Fiddle

Uncle Mike gave Rose a child-sized fiddle for the holidays. I suppose he thought it was a violin. To be fair it does look something like a violin, but you would not think so to hear Rose play it. She likes to imitate Rabbit serenading the bees in The Piglet Movie. The bees swarm out of their hive, forelegs covering their ears and stingers posied, if that gives you any idea. She grabs the bow in her fist and rubs the hairs back and forth across the strings in a scrubbing, tooth-brushing motion. The sound is unmistakeably the complaint of a fiddle.

My own fiddle hangs like a hunting trophy on the living room wall alongside the equally-neglected banjo and guitars. But for Rose’s sake I brought down my fiddle and began to scrape along, or raccler as the French say. For a couple of weeks now, she and I make up games in the evenings, imitating train sounds and trying to hold the bow in different ways

My fiddle was a parting gift from friends in Madison. When I left to join the Peace Corps in 1994, I threw a party at which I gave away all my possessions that I did not want to carry with me or put in storage. Graciously missing the point, my friends surprised me at the end with a new fiddle. I lugged it all over the West African country of Benin, sending AirMail requests for strings, and trying out waltzes and contra dance tunes whenever I felt homesick.

But once I returned home, and once the droll rhythm of American life reestablished itself, my fiddle and I saw less and less of each other. As with any friend with whom one shares a short but intense experience – getting lost in the woods, hitchhiking in Europe, learning to play a Quebecois reel – we made an effort to keep in touch afterwards. We had a brief affair when I lived in Alaska, but the effort was doomed. Despite our unbreakable emotional bond, we found we had less and less in common. I was married to my guitar.

So it was surprising that when Rose induced me to play my old tunes again, some primal kinesthetic memory took over. I was hardly aware of what I was doing. After a few odd starts, once my brain could stop being such a control freak, my hands took over and found the bow patterns again. It was like riding a bicycle after years of walking and driving. Once you have learned it, you can never erase the neuro-motor trails from your nervous system.

There is something in the rhythm of the Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes that produces a lovely warm ringing sound. The bow rocks back and forth in patterns of riffs and the fiddle strings provide just the right amount of friction, a push-me-pull-you game that nevers rests and never balances but miraculously always stays upright. When all the motions come together, there’s a sense of effortlessly sustained motion.

I am not a very talented player, not in the least, but it is enough that I can please myself and my family. I know half a dozen tunes without thinking and can raccler a few dozen more. I have heard them thousands of times, playing rhythm guitar for other fiddlers, so that something of the tune remains etched in my brain. Not the notes per se, but the particular way a particular fiddler phrases them. I’m not sure I can explain it beyond saying that it’s more about listening and playing attention and noticing the details than actually playing.

I started up “Sandy Boys” the other night, a version I learned from Beverly Smith at a fiddle camp in Alaska. Samuel came running from the other room yelling “Fiddle mucus!” Yet another compliment from my child who cannot properly say the word “music.” He began to dance on the living room carpet, a stately pavane, skipping in slow motion. Rose happily scratched along nearby and we had a grand old time.

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Snow

Yesterday the snow fell from the sky in drifts of large cereal flakes. This was the the third snowfall of the season, the first with any teeth to it. It began as heavy flurry meant to bury us, but in the end it was only a temper tantrum. After six inches of weeping and wailing it was all over. Predictions of a cold snap with the temperature falling to minus five degrees are met with skepticism. It might lock the snow in place for a while, but we’ve been lied to before. While the rest of the country has been buried in ice and snow storms, our fragile winter wonderland shows every sign of being another disappointing memory by next week.

I announced at lunch that I would shovel the driveway, and Dawn asked Samuel if he wanted to go outside in the snow while Papa shoveled. I heard him sing back “Yay!” followed by a percusive repetition of “Snow! Snow! Snow!” He bounced in the hall past my doorway, jumping with both feet together, his staccato breath punctuating “Snow!” each time his bare feet slapped the hardwood floor. But in the end I shoveled alone for an hour while light hailstones, no bigger than grains of sand, bounced on the driveway.

Then this morning, I found a thin crust of ice which would not easily yield to my broom or shovel. It’s the kind that requires a serious hacking effort with a steel or iron blade. Though it had rimed the walkways and driveway, I had not time for it. It was only a half inch deep and the surface was pitted enough to prevent slips, so I let it be.

