A house full of boys

June 11th, 2013

I didn’t have friends over to my house when I was a kid. We lived on a block with a fair number of children in a pretty close age range – on any given evening we could muster up to a dozen kids for kick the can or bloody murder. Summer afternoons my brother might play running bases with the boys from up the street, and I would play on the swing set in the neighbor’s back yard – and for a few years kids would come to the slide in our back yard, until the Blizzard of ’79 when our garage collapsed sideways from the weight of the snow and crumpled the slide. (My brother and I were getting older by then, and our parents didn’t replace it.) In the winter we went to the sledding hill or the ice rink. I often think of myself as having been a solitary child, but the more I think about it, the more I see it’s not so much that I didn’t have people to play with, it’s that I never brought friends over to my house.

It might be the first thing a child of alcoholics learns: having people over is a risky proposition. Bringing people home spontaneously especially so. This was never articulated or discussed; my parents did not forbid house guests nor did my brother and I agree to some pact in which we didn’t have friends over. There were not outward signs of chaos that we might have been ashamed of – my parents didn’t argue or shout more than the average harried parent might, the house was always clean, the yard always well-kept, the kitchen well stocked, our parents appropriately dressed, my brother and I had bedrooms that were nicely decorated and perfectly normal kids’ rooms, it all seemed pretty standard. But we knew, the way kids know such things, that it probably was not such a good idea to have friends over to play. Adult children of alcoholics reading this might understand that internal alarm bell, the sixth sense that picks up the invisible wrongness underneath the seemingly regular suburban home. Whatever it was, I had it.

The boys have friends over a lot, especially Small Boy. He’s finishing up his second grade year and has the type of long-standing friendships with kids now that Boychen, as a first year Kindergartener, only just is beginning to forge. Small Boy and his friends are also more independent – they can get to each other’s houses on their own and only have to ask for permission but do not need to be accompanied back and forth the way the 5 year olds do. So they arrange their own plays among themselves and then, at the last minute, remember to ask a parent if it’s okay. (Usually. Small Boy has been known to come home from the playground with an unannounced friend in tow. Saying they’re really hot and need popsicles.)

SB had two friends over yesterday afternoon (Mondays SB has afternoons free from school but Boychen has Kindergarten in the afternoon), and as the rain kept coming and going they ended up playing inside most of the time. They were loud and crazy and running from SB’s room to Boychen’s room shooting Nerf darts at each other. When the boys left (after shaking my hand and saying goodbye to me, because they’re good Swiss boys), I told SB that I like his friends. I do, actually. And I like that they come over here to play, and I like that the boys feel comfortable having their friends over. I like the wild rumpus of boys everywhere. As my parents’ daughter, as the adult who grew out of that kid with the sixth sense, it means a lot to me to see that my kids know their friends are welcome here.

It means that I am my parents’ daughter, but I am not my parents.

It means that my boys aren’t me.

It means that I need to stock up on popsicles.



January 10th, 2013

Not looking for any poetry comments, just sympathy – especially for the Boychen. The horse in this old poem of mine is going to the animal hospital tomorrow, and she won’t be coming home.

Of Apples and Autumn and Small Boys in Love With Horses
       for Boychen

I choke on the calendar like an apple
I tried to get down in one bite when

even the horse knows to break it
open, crush it to a juicy softness

before swallowing. We have brought
her orchards of apples autumn after

autumn. You used to roll them under
the fence, and when you press now

your fingers together and reach out
over the wire, apple balanced in your

outstretched palm like an offering,
I see how you have grown.

I try to count autumns, the apples
that have crossed this fence line.

The horse lips it from your palm,
cracks it open, drools saliva

and apple juice. You pat her muzzle,
she sniffs around for more.

Finding nothing, she returns to the grass.
You walk up the road towards home.

Who knew the recycling center was the hub of village life?

May 26th, 2011

When we lived in the city, we had weekly curb-side recycling for paper. There was no pick-up for glass, plastic, or aluminum – we had to bring that to drop-off spots ourselves. Since nearly every grocery store has at least a drop-off point for plastic, and each neighborhood has more than one glass and aluminum drop-off point (they’re always together, the glass and the aluminum) it wasn’t a big deal, although for the elderly or infirm I can see where it would be a drag and I imagine some of that – especially the cans – ends up in the trash.

