Motherhood has long provided fertile ground for the writer.
One thinks first of the tormented poets, who perhaps weren't ideally suited to the challenges of raising youngsters: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Then, on the upbeat end of the spectrum, Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, who made us laugh at the foibles and pratfalls, joys and tears of bringing up kids in a complex world.
The struggle to be creative while pursuing life's most traditional role is a tricky balancing act. To do it well calls for resilience, creativity and humor. To write about it well calls for imagination, talent and the good sense to hold the line at a subject made so easily maudlin.
Billings author Virginia Tranel has all the essential ingredients, and her first book, "Ten Circles Upon the Pond: Reflections of a Prodigal Mother," is proof that motherhood's rewards can be rich and varied, but that the challenges of "doing it right" are many.
The chapters unfold, one for each of 10 children, flashing back and forth between birthings and trips to college, christenings and conversations, even arguments, with adult children.
The reader respects Tranel's ability to soothe and heal, advise, consent and say just plain "no."
She doesn't pretend to be perfect at the job. In fact, she admits eloquently how each child has taught her a thing or two, helping her confront insecurities and make sense of herself.
Always, her husband, Ned, is an important part of the pond's pastiche, maintaining a wise and steady presence, contributing love, strength and a Midwestern sense of "do the work" irony.
"So is this a democracy after all?" one son asks, during a debate over who commands the wheel on a family driving trip.
"No," says Ned. "It's a family."
Tranel's sense of rhythm is echoed in nature, important to her and ever surrounding the family, whose roots are as much a part of the natural world as the pond itself. Her title metaphor is an apt one, for the pond is fertile ground, as Tranel obviously is, on several levels.
The prolific couple established its own growing season, through 10 children born during a busy
21-year period between 1957 and 1978.
Raised Catholic and Iowa-born, Tranel headed into the rural West with Ned, and, within a year of marriage, the first child emerged, a child who as an adult would challenge Tranel's reproductive choices. The book discusses having such a large family in these times and talks about many other contemporary issues and the ways in which families are affected by, even split over them.
There's a nod to the older generation - lovely passages about grandparents. In one, a grandmother, the child's only surviving grandparent, describes the departed grandpa, patiently replying to the youngster's questions about his face, his shoe size and whether he liked pizza and adding a provocative passage about their romance a half-century earlier.
Most pleasing of all is how we watch the children mature, transcending sibling rivalries and personal trauma.
We watch as Tranel recalls "absorbed play" of the boy maturing to "craftsmanship of the man." When the family worries about an architect son, present in New York during the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, Tranel uses the opportunity to discuss her religion, the family's spirituality and Islam.
We watch a daughter pursue her art career, inviting her self-described naive "Midwestern mother with an uncanny ability to get lost" to visit her in Madrid. It is fun to see a foreign spin on the traditional role reverse as Tranel is led about in a happy daze of art, food and tapas bars, all to her surprise and delight.
It is a rite of passage, perhaps more for the mother than for the daughter, as another circle begins.
Throughout the readable book are thoughtful reflections on family life, woven like a Spanish tapestry into the day-to-day discoveries of the writer and the large and small events of the world.
The book examines the writer's own personal evolution, along with that of the children. The long, happy marriage is scrutinized, too, often with self-deprecating humor:
"Perhaps it began months ago, the night I realized that there we were, two cradle Catholics propped up on pillows reading side by side in bed but worlds apart. He was engrossed in the Bible. I was reading Marguerite Duras's 'The Lover.' Only the Song of Solomon could have redeemed the scene."
As the oldest in a spirited family of brothers and sisters, I particularly enjoyed the passages about sibling arguments and bonding. Reminiscences of "The Sound of Music" reminded me of happy childhood moments, and Tranel ties "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" to a First Communion.
The laughing, tears, chatter and complaints of a large, loving family shine vividly in Tranel's collection of essays, which she artfully connects, using each child as a different-colored skein in her tapestry.
Mental health, puberty, passion, desire, insecurity, anger, anxiety and travail all take a turn in "Ten Circles …".
This family's pond, while ever-changing, is grounded in safety and the knowledge that a loving family is something to cherish.
Christene Meyers may be reached at 657-1243 or at email@example.com.