Friday, February 27, 2009

I’m busy right now

Ever since Larissa and Kara met in their second grade classrooms, they’ve been best friends.

Fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde Larissa and Kara, with her olive skin, dark eyes and matching hair, seem like two opposites. But they are very similar. They are both excellent students. Both love horses, cats, and dogs. They’re artistic and enjoy drawing. Both love to bake and help in the kitchen. And they like to garden. They were tomboys – running in the woods, exploring, climbing trees. And on top of that, each spent summers in a foreign country – Larissa in Dad’s homeland of Ukraine, Kara in Turkey where her mother is from. They went through getting glasses and braces the same year. In school, they were inseparable. Everyone knew they were best friends. Friends for life, they assured each other.

This year we pulled Larissa out of public school for eighth grade. They could no longer have lunches together, or sit next to each other in various classes. Last year, when Larissa knew that she’d be homeschooled this year, she and Kara discussed how they’d hang on to their friendship, seeing each other on weekends, calling each other, even writing cards.

But it didn’t happen. Kara was always busy – playing sports, doing homework, going to temple with her family, cleaning her room. Always too busy to visit or talk.

Last week Larissa climbed into bed with me and lamented that fact. “Kara just doesn’t seem to want to be friends anymore. She’s always busy. How can you be too busy to talk? We used to talk on the phone even when we saw each other in school. I think that she doesn’t want to talk – or to be friends.”

For several weeks, Larissa has been calling Kara’s house. No one ever answers. Are they out most evenings, participating in sports? Did they go out of town for winter break? Are there problems at home? Did Kara’s dad get laid off? Or – this thought crept into Larissa’s mind – do they see Larissa’s number on caller ID and simply not pick up the phone?

Larissa called Kara a couple of days ago and finally her mother picked up. After a long silence, Kara came to the receiver.

“I’m busy right now,” she said in an aloof tone. “I have to do math homework.”

Larissa was crushed, and I perhaps even more so.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Three-week-old bunnies

The baby bunnies are soooooooo cute now! They're coming out of their nest box and exploring the cage, so mom often jumps onto the nest box to get away from them.

Don't you wish you had a nest box to jump on at times?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pulling together the mission team

There’s a lot of background work – and a lot of waiting – that goes into pulling together a mission trip. To me it seems that we haven’t done much in weeks, and I’m getting impatient!

First, George and I invited the pastor and deacon to view George’s slides of his earlier trip to Matamoras. George wanted their blessing for our trip. This church, which consists of immigrants from Ukraine and their children and grandchildren, has never sent out a mission team. Ever. So we’d be breaking ground.

The pastor and deacon came to our house late Sunday, February 1, with their wives, looked at the pictures of Mexico and listened to George’s stories. They gave their blessing to proceed.

So that the kids would know what sort of conditions await them, George next gathered them at the church the following Saturday, February 7, and gave the slide presentation, then proposed to take up to five youth members with our family to similar conditions on a mission trip.

“You would be staying in village homes and have to be ready to sleep on the floor,” I warned. “And there will be latrines. There won’t be any showers in the villages, only basins to wash in.”

No volunteers came forward that day. Or during the next youth group meeting. By the time the week was out, I was worried that no one would join our family, or worse, that George would decide not to go at all because no youth members wanted to participate. I want to go so badly that I had a few rough nights lying awake worrying. But it’s all in God’s hands, I reminded myself, and calmed down a bit.

Finally, one 15-year-old boy stepped forward, and not one I expected. His older sister wanted to go, but she was worried about getting her period in such primitive conditions. Even though her mother assured her that woman all around the world face those same difficulties, it took her a few more days before she committed.

This past Sunday, George made an announcement at the end of the church service. First, he told the congregation that he and his family were going on a mission trip to destitute Mexican villages, delivering used clothing, school supplies, and food, as well as singing and holding church services. Then he asked all youth members who wanted to go on this trip with us to come to a room at the back of the church. The grandmother of one of the boys came to the room (her grandson attended our youth group, but a different church on Sundays), a girl who had just joined the youth group the week before (and had not been to the presentation), and a few people who were not in the youth group at all. We certainly had our five, but did we really want to take people not in the youth group?

