Category Archives: Who We Are

We’re Up and Running!

My ClubMom blog just went live! I hope you’ll visit me often at The Lilting House (and here in the Bonny Glen too)!

And I really appreciate your feedback about what you like to see here and what might interest you over there. Your comments were extremely helpful (and gratifying and blushworthy). Thanks so much. (I’m getting weepy now.) As I mentioned the other day, Bonny Glen will continue to focus primarily on literature and the living-books lifestyle, and The Lilting House will focus on homeschooling, educational issues, and special needs children. Naturally there will be some crossover in content because all these things are so intertwined, but the quickie differentiation is Bonny Glen=books, Lilting House=home education.

The children, of course, will run rampant over both sites.

Thanks, all of you, for honoring me with your valuable time. I love to hear from you!

The Quiet Joy

Every noon and every night I lie down with Wonderboy to cuddle him while he falls asleep. I read him a story, turn out the light, and pretend to go to sleep myself. (Okay, most of the time I’m pretending…) My two-year-old son, naturally, is not immediately inclined to start snoring. He’d much rather play.

Because he cannot get up by himself, there’s no problem keeping him in bed. He simply wants to talk. He babbles away in both verbal speech and sign language, sometimes singing (with vigorous hand motions accompanied by rhythmic grunts), sometimes reliving the book we just read by running through all his favorite animal sounds, and finally, in a last-ditch effort to entice mommy into conversation, by applying heart-melting tactics: “Love Mommy! Love Mommy!” he’ll sign, over and over, throwing in a couple of his best spoken words—Hi! Hi! Hi!—for good measure.

I tell you what, this is mighty hard to resist. His head is snuggled against my arm; he doesn’t know I’m watching through slitted eyes, just dying to smother him with kisses. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen anything sweeter than a toddler signing “love.”

Finally he’ll drift off to sleep. I lie there, listening to his breathing, watching his hands twitch occasionally as he talks in his sleep. By this time, his unborn sister is usually wide awake, and I often wonder how he can sleep through the pummeling she gives his back. I suppose my belly diminishes the force of impact somewhat.

I think about him, and I think about this baby who will be joining us in the outside world before long. Eleven years ago, when I was pregnant with Jane and people would ask, “Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?” I’d reply with the standard, “I don’t care, as long as the baby is healthy.” This wasn’t exactly true: secretly I was hoping for a girl.

Both hopes came true. I delivered a healthy baby girl, and I was so happy, so grateful. This little girl didn’t remain healthy, though. By the time she was Wonderboy’s age, she was fighting for her life. The battle against leukemia was grueling and scary. When, nine months after her diagnosis, Scott and I learned we were expecting another child, I uttered that “I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s healthy” line with even greater fervency.

And then, two babies later (first our Rose, then bouncing Beanie), I gave birth to a little boy, and he wasn’t healthy. He was, to put it bluntly, rather a mess. Thus began the next chapter of the lesson that started during the long months of Jane’s illness. Being entrusted with the care of a child who is not physically perfect can be yes, painful and scary, but also one of the sweetest, most rewarding experiences a person can have. Do you know how much they teach us, these small, brave, persevering persons? I hadn’t begun to grasp the meaning of that whole “Count it all joy” business in the book of James until I met these children. Now I get it, or at least I get a glimpse of it. There is immeasurable joy not just in the overcoming of trial, but even—I know it sounds implausible, but it’s true—in the trial itself.

Patience, cheerfulness, courage, determination, persistence—these virtues which require such effort from me are a matter of course for this boy of mine. And so it was for his oldest sister, when she was in the thick of her ordeal. If we learn by example, then I have surely learned a great deal from my children.

What riches Wonderboy’s “imperfections” have brought to our lives! A new language, yes; I’ve written about that so often before. But more than that. Watch him work to achieve the magical “all fall down” at the end of Ring-around-the-rosy—see how intently he studies his sisters and with what careful perseverance he attempts to imitate them. He looks at his legs: hey, I can bend them now! Used to be they wouldn’t cooperate with his desires. Grinning, he crouches, he squats, he teeters—he plops onto his bottom! He’s done it! The cheers ring out; the girls’ delight is genuine and very loud. His face, oh his face—now I know what real joy is.

