Tuesday, November 27, 2007


And now we drive south in cold, crisp Sunday morning sunshine. Charlie fusses in the back seat and the children snap, tired from a hectic week. Chapter One, Book Two of the Merlin series fills the car in surround sound but it is a distant drone to me. Instead, snatches of conversation roll through my head. Bits and pieces that people shared of themselves, strands of kindness and talents and strengths all woven together to make a blanket of memories that I wrap myself in here in the passenger seat.

Clink. Clink. “I have a toast to make.” She stood up at the table and we all burst into laughter at the sight of her with a beer bottle in each hand. She’s not much of a drinker. “I just want to thank you Mr and Mrs. M. for bringing me here to spend this week with you. You have no idea how special you all are to me and how much I needed you.” She said this through laughter and tears. Both emotions spill from her simultaneously, always.

“It’s no harder raising nine children than it is to raise three,” Dad proclaimed from the head of the dinner table.

A brother leaned in until he and Dad were almost nose to nose. “That,” the brother declared in the voice he saves for delivering strong opinions, “is bullshit.” His choice of words was so unexpected at this dinner of good food and good manners that the occupants in the nearby seats exploded into loud, gasping laughter…Dad perhaps the loudest of all.

“We’re having a hard time with him,” they shared with me, as we were lost among a herd of relatives hiking down a gravel path on a warm-enough-to-shed-jackets afternoon. I listened to their story and was impressed by their courage and their willingness to set aside pride in exchange for humility…to do whatever it takes to create peace within their little one.

As we hurried back to the cars on the same walk, the sun’s warmth disappeared never to return for the rest of our visit. I walked with another sister while some of my children pushed the stroller carrying her baby into a ditch and another one of my children rescued her. “I have enormous respect for your parents. They did a wonderful job raising nine productive human beings.” I thought on those words for the remainder of the week. It's good to see family through objective eyes.

“Come on, Jen. Let’s run suicides!” Two sisters went out into the freezing dark with a dozen children behind them to run and tag and play. They came back in and put coats on the little ones before they caught pneumonia and went out again and came back red cheeked and laughing a long time later.

We sat side by side at the counter in the kitchen and the conversation turned to life. “It’s been a hard year,” he said and for a moment the easygoing persona that he customarily wears was pushed aside. Tears welled in his eyes and I was overcome by their sudden appearance.

“I’m sorry.” I reached out to him and found that I had tears too. It hurts to see the suffering of one that you love.

He ran into the fridge with a bang and discovered that there was a handle. What’s this? A handle? The fridge at home doesn’t have a handle. I wonder what’s in here. He tugged with all his might and the door popped open. His eyes scanned for treasure. Butter. That’s what I want! “Butter!” he cried and pulled out a stick and plunked it into my hands.

“That’s right. It’s butter. Do you want it back?”

He held out his hands and grinned up at me. I gave the butter back and he returned it to it’s home on the fridge door. He shut the door and opened it again. The butter was still there. “Yeah! Butter!” The game was repeated again and again. “Yeah! Butter!”

“Sometimes I think he compares himself to some of your brothers and sees how successful they are and somehow feels that he doesn’t quite measure up,” she told me as we set up an impromptu sandwich shop on a woodpile. We were smearing peanut butter and jelly on bread and doling out cheese sticks to a hungry mob in the middle of the woods.

“Yeah. I understand. I feel like that too. After all, I don’t do anything all that great. I’m just a mom.”

“You do?! That surprises me. I guess we all struggle with comparisons, don’t we? But then he looks at the life that he has with us. He’s a great dad and family comes first and that is what really matters. He’s a great success in the things that count.”

She’s right. He is a great husband and dad. He’s wonderful at the things that matter. And I was glad myself for her reminder.

“We asked the bus driver to back up so we could capture this shot.” A beautiful African bird filled the screen. We were looking at pictures of Tanzania where a brother has spent the last two years. Zebras, elephants, computers, children, schools and birds marched in succession across the screen. Lots and lots of birds.

“He told me that one of his sisters loves birds so we made sure we took lots of bird pictures,” his girlfriend said. I was astounded by their thoughtfulness, not only with the photos but also with how they went out of their way to be kind to John, the oldest grandchild. The one who didn’t quite fit with the massive pack of four to seven year olds. “Do you mind if we take John with us to the store? He was just wandering around outside by himself. Do you think he might like to spend a little time with us?” This youngest brother of mine is my parents’ magnum opus. There is not a kinder, more generous spirit in the bunch.

