Nine Kids, Two Parents In 'No Biking In The House'

No Biking In The House Without A Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene
 
No Biking in the House Without a Helmet
By Melissa Fay Greene
Hardcover, 368 pages
Sarah Crichton Books/ FSG
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt

One day about seven years ago, I began idly flipping through a new book called Last Man Out, the true account of a 1958 Nova Scotia coal mine disaster. Though it wasn't a subject that naturally appealed to me, within a few pages I was hooked by a propulsive narrative that ingeniously wove together the gritty drama of the trapped Canadian miners with a larger portrait of turbulent race relations. Though I soon learned that the author, Melissa Fay Greene, had written several acclaimed books about the civil rights movement, what fascinated me almost as much as her body of work was this biographical tidbit: Greene had six children. How, I wondered, does a woman with six children find the time and bandwidth to write nonfiction of such scope and ambition?

Greene has since added three more children to her family and in 2006 published There Is No Me Without You, an engrossing portrait of an Ethiopian orphanage that offered some insight into her unusual and abundant family. Four of Greene's children were orphaned by AIDS and adopted from Ethiopia. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet — her joyful and big-hearted new memoir — completes the picture.

And what a delightful picture it is. This funny and frankly personal book is a departure for Greene, whose previous work has been sober and measured. The title sounds like a madcap domestic comedy in the tradition of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck, which it sometimes is. But Greene's humor is less acerbic, her persona less addled. A large, noisy family was what she and her husband, criminal defense attorney Don Samuel, actively chose and celebrate. "Donny and I feel most richly alive, most thickly in the cumbersome richness of life, with children underfoot," writes Greene.

Melissa Fay Greene's works of non-fiction have received National Book Award Finalist citations and the ACLU National Civil Liberties Award. She contributes to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and lives in Atlanta.

Melissa Fay Greene's works of non-fiction have received National Book Award Finalist citations and the ACLU National Civil Liberties Award. She contributes to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and lives in Atlanta. Judith Augustine hide caption

itoggle caption Judith Augustine

Their family began with four biological children, and this sometimes seemed like plenty. In early chapters, Greene alludes to the challenges of building a career while raising kids: "One friend assured me that I would certainly publish a book someday, and it would be entitled Melissa Fay Greene, The Collected Thank-You Notes." But when she was in her mid-40s — and had established herself as an author of more than thank-you notes — an unintended pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Greene found herself emotionally devastated and one day typed "adoption" into an internet search. Almost 1,000,00 links popped up. "I stopped grieving," Greene writes, "and leaned forward, beguiled."

Greene and her husband began by adopting a small boy from Bulgaria, an experience she describes in sometimes chilling detail, recounting her profound post-adoption depression. But she rebounded and went on to adopt a daughter and three more sons. She's upfront about the challenges: the epic sibling battles, culture clash, ongoing attempt to keep the household feeling like a family rather than a "group home." But Greene is such an open and self-deprecating narrator she makes every addition to her family seem like the most natural and beautiful move in the world, "each child — whether homemade or foreign born — a revelation, a treasure."

The ability to write brilliant books with a houseful of children is clearly the least of Greene's gifts.

Excerpt: 'No Biking In The House Without A Helmet'

No Biking In The House Without A Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene
 
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 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.

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