Moon Sand

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Today, I made moon sand. Pinterest claimed it was a simple project, and they were right: 8 cups of flour and one cup of baby oil yielded a soft, yet malleable substance perfect for shaping with cups and spoons of various sizes, kind of like damp beach sand, only not damp. I mixed it in a plastic storage container with low walls and took it into the backyard shade. It was a perfect, sun-dappled September afternoon. I sat on one side of the tub and positioned Jake on the other, and demonstrated how to pack the sand into a cup, and turn the cup upside down to make a little tower. I assumed he would follow suit as best he could, quietly engaged in this perfectly prepared sensory activity, manipulating spoons and cookie cutters as he honed his fine motor skills.

Instead: reality.

A strong dislike for getting hands dirty. A strong propensity toward flinging things, like moon sand, across the yard, proving surprisingly adept at using spoon as catapult. Tossing cups. Crushing cups. Holding cups over mouth to yell gibberish and sound like Darth Vader. And then, roughly twenty-three seconds into this Pinterest win of an activity, the neighbor’s cat appeared on the scene and pretty much ended it.

“Kit cat,” said Jake, and he was off, chasing the cat to the fence that separates our yard from the neighbor’s. The cat took one look at Jake, then leaped over it. “Kit cat,” said Jake, squatting, taunting the cat through the fence slats with a tablespoon of moon sand, which he eventually dropped, causing me to have to reach through the slats and retrieve it. After a second failed attempt at interesting him in the project (he preferred to take the lid on and off the container), the lawn company showed up to aerate the yard. This was the highlight of the day, and quite possibly the highlight of Jake’s entire life. First, there was the truck.

“Big car,” said Jake.
“Big truck,” said Mommy.
Pointing, insistent. “Big car.”
“Truck, Jake. Say, truck.”
Silence. “Mow-a.” Pointing at aerator. “Daddy mow. Mommy mow.”

Jake has seen his dad mow the lawn frequently, and his mom mow it once, and has almost had a full bodily attack of sheer, excited, small-boy pleasure. Is it the sound of the motor? The turn of the wheels? The utter ridiculousness of an adult with a push toy? We may never know. But whatever it is, Jake is enthralled, and he can’t stop talking about it. Today, he ran back and forth on the front walk, keeping pace with the good-natured lawn guy pushing the aerator, shouting “Daddy mow” and waving frantically, as eager as a paparazzi tailing Britney Spears. He eventually wore himself out to the point of hysteria, and had to be taken in, kicking and screaming, to keep him from throwing himself in front of the aerator like a sacrificial lamb.

Now, as he sleeps, I am counting my blessings. It is mid September, and I get to be home on a Wednesday, with the singular goal of watching over my son as he explores the world. This is the first year in almost a decade that I haven’t been standing in a classroom in mid-September, readjusting to long school days, watching the honeymoon behavior slowly start to wear off. Last week was the first week of school in Virginia, but I was in Virginia Beach, visiting my brother and his family as the first bells rang out across the state, and children flooded out of buses and into newly waxed hallways with shiny shoes and fresh haircuts. As teachers led icebreaker activities, I went to the beach with my niece and my sister-in-law, and learned that Jake is terrified of the ocean, but that he loves looking at the seagulls and driving his truck on my towel, and that my niece, at 9 months, wants nothing more than to shove handfuls of wet sand into her mouth.

All summer, my friends have been asking me what it’s like to be a new stay at home mom, and I have been saying that it feels pretty normal, since I have summers off every year. It hasn’t really hit me until now what a big change this is going to be. Last year, I felt guilty going to work, and spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to be home with Jake. I never thought I would miss my job, but I do. I miss the intensity of teaching, the routine of it, the collection of individual dramas that pepper each day with humor and sadness and joy. I miss my colleagues and their first-week-of-school tales, the hilarious and the heartbreaking. And I miss the students, the lovable ones, and the ones whose names and stories are written on my heart. Ten years in the classroom won’t leave you short of stories. But for now, I gladly trade those stories for this one: my son, the backyard, a plastic dump truck, a rubber ball, the neighbor’s cat, and a lawn mower humming in the distance.

Art Appreciation

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Here’s the thing. It is five hundred degrees outside. I’m fairly certain the cement foundation of our house is liquefying. Five minutes even in the shade of our backyard at 8 a.m. leaves me fighting the urge to nap, like Dorothy in a field of poppies. There is no way we are going to a park. There is no way we are walking for more than 2 minutes from air conditioned car to air conditioned building, sun hats on, sunscreen applied. Given the situation, what better place to take a 16-month-old than an art museum?

