Followers

Monday, December 20, 2010

First Pages From Little Joe











Vote for this book!

Little Joe

CHAPTER ONE

A Special Delivery

Little Joe came out on Christmas Eve, when he wasn't supposed to. Larger than most and trembly, with only Eli there and Grandpa. Pa had gone to fetch the in-laws and some ice cream to go with the pies.
"Fancy's been like this for over an hour, son," Grandpa said to Eli, stroking Fancy's matted hair. "She's gonna need some help with this one."
A nervous hen fluttered a wing, then clucked. One of the barn cats purred. But their movements were blurred by the darkness. All Eli could see in the barn was what stirred beneath the pen's only lightbulb: two little black hooves no bigger than Eli's wrists, peeking out of Fancy. Then a head, black and furry and shiny, with two slits for eyes shut tight.
Eli stared at the hooves just dangling there. He'd seen calves being born before-- even twins last year, back when he was eight. But they were little Holstein heifers, not Angus like this one. And they'd come out right away, splashing slick as a waterslide onto the bedding and bawling for their mama.
"Push against Fancy's side," Grandpa told Eli. Grandpa took hold of the tiny hooves and pulled while Eli pushed against Fancy. But the calf stayed put.
"Looks like you're gonna have to pull on a hoof with me, Eli, just like you would a wishbone. You pull thataway and I'll pull this way," Grandpa said. "Now make a wish and when I holler three...pull! On a count o'three. One..."
Eli clenched his teeth, grabbed hold of a hoof and shut his eyes tight as he could.
"Two..."
Then he wished for the calf to come out right.
"Three!"
Eli yanked on the hoof. Grandpa tugged hard on the other. Then Eli heard a plop and the rustling of straw.
"You can open your eyes now," Grandpa said, grinning. "It's a fine bull calf, Eli."
Lying on the straw bed was a shimmering black clump of a calf. Perfectly shaped and nearly as long as Eli, he'd come out right and big.
"Your pa says this one's yours," Grandpa said.
"Pa said so?" Eli looked down at the newborn and fought back a smile. His own calf! And Pa was giving it to him.
Grandpa stopped smiling. He got down on his knees again and stroked the bull calf's side. Its eyes were closed and it wasn't moving. Not like the heifers. The heifers moved, Eli remembered. The heifers tried to get up, raise their heads. The heifers tried to do something--anything--to get a feel for the outside. This one did nothing.
"He's not breathing." Grandpa knelt closer and felt the calf's nose. "It's too late to get Doc Rutledge. Breathe into this nostril while I close off the other. Now, Eli!"
Eli grabbed hold of the bull calf's head, took a deep breath and blew into the shiny gray nostril, hard as he could. The nostril was slippery cold, and Eli was sure it hadn't moved.
"Again!" Grandpa shouted as he felt for the calf's heart. "And through the mouth, too."
Eli drew in another deep breath and forced it into the gray nostril. This time he pressed his lips against the calf's mouth, too, blowing through a tiny row of baby teeth.
"Keep going!" Grandpa yelled.
There was pounding in Eli's ears now. He was sweating and sure his face must be red as a summer radish. His hands had gone all shaky, too. Eli worried they might not be any good to the calf. His calf. Still, he took another gulp of air and fed it into the bull calf's nose.
"He's got a heartbeat," Grandpa said.
The bull calf coughed and sputtered, then spit up a big wad of goo into Eli's face.
Eli didn't know what to do so he swiped at the goo and just sat there, leaning against the wall of the pen until the coolness came back to him. Grandpa always said those stone walls held history and the stories of all the Stegner seasons. That they soaked up the cold and kept it there, year-round, soothing you in summer and forcing you awake in winter to get your chores done. Eli couldn't imagine going to sleep now. He shivered as the stone's cold bore through his chore coat.
"Feel the heart, Eli." Grandpa took Eli's hand and placed it under the calf's left foreleg, below the rib cage. The heart was warm and restless. It kept fluttering, just like the monarch butterfly Eli'd cupped in his hands last spring.
"It's beating because of you, Eli. You got it goin'!" Grandpa smiled and looked at Fancy. "Come, Mama," he called. Fancy got up, turned around and smelled her calf for the first time.

