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Strega Nona, Old Befana, and me (somewhat middle-aged Befana)

Here’s a quote I like from Julia at Birds and Words, which makes me want to take up birding: “I love birding most because it teaches me the art of sitting with an idea. … birding enables my writing. It sounds like an overly bold pronouncement, and perhaps it is, but the ingredients of birding accompany me to my desk every day: relentless observation, research, patience, and a willingness to accept what comes my way (including some totally-less-than-stellar days).”

A little while back I had tea with some fellow bloggers (Kerry at Pickle Me This, Julia at Birds and Words, and Nathalie at Nathalie Foy), and we were joined by a couple of diminutive blueberry gobblers named Gavin and Harriet. The conversation roamed from books to blueberries to books to birds to books to piano to books again, and then to picture books, and Kerry spoke of an excellent post she’d read by mom-author-blogger Laurel Snyder, A Meditation on My Fierce Love of Picture Books. I went home and looked it up, and even though weeks have gone by, I’m still mulling what I read there. Here’s an excerpt:

“We are pushing children to read chapter books too soon. Maybe you’re not, but trust me, someone you know is.  I do countless school visits every year, and am horrified by the number of kids who tell me they have moved on to chapter books and don’t need pictures anymore (though they never seem to mind them when I pull out a picture book). I can’t count all the parents who beam and explain that little Emma is reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten. That she doesn’t like baby books anymore.  She doesn’t need pictures…. the saddest part is that in abandoning their picture books, these kids are missing out on sheer  play and poetry—two things they’ll have a harder and harder time finding in their lives as they get older.”

That’s something I’ve believed for a long time, but I realized after reading Snyder’s post that I’ve been somewhat guilty myself of rushing N through the stages — because I’m excited for her, because there are so many wonderful books to discover, because I’m amazed by what she can take in.

So lately we’re mixing it up a bit. She’s finishing off the first Harry Potter for the second time, and we’re dipping into an array of picture books. N loves Tomie dePaola illustrations, so we’ve taken a bunch of his books out of the library the last while. Strega Nona looks an awful lot like our dear, rather ancient Italian neighbour, who grows tomatoes, beans, and basil in her backyard while singing Italian songs. Sometimes she makes delicious vanilla biscuits for N and passes them over the fence.

And like our neighbour, Strega Nona is kind and nurturing. She cooks pasta in her magic pot, and cures headaches and warts and makes people fall in love. The witch in dePaola’s Old Befana has a darker quality. She’s a cranky woman who sweeps and sweeps and sweeps (“Like you, Mom!” says N; “Yeah, like you!” says her dad J, who is always irritated by what he calls my incessant tittling).

I’m especially intrigued by the Old Befana story, not because of the sweeping, but because of the fact that it’s based on an old Italian legend. Like any legend, different versions have evolved over the years. DePaola’s Old Befana isn’t as cranky as he claims, but she sweeps like mad, and she bakes too — you can often smell the goodness of her baking wafting from her home. You can sometimes hear her singing lullabies, though Old Befana lives and sweeps and bakes alone.

Then one night she is awoken by a blaze of light filling her humble little room. She looks out the window and sees a bright and glorious star. More annoyed than dazzled, she closes her shutters again and tries to go back to sleep. The next day she is visited by three kings among a caravan, asking for directions to Bethlehem. “Old woman, you should come with us!” says a boy traveling with them. “This child, this baby king has come to change the world. He comes for us! He comes for the poor! We are bringing him gifts.”

But Old Befana has her sweeping to do, and her baking. True enough, she herself is poor, but what does she want with Bethlehem, wherever that is? What does she have to offer a little baby who will change the world? And yet, she can’t get those words out of her head. This baby king has come to change the world. She decides she will go after all, and she’ll bring along some of her baking and her broom too, because the baby’s mother will be too tired to do her own sweeping. But first! She’ll just give her own house and walk a little sweep sweep sweep.

In the end, the sweeping delays her so much that she never does catch up to the caravan or find the baby, but in her effort to do so she runs so fast and so furiously that she is lifted high into the sky until she is flying. And ever after, on the eleventh night, you can find her there, with her broom and her treats. She flies over the rooftops, stopping at each house where a child sleeps, and just in case it is the child, she leaves goodies behind before continuing on her journey.

