About Steph

Your author, part-time, work-at-home writer.

Goodbyes

Friday

Getting to Ashland is always an adventure. This journey, to attend my stepfather’s memorial service and spend time with family, required three flights and took about fifteen hours, door to door. If Beth hadn’t remembered the night before we left that she’d left the car at the Metro station in the morning and accidentally taken a bus home from work that night in time to retrieve it, we might not have even made the first flight. The second one was nearly cancelled because the crew was close to timing out and then on boarding it Beth discovered another passenger in her seat whose boarding pass had the same seat assignment as hers printed on it. Luckily, they found another seat for her and we didn’t have to decide whether to all get off the plane or to split up and proceed from St. Louis to Portland without her. (She says that’s what we should have done.) After the third flight, to Medford, Oregon, we discovered both Noah’s and June’s luggage had gone astray and in different ways. Noah’s got left in Portland and June’s went to Chicago instead of St. Louis. But on the bright side, no one got a migraine or threw up (despite some sickening turbulence on the second flight). Mom picked us up at the airport and after saying a brief hello to my sister Sara and her boyfriend Dave at her house, we crashed.

Saturday

In the morning, we socialized with the many relatives who had come to town for the service. All my mother’s four siblings and their spouses, plus her cousin Sue, and my cousins Blake and Emily and Emily’s almost-eleven-year-old son Josiah were there. Some of them were camping at nearby Emigrant Lake and others were staying with mom’s friends, so no one had to spring for a hotel, even though my family was taking up all of Mom’s guest space. Whenever we all got together it was a big crowd, and deeply divided one, politically speaking, so I was grateful that everyone kept quiet on that topic. It’s not always that way with my mom’s family so I didn’t take it for granted.

The airline delivered our wayward luggage in the afternoon, after many phone calls from Beth, and June was reunited with her stuffed monkey Muffin. (His absence troubled her more than that of her clothes.)

We had a family birthday party for Sara’s daughter Lan-Lan who just turned four (she’d have a party with friends the next day). There were many presents—art supplies were a popular choice—all received with enthusiasm. “Oh, my goodness!” Lan-Lan exclaimed with each new package.  The two big gifts were two light green, kid-sized, metal patio chairs and a red wagon. Lan-Lan wanted a ride in the wagon right away so Sara took her around the block and June and I tagged along. Then we had cake and ice cream.

The whole crowd went out for pizza and we took over a long row of tables. Beth and I split one with mushrooms, truffle oil, and microgreens. Lan-Lan got restless during a longish wait for food, and Sara, Dave, June, and Josiah (in varying combinations) took turns taking her out on the patio to play hide and seek. While we were eating, Sara asked me if we had any plans for the next day and I said, “Other than your daughter’s birthday party and our stepfather’s memorial service?” and she said, “Yeah, other than that.” So we made plans to go to the playground in Lithia Park in between those events.

Sunday

While Sara, Dave, Lan-Lan, and her friends were hunting Easter eggs and playing pin the tail on the bunny at her party, the rest of the group went out for brunch, and after that Sara, Lan-Lan, June, and I went to the playground. When I saw the big rope climbing structure June has enjoyed on previous trips to Ashland, I said, “It’s a shame you can’t climb that now,” because she’s still in a lace-up ankle brace on one foot and an orthopedic shoe on the other. Can you guess how this story ends? With June at the very top, while Lan-Lan circled the perimeter at the bottom, wanting to go higher and having to content herself with waiting until she’s older.

Sara, June, and Lan-Lan also played Switch, a game they invented then last time we were in Ashland, two Christmases ago. Sara and June push Lan-Lan on the swings from behind and in front and then someone says, “Switch!” and they change places. Sometimes one of them will say, “I feel a switch coming on,” to build the suspense. It’s as hilarious now as it was when Lan-Lan was two and a half, even with June walking instead of running to her new place. And now Lan-Lan will say, “I feel a switch!” to get them to do it.