Here in the village, we don’t have pick-up for anything. Well, twice a year the school kids come around the whole town and collect the Altpapier, and that deserves a post of its own because it’s pretty awesome, but otherwise it’s drop it off yourself only. I regularly bring the glass, plastic, and aluminum to the grocery store, so the only thing that piles up around the house is the paper and cardboard. Since we live on a farm there is plenty of out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage space for the paper until the school kids come around, but recently I’ve decided that I need more order in my life and that even the out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage was getting on my nerves, so I’ve started bringing the paper and cardboard to the village recycling point, which is behind the fire station.

It’s open one hour a week, and I’ll tell you what: if you want to see and be seen in this village, bring your recycling to the firehouse during the delivery hour. Everybody is there. The parking lot is full, there are plenty of people who come on foot pulling a full Leiterwagon behind them, kids are throwing plastic bottles into the recycling containers. It’s practically a village festival, only without the tent and Bratwurst. Now that Small Boy walks home from kindergarten by himself, I don’t have as many see and be seen opportunities, so I’m definitely going to be a regular at the recycling center.

Less clutter (even of the invisible kind), more village life. Local recycling is a win-win!

The raps are blooming

May 2nd, 2011

The raps come and go quickly in Switzerland. Not as fast as the three-day free-for-all of a plum tree, but there is perhaps a two-week window for a field in glorious full bloom. I caught this one just in time.

Spring, taking me once again by surprise

April 11th, 2011

Spring explodes in Switzerland. Is it like this everywhere, the way the green seems to reach critical mass overnight? I watch for signs of spring, I mark them: the first crocuses, the snowdrops, the first daffodil, the sap rising in the rose bushes turning the stems maroon and then the first curling leaves. I watch out my window as the willow tree begins to yellow, blend to pale green. I am not blind to these individual signs of spring, but Spring itself takes me surprise every year. I swear it comes overnight. Is it like this everywhere? This explosion of green, this all-or-nothing, this no more here and there signs of spring but spring, full and dominant.

Everything is green. It happens overnight. I watch for it and yet I miss it, the turning. How is it possible, with all the watching, all the hints and clues, how is it that it still happens overnight? Everything is green. There are leaves on the willow tree, our two plum trees have already blossomed and shed their petals in an orgy of fleeting beauty, nature’s flash mob, and the more sedate apple trees are budding. The fields are green with wheat, the farmers are out planting potatoes in their distinctive raised rows, the Raps (rapeseed, used to make canola oil) are almost full grown and yesterday I think I saw the first yellow flowers, and if you’ve never seen a field of Raps in full bloom you’re missing one of spring’s most wondrous wonders.

Is it like this everywhere, the surprise of it all? The forsythia are everywhere yellow (and the Swiss do love their forsythia), the tulips are coming, the grass is green, the roses are putting out leaves, it is spring, spring, wild full spring banishing memories of the bare brown fields as if they had never existed. On days like this, perhaps for a lost soul like mine only on days like this,  I can almost understand the resurrection story. On a day like today, I can almost believe that the dead shall rise again, life rising again like sap. It is spring, and everything around me is alive again, and in spite of all the watching and all the hints, it is as if it happened overnight. Life, wild and irrepressible.

Is it like this where you live? Does spring come like this where you live, come one night while you are sleeping so that when you wake winter is so surely banished it is hard to imagine winter ever covered the land? What is it like, right now, outside your window, where you live?

Nature, red in tooth and claw

January 21st, 2011

Nature put on quite a display for the boys today. In the morning, the Boychen and I went into the woods to feed the mallards. It has turned cold again and the pond is frozen over except for a small patch of open water where a creek empties into the pond; well over a dozen mallards were clustered there. They hung back at our approach, which is unusual for them. They are not shy ducks – many people walk in these woods and many people feed the ducks – and  they know my boys’ voices well; the bolder among them start swimming for shore as soon as they hear the boys calling “Enteli! Enteli! Mir hai Brot!” (“Ducks! Ducks! We have bread!” They always call to the ducks in German because, as Small Boy tells me, being Swiss ducks they do not understand English.) But today they were hanging back and even when we started throwing bread into the water they remained still. Even Boychen noticed and asked me why they weren’t coming.

