April 10th, 2013 by dianawhitney

The day before Thanksgiving found me on the phone with the oil company at 7 am because it was 48 degrees in our yoga studio.  Sometimes it’s hard to feel abundant in AwithchickensNovember—the 4:15 sunset, the hard, dead gardens, the encroaching dark and cold. Then C started shrieking in my ear:

“Mommy!  A raccoon!  A raccoon!”

“Shhhh, I’m on the phone,” I hissed, striding purposefully into the other room while apologizing to the oil lady.

But it turned out our eagle-eyed 5-year-old was right.  There was a raccoon in our back yard, shambling around the chicken pen, wreaking havoc and destruction.  By the time my man ran out there with a baseball bat, three hens were dead and one was flapping feebly in its death throes.

The scene slowed and took on a strange, movie-like quality.  I saw Tim– clad in muck chickensinhouseboots, a down jacket, and his underwear– banging the wooden Louisville Slugger on the side of the red chicken house.  Watery sunlight trickled through bare branches as the remaining chickens squawked.  Then the intruder appeared again— black-masked, emitting eerie mewling noises.

Something was not right with this raccoon.  It skulked sideways, mangy coat rippling, one eye black and beady, one dried-up and sightless.  A calm descended over me, all my senses sharpened.  I thought of the Stanley Kunitz poem about the coon hanging spread-eagled on the screen door: “…its pointed snout pressing in,/ and the dark agates of its bandit eyes/ furiously blazing.” [Read more →]

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March 27th, 2013 by dianawhitney

A&CinshadesLately the girls have been disgusted by parental displays of affection.  When her father and I start kissing, C squeezes between our legs and shrieks, “ROMANCE! ROMANCE! ROMANCE!” like a fire alarm, a siren warning of intimate heat that both pre-dates and excludes children.

Curiously, this same child has discovered a new favorite singer:  country-pop star Taylor Swift.  C wants me to blast “Love Story” as we drive to Kindergarten, and recently asked me to find the video on YouTube.  Gone are the innocent days of Raffi and The Annies…  Wondering if I was making a mistake, I sat my 5-year-old on my lap to watch the angelic blonde Taylor, clad in a low-cut Renaissance gown, tresses tumbling out of her tiara, belt “Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone” as a dark-eyed male model strode towards her in pantaloons.  Even I, usually a romantic fool, had to cringe at the schmaltzy narrative.  “Too lovey,” C proclaimed after the video ended, a diamond ring on Ms. Swift’s teenage finger.

But C’s romance alarm went off again on our Northeast Kingdom trip, because we’d been invited to a party that Saturday night, a birthday bash for our old friend and neighbor Casey.

“I didn’t know grown-ups had birthday parties,” marveled A.  I explained that this was not a cupcake and craft-table affair.  Casey was a big, beautiful, butch carpenter/bartender, a gem of a local gal with mischievous eyes, freckles, and the most enchanting smile.  Her house party featured a DJ spinning Latin grooves and a makeshift plywood bar spread with homemade concoctions of every imaginable flavor.  We’d searched in vain for a babysitter but come up blank.  One option was to take turns at the party, draw straws to see who got the first shift.  We’d run up against one dilemma of attentive parenting:  how to share adult fun. [Read more →]

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March 26th, 2013 by dianawhitney

You can travel to the site of your past, but it won’t be there.  You can drive North on the Craftsbury-scull-webInterstate past exit 13, where you went to college, where you wrote sheaves of poems about “the half-life of desire,” where President Clinton clasped your hand in both of his and looked you straight in the eye, making you believe you were the only two people in the crowded great hall, you in your black graduate’s robe and red chiffon scarf tossed around your neck as a last-minute accent that final morning, when you woke with a woman in your bed, a bi-curious friend who’d wanted to kiss you again, alone, after playing midnight Spin-the-Bottle on the River Ranch porch.

You can pass the library clock tower, pass the white hospital, where you gave up one baby and birthed another.  Pass the Thetford farmhouse where you sorted the papers of tiny, fluff-haired Grace Paley, oblivious to your good fortune, and keep going, further North… exit 19, 20, 21, veer off towards Hardwick and cross the threshold into the Kingdom.

I went looking for my past with kids in tow, the family wagon hastily packed with duffle bags, raingear, and a tote bag filled with apples, peanut butter, honey, and raisin bread.  That should sustain us for the weekend.  I threw in Katie Kazoo Switcheroo and some Junie B Jones books-on-tape but didn’t bother with toys, markers, or play-dough.  Let the girls entertain themselves in the woods.  Let them bounce on the twin beds of Cabin B, play Slam-Dunk-Jump-Spin with Ducky and Lambie.

