Tag Archives: how kids learn.

The Salvagers

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Yvonnes Musings

imagesMy father, a major restorer of order and tidiness to all things within his reach, had done an amazing thing for a man with his character traits. He had taken something built by someone else’s hands and torn it down. One day it stood as a testament to the hard work of the many hands that had made it, and the next day it was a scattered heap, lying across the ground.

The enormous elevated barrel— the water tower next to the CNR tracks, in nearby Strathroy, was where steam locomotives had filled their tanks with water for generations. It was no longer necessary when diesel engines took over. The tower was up for grabs, and our dad’s bid won. After careful planning and consultation with his Uncle Fred, a lifelong railroad man with many skills himself, the measurements were all worked out, and the distance of the fall was calculated…

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Ethan’s Gift

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Some of the stone “castles” my grand-nephew Ethan likes to be the “King” of.

There is nothing more precious than the snuggling-in and holding-on kind of hug a three-year-old will sometimes give when it comes unsought for, unrequested, just plain out of the blue.

Sure, we had been playing hard outside all afternoon together, what with racing back and forth in the bright sunshine across the brown lawn as he gleefully stepped on my poor slow shadow’s head numerous times to my once on his— a game he always delights in.

And then, I had willingly taken a seat on the too-small bench at the window of his pretend hamburger joint, a little playhouse under a backyard spruce tree. I “enjoyed” with gusto the takeout fries and burger he prepared— somehow magically transformed from the pieces of cedar mulch and the dried out pine cones he hurriedly gathered for my order.

Later he picked a fist-full of yellow miniature daffodils, and nodding Snowdrops and placed them on a crumb-covered plate on the patio table— a gift for Mummy. Next to it was a scattering of small coloured stones from the driveway— collected for Daddy.

A screeching flock of black grackles dispersed in a flapping rush at the sound of his shouts of “Go! Go! Go!”. This he accompanied with the clatter of two old dented cake tins that he banged together beneath the locust tree each time the birds returned. The bespattered backyard deck, under the tree’s budding branches, revealed their other annoying habit, and he did not want them to mess on the table where his treasures lay. Beside those lay the pile of coloured paper clips and magnets he had abandoned there earlier— all but the red ones, his favourites, which were protruding from the cracks between the deck boards under his chair, next to his yellow bulldozer.

We capped the afternoon with a game of King of the Castle played on every boulder and berm around the three acre yard with me doing all of the boosting up and him doing all of the boasting down: “I’m de King of de castle! You’re de dirty rascal!” I chose not to protest my perpetual “dirty rascal” position, even as he clung tightly to my uplifted hands while teetering four feet off the ground on slippery granite, his chubby little fingers drawn into tight little fists around my own.

Looking up into his laughing eyes, as he looked down at me from his elevated position, I said to him “You know Ethan, you are growing bigger and bigger every day. One day when you are all grown up you will be as big as this all of the time, and then you will have to look down at your old Aunt Vonnie all of the time.” Just then he let go of my fingers and bent down a little to get his arms around me. He snuggled in close and gave me a hug so tight it practically took my breath away. Or perhaps it was not really so very tight at all, but it had the same effect. I realized then, that I had just experienced one of life’s unforgettable moments and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Ethan’s Nest