Toddler-approved aspects of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:

1. Its cavernous interior (great for echoing screams and the pitter-patter of little footsteps on granite floors);
2. Its sturdy hardwood benches, placed purposefully for quiet contemplation (or for climbing on so that one can crawl from one end to the other, making bear noises)
3.The orange bucket chairs in the lobby (they spin!);
4. All the sculptures on beguiling, climb-able pedestals (until one isn’t allowed to climb them);
5. The wooden trains displayed in the gift shop window (each one with a price tag roughly equivalent to a black market kidney);
6. The apple juice from the museum restaurant (24g of sugar per serving!);
7. The fish pond outside, which does not have railings (only for serious thrill-seekers);
8. The lawn care equipment in the sculpture garden;
9. The glass elevator.

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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a work of art in and of itself. The building underwent a $150 million renovation in 2010, and the new Francis G. McGlothlin Wing houses a three-story atrium that actually caused my son, upon entry, to stand still and crane his neck in wonder. Galleries in this new wing, and in the older structures, include impressive collections ranging from Indian and Himalayan art, to works by American masters, to a collection of jeweled objects by Peter Carl Faberge.

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On the day we visited, several temporary exhibits were open, including Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In the brief moments I spent glancing away from my son as he systematically hunted down every door stopper and bronze-plated electrical outlet in the floor, I saw stunning black and white images depicting everyday life prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Gordon Parks was Life magazine’s first African American photographer. Most of his photographs had subjects engaged in everyday life, and seemingly unaware of the camera lens. But one image in particular caught my eye, that of a stately couple dressed in Sunday finery, looking at the camera straight on. Their steady gaze pierced the camera lens and looked directly at the wide world with accusation, protest, and strength, as if they were ready for the coming fight. This image in particular, and the exhibition as a whole seemed so relevant, depicting a world on the brink of change, in a time when we still seem to be stuck on that brink.

It’s also possible this image stood out because it was on the poster advertising the exhibit, which was free, by the way. Unlike the Kehinde Wiley exhibit, which called to me with its vibrant colors and busy, upholstery-esque backgrounds, but not with the same force as the elevator called to my son. (I feel one way about taking my busy, noisy child through the free galleries, and another way entirely about his toddler-speak amplified in surround sound in a special exhibit people paid to admire.)

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Boy, did he like that elevator. It was the first thing he spotted when we entered the atrium, a room with walls of glass at either end and skylights above, allowing us to be washed in natural light without actually going outside. There are two glass elevators in the atrium, a marvel for the toddler mind. It was a delight to watch him stand still, clasp his little hands together, and follow the slow and steady up and down movement. It didn’t hurt that several passengers saw him, smiled, and waved. Needless to say, we spent a good amount of time riding the elevator ourselves, and trying out the various buttons.

After about an hour of elevator riding, step climbing, bench crawling, slow jogging through the museum repeating a mantra of “no touch, no touch,” and other generally irreverent activities, it was time for a snack. Also, I needed a quick distraction from the gift shop, which contained many an expensive and breakable souvenir. The Best Café on the first floor does not cater to toddlers (nor should it), but it does have apple juice, and generous scoops of vanilla bean ice cream from Homestead Creamery, as well as a great selection of alcoholic beverages from Virginia wineries and craft breweries. Although I did not imbibe during this visit, I did visit the museum occasionally for First Friday festivities in 2014 and 2015 B.C. (Before Child), at which time I sampled wine and enjoyed several poetry readings and a performance by an Indian dance troupe.

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While we enjoyed our snacks, fighting only a little over who should be in charge of the spoon, I looked out through the glass wall at the waterside terrace and the sculpture garden. The reflecting pool and Dale Chihuly’s blood-colored glass sculpture, Red Reeds, separated us from the garden at large, a grassy expanse that seemed created for a toddler to run wild while being visually stimulated by art and water feature, the latter preferred by my son. I confirmed this fact after we finished eating and cleaned ourselves with one thousand wet wipes under the fierce gaze of a pair of pierced college-aged girls. I restrained myself from hissing, “We recycle at home.” Instead, we bee-lined it outside to admire the fish in the reflection pool, which, as I mentioned, does not have railings. What it does have is a little sign warning parents about the absence of railings, which I found to be an expression of the museum’s sense of humor, and also a hint as to bygone calamities. Like a visiting celebrity, my son stopped at each table where guests were seated and did his little wave and smile routine, causing them to melt (or maybe that was the heat), before I took his hand and directed him back through café, lobby, and front door, where we admired the stair-step waterfall one last time before I picked him up and half-walked, half-ran to the blessedly covered parking deck, finding car, car seat, sippy cup, air conditioning, and last but not least, radio, tuned as always to something classical, except when it’s not.

