We arrive at Michael and Virginia’s a few minutes before nine o’clock. A handful of families are just getting to work, donning work gloves and gumboots and chatting in the spring dawn. Others are unloading rakes from the backs of cars, or sporting pot-luck dishes draped in tea towels.
One of five work parties we will attend this year, this three-hour intensive will see a bathroom window installed and a cord of wood stacked neatly in a shed. Other tasks might include clearing trails, preparing gardens, and gleaning the backyard for bits of plastic left behind by previous owners (who thought burning garbage a good idea).
As I unpack children and food, I glimpse the split-rail fence encircling Virginia’s garden. A pang of nostalgia wafts over me as I recall setting these same rails with friends four years earlier, a baby on my back. Today that baby is five years old and clinging to my leg.
“Mama, what can I do? I want to be with you,” she says, temporarily overwhelmed by the activity and the exuberant children running around the yard.
“Let’s go ask,” I reply.
After some instruction from our host family, we begin stacking wood. We are soon joined by another mother-daughter team, Ashlee and Lyra, who live on a nearby blueberry farm. “Good morning!” says Lyra with gusto. Her cheerful demeanor eases Teegan’s discomfort, and soon the two girls discover a hole in the shed where they can pass logs into the deepest reaches of the wood pile. Eventually their attention wanes and they are off, giggling and whispering, but we know they will be back for another round. This is the rhythm of family work parties, and we are used to its flow.
As Ashlee and I continue working, I share something that has been on my mind. My eldest daughter is going through a period of worry over turning nine—yearning for the days of her toddlerhood when all was simple. Ashlee recommends Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. The novel tells of a family who never grows old and the sorrow this brings them. It is an apt recommendation for my bookworm daughter and just one of the things I love about work parties.
Once a month we come together at a different family’s house to work and play and laugh together, because labour is much better when shared. We also come together to share recipes, advice, home-school lessons, and anything on our minds that needs airing. Life is busy with families and homes to run, but this connection through joyful work meets an essential need for companionship (and sometimes commiseration).
And after four years of working together, we have discovered some simple rules that keep things running smoothly. In our case, a group of five families meets the same weekend each month from May to September. From 9:00 until 12:00 we work together, then share a pot-luck lunch outdoors. Afterwards we may head off for a communal swim, though more often families disperse to work on their own projects.
Each family who hosts commits to attending at least four of the five work parties per year. This ensures everyone has at least eight helping hands, more with children.
We are an accepting bunch, acknowledging that you can only accomplish so much in three hours with children in tow. But jobs do get done, people get fed, and eventually we marvel at what we’ve accomplished. (Granted, sometimes lunch comes late because there are just a few more nails to pound.) I also feel a special bond with the children running about. They are like our own extended family.
photo by Karli Feser
The wood pile is growing and Ashlee and I pause to take in what’s left. That’s when my eldest daughter arrives, breathless from running. “Mom! Orrin is stuck. He needs help to get down.”
Together we round the opposite site of the shed where a wooden garage provides opportunity for climbing. Orrin is perched in the rafters just overhead, smiling.
“Are you okay?” I ask, reaching up to touch his knee.
“Yes,” he says. “I just want to move that bottle so I don’t break—”
Too late I see a glass bottle come toppling down from a high shelf, dislodged by his errant foot.
“Oops,” he says.
With children safely out of the way, Ashlee and I retrieve the bottle, which turns out not to be broken. We round up the onlookers, discuss alternatives to climbing the rafters, and return to the woodpile to polish off most of the work with their help.
Thirty minutes later we break for lunch and admire the new bathroom window, installed by others. “It’s like a completely new room,” Virginia says, beaming.
Lunch is wholesome and delicious. With several allergies in the group, we have all learned what foods to share: no seafood or Brazil nuts. No refined sugar or gluten. Today there is beet and quinoa salad, corn with cabbage, roasted root vegetables, and a raw cheesecake. There is also fruit and our own quiche. Children select what’s familiar to them, plus a few things that are new. More often than not, these pot-lucks have a palette-expanding effect on little mouths, another thing I love about them.
On the way home, we are happily exhausted. Teegan is coated in sawdust. Zaira’s hair is full of pine needles. I will be sore the next day, but it is a good kind of pain. It reminds me that work done together is twice as good, because it accomplishes so much more than meets the eye.
As we pass the surrounding countryside, Zaira leans into the window and smiles. “I can’t wait for the next work party,” she says, going on to tell us about a plan she’s hatched with friends to build their own tree fort.
Although I don’t have any such plans, I know exactly how she feels.
Shannon Cowan is a novelist and mother of two living in British Columbia. She and her husband blog about their adventures with green building, farming, and family at her blog.