Our first evening in Craftsbury I told my husband I wanted to explore—rediscover the wild woman within who had lately felt tamed, trapped by modern domesticity and motherhood.

“Go and run with the wolves, honey,” he said  “I’ll put the girls to bed.” [Read more →]

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November 8th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

C. was conceived during hunting season:  the gunmetal skies and barren woods of November.  The deer were rutting, stags dragging their great antlers across rough bark.  Once Daylight Savings Time ended, the nights grew long and velvet dark.  What else was there to do but make love?

“Whew! That was a baby-maker…” we agreed, after we could speak again.   We were half-joking, since we already had a baby, 14 months old, still nursing and night-waking— why would we want another one?

The next night I slipped into tight jeans and a silver tank top that shimmered like mercury.  I pulled on my cowboy boots and went out to a dive bar with a girlfriend, drank two Margaritas, and danced to 80’s pop.

Meanwhile, inside me, the singular egg and seed that would become C. were making their determined passage to safety. Five years later, I look at my daughter and remember the circumstances of her conception:  the liquor, the dancing, gunshots on the mountain, animals criss-crossing the dark woods, and realize she was destined to be a wild child.

They say the second child fills the space that the first one leaves empty.  That’s why two siblings close in age can seem like polar opposites.  People have been quick to pigeon-hole our daughters— A. is the calm, artistic, literary one, while C. is bold, physical, and exuberant.  But this division doesn’t serve either girl and won’t stand up to scrutiny. A. adores horseback riding, and C. loves the writing table in Kindergarten.  C. will curl up with a pile of books, and A. goes crazy doing naked flips at bedtime. [Read more →]

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October 10th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

You take the small triumphs of motherhood where you can get them.  Last night, for example, C. wolfed down three bowls of my garlic-tamari stir-fry, proclaiming with vigor: “Mommy, this tofu is yummier than candy!”

Yes, this is a victory to trumpet in Mothering magazine or post on an organic parenting blog.  It compensates for the breakfasts I’ve served of ramen or hot dogs, the last-minute frozen mac-n-cheese dinners, the bribes of gum and Oreos.  The comment may not atone for my impatience or occasional incidents of swearing at my children, but I let myself savor it a moment.

I cooked the yummy tofu on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time to take stock of the past twelve months and consider what we’ve done, who we are.  Being a slackerly half-Jew myself, I didn’t go to services but by evening regretted my decision, sitting on the front porch in late sunlight with two naked girls, dipping tart Cortland apples into a bowl of raw honey.  Both my girls will strip naked at any opportunity, and I’ve given up trying to enforce clothing in the front yard, where they might be glimpsed by neighbors or passing cars.

Is this naïve and neglectful of me?  At what age does a child’s innocent nudity become inappropriate? It’s probably a different age in Vermont than in Manhattan, say—but I choose to wait until A. (age 7) grows uncomfortable in her bare skin.

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday I don’t know how to share with my children. My father was an agnostic Jew who renounced religion at age 14; my mother eventually persuaded him to light candles on Hanukkah and play dreidel, but that’s about it.  No temple, no Hebrew School, no stories about Jewish ancestors, no sense of lineage running back beyond my grandparents, Ukrainian Jews who immigrated from Kiev. After having children, I felt the gaps in family knowledge as visceral emptiness, and wondered if I could reclaim my inner Jew, if she’s in there at all.

Munching on apples and honey, A. mused, “Mommy, if you’re half-Jewish and Carmen and I are both one-quarter Jewish, then together we make a whole!”

“That’s right,” I said.  “Nice math!”

This isn’t the first time A. has expressed desire to be all Jewish—her announcements coincide with the days her friend misses school for holidays or receives a present on eight nights of Hanukkah.  I ponder her clever equation but sadly recognize the flaw: there’s not one whole complete Jew in our family, not one whole anything. [Read more →]

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October 4th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

Late August brings relief:  golden evening sun pouring its honey over the horse farm where A. has her pony lesson.  We’ve made it through another day.