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For a few minutes today I had a total out-of-body experience. While that was happening I was lying on the floor in the middle of the living room, inhabiting another body altogether. The thing was, my living room no longer looked like my living room at all either. I am usually such a “place for everything and everything in its place” kind of person, whereas this room was the total opposite.
The beautiful tree-embroidered throw pillows that I had taken so long shopping for, until unexpectedly finding them in a high-end consignment shop, the perfectly coordinated quilted ones that my daughter had just given me, and the two costly coverlets that were also treasured gifts, were all jumbled up on the floor in a tussle. Mixed in to the muddle was a scattering of multi-coloured stuffed toys, some worn-out crocheted throws that had seen better days, and the most special component of all— my little nephew Ethan’s treasured “blanky”.
I was no longer “Aunt Vonnie”. By some amazing feat I had somehow become a bird! A bird, not only in Ethan’s imagination, but amazingly, in my own as well. I had by some unaccountable surrender of my will become a rather large miracle of totally unexpected, late-in-life, fowl fertility!
The last thing I remember of my human existence before that fowl transformation was pecking away on my computer keyboard where I had only moments before— or at least I think it was only moments— been showing Ethan pictures, on face book, of all of his aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Then he got down off his chair and started playing away on the floor, behind me. I decided to answer a few emails, and the next thing I knew, I was being summoned.
“You, lay down here, Aunt Vonnie! You are a bird; dis is your nest. Now, you get in de nest! You are de Mummy bird!.” That’s when I turned around and caught my first glimpse of the newly constructed “nest”. It was a work of art! It was all that a three year-old’s beautiful mind would imagine a nest to be. It was…………..um……. it was um…..well…. After the shock of how much my living room had changed in what felt to me like all of thirty seconds, it was delightful!
I did as I was told. I lowered my rather inflexible creaky-kneed self to the floor ungracefully, and rolled myself into the nest. After that Ethan shoved the walls in around my awkwardly large form, patiently restacking pillows, and repositioning blanket mounds to form a rather free-form nest, shaped a lot like a giant amoeba. Then, suddenly,  he put his finger to his lips and said excitedly, “Shh! I hear peeping!…. It’s pecking!…Peep! Peep! Peep!”…… “It’s pecking! It’s getting out! Your baby is getting out!”
All at once, he handed me his stuffed doggy and said “Here it is! “Here is your baby bird!” I giggled under my breath. Apparently this was a rather near-sighted bird mid-wife who had come to my aid! What a “Switched at Birth” story this would make in Birdsweek magazine!
Just then, Ethan suddenly decided to become a mother bird himself. He squatted down and began to do what he thought would be the appropriate sound effects to accompany the laying of an egg…. a really LARGE egg by the sounds of it. Finally, he turned to me and said (as kindly as could be expected of any future bird-mother during a difficult labour, under rather over-crowded circumstances) “Aunt Vonnie, Get out of my nest! You are not a bird anymore!”
And so I cooperated. I surrendered my warm and cozy abode to someone who needed it more.

Plates Will Fly!

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I love to write and I have taken great joy in putting pen to paper since my early childhood. Perhaps I should say that in those days, in the Fifties, it was, at first, a  big, fat, red carpenter’s pencil, stubby and flat-sided, and the paper was usually old paper grocery bags, the insides of empty cereal boxes, or anything else that was of little value. (I learned by bitter experience that wallpaper doesn’t fall into that category.)  That first pencil, I “borrowed” from my father, who often kept one tucked behind his ear as he worked out measurements or put down marks where he wanted to saw next, whenever he was working on a project. God provided fathers with ears, not just to hear, I’m sure, but also to keep them from cursing at their children. Where else would that pencil be safe from  covetous little fingers? Well, in truth, my dad was not a cursing man anyway, but just to be on the safe side he still kept his pencil there.

Once I arrived on the scene, there were two kids in our family; but by the time I married and moved out of the house, there were eight. In large families, it is always difficult to maintain ownership of any of your things for very long. A favorite doll gets quickly adopted by a little sister (if it doesn’t lose an arm or a leg in the transaction); that first bottle of “grown-up” perfume becomes an everlasting drawer-scent in a dresser —soon destined for an unappreciative  brother’s use. Unfortunately with another little bed, moved into your room, it just takes up too much space. Your most treasured books end up as a pile of scissors’ fodder ( even for blunt-tipped ones, no less!) Dresses are inevitably borrowed, unasked, or even shortened, unasked, when a sister has a “really important occasion”, and the family’s finances are tight. “Lost” “snagged” “ripped” “gouged” “broken” “stained” “spilled” and “run-over”— these words are the true driving force behind a child becoming a writer. When you are young, your writing is just about the only thing that nobody else attempts to lay claim to. It is the only thing that is truly your own.

