Of dollhouses and books

The Miniaturist (review)
Jessie Burton

When I was growing up I had a cardboard doll house that was over four feet tall—it was identical to this one.

You’d think, cardboard—ugh. But it was incredibly sturdy and I treated it like the prized possession it was. The original house came with some cardboard furnishings, but I didn’t use those for long because my nana gifted me Petite Princess dollhouse furniture that was incredible. The sofa had real satin cushions, the fireplace came with teeny logs and brass andirons, the antique-style phone had a little thread cord, the brocade chair had a winged back. Gorgeous.Rummer

I moved nearly every year as a child and each move brought a new house, new school, new friends—but that doll house was a constant. I sat for hours and hours in front of it creating a world within my world—as any good reader would do. (And any book that involved dollhouses was also a sure hit; I especially like stories by Rummer Godden like Little Plum, The Doll’s House, Holly and Ivy–now all included in a more recent paperback titled The Fairy Doll.)

So the hook for me to read Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist was the miniatures. But the fascinating story about sixteenth century Amsterdam kept me reading long into the night. Nella Oortman arrives in the city after a rather hasty marriage to a wealthy merchant in the Dutch East India Company. Johannes Brandt was older and kept a surprising distance from his beautiful young wife. Nella is confused—her mother had prepared her for her wedding night, she dreamed of the babies to come … but Johannes takes no interest in Nella as a wife. Instead, she is left alone to navigate her relationship with her controlling sister-in-law Marin while Johannes spends long hours working and traveling.

MiniAs something of a consolation prize, he has an incredible wedding present made to keep Nella occupied: a tall cabinet re-made into a replica of their home. Along with what is essentially a doll’s house, Johannes provides Nella with a line of credit so she can furnish it. Nella hires a miniaturist and commissions a few pieces–a betrothal cup, lute, and marzipan, but is chilled when the unknown craftsman includes extra items that are miniature duplicates of objects in their home.

Nella becomes even more frightened when the miniaturist continues to send items that seem to indicate he (or she) knows more about the Brandt household than is prudent; Nella gradually learns that certain secrets might best remain hidden. And as Nella begins to discover more about the Brandt family and their magnificent house, she begins to understand her own strength and purpose, as well.

The Miniaturist is a peek inside a time and place I knew little about and a cautionary—yet hopeful—tale about a young woman coming into her own.

Saying goodbye

We are getting ready to say gTrixieoodbye to this girl. She has been with us for 14 wonderful years, but her body and mind are rapidly failing and we’d like to say goodbye while she can still recognize our touch and our voices as we love her into the next world.

Motoring down a country road on that sunny June Sunday so many years ago—greenhouses and hobby farms on either side of the road–we saw a hand-painted plywood sign by a mailbox: Lab Puppies. Hubby just wanted to “look”, but it was love at first sight and there was no turning back. She chose him, he said. And who was I to argue? The puppies’ momma was young, sociable, and begged to play chase—a great example for her babes of what a dog should be.

There is nothing in the world like the smell of a puppy. (Someone should bottle it, am I right?) And that fat little puppy tummy breathing in out in out. We toyed with the name Penny because this yellow lab had a darker coat that shimmered like a new penny, but settled on Trixie, a name that was spritely and feminine–just like her.  Easy to train and easy to love, she was eager to please. Trix cried every night we crated her for the first month until we thought to tether her to our bed post where she slept like the baby she was.

Of course she could get into mischief. She has probably eaten over 250 dollars cash in her lifetime—both “snacks” snatched from my purse when we had to run out in the evening to some activity or other. After a long day at home, you see, Trixie felt (apparently) we really shouldn’t be leaving again. So once she munched my grocery money and then again money I had collected for a baby shower at work. Both times a dose of hydrogen peroxide brought up most of the money, some of it shredded, of course—but I became quite the expert at slopping off the bills, rinsing them, laying them out on paper towel, and painstakingly matching serial numbers so the bank would cash in at least some of them.

Trixie was born to be a camper. She loved the woods. She loved hiking—the longer the better. She loved the Lake and swimming with her dad. She loved the attention she got whenever one of us waited with her outside of the shower house or camp store. She loved marshmallows–raw, not toasted. Nothing could dampen her enthusiasm for the woods, and, in fact, she was the reason we moved from a tent to a camper—a week of rain, a week of sleeping with a wet dog between our sleeping bags, a week of muddy paws everywhere and hubby relented, agreeing to a pop-up. (Thank you, girl!) Now we had the pull-out and she had the floor. Sadly, she hasn’t gone up north for a few summers. The heat, the confusion (she lost her hearing), the lack of her routine just didn’t sit well.

