An eager crew

She toddles across my spent lawn, toting a shoeless doll: Nancy, my two-year old neighbor. "What'cha doing'?" she asks. "I'm digging a trench." Amend that. "A long hole. All around this bed. This flowerm bed."

"I don't see no bed. Who's going to sleep there?" She is distracted by the carton beside my dig. "What's them?"

"Bulbs. I'll plant them -- tuck them in for next spring."

A bewildered pause. (A bulb is smooth, round, hot glass. It's a light. You push a button and light happens. As for spring . . .)

Looking her straight in the eye I slowly explain. "Tulip bulbs. Last year they were yellow flowers." (Last year: half her lifetime.)

"What's yellow?"

I point to the doll's skimpy dress, then back to the bulb's point. "This is yellow. Right here, next spring, yellow flowers will come again. With green leaves." (Straps? Belts?) "Out of this pointy end, a sprout. Then a tulip out of the sprout." Faith.

I'm pressing hard, but she's nodding. "See my doll?"

A critical once-over, noting the tousled wig. "Madge, right? But shouldn't your baby be wearing shoes?"

A bland blue stare: "My dollm is warm enough."

Janet, her year-older sister, joins us. She swishes what passed for braids before the wind and other excitement interfered. Her mother's old pocketbook rests on the ground while she hitches slacks. "What're you doing?"

"Planting bulbs. Did you come for Nancy?" In this neighborhood, one plus one usually totals four or five children in short order. This pair treads too close to the edge of my trench.

"What are bulbs?" Janet asks as I shovel the scuffed dirt out.

Again I display a specimen. "This is one. Do you remember last year's tulips in the backyard?" (No.) "Well, next spring these bulbs will send up green shoots, then yellow flowers. All around this circle you're trampling."

Nancy watches intently: Will Janetm understand? But more immediate mysteries are near. "What's this?"

"A shovel. My best spade." I reclaim it and resume digging.

"What's this?"

"A trowel. My pet trowel. Nobody's to touch it."

"What're you doin'?" "What are these?" Second time around, each.

The trench is as deep as it will be, I decide, kneeling to scoop it. The ground is cold, hard. I step into the garage for my kneeling pad. The girls tag at my heels. "What's that?"

"A slab of foam rubber," says a new voice matter-of-factly. "What are you going to do with it?" Kate, from across the street, is home from kindergarten.Her hair is long and straight. She shivers in a too-thin sweater.

"It's to kneel on. I'm planting bulbs," I sigh.

She's one-up, as usual. "What kind? My mother planted Red Emperors." She's jiggling my spade against a mound, knocking earth back in the trench. "Nobody'sm to touch this." I lean it against the maple. "Or this." (Grab for the trowel.) Her brother, a born experimenter, has materialized.

"Where's Ty?" Matt has a remarkably husky voice for five.

"Home where he belongs."

"He doesn't live here? Why's he always here, then?"

"Because I'm his grandmother. A good baby sitter."

"Is he coming today?"

"Later, this afternoon. Would everyone like to help me?" I locate a small bucket and rush back from the garage to snatch my trowel from Kate.Fists in jean pockets, she nods.

"How about picking up stones and putting them in this pail? If they stay in the bed, they'll crowd the bulbs."

Pushing, they tumble against one another, knocking soil back in, pressing it down.

"Wait. Everybody in position."

"I'm helping," Matthew croaks."When's Ty coming?"

The bulbs are pressed in quickly, too close, but ahead of the predicted snow.

Small Nancy happily staggers under the weight of the half-full bucket. I sight the blue Chevy coming, right signal light blinking. It turns into our drive. Ty grins delightedly from the back seat.

"He's here!" Matt shouts.

The stone salvage enterprise is abandoned. Four henchmen jostle to release Tyler. I pat the last fill with my trowel and creak upright. Ty is being so joyously welcomed he doesn't even see me. "All these kids are waiting for me!" he gloats to his mother.

It is cold and the hour grows late. But who has so cold a heart as to drag a four- year-old indoors after such a reception? "If you promise to stay in the yard, you may play one whole half hour," I arbitrate. "And for all this help I've had, a reward's due."

He pledges the moon as four -- no, five -- pairs of blue, brown, gray eyes fasten on me. "Tyler may pass out the grahams."

"Thanks, Mrs. Dor-dan," says Nancy.

Ty laughs heartily. "Mrs. Dor-dan!m Hey, you know what the silly mailman calls my Gocky? Ar-ma, that's what. Ar-ma!"m All around this circle they gleefully dance.

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