No Biking in the House Without a Helmet
By Melissa Fay Greene
Hardcover, 368 pages
Sarah Crichton Books/ FSG
List Price: $26
This is my twenty-first year in elementary school. For twenty-one consecutive years I have carried in cupcakes, enclosed checks, and provided emergency phone numbers. I have staple-gunned and hot-glued. I have rented band instruments. I have given standing ovations, volunteered at the school library, and stood in the cafeteria line as the servers dropped balls of Thanksgiving-flavored foods from ice-cream scoops onto my wet tray. My husband and I have clapped with pride at a child’s graduation in May and returned in August with a different child for registration day in the “cafetorium.” Where else can you find a deal like a PTA membership? For five dollars, you’re in, and urged to accept the presidency. Where else are adults so thrilled to see your children? “Did you have a great summer!?” cry the beaming teachers, and your child shyly leans into your side and confesses that yes, it was a great one. The friends with whom we raised our oldest three (now in their twenties) are enjoying their empty-nest years. They have warm memories of long-ago kindergartners dressed as puppies, swinging their arms and dancing onstage in winter musicals. They recall the night the fourth-grade band attacked “Au Clair de La Lune” with shiny cheap instruments for the first time, honking and bleating like a pen of panicked farm animals. They remember the gift-wrap sale and the Fun Run. For them, as for most of our generation (we’re in our fifties), it happened a long time ago.
My husband, Don Samuel — a gray-bearded criminal defense attorney — and I have lingered here longer than most. We pushed beyond our biologically reproductive years into adoption. To our children by birth — Molly, Seth, Lee, and Lily (born in 1981, ’84, ’88, and ’92) — we added five school-age children, four from Ethiopia and one from Bulgaria: Fisseha, Daniel, Jesse, Helen, and Yosef (born in 1994, ’94, ’95, ’96, and ’97). While the parents our age have graduated, Donny and I — like the big, dim-witted students of yore who hunched over small desks at the rear of the classroom — have been held back, forced to repeat grades with people a lot younger.
There is a gravitational pull around a grade school in autumn. Donny and I have not yet broken free of the annual rotation. Like outmoded satellites, we still circle, rattling in close again each rusty fall. For us, the annual fund-raising gift-wrap sale is going on right now; the Fun Run is coming up; and last night I fitted Yosef in my satin quilted vest and my widest belt to make him into a courtier for the school musical, Cinderella.
All this lends a knowledgeable perspective.
For example: I can state with some confidence that the school musicals repeat once every five years.
Because this is our fourth Cinderella.
And only one of our nine children ever got a speaking part.
Donny’s courtroom skills and constitutional knowledge have earned wide respect among judges and attorneys. H e spends his days with accused drug dealers, gunrunners, murderers, tax evaders, heroes of the NFL (Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Ben Roethlisberger), or hip-hop superstars
(DJ Drama, T.I.). At night he puts his children to bed by practicing his closing arguments. This began years ago as a stratagem to avoid reading Berenstain Bears books aloud. We owned the whole skinny paperback collection: The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, etc. Donny said the books were “boring,” but I think he didn’t like Mama Bear being the fount of wisdom, catching and scolding Papa Bear when he crept downstairs late at night to watch TV during N o TV Week. Donny may have felt that Papa Bear’s transgressions struck a little too close to home. And he doesn’t like to see people like Papa Bear get in trouble, even though he has spent his entire career with people who are in deep, deep, deep trouble.
“May it please the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury . . .” he boomed as the children snuggled happily under their covers. Seth, on the top bunk, got knocked out instantly, but Molly, on the bottom bunk, tried to hang on, sucking the middle fingers of her right hand and watching wide-eyed as Daddy patiently explained the actions of the accused arsonist, drug dealer, or kidnapper. After Molly conked out, Donny turned to a jury consisting of Raggedy Ann, Neal the Bear, Pluto, and a stuffed eagle, their button eyes luminous in the glow of the Jack and Jill night-light. A pleading note entered the counselor’s voice when Raggedy Ann (clearly the jury foreman) refused to make eye contact, always a negative indicator of the jury’s state of mind toward the defense.
When Molly was six, Donny invited her to attend the trial of a man accused of training his pit bulls to attack and fight. Molly got dressed up and we drove to the DeKalb County Courthouse. She sat up alert and curious through the testimony of witnesses and the prosecutor’s closing argument. Finally the great moment arrived: it was Daddy’s turn! Daddy, in a suit and tie, stepped to the front of the courtroom. “May it please the court, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he began. Molly slid her two fingers into her mouth, sucked hard, and toppled against me into a deep sleep.
When Lee was little, he’d answer the phone and yell, “Daddy, it’s for you! I think it’s a criminal!”
At the start of the adoptions, when the presence of Bulgarian Romani and Ethiopian children still felt a little surprising, Donny referred to their end of the upstairs hall as “the international concourse.” If one child was complaining and another one piped up, Donny said, ªOh, great. Another country heard from.”
Now our family is so diverse that our cousin Julian Haynes suggests that I call this book Why Our Babysitters Are Entitled to Peace Corps Credit.
Our son Seth proposes We’re Not a Youth Group, Damn It.
Or The Phylogeny of My Progeny.
My friend Andrea Sarvady, who is aware that, to our surprise, we ended up raising sports stars, nominates TheJewish Guide to Raising Star Athletes.
Julian returns with Leveraging Love: How to Choose Your Favorite Child During These Hard Economic Times.
In July 2007 the eleven of us flew on a plane together for the first time (because two Ethiopian brothers, Daniel and Yosef, thirteen and ten, had joined the family two weeks earlier). At the Delta check-in desk, eight minutes into our first public appearance, a stranger approached and said,”Excuse me? Miss? I think one of your students dropped a mitten.” Mitten? I thought. In July in Atlanta? Are you kidding me?
Later it hit me: One of your students.
In flight, a middle-aged African American businessman leaned across the aisle to ask our son Lee, “What’s the name of your organization?”
Lee said, “Um . . . the Greene-Samuel family?”
Disembarking from the plane, the businessman tapped Donny on the shoulder and said, “I’d like to shake your hand.”
At baggage claim in Santa Fe, a frail, elderly white couple from our flight made their way toward me on walkers. “May we ask you a question?” said the old woman in a quavering voice. “Are you a scout leader? Because we were always very involved in scouting.”
Excerpted which was posted on NPR’s arts and life website from No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene. Copyright © 2011 by Melissa Fay Greene. Published May 2011 by Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.