Born on Christmas Eve


When I began writing LITTLE JOE, I knew the calf would be born on Christmas Eve. I wanted the barn to be filled with hope and the opportunity for renewal-- and the chance for Eli to connect with his father. I was living in northeastern Pennsylvania at the time and had been in stone barns during winter while the cold bit through my fingers, and the waterers crusted over. Yet, it was magical to hear the straw being swished around by the animals, the toddler "mooing" coming from the days-old calves anxious to suckle. How one could find warmth and love and light in between the silence in such cold, dark places stuck with me, and I knew what could occur under a lonely light bulb-- a birth -- in this case a difficult one for a calf -- would bring understanding and a chance for deeper love in a family frayed by its struggles to keep their farm alive. By the end of the novel, I hope I have showed that the possibilty is there-- for Pa and Eli to grow closer, for Eli to make his own decisions about farming, and for Grandpa to realize he's not done yet, that he can still raise livestock in his own way. There is astounding beauty in between the harshness of Nature, which can often make suffering worthwhile. And like the tiny glass unicorn Pa sifts out for Eli's little sister Hannah at the county fair, such things may be fragile and cost more than they might be able to pay, but those rememberances are just as important as winning the blue ribbon.

I will post the first pages of LITTLE JOE on my next blog, and I hope you enjoy it!

Sincerely,

Sandra

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All Sold Out at Borders


Saturday was an exciting afternoon for Rich and I. We signed our books at Borders in Keene and was it busy!Right by the checkout line, we were visited by many local teachers and librarians (thank you!) and got a chance to meet so many sweet kids like Desi, who loves all animals, and Spencer, (pictured with Rich), who's read some of Rich's books already and is getting Sports Camp and Kickers- The Ball Hogs for Christmas. I also met a travelling large animal vet's assistant, who lives the James Herriot life here in New England, and I can't wait to trek along with her sometime next year. Thanks to so many visiters who stopped by, including Sharon from Fast Friends Greyhound rescue and Gilbert, the retired greyhound. Borders actually sold out of copies of Little Joe! What a thrill that was. New Englanders really know how to support their local authors and artists. From parents in the neighborhood, to the USPS mail attendants, New Englanders are buying our books.

Knowing we live in such a nurturing, supportive environment warms my heart. It's the best Christmas present I could ever receive.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Speaking at the Monadnock Writers Group

This weekend Rich and I were guest speakers at the Monadnock Writers Group, a cast of nearly three dozen burgeoning writers who get together once a month at the Peterborough Library in southern New Hampshire. They exchange ideas, sometimes listen to guest speakers and give encouragement. What I liked most about the experience, was that regardless of whether or not they have guest speakers, one member of the group gets the opportunity to read an excerpt from their work at the beginning of the gathering.
It can be pretty daunting stepping behind a podium and reading your work to a group, whether you know them or not, but it's essential. Not only does it force your psyche to accept that you are, indeed, a writer, but it's also important to get feedback from others, as well as their support.
We're all vulnerable and perhaps even more so when we're pouring out our souls on paper, then giving the books to someone and hoping for a connection.
A Writers Group can provide us with an instant sense of belonging, a warm blanket over our shoulders as we struggle or triumph in our work.
I enjoyed reading Little Joe aloud and having a few librarians in the audience who were also raised on farms, comment that my work resonated with them and felt authentic. It's such a thrill to have someone who's read your work comment on specific chapters and characters. Experiences like these buoy you for weeks on end.
Thanks to Laura for inviting us, and to such great questions and feedback from our fellow writers. Happy writing!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pennsylvania Bound

Little Joe's "Blue Ribbon Tour" hit Pennsylvania the first weekend in November and it was really great for Rich and I to visit our old home state. Kickers, Rich's soccer series, already has quite a fan base and one young reader wore his Bobcats shirt, just like Ben does in the books. Little Joe, set in PA farm country, was bought by parents and grandparents to read aloud and share experiences familiar to some of the generations who were in 4-H.
We were smack in the middle of farm country in Muncy, where Madison, pictured with me, got Little Joe for her Christmas present and promised not to read it until then. Thanks to Joyce at the Borders there, who made us feel special and had our signing table hopping!
We met up with teachers as one of our stops coincided with a book fair and a few burgeoning young writers who have been penning realistic fiction since before they got into double digits.(Can't wait to read their books in the future.)

A Blue ribbon for all the Pennsylvania stores that carry our books and for those that hosted our signings!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Full House at the Toadstool Bookshop Signing!
























Our second book signing exceeded my expectations. Last Saturday, my husband Rich and I were at the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. Thirty-five people were there to listen to us chat about our new novels and to sign our books. Yahoo!
I always love reading aloud and it was great to share the first few pages of LITTLE JOE with the audience.