I have heard this truth beautifully articulated by others; this mother knows it, and this one. The book Expecting Adam is one giant love poem on the subject. These are not women who sugarcoat or downplay the challenges; but their writing overflows with quiet joy.

Yesterday at naptime, Wonderboy hung in a little longer before sleep overtook him. After running through all the usual mommy-wooing tactics, he apparently decided he’d have better luck petitioning God. Over his head I watched his hands flash through a litany of prayers: the Sign of the Cross, then the names of all the people we God-bless every night, starting with his daddy and running right on through every member of the family to “the poor, the sick, the needy,” and finally: the Pope. He just about got me then; the temptation to just eat him up (and therefore demolish any possibility of a nap) was overpowering.

Instead I lay there doing some praying of my own. The baby inside me kicked and kicked; I felt her foot against her brother’s back and realized how much my answer to that old question has changed over the years. Of course I hope, for her sake, that she will be a healthy child. No mother hopes for her children to have to walk a difficult road; it is our nature to want their paths to be as pleasant as possible. But no longer could I say and mean (even if I didn’t know the gender of the child): “I don’t care what it is as long as it’s healthy,” with its tacit suggestion that an unhealthy baby means only tragedy and sorrow. If that wish had come true last time, I wouldn’t have my Wonderboy. If this child—or any of my others, for that matter, for Jane is proof that being “born healthy” is no guarantee of perpetual good health—should encounter serious medical difficulties, I know now that no matter how hard the road may be, even if it leads through the depths of Moria, it will carry us through Lothlorien, too. And even in Moria there can be humor and camaraderie and courage and hope among the band of travelers—especially the smallest ones.

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Writing for a Living: Q & A

I get many letters from people with questions about writing children’s books and getting published. A very nice young woman wrote me this week, and I thought I’d share some of her questions and some of my answers.

Might I ask you a question (or 5!!) about getting published? What sort of process did you go through? Who did you talk to (editors, publishing companies etc.)? Were you approached to write the Martha and Charlotte books or was it something that you decided to try on your own?

I got my start in children’s books when I was twenty-three, after graduate school. I knew I wanted to write for a living, and I knew it was very hard for newbies to get their manuscripts read, so I took an extremely low-paying, coffee-fetching editorial assistant job at Random House Books for Young Readers in hopes of building relationships with editors. I fetched a lot of coffee, but the strategy worked.

I spent a year at Random House, a year at HarperCollins, and by then I was married & expecting our first baby, so I quit to stay home and write. While on staff, I had volunteered for every grunt writing task I could get my hands on—catalog copy, jacket copy, all the stuff editors hate to write but have to do. When I left, I had a chapter-book adaptation job lined up, and that led to another assignment, and it went on from there.

I had been freelancing for a few years when I got a call from an editor asking me if I’d be interested in researching Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother and writing novels about her. It’s safe to say I was very interested, indeed!

Of course not everyone can go to NYC and do slave labor at a publishing house to get a start. The more usual route is to write write write and submit submit submit (to specific editors* or agents—this is very important—you’ll have no luck submitting to a generic “Editor” at a publishing house). And then you wait wait wait for six months or more for an answer. Which, unfortunately, is usually no. When I was on staff, one of my jobs was to read submissions, and we got them by the thousands. If I passed one manuscript in two hundred to my boss for a closer look, that was a banner week.

*Visit Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon site for a peek at the comings and goings of editors at various houses. The Verla Kay message boards are another good place to lurk for insider info.

How long does it take, on average, to get a book published once the manuscript has been accepted by a publisher?

It depends on the kind of book. Six months to a year is typical. Illustrated books may take even longer.