How to Delight and Humiliate Your Child

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My father bought an 8-year-old Volvo station wagon in 1989, and drove it for thirteen years, until the a/c went kaput and the odometer read 250,000. He sold it for a neat $200. Away at college, getting the phone call about the Volvo was akin to learning a family pet had passed away. I guess. We never had a pet. But that car was most definitely a member of our family. Who would ever love it and hate it the way we did?

At 6 feet 2 inches, my tall father’s bald head had rubbed a permanent smudge in the ceiling above the driver’s seat. The car had its own special smell, a mix of WD-40 and aftershave. The tan leather upholstery was worn in like a La-Z-Boy, and a smattering of small holes in the floor caused by corrosion provided a decent amount of road noise. But the best thing about that car was the “back-back” seat, which was not a seat at all; it was a storage space accessed by the hatchback door, or, alternatively, by launching oneself over the backseat in a log roll, as my older brother and I often did when our parents weren’t looking.

When one parent was in the car, we fought over the front seat. When both were riding, we fought over the right side of the back seat. But when parked at Sonic, we compromised on the back-back. Nothing was better than sitting in the back-back with the door open, feet dangling while waiting for a rollerskating teenager to bring us our grilled cheese sandwiches, tater tots, and ice cream sundaes. And if we were lucky, the ensuing fast-food coma would elicit a “yes” from mom and dad at our persistent pleas to remain in the back-back on the way home, jostling around with no seat belts.

I loved that car. Parked in our garage next to the worn-out orange Datsun, it seemed, to my six-year-old self, like a luxury vehicle. In my small southern town, not too many people were driving Volvos. The car became one more thing to mark us as different, added to the list alongside my parents’ matching Ph.D’s, their hyphenated last name, their living room walls lined with endless shelves of books in a myriad of languages, and a suspicious lack of wall art prepared by taxidermists. My dad bought it because it was safe. He was, and is, a conservative man, a necessary trait for a middle school principal. The car was his calling card. More than once, teenagers he’d disciplined had dug their anger into that Volvo’s shiny exterior with house keys.

One night when my family was sitting in the worn booths of the local ice cream parlor, celebrating my brother’s participation in a rec league basketball game, some boys from my dad’s school egged the car and ran off. We had to wait inside the restaurant for my dad to clean the windshield, and for the police to come, and my childhood self was aware, possibly for the first time, that there were people who might not like us. My stomach churned with the newness of that particular brand of hurt.

I hated that car. Sixth grade was a breeze, but the summer before seventh grade, my teen angst kicked in big time, causing me to cajole my dad into dropping me at the entrance to the school parking lot so I could avoid being seen near the Volvo. I still loved cruising around town with the windows open and National Public Radio blasting, but always with an eye on passing cars, on the lookout for people who might recognize me, my dad, or the car. More than anything, I longed for a cloak of invisibility; that car was a spotlight.

Angst adorned me like a shroud for the duration of my teenage years; I don’t think I truly appreciated the Volvo, or my dad’s sense of humor, until after it was gone. One weekend when I came home from college, I drove my own car down the street past the ice cream parlor, and in the junkyard a few lots down, spotted the Volvo parked alongside rows of cars intended to be parted out or sold for scrap metal. I didn’t stop.

All of this begs the question: in what ways will I humiliate my own child? How can I do so in a lasting and fairly permanent way, but also a way that is only humiliating in his perception, so that he will look back from adulthood and see that, like Calvin’s dad always said, the experience was character building? I’m going to start a list. Suggestions are welcome.

Car!

 

A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased. Otherwise, how will children ever understand the concept of God?
-Stephen Colbert, I Am America

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My husband loves cars. He loves researching them, talking about them, buying them, selling them, buying their parts, selling their parts, taking them apart, putting them back together, watching them zoom around race tracks, driving them on race tracks, and tailgating beautiful sports cars on the open road. A notoriously terrible morning person, he would leap out of bed at dawn on Saturdays when we still lived in Northern Virginia to drive 45 minutes to Katie’s Cars and Coffee, a weekly get together of sports and vintage car enthusiasts in Great Falls. Before we owned a house with a garage, he rented a storage unit for a Miata, spending whole weekend days rebuilding its engine in stifling August heat.

Since we met in 2008, we have owned 12 cars and one purple motorcycle. The most at one time was six: a sedan he drives to work, a Miata intended for racing but, even with constant tinkering, refuses to run; a Miata he’d rebuilt and painted a shiny Ferarri red; a totaled Mercedes convertible given to him by a coworker who’d told him he could keep it if he could fix it (which he did); a Corvette, his prized possession; and my car. As of last week, we are down to three: the stubborn Miata, his sedan, and mine.