Rich spoke about his new series, KICKERS and there were plenty of soccer players in the audience, including goalies who loved their soccer bracelet gifts.

We signed 60 books and about the same number of cookies were gobbled up, too.

BEST OUTFIT: Hannah and her tie dye T-shirt, along with her silly bands necklace holder.

BEST COOKIE EATER: Griffin and his insatiable taste for cream filling.

BEST FACIAL EXPRESSION: Connor, when hearing Eli in LITTLE JOE gave CPR to baby Little Joe.

BEST GROWN UP SMILE: Randy, who enjoyed being read to as much as the kids.
Thanks to "The Toad" for hosting the event, especially Robin, for finding more chairs like magic and Don, who runs a great bookstore.




































Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurray for Water Street Books!













This weekend was quite exciting. I had my first book signing for Little Joe at Water Street Books in Exeter. Rich, my husband, was right along with me, signing his KICKERS soccer series and hand-selling Little Joe, too. The blue ribbon bookmark giveaways and soccer bracelets were a big hit. Young Owen put his on right away! And I don't think anyone minded getting sticky fingers from the apple tarts-- they were too yummy to resist.

Much thanks to Stefanie Kiper (with me in the pix) and owner Dan Chartrand for organizing the event. Water Street is the largest bookstore along the seacoast of New England and they are well stocked, super-helpful and supportive of new and local authors. It's a beautiful store, as is Exeter, New Hampshire, which truly is a picturesque New England town with great architecture and cuisine.

I especially enjoyed meeting young Julia from Rochester, who told me about her 6 tabbies--all marmalade! I hope she enjoys reading about Spider, the mackarel-striped barn cat who befriends Little Joe and becomes his stall-mate.

A blue ribbon for Water Street Bookstore!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Little Joe Book Signing at Water Street Books

The first book signing for Little Joe is this Saturday, August 28th, 11 am at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire. I'll be signing along with my hubbie, Rich Wallace, author of the soccer series KICKERS among many other books for young readers with Knopf and Viking.

Come join us and have a chat. Maybe even purchase a book. There'll be apples and apple tarts and giveaways after our presentation. Maybe I'll get you to take a picture of me alongside my novel- the first time I'll be seeing it on a bookshelf!!

Should be fun. See you there!

Sandra

Out Pops Little Joe- Or So I Think


This week Little Joe launched in bookstores. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep the night before. When I got up earlier than the dawn, somehow I’d expected things would feel different-- that the world might rumble-- at least for a second or two. But our dog, Lucy, was fast asleep hogging all the covers and my husband Rich kept snoring.

Having a book published and seen on the shelf in bookstores is a surreal experience, I’m told. I know when I first got a bound copy of Little Joe it became real for me-- now I couldn’t wait to find out what feelings would overtake me upon seeing it on a store bookshelf. But when I got to our local bookstore in the morning, they hadn’t had time to put the book out yet. My monumental citing would have to wait. At least I could email all my friends to let them know. When I get home, our neighbor girl, Emily-- the only female kid on the block-- comes racing up to see as me fast as she can on a bright pink bike. She remembered! I think, while six-year-old Emily skids next to me.

“I got a new pink bike,” she says. “I’m gonna ride it up and down the street all day.”

Then the boy kids come out and show me their painted faces, already practicing their ghoulish looks for Halloween. Avery, the four-year-old, keeps drooling. He points to his cheek and shows me the inside of his mouth. “Gum!” he says. Then he closes his teeth and smiles.

“He’s learning how to chew gum,” his brother Jake says to me. “That’s why he’s got slobber all over.”

“Little Joe’s out in bookstores!” I tell them, wishing I could point to the book, lying on a shelf. It comes out loud and forceful, but I don’t care. I imagine the novel showcased, surrounded by rave reviews and plucked from the shelves by the hands of eager readers. A bestseller, no less. And it’s not even been out a week.

“Finally,” Dennis moans, rolling his eyes and shaking me out of my dream-state. “It’s taken forever!”

Sometimes it seems that way. But when I go to my first signing this weekend and see that book on the shelf, I know it will have been worth the wait. Maybe you’ll be there; Water Street Books, Exeter, New Hampshire, August 28th at 11 AM. If so, you can join in my delight and maybe buy a copy of the book, too.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Summer Heat

In the morning I woke up to the sound of flutes. When I looked out the window-- the one that doesn’t have an air conditioner since this heat wave has caused a shortage and you can’t find anything but a box fan within 50 miles of our town-- the six-and-three-quarter-year old Jake, and three-year-old Avery, were marching down the driveway in their underpants, playing on plastic pennywhistles.