So it  was, that my love of writing evolved. I moved on to thinner, longer, yellow pencils, of course, to ancient nib pens for learning perfect handwriting “the old fashioned way”, in a one-room schoolhouse with a crotchety teacher; to refillable fountain pens with blue, black, or turquoise ink; to ballpoints; to fine-tip markers and then eventually the computer keyboard.  Perhaps you noticed that I  left “typewriter” off my list… a deliberate shunning, actually.

My first attempt at learning to type was in Grade Ten; I was anxious and uncoordinated from the outset. It didn’t help that I was two weeks late starting classes— an accepted practice among farm families in the tobacco belt. Generally parents required their older kids’ help until the harvest was complete and the school boards accepted it. Although in all other subjects I quickly caught up, unfortunately,  in typing I never got up to speed. Literally! On my final exam I got a humiliating 26%! When I told my parents “My fingers got jammed in the keys!” in all likelihood it was a false memory of that event; it is more likely that it was actually a panic attack. But that 26% isn’t a false memory! It still appears on an aging yellow report card, in a rusty old tin box in the back of my crawl space.

 Even more traumatic than the mark was the fact that it was used to factor my academic “Final Average” for that year. This was the cause of deep mortification, and teenage angst. To this day I sometimes use it as an excuse for the throwing of plates and silverware at my siblings.(Back then, of course, not now— I’ve finally mellowed out some.)

Like me, several of my siblings love to write and, in fact, they write very well. Sometimes they write poems, and sometimes stories of shared family history. At other times it’s simply a story to make everybody laugh, or to lift someone in particular up. And some of them write in an attempt to make things better in the world at large. Each of my siblings mean so much to me that words cannot really express it. But just let one of them try to borrow one of my stories, and say that it was they who got bitten on the leg by Aunt Grace’s  chihuahua,  or yelled at for loudly singing a hymn in the schoolhouse bathroom, or that it was their eye that the baby robin pooped in— then plates will fly! Mark my words: Plates will fly!

The Girls In Yellow Dresses

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Janice and Kathy (on right)

Janice and Kathy (on right)

There is nothing better than having baby sisters. I was blessed with three of them, Jeannie,  Kathy, and Janice. I also have another treasured sister, Marsha, who is almost a year older than me as well as three younger brothers, Keith, Jim, and Don.

I wanted to write a little here about a sweet memory of my two  youngest sisters,Kathy and Janice, after I found this picture of them in their matching yellow flower girl dresses. These were the little girls who were born after I’d finally grown up enough to be able to help with baby care, which happens very young in large families.

Disposable diapers weren’t commonly used in the  50’s or early 60’s,  so changing diapers involved using those very large diaper pins which could really inflict a painful injury if not handled deftly. Our Mom was of the two-pin school of thought— one on either side, rather than just one in the front. This involved twice the risk of injury, but by placing a couple of fingers inside the diaper, between the pin and the baby, the sharp pin would always hit your fingers first, rather than the baby’s torso if you were clumsy. It ensured a very speedy learning process. Of course, Mom didn’t just hand us a baby and say “Go to it!” She knew that Marsha and I had already learned to be extra cautious, by pinning diapers on our own baby dolls first.

Baby bottles, in those years, were limited to those simple glass bottles with the measurements stamped into them and rubber nipples attached with plastic rings. There were no high-tech bottles containing plastic bag inserts or special tube and valve systems then, to avoid the baby sucking in a lot of air if fed improperly. So even under the best circumstances, much more frequent burping was necessary.

While it might be much easier for a five year-old today, to properly bottle feed a baby sibling for his or her busy mother, back then we quickly learned the more complicated method in a big hurry. Our reasons were selfish. If we didn’t hold the bottle up high enough the baby would suck in and swallow air. If she swallowed air she would need to be burped a lot more often. If she wasn’t burped often enough she would scream a lot. If she screamed a lot, nobody would be having any fun! So each of us girls, in turn, learned to be little mothers to somebody younger, as the new babies came along.

The two pretty  little flower girls, in their flouncy yellow dresses, were like tiny princesses that day at our cousin Donna Lynne’s wedding. As a concession to agreeing to do the “very grown up job” of serving coffee and tea to the wedding guests, Marsha and I were each finally allowed to wear our first pair of nylon stockings. On the same day, Kathy and Janice were wearing their very last pair of fancy ruffled baby bloomers, under their bouncy crinolines.

