This morning — after I fed the poultry — I had the pleasure of taping an interview with Len Rowell for his program on Middlebury Community Television, “The Story Matters.” We talked about libraries, children, storytelling — the good things of life. If you’d like to watch, here it is! (And if not, you’re in good company: My own children, whom you’d THINK would be a little excited that their mother was on TV, have absolutely no interest. Nada. Zilch. My little humblers.)
When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.
She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.
We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.
This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.
She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.
Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.
Then, a week later, Henrietta disappeared.
Summer seems to be zipping along at such a pace that I realized I’d forgotten to post two recent articles that I wrote for the Minibury website. Both are part of a three-part series on “Surviving Summer,” a seasonal take on my regular “Our Favorite Things” column.
Part 1, which you can read by clicking here, focuses on summer reading, including six of our favorite books/series, which have the distinction of appealing to readers within our family’s 4- to 9-year-old age range.
Click here to read Part 2, in which I recommend some of our favorite games to help pass long summer afternoons indoors — important if you’re having a very rainy summer, as we are here in Vermont.
Happy reading! Happy playing! Happy summer!
One afternoon earlier this month, my daughters and I gathered around our kitchen island for a snack. I began asking my eldest daughter about a book she was reading. After a few one-syllable responses, she was tired of my questioning. Looking me right in the eyes, she said:
“’Every man his own priest,’ Mommy.”
She was quoting the followers of Martin Luther (“The original, not King, Jr.,” as my daughters are fond of saying.) During the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, Martin Luther started a movement that changed many of the practices of the Catholic Church and put the Christian faith more firmly in the hands of the people. “Every man his own priest,” was the rallying cry of those who advocated translating the Bible and making copies more widely available, so that people could read and interpret it for themselves.
In other words, my daughter was using a cheeky historical reference to tell me: “If you’re so interested in what I’m reading, read it yourself!”
One year ago I started homeschooling my two oldest daughters, who are now in 2nd and 3rd grades. As much as I’ve taught them over this year, they’ve taught me more. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is just how much children love history.
Almost every Thursday afternoon when school lets out, my daughters and I drive to the Sarah Partridge Library in East Middlebury. From 4:00-5:00 PM on Thursdays, Mona Rogers, the Sarah Partridge Librarian, has a “Craft Circle” for children. The original vision for this craft hour was that Mrs. Rogers would teach all of us to knit. This idea was abandoned when it became clear that most of my daughters are still too young to knit — and since my daughters make up 98% of the children who attend craft hour, they direct the agenda. In the end, Mrs. Rogers taught me to knit, which I continue to do during craft hour: I knit while standing, with frequent breaks in order to referee sibling squabbles or pull my youngest child off the bookshelves.
Between the knitting and the child-wrangling, it’s rare that I have time to look at books. But the other week, thanks to a big bowl of microwave popcorn that was occupying all of my children, I was able to peruse the used books for sale.
This isn’t a normal activity for me, children aside. I’m not especially anxious to add to our already-overflowing home bookshelves, and when I’m at the library I figure that the point is: free books! But since my children were munching their popcorn next to the shelves of used books, I could browse and still keep an eye on them.
Used book sales are about hope. There’s a reason why most of these books have been exiled from the library shelves or donated by their prior owners. There’s usually a large selection of boilerplate mysteries, spy thrillers, and romance novels. I’ve decided that cookbooks are the bread machines of books: people think they’ll use them, but instead they just take up space in the kitchen. And travel books are quickly out-of-date, plus fairly useless once you’ve actually visited the place.
But every once in a while, there’s a used book gem to be found. That day, I found it.
I can’t remember what prompted me to pick up the slim, green hardcover. It was clearly very old. The book’s title and author were stamped into the front cover — Animals Through the Year by Margaret Waring Buck — along with a beautiful print depicting two young deer, a possum, a chipmunk, and a mouse in the wild. It was clearly a children’s book — and we have so many children’s books at home that I wasn’t looking for one more.