The heat can do strange things to a town, let alone a street. What seems bizarre and unacceptable on a downright cool day of say, 85 degrees, seems perfectly normal when it’s nearly 100. In this free state of New Hampshire anyone can go topless, and I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth in the past two weeks, some too gruesome to describe. So not even Lucy, our dog, barked at the shirtless pennywhistlers, who didn’t have any potbellies or cleavage gone south. She just watched as they proceeded into the street where their musical instruments were abandoned for street chalk.

“Whatcha drawing?” I yell over.

“A volcano. It’s gonna throw up lava all over the place!” Jake smiles. “And take at least 2 brown pieces of chalk.”

“Isn’t molten lava orange?”

“Not this one,” Jake says.

With volcanoes erupting before breakfast and the Weather Channel telling me it’s already past 80 degrees, I know this isn’t going to be a writing day. After 2 scorching weeks composing in my bathing suit and sweating over my PC with a cold compress on my forehead, I finally succumb. The only decision left is which pool to jump into. Either the Mr. Turtle pool on the one side of us, or the deluxe, above-ground in the back of Jake and Avery’s house.

I choose the above-ground, make a pitcher of iced-tea and follow the spewing chunks of brown lava all the way to the deck, where I promptly get squirted with guns as big as the one’s in those Rambo movies.

“What toy do you want?” Jake asks me.

“What are my options?”

He shows me a circular raft that’s see-through, which you can apparently walk on but looks impossible to figure out how, a bunch of regular, run-of-the-mill noodles, and a giant beach ball. Then I see it-- a big yellow sea lion smiling at me and bobbing behind Jake.

“I’ll take the sea lion,” I tell him. I’m thinking this is a lot more fun than writing all day. And for once I really do feel like a neighbourhood mom, since I got my stepsons when they were already in their teens and never had to contend with tri-notch squirt guns, splashing, and learning how to dive or swim like an otter or a dolphin.

Avery gets tired of his wet swimmers and throws them off, spending the rest of the time buck naked, prancing on the deck. It doesn’t even garner one raised eyebrow from the mothers lying on their zero gravity chairs.

By late afternoon, the Mr. Turtle pool is being filled and lawn chairs placed around a giant umbrella.

“Cannonball!” Dennis shouts, bounding into the tiny pool, fully-clothed and fresh from sports camp.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I ask him.

“Not if you got shoes on,” he laughs, showing me his gummy smile, where two front teeth used to be. All the kids take turns jumping in the tiny pool. The only one missing is Riley.

By the end of the day I’ve used up all my bathing suits, showered 3 times and collapse on the front porch for my nightly ritual of postcard writing to promote Little Joe. That counts for writing time, too, doesn’t it? After I finish the stack on the porch table, I realize I’ve written the 1000th one. But I’m too sun-baked and tired to celebrate the milestone. That would mean actually getting up and retrieving the red velvet cupcakes from the fridge.

Riley rides up the sidewalk to our steps. “Hello,” he says, so quietly I can barely hear. “It’s been a real sad day,” he finally murmurs. “Wicked sad. We had to put our dog to sleep. My Dad gave her a drink, but then her head just flopped in the water and he took her to the vet and they put her down.”

It was all I could do not to cry-- his big blue eyes looking up at me, wondering how something like that could happen and not quite knowing what to do, or how to feel.

“It’s okay to be sad about it,” I tell him. “Wicked sad.”

He keeps riding his bike in circles on the lawn.

“And to cry,” I sniffle. “A pet is part of the family.”

He brings the bike in closer, still focusing on the lawn.

“How about journaling all the happy memories you had with your dog? Make a scrapbook with pictures in it that you can look at anytime?”

He gets off his bike and sits on the steps.

“Fifteen years is a good long while for a dog,” I say. “A miracle, really.”

He nods again. “We still got Lucy,” he says. “I can hear her bark all the way to my house first thing in the morning. And Pickles.” He points to the black and white cat splayed out on the lawn, exhausted by another sunny day.

“You still writing the same book?” he asks.

“No. Postcards. To let people know about the book. I’ve got half a box left till I’m finished completely. Would you believe I already wrote a thousand?”

“Isn’t your hand sore?”

“Yeah, but I don’t write them all at once, just about 30 at a time. I thought I’d celebrate with a red velvet cupcake. Would you like one?”

Riley shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know. Never had a red velvet cupcake before.”
I go get the box and show him the stash.

“Can I smell it first?” he asks.

