Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Farmhouse

Mark spotted it first, as we drove by on the way to look at another place. It was one of those beautiful old brick farmhouses, two-story, with a big front porch, decorative contrasting white brick trim and tall windows, arranged in threes and rounded at the top. There were several huge maple trees in the front yard. We instantly fell in love, and knew that this was the place to raise our children-Jon, 6, and Annie, 4. We spent the first night there in the living room in sleeping bags,with a cooler and a little tv. It felt a little like camping out. We wandered from room to room excitedly, wondering if we would ever be able to fill all of the rooms, accustomed as we were to our little rented ranch house. I will never forget how it felt to wake up there the next morning. From our bedroom window, we could see acres of blueberry bushes. I can still see their red branches against the snow in my mind. I have a wreath made of them hanging in my present home to remind me of them.
The house had a long history: a plaque set into the front wall announced the original owner's name and the date, 1884. We learned through relatives of this family that they had come from the Netherlands and built this house, raising seven children (two who died in childhood) and becoming the largest dairy farm in that area, bringing milk from house to house on a wagon, ladling it out to their customers into wooden buckets. One family member said that he remembered the day that the indoor plumbing was installed. Mark and I cherished all of these stories and felt lucky to be there, to extend the house's history as a new family. We worked hard, fixing it up. I rag-painted, stenciled, wallpapered, stained, scrubbed, sewed curtains and found antiques. Mark mowed, trimmed, weeded, repaired, shined up old brass hinges, fixed old doorknobs, rebuilt the old front porch. He built a treehouse and ladder for the kids. He made a sign for above the garage: OUR HOUSE IS A VERY, VERY, VERY FINE HOUSE, WITH TWO CATS IN THE YARD...." The kids settled into their own rooms and played in the yard and rode bikes and walked to the pond across the street and picked blueberries and rode bikes to Bill's Greenhouse and rode on the sled, pulled by Mark on the tractor, on the winter streets. They climbed the ladder to the tree house and huddled inside (until the ladder got stolen).
I remember still all of the places on the old wood floors that creaked, especially in the dining room, and I remember how the stairs sounded. The shelves in the closets and the kitchen cupboards were thick old wood. The kitchen counters were crafted of old wood. Mark refinished them and oiled them til they shone.
The glass in the windows had bubbles in it-old glass, made long ago. We are quite sure that there was a ghost upstairs-a woman, maybe watching over those sick children so long ago. We always scurried past that hallway, and it was years before we talked about it. The garage had old, old wood stored in it, and old bricks, and old glass bottles. There were the most beautiful lilac bushes in the backyard, and so many tall and stately evergreens in which the kids played and built forts. Annie climbed the tree by the garage and sat on the roof. Jon and his friend Joey played baseball. The basement had three rooms and was a scary, dark place that took some getting used to. I remember that musty smell.
One freezing February day, we started painting a mural on the grand old plaster wall that spanned the length of the back porch. We painted a picture of our house and the big maple tree in the front yard. The leaves of the tree are turning yellow and just beginning to fall. Our cat Fluffy is sitting on the branch. The beautiful old bricks are carefully painted, one by one. Our wonderful dog, Goldie, is watching over us all.
Somehow, it is that painting that looks the most true and real to me when I think about our life together there. There was this beautiful old place, and it somehow was waiting for us, and the grass was green and the trees were tall, and I know that our voices still ring in the walls like the mice that scurried there in the winter. I know that the love we shared there still warms those rooms, though we have been away for over a decade now. I close my eyes and I am right there, once again, always.

Friday kids

On Fridays, I have a class of eight kids who are in a special program for the autistically impaired. There are seven boys and one girl, and they range in age from six or seven up to eleven. I have known most of them for a few years now. They used to be "mainstreamed" with the general population, sitting close to their aides, and not particpating much. Now, I see them as a separate group: eight kids and three aides for 3o minutes, gathered around a big table.
My first few lesson plans failed miserably as I groped to understand what would work with this population. I realized pretty quickly that a lot of what I relied on with my other lessons was not going to fly with this bunch. For example, you can't read a book to autistic kids and then expect them to be inspired by it and create art that reflects that. You can't present material or themes, like a video about fish, and say, "Ok, now, let's all make some fish of our own!" Slowly I am learning that the kids are most engaged when they can spend some time playing with the materials and the media unimpeded by my directions, guidance (beyond the bare minimum) or expectations. The challenge is to let go, let go, let go, just like it always is.
For example, an early success involved cutting long strips of black paper, and gluing it onto white paper. Cutting is a laborious process for some of these guys, some of whom have poor coordination and next to no hand strength. For others, it comes easier. Soem cut strip after strip and glued with varying amounts of white in between; others crowded the black strips together, overlapping the thick and thin, making textures and depth. They were beautiful, and I thought of Franz Kline. Earthenware clay is also a winner: one of my guys loves to slap and hit the clay, while another loves to flatten it and then feel the smooth contours created by his fingers; our lone girl loves to make birthday cakes, adding candle after candle; still another, who is a tiny, fragile little boy, pokes little mouse holes with his fingers and grins with obvious delight. During a recent painting session, one boy created the work above. I can tell you that the marks he painted were carefully executed. He worked carefully and with deliberation, choosing colors, placing his marks, choosing his brushstrokes. I think it is quite beautiful.
There is also a consistency of style and manner of exploration that seems to cut across media.
I am eager to recieve the next visual communication from them all.
It is not surprising that this class, of all of my thirty per week, is the one most likely to fill me with gratitude, with wonder, with joy, with great affection for this bunch of originals. I can hear them coming up the hall: hoots, giggles, shuffling of feet, a strange little barking shout. They show me, in their own way, who they are. They remind me that we all are just this different, just this unique, just this deserving of respect and acceptance as one of God's creatures on the earth.