We’re still sorting it out. I’m one who likes to get things done; my husband is more the wait-and-see kind. This waiting is a patience test, and once more, I’m starting to have trouble sleeping.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Dear Gregory:

According to documents filed at the County Clerk’s Office, foreclosure proceedings have recently been commenced against your home or other real estate. As you may know, these proceedings may eventually result in the sale of your property at public auction. However, we may be able to help you save your property and stop a foreclosure sale from taking place.

This letter from a lawyer came on Friday last week and suggested that my brother Greg hire him. It was my first hint that foreclosure proceedings have been filed against his house. But then again, with Greg dying five months ago and no house payments being made since, it’s not a surprise. My hands have been tied this entire time. I’m still sitting on several checks made out to him, unable to cash or deposit them, even though I need the money to pay his bills. Then again, with the courts denying my petition to be administrator, it’s not my problem.

The other odd thing that happened was that last Friday, ten minutes before the French tutor was due to come to the house, the doorbell rang. I just happened to be changing in the bedroom, so the kids got the door, thinking it was the tutor. It wasn’t. Some strange man said that he represented something (the only word Alexandra could repeat to me was “marshal”) and asked whether Gregory live at this house.

Stunned, Alexandra answered, “He’s dead.”

Now it was the guy’s turn to be taken aback. He said he was sorry and didn’t seem to know what to say, and he left before I got to the door to ask who he was or what he wanted. Only later did I begin to wonder: did he have something to do with the foreclosure?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Am I cheating my child out of an education in American history?

Manifest Destiny. The Treaty of Guadalupe. Hidalgo. Battle of Brandywine.

I was flipping through the eleventh grade American History textbook recently – the one I’d started teaching from and then set aside – when these words in bold text caught my eye. I felt waves of panic. I wasn’t teaching any of these to Jacob. What was I doing to my son? Was I cheating him out of a thorough coverage of American history? Was he going to end up deficient if he couldn’t spew out facts from history like the multiplication table?

You see, I’d started teaching him out of that textbook, but assigned him a biography to supplement the text. One biography led to another, and I began to follow American history via people’s lives, not battles and treaties and dates, assigning Jacob book after book about George Washington, Lewis and Clark, Abraham Lincoln...

“I’d rather read the books,” Jacob had told me, and I sympathized. A gripping biography stays with you, the personalities and adventures burned into your memory like the plot of some spellbinding novel. I understood so much more about the Cultural Revolution in China by reading the autobiographical Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng than I ever got out of any textbook. I came to love history not because of textbooks, but because of biographies and autobiographies. History came alive through books like that.

So when Jacob came to me last week with book in hand and said, “Do you have a minute?” then proceeded to read from Commander in Chief: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War by Albert Marrin, I knew I’d hit another absorbing account of history.

“Listen to this,” he said.

“Although Abraham had left the woods long ago, in many ways he remained a child of the frontier. His homespun manners annoyed [his wife] to no end. Often he answered the door in his stocking feet or came to meals in his shirtsleeves, unheard of in ‘proper’ households, where men wore jackets in the hottest weather. He would lie on the hallway floor, his back propped against an overturned chair, reading newspapers aloud; that way, he explained, he could absorb an article with his eyes and ears. If guests arrived while Mary was dressing, he called out, ‘She will be down as soon as she has all her trotting harness on.’

Abraham’s jokes embarrassed his wife. She never knew whether he might say the wrong thing at the wrong time… [Once] he saw a well-dressed woman slip in a muddy street. ‘Reminds me of a duck,’ he piped up. ‘Feathers on her head and down on her behind.’”