Although my son and I are enjoying the open garage and driveway situation for the time being, I don’t expect it to last; my husband is in the best place he can be right now, researching and dreaming about what his next “toy” will be. To say that I have mixed feelings about this hobby is an understatement, and possibly a lie. I am the Peace Corps, tree hugging penny pincher to his new and shiny, pave-the-backyard thrill seeker. I am Pride and Prejudice. He is Fast and Furious, the one where the cars soar out of a jumbo jet in mid-air and parachute onto a bridge over a gorge while being shot at by RPGs. You know the one.

It should come as no surprise that my son is a combination of our personalities. When I last wrote, before I returned to teaching at the start of the school year, Jake was four months old. We had just introduced him to solid foods, and were about to embark on a hilariously awful family road trip to Florida (hilarious in retrospect; at the time, just awful). Now, at the start of summer and the cusp of 15 months, Jake’s personality is blossoming in spectacular ways. He has entered a stage when even the most mundane thing has an exclamation point: Dog! Sprinkler! Lawn mower! Stop sign! Ball! Trash can! Grocery cart! But most of all, Car!

Car! Car! CAR! His favorite thing in the entire world is to stand in the driveway and point at cars as they drive by. When he plays in the (temporarily) empty bays in the garage, he stops every few minutes to point at the Miata and say “Look!” to point at my car and say “Look!” and to point at his dad’s car and say “Daddy!” Because even at 15 months, Jake knows. He knows how much his dad loves cars, and he wants us to know that he sees them, too. That he might even love them someday, wheels and speed and gears and grease and all. There are nights when he falls asleep to the not-so-gentle sound of the Miata’s engine revving as his dad tries yet another tweak to get it going. And I’ve never seen a smile so big as his the day he pushed the button on his power-wheel by himself, lurching forward, launching himself across the driveway and into his childhood.

Yesterday was Father’s Day. I took Jake out early, because he’s an early riser (like me) and loves being outside (also like me). I held his hand while he directed me to Look! at the neighbor’s car parked in the driveway, Look! at the truck parked in the street, and Look! at the car passing by. I thought about how lucky Jake is to have a dad with a passion. A dad who spends most days in meetings at work and meetings in the car on the way to other meetings in Northern Virginia, his face glowing in ambient light from a laptop screen, preparing for a presentation while Jake passes from one sleep cycle to the next. But any time he has a free moment, his dad is up to his elbows in grease under the hood of a car, channeling his inner little-boy self, trying different ways to make some part of it better or faster. Someday in the not-so-distant future, I imagine Jake will join his dad under the hood of a car, that their fingernails will be similarly blackened, their brows similarly furrowed, and their hearts filled with the same simple joy.

Eat, Play, Sleep

To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life.
-Elisabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?
Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.
Calvin: I came from Sears?
Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart – almost as good and a lot cheaper!

-Bill Waterson, Calvin and Hobbes

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Maybe you haven’t gone anywhere, or interviewed anyone this week. Maybe you’ve just been meeting your husband at the door when he gets home with a crazed look on your face, demanding an immediate and detailed account of his entire day, starting the moment he walked out the door. Maybe he said, “Oh, nothing much happened,” and then thought better of it, when he noticed your proximity to the knife block, and instead chose to launch into a thorough description of the salad toppings in the work cafeteria.

Why have you stayed at home? Because it’s difficult for a new parent to ruin her child’s life in public. That kind of ruination is an art form, and can only be wrought from years of experience. You, a new parent, have to stay indoors. You have a four-month-old. A-four-month old with a smile that melts your heart anew each morning when you lean over his crib. A four-month-old who is taming his wild hands before your very eyes, learning to grasp and reach for things on purpose, and with some degree of success. A four-month-old who meets your eyes and laughs when you play peekaboo, babbles stories at you from the changing table, and stares intently at the pictures while you read aloud Green Eggs and Ham. Small miracles, these; mere months before, this same baby couldn’t focus on objects more than ten inches from his face. He struggled to lift his head during tummy time, and had yet to discover his feet. But now that he is a four-month-old, he is ready to explore his world. Unfortunately, it’s now your job to take away everything he holds dear.

Once, you started reading a book called Eat Pray Love, in which the protagonist has a dramatic breakdown because her life is too good. She’s too white, too upper-middle-class, too loved. To fix her breakdown, she is forced into exotic travel, taking not one, not two, but three international vacations, all in a row. You could not bring yourself to take her seriously, any more than you could bring yourself to finish the book. However, if a four-month-old wrote a book called Eat Play Sleep, you would most definitely be empathetic. Because when somebody messes with a four-month-old’s three favorite pastimes, the struggle is real.

