Early early this morning while I was still snuggled in my bed, our second child flew the coop. All day she’s been driving north to Massachusetts and her new job as a student worker at a dressage barn—
Let me back up.
At the end of last semester, she signed up on some sort of horse-related message board thingy where people looking for jobs post their information and people looking for workers post openings. She got a handful of queries from farms in Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, etc, but nothing came of them.
And then she got a query from a farm in Massachusetts. She responded, they responded, and within a couple weeks she’d had three phone interviews and gotten the job.
She was over the moon.
The place sounded pretty incredible — put-together and professional — so the first week of January, she, my husband, and I headed up to see the place for ourselves.
It was our first road trip since the pandemic and it felt disconcerting, like we were doing something illegal and dangerous. At one point, we passed two hearses, a bunch of ambulances, and a huge tank of nitrogen with steam billowing out of the ice-covered pipe at the top and suddenly I had the eerie sensation that I’d been plopped into the middle of a dystopian novel in which we were fleeing north to Canada in the midst of a pandemic, can you imagine? Uh, yes, actually. I sort of can. (And then the next day on our drive home, there was the insurrection at the capitol which only intensified the otherworldly feeling.)
We arrived at the farm at dusk. An assistant trainer gave us a tour of the facilities, and then we hung out at one end of the arena and watched the various riding lessons. Since the trainers and clients were miked, the whole place was weirdly quiet, just the muffled sound of horses’ hooves and the gentle murmur of conversation.
She’ll work six days a week caring for clients’ horses: medicating, feeding, and exercising them, as well as taking them back and forth to their paddocks (they said she’ll end up walking about twelve miles daily). As a student worker, she’s assigned to work for one of the trainers: she’ll warm up client horses for him pre-lessons, and do other horse-related tasks that go with that (I know nothing).
In exchange, she gets room and board (she’ll be staying in the farm owner’s home), a monthly stipend, and dressage training — because she doesn’t have a horse of her own, she’ll be training with one of the owner’s horses, which she got to meet.
The job is everything my daughter could wish for, and then some. By the time we wandered out of the barn and into the cold dark of early evening, she was practically vibrating with excitement.
And then we drove home and the countdown for her move date began. Almost within minutes of learning she’d gotten the job, she’d started packing, and now she began gearing up to move out in earnest.
She leased Ellie to a family that we know through church. Our younger son is buying her chickens and goats from her, as well as taking over her job as barn manager at the neighboring farm and moving into her vacated room (he’s overjoyed). She made granola to take along (never mind that they provide all her food — she wants her granola) and bought some more winter clothes. She got her Covid test. My husband fixed up the beater car (it needed a new clutch, inspection, new tires, etc), and then she backed it right up to the foot of the porch steps, ready to load up and fly north.
I’m sad to see her go, of course — and her departure hit my husband particularly hard — but, for me, at least, that sadness is far outweighed by my happiness and excitement at seeing her land her dream job.
I can’t wait to hear her stories.
P.S. Mid-afternoon, she texted that she’d arrived safely — huge exhale — and this evening we exchanged photos of our suppers and then she facetimed me from her cozy nest of a bed. Let the fun begin!
I’m a long-time reader of Milva’s blog, so when she agreed to be interviewed, I was thrilled. Even though I don’t know her know her, for years I’ve counted her as a key person in my little circle of homeschooling mentors. Her insights — in all their earthy, practical, and gracious glory — both ground and inspire me.
Hi, everyone! I’m Milva McDonald, my husband is Glenn Dickson, and we live in Massachusetts.
My oldest, Justine Buckley, is 35 and also lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two boys (2.5 and 9 months). She works in a supervisory capacity as a behavior specialist at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.
My 33-year-old son Eric McDonald lives in Montreal with his wife and their newborn daughter who arrived this past New Year’s Eve. He’s a full-time folk musician, playing mostly Celtic, although the pandemic has turned that upside down!
My third is Claire Dickson, 23, graduated from college in 2019 — the spring before she enrolled, I happened to be interviewed for an article in Boston Magazine, and when they found out she was going to Harvard, they surprised us by putting her on the cover! She is now living in New York City, making music, thinking about grad school, and enjoying life.
My youngest, Abigail Dickson, 22, graduated from college in 2020 with a degree in Women and Gender Studies and a minor in theatre arts. Because of the pandemic she moved back home. She’s teaching virtual Shakespeare classes to local homeschooled kids, has joined the board of the local farmers market, and is thinking about running for office.
Why did you decide to homeschool? Like many parents, I couldn’t wait to send my kid to school. We had made financial sacrifices to move to a community with a “good” school district, but by October of Justine’s kindergarten year, the rose-colored glasses were off.
I don’t know what I’d envisioned – interactive, creative, interdisciplinary projects and lots of good books? Instead, there was busy work and Disney movies. Coloring in the lines was more important than using your mind or imagination. Worse than that, it quickly became clear that the kids were already being tracked. Justine, a people pleaser who paid close attention to the teacher and could follow directions quite well, was at the top of the pyramid. As a classroom helper I’d heard firsthand the teacher’s judgments about the other kids. When Justine started repeating them, I knew something had to give.
