Me and My Siblings

I wrote a little about my sisters, Krissie and Randi, in my last two blogs, Buttercup Hill and Beneath the Arc of a Double Rainbow, but I have two brothers, as well: Stephen and Michael John. In the photo below we are all sitting on our front steps in Riverdale, New York. Judging from our clothing, it’s winter.

(Front center) Stephen. (From top left) Michael John, Lynn, Randi, Krissie.
The photo was taken by our father, Bob Burlingham.

Beneath the Arc of a Double Rainbow

Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” called “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” had part of its origination from an epiphany Shange had when she passed under the arc of a double rainbow one morning and realized that “In that moment of seeing the double rainbow, I felt connected to the delicacy and irrepressible majesty of life.” (Nov. 8, 2010, New Yorker, “Color Vision” by Hilton Als)

My husband Paul had a similar experience kayaking on the lake below our summer cabin in Wisconsin. As he tells the story: “I tumbled out of bed before 5 and noticed the sun arising though a narrow band of clear sky only to have its rays reflected in a thick cloud cover that was moving east. I hustled down to my kayak and paddled directly toward the sunrise. But as I got halfway across the lake, rain started to fall. I looked back and noticed ominous storm clouds moving quickly toward me. Sadly, I turned around and headed back toward the cabin when a magnificent double rainbow appeared before me, with its arc anchored at opposite ends of our bay. And right under the rainbow: our cabin. I was overcome with joy and appreciation for my parents having built this family jewel and then, after their recent deaths, bequeathing it to me. I reflected on how this cabin would provide a place where Lynn and I could spend together the years ahead in the beauty and quiet of nature. What more could I possibly ask of life?”

I have never had such an epiphany under the double arc of a rainbow, but my last blog “Buttercup Hill” describes the miraculous magic of first buttercups to my sisters and me when we were children, which was our yearly rite of spring. As such, we experienced its seeming sudden glorious appearance and, in our own simple ways, paid homage to it.

Randi and I no longer talk much about the miracles of spring, but my sister Krissie–who became a horticulturist–and I do. Just yesterday, we talked about whether snowdrops are better left to enjoy where they sprout up, or whether it’s okay to snip some to put in a little vase and enjoy indoors. (She said it is okay to snip.) She likes to snip this flower and that and arrange them in delicate formations in vases, a sort of fresh art ensemble to enchant the eye. I remember one year she foraged in the countryside for dried wild flowers and vines and set to work making unique Christmas wreaths for our mother and each of her four siblings. I had mine for about ten years. Finally I had to admit my wreath had become woebegone and bedraggled. Reluctantly, I threw mine out.

A neighbor’s invitation arrived in our mailbox yesterday. The card read, STOP BY for WARM PIE AND COFFEE; We hope you will join us for this chance to get together before winter comes and takes us all inside.

This winter I want to keep myself in the arc of a double rainbow; I want to imagine the joys of Buttercup Hill, snowdrops under the earth waiting to come out while I make and enjoy warm pie and coffee.


In my last blog, Why Learning the Ethical Culture Way Sticks, I wrote about loving to learn at the Feldston Lower School in Riverdale, New York. I also liked the chestnuts that dropped to the ground near school in the fall.

When the school day was over at Fieldston, I would sometimes go to my friend Connie’s house to play. Her house was a fifteen-minute walk from the school along Fieldston Road, a wide avenue boasting large (100 feet high) luscious green canopied chestnut trees. The game we played on the way to her house was, Who Could Find the Most Beautiful Chestnut? The spiky green burs lay on the ground. We each chose ones that looked good…had already split open…scooped them up and peeled back the yellow/brown burs to reveal the shiny brown hulls, flat on one side with a tan mark at the bottom. The best ones were little objets d’art, multicolored browns like rich grained wood, but with a natural shiny veneer. The best ones we used for barter.

“I’ll give you this prince of a chestnut, for your two maidens. Yours are just not that beautiful,” Connie said.

“You know they never stay that way. Your prince will only be a prince for today” I said.

“Who cares? Today is today,” said Connie.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll take your prince; he is a beauty, but I don’t understand the logic of your swap.”