Eat

Now that your child is four months old, and has officially exceeded the maximum allowable daily intake of formula, the pediatrician is going to say: “Start him on food.” You believe this will be a fun new experience for your baby. Your logic: Who doesn’t like food? For some reason, the fact that your baby is perfectly happy taking his five, seven-ounce bottles at exactly the same time each day, does not register with you. By now, you are patting yourself on the back for having a generally good-natured baby, with the occasional fussiness that you know just how to fix. So you run right out to the store and buy all the baby food things to prepare a soupy concoction for his first feeding, at the time indicated on the doctor’s carefully written-out, brand new feeding schedule. When the clock strikes 4, you get your baby and put him in his high chair for the very first time, take a moment to marvel at how well he sits in it, and then begin to lovingly feed him his first bite of pureed bananas.

Rainbows, butterflies, chipmunks. Clouds part, and a ray of sunshine beams down on a grassy knoll somewhere far away from your house, the place where all that can be heard are the piercing screams coming out of your four-month-old, who seems to have suddenly developed an extraordinary lung capacity. Allow me to interpret: This red, angry, wrinkly face is saying, Give me my bottle! This spoon thing isn’t working like my bottle does! I don’t know what to do with my mouth, so I just keep shoving the food back out, and now it’s all over my face and my chins and my bib and NOT IN MY BELLY I’MHUNGRYFIXIT!

Play

Ok, so changing up his feedings isn’t going to be as Leave It To Beaver as you thought. But at least you can still have fun at playtime, right? Think again. Even though this one isn’t technically your fault, Mother Nature is never around to take the blame she deserves. Just last week, your baby loved his kick-n-play piano gym, his tummy time pillow, and wrestling with his giraffe lovie in his Bumbo seat. Now that he is a four-month-old, he still loves these activities, but each one is punctuated with intermittent cries of pain and frustration from the mean little teeth trying to push their way through his tender gums. Not only that, but complete mastery of hand-eye-coordination is still months away, so along with the pain of teething comes the frustration of constantly fumbling the thing he wants to chew on. You may find yourself holding a squeaky giraffe in your baby’s mouth during tummy time, trying to mop up the small ocean of drool pooling on the blanket so that neither of you drowns in it, when your baby suddenly manages to kick and push in exactly the manner necessary to turn himself over. This feat is at once extraordinary, and extraordinarily terrifying for your four-month-old, who is now crying, and flailing like an overturned turtle.

Sleep

Well, at least all these changes are going to wear him out, and the solid food should afford him—and you—a longer night’s rest. Right? Yes, these things are true. However, now is the time when you will pay for all those good nights of rest you’ve been bragging about since the second week of his birth, thanks to the angelically named HALO SleepSack. You have become so familiar with this product, “sleepsack’ is now a verb in your household. As in, “He’s tired. Sleepsack him.” You’ve been dutifully Velcro-swaddling your baby each night, and for many a nap, just like the nurses showed you in the hospital, because denying him access to his arms calms him down and puts him right into a deep, fairy-tale-like sleep. Sadly, denying him access to his arms is no longer a good thing. Your four-month-old can roll, and rolling over without access to one’s hands can only end in disaster. So it’s time to add sleep training to the list of changes you’ll throw at your baby this month, meaning shorter naps and interrupted sleep that will leave him over-tired and cranky, and ill-equipped to handle an entirely new diet and the painful introduction of teeth.

Nobody told me about this

Yes, they did. Everybody told you about this. Strangers told you at the store. Coworkers told you at work. Friends told you at parties, but you were too busy tuning them out and aggressively overeating from the cheese tray to take note. But it’s ok. As a new parent, you’re allowed to say things like “Nobody told me about this” with a straight face, because the people who told you understand the struggle. So this week, it’s ok to stay home. Try to soak up as many laughs and snuggles as you can, because the milestones are coming fast and furious, and pretty soon your baby will be the master of eating, sleeping, and even smiling with teeth. Don’t blink.

Great Big World

Ol’ man Simon, planted a diamond.
Grew hisself a garden the likes of none.
Sprouts all growin’, comin’ up glowin’,
Fruit of jewels all shinin’ in the sun.
-Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.
-Claude Monet

butterfly2I kill all the plants. I buy orchids three or four times a year, water them weekly like clockwork, and everything goes just fine until, without warning, like a middle school breakup, they suddenly die. Last summer, when I was in my first trimester of pregnancy – tired, cranky, and hungry for anything that wasn’t in the house – I had a vegetable garden. Miraculously, things grew, but the neighbor’s cat defecated in it with surprising regularity, and the squirrels and birds devoured the rest before I could harvest it. I have four cacti in the sunroom that are all in various stages of early death. It doesn’t matter what I do – water more, water less; move them around to get more sunlight, or more shade; simply forget about them for months at a time – they continue their slow decline. The only plant I ever succeeded in keeping alive beyond infancy was a potted basil, which sat in the kitchen in our old house in Burke and grew like a fairy-tale beanstalk, threatening to take over our house. Eventually I had to execute it.