Do you have to pay the publisher up front or do they give you a ‘loan’ of sorts until the book catches on and you both make a profit?

The publisher pays me, not the other way around. (Beware any publisher who wants to charge you money—that’s a vanity press—stay away!) Loosely speaking, there are two kinds of book contracts. Work-for-hire projects are for more commercial/mass market kinds of books, like some Carmen Sandiego mysteries I wrote in 1995. In those cases, the editor calls a writer and says, “We need a writer for such-and-such a project. We’re paying a flat fee of X dollars.” The writer does not get a royalty in a work-for-hire deal.

My Hanna’s Christmas picture book is an example of a work-for-hire project. I was paid a piddly sum and asked to come up with a story that fit within certain parameters. The publisher wanted a picture book about a little Swedish girl who moved to America and was homesick, and there had to be a tomten in the story. The rest was up to me to create. I had a good time with that one! I’ve done other work-for-hire projects for which the requirements were much more rigid. Work-for-hire stuff is how some writers pay the grocery bill. My husband does a great deal of work-for-hire, and some of the projects he has accepted have been excruciatingly challenging. He was once hired to write some Justice League mini-comics for Burger King kids’ meals. The publisher wanted a complete story for each character—which had to correspond with the toys included with the meals—in a format so tiny there could only be four thumbnail-sized panels per page, and only four pages, with very little space for dialogue. And the real kicker? As I said, the publisher wanted a “complete” story for each comic—”but,” the hiring editor added, “the stories should also be open-ended, so that the kids can continue them on their own with the toys.” Riiiight. Scott pulled it off, however (no surprise to his proud wife). As a matter of fact, he still gets enthusiastic reviews from collectors of those mini-comics.

A royalty contract is usually offered for a book you have written on your own, and submitted, and an editor has fallen in love with and offered to buy. Books like this are published in hardcover; this is considered the “trade market,” not the “mass market.” (My Little House books are a royalty contract, but they’re an unusual case. The editor came to me, not the other way around—more typically a work-for-hire situation—but they are literary novels requiring painstaking research; trade fiction, not mass-market. I was offered an advance against a royalty, just as would be the case if I’d submitted a novel and the editor wished to buy it.)

An advance means the publisher knows you need something to live on while you’re working on a book and waiting for it to come out. You are offered a particular sum as advance against a specified royalty. The royalty is a percentage of the book’s future earnings. When the book is published, it may take several years for your royalty earnings to catch up to the amount you were paid in advance. After the publisher has recouped the advance, all subsequent royalty earnings are paid directly to the author (usually in a lump sum twice a year).

And, lastly, and very much off topic, how old are you? How old were you when you first got published? Were the “Little House” books your first works?

I am 37. I was, let’s see, 25 years old when my first books (a series of chapter-book adaptations—not an original work) were published. (OK, technically I guess I was first published at 23, when one of my poems appeared in the literary magazine Quarterly West.)

My first original publications were the two Carmen Sandiego books I mentioned. I spent the next year or two doing other work-for-hire projects like Hanna’s Christmas—some ten or twelve books in all, I think. Then I was asked to write the Martha and Charlotte books, and those have kept me busy ever since. Those books and my four-soon-to-be-five babies, that is!

Welcome, New Readers!

There’s been a lot of new traffic to the site as a result of the BoB Awards. I thought I should take a moment to introduce new readers to the rest of my family, since I’m the only one with a nifty “About Me” link. My fabulous husband Scott holds forth here. “Jane,” who chose her alias in honor of a favorite book character (it was a close race between Jane of Lantern Hill and Triss), is ten and a half at the time of this writing. “Rose” is our sweet and thorny seven-and-a-half year old. “Beanie” is bouncy daughter number three, a hairsbreadth away from turning five. “Wonderboy,” who earned his nickname before he was a week old (and continues to add to its legacy on a daily basis), celebrated his second birthday last month. And then of course there is Baby Girl Whose Name We Aren’t Telling Yet, who is due to join the party in April.