Trixie at 4 years

We’ll never see the likes of her again and it seems impossible we’ll soon say good-bye. Our vet has agreed to come to the house when it’s time. I’d like Trix to lie by the lilies that border our garage (the same lilies behind her in this picture) and drift off to sleep peacefully. She loved that flower bed, running headlong through it nearly every time she played catch or chase—leaves shredding, flower stalks bending, clods of dirt flying. I’m pretty convinced she did it just so she could get a rise out of me; what fun it must have been to look over her shoulder and see me running after her (time after time after time) yelling, “Get out of my flowers!”

I’m convinced that if there’s a world after this one, our fur friends will join us. In one of my dreams of heaven,  I come to a grassy hill (the very best kind of hill there is) and start to climb, when over the crest bounds a lab as bright and shiny as a penny. I’d know that crazy lope and those flapping ears anywhere! “Where’ve you been?” she’ll  seem to say, cocking her head to one side. Then we’ll go find some trails to hike or flowers to run through.

And we’ll both be happy again.

7 things Grandma learned in 7 months

I’m new to this grandma gig—only seven months into it, to be exact. And while I was once a stay-at-home-mom who raised three kids (pretty successfully, most people would say), the new littles in my life (J, seven months, and L, 5 months) made me wonder whether or not I still had my mojo. I’m watching my grandson J a day each week this summer while his momma (who works nights) sleeps. But my worry was a waste of time because it’s like riding a bike, I’ve discovered. And because these baby days will pass by in a blink, I’ve started a Things I’ve Learned list. Here’s round one:

EAT BREAKFAST* before baby arrives. The first couple times I didn’t, thinking, “Oh, I’ll eat something during his nap.” Yeah, right. Those were the days J napped for 30 minutes. And then there was play time. Then puffs and a bottle. A walk around the block. More playtime.  By the end of the day I hadn’t eaten—unless you count sharing his puffs. I. Was. Famished. Babysitting just might be a new weight loss breakthrough.
*And the closely related: do my MAKE UP before baby arrives—for all the reasons above. Except instead of dying of hunger, I looked washed out, wrinkled, and old. Kinda like a grandma.

Battling DOG HAIR AND Grammy and JGERMS is a losing battle I stopped trying to fight. I didn’t have any pets until my youngest was 2 (when I simultaneously potty-trained and housebroke both critters, I might add), so I didn’t really have to deal with this when I had crawling littles. Now we share our home with four hairy beasties. I vacuum before J comes, I wash the floors. And then I put him on a quilt to play, where he does not stay for long. By the end of playtime, he has fur and fuzz (and since it’s summer and humid) stuck to every little crease and roll, in places I’d never expect it. Ugh. I briefly did battle with a wash cloth and finally surrendered and just gave his little mitts a rinse-off under the faucet.

SIMPLE IS BEST when it comes to toys. When “watching” an oversized box—“Fisher Price Lil’ Zoomers Safari Sounds Jungle”—is as fascinating as a big screen TV and playing smack-the-toy-off-Grammy’s-hand can go on and on (and on!) and measuring spoons are every bit as entertaining that expensive Brio rattle.

You need a Masters in engineering to use this NEW-FANGLED BABY STUFF, or, that time when Grammy couldn’t use the stroller because I couldn’t figure out how to unfold it. Or, when terror struck my heart as I watched my son-in-law snap the car seat out of the car!!! instead of just unhooking Baby and carrying him in. I could hardly manage buckling him into the five point harness, let alone worry about latching the seat into its base. (Cut to a slow-mo of me running down the driveway, waving my arms, and yelling, “Noooo …”)

GRANDPAS ARE MORE FUN—it’s true. In he pops in for a few minutes, sits across the room, working at the computer, and what does J do? Everything in his little arsenal of cuteness to get Grandpa’s attention, despite the fact that Grammy has spooned yummy carrots into his little mouth, and watched the birdies outside at the feeder, and listened to Toddler Radio on Pandora, and changed the mother of all diaper blowouts … nope, it’s still Grandpa and his cell phone and computer and flying around the living room business that wins the prize. *Sigh*