Then I heard it, a squawking, a yipping, a howling almost like a cat, more squawking. On the other side of the pond I saw three foxes flashing through the underbrush. More squawking. Boychen and I went to investigate but were hampered by the fact that I was pulling him on a pedal tractor, and the pedals were squeaking. We saw one fox again, but never did find the scene of whatever it was that happened. I’m assuming the foxes succeeding in killing a duck.

Then at lunch time I picked the Small Boy up from Kindergarten. The kids were all outside already, bundled up in their winter clothes and heading into the playground with the teaching apprentice who is spending this week in Small Boy’s classroom. They were hanging up a bird house or bird feeder. Suddenly two birds of prey – I think they were red kites but it happened fast and I’m not good at distinguishing between the kites and the buzzards that also live around here – fluttered and swooped and one of them nabbed a bird and flew away. They were about ten feet away from the kids. Small Boy went running after it, yelling “Hey, Vogel, los lo! Los lo!!” (Hey, bird, let it go! Let go!) but predator and prey were gone.

They boys know about nature. They know that animals eat other animals. They know that things die and they know that things get killed. I’m not entirely sure they needed such a close-up display though.

Bird foot

January 5th, 2011

The boys and I went into the woods this morning to feed the ducks. On the way, in the middle of the path, we came upon a pile of black feathers and, upon closer inspection, a complete bird’s foot. Small Boy immediately asked if he could keep the foot; he’s “always wanted one.” I said sure, he can have the foot. It’s funny: R is the one who grew up on a farm but he’s reluctant to bring into the house all the birds’ nests and feathers and spotted cracked bird eggs we find in the woods. I’m the one who says sure, take the foot. Small Boy picked it up and walked along a bit, and we wondered if it was the fox that got the bird – I think it was a blackbird – or one of the kites or buzzards that live in the woods. Small Boy held the foot carefully and said “I’m sad for the bird because it had to die. But I’m glad I found the foot.”

I love that he thinks the bird foot is cool and not gross. I love that he takes a moment to be sad for the bird. I love the way he is part big boy and part small boy, part crazy wild kid and part sensitive soul. The kind of boy who thinks a bird foot is totally cool, but kind of sad.

A happy ending

December 31st, 2010

I just saw my brother-in-law J head off for a ride on his chestnut horse, the one that has been limping for months, the one that’s been lying down to sleep, the one that J hasn’t let out in the pasture all winter. He has been walking him, gently, with a firm grip on the halter, around the farm for – I can’t remember how long: since the days were warm, I think. Certainly since before the snow. Since well before Thanksgiving. Vets have been out to look at him several times. I have been hoping for a good ending to this story. For my own sake, that I do not have to explain to the boys about putting animals down. For the boys’ sake, because they are attached to the horses, but for Boychen especially, who is crazy about them. For J’s sake, because he loves that horse.

They just headed out, slowly, into the dusk, with light-reflecting bands wrapped around the legs of both man and horse. They just headed out, towards the woods; towards, hopefully, a happy ending.

The Good Shepherd

December 20th, 2010

Boychen and I were coming home from the grocery store when we saw the shepherd with his flock. He was driving the last of them them across the street. His pack donkey was already in the new field with one of the dogs, the other dog was working the stragglers across the road. Cars had stopped. Even when the sheep cleared the road cars slowed, watched. Boychen and I pulled into a (questionable, rutted) service road that bordered the field to look at the herd.

He was a Wanderhirte, a traditional wandering shepherd who even today moves his flock from field to field in search of good grass. From mid-November to March 15 – a time when much agricultural land in this region is at rest – the shepherds have the right to graze their herds where they can find good feed. Perhaps a dozen or so Wanderhirte still criss-cross Switzerland, summering in the Alps, coming down into the Mittleland in search of grass over the winter months. His herd was maybe 150 sheep, but I’m bad at judging these things. They were half-way out into the field, I didn’t have a good camera, so you’ll have to take it on faith: fifteen kilometers outside the capital city one of the last wandering shepherds in Switzerland  tends his flock.

(If you can read German, I found a profile of a Wanderhirte here.)