Opening the book, I saw that it was a discard from the Sarah Partridge Library (back when it was the Community House Library). The book was first published in 1941, although this was a 1949 edition, and it had been checked out last on August 30, 1993.
When I fanned through the pages, I knew that I had to buy Animals Through the Year. It’s organized by season, and each page describes a certain animal (20 in all) and how it spends that season. The descriptions are clear and fascinating, written for young children without oversimplifying or pandering.
What really sold me, though, were the illustrations: On every page is a gorgeous block print of the animal described. Some are in color, but most are black-and-white.
Animals Through the Year cost me $1 — more than the usual 10 cents, because it was “antique.” I showed it to my daughters once we returned home, and they all huddled together on the couch, looking at the pictures while my 7-year-old daughter read out loud. Later that night, she asked if she could take the new book to bed with her. Since then, one daughter or another has picked it up from its home on the table beside our living room “comfy chair” to look at the pictures or learn more about what our animal neighbors are doing this time of year.
Meanwhile, I have become obsessed with Margaret Waring Buck. There’s not much to be found about her, but her papers now reside in Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The brief biography on the Dodd Center website informed me that Margaret Waring Buck was born in New York City in 1905, and died in Mystic, Connecticut in 1997. She was an illustrator, naturalist, and physiognomist. Animals Through the Year was her first book, and she wrote and illustrated ten more between 1947 and 1979. All were nature books for children, with the exception of The Face — What it Means: The Merton Method of Character Analysis, which was based upon her studies with Dr. Holmes W. Merton on the “science” of Face Reading.
All her books are out of print now, but that hasn’t stopped me. Thanks to the magic of online shopping, I’ve been able to obtain used copies — all library discards — of In Woods and Fields, In Yards and Gardens, and In Ponds and Streams for under $10. Like Animals Through the Year, these books are filled with plainspoken information and gorgeous illustrations (ink drawings instead of block prints). Along the Seashore and How they Grow are on my wish list, because I don’t want to be greedy and buy up Waring Buck’s entire oeuvre in one swoop; it’s important to have something to look forward to.
The obvious question is: WHY? Why have I suddenly become a fan and collector of the works of a little-known author and illustrator of children’s nature books? I am not the collecting type — haven’t collected a thing since my childhood doll and thimble collections.
I’ve thought about this, and I believe the answer is: It’s April, and there’s still snow on the ground. For over four months, the only nature we’ve seen outside has been limited to the occasional squirrel or crow. I am ready for the plants and animals to return; I am craving wildlife.
And when wildlife returns, I will pull down one of our books by Margaret Waring Buck, find the relevant page, gather my girls around me, and read. Because, 74 years later, the first words of Animals Through the Year are still true: “Many baby animals first see this beautiful world in the spring months of March, April, and May.”
October in Vermont this year was stunning: warm, with temperatures hovering around the 70s, and fairly dry. This year we also seem to have hit a sweet spot for taking nature outings with our girls: Our two oldest can hike on their own with a minimum of complaining; our baby can be toted around easily in the carrier. Georgia alternates between running headlong into the nearest puddle (or off of the steepest cliff), and needing to be carried — but one out of four ain’t bad.
So on a warm, sunny October weekend, when the foliage was at its peak, we headed west along Route 125 and crossed the Lake Champlain Bridge for a picnic at New York’s Crown Point Historic Site. Crown Point boasts the ruins of 18th century French and British forts, stunning views across Lake Champlain, and a small strip of beach littered with mussel shells.
Our girls went right for the beach, where they started a frenzied mussel shell collection effort. The goal was to find mussel shells that (1) were “angel wings” (two shells still attached on one side), and (2) contained pearls.
We found plenty of angel wings, but no pearls (freshwater mussels sometimes DO make pearls, but it’s a rare occurrence). The pearl hunt was inspired by a Magic Tree House book we’d recently read (#9, Dolphins at Daybreak, to be exact). These days, the Gong girls are all about the Magic Tree House series, in which Jack and his sister Annie travel through time and space in — you guessed it — a magic tree house. Each book includes facts about nature or history, and in this particular book we’d all learned how oysters make pearls.