The memorial service was in the evening. It was held in the tasting room of a winery, surrounded by pear orchards in bloom and mountains. There were beautiful views from every window in the room. The room sat sixty at tables of various sizes and several more people sat at the bar. There were spring flowers, daffodils and tulips my aunt Peggy had arranged, on all the tables. She also designed the program and helped Mom with a lot of details of the ceremony (she arrived a couple days before we did). Josiah greeted people at the door and asked them to sign the guest book. There was a slideshow of photos of Jim and a blown-up photo of him on an easel near the bar. Peggy distributed blank cards and markers so people could share memories of Jim for Mom to paste into the guest book. I settled on a story about how when Sara and I were teens we used to keep a tally of how many of his corny jokes were actually funny, complete with fractions for partial credit, and how he was always a good sport about this ribbing from his new stepdaughters.

My uncle Doug made the opening remarks and introduced speakers. He’s a retired minister so officiating comes naturally to him. He spoke about Jim as a brother-in-law (he’s married to my mother’s sister Diane) and as a friend. Then Sara gave the eulogy, which began with a line she ran by me at the playground earlier in the day, “Jim M. could be a real pain in the butt.” (I’d approved it, but suggested she soften the wording from “ass.”) She then described how a simple question like “Should I get snow tires?” could lead to a dissertation on the history of rubber. She went on to describe his helpful, friendly, outgoing nature, noting that it was impossible to get anywhere on time with him because he always wanted to talk to everyone he met.

I was up next. Because one thing Jim and I had in common, besides a love for my mother was a love for the ocean, so I read this poem, by Pablo Neruda. I chose it for it mostly for the first two stanzas:

Ocean, if you were to give, a measure, a ferment, a fruit
of your gifts and destructions, into my hand,
I would choose your far-off repose, your contour of steel,
your vigilant spaces of air and darkness,
and the power of your white tongue,
that shatters and overthrows columns,
breaking them down to your proper purity.

Not the final breaker, heavy with brine,
that thunders onshore, and creates
the silence of sand, that encircles the world,
but the inner spaces of force,
the naked power of the waters,
the immoveable solitude, brimming with lives.
It is Time perhaps, or the vessel filled
with all motion, pure Oneness,
that death cannot touch, the visceral green
of consuming totality.

Next June spoke about Jim and sang this song. The chorus goes:

Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Everyday

The song seemed appropriate because at Peggy’s suggestion, my mom had deemed the service “a celebration of life” and asked people to wear spring colors instead of black. Six years of musical theater camp and a few months of voice lessons paid off here. People kept coming up to June and us afterward to tell us how impressed they were with her voice and her poise, because at the beginning she was a little teary but then she centered herself and threw herself into the song.

After June sang, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl read original poetry, “Words from Jim,” and “Our Love is Not Transcendental.” Darryl’s poem was about memories of Jim during good times and during his last days, and Peggy’s was about love over long years of marriage. (My mom’s siblings have a lot of experience with this. Mom and Jim were married almost thirty-three years and being a second marriage it was the shortest of the bunch. My uncle Larry and Aunt Berni have been married fifty-five years.)

Several more friends and family members, including Mom’s brothers Steve and Larry, and Jim’s nephew Chuck, spoke.  The service ended with six members of Mom’s peace choir singing a Nigerian folk song about sending the dead on their way. It was lovely.

There was a dinner buffet with lasagna, chicken cacciatore, salad, bread, and three kinds of dessert (cupcakes, brownies, and baklava). I made sure to get a picture of Mom with all her siblings, because they aren’t all together very often. Mom said it went just as she wanted.

Monday

The next day was hard for Mom as her siblings, brothers and sisters-in-law, niece, nephew, and grandnephew all left after a short morning visit and she no longer had ceremony preparations to occupy her. Before Jim had his stroke, she used to watch Lan-Lan on Monday and Friday afternoons and she’d decided to resume after the ceremony, but it turned out she didn’t have to do much other than pick her up from preschool because June entertained Lan-Lan for four hours straight. When it was over June said it was “exhausting” and that she never wanted to hear the word “why” again. But thanks to June, Mom and I could hole up in her room and have a long talk.

