26 October 2007...10:54 am

What Became Of The Likely Lads

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I took care of Baby Delilah last week. Her parents are musicians, so I think they sing to her a lot before they put her to bed. I know some French songs from my mother and some church songs from my Lutheran God and I taught preschool so I can grimace through The Wheels On The Bus, but I am not a musician, so Delilah doesn’t get very much singing from me.

I used to play a lot of 50 Cent for Young Max when I was his nanny. He like Formula 50 Vitamin Water so much, I thought it was kind of my duty.

Instead of singing with Delilah, I read books with her, and last week there was a copy of Blueberries For Sal, by Robert McCloskey, next to the bed.

Delilah! I said. Blueberries For Sal! I love this book!

Delilah smiled tolerantly at me.

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Until I read it again recently, I’d always believed that the book was about Pitcher Mountain, which my grandparents and I have climbed every August since I can remember, looking for berries. The story, however, was inspired by Robert McCloskey’s own child, Sarah, who would go berry picking with her mother, Peggy, up in Maine.

In the late 1950s, McCloskey explained how he came to writing children’s books, but not really:

I attended public school, and from the time my fingers were long enough to play the scale, I took piano lessons. I started to play the harmonica, the drums, and then the oboe. The musician’s life was the life for me – that is, until I became interested in things electrical and mechanical.

I collected old electric motors and bits of wire, old clocks, and Mechano sets. I built trains and cranes with remote controls, my family’s Christmas trees revolved, lights flashed and buzzers buzzed, fuses blew and sparks flew. The inventor’s life was the life for me – that is, until I started making drawings for the high school annual.

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Thank goodness for high school annuals! McCloskey kept drawing, and became the quintessential chronicler of a (incredibly WASPy) child’s New England. Thinking of Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man still makes me feel like I’m eating corn bread.

There is no corn bread in the book, it’s about fishing and I think there’s a very scary storm, but that’s what happens when you’re small and warm and your grandmother is telling you a story in her sleigh bed three and half feet off the floor. You feel like you’re eating cornbread.

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After a day of berry picking and some completely implausible run-ins with some implausibly navy-blue bears, Sal and her mother go home to can some berries for the winter. In July of 2004, right before I moved to Guatemala, one of my most important self-assigned tasks was to get my grandmother to teach me how to make jam–to have her teach me how to can berries for the winter.

I wasn’t that I’d thought I would need to forage for myself in the wilds of the Western Highlands–I didn’t do any foraging, although the question of whether I should have is still up for debate–it was that I needed to know how do what she did in case I came back and everything had changed.

Granny and I did make a lot of jam, but we used raspberries, because by the time blueberry season came, I was already gone.

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My grandmother introduced me to the Red Sox, and, by way of Emily Dickinson, poetry, too. This fall has been a prolific one in both respects. On Tuesday, in anticipation of the World Series, she wrote:

The pitcher Josh Beckett
Will open tomorrow, but heck, it
Means that the show
Will be even better, you know.

J.D.Drew
Is fairly new.
He started slow
But now can go.

David Ortiz
Has wonky knees.
He must hit over the wall
To get home at all.

Curt Schilling
Has a glare that chilling.
All his friends say
He’ll do the job on Wednesday.

 

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There’s a repeated insistence in Blueberries that Mama Bear and Sal’s mother, the Peggy character (who wants to make babies? Let’s call them all Peggy!) were only wary of their bear or human counterparts because the adult mammals were “old enough to be scared” of a bear or a human, “even if it was a very small” bear or human. The book was published in 1949; I suppose we were scared of the Russians at that point, or perhaps still the Japanese.

McCloskey was no gender warrior, either. The premise of Make Way For Ducklings, probably his most famous book, is described by a children’s literature review:

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live. But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good. There were sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles. So, they flew on and on.

Picky Mrs. Mallard! Betch.

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In the 1920s, McCloskey left his childhood home in Ohio for a scholarship to the Vesper George Art School in Boston. In 1932, he made his way to New York like most aimless recent graduates of northerly institutions. He brought his portfolio to a children’s book editor in midtown:

She looked at the examples of “great art” that I had brought along (they were woodcuts, fraught with black drama). I don’t remember just the words she used to tell me to get wise to myself and to shelve the dragons, Pegasus, and limpid pool business and learn how and what to “art” with.

If only someone would sit each one of us down and teach us what to “art” with. The word “limpid” would never need to be used again. McCloskey probably never uttered it. Of his conversation with the editor, he concludes:

I think we talked mostly of Ohio.

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3 Comments

  • re: your post from a couple weeks ago. i saw the man on the train today too. i like your tie-in w/ us weekly, but how is the act of charity related to vanity? it’s an interesting idea, although i’m not sure i agree, would like to know more about what you mean.

  • You will have to ask Spencer, I’m afraid. Our contributors’ abstract–like as abstract as a train to Queens which is the only kind of train on which I can imagine an acid burn appearing–postulations are their responsibilities alone.

    However: how Isn’t the act of charity related to vanity?

    Consider the argument on a small scale: when I give a man on the subway thirty cents, I am getting him thirty cents closer to buying a Colt 45 or, um, a baked potato. I am also getting to momentarily assuage my conscience (I don’t have one, this is hypothetical) and, more importantly, I am getting a chance to wink at the handsome person in a corduroy blazer sitting across from me.

    There’s a difference between charity and investment or, better yet, systematic change.


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