Welcome to all the new visitors. I’d love to get to know who you are, so please feel free to drop me a note or comment!

In other blog news, I should mention that I have revamped my blog categories. When I began the blog, I was resistant to labeling our learning adventures with academic subject names, since for us all subjects are intertwined. However, I realize that readers who are looking for resource suggestions for specific subjects such as math, history, and so on, find it easier to zero directly in on their topic of choice. With that in mind, I have revisited every post in my “Fun Learning Stuff” category and added a specific subject tag as well. If you click on Archives and Categories in the right sidebar, you’ll see what I mean.

Also, there’s a new feature in the right sidebar. Click on “This Time Last Year” (under “Where to Find Me”) to see what was happening here in the Bonny Glen one year ago today. I’ll update the link daily, more or less.

Tidal Homeschooling

Click here for the master list of all my tidal homeschooling posts.

People often ask me what kind of homeschoolers we are: Classical? Charlotte Mason? Eclectic? Delight-Directed? Unschoolers? How, they want to know, does learning happen in our home? Am I in charge, or do I let the kids lead the way? And what about math?

Over the years I have written with enthusiasm about the Charlotte Mason method (which is highly structured) and unschooling (which is not). These educational philosophies seem to have intertwined themselves in my home, so that the what we do—read great books, study nature, dive deeply into history, immerse ourselves in picture study and composer study—is highly influenced by Charlotte’s writings and their modern counterparts; and the how we do it—through strewing and conversation and leisurely, child-led exploration—is influenced by the writings of John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and other advocates of unschooling. But I couldn’t say we’re "real CMers" because I don’t carry out Miss Mason’s recommendations in anything like the structured manner she prescribed; and I probably do too much behind-the-scenes nudging for us to be considered "real unschoolers."
The truth is, I couldn’t find any label that completely fit my family, so I made up my own. I call us "Tidal Learners" because the ways in which we approach education here change with the tide. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re flighty or inconsistent, changing direction haphazardly. We aren’t Fiddler Crab Homeschoolers. What I mean is that there is a rhythm to the way learning happens here; there are upbeats and downbeats; there is an ebb and flow.

We have high tide times when I charter a boat and we set sail with purpose and direction, deliberately casting our net for a particular type of fish. On these excursions I am the captain; I have charted the course. But the children are eager crew members because they know I value their contributions. And also I provide generous rations. No stale or moldy bread on this ship: no dull textbooks, no dry workbooks. My sailors sink their teeth into fresh, hearty bread slathered with rich butter and tart-sweet jam. Well fed and proud of their work, my little crew exhilarates in the voyage. Every journey is an adventure.

And we have low tide times when we amble along the shore, peering into tide pools and digging in the sand, or just relaxing under beach umbrella. The children wander off in directions of their own choosing; they dig and poke and ponder. One of them may crouch over a rock pool and stay there for days, studying, watching. Another will run headlong into the waves, thrilling to the pull on her legs, splashing, leaping, diving under and emerging triumphantly farther out. Or a child might prefer to stay close by my side, drawing stick pictures in the sand or building a castle. All of these things may be happening at once. Sometimes it looks as though nothing is happening: there’s just an array of bodies on beach towels. But oh, the nourishment there is in a time of quiet reflection while the soul soaks up the sunlight!

Our family enjoys both kinds of learning—the heady adventure of the well-planned fishing trip, with a goal and a destination in mind, and the mellower joys of undirected discovery during weeks at the metaphorical beach. Around here, the low tide times happen much more often than the high tide times, and often I find that the children catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out. Beachcombing reveals many treasures. But they do enjoy their excursions with Cap’n Mom. I really believe joy is the key, the element we breathe whether the tide is in or out. It’s the wind that propels our ship; it’s the tangy breeze that cools and refreshes us on the beach.