Jacob shared snatches about Abe’s wife Mary, her high-strung nature, her episodes of smashing dishes, screaming, throwing books at Abe, hitting him with a broom, or hurling potatoes at his head.

Now that you won’t find in a typical textbook.

Perhaps I’m not cheating Jacob after all, but enriching him.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Creative writing: My version of "Winter"

Oftentimes when I assign a writing exercise for the kids, I also fulfill that assignment. Sometimes I make my version about a slightly different topic - a description of a home I spent part of my childhood in instead of this house - and let the kids see it before they write so they know how much detail or what style I expect. Other times I let them read my writing after they're done. That's this case with the "Winter" assignment.

One wrote prose. Two wrote poetry. I wrote the series of phrases.

Here's my take on winter:

A gentle snowfall.
Hushed woods.
Pristine whiteness.
Ah, the beauty of winter.

Misty breaths in nipping, cold air.
Shimmering snow under silvery moonlight.
Soft whiteness lining every branch after a snowfall.
Scent of wood smoke in the frosty air.
Crunch of snow under boots.
Sledding and trudging up the hill and racing down again and again.
Laughter and screams.
Reddened cheeks and runny noses.
Cross-country skiing, the whoosh of skis in the stillness of barren-branched woods.
Hot chocolate.
Sitting by the crackling fire.
Jingling bells and tinsel and excitement in the air.
Countless batches of cookies baking in the oven, filling the house with their fragrance.
Presents and wrapping paper and always chocolates.
Christmas cards and caroling.
Snow angels.

Howling winds and freezing temperatures.
Tingling in the nose from frost crystals.
Hunching against the wind while walking to work.
Scraping ice and brushing off snow, again and again and again.
Snowplows rumbling up and down our road.
Cars unable to drive up the slope of our street.

Tracks of deer crisscrossed across the back woods.
Too cold for birds to chirp.
Magical glitter drifting down in the sunlight.
Frost drawings on windowpanes.
Another snow flurry.
More shoveling.
Milky gray skies for days and weeks on end.

Frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers.
Breaking the ice on the water garden so the goldfish survive.
Rhododendron leaves curled tight as pencils in the frigid temperatures.
Bringing in countless loads of wood to heat the house.
Warming my hands.
Always feeling cold.
Yet more snow and cold and gray days.

Groundhog Day.
Still the drab skies.
Ever-present cold.
Another blizzard.

Dripping icicles.
Good packing snow.
Snowmen, snowballs, snow fights.
Jubilant cries and flushed faces.

Filthy gray-black snow banks by roadsides.
Chirping of chickadees.
Honking of Canada geese as they travel in skeins across the sky.
Melting snow, flooding creek, mud.

A snowdrop blooms.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Creative writing: Another “Winter”

Each child responds differently to a creative writing assignment. Thirteen-year-old Larissa wrote prose; fifteen-year-old Alexandra wrote poetry:

Winter – moonlight glitters on the snow
The house is dark, inside it’s warm
A child sleeping in its bed
Dreaming of riding on a sled.

Wind and snow whoosh in his face
The other sled tries to keep pace.
Next day mom’s to take them skating.
Oh, what fun, he has been waiting!

The dream changes, she’s at church,
Standing under a lone birch,
Watching children laugh and play,
In the snow from yesterday.

A group of friends stands nearby
While she looks on with sad eyes,
Someone comes and joins her there,
The burden of sorrow with her to share.

Someone laying by the fire
Doing homework, though he's tired.
Soon he’ll finish, to bed he’ll go
What will he dream – who’s to know?

Winter – moonlight on the snow,
The house is dark – inside it’s warm.
A child is sleeping in its bed,
Dreaming of – how can it be said?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Creative writing: Winter

For some time, I've been giving all three teens a weekly writing assignment to be written not as some polished piece, but as an exercise just to get them writing. This week's writing assignment was about winter, which still holds us in its grip:

In your writing composition book, write what winter means to you. It can be prose, poetry, or even phrases or strings of words. Write about the sights, smells, feel, sounds, temperature, emotions, sports, events, holidays… anything to do with winter. Write in PEN. 1½ pages minimum.