The skies cleared and our cold snap came after all. The sun was in and out all day, keeping appointments elsewhere and then breezing by my office window long enough to blind me with the glare off the snow. My neighbor out my front window has a wood stove chimney which has been sending off a plume all morning, mostly of condensed steam.

Cabin fever sets in. Outside my office/bedroom, I heard Samuel and Rose racing up and down the hall, taunting each other.”You’ll never catch me!” spoken with a nyah-nyah sing-song that Rose has learned from pre-school, still totally devoid of malice. Samuel chased her to the end of the hall whereupon she squealed. Then he fled to the living room, turned about face, and yelled, “Kissy Monser!” (monster) and waited for Rose to come cover him with kisses.

January Morning

Dawn wakes me at seven in the morning to let me know that it is seven in the morning and Rose is awake. I hear her bed creaking in the monitor and her charming warble singing lazy nonsense to herself. I am wrapped in quilts, warm and sleepy, but I need to rouse myself. I clear the cobwebs of dreams and blink and blink and blink my eyes until I can keep them open. The world is blurry without my glasses, and the room is darker than it ought to be at this time of the morning. One side of my body is pinned to the mattress and a small weight is pressing against my ankle. It is Samuel.

He was up several times last night, the latest being an hour-long fidget session in my arms in the rocking chair. At five AM, when I finally thought he was asleep, I slipped him into his crib where he woke instantly, stood up, and loudly demanded his Mama. I offered to continue rocking him. He looked at me impatiently and demanded, “Wock!” So I picked him up and began to sit in the chair again when he suddenly screams and thrashes wildly, legs kicking hard. Returning him to the crib, I remind him that we do not kick and we do not hit because we might hurt someone and if he would like to rock with me, he must be gentle. “Wock!” he says, and we try again with same results. Twice. By now he is furious and won’t come near me. He is standing at the far end of the crib looking at the door. Just as Dawn enters, I suddenly understand. “Walk,” not “Rock.” He wanted me to walk him to Mama.

She tells me it’s five AM and night-shift is over, so I go back to bed while she nurses him.

Two hours later, they are back in bed with me asleep and I have to rouse Rose for school. Dawn is on top of the covers with an extra quilt, lying head to toe against me so she can nurse Samuel on the other breast and still keep him safely wedged between us. He still fidgets in his sleep and we often find him lying with his head on my shin and his legs jimmy-kicking Dawn. I feel sorry for the poor person he might marry someday.

I slowly rise and wedge a pillow under the covers to block him in. My glasses and bathrobe are stationed nearby, and I click off the monitors in mid-warble. Samuel stirs, grunts, a slight pause, a long sigh of released breath, and then he’s asleep again. I close the door silently behind me.

Rose hears my footsteps in the hall, and all singing ceases. I called through the half-open door.
“Good morning, Rose!” I sing to her. “How you doin’ this morn?”

“Papa. I’m still asleep.” Languorous and whine-soaked.

“I’m going to start your bath, bud. I’ll come get you soon.” This is just a warning, a dress-rehearsal. She is not going to fall back asleep, but I still need to coax her from the bed, so a five-minute warning helps grease the tracks.

I flick on the bathroom light, blood-shot eyes squinting at me from the vanity mirror. I turn on the tub and open the door so Rose, across the hall, will hear the water. I pee. I wash my hands and face. I blow my nose and gargle with Listerine. I remove as many foreign particles and obstructions from my body as possible without getting in the shower and drowning myself.

In the dark living room, I raise the window blinds. The snow is gone, obliterated by rain and fifty degree afternoons in January, but I am too tired to have any global-warming angst today. The two driveway puddles are back, and I can see the wind making waves in them, but no spatter of drops from rain. It will come yet. The clouds are thick and dark, blocking the weak morning sunlight.

Before heading to Rose’s room, I pour a large glass of cold water from the filter pitcher in the refrigerator. I’m not sure why, but that one glass of water always seems to restore me, much like Jeeve’s “little pick-me-up” in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It works. I am reasonably alert. My glasses are functioning. I have a small parcel of patience to gaily spend on my daughter.