In the coming days I’ll write about how the metaphor plays out in our house on a practical level. "So what do you do all day?" is a question I’m often asked, and since every day is different, it’s easiest to answer that question with snapshots and specifics. Right now, this week, we’re spending our mornings on the boat. We’re studying sign language and German; we’re enjoying a Robert Frost poem every day; we’re reading a book of English history together as well as the oft-mentioned The Penderwicks. Jane spends time on her self-prescribed drawing exercises every day, and my funny Rose continues her dogged pursuit of ancient Greek. (More on that another day). I’ve plotted a rough course that should bring us back into port in early April, when the newest member of our crew will arrive. And then I expect the tide will go out for quite a long time. It’s always a low tide time for us in spring, even when there isn’t a new baby. I’m laying in a good supply of books to read from the shade of my umbrella, but I imagine the children will spend most of their time off exploring the shore.

Read more about Tidal Homeschooling herehere, and here.

A Forgotten Day Remembered

I was browsing at Kim’s Relaxed Homeskool site and to my surprise came across a post I contributed to her “day in the life” collection some nine months ago. I’d forgotten all about it. It was a hoot to re-read it and remember what was filling our days last March. In that spirit of delightful reminiscence, I’d like to call for my readers to share your own Day in the Life essays in the comments section. In about a year I’ll remind you that they’re there, and you’ll have the fun of rediscovering your own forgotten family moments.

The pre-dawn hush when I’m the only one awake around here has given way to the noisy bustle of Sunday morning, so I’ll have to write my own new typical-day piece later. For now, here’s what our days were like a while back.

Got up early (too early) with the 15month old, watched a Signing Time dvd with him because I was cold and wanted to stay under a blanket. Also, it’s endlessly thrilling to me that he can hear—and dance to!—these videos thanks to these marvelous inventions called hearing aids.

Around 7, the 3 girls trooped downstairs one by one. The 4yo was first, and she wanted to play Rummikub. She carefully filled (and I mean filled) our trays with tiles, then said, “That was fun! Let’s play another game!” I hadn’t realized we’d started the first one.
But it was time to wake up daddy, so I left the baby with the 9yo and went upstairs. Back down to do an exercise video while the 9yo practiced piano.

Then chores & breakfast. We always read poetry with breakfast, or else a story about the saint of the day. This time it was poems about birds, because it was our Project Feederwatch counting day and we were in a bird mood.

Next: morning prayers, then a chapter of our current read-aloud (one of them), Ginger Pye. Then outside to putter around at garden cleanup.

Too chilly to stay long. Back inside, the 9yo copied out a passage from Mossflower (a la Bravewriter) while the 6yo practiced piano and I read to the 4yo. She is loving the Berenstain Bears’ Big Book of Nature. Also the Lion Storyteller Bedtime Book (which we never read at bedtime.)

The kids got busy with Sculpey clay while I tidied up for the baby’s occupational therapist, who arrived at 10:30. Good session; he’s making progress, slowly.

OT days screw up the kids’ snacktime, so we eat lunch early. Read some Children’s Homer during lunch while shoveling peaches & rice into the baby’s mouth.

Hubby came upstairs from basement office to do naptime. He reads to the 6yo and 4yo while I put the baby down for his nap and eat my lunch. The 9yo settled in to watch a History Channel show about gasoline while working on her latest crocheted creation, a hairband. Ah, quiet time…for an hour. I caught up on email, paid a bill.

History of gasoline show ended. 9yo gets out the graphing calculator her great-uncle gave her and asks if we can “figure out how to do more stuff.” On this day, this translates to determining the slope of the line formed by graphing coordinate values for Celcius and Fahrenheit, computing the slope of this line, and using this information to figure out the Celcius equivalent for any degrees-Fahrenheit level, and vice versa. My head was spinning by the end of this adventure, but the 9yo was right in saying it was pretty cool. Thanks for the calculator, Uncle John.

2pm. 6yo came down from her quiet time. Baby & 4yo still napping. We chatted for a while over a snack. Then she asked to “go to that website with the Greek words.” She is learning numbers right now. While she tinkered with Greek, 9yo returned to her crocheting (this time while listening to a Redwall book on tape). I threw some chicken in the crock pot.