Yellow flowers2I have great admiration for people with green thumbs. When I was a teenager, my best friend lived in a house surrounded by an enchanted flower garden, complete with a reflection pool and a moon flower that bloomed only once a year, for a single night. Gardens transform ordinary houses and yards into magical places. One of my fantasies about motherhood includes tending a beautiful garden for Squeakers to admire and plan in, but so far all I’ve got is a monster of a knockout rosebush that could probably survive a nuclear apocalypse. Planted by previous owners beside the driveway, I begrudgingly cut it back once or twice a year to keep it from attacking innocent passersby.

Last week, Squeakers and I visited The Great Big Greenhouse. When we entered the sales area, we traded dry morning heat outdoors for a hot wet blanket in the greenhouse. Squeakers immediately reddened, and I imagined sweat drenching the plush infant insert in his carrier as he dreamed, probably of tropical islands. When I took out my camera, the lens fogged. Still, the store inspired: brightly glazed ceramic pots, flags with flowers and butterflies, bird baths, gargoyles, garden gnomes, and seed packets promising perfect blooms were enough to make me want to make a dozen impulse purchases and go directly home to recreate Monet’s garden. Luckily for my bank account and my husband’s sanity, I had a meeting to get to.

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shelvesofflowersThe Great Big Greenhouse is located in Huguenot Village Shopping Center. It opened in 1977, and remained privately owned until it was sold to Meadows Farms Nurseries, a DC metro-area based company, in 2010. When Squeakers and I visited last week, I talked with Bill Livelsberger, the store manager, who has worked for Meadows Farms for 25 years.

Tall and suntanned with soil-darkened fingernails, Livelsberger is a man of few words, but everything he says is precise. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and describes the “giant megalopolis” as a “small town” back then. He studied Business Management at the University of Maryland, but decided to combine his degree with his love of the outdoors after graduation. Livelsberger’s first job with Meadows Farms was assistant manager at a Maryland store. “My parents were big gardeners. I grew up with plants, so it was not a gigantic leap when I started working for Meadows Farms.” In addition to selling plants and gardening supplies, The Great Big Greenhouse offers landscaping advice for customers who bring in pictures and diagrams of their yards. They also host a weekly farmer’s market, with 25 vendors with products ranging from beets and ice cream, to food, vegetable, crafts, and honey vendors.

Before studying business and working for garden centers, Livelsberger said he originally imagined himself becoming a veterinarian, until “…organic chemistry got ahold of me.” Still an animal lover, Livelsberger has two dogs, three cats, and chickens at home, along with a sizeable garden. “Growing plants is a stress-reliever,” he said. “If you grow your own vegetables, you can’t get anything fresher.” Livelsberger grows tomatoes, peppers, squash, strawberries, beets, carrots, radishes, and kale in his 30-by-60 foot vegetable garden. “I give a lot away, but I rarely buy vegetables in the summertime,” he said. He has also tried his hand at beekeeping, and currently keeps four beehives. “It’s hard. I have failed a couple of times, and I’m just picking it up again this year,” he said, explaining that a variety of pests threaten the bees, as well as colony collapse disorder. “No one really knows what causes colony collapse, but there’s about a 30 percent mortality rate each season.”

flowerlot2When he’s not gardening or caring for his animals, Livelsberger enjoys small game hunting, and he fishes on the Rappahannock near his home in Fredericksburg. Lately, he has begun container gardening, and has 18 containers on his deck this summer. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s becoming more and more popular.” When he retires, Livelsberger hopes to travel and spend time with future grandchildren. “I want to go to Alaska, and Europe, especially Greece and Italy. I’d like to see the pyramids, the Great Wall of China. Pretty much everywhere,” he said.

Livelsberger recommends that children plant and care for a garden. “My own kids loved working outside, being in the sun and watching things grow, and seeing the results of their labor,” he said. “Took a little while to get them into it, but now that they’re a little older, they enjoy it.” Livelsberger said his favorite part of his job today is working outside, and working with young people. When I asked him what advice he had for people who kill all the plants, he said, “Be careful with the watering, and don’t give up.”

