shrieked. “I want a PINK one!”

Evil Eye, faux-meek “pleeease,” and the only pink bib Brian could find was the one that says “I Love My Big Sister!” on the front. Ella patted the bib down onto her tummy and wiggled her hips happily into the corners of her booster seat. Brian and I couldn’t help but smile at this.

“Oh, do you love your big sister?” Brian asked her.

“Yes. I love Eleanor,” she replied.

For further reading about the obstinate fashion tastes of toddlers:

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Ella Sarah Gets Dressed by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. You gotta love the sunshiny jewel-toned silkscreen prints that chronicles Ella Sarah’s efforts to pick out her own clothes, despite what her family would rather have her wear. Read it a few times, and you’ll find yourself joyfully memorizing the list of clothes.