Kathy and Janice at Donna Lynne and Reg Smith's wedding

Kathy and Janice at Donna Lynne and Reg Smith’s wedding

Marsha and I were probably as proud of them as Mom was that day. We too, felt a maternal pride in their angelic appearance and sweet conduct—and of our role in teaching them to hold their bouquets just so, and to step ever so lightly down the aisle in time to the music —neither too fast nor too slow— and to not pull off their fancy head bands because they were “Too scratchy!” or yank off their little white gloves because they were “Too tight!”

Yes, Janice Mary and Katherine Marie, I for one was very proud of both of  you on that day— just as much as I was when each of you joined me in the role of real motherhood a few decades later.

And now that you are both grandmothers… I find it almost impossible to believe, because in some ways you will always be my babies too!

Mind Your Language Or Everyone Else Will!

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imagesBeans, beans, the musical fruit

The more you eat, the more you toot,

The more you toot, the better you’ll feel,

So let’s eat beans for every meal!

If you grew up in the fifties the word fart was a dirty word, the word toot was not. I guess the rules went something like this. Because you can make a musical instrument toot, that is an OK word to use in public. Until the adults in your life start saying things like “You might as well fart your own horn, because nobody else is going to do it for you.” you had better not say the word fart, (but toot is OK). Still, toot isn’t half the word you need to describe what your big brother can do with a tuba when the minister and his wife come by for a visit. All the beans in all the chili in Chicoutami couldn’t let rip with a better evening’s entertainment than the sounds coming from his room when he has just the right audience listening to him practice. It would make anyone question whether the dictionary’s description of the tuba as a “bassinstrument was a spelling mistake. It gave The Jolly Dutchman, his latest  favourite, a really bad reputation.

Of course, the very logic of a child requires that he use every forbidden word his little ears have ever heard, and with as much frequency as he can muster. Otherwise, he is never going to become an adult. So learning to talk is going to be a lot like how he learns to do everything else.

“No! No Jimmy! No stairs! Mummy will carry you up.” is how it all begins, with lots and lots of “no-nos”. But little Jimmy won’t ever forget the day that he finally sneaks off and crawls up those stairs. After Mummy runs a big figure eight around the tables in the kitchen and dining room, bending over and pulling out the chairs, she runs upstairs herself . She’s so surprised, excited and thrilled to find him headed straight for the toilet bowl, where he knows that he will soon  be able to stand up and splash water onto his face  just like he sees Daddy do at the higher one right next to it every morning. She swoops him up in a big hug, and he thinks to himself “My Mummy never wants me to do these new things, like grabbing my spoon, or climbing up and down the stairs at first, but she is always so happy when I finally do. She’s a strange one, my mum!”

“No! No Jimmy! No bad words!”

“Hmmm. Just like everything else I want to learn to do, I think Mummy wants to say my words for me too! But I’m a big boy now! I can walk, and climb the stairs, and even wash my face if I want to, and Mummy is always so-o happy when I show off what I can do. F – – -”

“Jim! Get in here right away! This kid just said ‘Fart’! Who taught him that? It must have been someone on your side of the family! That Chicoutimi* bunch! They just have no class!”

* My apologies to any of you who are from Chicoutimi. I’m sure you are no more flatulent, nor do you celebrate your flatulence in song, story (or congratulatory remark when called for) any more frequently than the rest of Canada. Nor, have I ever been to Chicoutimi, Quebec and therefore I have no substantiating evidence of there being a flatulence problem there, I have however been down wind from Hull, Quebec and I cannot say the same. I have been told that your sulphurous vapours are the result of a paper mill in your town, and therefore you are forgiven.Trying to break down too much fibre is notorious for causing that problem. Maybe you just need a little song to lighten things up a bit.

Hull!  Hull!  You stinky old town!

Don’t let your odor get you down!

With Dr. Oz pushing for beans in our diet

Why take all the blame. Now you can deny it!

