Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the District #5 School in East Washington, New Hampshire. This 1849 one-room schoolhouse is now maintained by the Washington Historical Society; it closed its doors in 1938, a year in which there was only one family with school-age children left in East Washington, but it holds a significant place in our family lore. The District #5 School is where my maternal grandmother, Helen Natalie Peasley, began her school career. She walked a mile to the school down Lovell Mountain, where she lived on the family farm run by her grandfather, who grazed his cattle on the mountain. She grew up to work for decades as a teacher, and she always enjoyed telling us about her early days walking to the schoolhouse.
Now, when I hear about the debate over school consolidation in Addison County, I picture the District #5 School sitting empty, its woodstove grown cold, its rows of seats and chalkboards on display for visitors like my daughters and me. Were my grandmother alive today, she would ride the bus 7.3 miles to Washington Elementary School.
Because I homeschool all of my children, people often say to me, “You must be so glad you don’t have to worry about that!” They say this about school-related issues like classroom discipline issues, consolidation, and school shootings.
Please, don’t tell me that you’ve spent all day working out in the garden.
I see you, anyway: out in your yards, industriously raking leaves out of your garden beds, shoveling mulch, setting up your floating row covers.
I see you out my minivan window as I’m driving my daughters to piano, or theater, or a friend’s house, or Girls on the Run. Girls on the Run, indeed.
Those are my weekday afternoons.
And I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it appears that every single weekend between now and June is booked up with something: a Library Board retreat, a trip to see family, some sort of culturally enriching experience. Unless it’s raining; those days, I’m free.
Speaking of rain, this month seems to be taking the concept of “April showers” to an extreme. Only our ducks are happy.
Please, don’t tell me that you’ve already planted your kale.
Despite the fact that my husband is employed by Middlebury College, our family has a fairly distant connection to campus life. The majority of our friends are not employed by the college; they’re our neighbors, members of our church, or people we’ve met through our daughters’ involvement in the homeschool community or other activities. That said, we do number some of my husband’s colleagues among our close friends. We have students over to dinner throughout the year. Our daughters have taken swim lessons from members of the Middlebury College Swim Team, and our eldest daughter is currently studying Latin with a student from the Classics Department.
All this to say: Every interaction our family has had personally with Middlebury College faculty, staff, or students has been positive.
Most of our friends are swamped with issues like how to survive the high cost of living in Vermont, how to keep their relationships healthy, or how to raise children and care for ailing parents. Just as Middlebury College is isolated geographically from the rest of the town, campus issues tend to be of little concern to most Middlebury residents, myself included.
Unless they’re really big issues. Which is what happened when my husband came home from work last week and said, “Well, there’s another brouhaha at the college.”
My husband leaves for his office on weekdays, but since I homeschool our daughters, our house is the center of our daily activities. We eat most meals at home, given the expense and hassle of dining out with four young children. Caring for 31 animals (give or take) and a garden during the warmer months limits our ability to travel. All told, I’d estimate that I spend an average of 147 hours a week at home – out of a possible 168.
While I haven’t been able to find a definitive figure, a quick bit of internet research turned up the estimate that the average American spends roughly 45% of their time at home (including sleep), which would translate to 76 hours a week.
I often fail to notice the obvious in my life until it’s pointed out by others. For example, a fellow homeschooling mother with whom I was sharing tea happened to drop the statement that, “Homeschooling is a full-time job.” It was like a jolt of electricity had passed through me. “OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why I’m so busy!”
That same mother, in the same conversation, enlightened me further with the observation that it’s difficult for homeschooling families to have clean, orderly houses because the kids are always there.
“OH!” I thought. “THAT’S why there’s a constant trail of books and art supplies stretching from our entryway up to the girls’ rooms, and a massive cardboard box/transmogrifier/time machine in the middle of the kitchen. And why any attempt to wipe, vacuum, or straighten away evidence of my four children seems futile, since they’ll just undo it the next minute.”
I’ve also started to wonder if the amount of time we spend at home has something to do with why my daughters keep asking for furniture.
It all started with 11 secondhand chickens that friends packed into plastic bins and drove to our house.
Those original 11 birds reproduced themselves, and the widescale slaughter we’d expected at the hands of predators or disease has yet to occur. At the moment, my family shares our property with 23 chickens and seven ducks; another three ducklings arrive later this month.
We raise poultry for a variety of reasons, including:
-Half of our daughters have a deep affection for these birds. (The other half is either ambivalent or wants nothing to do with anything poultry-related.)
-Poultry-keeping chores teach our children the value of hard work and responsibility. (That is, when they’re willing to drag themselves out of bed on cold, dark winter mornings to do their chores.)
-We haven’t had to buy eggs in two years – and we have eggs to spare. (Current tally: six dozen eggs in the refrigerator and another couple dozen in a bowl waiting for a carton to open up. I choose recipes based on how many eggs they use.)
-It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Whatever the reason, once we’d invested in the birds, coops, feed, and fencing, we felt a certain responsibility to keep them alive. Our dog did not share this sense of responsibility. Our dog wanted to do what came naturally: Snack!
One of the challenges of living with multiple species is navigating the fine line between the freedom of one species and the survival of another.
I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.
“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”
Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.
I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.
My daughters often ask for stories about me when I was young, and I often disappoint them. There are a few classics that they never seem to tire of, consisting mostly of the handful of misbehaviors in my otherwise dull, law-abiding life (like the time my protest over the new door color of my childhood home ended in a paint spill all over the driveway, for instance, or the time I helped friends smuggle a drum of ice cream out of our college cafeteria.)
The surprising thing is that, as a writer who traffics in stories, I seem to have a terrible memory for stories of my own. Or perhaps that’s one reason why I write: Any stories that I don’t set down on paper quickly enough are at risk of vanishing into the swirling mists of to-do lists and calendar details in my brain. Just the other day, my eldest daughter told a story about our family.
“That didn’t happen,” I said.
“Yes, it did,” she insisted. “I read it in one of your columns.”