“Have we ever left for vacation this late?” June wondered. It was 6:15 Friday evening and we were pulled up at a gas station, waiting for our turn to fill up the tank for our drive to Rehoboth Beach.
I told her that once, before she and Noah were born, Beth had to work so late we didn’t leave for the beach until 10 p.m. and we got there at 1:00 a.m. Beth doesn’t work that late anymore, but she did have a 4:00 meeting that meant she couldn’t cut out mid-afternoon, as I’d hoped. As a result, our annual Christmas shopping weekend trip was getting off to a later start than I’d anticipated.
We were lucky to be going at all. I’d only made the reservations on Monday, after weeks of wavering about whether to take the trip. Due to other obligations, the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend was the only one that worked. It would mean traveling two weekends in a row and getting behind in household chores, plus we’ve been making an effort to be more frugal lately.
I like the Christmas shopping trip for a few reasons—first off, it’s an excuse to go to the beach. But away from the distractions of home, it is much easier to focus on shopping and we often get quite a lot of it done. Also, Santa’s house on the boardwalk is the very best place to visit him. It’s scenic, free, and there’s never much of a line. Despite all the advantages of the trip, an oceanfront hotel room in Rehoboth is not cheap, even in the off-season. But in the end, I couldn’t bear the idea of not going, so we went.
Normally, it throws me into a panic to have the kids up well past their bedtimes. It has to do with them both being terrible sleepers well into the preschool years, and only fair sleepers now. When they’re up late it dredges up that feeling that none of us is ever going to get any sleep again. Given all that, I felt surprisingly calm to be leaving the Taco Bell near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where we dined, only about a third of the way to our destination, at 7:50, five minutes past June’s bedtime. Maybe it was the call of the beach or maybe it was personal growth. You be the judge.
June fell asleep around 8:20 and remained asleep until we arrived at the hotel at 9:35. By 10:00, we were checked in and the kids were in bed. They were poking each other and bickering when I stepped out onto the balcony to watch the ocean for fifteen minutes and when I came back in they were quiet and awake, but drowsy-looking. I got ready for bed and crawled into bed, too.
I’d hoped we might all sleep in, as we’d all been up past our respective bedtimes, but I woke at 5:45 and couldn’t get back to sleep and the kids were awake and whispering loudly to each other by 6:10. We didn’t even bother making them stay quiet until 7:00, even though that is the weekend rule. We were all out of bed by 6:45, and June and I were out the door at 7:10, on a scouting mission to see if Gallery Espresso was open yet. It wasn’t and there was no sign indicating when it might open, so June and I wandered Rehoboth Avenue and the boardwalk, gathering intelligence on open restaurants and then we played on the beach, while we waited for Beth and Noah to be ready to leave the hotel.
The early morning light turned the sand an apricot color, while each little hollow lay in blue-gray shadow. The sea and wet sand near the shoreline were silvery and the last pink of the sunrise was just fading from the sky. It was hard to imagine anything more lovely.
Gallery Espresso finally opened at eight and we had pumpkin crepes (Noah and me) and bagels (June and Beth) for breakfast. Beth started to teach June to play chess, and then we split up to shop. June and I shopped downtown Rehoboth while Beth and Noah hit the outlets. In addition to Christmas shopping, they needed to get underwear for him because I’d left his suitcase on my bed at home and even though he’d decided it would be fun to wear the same clothes for three days in a row, I decided clean underwear was the bare minimum effort we needed to make not to be negligent parents. (We leave suitcases behind all the time. It’s our specialty. We left Noah’s at home on a trip to the Outer Banks the summer he was eight, and Beth and June left theirs behind just this summer on a camping trip. It no longer fazes us much.)
June and I had a very productive morning. We got her gifts for my sister Sara, Beth and Noah, and she found a Groovy Girl doll bed and she decided to ask Santa for it. This was a more easily obtainable item than “climbing equipment,” which was her most recent idea for a Santa-request. We didn’t have a jungle gym in our budget and it wasn’t even clear that was what she meant because when I said, “like playground equipment?” she said no. We were pondering a promise of an outing to a gym with a climbing wall, but the doll bed was sounding good. June liked the idea because apparently she’d wanted it on a previous trip to a toy store and Beth wouldn’t buy it—prime Santa material. All I had to do was wait to make sure she actually did ask Santa for it and didn’t change her mind in the next few hours.
Satisfied with our morning’s shopping, we headed to the beach to play. Beth and Noah soon joined us and the kids spent almost an hour making sand castles. It was heartwarming to see Noah happily engaged in this activity. He’ll be twelve in the spring and I don’t know how many more times I’ll see the sight of him sprawled on the sand, shaping one of his creations.
The kids thought we should have a sand castle contest. I said I’d be the judge, and there would be at least two categories. June won “best use of shells” for her shell-topped and ringed castles. Noah won for “cleanest lines” (he smashed a few castles until he got a perfect, uncrumbled impression of the pail) and “best use of shadow.” He’d filled in the long shadow of his castle with a heap of sand to give the shadow a slightly raised texture.
For lunch we tried a boardwalk restaurant where we’d never eaten, mainly because there’s often nothing vegetarian on the menu, but Beth checked and they had a few options. It’s on the second floor, over an arcade, so we knew it must have a nice view. The view was in fact lovely, and the food was mostly okay, despite slow, surly service and oddly thin and grainy milkshakes. On the whole, I thought it was a win, though Beth may disagree. I do tend to put a lot of emphasis on an ocean view.