When I enter her room again, the strong odor of gerbil assaults my nose. She has no pets, but she is not dry through the night yet, and her urine is quite concentrated. I sit beside her bed in the upholstered rocking chair, careful not to crush her rag doll or teddy bears.

“Good morning, Rose.”

Her eyes are closed, and she doesn’t move, but she does answer slowly. “Papa, it isn’t time to get up. It’s too dark.”

“I know. It is dark. But that’s just the clouds. It’s after seven.”

“Papa, I want to wait until Mama and Samuel are awake before I get my bath.” She has recently realized that she is a girl, and I am not, so Mama is now her favorite. Each morning I must win her over again.

“I know. Sorry, bud. Mama and Samuel are sleeping. It was a hard night.”

She turns her head away from me, and the whining revs up a notch. “I want Mama!” A sob or two. Half-hearted, testing the waters. We might be heading towards melt-down. The sheer number of her tantrums have been diminishing significantly over time, but now when they come, they arrive with little to no warning. Cheerful one minute, raging the next. As if a switch was thrown or a fuse blown, plunging her world into darkness. Mostly this is her problem, but if I see it in time, it is my job to avert disaster. If I fail, I get to pick up the pieces afterwards.

“Do you remember what’s happening today?”

“Yeah, I get to go to school,” she says with as much cheer as if I have cooked her pillow for breakfast.

“Aaaand what elllllse?” My lilting melody clues her in that it’s something she will like. This gets her attention and she looks at me half-smiling and puzzled. She can’t remember at first. And then the switch turns back on.

“Ellie is coming today!”

“Right. You have a playdate after school.”

She is sitting up in bed and the words start to tumble out. They come faster and faster, like a roller coaster just passing a crest in the track. “Papa, you know what Ellie and I are going to do today? We are going to play with my bedtime girls. She’s going to get the light-haired ones because she has light hair, and I’m going to get the dark-haired ones because my hair is darker. And I going to say, ‘Hello, my name is Grrrr!’ And she’s going to say, ‘Hello, my name is Grrr!'”

She roars at her own joke and at the pleasant anticipation of seeing her friend who has been away for a month in Spain. Rose could care less about Spain, but playing dolls with Ellie is the best.

“Well, head to the bathroom and take off your pajamas.”

“OK, Papa!” She’s off like a jackrabbit.

I strip her bed and dump the sheets in a laundry basket, trying to not contact any of the damp parts. In the hallway I find Dawn with Samuel in her arms. Rose’s exuberance has woken them. He is clinging to her nightshirt. Though she usually wakes up easily, Dawn clearly isn’t one hundred percent yet either. She notices the basket in my arms, and stops, but Samuel doesn’t want to stop. “Wock!” he commands her, and when nothing happens, he tries, “Down!” Dawn puts him down and he toddles to the living room toys.

“With all the rain, the basement’s been smelling a bit moldy lately,” she reminds me. “Can you make sure the clothes don’t sit in the dryer overnight? They always seem to smell moldy when that happens.”

I know what she means, but I can’t resist the joke. “Have you smelled these sheets yet? I’d be more worried about the mold if I were you.”

She laughs quietly and then chases after Samuel. “Samuel, buddy, can you come down from there, please.”

“Papa,” Rose calls from the bathroom. “I’m ready!” I drop the basket over the kitchen safety gate and head to the bathroom.

New Year's Eve Proper

We are having dinner, New Year’s eve. It is the seventh anniversary of my marriage proposal to Dawn. Our last year in Alaska we went to a party at the train station in Anchorage where I played in the band, and Rose heard her first bag pipes, and there were fireworks over the ocean. But now, we have no plans. Or rather we do – sleeping. Up until an hour ago, we had forgotten that there were fireworks in Montpelier on New Years that can be seen a block from our house. We have an hour to get ready, but we don’t move and we know we won’t.

The children have been whining all day, Rose frequently bursting into tears and tantrums. Preschool has been out for a week and the strain is showing on all of us. It has been a fun week, but we are all at loose ends. Rose excuses herself from the dinner table early and disappears into her room to play. I take advantage of the moment to toast Dawn with the Reed’s Ginger Ale we are drinking, a treat she has lovingly purchased for the occasion.

“Thanks for marrying me,” I say.