I started exploring options, and during that process I asked a homeschooling friend for information. (Until I’d met her when I was in my early 20s, I didn’t even know homeschooling existed, and I didn’t tell her what I really thought: that is nuts!) She handed me reading material including an essay by John Taylor Gatto called “The Crisis of Compulsory Schooling.” I read it and knew I wouldn’t send my kids to school. I call it my one and only conversion experience.
It’s really important to point out, though, that while my impetus to homeschool began because of dissatisfaction with my daughter’s school experience, our continuing to homeschool had less to do with a rejection of school and more to do with the fact that homeschooling worked so well for us.
Describe your homeschool style and how it evolved. When I started homeschooling in the early 1990s, I thought we’d be doing school-at-home. That didn’t last very long. When the workbooks and assignments didn’t go well I decided to forget about them, at least for a little while, and focus on settling into our new situation and getting to know the handful of other local homeschooling families. Justine was already beginning to read, wrote voraciously with “invented spelling,” was good with numbers, and was always working on some project or other of her own. As I observed her doing deep dives into stuff that interested her, it was clear she was learning plenty, so we stuck with that unschooling approach.
Since that word has evolved and changed so much over the years (there are even “unschooling schools” now!), I call what we did “slow” homeschooling, a phrase I and a couple other parents in my homeschooling community thought of over coffee some years ago (and then I wrote a book about it). Values of slow homeschooling include trusting kids, lots of play, nature, family relationships, and connecting with the wider community.
When all the kids were home, what was the homeschool routine like? In my family, things were pretty mellow. We’d go to homeschool park day, the library, nature walks, things like that, but just as often the kids were busy engaging in some kind of pretend play, listening to story tapes (we didn’t have a TV), putting on puppet shows, making art or music, playing in the yard making fairy houses or taking care of our ducks, or whatever struck their fancy. This self-sufficiency when it came to filling their time left room for me and my husband to pursue our own work.
As they got older, the kids joined book clubs and writing groups with their homeschooling friends, played organized sports, did lots of theater and music, and generally pursued what they cared about. As teens the kids also got curious about school and academics and started enrolling in community college classes, as well as finding volunteer jobs and internships in their areas of interest.
Abby with our ducks.
What steps did they have to take to get into college? For college applications, we had to create a high school transcript. My kids had to write essays and, depending on the school, supplemental short answers or essays. The kids had to ask teachers and mentors to write recommendation letters. They had to take whatever standardized tests were required by the schools. If they felt they had materials — for example, music recordings — they wanted the admissions department to consider, they submitted them. My kids who applied to music schools had to attend auditions. Some schools did interviews, others didn’t.
The schools are looking for the same thing regardless of how the potential student was educated: they want to see how you spent your high school years, how you made use of the resources that were available to you, and (through the writing samples) get to know you a bit.
What did you do to have to meet your state’s homeschool requirements? Some people think Massachusetts’ homeschool requirements are excessive but that’s not been my experience. Homeschool oversight, which involves submitting an annual education plan including a form of evaluation — this can be test scores, dated work samples, or the most widely used, a progress report — is outlined in case law and operates at the local level. It sounds very complicated on paper but in practice it’s pretty simple. Most states have volunteer organizations to delineate their reporting requirements. I encourage any new homeschooling family to reach out to these grassroots groups for the lowdown in your state.
What were some of the challenges of homeschooling? One of the biggest challenges for me was dealing with sporadic doubts. If my kids were eschewing writing, or seemed to be terrible spellers, or had no interest in math, I’d wonder, will they be able to write? Balance their checkbook? Survive in college? Mostly these insecurities were fleeting, thanks to support from my current spouse and homeschooling community.
Apple picking: my husband and the kids (2000).
What did they say that helped you work through your worries? My husband is way more laid back than I am, and he’s not as prone to doubts or anxieties, so he was pretty much a pillar when I needed it. The community is so important because it allowed me to observe and be in relationship with kids other than my own. It was really helpful to see kids just ahead in age of mine, happy and thriving. At support group meetings or at the park, I could lay out my concerns and other parents would be there with stories, ideas, and affirmations.
Your children are from two marriages. How did you navigate homeschooling through a divorce? My older kids spent a couple of years in school after my first marriage broke up, which was hard because I couldn’t wait to start homeschooling again. It was also challenging at times to deal with an ex-partner who wasn’t always on board with homeschooling, especially since he’d been so gung-ho about it while we were married. Fortunately, the homeschooling wasn’t an issue in the divorce, just in our parenting post-divorce. It was important to me to try and respect the wishes of my kids’ father, so I definitely did things I wouldn’t have done otherwise, like enroll the kids in certain classes and hire a math tutor.
Claire, with fancy bread she made.
What did you most enjoy about homeschooling? I just loved the lifestyle. I loved the synergy of our slow homeschooling, the way it allowed us to be in tune with each other, enjoy each other’s company, learn from each other. I loved hanging out at the park with other parents while the kids played. I loved not having to enforce bedtimes or drag kids out of bed in the morning. I loved the gatherings, the field trips and folk dances and performances and potlucks. I particularly loved getting to know my kids’ idiosyncrasies and passions, and watching and supporting those passions as they grew.