I need a BABY MONITOR. The pack ‘n play is upstairs in our spare bedroom. I put J down and let him talk a while. (Momma says let him go for ten minutes, even if he ”complains” a bit.) I listen in the hall for a feIMG_1700w, but “This is ridiculous—go downstairs!” So I sit at the bottom of the stairs. “Don’t be silly—go do something!” But while I’m wiping down the high chair tray or picking up toys, I realize I don’t really know if he’s sleeping yet, do I? I creep upstairs and peek through the crack in the door. He’s quiet, but his legs are still pedaling. Back down I go, repeat the above—and you get the picture.  Grandma was tired enough without having to deal with that nonsense! Time to check Craig’s List again …

Everything runs on BABY TIME when littles are involved. I learned pretty quickly to adjust my plans for a walk, for carrots instead of applesauce, for reading instead of rolling cars … and just go with the baby flow. When J or L come play at my house, everything else comes to a halt—my full attention for playtime or cuddles is theirs. Because that’s really what grandmas do best. Mommas and daddies juggle Baby, work, house, and still have places to go and people to see. Me? Not so much. Grammy’s time is only Baby’s.

June gifts and graces

A rainy day ♥ summer stretching for months ♥ a scruffy black cat ♥ live a good story ♥ “You’re strong at the broken places”* ♥ “If wJune joy daree own the story we can write the ending”** ♥ lazy summer reading ♥ closets, rearranged ♥ diving ducks ♥ just me & my house ♥ kibbeh & hummus ♥ farm road pastel ♥ a full heart ♥  BBQ smokin’ on the grill ♥ Tory Burch ♥ precious baby girl ♥ addiction ♥ lazy river water ♥ a hard head, stubborn ♥ dog-tired ♥ out of my comfort zone ♥ fireflies ♥ summer candle light ♥ hard memories ♥ wine & good conversation ♥ ducks in a pond ♥ soft & silky baby blanket ♥ my nest is best ♥ Denice’s Day ♥ line-dried sheets ♥ gauzy curtains, billowing ♥ field of hay ♥ two-year-old Dad ♥ stair-stepped Scheffts ♥ little Buddy dog ♥ peanut butter & jelly ♥ strawberry shortcake ♥ baby’s finger dimples ♥ sounds of summer

* Karen White
** Brene Brown

Cider With Rosie (review)

Cider With Rosie
Laurie Lee
Open Road Media

When I opened the email last month, it was clear I’d missed out. According to Amazon’s Daily Deal blurb Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie was “an instant classic when it was first published in 1959 [and] one of the most endearing and evocative portraits of youth in all of literature”.  Now because I worked for several years in a book store, I’m at Cider With Rosieleast familiar with many more titles and authors than I’ve read.  So one would think I’d at least heard of this Laurie Lee who “learned to look at life with a painter’s eye and a poet’s heart—qualities of vision that, decades later, would make him one of England’s most cherished authors”.

Of course, I had to remedy this oversight, so one-click order I did and was soon settled into a memoir of one of England’s beloved sons I hadn’t even known existed. But after the first chapter, I admit I didn’t know if it was love or hate.

Three-year-old Laurie sits on the floor of his new home amidst the chaos of moving a family of seven into a new cottage in the village of Slad.  Little Laurie was surrounded by “glass fishes, china dogs, shepherds and shepherdesses, bronze horsemen, stopped clocks, barometers, and photographs of bearded men”. His sisters and mother bustle in and out of the house; his brothers help unload the handcart. Lee’s prose was over-rich, I thought—awash in adjectives and adverbs; drowning in lists. I almost put the memoir aside.

But after another chapter, Lee grew on me. His rich narrative seemed to mirror the lush countryside and the hub-bub that was his home. I settled into those lists and that descriptive prose. Like this: “That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm, and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled each day” and this: “These were the … rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by our constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered …” It’s definitely not my style and not what I’d usually choose, but I’m happy I did.

Cider With Rosie let me peek into a world that no longer exists—grannies who lived as neighbors for decades, yet

Rosebank Cottage, Slad
Rosebank Cottage, Slad

never spoke; sisters who decorated their hats with bits and bobs; a picnic caravanned to a just perfect spot in the woods; a school teacher quick to smack boys upside the head; sleeping five to a room in quilt-deep beds; a bottle of shared cider and a stolen kiss under a field wagon.

Lee went on to write two more memoirs of his life and a few books of poetry. I was able to find a wonderful interview with Lee on the BBC—his recollections follow the book closely—which makes a great companion listen.

Cider With Rosie should probably be read when the time is just right, like a hazy summer afternoon or a blustery winter night … or anytime, really, when the edges of the world outside become blurred and you could oh-so-easily fade into the English countryside.