“Thanks for asking me,” she replies. Her smile is genuine, if a bit wan.

“Here’s to a great New Year,” I continue, and we drink. The ginger ale is very strong and very fizzy. It tickles my sinuses, but I manage not to ruin the romantic moment with a sneeze or hiccup (though that would be my style).

Rose yells something from her room. We look down the hall, but we can’t make out what she is saying. It has a very whiny ring to it. She wants help for something.

Dawn looks back at me and conspiratorily whispers, “Let’s have another.”

I nearly gag and spit soda. “Another child! What, are you crazy? That would just about kill us.”

She laughs at me, amused at my naked fear. “No! I meant another year.”

New Year's Eve Morning

New Year’s eve morning, Rose and I decide to make breakfast in our pajamas. We are having waffles because they are delicious and a rare treat and we have fresh local Vermont syrup and because, unlike Mama, Papa can’t make pancakes without burning them. This despite having read to Rose a biography of Fannie Farmer complete with instructions for griddle cakes. Samuel is sitting in a sling in my left arm far from the counter, not completely awake, staring blankly into space and clutching his cowboy blankee. Dawn is passing back and forth in the hallway on various errands.

“Papa, I love Samuel more than I love anything.”

“That’s great, Rose.”

“I love him more than my stuffed toys.” Since her stuffed toys include her nighttime Snuggle Bunny, I am duly impressed.

“And Papa, I love Mama more than I love anything, too. I love her more than all my stuffed toys.”

“Wonderful Rose.”

There is a pregnant pause. It is very long, which I expected.

Last year, Rose was such a Daddy’s girl and made no effort to hide or disguise her preference. She didn’t mean to be rude, but she had no concept that she might have hurt Dawn’s feelings. Now, a year later, the pendulum has shifted the other way, and I am trying to behave with as much patience and understanding as Dawn showed last year.

“Rose!” Dawn calls from the other room. She has overheard this conversation and, after the silence has dragged on long enough, she calls out the question which I cannot ask. “Rose! What about Papa?”

Rose can tell from Dawn’s tone that she has done something rude. “Oh, Papa.” she says quickly,”Um, what do you love more than anything?”

Snowy Day

The snow fell Friday night long after we were all in bed and our Shabbat candles had burned out. In the morning, Samuel woke us at 4:30 for nursing and then at 7:00 for real. When we got the kitchen, there were lava flows of melted wax at the base of the candles and four to six inches of light fluffy powder on the ground.

It was the good stuff. The kind of snow you can stack foot high on a snow shovel and fling over your shoulder without worrying about your next visit to the chiropractor. It was also the first real snow of the winter, two days before the end of the year. Late in coming, but better late than never.

We don’t drive on Saturdays as a rule, and though we often break this rule, we still walk to the library. It’s about a mile, a good twenty minutes downhill and thirty up, and Rose can manage it in both directions. The children’s library is open from 10:00 to 1:00 on Saturdays, a small window of opportunity, so the preparation begins early. It takes about two hours, with breakfast, washing, clothes, packing the diaper bag, snacks, etc. Usually we put Samuel in the stroller, but that wasn’t practical with four inches of snow on the ground and more falling. The snow plows had not been by yet, and living on a dead-end street in a hidden neighborhood, we had no way of knowing about the main roads and sidewalks. So we got out the sturdy REI child backpack and strapped Samuel in his Michelin Tire suit. The agreement was that Dawn would carry him down and I would carry him back, which meant that I got to carry four weeks of library books down and she got to carry one week of library books back up.

The walk down is clearly better than the walk back. We are fresh, recently-fed, well-rested, good spirited. And we are walking down hill. In fact, the only problem with the walk down in the snow is the danger of slipping, but since the snow was brand new, and ours were the first footprints, there was no danger of ice underneath.