What has homeschooling taught you about our culture’s view of education? Homeschooling allowed me to understand the folly of the dominant culture’s focus on testing and evaluation, especially when it comes to children. Kids need the freedom to experiment, explore, and make mistakes, all of which are essential components of learning. Without the rewards and punishments of gold stars, grades, and the like, kids are more likely to be intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to read, learn, and create.
The more I absorbed this, not just by reading or hearing about it, but by living it with my own kids, the more I was able to expand my own capacity for learning. For example, we hear all the time that making mistakes is an integral part of learning, and most of us have experienced that to some extent, but at the same time our school and cultural conditioning fixates us on being correct. Slow homeschooling helped me begin to let go of that kind of counterproductive perfectionism.
Backyard reading: Abby.
What were your main homeschooling resources? Without a doubt, our number one resource was the public library (or libraries; we went to several). That’s where we went regularly to get books, participate in programs, and even gather – most libraries have community rooms and we used them for play rehearsals, creative writing workshops, Valentine’s Day parties, and history fairs. We could also get library passes to cheaply visit museums, nature sanctuaries, historic houses, and more.
Nature was also important for us. We enjoyed walks in the woods (where I could observe my kids collecting materials for fairy houses, hunting for lady’s slippers, and munching on pine needles and exclaiming “Vitamin C!”), getting together with friends at the beach or the lake, or climbing mountains.
Our local support group was a major resource – weekly park days were essential, allowing parents to connect and brainstorm while kids engaged in free play.
Claire and Abby, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Tell us more about how your local homeschooling support group. The first support group I joined in 1991 had fewer than a dozen families. We created a paper newsletter every month and got together often. There were no classes or other offerings for homeschoolers, so we created our own. We organized field trips, put on plays, gathered for book clubs and science fairs and math groups, went to the beach, for walks in the woods – you name it.
It’s ironic, but it seems to me that the exponential growth in the number of homeschoolers has in some ways made it more difficult to find community. When I started out, we needed each other, and we stuck together.
Do you have any resources to recommend? For homeschoolers in Massachusetts, AHEM — Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, a group that I helped to found — helps navigate the state’s homeschool requirements. Also, they offer a page of curated recommendations for books here.
My friend Sophia Sayigh and I wrote Unschoolers, a series of fictionalized vignettes about homeschooling families. Every family is different, and even in the same family every day is different!
When my kids were younger, I got a huge amount of support from the Growing Without Schooling magazines that came to my mailbox every month (they’re archived here).
Abigail as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing
How did your homeschooling evolve when the kids reached their teen years? I wouldn’t say there was much of a shift. The play-centered lives we’d always lived continued, but the kids’ interests began to crystallize.
My son Eric developed a major interest in animals and started volunteering at the local science museum’s live animal center and doing wildlife care at an Audubon sanctuary. At the same time his interest in folk music blossomed and he hung out at the local folk music club, performing at open mikes and making connections.
Claire, who had always loved singing, developed an obsession with jazz and spent hours learning about and performing it. She started entering competitions and enjoyed some amazing opportunities, including going to the Grammy Awards and becoming a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
When Abigail was thirteen, she decided she wanted to play major Shakespearean roles. Fat chance for a young girl, right? Undeterred, she started her own youth theater company and went like the blazes for a few years, mounting more than a dozen Shakespearean productions starting with “Hamlet” in our backyard and simultaneously offering a fantastic resource for her homeschooled peers and the community. One of my favorite stories regarding that time is when a neighbor told me his four-year-old kid got up the day after the show and said, “So, are we going to see some Shakespeare today?”
Some other involvements: my daughters were co-founders of the Boston Area Homeschoolers’ Queer-Straight Alliance, which we think may have been one of the only homeschooler-specific LGBTQA+ groups in the country. Claire interned for Elizabeth Warren’s first senate campaign and spent several election days as a poll watcher even though she couldn’t yet vote. She also volunteered for The Samaritans and worked as a project assistant for a psychologist at Mass General Hospital. Abby became a stage management intern for a professional theater company at 15, a job usually reserved for college students, and continued to work with that company in various capacities for several years.
I don’t think I could begin to tell you everything my kids did when they were teens. I’m sure I don’t even know about all of them!
Abby, after directing ASP’s first-ever youth-led production.
I’m impressed by their initiative! I saw my role as seeking resources and opportunities that might interest my kids, then giving them the choice about whether they wanted to take advantage of them, but just as often they found their own opportunities.
Funny story: when Eric was a teen and I was in a tandem nursing fog, I remember him handing me forms to sign related to an opportunity he wanted to pursue at the science museum, but it wasn’t until the end of the summer when I got an invitation to an event — a celebration of the program in which Eric been participating — that I realized he’d landed a coveted summer internship completely on his own steam.
Eric, wildlife care.
What advice do you have for parents who are considering homeschooling their children? *Avoid dumping a ton of cash into a curriculum or other resources at the outset. *Give as much time and space as you are able for “deschooling,” the adjustment period after leaving school. *Build a support network. *As you’re searching for resources, don’t forget you can create your own. What are you good at? What does your kid love? Don’t get discouraged if something you organize flops, just try again! *The decision to homeschool is not set in stone. If it doesn’t work for your family, you can always go back to school. *Be flexible. What works one day, or month, or year, might not work the next. *Give your kids a voice in the process. *Prioritize play.