The baby grinned at John and Charlie while rocking, rocking on his papa’s lap. He leaned over to make closer eye contact. The smallest cousin. “When I have a kid, it’s going to be the best baby,” his papa said, when this baby was nothing but a thought. It appears he was right. The baby was passed around to eager, waiting arms. He was snuggled and kissed and in return he smiled and cooed and he did not cry. Ever.

Food arrived by the carload at the house, all of it neatly labeled, Merchant. We laughed out loud at this butchering of our last name. It has been so since the beginning of time. It was good food though, all thoughtfully provided by my parents. They thought of it all. Everything we needed was provided before we needed to run to the store or search through the cupboards. Such generosity.

And now we drive south. Thanks to all of you for the memories. May it not be so long until the next time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Under a Starry Sky

Thanksgiving week has come and gone. All emotions found their place and presented themselves at the appropriate time as they always do. Excitement and anticipation came early in the week. Enjoyment and connection stretched from end to end. Exhaustion and eagerness to return to familiar routine showed up toward the end along with incongruent regret. Regret that the curtain must come down on seven days of delight and surprises. So predictable are these emotions with their entrances and exits, are they not?

The goodbyes rang out at regular intervals in the last hours of our last night together. So many goodbyes. Farewells made of hugs and tears and laughter... and more tears. The house wren, who marks twelfth hour on the kitchen clock, chirped midnight and the small party of eight laughed at the aviary announcement and then disbanded.

The last goodbyes were the teariest and most heartbreaking...and most beautiful. Three went to bed and five went out into the frosty night under a black velvet sky. Two stood on the porch to wave and three picked their way carefully down icy steps toward icy cars. But on the way, all stopped for a moment to look up in wonder at the constellations. The Pleiades waltzed forward in formation. We shivered and watched and then hurried to heat cold cars and to burrow under warm covers. A majestic ending to a week of reunion and chaos and memories made.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Going Home

Two suburbans rumble toward New York. One shivers its way down out of the Cascade Mountains. My sister is at the wheel. Four kids play “Cows in the Cemetary” and “Scavenger Hunt” in the back seat. The fifth rides shotgun with an atlas and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in her lap. They sing along to Willie Nelson and Taj Mahal as they drive among the western pines and out into the fields of brown grass under the wide open prarie sky.
My sister tossed a few changes of clothes, a cooler and some dishes behind the back seat. The kids grabbed a handful of books and toys to keep themselves on their forty hour trip eastward. They press across the country. Each night, for three nights, after the sun sets, nine-year-old Maddie thumbs through the Hitchhiker’s Guide in search of somewhere to lay six sleepy heads.

The second suburban is ours. We head north from Smallville through nearly empty countryside in an autumn just past it’s prime. Gold and red leaves, bare branches and evergreens brush against the blue, blue heavens. Our vehicle is not big enough for all the claptrap we might need so we haul along a trailer full of boots and winter coats. Five bikes are chained to the trailer in the event that our soft southern children want to brave the frosty New York air and peddle around in the grandparents’ driveways. The albuterol, heating pad and nebulizer are packed "just in case." The kids put together a laundry basket of library books and filled another with toys and the cross stitch samplers they are working on. The Lost Years of Merlin and The Prarie Home Companion take turns in the CD player. I read the directions Stuart printed out from Google Maps. We pull into the hotel in Cincinnati where we have had reservations for a week.

We’re so different, my sister and I, but best friends anyway. Tomorrow, in Cleveland, our children will greet each other as if only a day or two have passed since the last time they rode bikes and played Barbies together. In reality, it’s been two years. We’ll caravan to New York, the children all mixed up together between our two vehicles.

And then the brothers will come, all seven of them, from near and far and farther, with wives and girlfriends and children. We will delight in meeting the newest additions to the family. We siblings will laugh at the memories of who we were when we all lived together under one roof and we will share bits of the people that we have become and the lives that we live now amidst the chaos that comes when a family of eleven burgeons into a family of forty-one.

I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving with your families.

(I'll post a few pictures of the crew sometime next week when I have a few minutes.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"B" Good to Yourself

I became serious about health early this summer while on a quest for more energy. (Falling asleep in the middle of the day is a recipe for disaster with a houseful of kids!) I was excited to find out that Darlene is hosting Live Well Wednesdays. I will be sharing what I have been learning from time to time.