Larissa’s composition:

Winter, snow, cold, ice… Clean crisp air. Silence.

Animal tracks through the woods. Shaggy deer, fuzzy rabbits, fluffy squirrels.

Sledding, skiing. Flying down hills in sleds, snow in your face as you scream. Then saliently skiing along wooded trails, listening to the swish and glide of the skis.

When the sun rises in the morning or is high in the sky at noon, the crystal ice diamonds glisten and shine in the snow. And when the sun sets, the snow glows yellow.

Bears, woodchucks, and skunk hibernate and flocks of birds fly south. Only some, like the tiny, tough chickadees stay behind cheering each other and twittering that spring isn’t far behind the first autumn frost. And really, it seems that soon you hear that familiar honking of geese passing by, and you know that soon the flowers will be blooming again.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Baby rabbits!

When Alexandra went to feed the rabbits outside in the hutch this morning, she checked out the nesting box that George had made for the gray female. We had mated her with a white buck not quite two weeks ago, but she'd already pulled out a lot of her fur and lined the box with it. When Alexandra reached in, the box was fuzzy and warm. Warm?! Alexandra pulled out a baby bunny! And another. There are three, and all of them are dark; they have no white at all and don't resemble that buck that we borrowed from friends. However, we'd placed her with the brown male, her cousin, when we were moving around all the rabbits a while back. Looks to me that he's the daddy, not the white rabbit. Gestation is supposed to be 31 days, not less than 14!

Welcome to the world, baby bunnies!

Intended daddy with mommy on left; real daddy on right

Monday, February 2, 2009

Barnyard in OUR backyard?!

“Mom, how many gallons of milk do we drink in a week?” asked Larissa.

“Hm, sometimes you kids go through almost a gallon a day. But I’d say about four gallons per week.”

“And how much does milk cost?” she continued.

“Nowadays, about $2.65 per gallon.”

Larissa punched some keys on a calculator. “That’s about $550 per year that you spend on milk. Mom, if we got a goat, you wouldn’t have to buy milk anymore. At their peak, goats can produce 4.3 gallons of milk per week! Even if we buy the goat feed, we’d still save money.”

Larissa has been reading Barnyard in Your Backyard since visiting a family we know from church who have a dog, goats, chickens, rabbits, and a calf. But they live in the country; we live in the suburbs. Still, if you have an amicable relationship with your neighbors, which we do, you might be able to keep a goat, or better two, says the book. Two goats keep each other company; one cries for companionship. And two goats would produce twice as much milk…

“We could make goat cheese,” Larissa explained. “It’s really easy. The book tells you how.”

Last summer Alexandra convinced my husband George to keep rabbits, not for pets this time, but for the meat. I wasn’t very keen on this idea.

“It’s good for the kids to learn how to feed and care for and breed rabbits, just in case any of them end up having to be more self-sufficient than we are,” George explained, fully supporting Alexandra’s idea. He grew up on what I’d call a small-scale farm in Ukraine. His parents were both teachers, but they raised a lot of their own food and livestock, especially chickens for the eggs and rabbits for the meat. Me? I grew up in cities and suburbs where the only animals we owned were cats and dogs.

I must admit that although I don’t take care of these rabbits, I’ve learned a lot about rabbits since August. I didn’t know, for example, that

- A rabbit’s gestation period is only 31 days from the days she’s bred

- The female rabbit (doe) does not come into heat but will accept the male (buck) at any time

If our breeding was successful, we should have some baby rabbits in three weeks. I’m sure to learn more about rabbits; George is sure to learn more about building and adding on to rabbit hutches. When anyone will undertake learning about rabbit meat is another piece of the puzzle.

I have a feeling that a goat shed (or whatever you call it) will be next. Isn’t that in part what homeschooling is about?

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)