sing-steering and chinese holidays

Posted by on February 8, 2009


I am trying to break away from my tired blog themes and remember how to describe things more immediate. Today would be a good place to begin because it was a Saturday of heightened feeling and sensible detail due to a surprise influx of warm air– air warm enough to thaw the very thick layer of snow that has been over our town for weeks. There is nothing like a day of fluke weather to make my senses pay better attention.

That things were going to thaw, that it was really true that a day of relief was upon us, could be sensed as soon as I got out of bed, and I opened all windows wide for the first time this winter. I even went into the stairwell of our apartment building and took the liberty of opening some windows there– the stuffy stairwell where cooking smells from multiple families–vapors of onions, fish oil and pancakes–have no choice but to turn back on one another, clash and linger, until, I imagine, they are displaced by new odors, and fall to the floor in the form of dust, mingling with the mud and rock salt from snow boots on the black rubberized stairs.

Esme does not particularly like to bound up said stairs, and getting her up them, back into our third floor apartment takes some measure of effort on my part each and every time. In the past if she resisted, planting her feet, dawdling, or blatantly bolting the opposite way, I would not bother with verbal persuasion but would whisk her bodily (and slightly angrily) up, up, up. When my front door is close, I want to go through it and unload, not linger in a dirty, stuffy, cinder block stairwell, bantering words with a two year-old. But as I grow larger in this pregnancy I have found myself staggering under our combined weight by the time I reached the last few steps, so I’ve had to be more creative about getting her to use her own little feet. Holding her hand I coax her, stair by stair, by singing, “This is the way we climb the stairs, climb the stairs, climb the stairs,” to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,” and so forth, until we arrive at the top. I didn’t know if it would work the first time I tried it, but it did. She shifted into a cooperative mode, looked down at her toddler snow boots and began moving them in sync with mine. So far, it has continued working, and is gradually becoming our stair-climbing ritual.

I suppose it’s o.k. to digress and point out that Esme now seems to love singing songs, learning songs, repeating songs. I’ve sung to her since she was a baby but it’s only been recently, since she turned two really, that she has wanted to participate. Whereas breast milk was my secret fix-all in her infancy and early toddlerhood, now songs have become my handiest tool. I sing-steer her to the car and into her car seat. I sing-steer her to the community center so we can get our mail. I sing-steer her away from her friend Lukas’house, where she’s been playing and doesn’t want to leave. On the way home I sing-steer away from puddles and patches of ice. I sing-steer her into her crib for naps and bedtime.

Thanks to a Mother Goose CD which has seventy-one tracks and which we never drive anywhere anymore without listening to (sigh), I now know all seven verses to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a song I previously believed had only one verse, if I gave any thought to it at all. My repertoire is now brimming with all of these songs, plus all the songs my mom and dad sang to me as a child, and all the Julie Andrews movie standards. There are songs from camp fires sat at, folk music listened to, and hippy-kid guitar sing-alongs participated in. There is John Denver, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Simon and Garfunkel, to name a few kid-friendly, yet not annoying, possibilities I’ve pulled out the wazoo.

Then we have this book called Rise Up Singing, which is an amazing collection of well-known folk songs. Sometimes instead of a storybook I sit and rock Esme with this book in hand, just paging through and singing every song I happen to recognize. Esme likes this book and likes to flip around in it, pointing to the illustrations, asking questions, and giving me orders. The pen and ink illustrations clustered haphazardly in the margins are wrought in an unmistakably 1970s aesthetic and remind me of the doodles that might decorate the notebook of a bored but artistically inclined high school student. They are of bearded men and flowing-haired women, flowers and babies. Esme points and says:”Sing that! What’s that? Who’s that?” Unlike me, Esme is good with names, and has a mind for who’s who. But this book, filled with generic illustrations, makes it impossible to satisfy her identity queries. I usually just say: “That’s a man,” or “That’s a woman; she doesn’t have a name, these are just pictures of people, in general.” This never stops her from asking on the next page. But there is one exception: an illustration of a woman next to the “Ballad of Barbara Allen” who is obviously meant to be Barbara Allen, and so, when we go to that song, I’m able to tell her who the woman is supposed to be. This is why, the other day, when I asked her who she was “talking to” on the phone, she told me it was Barbara Allen.

Now I’ve really digressed. But honestly, the only reason I wanted to write tonight was to write something– anything– slightly different from the tired themes I keep going back to. I wanted to be concrete and possibly write about the things my child does and says, like other mother-bloggers. I was going to describe today and I wound up talking about my daughter’s propensity to remember names and sing songs. It’s all related really, whether I am tying it together thematically or not.

I suppose I mentioned the sing-steering thing because I was going to point out that today was a day in which no sing-steering was really necessary, because the day didn’t feel that difficult nor toddler boots so heavy. It was a Saturday, which happened to be a spring-like day, which happened to be a significant Chinese holiday. Being outside was not something to brace the body against. By late afternoon, the playground out back had shed its thick white uni-crust armor and was allowing visitors. Jeff and I took Esme out and watched her explore the familiar but long-estranged equipment from where we sat side-by-side on the bench swing–an activity which, in itself, reminds me of our daily life here in the summer. The playground bench spoke of summer but the weather spoke, of course, of spring, and the feelings felt therein. Esme’s hair got really curly and wispy all over her head from the breezy air and the overall dampness of the melting world. Her wild soft hair looked to me like an emblem of everything the day was turning out to be.

As it was getting dark we went to the community center where all the Chinese graduate student families had prepared a lantern celebration for Chinese New Year today. I filled my plate with home made Chinese dumplings and other dishes apparently too authentic to readily identify by name to fellow Americans. I found a spot near friends among the chaos of all the families and kids running around, Chinese character painting lessons going on in the next room, shouted warnings about not letting your kids choke on pennies hidden in dumplings. Older kids, kids of riddle-solving age, gathered around a wall where slips of papers containing riddles were taped up. Esme ran off to play and then returned to my side for bites of noodles from my fork–another sketchily procured dinner among the many of her short life so far. Finally all the kids went outside under the moon where sparklers were being duly distributed. Although little feet kept slipping here and there on still-intact patches of sidewalk ice, the air was still amazingly mild there under the moon. No one could stop remarking about the weather. We walked back toward our building with our friends the Thames and the Heymans. My friend Manuela and I held Esme’s hand on either side, counted to three, and swung her over dark puddles.

  1. Manuela
    February 8, 2009

    I loved reading this post and generally enjoy that you are blogging more regularly again. Please keep writing.
    When I took Lukas and Esme out for a walk on Friday I went to get the mail and told them that we would not stay at the community center but go back outside to take a short walk. As soon as we were outside Esme took my hand and asked:”Can you sing “Mary had a little lamb”?
    I only was able to sing one verse. It is so cute and great that she responds so well to singing.

  2. anna j
    February 8, 2009

    Wow, Julia . . . you are my writing inspiration. In my dry-brain phase, I am in awe of your literary eloquence. It is also heart-warming to read about Esme: does she remember me? ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Amber
    February 10, 2009

    I love this post, and I like the idea that the same wind that swept through your home on Saturday, swept through mine on Sunday when we opened all the windows after coming home from church.

  4. Kate
    February 15, 2009

    7 verses?? I had no idea. I am so happy to hear that you sing with Esme, Daddy would be happy! It always amazes me how songs can motivate. I like the name too..song-steering, I have to remember that ๐Ÿ™‚ Love ya!