Stained Palms

Posted by jdg | Friday, August 05, 2011 |

When we were at the thrift store the other day I found a copy of The House on Hackman's Hill, a much-loved book from my own childhood. It wasn't the the newer edition, but the fantastic old 1980s Scholastic cover with the photo-realistic painting of the two cousins breaking into the titular house. In the book, the mansion has been abandoned since it's owner (an Egyptologist) disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1911 along with his mummy. Unlike most spooky books written for children, this one avoids the Scooby Doo Ending where the supernatural forces turn out to be disappointingly natural. This haunted house is actually haunted.

My daughter and I read it together yesterday during my son's nap. She sat next to me on the couch, inching closer and closer with each chapter until we got to the second half of the book (titled "The Horror"), when every few pages we had to stop and she'd forcibly pull my arm around her. Occasionally she'd even demand to read it herself so that the "scary words couldn't sneak up on her" (a laborious, if comforting process). Several times I suggested she might be too young for this book, an idea she found as offensive as the possibility that I might stop reading it to her. When nervous fingers stymied my lips, and she peppered me with questions ("Did you peek at the words on the next page? Were they scary?") it occurred to me how powerful even a silly book like this can be. A child's imagination is naturally an untamed place, a landscape too often domesticated by the drudgery of Dora or Disney or overwhelmed by invasive CGI that leaves nothing to it. But a good story tames it into focus, and makes it a place where anything can grow.

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None of this really has anything to do with picking mulberries. I am just looking for an excuse to share some pictures. We didn't pick mulberries in the parking lot of the spooky abandoned hospital this year. One of the stories my kids request most is the one about the things I saw when I went inside (which may include a few embellishments. . .such as a ghost called the "Surgery Screamer"). That's just one of a hundred other stories about things I may (or may not) have seen inside all the ridiculous abandoned buildings in this town (my son's favorite: the guy living in the wall of the book depository). Yeah. I didn't drag them over to the haunted hospital to pick mulberries this year. They might have grown suspicious by how quiet it was.

Instead we found a mulberry patch within covered-wagon distance of our house, and it was surrounded by fences and far from any busy street. I even let them climb the ladder to get high up into the branches. Last year's batch of mulberry jam was easily their favorite out of the dozens of fruits we canned. Mulberries make great preserves. We went back three times, picked enough for twenty jars of jam. No ghost stories, but I may have told them a yarn or two about the raspberry patch in the field next to my childhood house, where the berries grew thicker than hair on a dog and I once accidentally ate a berry with a wasp who took up residence inside my stomach.