As of today, A Grandmother’s ABC is available for purchase, with text by me and photos by Margaret Ewing. Order it from Shanti Arts, the publisher, or from your local bookstore. Bookshop.org is another good option. Amazon is also an option (though not a particularly good one.)
I thought it might be nice to share an excerpt, to give you a flavor of the book. Each alphabet letter has its own chapter, written while I was creating a fabric alphabet book for my then in-utero grand-twins. I should say that the book was composed during the COVID lockdown and is addressed to the twins, to read when they’re older. The fabric book I created, pictured on the cover, was for babies. This published book is for grownups.
N is for Nest
At the back of our Cleveland Heights house is a second-floor porch that looks out on an overgrown apple tree in the backyard. Visitors have commented that the porch feels like a tree house. Over the years I’ve gone to the porch to think or cry, to read or just to enjoy a lovely day or a peaceful rainfall. A few times every summer, we cart plates and silverware and bowls of food upstairs for supper on the porch. Sometimes we celebrate birthdays there.
At home so much because of the lockdown, I spend many 2020 afternoons sitting on the porch doing needlework or reading. Grandpa and I both make it through Don Quixote, a 900+ page tome, for the first time, in a translation by Edith Grossman, which I recommend (I who know nothing of other translations or of Spanish, for that matter) because it is readable and the notes informative and not intrusive. It is my second or third run at Don Quixote. Previously put off by its epic length and by some of the antiquated language in other translations, this time I push through the long, sometimes repetitious speeches, enjoying the humor and realizing that the story really does move along if you give it a chance.
As it chugs along and I realize how modern the book seems, I ponder, What does modern mean as applied to a book written more than 400 years ago? Cervantes enables us to see the interior lives of his characters, not merely their adventures, as in other romances of his era. The author himself, or at least the narrator, demonstrates a wry self-awareness. In the second half of the book, his characters critique the first half. We moderns usually take credit for such sly self-referencing. Don Quixote is modern in that it reflects back on itself. In part, it’s a story about stories, a book about books. It’s writing about writing. It’s like a book about the alphabet, about the letter N from the Greek nu (Ν), from the Semitic word nun, which meant “eel” or “fish.”
What does this have to do with Ns or with nests, you may be wondering. As I sit on the porch making my way through Don Quixote, counting 200 pages, 300 pages, directly in my line of sight whenever I look up from the page, in a cozy fork in the apple tree, is a blue jay nest. It takes a while for me to notice it. We frequently have blue jays in our yard and put peanuts out for them to snack on. I notice that the birds seemed to be zeroing in on one spot in the middle of the tree—duh—and suddenly the nest materializes before my eyes. It looks a mess, with a white plastic filament dangling crazily from one side that resembles the plastic string I occasionally replace in our border trimmer. In reading about blue jays, I learn that they frequently incorporate one white material in the outer part of their nest. Our blue jays have apparently read this website.
I bring binoculars to the porch and learn to focus on the nest. I wait for a parent to alight and then train the lenses on the birds’ sheer perfect pattern of blue and black and white. After a week or two of watching the parents take turns sitting on the nest, I hear faint peeping. Eventually I can discern tiny open mouths, three or four, pointing up to the sky as the parents gracefully swoop toward them. After a feeding, the parent bird scooches in, back and forth, right on top of the babies. Every now and then, I worry that a big storm will knock the nest out of the tree or that a squirrel or predatory bird will attack it. I watch for weeks, while I read and sew.
Then a few sultry days pass by, too hot to sit outside. When I return at last to the porch, the nest seems deserted and there are no blue jays in sight. Either something catastrophic has befallen them, or they have fledged that quickly. If they left the nest, we should have six blue jays flying around our yard, but they seem to have all vanished at once.
A day or two later I am nosing around the flower patch Grandpa planted in the back corner of our yard. Our little dog Roxie is with me. A lot of squawking erupts from above, and when I look up into the trees, I see a bunch (a flock?) of blue jays hanging out. They don’t hold still long enough for me to count them. I figure that the fledged young are practicing flying close to home, learning from their parents, but I’m unable to make out who is who. One bird swoops right above my head, clearly wanting me and Roxie out of there, so we beat a retreat. I guess soon afterward they move into their own neighborhoods because I don’t see four or five blue jays at a time anymore. A couple of them still stop by to pick up peanuts. I assume they’re the parents, and they’re left here in our old backyard while their young have moved on to new homes and adventures. It all happens in a matter of months.
Your mom sends us ultrasound pictures of you today, as I’m writing in November. Each of you is visible, with the profile of a head clearly outlined. When your mom’s looking at the screen, she can see you moving around, the girl situated lower, close to the cervix, and the boy higher up. The pictures look like full-sized babies, but you’re still tiny, only about five inches long. We don’t know your names. But we can see you with our technology, we know you’re there, being nourished in your nest by your mom. All four of you are far away from us in Cleveland, though you’re in my thoughts all day as I stitch a yellow border around the outside of the nest page.
Your mom flew away to Brooklyn to live and raise her young. She and your dad will teach you to survive, and in twenty years or so, more or less, you’ll fly away. As you read this, someday in a vague future, you may have already fledged.