Books & Words II

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Books & Words II

Childhood Unboxed

My left hand held a small leather bound book open across my knee as my pencil transcribed thoughts in fuzzy grey marks.  Rustle, rustle, rustle.  The pencil spoke to the paper as it skipped along.  Not having much choice, the paper agreed to the pencil’s rhetoric.  The paper, off-white and lined, fluttered in the breeze.  My left hand clamped it down so the pencil could finish a word.  I sat on a sun-warmed, charcoal grey, lichen spotted rock on a steep hillside. The hillside was dotted with juniper trees.  Bluebirds flitted amongst them.  Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees and stretched their shadow-images long across the grasses that covered the earth.  As I did as often as I could, I was out for a hike on this spring day.  I had encountered this rock, about knee high and a rounded square-ish shape, with a hollow in its top.  Perfect to sit on and look out across the central Oregon landscape and down the steep hillside I had just climbed.  Once I settled on the rock, I pulled my hiking journal from the small leather bag with the leather tassel on its hasp that I carried slung over one shoulder, and began to write.

The words formed themselves one after another, in row after row, like soldiers in a precise formation.  They marched down the length of the page.  The pencil was the commander who directed each straight line march, then the about face at the end of each line.  Relentless.  The pencil was relentless.  After a time, a pesky breeze blew a strand of hair across my face.  The hand with the pencil deserted the page to brush it away, and the march of the soldiers ended.  Or, in other words, or no words, it came to a halt.  The lonely word “blossom” hovered by itself, unsure of what it should do.  The pencil left it there as I gazed off across the hilly and juniper treed land.  In the far distance, the beginnings of the Cascade Range of mountains stood like sentinels.  Central Oregon sure was pretty today.  The mountains faded the longer I stared at them, and in their place books hovered.  Yes, books. Kid’s books. 

A few days ago, my hands grasped a utility knife that sliced the packing tape on a cardboard box marked “Childhood Books” in black sharpie.  The flaps of the box sprang open to reveal books I had packed away several months ago in my move from Montana to Oregon.  Oh my.  I gathered the books and placed them on the bench next to the front door and the coat tree, where I sat.  The stack leaned towards me.  They transported me right back into my childhood.  The classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.  White Stallion of Lipizza by Marguerite Henry.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from the Brothers Grimm.  Beauty and the Beast originally written by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, but beautifully retold by Marianna Mayer.  The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble.  The Nightingale another by Hans Christian Andersen.  There were others, too.  They helped formed the trajectory of my life.  

My hands smoothed the hardback cover of The White Stallion of Lipizza.  The dark covers with the leaping white horse on the front held a story about the Lipizzan horses in Vienna, Austria and their amazing acrobatics.  The book had ignited my born-with obsession with horses to a new level.  I wanted to ride horses like that.  I wanted to let the power of the piaffe, a highly collected, powerful trot in place, move through my body.  I wanted to hover over the ground in a levade, a stylized lifting of the front legs of a horse while balancing on its hind legs in place, in a rearing motion.  I wanted to fly in the “airs above the ground” in a courbette or capriole, both movements where the horse leaped into the air at the request of the rider.  I wanted to feel that indelible, deep connection with a horse.  My little girl, who still lived inside, jumped and clapped.  She was clad in a yellow, cap sleeved t-shirt, faded blue jeans with almost-holes at the knees from crawling on the floor and playing with her Breyer horses.  She winked at me.  In a blink, her worn cowboy boots walked in the dirt of the riding hall at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where the Lipizzan stallions trained and performed.  Then, she sat astride one of the white stallions, the arch of its neck before her, as she put it through its paces.  The riders of the school, lined up to watch in the balcony before the seated crowd of onlookers, could not tear their eyes from this tiny ranch girl who rode a stallion so well.  They leaned over the rail and gasped as the little girl in yellow brought her formidable stallion into a piaffe, then a levade which culminated in a courbette.  There was a collective gulp from the riders.  They pointed at her, shook their heads and whispered amongst themselves.  Who was she?  How had someone so small and young learned to ride so?  Where had she come from?  Her clothing was definitely not traditional Vienna-wear.  The little girl in yellow on the white stallion circled the riding hall at a collected gallop.  One small sun-browned had held the leather reins, the other waved to the riders and crowd.  The snorting breaths of the stallion where in time with his hoofbeats as they beat a tattoo in the silent air.  The long gossamer mane of the stallion ebbed and flowed with each stride.  His tail a banner behind, an endnote to the story in music of his hoofbeats.  The little girl in yellow nodded once to the riders as she passed one last time.  As if an invisible hand swung them, the gates at the far end of the riding hall opened, and she and the white stallion cantered through.  Into the sunset, of course.  