And remember: Don’t forget to have fun! Before you know it, your kids will be grown.
Me and the kids (2015).
Thank you so much, Milva, and congratulations on the new grandbaby!!
To the rest of you: check out this gorgeous article in Mothering magazine written by Milva and her daughter Justine about the births of Milva’s younger two children. Reading it, I cried. (ALSO, the midwife’s quote, “Long is not wrong” applies to so many things, including how people learn. . . and now I have a new motto!)
Fun Thing Number One: A Book I discovered Fish In A Tree in a list of recommended books for middle schoolers when I was searching for a pleasurable read-alouds with quality writing for my read alouds with the younger two.
The book’s about regular people with ordinary lives and real issues, told without all the angsty sensationalism — sex, violence, abuse, etc — which seems to crop up in so many books. Not that I’m against books with those topics, but tackling a heavy read at the end of the day when we’re tired isn’t much fun, and bedtime reads, I think, should be all about the fun — something we can all look forward to, or, at a bear minimum, at least don’t dread.
Son: Gimme the book! I wanna hold the book! Daughter: NO! I was the one who couldn’t read until I was thirteen so I get to hold the book!
ANYWAY. The book was a smash hit, the kind that made me ignore the chapter divisions and plow right through. I even cried, which cracked my kids up because it’s not a sad book. My older daughter read it on her own, too, and loved it, and I recommended it to a friend — she told me that she started it as a read aloud with her son but then he got impatient with her for not reading it as often as he wanted and finished it on his own.
Fun Thing Number Two: A Conversation Here’s a conversation that went down the other night between me — I was laying on the sofa feeling mildly punk and wishing for tea — and my husband who’d come over to chat with me.
Me, to my husband: Aw, thank you for making me tea. I didn’t even need to ask. So sweet.
My husband: I didn’t make you tea. I asked if you wanted me to make you tea.
Me: No, you didn’t.
My husband, voice rising: You didn’t tell me to make you tea! I said you should drink some tea.
Me, lying: I thought you made me tea.
My husband: Do you want me to make you tea?
Me: Yes, please.
And then our older daughter exploded. YOU GUYS. Your conversations are like roundabouts!
Now whenever my husband and I have one of our rapid-fire, nonsensical, exchanges, my older daughter yells “ROUNDABOUT.” She’s not wrong.
Fun Thing Number Three: A Good TV Show (Or Two) After I finished watching Schitt’s Creek with my husband — my second time; his first (and now he recommends it to everyone) — we started two new shows: Community (Netflix) and Ted Lasso (AppleTV).
I heard about Community — an older comedy about life at a community college — from a couple friends, and I kept reading about Ted Lasso on the internets.
Turns out, both shows are smartly funny and have — Ted Lasso, in particular — a hefty dose of genuine goodwill and decency. Both my husband and I are thoroughly enjoying them, something that ought not be taken for granted since, for us, agreeing on a show is a rare occurance.
Final seal of approval: the other day my husband made a bold and uncharacteristically perky announcement. “I have a new role model,” he said. “Ted Lasso!”
And then he did a giddy little shoulder shimmy, I kid you not.
And that, my friends, is about as near a rave review as you’ll ever get from my husband.
Fun Thing Number Four: A Recipe Hack I recently discovered an apple pie recipe that called for apple cider reduction: boil a cup of cider down to about two tablespoons of tart-sweet, intensely apple-y syrup to add to apple pie filling.
While you can’t detect the syrup in the pie outright, it adds a depth of flavor — “the x-factor,” one of my Magpie co-workers calls it — similar to adding chocolate to beef chili, or coffee to chocolate cake. It’s really quite brilliant, I think.
The cider reduction lasts for weeks (months?) in the fridge, so if you decide to make it, consider reducing a quart or two of cider. It boils down rather quickly, and then you’re all set for a whole winter’s worth of apple pies.
Every year we make a ham for Christmas, and then every year after Christmas I decide to make ham and bean soup with the scraps but, because I’ve never bothered to nail down a recipe, I end up frantically casting about for a recipe. What I cobble together is, more often than not, decidedly mediocre.
But this year, the soup turned out dee-LISH-ous, and I was like, “That’s IT. I’m taking notes. This one’s going in my files.” BANG-BANG (the sound of me nailing down a recipe).
The original recipe called for navy beans but when I got home from the store I discovered I’d mispurchased Great Northern. Now, looking back, I think one of the reasons we may have liked this soup so much is because I used Great Northern beans — they’re bigger and creamier — and everyone (even the non-bean fans!) gobbled it right up.
Our ham bone was picked pretty clean so I added two cups of chopped, leftover ham.
In the above photo (on Day Two of the soup), the kale looks darker and the soup creamier — the beans have begun to break down — than it was on Day One, but it was equally delicious both days.