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Green FrogWhen Squeakers and I went outside so I could snap a few pictures, I noticed him turning his head to stare at something on a table leg next to his carrier. I followed his gaze and saw a tiny, bright green frog. It looked as though it had hopped out of the pages of National Geographic. An employee noticed the frog too, and remarked that it must have caught a ride from Florida in the delivery truck. I watched Squeakers watching the frog with his big blue eyes, and wondered what he was thinking, and what it must be like to see something like a frog for the very first time. I love catching him in the midst of a new discovery, watching him complete his observation, and tuck the new thing away into the ever expanding corners of his mind. Someday soon, I’ll be able to give him his own plastic shovel and set him free to dig and explore, and I’ll watch him unearth little pieces of this great big world.

Where We Are Today

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.
-Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.
Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.

-Dr. Seuss

bookshelves1

When I was a little girl, my parents encouraged us to live in our house entirely. We upended chairs, stripped cushions off couches, and pulled all of the blankets out of the linen closet to build forts in the living room. We rode tricycles on shag carpet from our bedrooms to our parents’, and gave concerts with bowls and spoons on the kitchen linoleum. In the basement, my dad built us a sandbox on legs, a sailing ship out of wood scraps, and a car from giant wire distribution spools with steering wheels at both ends. He regularly brought home salvaged refrigerator boxes, which we used as little houses, cutting out doors and windows and moving in our prized possessions. But perhaps best of all, he built bookshelves that spanned an entire wall of the main living space so that our picture books could face out and we could see all of the covers at once. We lived for stories. Dad read aloud The Wizard of Oz while we acted it out with Legos, and mom put us to sleep with the Berenstein Bears. Sprawled on the floor, we wiled away many a rainy summer afternoon coloring pictures and listening to audio books on the record player: The Trumpeter of Krakow and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

What a pleasure it will be if my son loves books the way my brother and I did. And what a pleasure if he can know others who also love books. Marc Ramsey is one of those people. I knew we were going to get along when he said this about his favorite authors: “When you’re at work during the day, you can’t wait to get home to the book. You walk through the door, kiss the wife, feed the cat, and head for your chair. Then all of a sudden, it’s hours later, and you’ve really been listening more than reading, because they’re telling you the story.”

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Owner

Marc Ramsey and his wife Jill own Owens and Ramsey Historical Booksellers. The shop is in Bon Air, a Richmond suburb and a reprieve from the unmediated sprawl of chain stores and restaurants like those in much of Southside. Ramsey explained that Bon Air used to be the first stop on the railroad out of Richmond, developed as an area with vacation homes for people seeking fresh air and an escape from city life. Today, many lovely Victorian homes remain on Buford Road.

The Ramseys’ shop is tucked away in a corner of a small commercial building off Tinsley Drive. Several rows of shoulder-height wooden shelves run down the center of the store, and more shelves line the walls. The majority of their collection consists of books about the Civil War, or written during that time period, from battles and leaders, to memoirs and biographies. “There’s nothing more interesting than a firsthand account,” Ramsay said.

The couple started their business 20 years ago. Ramsey and his wife were running a radio station in Louisa, but it changed ownership and they came to Richmond for work. Ramsey began working as a newscaster for WRVA, and one evening, just before the five o’clock news, he saw an ad in the paper announcing a military bookshop for sale. “With about five minutes to go before airtime, I called Jill up and said, ‘Hey, how about a military bookshop?’ And she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The original owner started the shop eight years prior to the Ramsey’s purchase. Ramsey said the store came with a lot of debt, and had been neglected. He and his wife came up with a business plan that included a monthly direct mailing. Gesturing to the bookshelves in his shop, Ramsey said, “What you see here is really an operations center. We maintain an open shop when we’re in town, but this is really where we launch from.” Ramsey explained that they produce a catalog in the shop that gets mailed all over the United States and wins them the majority of their sales. A third of their business comes from going to Civil War shows or conferences up and down the eastern seaboard, packing up the portable wooden crates they use for shelving and driving to Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Maryland.
Although he doesn’t like the driving itself, Ramsey said he enjoys seeing new places and meeting people. He is particularly fond of the Heritage Conference in Middleburg, VA, where he and his wife are the primary booksellers during a few days of lectures and battlefield tours. He said they take two vehicles and set up 1200 books. When they’re not selling, they get to meet authors and attend lectures. “Middleburg in October is just as beautiful as God’s creation gets. It’s Loudon County, rolling hills, stone houses, stone walls, horse country, historic homes all over the place,” he said.