2:30. I’m on a deadline; it’s crunch time, so I started work a little early. Scott and I traded places. The little ones woke up and soon they all headed outside. I tried not to watch them from the office window for too long. Wrote until dinnertime. The chicken was good.

7pm. Scott gets an hour to listen to music several nights a week. Kids went upstairs to do their chores. I straightened up the house, worked with the baby on his therapy stuff, listened to accounts of the kids’ afternoons.

8pm. Kids’ bedtime. Scott read to the girls while I put the baby down. Then I went in for prayers.

8:30. Quiet. Scott & I scattered for a half hour of email & stuff. At 9 we reunited to watch West Wing. Decided to tape Law & Order. Headed up to read in bed. He’s reading yet another biography of yet another composer. I’m reading My Antonia and Mossflower (at 9yo’s urgent request) on alternate nights. Last night was a My Antonia night. Breathtaking prose. I’m three-quarters of the way through the book and told Scott I was going to stay up half the night finishing it. This morning he told me I fell asleep before 11. Well, there’s always tonight.

Posted by: Melissa Wiley at March 17, 2005 04:58 PM

Hands in the Air

Rollercoaster_1So far, ours has been a spring of swoops and dives. Giant up-swoop: Wonderboy is walking! Really and truly walking, all over the house, sometimes clapping for himself as he goes. He can’t get up onto his feet by himself yet, but if you stand him up he takes off like a little wind-up toy. He is walking for the sheer joy of motion, not as a way of getting somewhere, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. It is all about the going (which of course I can’t help seeing as a metaphor for our philosophy of education: it’s about process, not product). I wish I could upload video here; I wish everyone could see this eager boy trucking along, he who had to wait seventeen months for mobility. He is a Wonder-of-wonders-boy.

Little down-swoop: He is a boy who scared his mother silly by having a major nosebleed in the middle of a nap one day last week. I went to get him up and aaaaahhhhh! He was lying there drenched in blood. Now you know that given Jane’s history our first thought, whenever there is unusual bleeding involved with one of our children, is going to be ‘low platelets?’ So of course we had to take him in for a blood test, which I am thrilled to say came back perfectly normal. The nosebleed seems to have been merely a change-of-season dryness thing. Whew.

Then three days later I discovered the Boy had a mouthful of sores. Thrush. Ugh. Enough said. (But he’s doing better now, thanks.)

So that was two unplanned doctor visits in the space of a week. A few days later I found a tick happily dining on my stomach. ::::shudder:::: When we pulled him out, his head remained stuck tight. Ugh ugh ugh. I wound up having to go to the doctor on Saturday morning to have it dug out. Not exactly the way I’d planned to start the day of our (big upswoop coming) 11th anniversary. But you know, it sort of fit the ‘so ridiculous you have to laugh’ motif we’ve got woven through this marriage. As a couple, Scott and I seem to be a magnet for misadventures. Somehow we don’t mind, because we love a good story. And you don’t get good story if the roller coaster stays flat. It’s got to swoop.

Chain Chain Chain

I love that we use the word “links” to describe internet sites cross-referenced on a web page. I wonder who coined the term. It’s a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of all knowledge. Each thing to know is a link in the chain; each link I click on binds a new idea to those I have already encountered.

I’ve always loved to play the game of conversational backtracking, where you try to retrace your steps to see how on earth you started out talking about, say, the Olympics and ten minutes later found yourself deep in a discussion about iodized salt. Sometimes, after a busy day with the kids, I try to make a list of the links we encountered in that day’s discovery chain. I can never remember all of them. And the chain isn’t a straight line; it sprawls out in a dozen directions—but all of them are linked.