“Go right ahead.”

“Smells like a candle,” he smiles, grabbing one. “I got five dollars saved up,” he tells me in between munches, “to buy Little Joe. Think it’ll cost more?”

“Probably a bit more.”

“Just sell us two for ten,” Dennis squeals, roaring over on his bike. “Cupcakes!” he says. “I love cupcakes!”

“They smell like candles,” Riley tells him.

“They’re red velvet cupcakes,” I say.

Dennis bites into one. The icing squirts out in the space left open when his two front teeth fell out.

“Gross!” Riley laughs.

“Yeah, well, you stink,” Dennis says, taking out a nerfball from his pocket and pelting it at his brother. “Like a red velvet cupcake!”

“Ouch!” Riley says, laughing.

Lucy comes to the window and gives the brothers a furious round of deep, woofy barks.

“Bye Lucy!” Riley says. He belts the nerfball back at Dennis and they head out the driveway, mouths smeared with red velvet icing. And I guess Riley will be okay without his dog. I take the last red velvet cupcake out of the box and dig into the icing. I’ve got plenty to celebrate.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

the baseball

I had this crazy idea to send a thousand hand-written postcards to bookstores across the country letting them know about my novel, Little Joe. I can only do about thirty at a time, before my fingers seize up and I have to make a cup of tea. Then I head onto the front porch and wait for the cramps to work themselves out.

It’s quiet. All the kids have been called in for supper, so it’s just the birds, me, and Pickles, the street cat. She’s curled up on my neighbour’s sisal door mat scratching her claws.

I can feel the circulation flow back into my index finger and I’m just about to dig into round two of my postcards, when the shrubs rustle. “Hello,” the middle boxwood says. Then a boy bobs up wearing a baseball uniform, his freckles smeared with chocolate. “What are you doing?” Riley asks me, peering over the railing.

“Writing postcards. To let people know about my book.”

“Huh?” he says, climbing up the stairs. Then he takes a postcard and eyeballs the front. “You draw that?” he asks.

“No. An illustrator did.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I wrote it.”

“How many pages is it?”

“Nearly two hundred.”

His face goes pale and I worry that I’ve lost him. “But the type is really big,” I assure him. “And it’s interesting. I promise.”

But he keeps adjusting his baseball cap.

“It’s about a boy your age,” I say, “who shows his calf at the fair and hopes to win the blue ribbon.” I wait for some sort of reaction, not wanting to strike out telling my first real-live kid about the book. Then I get all nervous and mumble, “If you have to go in for supper, I understand.”

“Nah. My mom’s not feeling good. We’re having cereal. And I already had that for breakfast.”

“Hmm.” I didn’t see that one coming.

“Is winning a blue ribbon like winning a baseball game?” Riley asks.

“It sure is!” I smile, feeling the color flow back into my cheeks.

“We won our game today. 20 nothing.”

“Wow! Sounds like a blow out.”

“Not really,” he shrugs. “The pitcher kept walking us. Then the coach said we could have anything to eat after and I got ice cream.”

“Chocolate?”

“A-huh.”

“You know, I’ve never played baseball,” I tell him.

“I can show you how. Me and Matthew.” Riley smiles. Matthew comes out munching on a brownie and runs over.

“Do you play with a real baseball?” I ask them.

“Yep. And it’s hard as a stone,” Riley says.

“You’re kidding. They let you play with something that dangerous?”

“Well sure. It’s wicked sore once it hits you, but you can’t let on,” Matthew says.

“And you can’t ever stop playing-- like if you drop out of pee wee, or you’ll never be allowed to play again," Riley says, “Until you’re in the majors.”

Pickles trots over to listen and I keep my distance. “I’m allergic to cats," I tell them. They stare at me in amazement.

“I never knew anyone who was allergic before you,” Riley admits.

“What if you were allergic to yourself?” Matthew says, chasing Pickles’ salt and peppery tail into the bushes.

“That would be sad,” I say.

“No, that would be stupid,” he tells me.

“I know someone who is,” Riley whispers. “He lives very far away. All by himself.”

“They’re called shut-ins,” Matthew pipes in. “They never come out ’cause they think something bad’ll happen to them. Like when they get the mail, they won’t let it be dropped off too close. Then they come out to get it and run back in.”

They both giggle a little, then start whispering and take off, like kids do. And I remember when I was about six, and my sister and her friend took off aboard their two-wheelers, with me still on my wobbly training wheels pedaling hard as I could, but not getting very far. And part of that left-out feeling seeps back in, which is silly, I know, but I can’t help it. The wind kicks up and Pickles scurries under the pick-up in the driveway across the street. My tea’s gone cold, so I gather up the postcards and head for the screen door.

