Monday, November 22, 2010


As she set out the teacups that reminded me of my own, our talk turned to thrift shops and second hand stores. When M and I lived in Pittsburgh, we often spent our time together visiting such stores for treasure, both books and tea. His eyes lit up when he found a book about war he didn't yet own, my pleasure came from adding to my eclectic collection of china.

Our host for the Library Tea was a former children's librarian, whose list of qualifications included: extraordinary baker; owner of cups, saucers, plates, pots and other tea necessities; and visitor to the homes of the Brontes, the Alcotts and the Austens. Even though our event was intended for a middle school audience, I was enraptured. I hung on her every word and was especially entranced when she spoke of her visit to the Bronte house. She led us up to the moment when she saw the open box in Branwell's room and knew that the toy soldiers who were the inspiration for Pauline Clarke's “Return of the Twelves” were real. Our shared remembrances of author connections turned to favorite books of the past; what had challenged the adults when they were in middle school. The middle-schoolers talked of the first time they read a book meant for adults; discovering the joy that comes from not understanding everything but knowing enough to get through the book and feeling satisfied for the experience. All the while we merrily munched on scones, cookies and cake.

Serendipity, happenstance, coincidence, perhaps it was fate that again brought the fortuitous juxtaposition of tea and soldiers to my mind this week. Finishing Nicole Krauss's “Great House” I felt a jolt of recognition as I read the lines spoken by Weisz explaining how he came to track down lost items : “They begin to talk and I go back with them to their childhoods, before the War. Between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. The way he lined his toy soldiers up under the hem of the curtain. How she laid out the little toy teacups.... They've bent their memories around a void.” In the the battle against losing objects of the past, I am a soldier armed with memories. If only I had my Grandmothers recipes, her telephone stand. It is often the space around the hole that shapes us and defines us. Yet we move forward, sustained by cups of tea and conversation.

"Want to play war?"
"Yeah! How about World War I?"
"Nah, we do that one all the time. How about the Korean War?"
"I know, how about Future War?"
"Let's play Future War!"
They creep across the lawn. They hide behind fallen limbs and crouch as still as they can in the under-brush. They ambush me and the dogs with lazery shooting sounds and jabbing sticks. They fall to the ground, dead, and their brothers-in-arms drag them to safety where they revive and reload. Sometimes limbs are blown off. Sometimes there are disagreements and they call on me to set them straight: "Which side was Ireland on? The Vietnam War happened, like, last year, right?" We are a fairly peaceful family, but - not to be sexist - boys like war. And guns. And grenades. And tanks. They like to be heroes, they like to be saved. T draws rather magnificent military maps. L makes swords that can actually produce bruises and blood with nothing but printer paper and tape. Listening to them leaves no question as to the origins of the present-day, real-life wars; we may hear about money, oil, human rights, turf, but mostly it's a confused kind of ego out there in the hot sun. My boys revel in the language of battle, the sense of power that comes from firearms, even imaginary ones. But when someone falls too hard, or heads get knocked together during a tactical surge, they cry and come looking for me. Hugs, murmuring sounds, the occasional band-aid, and popsicles put these soldiers back right.

For a while, T had a collection of plastic toy soldiers that he bought with his own money after M and I see-sawed on the moral indications of plastic soldiers. We relented and T spent many after-bedtimes arranging his soldiers in intricate stations on the floor of his loft that I inevitably destroyed with my knees when I climbed the ladder for a kiss goodnight. Last week I tried to find some for a picture, but only one surfaced from the back of the tubby-toy drawer in the bathroom. He stayed for a night and a morning on the bathroom windowsill while I (and the rest of the family) fell victim to a stomach bug, and then just hours before our planned photo shoot, B bit his head off. Poor fallen soldier.

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