By Sara Kirschenbaum
Issue 127, November/December 2004
I grew up on the 18th floor of an apartment building in lower Manhattan. We hardly knew our neighbors, and they certainly never entered our apartment. But when the Full Moon Work Crew families pour through my front and back doors, I love the way their muddy shoes and warm greetings erase the boundaries of privacy and isolation in my single-family home. They know my house. Heck, they’ve worked on some part of every room. And the families in our Full Moon Work Crew work magic.
Each Full Moon Work Crew project is like a barn raising, and one of our first projects was also one of the most ambitious: a four-hour kitchen remodel. It was my family’s turn to have the crew come to our house for a potluck brunch and four hours of working together, and at 10 o’clock on a rainy October morning, the member families were about to arrive at our 90-year-old house in Portland, Oregon. My six-year-old son, Sage, was flipping pancakes for the brunch. My two-year-old daughter, Annie, was finishing the demolition in the kitchen with her dad. Then families noisily arrived with cranberry bread and electric drills, cinnamon rolls and a compressor. They put their baked goods in the oven, their juice in the refrigerator, and asked to see the list of the day’s projects as the eight young children in the crew gathered in the living room to play with blocks and Thomas the Train Brio tracks.
We’ve been lucky to have two professional carpenters, Patty and Roger, on our work crew since its inception. During our kitchen-remodel work party, we hoped to install a new counter, sink, dishwasher, and three cabinets. Patty and Roger had advised us about the remodel earlier in the week, and they helped us plan the demo and make a list of materials. They would be in charge of the remodel during the work crew.
But there were ten other adults and teenagers who would be scurrying around the house and yard, knocking off a list of jobs that had so far defied my family’s daily attentions. Fifteen-year-old Dana was tired of babysitting and would be refinishing the woodwork around the front door. Her 12-year-old brother, Michael, had turned out to be a beloved babysitter for our boy-rich mixture of young ones. He would help the little ones with their work project: raking the leaves and collecting the fallen nuts under the hazelnut tree. I knew that Nancy, who repaired color copiers by day, was just the person to install my new programmable thermostat. Ellen, a doctor, would check the contents of my various first-aid kits, then help out with the kids when they tired of their work project. Everyone else was going to take down the giant sunflowers and dead tomato plants in my garden and get the yard ready for winter. Ambitious? Yes. But with the magic of work parties, one afternoon can slay a year’s procrastination.
At this particular work party, we got most of what we’d planned done. We got the counter, sink, and dishwasher in. Seven years later, the thermostat is still saving me money. The woodwork in the foyer looks great. But we ended up needing to hire Patty and Roger for a few more hours the next week to finish putting up the cabinets. This is a secret of the work crew’s enterprising magic: It doesn’t all get done in four hours. But the party puts the project on the calendar, and with a dozen people arriving, there’s no turning back. Much of the work gets done during the preparations for the work party, and usually there’s finish work to do after the families go home.
Still, the infusion of energy, mud, and community into your home can get things done that you might never accomplish on your own. Over the years, we have landscaped yards, built raised beds, installed a DSL, organized recipe files, put in skylights, painted living rooms, fixed wiring, weatherized decks, pieced together shattered pottery, and moved thousands of pounds of compost. The kids have painted benches, potted plants, picked tomatoes, pulled wallpaper, made Mother’s Day presents, and even created a free snack-delivery service for all the grown-ups working around the house and yard.
Our Full Moon Work Crew is now eight years old and numbers five families. Each family gets to have the crew at their house once a year. At first we tried to schedule the crews on the full moon, but we soon realized that we were lucky to find any weekend that would work for everyone. Besides our own, only one other of the original families is still on the crew, but we’ve had no trouble finding new families who want to join. I had a divorce three years ago, and the other families have been understanding about my having fewer adult work hours to offer each work crew. Some of the families have children, some don’t. We don’t keep track of hours given or received; if you miss a work crew, you don’t need to make it up. It’s the spirit of helping that fuels us.
I got the idea of starting a work crew from a friend in rural Ohio. Her Full Moon Work Crew is almost 25 years old and still includes several of the original members. I recently heard that Patty and Roger’s friends have started a work crew, based on ours, with neighbors who all live on the same street. It doesn’t take much work to keep these parties going. With e-mail, you can easily send out reminders for upcoming crews. And because it’s a pleasure to do someone else’s chores, the work crew seems to give back more than it takes. What it seems to give back most is more magic.
My son, Sage, is now about to turn 13. Annie is nine. They can’t remember life without work crews—they assume that families help each other out. For the most recent crew at our house, my children got to decide on the day’s tasks. Sage asked Roger to spend all his four hours on our family’s funky tree house—an inherently challenging task for a finish carpenter, but Roger left the tree house safer and more beautiful. Annie asked that Patty fix a door she’d slammed one too many times. And both wanted help putting up Halloween decorations.
After a few years of doing the work crew, we decided it wasn’t enough just to help each other—we wanted to give back to our community. With agreement from all our members, including the young ones, we decided to tithe one crew a year to a nonprofit organization. That year, we gave away a January crew to a local women’s homeless shelter. At that time we had a licensed electrician on the crew; she rewired lights, while the other adults painted the bathroom and the kids dusted every surface they could reach. Last year we worked with a local nonprofit to build a ramp for an elderly family with two members in wheelchairs and to clear massive weeds from their yard.
We’ve also added some pure fun to the crew. Now we go camping the first weekend in August to enjoy each other’s company, pick huckleberries, and toast marshmallows. Next to our favorite camping spot is a big lake with a crumbling dock. We’re tempted, but so far we haven’t gotten it together to bring wood and tools to fix the dock. Lazily sitting around the fire with huckleberry pancakes in our tummies, we know the magic is not in the work but in the friendship.
For more information about mothers supporting each other, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Finding Your Tribe,” no. 102; “Helping Hands,” no. 68; and “Mother to Mother,” no. 48. For more related material, go to www.mothering.com
Sara Kirschenbaum juggles writing, family life, pets (four chickens, three cats, a bunny, a frog, and a beehive), and a full-time job. Her article “More Than Blue,” about her experience with postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, appeared in Mothering no. 74.
Photo courtesy of the author.