Mother's Biography Describes Trials, Triumphs of Large Families

Reprinted with Permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald



Ten Circles Upon the Pond - Reflections of a Prodigal Mother
by Virginia Tranel. Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 2003). 318 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Frances McCarthy
Herald Staff Writer
(From the issue of 7/29/04)

Married at 21, Ned and Virginia Tranel, mid-Western Catholics, immediately created a family. They had their first child, Daniel Thomas, nine months after the wedding. Between 1957 and 1978, across six states, the Tranel family continued to grow to a total of 10 children.

In her book, Ten Circles Upon the Pond - Reflections of a Prodigal Mother, Tranel describes events in her life from her wedding day through her youngest child’s college graduation. Focusing each chapter on one of her children, she explains how she perhaps urged her youngest child to grow up quickly, the lessons her children taught each other and herself, and the unique bond between a mother and each of her children.

When questioned about why she had so many children, Tranel tried to imagine her life without all of them. What if she’d only had two or three, who would she choose? But of course she couldn’t choose. "I wanted each one," she said. "Each revealed a new dimension of life. I liked seeing my days from that broadened perspective."

While at first she had to deal with stares and questions from strangers and neighbors when they saw the growing Tranel family, in the early ’90s she was faced with accusations from her own first-born. Daniel presented his mother with an article titled "Environmentalists: Ban the (Population) Bomb." The article blamed overpopulation for the depleting ozone, global warming and the world’s other major environmental problems.

"A mix of anger and dismay gripped me," she said. "My son had turned on me. I felt compelled to justify my life, to explain my choices to him, to rebut his Malthusian attack. I wanted to tell him about the idealism of my youth, the honeymoon that gave him life, but his face would take on the skeptical look science trained him to use."

While many of Tranel’s colorful stories focus on the roles of family members and the bonds of children and siblings, several transcended beyond her specific family, being relevant to the entire country, and perhaps the world as a whole.

Her ninth child, Benedict, was a creative boy who enjoyed building things even in his youth. Ben became an architect and was working in New York in September 2001.

In her book, Tranel shares the e-mails Ben sent home to his family following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Although at first they were full of anger and a want for vengeance and retribution, eventually, there was hope.

In an e-mail, Ben said: "Architects feel a kind of helplessness in the aftermath of these events, wondering, ‘Is there something we could have done to keep those buildings standing, even for ten more minutes?’ And in the longer term, ‘What does it mean for our cities when buildings that symbolize society become targets?’ But right now, it’s 8 a.m. in New York and jackhammers are having a field day in the street below as they continue their work constantly upgrading the infrastructure of the city. With the sounds of building and the sight of steel towers under construction in midtown, somehow I know we are going to be ok."

For Tranel, the mother of the architect near the rubble and desolation, "Hope exists in our desire for children, in the commitment to nurture and teach them, in the vulnerability that is the inevitable price of loving them. And hope exists in the e-mail messages of a young architect endeavoring to find meaning in the midst of ruin and grief."

Her stories are personal, but her experiences and advice are universal. Especially in the 10th chapter dedicated to Adrienne, the "baby" of the family, sound bites of wisdom offer advice for any parent, whether they have one or a dozen children.

Some of Tranel’s advice:

Reflecting on having to attend yet another graduation: "Being there when it isn’t convenient is the hallmark of parental love."

On sharing dinner with her children: "When families come together with their hungers at the end of the day, more than bodies are fed."

And on lessening family friction: "It’s tempting to avoid open friction with preventive measures — separate teenage phone lines, individual television sets, a room per child. In a large family, this is impractical; siblings have to work things out and learn to distribute privileges and obligations fairly. Doing so gives them a chance to experience the power of making choices and exerting influence. They develop a sense of responsibility to the group and can relate in ways impossible to parents."

Tranel’s stories and her life experiences evoke a variety of emotions, but on the whole the lighthearted biography shows how a mother’s struggles can lead to her children’s triumphs.

Copyright ©2004 Arlington Catholic Herald. All rights reserved.

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