As a child, I read horse book after horse book. There were so many. These are a few of the ones who have traveled with me over the years. To this day, I have shelves of horse books. I always will.

JuneBug, my cat, brushed against my leg.  I just about jumped right out of my skin.  Oh.  I was yanked back to the bench with the pile of childhood books.  They seemed to breathe out a sigh and deflate a bit.  I let out a huge breath.  That forgotten dream was still inside myself, with the little girl.  She had remembered, though.  And now, look.  Outside, my horse Evaristo munches hay.  Evaristo is grey, almost white.  Big and powerful, with a long silvery-grey mane, and a thick, wavy tail that almost brushes the ground.  A Lusitano horse, similar to a Lipizzan.  In my early 50’s, I am learning the foundation to those movements the little girl had ridden so long ago.  The learning is a long and hard journey.  It is fraught with moments of bliss and moments of despair.   Guides are required along the way.  But we move along, Evaristo and I, hoof print by boot print.

In our shadow, Evaristo and I are melded together.
JuneBug makes sure the mouse, Whitefoot, does not escape.

I bounced off the bench to grab my iPhone from the kitchen counter.  It was time to send a message to Mom and my sister, Christy.  We had a group message we used every day to stay in touch.  My finger, via the screen, asked if they remembered some of the names of our favorite childhood books.  And there had been lots.  This began a series of messages between the three of us.  Mom sent photos of books she had unboxed.  Christy tapped out words of her favorites.  Oh no.  The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter was not to be found.  It had been Christy’s favorite.  But Mom unearthed Egg in the Hole a Golden Book (remember those?) by Richard Scarry.  Imagine the author of a children’s book having the last name of Scarry!  Egg in the Hole had been another of Christy’s favorites.  

Seeing each book brought back memories of our growing up years.  Who had given them to us.  Times when we had sat on the couch, one of us on either side of Dad as he read to us before bedtime.  A crystal memory:  Christy “reading” her Fourteen Bears book before she even knew how to read.  Dad and Mom had read it to her so often, as she asked then pestered, that she had every word memorized.  She would open it on her lap, and read out loud, page by page.  This infuriated me, as I was in first grade at the time and just learning to read.  It was not fair that my little sister insisted that she already knew how to read when I was just learning a few words.  I think this was my first taste of humility.  

Christy tells us about her childhood book memories:  

“As I think about the favorite children’s books belonging to my sister and I, sometimes the stories from when I was a child run together with the stories from when my own children were small.  In my musings, was it the Sneetches read to me or to my own children?  Was Madeline?  Was Donald Duck and the Witch Next Door? What about the Little Red Caboose? Barnyard Dance? In some cases, books from my childhood were, indeed, read to my own kids!  The Little Red Caboose, for instance, was a favorite of my son.  He, too, loved how the big engine came puffing and chuffing, seeing all of the cars, and finally, how the little caboose saved the whole train from sliding down the mountain!  Out of all children’s books, though, one stands out as a shining all time favorite of mine.  It begins like this:  “Once upon a time, in a summer forest, there were fourteen bears”. Author Evelyn Scott cannot know how important “The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter” became to a little girl in northern Montana! “Every day, the fourteen bears walked paw in paw through the forest.  And the birds sang and the breeze blew, and the sun beat on their ears.” In my imagination, I set my hand in their paws and walked with them as Mother Bear, Daddy Bear, Little Theodore, Veronica, Virginia, and all the rest explored the forest, swam with the friendly fish and sunned themselves in the sand. I lived in each of their tree houses with them, day by day.  I was absolutely riveted when, after a few short weeks of winter sleep, Father Bear let everyone go out and experience snow!  I cried with Emma when she dropped her hot cocoa on the ground and I laughed when “Emma, Hannah, and Victoria rode a sled down a hill and knocked the snowman flat!”  When the bears trimmed their trees for Christmas, “climbed their branch steps, and opened their bark doors and went back to bed” I loved the message the birds hopped out for them after eating the seeds left on the ground:  “Sleep tight good neighbors see you in the spring”.  As years went by, I forgot about The Fourteen Bears, and then when my kids were tiny, I found it again, slumbering safely on its shelf in Mom and Dad’s house.  The book was awakened, it yawned and stretched, and was willing, one more time, to enthrall another generation of children.  I shared the book with Max and Katie with all the love that Mom and Dad had shared it with me.  As they grew, one more time The Fourteen Bears was set aside. When it is needed, it will open its covers and selflessly enrapture its next audience.  Until then, “sleep tight good neighbors” I will swim and sleep and sled with you again!”

