Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sarah Beth

A few weeks ago, my grandmother sent home with my dad, who had been visiting, a rabbit. A soft cotton stuffed rabbit, with long loopy ears, blue print dress, and a white apron. My Grammy had sewn her ages ago for one of her children, and was now passing the rabbit, named Sarah Beth, to our Pippi. And she wanted me to write a story to go along with the bunny, give it a past, a history.

Immediately, I got to work - in my head that is. Going all blank eyed, when my children would ask me the same question over and over again, Tommy all but bopping me with a toy to get my attention. At first it was very hard to keep the Velveteen Rabbit and Edward Tulane far from my mind, two books I adore. You see, I didn't want this to be just another bunny story. I wanted this to be something my children, and my Grammy, would treasure.

Then about a week ago and a half ago, I hit upon it.

My Grammy is having some difficulty remembering. Mostly, it's remembering names of things, common everyday things, but I fear all too soon it will be names of people. Children. Grandchildren. Stories. Faces.

So I wanted to give her something to help her remember. I wanted to give her a book of memories. Have you ever read that delightful book by Mem Fox, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge? It's about a little boy who lives next door to a retirement home. He befriends a woman who has lost her memory, and he sets about collecting things, things that he believes embody the essence of memory. Each thing he collects - the egg still warm from the sitting hen, the funny feathered puppet dancing at the end its strings - each thing evokes a long lost memory.

That is what I want to do with this book. Loosely based on fact, the story will follow the lives of my Grammy, Granddad and their six children, with the rabbit as the thread that weaves in and out of the storyline. Some stories are old family stories. Some are purely made up. But I hope that this book captures the essence of who my family is. I hope that in reading this book, my Grammy remembers, not just stories, but faces. The curve of a smile. The tilt of a head. The warm breath of a sleeping baby.

Here is a sample from the second chapter. To set the scene, the rabbit has been rechristened. Sarah Beth is now Gus, and instead of a flowered blue dress, the rabbit sports a camouflage night dress.

Here is Bernard, one day in March when he is ten months old. Helen sits on the back porch shelling English peas while Barnard plays in the grass beneath the clothes line. Above his head, his diapers scrubbed clean that morning and bleached white by the sun, snap back and forth in the salty breeze.

At the midpoint of the line hangs Gus, pinned by his ears. To the right of him hangs his camouflage night shirt. To his left, the olive green bandanna.

Although Helen scrubbed hard at his head and ears with an old toothbrush and a scoop of baking soda, she was unable to remove all traces of mud, and a milky brown stain bruises his left ear. Helen pops a green pea in her mouth, and laughs again.

"What is it with boys?" she wonders aloud. A girl would never have thought to bury the rabbit's head down to its shoulders in the mud hole beneath the water spout. She'd caught Barnard, just as he'd stuffed one of Gus' legs up the spout, trying to feed the other foot in beside it. Gus' head had all but disappeared in the sludgy pool beneath the spout.

She'd been angry, a hot flush rising in her cheeks, a harsh word forming on her lips. Until her boy looked up at her and grinned, his face just as dirty as the rabbit's.

Now Barnard plays beneath his soggy rabbit, laying on his back, pulling his feet to his mouth and sucking on his big toes, rolling to his right, then his left. Then he pushes himself onto his feet and reaches for Gus' feet.

"Barnard. No," Helen warns. Barnard looks at her, grins, grabs both of Gus' feet.

"Barnard," Helen warns again setting aside the colander half full of shelled peas.

Barnard pulls with all his little might, and the ears snap free of the clothes pins. Barnard and Gus tumble to the ground, roll into a patch of white clover. Barnard pops Gus' left ear into his mouth and begins sucking.

Helen gets up, crosses the yard and takes Gus away. "I said no," Helen says. "Gus needs to dry."

She hangs him by his ears again and moves Barnard nearer to the porch and pulls from her apron pocket, his cloth book sewn from bits of cloth from the scrap bag. On the first page is an over sized orange button fitting the over sized button hole on the adjoining denim flap. Barnard skips past this page, and the page with the lace up shoe, and turns to the zipper page, made from an embroidered red linen napkin that she'd accidentally scorched with the flat iron.

Bernard begins at the bottom, works the zipper up to the top, splitting the page into two pieces, then yanks the zipper back down, rejoining them again. Zipping and unzipping. Zipping and unzipping.

Helen sets her bowl between her legs again and resumes shelling. She pulls at the stringy bit, then unzips the pod, scooping out the green peas with her thumb.

While she and Barnard work, Barnard begins to hum. He's been doing this lately, making a sound in the back of his throat with his mouth closed, his voice rising and falling, almost like a yodel. Wyndell was the first to hear him making this sound. He had taken Barnard into the garage with him, talking to him as he swept sawdust into small piles. When he bent over to sweep the piles into the dust pan, Barnard began making that sound, that later Wyndell swore sounded like music. "Impossible. He's not even talking yet," Helen had said.

Now listening to Barnard yodel, Helen understands why Wyndell called it music. His voice rises through a scale in an almost pitch perfect sequence of thirds. When his voice reaches the peak of it's scaffolding, it warbles a bit, before descending along a minor slope, hitting nearly every flat along the way.

She shakes her head, smiling at her musical boy, and sets the bowl aside, about to shamble to the pea patch to pick another pocket full, when she stops. Turns and faces Barnard.

His mouth is open now, brown eyes searching through the oak's branches, listening to the squirrels chittering among the branches. Barnard begins clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, chittering back to the squirrels. One squirrel pauses, scampers down to the bottom branch, and watches Bernard warily.

Barnard chitters again, this time changing the inflection, raising the pitch by a third.

The squirrel runs down the trunk, and scuffles across the grass, stopping a yard away from Barnard.

The tanned skin around Bernard's eyes crinkle as the sun shines bright through the leaves causing Bernard to squeeze his eyes shut.

The spell is broken.

Helen walks to the garden, and fills her apron pocket full of peas from the trellised vines.

It is not until that night after she tucks Bernard and Gus into their crib. Not until she pulls Barnard's blanket to his chin that she realizes why the squirrel looked at her son so.

Barnard spoke to the squirrel.

And the squirrel understood.

I'd hoped to be finished by Christmas, but that's a long shot. So until the book is finished, I will probably be pretty quiet here. Please forgive my silence. I hope to pop in at least once a week. Because we are reading some wonderful books that I would love to share with you. I probably won't provide book links, or pictures unless absolutely stunning. My prose will be spare. Syntax a bit choppy. And grammatical errors will abound.

Just know that we are here. Plugging away at this homeschool thing. And loving (almost) every minute of it. Wishing we could share more with you.

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