When our date was over and I went home, I took my prince and put him on my dresser.

The next morning, I studied my chestnut. No longer quite so shiny, nor so rich in brown hues, he had only been prince for a day. As I got ready for school, I wondered if that had been enough.

Why Learning the Ethical Culture Way Sticks

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, I attended The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. This was no ordinary school, but an educational environment so interesting and alive that I couldn’t wait to get dressed in the morning in order to walk the numerous blocks with my sisters from our house situated in the Catholic–wrong side of the tracks– neighborhood to the wealthy neighborhood near Fieldston Road where the school was located.

In the third grade, when we studied Native Americans across the curriculum, we sewed our own Native American garments in industrial arts, crafted papooses in woodshop, learned Native American dances in rhythms, sang Native American songs in music. At the end of the year, as a culminating project, we dressed in our Native American clothes and took to the woods for a day where we baked fish in clay over a wood fire we built, ground corn for cornmeal cakes, played Native American games and lived for seven hours communally as Native Americans.

I loved this school. When I became a teacher of gifted kids, I used the emersion techniques I experienced as a Fieldston student to create curriculum for gifted kids to make their own learning meaningful from the inside out…the students encouraged to seek answers to their own questions in areas of their own interests.

If you go on The Fieldston School website today, the school’s philosophy of learning remains unchanged from the school’s philosophy when I attended the school in the 1950’s:

“The students become active learners and engage in vital discourse in a community of dedicated teachers and an atmosphere of intellectual discipline and creativity. Through a curriculum rooted in the tenets of progressive education, students become independent thinkers as they learn that asking their own questions and seeking their own answers provides the key to the deepest kind of understanding. Cooperative, student-centered, discussion-based learning, and the freedom to make mistakes, are part of our students’ everyday lives. We value inclusion and economic and racial diversity, and we honor all of our students for their unique contributions, cultural backgrounds, and beliefs. We consider service to be critical to the development of character, so we incorporate community service into the children’s school experience from the earliest grades.”

Teachers of elementary school students in public schools today have to meet so many requirements: school, district, state, nation. I think it is only the exceptional teacher who can meet those requirements and still create a living, breathing, exciting educational environment for students in which there is time for the students to ask their own questions about what they are learning–or better yet–choose something they want to learn and be guided to get meaningful answers to their questions.

I have not forgotten my elementary school teachers. Nor have I forgotten the satisfaction I felt in learning in the ethical culture way. My third grade teacher’s name was Ms. Barbara Phenner. We called her Phenny.

It might even be because of her I chose to be a teacher of gifted kids. She certainly made us all feel important and unique…special. Learning, Phenny taught me, is exciting, interesting, understandable, fun.

Buttercup Hill

I must be thinking of Buttercup Hill because fall is shutting down to make way for winter.

One of five children, I used to run up the long hill in Riverdale, New York where we lived and climb over the fence to see if the buttercups had decided it was warm enough to open up yet. If they did, the brown hill would suddenly be brush painted in a bright lustrous yellow. I would lie down turning my head left and right to be eye level with the blossoms. If I were there with one of my sisters, we would play the buttercup game.

These scenarios went something like this:

“Lean your head way back,” my second oldest sister, Randi, commanded plucking a few flowers to wave them just under my chin.”

“You’re not buttery,” she proclaimed when my chin did not reflect yellow.

“I am, too. I am very buttery.”



“Your turn,” Randi said.

I copied her gesture, amazed to see her chin was yellow.

I was torn about telling her the truth.

“I think I do see a little yellow on your chin,” I admitted.

“See, I am buttery!” she gloated.

I wish I had lied.

Now, up on Buttercup Hill with my oldest sister, Krissie, things were different.

Two Ferdinands, we sat down in the yellow blossoms together and– for a suspended moment in time–we tried to smell the spring in the flowers.

“Let’s just pretend they do smell,” said Krissie.

“They look like they should smell very sweet.” I said.

“I agree,” said my oldest sister. “We smell the sweet of spring.”

We joined pinkies. “Sweet,” we said is unison enjoying sisterhood and the profusion of yellow.

Oh, the sweetness of sisterhood on Buttercup Hill!