I write “we’d all” learned, because although I’m sure at one point in my life I’d been told how pearls are made, I’d forgotten until I found myself reading about it to my girls.
So in case you, like me, haven’t contemplated the pearl-making process in a while, here it is:
Pearls are made when some foreign substance, like a grain of sand, gets in between an oyster’s two shells. In order to avoid irritation, the oyster coats the intruder with layers of a mineral called nacre; as those layers build up, a pearl is formed.
Is that the most awesome thing you’ve ever heard, or what?!? I don’t know why we aren’t using pearl-making as a metaphor for everything. I’ve heard over and over again how “A diamond is a lump of coal that made good under pressure.” But a pearl, a pearl is an irritant that became something beautiful.
I deal with irritants a lot lately, because I now have four girls who are very close in age. As an only child, this sibling thing is uncharted territory for me, so those of you with siblings may understand best when I say that these girls irritate each other all day long. And the darndest thing is, they really love each other; our house is filled with hugs and kisses and “You’re my best friend!” and generally good playing-together skills. Except that every five minutes, they hate each other: something gets grabbed, someone is hit, words like “stupid” start flying around. “I’m my OWN PERSON, Fiona!” Campbell shouts, whenever her big sister gets too bossy. “Campbell, I live in this house, too!” Georgia barks when Campbell pushes her around. “Nobody is LISTENING to ME!” Fiona wails when her sisters don’t toe the line.
The worst is when I don’t hear anything at all; that’s when I find two sisters locked in a silent death-grapple — a wrist grabbed here, a fistful of hair there — each determined to annihilate the other in order to get that My LIttle Pony (or doll, or piece of paper).
Just because you’re family doesn’t mean that you don’t irritate the heck out of each other. I’d reckon that unless your family was in some serious denial, then you know that it’s usually those in our family, the people who are closest to us, who are capable of irritating us the most. Like a grain of sand in an oyster, we can’t really get away from them. They’re between our shells, literally under our skin.
But an oyster handles that irritant not by scratching at it until it gets infected, not by trying to spit it out, not by ignoring it, but by covering it again and again with a beautiful, durable, shiny substance. The irritant doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into something that’s not irritating anymore — something smooth and lovely.
This may be stretching it a little, but I think we can all channel oysters in how we handle the people who drive us nuts (they don’t even have to be family members). Only, instead of nacre, we can cover irritating people or their irritating behavior with love.
For instance, after 11 years of marriage Erick occasionally does things that irritate me. If I approach him about these things from a position of love — as opposed to frustration, anger, or even just passive-aggressive sighing — he’s much more open to hearing me. Even then, I’ll never be able to change every single thing about Erick that irritates me, but that’s where more love comes in: Without those things that drive me crazy, Erick wouldn’t be Erick. And I figure that, if suddenly Erick wasn’t around anymore, the things that irritated me the most (the water glasses left out, the cabinets left open, the socks on the floor) would be the very things I’d miss the most.
Similarly, whenever one of our daughters is driving me bonkers with whiny, fussy, defiant behavior, I’m learning that she’s the one who needs the love poured on. She may be acting about as lovable as an angry wasp, but if I grab her in a hug and act like I love her (whether or not I actually feel that way), it usually snaps the irritation out of both of us more quickly than if I yell or lecture or ignore.
The next time I feel that itch of irritation under my skin, I’ll try to act like an oyster; instead of scratching, I’ll coat it with some love. If I can get my daughters to do the same for their sisters, then we’ll be in business!
Since the birth of our fourth daughter, several people have made the comparison between the four Gong Girls and the four March sisters — protagonists of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women. It happens that our daughters are familiar with Little Women (in the form of an abridged version by Usborne Books), and the comparison is not lost on them. “Which one is Georgia?” they’ll ask whenever I read it to them, “Which one am I?”