I was at the doctors last week for a physical and was shocked by the health of the people sitting in the waiting room with me. Men and women came in carrying LARGE ziplock bags FULL of prescription bottles. They shuffled in, their weight pressing down on canes and walkers. They squeezed in. I live in a state that boasts one of the highest rates of obesity in our nation. The size of the patients in the waiting room did not dispute this statistic. We are a nation weighed down by crippling, degenerative health problems brought on largely, I believe, by what we eat.

Coronary heart disease, allergies, exhaustion, anorexia, depression, anxiety…Do any of these sound familiar? They all have at their root a vitamin B deficiency. We look at the labels of our foods and ask ourselves, “How can this be? Vitamin B is in everything.”

Did you know that whole-wheat flour has 21 nutrients plus fiber? White flour has been stripped of between 30 and 98 percent of each of these nutrients and in their place only iron, thiamin (B-1), riboflavin (B-2),niacin (B-3) and folic acid are added back in. If you are a sugar consumer, you further complicate the B issue because you rapidly burn through B-1 and B-2.

The story gets more complicated. Even bread made from whole wheat can be fairly low in nutrition for several reasons. Whole wheat flour loses 90 percent of it’s nutrients within 72 hours from the time it is ground. Also, all grains and legumes contain phytic acid in their outer layer. Phytic acid binds with calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc in the intestinal tract and prevents their absorption. This leads to a whole host of different health issues beyond the scope of this post.

I have a bowl of six cups of fresh ground flour, mixed with two tablespoons of vinegar and two cups of water on my counter. This process of soaking the grain for twelve to twenty-four hours before baking with it neutralizes most of the phytic acid. It also makes the dough supple and easy to work with. My bread comes out lighter and more tender when I take the time to prepare the flour this way.

This is not always practical. So even though we prepare almost all of our grain products by first grinding our own flour and then soaking it, we also take vitamin B supplements. Lauren takes a time-released B-Complex. She also takes 500mg of Pantothenic Acid (B-5) several times a day. Pet dander and changes in the weather bring on vicious attacks of sneezing, watery eyes and a runny nose. We have found that B-5 calms these attacks better than any antihistamine she has tried. (Even prescription strength.) Stuart takes B-Complex for heart health. He also takes sublingual B-12 under his tongue in the afternoon for extra energy and is able to work through the rest of the day without the afternoon sleepies. It works way better than coffee. I take a B-Complex for even energy levels all day. It feels good to have energy again.

For more information see Nourishing Traditons by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig. This is a cookbook that studies the whole food diets and methods of food preparation used by isolated people groups around the world. It is one of the most fascinating books that I own. I use a few of the recipes but love the book for the abundant commentary that surrounds the recipes.

Sue Gregg has a series of cookbooks that adapt well to the Nourishing Traditons way of preparing food. There are a few recipes available on her website to try. I especially like her Yeast Breads, Lunches and Snacks and More than Breakfast Cookbooks.

Living well is hard work but the rewards are great. God made us to live well on the whole foods that He created for us. I am having so much fun passing on good eating habits to my children. They will be blessed for a lifetime by what we are learning and practicing together today.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Bible Time: How it works at Our House

Janelle asked me weeks ago to write a post about what our Bible time looks like. Here it is.

I think too often Christian moms cling to a perfect picture of how Bible time should play out and feel a sense of failure if expectations are not met. Dad should lead. The children should be quiet but enthusiastic. Devotions should happen every day. I was one of those. I waited for years for Stuart to take the initiative in this area. It hasn't happened yet. He's a great living example of a godly man, husband and father but Bible study is not his strong suit. I have learned to be content with this. So instead I read Bible with the kids Monday through Friday and it looks like this:

It’s eleven o’clock. I’ve done my morning workout and spent time preparing for our Bible lesson. I’ve read through the portion of Matthew that we are covering today and thought about it but honestly a whole lot doesn’t come to me. Then I spend some time at Bible.org and study sermons and commentaries. The Bible comes to life this way for me and after I have gone through a commentary on the chapter and looked for additional historical information and looked stuff up in The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, I can begin making other connections that I haven’t come across in my studies. This happens frequently during our discussions around the table.

The kids are working on their morning chores. Some are in pajamas; some are dressed; all need their hair brushed. Bread is rising on the counter and Lauren and I are setting almond coffee cake, butter, grapefruit, plates and glasses of water on the table.

“Claire, I’ve called you three times to get the napkins out! Faith? Faith?! We need silverware. Where are you?!”