1 pound dried Great Northern (or navy) beans 1 ham bone 1 large onion, chopped 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 cups chopped ham 6 cloves garlic, minced 2 carrots, peeled and diced 2 stalks celery, diced 2 teaspoons cumin ½ teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh) ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes 10 cups chicken broth (or water) 4-6 cups fresh kale, rough chopped
Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain, cover with water again, and simmer over medium heat until almost completely tender. (I skipped the overnight soak and just simmered them longer.) As the ham may be quite salty, do not add any salt to the beans until the very end.
In a large stockpot, saute the onion, carrot, celery, ham bone, and garlic in the olive oil over medium high heat for about 5-10 minutes. Add the dried thyme, pepper flakes, and cumin and cook another minute. Add four cups of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the mostly-cooked beans along with their cooking water (about four cups, I’m guessing?), and simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until the beans are completely soft.
Add the chopped ham and kale and simmer for another 15 minutes, or until the kale is cooked through. Remove the ham bone — pick off any remaining bits of ham and add it to the soup — and season the soup with salt and black pepper.
Serve with hot biscuits, cornbread, or buttered toast.
We were on the interstate, driving home from Massachusetts (more on this later), when the news of the insurrection broke. I was stunned and horrified, of course. But I was not surprised. The President had been rabble rousing for weeks, so I’d figured something was bound to happen.
Listening to the reports, it didn’t take long for me to grow exasperated with the newscasters and their tiresome “How could this have happened?” refrain — as though this came out of nowhere — but when they started with the somber intonations of “This is not America” and “This is not who we are,” that’s when I exploded.
“This is EXACTLY who we are,” I yelled at my husband, “and denying nearly half of our population — dismissing them out of hand as though they don’t even exist — is stupid. If we don’t see things for how they actually are — not as we wish them to be — then we will never change.“
A couple days later my mom forwarded a link to this video which succinctly encapsulates my thoughts. Watching it was cathartic. I’m not the only one.
I have relatives who were in the crowd that day — they didn’t go into the capitol, they say, but they were at the base of the steps — and I have other relatives who, watching from afar, were exultant.
With my friends, I puzzle over the best approach. My ideas run the gamut: from mockery to serious debate, from lambasting rage to loving rebuke, from complete disengagement to silent watchfulness.
Nothing I come up with feels right.
Awhile back, I heard a report on how best to engage with people who are ensnared in conspiracy theories. The solution is simple, the guy said: hours and hours of conversation in which each theory is painstakingly broken down into bite-sized chunks and overlaid with facts. It’s a tedious exercise in logic, reminiscent of the sort of conversation a parent might have with a teen (speaking from experience here), and there are two key requirements: lots of available time, and a close relationship important enough to warrant the time commitment.
Regarding my personal connections, I have the time but not the closeness — so, so much for that. Not that it really matters, though — the guy on the report said that it’s all but impossible to detangle someone who is committed to conspiracies.
So I try to take the long view. What can I do now that, five years from now, I will feel proud of? What about fifty years from now? I think of the future history books and try to imagine myself in them. I mean, not me as in Jennifer’s Going To Be In A History Book!, but my position in the pages. Where will I fall?
Better yet, where do I want to place myself?
Thinking this way doesn’t really change anything — I’m still mystified and repulsed by these staggeringly bizarre theories — but it helps me stay open and hold my anger (of the retaliatory, unhelpful sort) in check.
These conspiracy theories (and all the other accompanying dangerous and damaging ideologies) aren’t going away any time soon, so if you have any brilliant insights for how to cope and/or confront them, tell me. I need help figuring this out.
Up until now, Covid has felt dangerous and real, but also distant.
Yesterday, a healthy father of four — a man that my husband has worked with and whose family lives just a few miles from us — died from Covid. Just down the road, there is now a wife without a husband and four children without a father, and an entire community is stunned, reeling with heartbreak and rage. The collective grief hangs heavy.
Over the last year, it’s seemed that the people who got Covid were hush-hush about it. I figured their secretiveness had to do with confidentiality, but then a friend who tested positive posted an article about the stigma of Covid.
Apparently, there’s a shame component to getting the virus — people who get it are often viewed as having done something wrong and are therefore blamed for their illness. Which is ridiculous: some of the most careful, responsible people have contracted the virus while others who’ve blatantly disregarded every precaution have been just fine.
Bottom line: toss the shame and share the symptoms, says the article. Covid is real — and it’s random (five members of our friend’s family tested positive, and he was the only one who had a cough, and he didn’t develop a fever until after he was in the hospital) — and the more we talk about it, frankly and openly, the better we can care for ourselves and each other.
What with the sky-high numbers, cold weather, over-crowded hospitals, slow vaccine rollout, this new, highly-contagious strain of the virus, and now this devastating death in our community, it feels like we’re fast approaching a whole new level of the pandemic. Almost daily, I learn about another friend, or friend of a friend, who has tested positive. It’s sobering.
No, scratch that. It’s terrifying.
Choices we’ve made that have, up until now, felt like reasonable risk may soon cross the line to dangerous. As a family, we’re beginning to talk about these next few months and the changes we may need to make to stay safe.
One small ray of hope: my older son — because he’s a volunteer for the rescue squad — qualified for the Covid vaccine. One down, one to go. I am so grateful.