Digging For Fun And Information

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13190145-illustration-of-gardening-gnomesYesterday was a beautiful day here in South Western Ontario. The sun was shining,a slight breeze was blowing, and the humidity was at a comfortable level. It was a great day to go outside and stretch out on a chaise lounge.But before that I had the opportunity to have a little visit with my nephew, Jacob. He wanted to see all the animals and so we went for a short walk to see the chickens, and feed them left over spaghetti noodles—just a few, because even though they may seem like worms to the hens, who run around hysterically with them hanging from their mouths, trying to evade their greedy sisters, white flour pasta isn’t any healthier for them to consume in quantity than it is for us. Then it was off to check out the rabbit hutch, which Jacob now calls “the bunny’s home”. The rate at which children expand their vocabulary astounds me. He pointed to the tree as he told us that a birdie lives there, and then he looked up at the clouds in the sky and proceeded to tell us that that’s where the bird was going to fly to— “up at da sky!”. Off to see the ducks, and then a flood of questions as he asked what each and every item was that he spotted hanging from hooks on the walls or lining the shelves in the garden shed. That’s  where the ducks have their temporary home in a plywood nursery box. This is their second box in ten days and it is a much larger one because they are growing at such a fast rate. Jacob enjoyed the ducks for a moment or two but he had seen them the week before and today he was on a mission to expand his vocabulary as fast as we could answer him. “What’s dat?”

“A grass seeder.Uncle Rolly uses it to plant grass. The seed goes in—”

“Whats dat?”

“A weed eater. It’s for—”

”What’s dat?”

“A hoe. It’s—”

“What’s—”

“And that’s a croquet set, and a box of screws, and a bag of feed, and a bag of top soil, and a tomato cage, and a watering can, and a—”

”What’s dat?”

“A—”

“Oh! dare’s Uncle Rolly’s shubble! Daddy has a shubble! Can I dada daddum dadadum (undecipherable as yet) Uncle Rolly’s shubble?” Jacob is definitely his father’s son. He loves to dig, which is something that his dad, Joe, told us was one of his own favourite activities as a child. Apparently his family’s back yard got to looking like a whole family of gophers lived there, because digging was what he played at most of the time. It makes me wonder if the tendency to love doing certain things gets passed on. Joe is a hard-working electrician, not a farmer or a professional landscaper, or someone who would have done a lot of digging since Jacob began observing. Yet, somehow he is emulating the actions of the boy his daddy once was.

A few months ago, in the early spring, Jacob discovered while out on a walk with us, the big wide heavy grain shovel that his Great Uncle Rolly had been using for something or other earlier that day. He had left it leaning against the fence, and when Jacob found it he tried with all of his might to manhandle it into a position that would allow him to dig into the sod with it, even though he had just turned two years old a few days earlier.Then he dragged it toward the last remaining pile of snow and tried to shovel some of it up. He wailed when he had to leave the shovel behind when it was time to leave. He was so heart-broken that his mother just had to stop on the way home at a Dollar store and buy him a small pretend snow shovel of his own.

Three weeks ago Jacob wandered into the enclosed picket fence garden space not far from our back deck. When I called for him to come out he answered “No, dadadadadum.” and couldn’t be persuaded to exit. I decided it wasn’t anything I needed to be concerned about so I sat on the deck looking in the direction of the garden gate.”He’ll come out when he’s good and ready.” I thought. “Who knows why he wants to be in there?” All at once I saw a shovel handle rise up over the top of the picket fence and go down again, then  up and down, and up and down some more. Apparently he had found his Holy Grail—a shorter handled spade that he could actually lift up and make an attempt at digging with. It just made me laugh out loud and hurry over to see just what he was up to on the other side of the fence. He had actually made the beginnings of a small hole. And in short order too!

Well, Daddy and Mummy, you better be thinking of putting some money aside now for the initial set up costs for your boy to begin his own small landscaping business while he’s still in school. If he loves it this much he may be able to build up a nice little nest egg in time for whatever university or college he chooses to attend one day. He certainly has what it takes to succeed in life already if you ask me. He is a little boy who already thinks work is fun!