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Make a Circle

Children’s books are better today than they were when my own children were small. At least, I think they are. It’s possible that good books existed in the late- to mid-1970s and 1980s, and I lacked the leisure to find them on the shelves. Going to the library in those days didn’t mean searching for quality titles that would educate and amuse my offspring. Mostly, I was watching my daughters, lest one of them decide to barrel through the library’s doors and into traffic.

My older daughter did that as a matriculating toddler. We were in a shoe store, on such a warm spring day that the store owner had propped his door open. While I was writing a check for little sandals, my daughter shot out the door, straight into our town’s busy main street. A passerby brought her back inside, no doubt wanting a look at this poor child’s awful mother. I trembled for weeks.

That experience made me (even more) vigilant and taught me to be grateful for each day that did not include a near-death experience. Perhaps that’s one reason we glommed on to the cheerful, cozy poetry of Arnold Adoff. Adoff and his wife, novelist Virginia Hamilton, lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio, not all that far from our own rural farmhouse. While Hamilton earned many literary accolades for her work, my daughters, still too young for chapter books, loved Adoff’s free verse about family, children, and food. The title poem of one of his books was a favorite and became part of the family lexicon: “make a circle / keep us / in.”

We started saying it as grace before meals. Although we joked about its brevity — food never had a chance to get cold around our table — the six-word prayer that wasn’t exactly a prayer expressed our feelings about family, about our interdependence, about our bond, about our awareness that life is always changing.

Life did change. Both daughters grew up, earned degrees, and married. One evening we met them and their husbands at a restaurant, and our younger daughter handed my husband a birthday gift. When he opened the present, a copy of Make a Circle Keep Us In: Poems for a Good Day (1975, Delacorte), it was like coming upon an old friend. The (now out-of-print) book fell open to that poem, the poem, because my daughter and son-in-law had put an ultrasound picture between those two pages.

Five years and three grandchildren later, our expanded family still joins hands at any meal we share together and says these now very familiar words. My younger daughter visited a local letterpress company and came away with posters of the family grace, which now hang in three dining rooms. For several months, my younger grandson took such delight in making a circle that he insisted his family hold hands several times a meal. “Make a circle, keep us...” the others would say, and then, his solo, performed with gusto: “in!”

Life is always changing, and that grandson, just two, has already outgrown his solo. His brother and cousin, both five years old, are kindergartners fast becoming lured in by popular culture. These children have good, strong parents, and those parents’ values will steady their well-loved progeny. I hope my grandchildren will grow to share those values with others, including their own children, in an ever-widening circle of love and trust. And of course I also hope Adoff’s poetry stays in the family.

“Make a circle, keep us in.” It’s as devout as a prayer needs to be, and as reverent. Amen.
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.

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