Remember when, a year or two ago, I did that post about breaking the fruitcake barrier? I failed, but ever since fruitcake’s been in the back of my mind. This fall I decided to try again. (I just went back to that post — it was a freakin’ six years ago. SIX YEARS AGO. I thought for sure it was no more than three. Did we tesser through time or something?)
The recipe he suggested appeared to have a solid ingredient list — all real fruits and nuts, none of that neon red and green crap — and the method sounded pretty classic: soak fruits and nuts overnight in booze and orange juice. Make cake. Bake. Cure for a couple months, brushing with rum on the regular. So that’s what I did. And it worked!
Or at least I think it did. I mean, it feels like the right thing, but is it? I wasn’t raised with fruitcake — I’m more fruitcake virgin than connoisseur — so how do I know this is actually a quality fruitcake? Are there better ones out there, or is this the end of the road? I know I like this one — a lot — but just because I think it’s good doesn’t make it so.
And then I realized that my uncertainty might not be all my fault. Fruitcake, by its very nature, is a study in contradictions.
Solid as a brick but not hard. Chewy but not gummy. Cakey but not light. Rum-soaked but not alcoholic. Expensive but not flashy.
See, it’s not just me. Fruitcake is confusing.
I gave away two loaves as Christmas gifts, which felt risky. Fruitcake’s a notoriously hard sell. Would anyone else appreciate it?
In her thank-you email, my sister-in-law described it as “a super-dense, moist, deluxe gingerbread loaf.” And when I wrote back asking for her honest opinion, she said, “I liked it more than I expected to! After eating it several days in a row, though (it was a big loaf!), I realized that I’d enjoy it more in small quantities, farther apart. Maybe ’cause it’s pretty dense/intense?”
And in an email from my mother: “I just cut into the fruitcake. It is good! Wow–figs!”
Not exactly a rave, but not bad either.
In my house, I’m pretty much the only one who eats it. (My husband likes it but never really thinks to eat it unless I serve it to him.) I often have a slice for breakfast with my coffee. What with all the nuts and fruits, it feels like a real food (and here’s yet another contradiction: it’s less fruitcake and more fruit bread), so I think of it not as a desert but as an honest-to-goodness meal.
Making the fruitcake, I ran into a few hiccups:
Storage space. The recipe calls for storing the cakes in a cool place, or in the fridge. I was afraid all my “cool” places were too warm — and I certainly didn’t want to risk ending up with a bunch of expensive loaves of mold — so I played it safe and used the fridge. Which was a giant space-suck but still doable.
Rum brushing. I worried I was doing it wrong. Was it too much? Were the loaves turning soggy gooey? Would the rum be overpowering? I emailed Joe and he said to persevere. So I did. (Except, because it was such a chore, I grew lax and inconsistent. Eventually, I assigned the task to my older daughter’s to-do list and she became our resident rum brusher of fruitcakes.)
The wrap. Instructions said to wrap the loaves in cheesecloth and foil. I didn’t have cheesecloth so I used a cotton cloth which, because it was thicker, made me worry that I was rum-soaking the cloths instead of the bread. Also, the cloths turned an unappetizing shade of brown which made me think of wound bandages, mummies, and burial cloths. You’re welcome.
I’m halfway through one loaf (now wrapped in clean plastic), and there’s one more loaf stashed in the back of the fridge still wrapped in its rum-soaked burial cloth.
Since fruitcakes practically last forever, there’s no rush to eat them. I can nibble whenever I want, all winter long.
Classic Christmas Fruitcake Adapted from Joe Pastry.
The original recipe says to halve the apricots. I bought my dried apricots already diced, so that saved time. The dates were to be left whole and the figs were to be halved, but I quartered all of them. You can use either brandy or rum (and maybe others?). I used rum.
day one: the fruit and nut mixture 2 cups golden raisins 2 cups currants 2 cups dried apricots, chopped 2 cups dried figs, quartered 2 cups pitted dates, quartered 4 cups chopped walnuts 2 cups chopped pecans ½ cup chopped candied ginger zest of 3 oranges zest of 3 lemons 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground allspice 1 teaspoon mace ½ teaspoon cloves 1 cup baking molasses (not blackstrap) 2 cups rum (or brandy) ½ cup orange juice
In a large bowl, combine everything down through the spices and toss to mix. Add the molasses, rum, and orange juice and still well. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 12 hours or so, or over night.
day two: the cake 1 pound butter, at room temp 3 cups brown sugar 8 eggs 1 tablespoon vanilla 4 cups flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1½ teaspoons salt
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Pour the cake batter over the fruit and nut mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. It will smell like heaven.
Divide the batter between four large (9x5x3) loaf pans that have been buttered and then lined with parchment paper. The loaf pans will be quite full. (I used some of the cake batter for a mini loaf because I was worried they’d overflow, but the cakes didn’t rise much so I probably could’ve gotten all the batter into the four pans.)
Bake the loaves at 275 degrees for two hours. They’ll be golden brown — and an inserted toothpick will come out clean — and your house will smell divine. Allow to cool for ten minutes before turning the loaves out of the pans onto a cooling rack.
Once completely cooled, brush the loaves all over with rum (or brandy): tops, sides, bottoms. Wrap each loaf in cheesecloth (or a clean, thin cotton cloth) and then in foil. Refrigerate.