When asked about building the store’s collection, Ramsey said that on a good day, someone will walk in with some very interesting books to sell, but they generally buy whole collections. They also work with a network of dealers. Ramsey said he is working on building collections for some buyers. “There are some people who just buy to speculate; a book is an antique to them, so they’ll be hoping to sell it for a profit. Those are the kind of people I’m not as crazy about dealing with. I like dealing with people who actually read the books.” Ramsey said that one client buys five or ten books at a time, and calls him up to talk about them once he’s finished. “He’s a joy to deal with.”

Bookshelves with signOne of the most interesting books Ramsey said he has in the store right now is The Personal Reminiscences of Ulysses S. Grant. “Mark Twain helped put this publishing venture together. Grant was in a race with death, dying of cancer, and wanted to write his account and get it out there.” Ramsey said the book is an honest and objective account of the war’s final year, and Grant was “at the eye of the storm.” The Autobiography of Eppa Hunton is another gem Ramsey had in the store, until he sold it for $5,000. Hunton was a colonel in the Confederate Army, and published this one book for his family after the war. Only 100 were ever printed, and Ramsey called it the “crown jewel” of Civil War collecting: “Only about 25 are accounted for in collections around the country.” Ramsey said that some of the best books written during the

Civil War were books by women who lived through the period. According to Ramsey, Diary from Dixie by Mary Chestnut is a standard, but the one he likes best is Recollections Grave and Gay by Constance Carrie Harrison. “It’s just the most vivid account of Richmond during the war that you’re ever going to read. She was also a novelist, so she really knew how to put words together.” Ramsey said that he prefers historians who are also storytellers to writers who simply string facts together.

Ramsey has a lifelong interest in history. Originally from Pennsylvania, he grew up visiting battlefields and learning about the Civil War with his family. He came to Richmond to study theater and history at VCU. Today, he participates in reenactments and gives guided tours of battlefields and other historical sites. Ramsey is passionate about sharing his love of history with others; recently, he achieved his dream of writing a book, The Seventh South Carolina Cavalry: To the Defense of Richmond, published by Broadfoot Publishing Company. “They’re South Carolina troops, but it’s a Richmond story,” he said. “They were the last troops out of Richmond. These guys were the very last Confederate troops over Mayo’s Bridge, and after they crossed it, they burned it so the Yankees couldn’t follow.”

IMG_6382Ramsey said he worked on his book for three years, writing, researching, and soliciting information at conferences by placing a sign on his table: ‘Seeking information about the Seventh South Carolina Cavalry.’ Recently, two women bought his book and found their ancestors in it. Excited to share the information, they rented a bus and hired Ramsey to take their whole family to sites where the Seventh South Carolina camped, fought, or passed through. Ramsey said, “There were some bored teenagers on the ride, but once we got to the earthworks their ancestors had helped construct, they started exploring and asking questions, and I could see that the buzz had begun. The family keeps in touch from time to time, and they tell me the kids still haven’t stopped talking about it.”

In addition to being a bookseller and reenactor, Ramsey is a board member with the Richmond Battlefield Association. The Association purchases and preserves land in the Richmond area, with the intent of giving it to the national park service. Ramsey said they just gave 18 acres to the park in Cold Harbor, the site of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, a battlefield where he enjoys giving tours. “I talk about history and the preservation of land, hopefully to encourage that. Saving the greenspace of Virginia is just a good thing to do. These parks are islands of serenity.”
When asked why a neophyte should pick up a historical book, Ramsey said that it’s hard to make people take an interest in history. He said people with a strong interest in history often had the good fortune of being taught by a great history teacher at some point in their lives. “People miss an awful lot when they only focus on the present. You can’t understand things nearly as well without reading history. History shows us what people did, and why, and how it led to where we are today.”

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After the interview, Ramsey commented on how well-behaved Squeakers was for such a young baby. I agreed. He’d spent the first half of the interview studying his monkey toy and fitting first one, then the other hand into his mouth, and the second half asleep. At the very end, he woke up and decided to show off his best toothless smile. I’m pretty sure he understands more than he lets on.

When we got home, the beginning of a thunderstorm was darkening the sky, so I took him to his room to read books and listen to thunder. Usually I read the same stack of short, sing-songy board books that double as chew toys if the need for a chewing break arises, but with the sky rumbling and rain drops starting to pelt the window, I reached for a longer book from the shelf and found myself holding The Story of Ferdinand. Although this copy of the book was shiny and new and yet to be loved, I remembered my mom reading the story of the little bull who didn’t want to fight like other bulls. I remembered the pen-and-ink illustrations, especially the men with the funny hats from Madrid, and Ferdinand’s shocked face when he sat on the bumblebee. I realized there will be countless moments like these, when I will share my favorite books with my son, and for him, they will all be new. With Squeakers snuggled into the crook of my arm, I opened the book, turned to the first page, and read: “Once upon a time in Spain, there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.”