My daughter in her black velvet helmet and leather boots sits up tall on Buddy the pony, whose chocolate coat is glossy in the setting sun.  Each blade of grass is illuminated, verdant green sharp against shadow.  After the hot, terrible days of July when summer seemed to be suspended, endless fighting and humidity, insult and injury, the season has turned and I’ve felt a chill in the night air— the first chill that carries, as Elizabeth Strout puts it, “that subtle undercurrent of old longings and new chances that Autumn often brings.”

This evening my daughter, nearly 7, is poised on a gentle pony, and I have nothing to do but lounge in the grass and watch.  We ate our fat heirloom tomatoes for dinner with salt and olive oil, fresh pesto and corn on the cob.  Summer’s bounty overflows on the windowsills— sungolds and Romas, chili peppers and cucumbers, huge bushes of sweet basil, its green peppery scent intoxicating, begging to be devoured before frost.

Time plays tricks with the light.  Is this really my first child riding a large, four-legged animal, trotting on a lunge line, leaning forward into his mane? Her long hair hangs in a straight ponytail down her back, the mere sight of which fills me with tenderness for her, who is growing up at the speed of an August garden.  This summer A. learned to swim; she taught herself up at the pond, approaching the task with grave dedication.  She wanted to swim out to the dock like the other 6-year-old at the beach, and though the undertaking was neither fun nor easy, within two days she was doggy-paddling solo.  Soon she was trying to swim underwater, then attempting a dive, each new frontier requiring serious effort.

Of course C. (nearly 5) followed suit and managed a wild doggy-paddle of churning limbs, her round face barely staying above water.  “Controlled drowning,” her Dad called it. C. threw her body off the dock with total abandon, jumping hard from a running start, thrilled with the flight and immersion into another element without any thought of consequences.  I recognized and feared her reckless nature.  By her birthday she’d learned how to float– my baby, belly-up in the cold Maine ocean, vulnerable and soft as a fish.

August teems with cricket-song and goldenrod, the late light drenching me like liquid amber I’d drink if I could, store in my cells for the dark months ahead.  School starts in a week and my children are another year older, and suddenly it seems I’m staring down the barrel of the rest of my life, the calendar pages turning, more endings and beginnings, Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade…

The years tick by like mile markers on the Interstate, like the wise, older parents promised they would when we were deep in The Baby Cave, cuddled up with barely enough air for four beings to breathe—caught in the timeless cycle of nursing and napping. Now we’re standing beyond the mouth of the Cave and another summer is gone and sometimes I leap forward a decade and the girls are 15 and 17, going to parties, taking Drivers Ed, visiting colleges.  I have to stop myself before I drown in nostalgia for the life passing before my eyes. [Read more →]

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September 25th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

The girls find the bird huddled inside the chicken enclosure.  C. comes sprinting into the house like a miniature superhero in her spangled blue velour leotard.

“Mommy, Mommy!  A bird!  A bird is sleeping in the chicken pen!”

I’m lying face-down on the living room rug with a bag of ice on my back.

“Are you sure it’s not dead?” I ask.

“No! I saw its beak move.  Come on!” C’s body literally vibrates with impatience.

“In five minutes.”


“Carmen,” I warn, “I’ll come in five minutes, when I’m done icing.”

This summer has taught my children about waiting.  Our family has had to adjust to the vagaries and demands of my injury, while I’ve learned (again) about the solitary nature of pain—how it isolates you, cuts you off from the present moment.  I cringe when the girls rough-house around me; they’ve become more careful with my body, which fed them for years and once served as their jungle-gym.  Used to being waited on, they’ve had to manage more tasks for themselves, and even attended to my needs—bringing me the phone or a glass of water.

A. is perched in the cherry tree above the chicken house when I come to appraise the bird.  She drapes her arms around a limb, an elven child among the pendant leaves, at once familiar as my own hand and strange in her long-haired, coltish grace.  C. jumps up and down like she might bust out of her leotard.

“Mommy, look!”

Sure enough, a small gray bird is nestled down in the dirt, shuddering, surrounded by nine curious hens.

“Maybe it fell out of the tree,” suggests A.

“Or maybe one of the cats got it,” I say grimly.  I spy Nomar, the black tom, cleaning himself in the grass not far from the chickens, pretending to be oblivious to the unfolding drama.  A red chicken sticks out her scrawny neck and launches a swift, brutal peck at the bird.

“STOP IT!” yells A.

“BAD CHICKEN!” shrieks C.