June and I went with Mom to get Lan-Lan from her school and I enjoyed seeing it. I have such fond memories of my kids’ preschool and it had a similar vibe. When we arrived, the kids were sitting at an outside table finishing up a lunch of chicken, broccoli, and rice from wooden bowls. Then they got out their cloth napkins and sang a napkin song, designed to get them to wipe their faces.

The yard was small and mostly covered in mulch, with a little garden plot with lettuce growing in it, and a tree house. It’s a Waldorf school, so it’s just a little further down the crunchy scale than the Purple School, if one can judge from so brief a glimpse. (One detail in support of this thesis: one of the one younger siblings at pick-up was named Magic.)

It was Dave’s last day in town (after a two-month stay with Sara helping out during Jim’s health crisis and in the aftermath of his death and with the rental cottage Sara was having built in her yard) so I suggested we have dinner with Sara, Dave, and Lan-Lan. We went out for Chinese. Lan-Lan was overcome with excitement at the prospect of dumplings and she let everyone, including the waitress, know it. Sara and Dave have been dating for almost two years, but we’d never met him before this trip so it was good to have a chance to spend a little time with him in a somewhat smaller group.

Tuesday

We thought we’d said goodbye to Dave, but he delayed his departure by a day to put some finishing touches on the cottage. Jim, Sara, and Dave worked on it for months and it’s turned out nicely. It’s an airy little two-bedroom house painted a cheery yellow. The idea is Sara will rent it until Mom needs to be closer to her, and then Mom will move into it.

So the day after our goodbye-to-Dave dinner, we had a goodbye-to-Dave lunch, where June opened her birthday presents of clothes from Sara, and then Sara and Dave went back to her house, while Mom, Beth, the kids and I proceeded to a tea house so June could have bubble tea. Mom was taking her out shopping for a birthday present and June loves bubble tea so it made sense to start there. She got a hibiscus-mango tea that was quite tasty, but everyone else was too full from lunch to order anything. There was a branch of the tea and spice shop I frequent in Rehoboth across the street and I spoiled Beth’s plan to sneak in and get me some loose hazelnut and chocolate tea for my upcoming birthday by getting the idea first and buying it for myself.

Then we went browsing for Mom’s present for June. She settled on a Harry Potter cookbook. We were going to get hair dye, too, so Sara could dye June’s hair the next day but we didn’t have time, because we were going to Beauty and the Beast. Other than the central problem of any version of this story—which Noah identified as the fact that Belle suffers from Stockholm syndrome—I thought it was well done. Emma Watson was well cast, the other actors and the effects were good and they didn’t mess much with the music.

On the way home, June endured a lecture from both moms about how you shouldn’t get into a relationship with someone who mistreats you in hopes that your love can change him. When that was finished, we discussed which part she might try out for this summer at musical theater camp when they do the play. The beast? That would be casting against type as she’s usually one of the smallest kids at camp. (The director keeps shifting the age range up so it’s largely the same group of kids, which includes the director’s two daughters and June’s always at the young end). Mrs. Potts? Chip? Lumière? Something that utilizes her gift for comic timing would be good, the adults agreed. Once home, she shut herself up in her room and sang songs from the movie for a long time.

That evening Sara threw an impromptu party in the cottage to christen it before renters move in this weekend. Mom, June, and I went, met some of Sara’s friends and neighbors and said a third goodbye to Dave.

Wednesday

In the morning, Beth and June took a walk so Beth could admire the mountains that ring Ashland. We’d hoped to make it up to Crater Lake on this trip, but it was overcast and Mom says it’s prettier on sunny days when you can really see the blue of the water, so we didn’t go.

One thing we did do was see a play. Ashland’s a theater town and though this was our third trip, this was the first time we’d been to the theater there. We’d hoped to see Julius Caesar because Noah just read it for school, but it wasn’t playing any of the days we were free, so went to Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. It’s about Korean and Korean-American identity, and barriers between people, generations, countries, myth and reality, and the living and the dead. I recommend it if you’re going to be in Ashland any time between now and October.