Louisa May Alcott divided the March sisters into easily identifiable types; the types you might expect based on the conventional wisdom of birth order. Meg, the oldest, is responsible and steady, with a weakness for fashion. Second-born Jo is the tomboy, a temperamental writer. Beth is sweet, sickly, self-sacrificing, and prefers quietly playing her piano. The youngest, Amy, is a spoiled, petulant, artistic type.
In families with multiple children, each sibling tends to carve out a distinct role. But when we read Little Women and they ask, “Which one am I?” the most honest response would be: “Not the one you think!”
Our girls don’t conform to the sisterly types created by Louisa May Alcott. Sure, the Gong girls are still in the process of becoming, and Abigail’s still an unknown quantity, but I’m fairly confident that our family has no sweet, quiet, sickly Beth. Most days it feels like we have four Jo-Amy hybrids: independent, temperamental, outspoken bundles of energy.
The thing is: None of my girls is turning out to be whom I thought she’d be.
Like most parents, I brought certain expectations to the table based on my own upbringing, the birth order archetypes I’d learned in college psychology classes, and sibling characters like those in Little Women. But I’m finding that one of the most fun and rewarding parts of parenting is setting those expectations aside and watching as my children are gradually revealed to me. I know that some parents never let go of their expectations and force their children into molds of their own making. To me, parenting feels more like archaeology: My children came to me already themselves, like fossils embedded in rock, and it’s my delight to gently chip and brush away the extraneous dirt to uncover who they really are. (And hopefully instill some manners along the way).
Take my first- and second-borns, for instance. Fiona: a sweet people-pleaser with a strong dramatic streak and a love of all things pink and princess-y; I’d pegged her for the shy, girly girl who’d gravitate towards dance and theater. And Campbell, who’s always been a little bit of a rebel, who loves yellow and lions and seemed tougher than her older sister; I assumed she’d be the outgoing, sporty one.
It looks like, in both of these cases, my first assumptions were totally wrong. Fiona is definitely the classic firstborn responsible people-pleaser, but she’s not particularly shy. And she’s not interested in dance or theater; her love is sports, something I never saw coming. She’s already a solid swimmer, she’s proud of her fast running and will race anything that moves, and she’s looking forward to playing soccer next year (although apparently, despite never having picked up a racket, she’s “mostly interested in tennis.”)
Campbell has little interest in sports. She’s certainly independent and “tough,” in the sense that she doesn’t care what others think of her. But she’s also the most introverted of all my daughters. She loves animals and nature: She’s happiest playing ponies by herself, or picking a bouquet of flowers. and her career plans at the moment vary between veterinarian, florist, artist, and mountaineer.
And then there’s Georgia. It’s hilarious that Georgia is the one in the “sweet third daughter” position, because she bears absolutely zero resemblance to Louisa May Alcott’s Beth. Georgia is a fireball: She’s outgoing, never stops talking, fiercely independent, afraid of nothing, and she loves to eat. She’s only two, so it’s still hard to separate the essential Georgia from the terrible two-ness, but she seems inclined to grab life by the neck and throttle it. (Or maybe the frequency with which she bites her sisters is really an indication that she wants to take a big bite out of life).
The poet Sylvia Plath wrote in “Morning Song:” “I’m no more your mother than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand.” I used to think Plath had a detached view of motherhood because she was depressed, but now I understand that line differently. I don’t know where these kids came from. Sure, there are certain aspects of their personalities that I recognize as coming from me or Erick, but there are other, HUGE parts of who they are that I can’t even relate to. One of Fiona’s favorite parts of kindergarten is P.E., which was exactly what I dreaded for my entire school career. Where did THAT come from???
Of course, my girls are still very young, and all of the things I’ve just written about them are subject to change in the coming years. The essential point remains, and here’s an illustration: Now that Campbell and Fiona are attending separate schools, Campbell is emerging from her big sister’s shadow and into her own. This mostly means horrible fights, but the other day when Fiona was getting a little too bossy, Campbell looked at her and said: “I am NOT you! I am A DIFFERENT PERSON!”
And that’s just the thing about parenting: Our children are, and always have been, different people. That’s either scary or exciting. At the moment, I’m choosing to focus on the exciting.