Then I hear running on the pavement; a few breathless heaves. The boys are back.

“Here,” Riley says, handing me a baseball.

“We signed it," Matthew beams.

“It’s just our names and numbers,” Riley adds, his freckles turning strawberry. “Monadnock Mutual would’ve been too long.”

“It’s game-used,” Matthew points out.

I turn the ball around slowly, reading their names, the magic-marker-fingerprint smudges on their numbers. “Wow, this is great. My first autographed baseball.”

“I’m gonna ask my mom to take me to Borders to check out your book,” Riley says.

“I’ll read it to you when it comes in, okay?”

They both nod.

I decide not to write any more postcards after that. I just toss my game-used baseball around for awhile in the backyard, remembering that my sister came back too. And she brought brussel sprouts. That’s where she’d gone to, with Mary Ellen. To pick brussel sprouts for supper. It was an unusual meal, kind of like cereal. But I remember not really caring or being very hungry. Just happy that my sister hadn’t wanted to run way from me. She just went to get something. I go inside and put the baseball beside our keys in the front hall, hoping that the kids will enjoy my book half as much as what they gave me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The big dirt pile




The fact that my husband and I are writers preceded us when we moved into our new neighbourhood. (By the way, I can be forgiven for the Canadian spelling because I am Canadian. Besides, this isn’t a book.) I must admit I had no idea the expectations would be so high. Two of them were waiting for us in our driveway, the lone girl-- a five-year old-- astride a pink Barbie bicycle with training wheels, the other-- six-and-three-quarters-- on hot wheels loaded with stickers. “We hear you write for kids,” the owner of the hot wheels shouted, squinting at the sun. “I guess that means you like kids.”

Kids! Of course I like kids! And when was the last time I lived beside a family with kids? This would be terrific. Before, we were surrounded by cows, and before that, I was the only person on my street not collecting social security. And way before that, it was condo living on a floor with couples who chose not to have kids. So, this was really something.
The knocks came rapidly to see what we were really made of.

“Do you write and draw the pictures too? I’m a writer and an artist. See?” He’s got a paper bag over his eight-year-old hand and is moving it with his fingers. “I made it. Would you like to buy it? It’s only 50 cents.”

“What part of it did you make?” my husband asks him. So he flees.

Into our backyard. He squashes his face against the basement window and peers inside.

“There’s ghosts in there!” he hollers to the rest of the kids, who shriek with glee.

“It’s just laundry hanging up to dry,” I yell back. But the kids come running anyway. “Oh,” they moan. “You sure?”

Turns out what they’re really trying to assess is if we’ll let them play in our backyard. And for how often. And if it’s for always or not. It’s the most important part of who we are, according to the neighbourhood kids. A free-wielding, open space, unfenced and forbidden by their parents-- unless we say it’s okay. Our backyard’s been carefully charted out the past few years while the previous owners were at work. Trees were climbed and bark that wasn’t supposed to be peeled, peeled. It’s been a haven for candy dum-dums wrapped up again for future use and stuck sucker-side down in the dirt. I’ve found lucky bottle caps, keys, marshmallows, airplanes, soccer balls and dirty diapers along its perimeter.

“They’re not dirty diapers,” the seven-year-old tells me. “They’re swimmers. There’s no poop in them.”

But there was a problem stinkier than poop. A tree stump rotting in the middle of our yard, waiting to claim a three-year-old’s ankle or, at the very least, his sneaker.

“But, this is our stump,” they told me. “My dad said so.”

The stump grinder people came earlier than I expected-- before school. Early enough for all the boys to watch it get crushed robotically into a pulverized pile of mulch. They said it would only take 20 minutes to get it down to nothing, but I didn’t stay to watch. I knew the boys were eyeing it all from their bedroom windows and I felt evil. While the deed was being done, I cowered over to the coffee shop and sniffled, staying there until I knew they’d be at school. I was doomed. The unwanted neighbour. I had one were I grew up. They never gave out Halloween candy and shut their lights off when they saw us coming.

The next morning, there was something in my mailbox from the kids. They’d written me a story. About how much they’d loved that old stump, and how it became a dirt pile and how much they love playing in that dirt pile. The following weekend, with snow shovels and dust pans, the boys helped me take some of that dirt across to another part of the backyard, to the garden, where the swimmers and the dum-dums once hid.