Sara came over to Mom’s house later in the afternoon to dye June’s hair (we picked up the dye before we went to the play). She gave her mermaid green streaks in front and red ones on the sides of her head. There was blue in the back, too, but it came out fainter than they intended and it’s hard to see what with the fading dye that was already there. I think the red streaks looks nice, though, and it’s a new color for her.

We went over to Sara’s house after the dye job and made tacos. Lan-Lan’s babysitter was there giving her a bath as we arrive and soon there was a tiny streaker in the house. She did consent to put on underpants to dine. While we ate, she kept up a running commentary about how she is bigger than baby but June is bigger than her. She’s very chatty and even more full of energy than my kids at that age, though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a four year old, so maybe I just don’t remember. We said our goodbyes to Lan-Lan with a big group hug and then went back to Mom’s house where Mom, June and I watched a PBS documentary about wildlife conservation in Puerto Rico after Beth fixed a glitch with the television. (Earlier in the day she fixed Mom’s lazy Susan, too.) As we watched it, Sara called to see if she’d said goodbye, because she couldn’t remember if she had said it when we left. Beth joked that she must want as many goodbyes as Dave got.

Thursday

Mom drove us to the Medford airport in the morning and we said our curbside goodbyes, but not for too long, because Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan are all coming to Rehoboth Beach to spend a week with us in late June. I’m looking forward to it. Time with family is always precious, but even more so right now while we’re all especially aware of how unpredictable life is.

All Around the World

June’s in physical therapy three times a week now, which we hope will eventually get her back on her feet. At her last orthopedist appointment, she was issued a new boot, so now she has one for each foot. The second boot allows her to propel herself on the kneeling scooter we’d been using to push her around to house, when she’s wearing them, that is. (She often takes them off because she finds them uncomfortable.)

Thursday was notable because it was the only morning last week June didn’t have a medical appointment of some kind. It was also her birthday. I found Noah’s old number eleven shirt and asked if she wanted to wear it to school. She did. While I wheeled her out of school that afternoon and asked about her day, she said Zoë showered her with homemade confetti at lunch. She seemed pleased by this.

That evening we had a lemon Bundt cake from the grocery store after dinner (we were saving her birthday cake for her party) and she opened presents—coupons for a weekend trip to New York and a dye job for her hair, a book and a promise of another, headphones, rods for her 3D pen and a lot of clothes. Some were spring or summer clothes, others were related to the international theme of her party. She got a baseball-style shirt with a world map on it, a t-shirt with camel, another with tropical birds, and pajamas with an assortment of Australian animals.

Friday after school, Megan came over to help with party preparations. She and June made the pieces for the Pin-Australia-on-the-Map game by outlining the continent onto tracing paper and then using that as a model to cut out several copies out of construction paper. Then they wrote the name of a party guest on each game piece and decorated them. Next, they printed a world map to tape to a blue balloon and researched international party games. They were hampered in this by the fact that a lot of the games they found required more mobility than June has right now. They settled on Statues, which they decided could stand for Greece, and Pass the Parcel, which is apparently the British name for Hot Potato. From the name, they got the idea to use June’s birthday presents as the parcels. I asked if they wanted to fill the goody bags but June said they could do it before the party, as Megan was coming over an hour early the next day.

After June’s guitar lesson (which was held in a first-floor storefront under the music school to accommodate her injury), Beth and I spent most of Saturday cleaning, decorating, shopping for party food, and baking. I spread the table with the international flag tablecloth and Beth set up the flag centerpiece and hung the flag banner over the living room. Wasn’t Beth’s world map cake a thing of beauty? It was her first time working with fondant. I told her motherhood has revealed hidden talents in her.

Around two-thirty, two and a half hours before party time, we got a phone call from one of the guests who had to cancel. June was upset because this particular girl has a history of no shows, because she’s in sixth grade and now they’re not at the same school they see less of each other, and also because it was now too late to invite someone else. (I’d told her she could have five guests and she’d only have four.)

But she recovered as party time approached. She took a bath and changed into the Indian blouse and skirt Beth found for her at the thrift store. June had requested her guests come in international costume if they had one.