Each time N and I read this story, something niggled the writer in me. An essential ingredient had been left out of dePaola’s version. Why was Old Befana cranky and alone? Who did she bake for before the three kings came along, and why did she sing lullabies? DePaola doesn’t say, but I decided the original story must have gone further — and if it were my retelling, I’d put a baby in Old Befana’s past. She was a mother whose child had died, and she could never get over the loss, so she baked and baked and baked for her baby, and she swept and swept and swept for him. He was so real to her that his cries could sometimes be heard by others, even though he was dead and gone. Without him, she became a sad and bitter old lady. And then came the baby who would change the world. The belief that it might be her baby stirred inside her, but Old Befana resisted the thought until she couldn’t resist any longer, and she went chasing after him with such hope and devotion that she was lifted up. She looked and looked, but she never found him. (In his version and mine, I love that part best.)

As it turns out, I was not far off. You can read other versions of the story here and here.

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“Once there was a baby…”: guest post by Kerry Clare

Part 5 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Today’s guest is Kerry Clare, author of essays, short fiction, and the fabulous literary blog Pickle Me This, where her daughter Harriet often makes guest appearances. Today, Kerry recalls Harriet’s first days, and how one particular book became “the story of our family … our private shorthand.” Kerry writes:

When I heard Esta Spalding read Night Cars on the original version of the website Seen Reading, the rhythm of the words was immediately lodged in my head. Night Cars is written by Teddy Jam (who was the novelist Matt Cohen) and illustrated by Eric Beddows. It was late November 2008 when I encountered Spalding’s reading, and I was pregnant. Not long after, I purchased my own copy of the book, inscribing the inside cover: “Merry Christmas in utero to our beloved baby. With love, your Mommy and Daddy(!)”.

The exclamation in parentheses was because our transformation into parents was impossible to imagine. The baby itself I only ever believed in during our appointments at the ultrasound clinic, and for half-hour windows afterwards. What a leap of faith it was to inscribe the book as I did, the whole arrangement still so tentative. I could have as easily written a question mark.

Night Cars begins, “Once there was a baby, who wouldn’t go to sleep…” And this point too was impossible, mostly because I didn’t want to know about it. Who would ever imagine being that parent up in the dark while the world slumbers, baby’s wide-open eyes reflecting light from the streetlamps outside? (One of the first novels I’d read after Harriet was born was Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, and how I’d identify with its world of night, with the strange clock that was striking thirteen: “Only the clock was left, but the clock was always there, time in, time out.”)

But the baby arrived, and Night Cars became our story too. Whose rhythm is really a lullaby, an almost-nonsense verse whose meaning became clearer the less sleep I got: “Someone needs a pillow/ Call a taxi on the phone/ Someone needs a good-night kiss/ Someone’s eyes have fallen down.” When we rocked our daughter, her eyes would start to get heavy, and though she’d fight it, those lids would eventually succumb to the lull.  “Call a taxi,” we’d whisper when it happened, our private shorthand. Though as soon as we laid her in the bassinette, her eyes snapped open again.

In the daytime, I’d go for walks, Harriet strapped to my chest and falling asleep to the rhythm of my feet as they traced the grid of our neighbourhood streets. When she was awake, I was supposed to be narrating the world around us, but I was usually too exhausted so I cheated. It was easier to quote from Night Cars: “Fire engine, fire truck/ Waking everybody up,” I’d murmur as the shiny truck pulled out of the station on Howland Avenue. On Tuesday mornings as I navigated our stroller through a maze of bins:  “Garbage man, garbage man, careful near that dream…” And as the seasons changed and the air grew chilly, “Slow snow falling deep…” It wasn’t the only poem I knew, but in those days, Night Cars seemed the most relevant, and it was the only one I could count on to remember.

It was also a benchmark, how we measured time as our baby grew. The first time Harriet slept through the night, she’d assumed the Night Cars baby’s sleeping pose, lying on her stomach with her bum in the air, and it seemed like a significant milestone. And these days, when she points to the sleeping baby in the book, it’s to repeat the story she’s heard so many times already, that once upon a time she slept like the Night Cars baby did, the unfathomable idea that she was ever so small. How far we all have come together.

These days she has much more in common with the baby at the end of the book, a big head stuck in a stripy shirt, a kid who pulls on big red boots to kick the snow, and heads out to the cafe with Dad for something chocolate. But the world around us is still very much the Night Cars world, trucks and taxis, night-time sirens, dodgy storefronts, sidewalks, stray dogs and donuts.

Kerry Clare lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter. Her essay about new motherhood, “Love is a Let Down,” was awarded an Honourable Mention at the 2011 National Magazine Awards, and also appeared in Best Canadian Essays 2011. Her essays, short fiction and book reviews have appeared in several Canadian magazines, and she writes about books and reading at her blog Pickle Me This.

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