Eventually everyone straggles into the sunroom and coffee cake is distributed. The chatter is childish and loud. The room has terrible acoustics and these child noises are magnified to the point of being intolerable.


The children gobble and dribble and spill. I eat fast, push aside my dishes, brush crumbs off my Bible and open to Matthew. “Do you remember what we talked about yesterday? Why is Matthew the first book in the New Testament?”

Claire sidles out of her chair and gets out her coloring book and crayons and sits on the floor.

“I know Mom.” This from Lauren who always pays attention.

“I know you know. I want to know if Claire knows. Do you remember why Matthew comes first, Claire?”

She looks up from her coloring book, “He had bad brothers.”

Oy! Everything relates to Joseph with this kid!

“No, silly!” John is indignant. “Matthew is the trailer hitch book. He uses lots of Old Testament verses. His book is perfect for connecting the Old Testament with the New. He was writing to the Jewish people and was trying to get them to understand that Jesus fufilled many prophecies that were written in the Old Testament.”

“That’s great John. I’m impressed.”

“Can somebody build me a ramp? I need a ramp.” Charlie makes it through about three minutes of Bible time before he runs off to play.

“Faith go with him and build the ramp and then come right back.” They wander off to the playroom.

Yesterday, I read straight through Matthew 1-17. We contrasted Matthew’s and Luke’s geneologies. Today we look at the people listed in Matthew’s. Claire fidgets. Faith needs to be reminded to leave her block building and return to the table.. Kids interrupt for more coffee cake. Water spills and children rush to get a towel to clean it up but eventually we discuss the women listed in this geneology. We discuss how all five are outcasts. I find their stories and read relevant portions aloud. We talk about how three are Gentiles. “Isn’t that awesome, guys, that even at the very beginning of Gospel message God lets us know that the good news of salvation is not just for the Jews but for everybody? Matthew includes person after person in this gospel who is on the edge of society, people who are looked down on, outcasts. Why do you suppose he does that?”

“What’s an outcast?”

“I just told you. Somebody who is looked down on. Somebody that everybody else thinks is unimportant or worthless. Do you understand?”

“I guess. Can we be done yet?”

“In just a minute, Claire. There’s some important stuff in this section.”

“I know. Matthew was a tax collector and tax collectors were looked down on during Jesus’ time.”

“That’s right, Faith. That’s exactly right. So as we read through this Gospel, keep your ears open and be listening for stories about the outcasts, the people nobody liked.”

“Are we done now !”

“Yes, we’re done now, Faith. Clear the table and get your after breakfast chores done and then it’s time for individual lessons.”

We will read over this section for two more days. Tomorrow we’ll point out all the kings. We spent a year in Kings and Chronicles so this will be good review to see what the kids remember. I’ll emphasize that none of these people were perfect. We’ll go through the list of names and see if we can remember the shortcomings of the people in the list.

The next day we’ll talk about how Matthews personality is reflected in the geneology. It makes sense that a numbers whiz would divide the geneology into three equal groups of fourteen. I’ll explain that Matthew’s geneology shows us that in spite of the chaos of the individual lives that make up the list, God is able to work his perfect orderly plan through ordinary people. I’ll tell the kids that A record of the geneology of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham can be translated The genesis of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham. I’ll ask them, “What do you think about when you hear the word genesis? Now doesn’t it make sense that John chose to begin his gospel, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ? They are really both saying the same thing!”

That will be the end of Matthew Chapter 1:1-17. Four days spend with Matthew’s geneology. Bible takes about twenty minutes to a half hour. We often have one lesson at breakfast and another at lunch. Interruptions are a given. The little ones get bored but their minds are stretched and around age seven they begin to understand and participate with more enthusiasm. If I only had little ones (seven and under) I would simply read through the The Child’s Story Bible like I did with Lauren and John. Perhaps this is really what I need to do with Claire and Charlie but Faith (7) is definitely ready for this type of Bible study. She begs me to read Bible at every meal. For now this is the way we learn. For now. But nothing ever stays the same with children.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Homeschooler of the Week

Today I am at The Heart of the Matter talking about what homeschooling looks like for my family. Stop over for a visit.

Please ignore the fact that the picture accompanying the post is over two years old. It's the last relatively decent picture that we have with all of us together. It's hard to get a photo of seven people with everyone's eyes open! (Now I know you'll head over to visit, if only out of curiosity.)