Like yesterday’s breakfast conversation. It began with poetry, as breakfast usually does. This led to a rambling discussion which encompassed:

—Our favorite poets

—Emily Dickinson in particular (Jane’s favorite)

—Our favorite books about Emily Dickinson:

Poetry For Young People, edited by Frances Brolin

Emily by Michael Bedard, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney

The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires—an absolute gem of a book!

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition by T. S. Eliot (because Grandma J. gave it to Rose for Christmas along with The Mouse of Amherst, and therefore the two are forever linked in Beanie’s mind)

—Back to our favorite poets: Rose announces that hers is “the guy who wrote that poem about the fairy queen. Edmund somebody.”

Me: “Do you mean Spenser? The Faerie Queene?” (Knowing full well she has never read it and frankly surprised she’s even heard of it.)

Rose: “Yes, that’s the one. It’s in that ‘Green Grass’ book. It says Edmund Spenser wrote ‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’ and that’s my favorite poem.”

—Brief digression into the unsurpassable humor (by 6- and 9-year-old standards) to be found in the pages of And the Green Grass Grew All Around, a collection of folk songs and silly rhymes.

—Back to Faerie Queene—do we have it? Yes, parts, at least, in my old college Norton Anthology. We read a few stanzas describing Britomart, the heroine.

—This reminds Beanie of K-Mart. Possible side-discussion squelched by older sisters.

—Britomart is compared to Minerva. Who knows the Greek name for Minerva? Jane knows but graciously allows Rose to answer, in consideration of Rose’s current passion for Greek myths.

—Instead of answering, Rose re-asserts her claim on all things related to Ancient Greece.

—Cue argument: Jane wants to learn Greek, like Rose is doing. Rose doesn’t want her to–she likes being the only student of Ancient Greek in the house.

—This sparks a debate about whether it is whether it is possible to “own” a subject.

—Argument grows heated and (despite being quite an interesting idea to explore) is summarily quashed by mom. Back to Minerva, aka Athena. Now Rose wants to hear a story about Athena.

—Serendipitously, a used copy of Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer arrived in the mail yesterday. I pull it off the shelf and begin to read.

—When the name Helen is mentioned, Beanie interjects: Helen! My saint! No, dear, not that Helen. Not St. Helen of the Cross; Helen of Troy. Story is put on hold while Jane and Rose explain the Trojan War to Beanie. She asks for more cereal. Priorities. We return to Colum’s Homer and read the first two chapters of the Odyssey.

—Rose remembers we haven’t yet read a picture book she checked out of the library: Count Your Way Through Greece.

—Another book in the library basket catches Beanie’s eye: Candace Ransome’s When the Whippoorwill Calls, which was recently recommended by someone over at the Real Learning message boards. We read it. Lovely, lovely book. Takes place in the Blue Ridge mountains (huge gasps from both ends of the couch—those are OUR mountains!) during the time when the government was buying up land to form Shenandoah National Park.

—After the story, we look at a map of the Park online and discuss its proximity to our town.

—Then we listen to a whippoorwill song at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.

And that brings us to about ten in the morning.

Giving Thanks

In March of 1997, Jane was 21 months old. I took her to a friend’s birthday party in Prospect Park. It was my first time driving in Brooklyn. I remember zooming around a curve on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and seeing downtown Manhattan across the river, and feeling so empowered—if I could handle New York City highway traffic, I could handle anything. Jane piped up from the back seat, "Bus!" and I was so excited because she was rather a late talker and had only a handful of words at that point.

The next day, the birthday boy’s mother called to warn me that Tommy had awakened with a stomach virus that morning. Uh-oh. Every kid at the party came down with a really nasty flu—except Jane. She was legendary for her vigorous good health.

A week later, Jane and I flew down to North Carolina on a house-hunting mission. Scott was going to apply to grad school at UNC-G. Our plan was to move down in May and spend the summer freelancing before Scott started classes. Jane and I tooled all around the Greensboro area, and to my utter delight I found a cute little rental house—a former train depot, really—on a farm just outside the city limits. $500 a month, access to the whole farm including the sheep, the donkey, and the duck pond, and there was another family on the property with a little girl whom they too intended to homeschool. Seemed too good to be true. I returned triumphantly to NY and told Scott I’d found the perfect place.