After lunch, Noah and I read in the hotel lounge while Beth and June did more shopping. And then it was time for Santa.
I never thought June would believe in Santa longer than Noah did. He’s more trusting by nature, and she’s more prone to skepticism. When they were babies Noah smiled at everyone he saw, while June watched the world suspiciously from the safety of my arms. But Noah’s also scientific-minded and logical, where June loves magic and romance. She’s the age Noah was when his belief in Santa crumbled under the weight of the logical impossibilities (“Where Santa is Real,” 12/10/07) but so far June’s faith shows no sign of wavering. She has questions, of course. Does Santa fly home to the North Pole every night after visiting with children on the boardwalk or does he stay in a hotel? Perhaps our hotel? Is it possible that it’s not really Santa in the house, but a helper? However, the core of her belief seems unshaken.
She was nervous about the visit, which surprised me because she wasn’t last year and it seemed like a regression. “I don’t know him very well,” she explained. Even though I told her she didn’t have to sit on his lap, she did without any hesitation, and she told him she wanted the doll bed. Noah sat on Santa’s lap, too, for fun or for June’s sake, and he said he wanted a $400 gift certificate for Apple. Santa seemed taken aback and we rushed to assure him that a smaller sum would suffice.
After Santa, I left the kids with Beth and made a beeline for the doll bed, because Beth said the last time she’d been to that store, there was only one left. They have free gift wrapping there and the wrapper was a chatty elderly woman who wanted to know all about the recipients of the doll bed and something else I was getting for Noah. When I said the kids were with their other mom, she wanted to tell me all about her older brother who came out in the 1950s and “had to move to San Francisco.” She still seemed sad about his departure and she said she was glad there was more social acceptance now. So I was obliged to tell her we live in Maryland and we’re getting married next month. I think I made her day she was so happy for us.
I had time for a solo walk on the beach before I was supposed to meet Beth and the kids for dinner at Grotto at 5:00. At 4:10, the light was very similar to how it had been at 7:30. The sand was golden-pink again; the water silvery. As the afternoon progressed, the sky grew pinker, until it was half-covered with puffy, vividly colored clouds.
At Grotto, the kids went over to the Christmas tree display at the back of the restaurant. Local charities decorate trees and set donation boxes underneath. Beth gave the kids some money to donate. June donated to the prettiest trees. Noah tried to take the mission of the charity into account, but it was hard because a lot them were foundations with uninformative names. He did say it helped if “they made an effort” with the tree. On the way out of the restaurant, June got a balloon she named Balloony and wore tied around her wrist on and off for the rest of the weekend.
At the hotel, I bathed June and then took her down to the lounge to read Toys Go Out and assorted Christmas books while Noah practiced percussion in our room until June’s bedtime.
The next morning we had breakfast at Gallery Espresso again and again we had to wait for them to open so Noah read Toys Go Out to June in the lounge, which we shared with a woman and a baby. I was able to do my own thing while they read and I wondered if the woman was looking forward to having self-entertaining children or thinking with horror “They still get up at the crack of dawn at that age?”
After breakfast, Beth and Noah went back to the room so he could do some homework and I tried to take June to the beach, but it was foggy and chilly and she quit on me after ten minutes. I hated to leave as the waves were big and beautiful to watch, but it seemed important to keep the kids separated so Noah could work, so instead of leaving her with Beth, I took her back to the lounge, where she drew and I wrote.
When it was time to check out of the hotel, we loaded up the car, left it in the hotel parking garage and walked to a jeweler’s to shop for wedding rings. We weren’t sure if we were going to buy or just look–the big day is just around the corner, and we thought if we saw something we liked it would be nice to give our business to a gay-friendly establishment, of which there are plenty in Rehoboth. In fact, in this store, in the corner where you sit to look at rings and get your fingers sized there was a framed poster of three kissing couples in wedding attire—one straight, one gay male and one lesbian–with the slogan “Traditions Evolve.”
It didn’t take long to choose. We knew what we were after, simple, matching gold bands. We had to decide about carats, width, color and finish and soon Beth was singing a credit card receipt for more than the entire budget for our original commitment ceremony. (We did that ceremony on the cheap, as we were young and broke. It was a potluck in our apartment.) The clerks, one male and one female, were friendly and congratulatory. When we were finished, the man brought out some homemade peanut butter fudge to celebrate. News of our nuptials spread joy wherever we go apparently.
We had lunch and ran down to the beach to say goodbye to the ocean. On the walk toward the beach June kept saying she couldn’t wait for Christmas. This year she’s just as excited about the gifts she picked for other people as the gifts she’ll receive. Three weeks seems like an impossibly long wait to her but to me it seems a pleasant span of time to plan and look forward to the holiday.
At the beach Noah and I and waded into the waves while June watched a few steps behind us. I was wearing rubber boots, but Noah was barefoot. He screamed from the cold but he was laughing at the same time, and he stayed in for twelve waves, just as he said he would. We’re big on doing what we said we would, all four of us.
It was the first day of Advent the day we left the beach, the day we bought the rings. We are not Christians, but it seemed fitting to do this at the beginning of a season of joyful anticipation. We’re not having a wedding per se because we’ve done that already. It will just be Beth and me and the kids and the officiant at our house one Friday morning in mid-January, on the twenty-first anniversary of our commitment ceremony. We’ll dress up and there will be flowers and the rings of course. I’m thinking of that as the day as being like renewing our vows. We’ll all speak a bit about what being part of our family means to us, and of course, we’ll legally formalize our relationship. Like Christmas, it’s a joyful thing on the horizon.