Every three days or so, brush the loaves with rum. Sometimes I brushed the tops. Other times I brushed the bottoms (and then stored them upside down). Give the rum treatment regularly for the first couple weeks (I put “rum the fruitcakes” on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget), and then every 5-7 days for the next couple months.
I’m no longer rumming my cakes, but depending on how long the last one lingers in the fridge, I may end up giving it another brushing or two. I like rum.
Meet Suburban Correspondent, a friend I met years ago via blogging. She and I became friends and eventually even had the chance to meet face-to-face on a couple occasions (so I can attest she’s a real, honest-to-goodness person, promise!). She’s been homeschooling since forever, and has the stories and dry wit to show for it. Enjoy!
Hi! In the blogging world, I’m known as Suburban Correspondent. I live in northern Virginia, and I have 6 “kids” – 3 grown and flown, 2 college aged, and one high schooler. In theory, I should almost be an empty nester by now, but currently 4 of them are living here, because THANK YOU 2020.
Phys Ed, plus Nature Studies.
Why did you decide to homeschool? I’ve been homeschooling since Hector was a pup (that’s an archaic phrase meaning “for a heck of a long time,” and I would love to know its origin), and my reasons for homeschooling have changed through the years and with my kids. Some were late readers, and I didn’t want the schools to make them hate reading by forcing them to learn before they were ready (they both learned at age 9). One had a severe dairy allergy which rendered the school cafeteria deadly. Another was already playing with two queen bees her age in the neighborhood several hours a week, and I feared that forcing her to socialize with them 35 hours a week at the local school would be a permanently traumatizing situation.
Also, I’m lazy. I couldn’t imagine getting kids to and from school on time, especially when there were babies to nurse and toddlers who needed naps.
But how did you even know to try homeschooling? Were your friends doing it? I think I stumbled on How Children Fail by John Holt when my two oldest were still young, and what he wrote really resonated with me. Also, I had taken some teacher certification courses while I was in the military (before kids), and I realized that a lot of classroom teaching was about crowd management and lesson plans and lesson objectives — just all really top-down sort of stuff that had very little to do with how my two young ones were going about the business of learning. So John Holt’s book seemed like a Get Out of Jail Free card to me.
Animal husbandry, or how to spot a really good deal at ALDI and come home with a $5 flock.
Logistically, how did you manage homeschooling six children? For the longest time, there were little kids, as the spacing between oldest and youngest was 13.5 years. So, for the longest time, we had lessons in the morning, social time in the afternoon, regular mealtimes, regular snack times, etc. There was, if you can even imagine it, almost NO screen time (first because there was no internet, and later because we couldn’t afford all the screen-y things).
It all seems so far away now. And my two oldest, who suffered the longest under the strictly scheduled homeschooling regime, never fail to point out to their youngest sister how spoiled she is, as she wanders into the kitchen yawning, at 9:30, to look for breakfast and then sits on the couch and scrolls through Twitter on her phone.
Life sciences: Murder hornet, yes or no?
How did you keep from going crazy? What about your own interests and needs? Interests and needs? You mean, beyond survival? Let’s see…the thing is, when you have enough children and you live in a place where they can go out and play on their own, you can usually scrounge up an hour or two per day for your own pursuits. Especially if you lock the screen door after they go outside…
But, OMG, make sure to exercise, even if you’re carrying a 25-pound toddler on your back while you do so! It’s no joke trying to get back into shape once you turn 50. I did it, but it sure wasn’t easy.
Social needs were the easiest to look after, as homeschool moms tend to socialize at group activities for their kids. I think I had more friends and saw them more regularly than did my friends who were “regular school” moms.
What’s been most challenging? When you start homeschooling, the most challenging thing can be the questions and doubts from others. It’s challenging, because at that point you’re not sure you are doing the right thing yourself! As we move on from that stage, though, I think most homeschool moms (except those of us who are now too tired to care much) waste a LOT of energy constantly second-guessing ourselves: Is he learning enough? Does she have enough friends? Did I miss something?
Yes, you missed something. Don’t worry about it.
What sorts of things would people say to you? They said I was overprotective, they said the kids needed to learn to play with other kids, they said I was too involved in their lives — all the standard stuff. In the meantime, we were living in a neighborhood where they played with other kids every single day, and I was spending less time helping my kids on their daily schoolwork than my neighbors were spending on their schooled kids’ homework. Go figure.
Pioneer culinary arts: apple butter, but with an electric crockpot.
What did homeschooling teach you about our culture’s view of education? Our culture has a warped view of education. First, it views education as a scarce resource to be fought over, rather than as a public commodity to be widely shared. Our county currently has a STEM magnet program (high school) that has for years experienced overwhelming demand and is therefore ridiculously competitive. The county has recently decided to make an effort to include more minorities/people of color in each class and this has provoked an uproar over which kids get to partake of this valuable educational experience. Yet, in all this noise, no one bothers to say, “Hey – all these kids who are applying are qualified to learn STEM. How about we set up a second program at another high school? And even a third one, if there is enough demand?”
I mean, wouldn’t that make more sense?
