Ever since I was pregnant with our first child twelve years ago, with a few exceptions, our family has spent a week of every summer at the Maine coast. This summer was no exception. Our daughters consider Maine one of the fixed points of their year, and look forward to our summer week there all of the 51 other weeks.
This year brought some changes, as is inevitable with the passage of time and the aging of people. Some were bittersweet: Due to a combination of busy-ness and illness, my extended maternal relatives visited Maine for only a day instead of staying the entire week. But some were sweet: My growing daughters no longer wake at dawn demanding entertainment, being now content to sleep late and spend slow, quiet mornings reading, drawing, and talking. They can apply their own sunscreen and help lug beach paraphernalia. For the first time, we were able to enter the gift store in town that’s full of breakable items, where my daughters chuckled over the card that said, “Let’s get this party started (because I’d really like to be in bed by 11!)” – which they suggested getting for their father – and debated over which welcome mat would be most appropriate for our house: “Welcome to the Jungle,” “You’ve Made it This Far,” or “The Neighbors Have Better Stuff.”
But the beauty of our Maine week – and the reason I suspect it holds such a special place in our daughters’ hearts – is how few things change year to year. For the past six years, we’ve stayed in the same house, with a big climbing rock out front. Each visit entails several nonnegotiable activities: multiple visits to Perkins Cove Candies and the Corner Café, daily beach and rock climbing time, and an excursion to Dunne’s Ice Cream (formerly Brown’s) and Nubble Light, with dinner at Fox’s Lobster House (where their Nana spent a summer hostessing during high school.)
And when we go to the beach, the girls always build sandcastles with their grandfather – my father.
This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.
On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”
That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.
Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.
This refrain has been moaned repeatedly by certain children of mine over the past year. I have about as much sympathy for it as I do the other oft-whined complaint: “I’m bored!”
They’ve heard the practical considerations: the expense and hassle of traveling with four young children, the 33 animals (last time I counted) that depend on us, the jobs and activities that constrain our schedule.
Sure, there are obvious benefits to travel for young children: It’s educational and world-expanding. The same could be said of books.
As I frequently remind my children, my own childhood trips were annual summer drives from Northern Virginia to New England to visit family, with occasional side trips. My first journeys to California and abroad didn’t happen until I was in college. And I felt none the worse for any of that; if anything, I got far more out of my travels in my 20s than I would have as a younger child.
My children have already been to California, the Caribbean, andCanada, so they’re miles ahead of where I was at their ages. But until this spring, they hadn’t explored the city of my childhood: Washington, D.C. So, when my parents announced plans to attend a memorial service in Washington, we decided to tag along.
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.”