And it seems Christy’s memory of the Fourteen Bears is still going strong.   Mom found out on the internet The Fourteen Bears was now worth $749.  Who would have thought?!  Christy would never sell hers, even when she does find it.  After all, it has a job to do after its next long nap.  

Searching through the childhood books on the shelves in the attic of her house and opening boxes also brought back memories for Mom, too. 

“Jenny asked Christy, online, if she still had her childhood book, “The Fourteen Bears”. I responded I thought I had it upstairs in our attic. Christy thought she had it at her home, somewhere. So, started an adventure, for me, into memories of our children’s childhood and our lives in those years. I went upstairs to this attic and her book was not right where I knew it was. Darn! I headed up to their cabin where I had left three file boxes of their treasured children’s books. I found Christy’s “Egg in the Hole” book but no “Fourteen Bears” and this after several delightful search trips to their cabin and to our attic. I fanned out books that looked the most worn and took pictures of them which I sent to the girls. Jenny was much excited to see her little tiger book among the piles. Jenny asked us for memories these children’s books bring to mind. The first memories that came to my mind were not, so much, the reading of books to them, which Dad mostly did in evenings when I was cleaning up, but the bright and cheerful homesteader cabin we lived in the first nine years of our marriage. 

Christy was around six years old when we moved into another larger log home that Dad built over the course of four to five years. The first cabin we lived in was built by the homesteaders, a wife and husband, about 1915. They lived in a tent the two years it took to build the approximately 10’ x 15’ cabin. It took a lot of time to skid trees with their team of horses and one tree at a time off the mountain. When they got the ridge pole set on the log walls to start, the roof it fell in and they decided to leave it thus til the following year. The log cabin had no foundation and had a sod roof. In later years their son added a stick-frame kitchen on one end of the cabin; it extended out about twelve or so feet; a bathroom was cornered off but had no plumbing out at the time. When Dad and his family purchased the ranch they plumbed the bathroom and put in a septic tank. One could do three things at once in the small (but very welcome) bathroom; sit on the potty, brush one’s teeth and soak one’s feet in the tub. The previous owners had, also, sided the cabin with ship-lap siding and added corrugated iron roofing over the sod roof. When we lived in the cabin the bottom logs had settled and the old-time linoleum floor had an upwards curve from wall to wall, so all the kids’ rollable toys rolled to the wall which meant under a bed or chest or something. The main log part of the cabin was heated with a large oil burning stove; the ring supporting the stove pipe through the ceiling had vent holes in it which accommodated hornets, who lived in the old sod roof, access to the house the year around. They were the most populous in spring time and I kept the vacuum plugged in by the south window which they liked the best. I would vacuum up a dozen or more of the creatures several times a day until they abated. Jenny was allergic to insect stings so they were always a concern. Fortunately, her allergy was not respiratory and could be helped with Benadryl pills. 