A few days later, I was changing Jane’s diaper and noticed a surprising number of bruises on her legs. I wasn’t particularly worried—she was an active kid, a big climber and jumper, and we’d been at the playground all morning. Still, I decided to run it by the doctor. Unfortunately it was after office hours, so I’d have to wait until the morning.

That night Scott and I had an argument about when he should give notice at work. I was pushing for a slightly earlier date; I was eager to get down to NC and settle in at the Depot House. (It even had a name! I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a name.) Scott thought we should hang in for one more pay period before making the big move. We both went to bed upset, with Jane zonked beside us, her fair skin luminous in the moonlight. I woke in the early dawn, those bruises nagging at my mind. I snuck out of bed without waking Scott and Jane and dug a medical reference book out of the office closet. Bruising: check for petechiae, it said—little red dots on the skin—more than a dozen means bad news.

I crept back into the bedroom and raised the blind enough to let in light from the streetlamp. I remember the cold lump of fear in my stomach. There were more than twelve red dots on one arm alone. It was Saturday, March 22nd, and life as we knew it was over.

The pediatrician had office hours that morning. He took one look at Jane and sent us to the hospital for a blood test. Ten hours later we found ourselves in the PICU watching a nurse hook up machines that would remove Jane’s blood from her body and replace it with someone else’s blood. When Scott called his mother to tell her Jane had leukemia, she thought he was joking at first. He assured her that he would never joke about something like this. It defied belief, but it was real.

By the end of her first week of chemo, Jane had picked up a whole bunch of new words, like "blue IV" and "med-o-tec-tate" (methotrexate). And to think I’d been impressed with "bus"! Day 8 was Easter Sunday, and she hunted eggs in her hospital room with Scott maneuvering her iv pole around the bed. We thanked our lucky stars that he hadn’t quit his job yet—his company had great health insurance. I wrote a note to the owner of the Depot House, explaining that we wouldn’t be renting after all. Six months of inpatient, high-dose chemo stretched to almost nine months, because of low blood counts and complications. Jane knew more about platelets and white cells at age 2 than I did at 20. We learned how to give injections and push meds through her central line catheter. We watched hundreds of hours of Blues Clues and read picture books until they were stacked as high as the bed.

She finished the last round of high-dose chemo on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. We ate Boston Market turkey and stuffing in the hospital playroom while her meds finished running. There were two more years of low-dose chemo to go, but we expected to spend most of that period as out-patients. When we got home that night—home, where we hadn’t spent more than ten days in a row since March—it was late, a cold, clear night, with as many stars as a New York City sky can muster. I remember thinking I couldn’t imagine ever being more thankful for anything than I was to be carrying that little girl up the stairs to our apartment that night.

I was wrong. Today I watched Jane feeding Wonderboy a jar of baby food. He thought it was hilarious to have his big sister be the one feeding him, and he could hardly eat for laughing—big belly laughs that made the other kids crack up, and then the sound of their laughter, which he can hear clearly now with the hearing aids in, made him guffaw all the harder. I stood frozen in the kitchen, holding my breath as if they were a flock of rare birds who might fly away if I moved. Beanie’s curls bounce when she laughs. Rose laughs mostly with her big brown eyes. Jane is like a poster child for joy. It bubbles out of her and spills over to everyone around.

There’s a little part of me that is still leaning over the bed in that crowded Queens apartment, counting tiny red dots on Jane’s skin, slowly awaking to the fact that we had far more important things to worry about than what day Scott should give notice at his job. It’s the part of me that knows, now, never to take a minute of this for granted—to give thanks to God every hour of every day for these amazing treasures who have been entrusted to my care, and for the guy who gives his all in helping me take care of them. They are miracles, all of them. Especially that golden girl beaming at her little brother as she lifts the spoon to his laughing mouth.