After a long walk in the snow, the courtyard outside the children’s library entrance, with its stone amphitheatre and marble-engraved quotes from children’s books, feels like being welcomed into a friend’s home. The books are upstairs: middle schoolers to the left, grade schoolers to the right. We have made forays into the left for Rose’s sake – mostly Laura Ingalls Wilder – but we invariably set up camp to the right. Around the corner at the end of the book cases is a half-circle bench under eight foot windows enclosing a round space. At the center of this space is a large array of Thomas the Tank Engine and friends, with tracks and accesories glued to a 3×4 foot board on a table. Nearby is a three-foot-tall wooden doll house, shelves of small trucks and puppets, and let’s not forget hundreds of books, all easily within pulling-down reach of a twenty-month old’s fingers. Dawn and I play man-to-man. One of fields Samuel, cleaning up the messes he makes while containing him to a 20 foot square area. The other leisurely looks for books to bring home. We take turns.

Children grow and learn and develop sometimes so subtly that you can’t see the changes until they smack you in the face. We had not been to the library for a month. For the first time, Rose picked all but a few of the books she wanted to take home. Usually Dawn and/or I find books for her, and we still do, but last Saturday she kept bringing books over to us, “Would you read this to me? Can we take it home?” They were good choices.

Meanwhile, Samuel has figured out how to reach every single train accessory on the table without, technically, climbing on the table. He stands on a child size chair and, putting one hand on the table, one toe on the chair, and one foot dangling in the air midway between, he reaches over the train sheds until with he can reach the knob in the very center that spins the turnstile. But most astounding of all is that for the first time he grabbed a board book off the nearest shelf, walked up to me and said, “Read.”

The walk home was devastating. It had snowed continually, it was still snowing, and the sidewalks had neither been cleared nor trampled flat. We had not even reached the hill on Main St. before Rose was pooped. Normally she can walk home without a problem, but the snow was nearly up to her knees. If she tires, one of us usually carries her on our shoulders, but we didn’t have the stroller for Samuel. Samuel was on one parent’s back and the library books were on the other. Waiting for one of us to get the car and come back would have been far more difficult for Samuel than the walk home for Rose. So Dawn and I pulled out all the creative parenting ideas we could muster to keep her going – frequent rest stops, cheerful songs, promises of hot chocolate and leftover Halloween candy. On Main St., I became a snow plow and walked up the hill in front of Rose (with Samuel on my back) plowing the snow aside with my feet. With all this together, she made it all the way home, and burst into tears in the mud room. I wasn’t far from tears myself. We had definitely over done it, and won’t be heading to the library on foot in the snow again for a long time. On the other hand, as soon as she had her winter clothes off, she was happy as a clam reading a stack of library books in the living room. She didn’t want the hot chocolate and she didn’t want or need a nap.

The snow stopped and after lunch Rose and I went out to shovel it off the driveway. Or rather, I shoveled the snow off the driveway onto the lawn and she did the opposite. Luckily I was much more efficient. Our neighbor came by on his snow board, hugging the curb where the plows had left a margin of snow, moving about as fast as stale syrup off a pancake.

His grandfather, with some friends, had built both our houses. His grandma, who had lived in their house for decades, had been struck by a car just before we moved in next door. We never met her, but heard that she still required round the clock assistance and couldn’t always recognize her daughter. The grandson was the latest in a series of temporary occupants for the house arranged by the daughter.

He walked everywhere, which I admired, until I learned that his driver’s license had been suspended. He was friendly. And bored. He stopped to talk and, like most twenty-year olds (I remember doing this myself) told me all about himself without asking a single question about us. On the other hand, despite being stuck alone in a small brick ranch house with no transportation, his life was far more interesting than mine. I had a hard time following his conversation because I am out of touch with the latest youth argot. He did not use a single word whose dictionary meaning I was unfamiliar with, but he intended different meanings by them which I could not gather from the context. I did learn that his “old lady” (girlfriend, not grandma) had his car now, and that they weren’t talking at the moment. There had been a phone call which he had ended abruptly. Too abruptly. “I need to go call my friend,” he had said, to which she had replied, “Not till you’re down talking with me.” So he hung up on her. Strangely enough, she found this behavior upsetting, and so he was stranded for the holidays.

It was fun talking to him in a completely dissonant way, and fortunately Rose decided to go in before the truly colorful language came out. I only mention him because he gave me a vital clue about the snow. He loves skiing and snow boarding and knew all the slopes in the area. He had grown up in Vermont, and I told him how disappointed I was in the few winters I had seen here. He agreed and mentioned that he remembered the snow coming up to his waist. His adult waist. A good three feet off the ground, and he hasn’t been an adult that long.