Musings + Essays


By: Jen Shoop

My sisters and I huddled on the floor of the window-lined end room in the basement of our childhood home, the sun only a faint promise in the still-navy-blue sky of a six a.m. wakeup. Our house was built into the top of a hill such that part of the basement was submerged, hidden behind a stone-top patio, but the east-facing bit — where we sat encircled around a somber scene — was above ground, with windows flanking three of its sides, looking out onto a stone pathway that arched around a rose trellis my father had installed for my mother in a gesture I understood to mean true love. In daylight, in the summer, sitting on the floor of that room where I passed many hours of my childhood, I could see only a swathe of thick pine foliage offset by roses and some sort of prickly bush or boxwood in the foreground, and the effect gave me the impression that I was in my own Secret Garden, a book I cherished at that age that had also been adapted into a movie I adored and a Kennedy Center performance I took in with my nanny one evening well beyond my normal bedtime. “Walk on a diagonal up the stairs,” she had instructed me as I mounted the red carpeted stairwell of the Kennedy Center. “It’s more ladylike.” Even then, I was circumspect about this morsel of female advice, especially as my mother had never impressed it upon me, but I obliged nonetheless, and as we took a taxi home, whizzing down Rock Creek Parkway in the pitch black, I crossed my legs in the backseat in a gesture I’d pocketed from my mother and felt a strange and new awareness of the line between being a little girl and being a big girl and decided I was the latter.

But that morning, in the earliest bloom of day, we were enacting a Barbie funeral. We were six, eight, and ten, and though I had the mounting suspicion that I was too old to play with Barbies, I silenced those reservations save for in the context of my classroom, where I habitually and vehemently denied my secret pastime, and, for the fifth or ninth or twelfth time, participated in the performance of a narrative my sisters and I had constructed across those seamless and infinite summer mornings on Tilden Street in Washington D.C., when we were just girls. The plot was a patchwork of characters and story lines adapted from Little House on the Prairie, the Oregon Trail computer game, and Kirsten (the American Girl doll) and her affiliated fiction and we’d inverted plastic tubs that served as covered wagons drawn by horse toys. There were adventures and misadventures and lots of stops to set up camp and eat gruel around a fire, but the central drama was a rogue coyote who chased down one of the covered wagons and managed to snatch a little boy Barbie doll we called Hunter — and kill him. The villainy was directly tied to an experience we’d had in Aspen the summer before, when we’d gone camping with my father and had awoken to the yip and song of a pack of coyotes. My father appeared unruffled by the incident, which gave us some assurance that we weren’t in imminent danger, but we were petrified–hence the death by coyote. The funeral was a tenebrous affair that even now feels improper and ghastly to write about given our young age, but it involved an open casket — the monsignor at our Church had recently passed away and so we know about this grim Catholic tradition — and the singing of “Amazing Grace” and sometimes we even made ourselves cry while performing it.

The sun now up, we heard my mother open the door to the basement: “Girls! Breakfast!” The three of us dropped our drama in situ and scampered upstairs, all wrinkled nightgowns and tangled hair and one missing sock and squabbling over who got the Aunt Jemima syrup first and no-the-blue-cup-is-mine, Elizabeth.

The other day, my daughter forged a connection between my engagement ring and our dining room. The link made complete sense to her, but I stood there in nodding befuddlement — “oh, uh-huh” muttered absent-mindedly while picking up toys off the floor of her bedroom. Then, a few minutes later: “Why was my ring in the dining room?” Wondering whether I’d missed something. Wondering what she was getting at. “No, the diamond room!” she corrected me.

“Dining room?”

“Yes, the Diamond room!”

Aha. I saw in a flash the intactness of her logic: Daddy had given me a diamond ring, and we ate dinner in a room called “the diamond room,” and her creative catachresis brought to mind the coyotes of my youth. I felt lucky to be invited into her imagination at that moment, party to the formation of a memory that might eventually shape her impression of the world around her, as the coyotes and Frances Hodgson Burnett and walking up the Kennedy Center stairs on the diagonal have mine. We learn through reference, tumble through the world stringing along associations that occasionally make no sense — like how the taste of merlot always reminds me of the shape of a circle? — and when we are young and our circlet of reference points is concentrated, these connections are loud and close-to-the-surface and conjured on a nearly daily basis, to the point that my sisters and I created a story to house the magic of the Secret Garden and the horror of monsignor’s death. And when I think back now, I see only the aurora of morning and our fumbling and earnest attempt to make sense of the enormity of our narrow world through blundering creative conceit. Early artists, I think, engaged in imaginative circumlocution — filtering the flotsam and jetsam, circling apprehension — just like my daughter, on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in February, muddling her way through metaphor.

Post Scripts.

+More childhood memories alongside my sisters.

+More on growing up in Washington, D.C.

+I do not need another quilted transitional jacket, but how cute is this floral style?!? Maybe I do actually need another quilted transitional jacket.

+Clever and stylish way to display art!

+Such a pretty sweater! I feel like it’s something Ulla or LoveShackFancy would pair with a floaty skirt…

+How CUTE is this storage basket for a nursery? With these crib sheets?!?

+Who else gets nostalgic thinking about Mead composition books?! I used them to keep track of “happenings” in my neighborhood after reading Harriet the Spy. These are an even chicer option. Kind of want a set for myself!

+Mark Cross vibes for a fraction of the price.

+A great closet staple.

+Love these bud vases. One of my favorite ways to decorate a tabletop is by scattering lots of tight clusters of flowers in tiny bud vases down the middle. These would be ideal with white hydrangea!

+A metonymy for love, an apostrophe to the Upper West Side, and an aubade to parenting.

+Can’t wait for this shirt to come back in stock. LOVE.

+This mirror in the white looks like it belongs in a Palm Beach house. Would look so good next to dusty pink and green wallpaper.

+These affordable lamps in the green are so fun and Jonathan Adler-esque!

+Should have included this cute and reasonably priced daybed in my furniture roundup last week. LOVE.

+Daydreaming about this bag in that blue color. Hitchcock heroine status!

+The Tot is now carrying one of my favorite European childrenswear brands — lovely, as the international shipping is usually so pricey!

+LOVE THIS DRESS in the blue floral.

+My favorite splash pad / summer sneaks for mini are available in my favorite color — the pale pink! — right now! Run run run — these always sell out in that pretty pastel pink!

+Sweet $14 sweater for a little one.

+Time is a thief.

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2 thoughts on “Catachresis.

  1. A beautiful piece! It’s so interesting to muse on these connections we make as children … and must be doubly interesting to do so through the lens of your daughter. I think of my own connections & it’s amazing how formative childhood experiences are.

    Love that Reformation dress, and the Madewell quilted jacket reminds me a bit of a Caron Callahan one that I coveted from a few seasons back. Love a quilted jacket in spring! xx

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