Second, our educational culture views education as something outside the child that needs to be placed inside the child, rather than as a process that happens within a child confronted with new information. Homeschoolers are fond of quoting, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” a quote we have (most likely mistakenly) attributed to Yeats. Teaching your own, if you stay alert to it, provides you many opportunities to witness this lighting of a fire; in turn, these instances encourage you to continue this nonconventional path to see where it might lead. Formal education, I fear, leaves neither the time for this sort of joyous exploration nor the inclination. It is, in short, exhausting.
Essentially, homeschooling makes you realize that education does not have to be a slog and that it should be available to everyone.
Where did you get your support? Hands down, support comes from your fellow homeschoolers. Find a group. Make friends. Support each other. Mine would have been a very different journey without all the socializing, carpools, and parties that we enjoyed over the years.
Can’t find a group? Make one. Build it, and they will come.
Citizenship lessons. (Specifically, make sure to bring water and maybe a folding chair when you go to vote.)
How have your kids managed the transition from homeschool to college and/or adulthood? Our original plan was very nice and neat and somewhat economical: after graduation, each of our children would do two years of community college while working and saving money for two years of university (or else a trade school, whatever they wanted). It’s almost cute, how simple we thought it would be.
But the reality has been much more complex, with each kid finding his/her own path.
The oldest decided to finish high school in three years (he was doing an online program) and then apply for a ROTC scholarship so he could go to university right away. He became a logistics officer in the Army for four years after college, then spent a year teaching English in a Bedouin community in Israel, and then came home and got a tech/logistics job with one of the many contracting companies in our area. We could have predicted none of this. NONE.
The second-oldest spent a couple of years after high school waiting tables and bartending and living on her own with coworkers before she did the community college-to-university route. Once she graduated, she volunteered teaching English in Haifa, did an internship at a nonprofit in the same city, and then moved to Tunisia to work with a US nonprofit there.
[Side note: DO NOT let any child who is a liberal arts major incur student loan debt. Unless they are going into the military, they are guaranteed to be working for almost nothing for up to two years.]
The third did well enough on the PSAT to land a scholarship that covered tuition and room and board for four years at an out-of-state engineering school. [I swear, it was like winning the Willy Wonka golden ticket; we didn’t even know he was good at standardized tests because he was so homeschooled HE HAD NEVER TAKEN ONE.] He is now paid handsomely to test rocket engines in the middle of the Texas desert, which is essentially his dream job. His underpaid liberal arts sister tries not to hate him for it.
The fourth learned that programs in his major (industrial design) tended not to take transfer students (I will spare you my rant about the moneymaking boondoggle that is higher education in the US). Luckily, he had his rocket scientist brother’s two years of tuition money, in addition to his own, so he went off to a state school his freshman year, paying for his own room and board with the money he saved from working retail during high school. He’s currently taking the year off due to the weirdness that is 2020 and is looking for an internship that will help pay room and board for the next two years.
The fifth is staying home and working retail for a year to save up money for university (also, it’s just a weird year to start college). She is aiming to be a commissioned officer in the US Air Force, so she hopes to win a three-year ROTC scholarship to help her get through when her savings run out.
The sixth one is the 15-year-old “baby.” Her only career goal is to make enough money to have her own apartment and buy fun food. She hates anything to do with school. We’re all just sitting back and watching to see how this will play out.
The lessons here: You can’t predict what path will work for each kid. Don’t underestimate how badly they might want to leave home at age 18.
Oh, and make sure they take the PSAT. You never know.
Looking back, what are their opinions about your choice to homeschool them? They make good-natured fun of the homeschooling lifestyle they experienced (okay, maybe there was too much Veggie Tales), but I think they are also glad they were spared the strange pressure-cooker sort of stress that their schooled friends experienced. Number 5 chose to go to public high school, and we noted — among other things — that her AP Psych class was WAY HARDER than the Psych 101 class her brother was taking at the same time at his university. It seemed that the high school made everything feel like really high stakes, while when you are homeschooling, the same courses are just…well…high school courses. Your entire future doesn’t depend on any of them.
Of course, maybe they hated the whole homeschooling experience and are keeping mum because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. That’s always a possibility.
Do you have a homeschool philosophy? I’ve had SEVERAL homeschool philosophies. I’ve been a Waldorf-y homeschooler, a structured workbook homeschooler, and now – Lord help me – I’m an unschooler. Sometimes I’ve been all three at once.
Prepare to be flexible, is what I’m saying.
Knitwear modeling is a part of our curriculum.
What advice do you have for parents who are considering homeschooling their children? Don’t do it for any vague, high-flown pedagogical ideals. Don’t do it for reasons concerning the breakdown of societal values or the end of civilization as we know it. All your ideas might be true, but that’s not what will get you through each and every day. Do it because you want to spend the day with your kids, letting them read and play and figure things out. Do it because you enjoy the rhythm of life at home with kids. Do it because you perceive that that is what your kids need: time to be home, time to create, time to play.
Do it for the fun of it. The rest will work itself out.
Many, many thanks, Suburban Correspondent! If you want more tales of adult children-turned-roommates, murder hornets, and knitting projects, you can read all about it on her blog The More, The Messier.