“Keep them away from it,” I call, limping off as fast as I can.  I fetch a shoebox from the recycling bin and manage to hoist myself over the fence.  With two hands, I cup the trembling bird and ease it into the box.  One wing is torqued back, its feathers dark with dark red blood.  The bird’s gray down feels smooth and slippery on my skin, a forbidden sensation, something you know you’re not supposed to touch. [Read more →]

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September 25th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

I just wrote a guest post for my friend Desha Peacock’s fabulous blog!  Click HERE to read it. And be sure to check out Desha’s keen fashion and design tips while you’re on her site.

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September 23rd, 2012 by alisonkolesar

I picked up my children on the last day of school humming with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  Summer!  The other moms bore platters of celebratory cupcakes, overjoyed to bring home their offspring for nearly three months. But I was reluctant to give up our precious routine, the one we’d worked all year to establish, the hard-earned harmony in preschool and 1st grade that gave me breathing space for myself.  Inevitably the calendar turned, the space collapsed, and we all tumbled on top of each other, suffocating in the black hole of summer.

The morning after school ended, A. moped over to me in the kitchen at 7 am.  “I’m bored,” she moaned.

She was going through withdrawal, missing her friends, her beloved teacher, art class, writers’ workshop, games at recess.  Within days, she and her sister were at each other’s throats, teasing and tussling like feral cats until I screamed at them to take it outside.  I wish I could say that summer brings out the best in me, that I thrive on hours of unstructured time with my children, but that would be a lie.

Our early summer has been a struggle, punctuated by moments of joy.  The fighting has worn down my patience to rice-paper consistency, my sense of humor has gone on vacation, and I repeatedly choose the path of least resistance.  Breakfast?  C. wolfs down two hot dogs with ketchup while A. picks, birdlike, at some cereal.  When the squabbling starts at the kitchen table, I leave the room and tell them they need to work it out on their own.

“I have complete confidence that you two girls are smart enough to figure this out.  When you’re ready, come tell me what you decide,” I say, quoting Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Except I’m never as perky or calm as the parents in that book, always an edge of irritation in my voice, like a sting of lemon in a glass of spring water. [Read more →]

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September 13th, 2012 by alisonkolesar

In the tragicomedy of modern parenthood, most important conversations occur in the car.  This time we were en route to Price Chopper, two squabbling sisters and one bored mother who could not bear to listen to “Stink and the Super-Galactic Jawbreaker” for another chirpy minute.  So I turned off their CD and blasted mine– the Rolling Stones,“Brown Sugar”—those first defiant guitar licks transporting me to another world.

“Mommy, what’s this song about?” asked C, who, as she approaches five, grows ever more curious and articulate.

“What do you think it’s about?” I replied, stalling.

“Hmmmm… Candy?  Sugar and candy and stuff?”

“That’s right!” I said.  “’Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?’  These guys in the band really love their sweet treats.”

The girls nod emphatically.  They’ve been living in a sugar haze at the end of the school year, each day bringing another summer birthday celebrated, another platter of brownies or chocolate-dipped donuts, another snack of popsicles, a giant ice cream sundae party.  My little fib about the Stones slips out as easily as a soap bubble.  What are my options?  To explain Mick Jagger’s dirty lyrics?

They sense excitement in the song, though, something beyond a sugar high.  They’ve watched me dancing in the studio, hands criss-crossed over my head— A. will even imitate me now, tossing her blonde hair, sashaying her hips.  It’s frightening.

The Stones always take me back to a family trip to Eaglesmere, Pennsylvania when I was in 4th grade.  My parents drove me and my two little brothers from DC to the rambling Victorian house of their dear Macrobiotic friends, Teddy and Melissa.  We may have only gone to Eaglesmere once, for a long weekend in the fall, but the eerie house recurs in my dreams and our time there is etched in my mind, a pivotal memory of childhood.

The Eaglesmere house was all nooks and crannies, creaky porches and three staircases, closets smelling of cedar and mothballs.  I showed off my gymnastics tricks and did the Russian splits on a rock by the lake.

One evening we all walked down the sleepy main street— four parents and five little kids—to an old fashioned ice cream parlor with a big jukebox.  We were the only customers.  The grown-ups perched us on the red counter stools, slid in quarters, and played “Call Me” by Blondie and “Under My Thumb” by the Stones.  I watched my mother dancing, my beautiful, young, red-haired mother, younger than I am now—dancing and laughing with my Dad and then by herself—looking different than I’d ever seen her, somehow entranced.  I recognized a longing in her even though I didn’t have the language to describe it. [Read more →]

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