If she heard any kind of an insect buzz she was off and running away from the noise. For some reason the winds in the springtime caused the oil stove to burp acrid smoke through the heat vent on the stove pipe into the house. I often wonder about our lungs in those days as the white criss-cross curtains I washed each spring were slightly oily and a dirty shade of grey. The kitchen section was not heated until the last couple years we lived in the cabin; we, then, put in a baseboard heater. Until that time the kitchen got cold in the winter and during sub zero weather at night the temperature sometimes got into the forties. We kept water trickling in the old double sink in the metal cabinet and opened its doors. Both girls were crawling in wintertime and when it was cold I put mittens on their hands-can’t remember if they stayed on very long. When the wind blew a breeze came through the electrical outlets in the kitchen which made for unwanted air conditioning in the winter. The blown-in attic insulation of the kitchen would also trickle down cracks between the ceiling and wall and I would dump it out of the coffee pot and other things we had on the shelf above the cooking range. Dad had built three large cupboards about 8’ x 5’ for our stuff in the main cabin which were also used to make a partition between our “bedroom” and the girl’s “bedroom”. First, Jenny and Christy were in cribs then shared a folding bed, lumpy mattress and all, then they had their own beds when Dad built them a bunk bed. We assumed Jenny, being two years older, would claim the top bunk, but that was not to be. As soon as I got the beds made up, two year old Christy climbed up the end of the bunk and claimed the top for herself. Times were precious in the old cabin which always seemed happy to protect us the best it could. Lots of stories were read and lots of memories made.”

The homesteader’s cabin my family lived in until I was about 9 years old. It is the one Mom describes above. It still stands today and is in use.

We three messaged back and forth throughout the day, with memories and photos of books not thought of in years.  Especially now, during the uncertainty of the corona virus, it was a comfort and anchor for us to “talk” about.  Memories of days lived on the ranch, when life was idyllic through the lens of years passed by.  Those days and nights from long ago became vivid.  Sun filled but cold winter afternoons on the couch, Christy on one end and I on the other.  While we made sure our feet did not touch, we each read one of those books.  The times we sat together on the bottom level of the bunk bed, a book resting equally across our laps.  The space of the lower bunk bed was a dark cave we were tucked away in, the book our square of light at its mouth.  Later, we would make up our own stories as we played with our Breyer horses and western riding dolls.   

We’re not in our bunk bed cave, but here are Christy and I. It seems I am reading and she is rapt with attention. Or there are intriguing pictures to look at!
The White Stag by Kate Seredy has always been one of my favorites.

Books gave us stories in the beginning.  They gave us the creak of a wooden doorway to peer through and shudder at the wicked witch who stirred her fire blackened cauldron over the crackle of her fire.  They were the cobblestone pathway into life and imagination.  That would be image-ation.  Images from the stories, to stitch together with images of our lives formed a rich tapestry of life.  I would not want it any other way.     

Not only did this writing grow and grow, it was a great pleasure to have as guest writers my Mom and my sister Christy. What joy!

  1. I kept a few books from my childhood too and I cherish them. I was able to pass them to the girls and enjoy reading them together. This is so precious; thank you for this lovely post, you always bring lovely memories back x❤️

    1. Thank you, Isabelle:) When I was going through the books from my childhood I have with me as well as seeing the photos of the ones Mom sent, I was astounded by the memories they opened up. Things, feelings, places, times, even smells rolled over me in waves. They are definitely sentinels in the timelines of our lives. Thank you for sharing what childhood books mean to you, and how you and your girls enjoy them. It is one of the best of times <3

  2. I read this again for about the fifth time tonight, having visited your blog, stalkerish, over and over again. The part that Mom wrote is absolutely stunning. Her memories are beautiful and real. I am surprised that my memories from that time in the old homesteaders shack are so clear as I was so young when we left. Having recently rediscovered the 14 Bears, I was whisked back down through the years one more time. Those books were all so important to who I am! I can see how they all had something to do with the person I grew to be. Fantasy, cartoon, reality, drama, comedy, nonsense, they are all in there! Anyway, I wanted you to know how important your writings are to me. 🙂

    1. Christy, thank you for your words. Books are of supreme importance to our lives, and each one we read leaves an imprint, even if just a small one. Just picking up a book transports us into moments that we may have forgotten, but the book holds for us. Just like the words between its pages. Stalk the blog as often as you like! There will be more writings soon💖

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