Megan, wearing a beautiful Mexican dress and veil, arrived a little after four. She and June set to work decorating the gift bags with stickers with the names of different countries and stuffing them with pencils and erasers with the flags of different countries, Eiffel Tower and fleur de lis lollipops, globe stress balls, and rubber ducks in international costumes. (I always enjoy this aspect of June’s parties. A few weeks earlier, when it was time to send out invitations she and I went through a desk drawer where we keep free greeting cards from non-profits and picked out a few different designs—an African village scene, the Eiffel Tower, and cherry blossoms to represent Japan—and we taped a sheet with the party information into them and I bought some Chinese New Year stamps to mail them.)

The party guests started to arrive. Naomi wore a lovely Guatemalan skirt with a white blouse. Zoë and Evie took a more casual approach. Zoë’s t-shirt had a wallaby on it and Evie’s said Bahamas. It was a warm day, around 75 degrees, so the guests hung out on the porch talking before they came inside to play Pass the Parcel. As each round ended, June opened the presents. She got a Japanese paper lantern kit and a set of Peruvian worry dolls, among other presents. A couple of the homemade cards featured either a drawing or watercolor of the Earth, which I thought was a nice touch.

The guest were mingling well. I’d wondered if Naomi, who’s in fourth grade, would feel left out but I forgot she’s in Girls on the Run so she knew almost everyone. I also wondered if June chose to invite kids in different grades this year to prevent excessive discussion of who got into what middle school magnet. After she was waitlisted at the humanities magnet, we found out a couple weeks ago that she was not admitted.

While Beth and Noah went to get the pizza, I set up the taco fixings on the dining room table. June’s idea of an international buffet consisted of pizza, tacos, and a pitcher of mango lassi, which Beth made earlier in the day. We ate on Union Jack plates, with Eiffel Tower napkins, and Chinese dragon cups.

After dinner and cake, everyone moved into the living room where we watched Mulan. (Later I wondered if I missed an educational opportunity by not steering June toward an actual foreign film for kids, but as she gets older I leave more and more of the party planning to her.) Anyway, it was a popular choice. The guests were critical of how the girls had to doll themselves up for the matchmaker and of the soldiers’ view of women in the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” and they cheered when Mulan saved the day in the palace scene.

After the movie, the girls got into their pajamas and played Mafia. They came back to this game in the morning. June’s basketball team played it at the end-of-season party, as well. It’s all the rage in the late elementary school set. When I joked about it being sort of international, since the Mafia originated in Sicily, they all looked at me blankly and June asked, “What is the Mafia?” Turns out no-one knew.

I eavesdropped on their bedtime conversation a bit, as that’s a duty of a mother at a slumber party, I think. The most interesting moment was when they were trying to come up with a definition for the word “pervert.” They decided it meant a peeping Tom.

Soon after that I turned out the lights and left. I’m not sure how late they stayed up. I told them to be quiet by ten and they were more or less quiet by ten-thirty, quiet enough for Beth and me to get to sleep anyway. By 6:40 they were all up, so Beth started toasting bagels and I set the table with cream cheese, butter, and fruit salad and took the girls’ orders for orange juice, milk, or water.

After they played Mafia again and got dressed, we moved out to the porch where Beth had strung up the Chinese dragon piñata and I’d taped a big world map to the house. They all got a couple turns swinging at the piñata until it showered candy, erasers, and temporary tattoos down on them. I was going to help collect candy for my hobbled daughter, but was she was doing a pretty good job crawling around for it herself so I quit.

Next, they played Pin-Australia-on-the-Map. The reason June wanted the guests’ names on their playing pieces was so we could know who got closest to the right location. But this took most of the guesswork out of the game, as June got close on the first try and then everyone felt for the existing cutouts on the map and all the Australias ended up at least partially on top of each other. Nonetheless, Zoë was declared the winner as hers most closely overlapped Australia on the map.

Most of the last forty minutes of party time was spent in trading piñata candy and tchotchkes. Parents started arriving at ten and ten minutes later a profound quiet had settled over the house, the quiet of a house suddenly emptied of tween girls.

“Well, now you’re done turning eleven,” Beth said.

Happy birthday, dear June. Maybe someday your adventures will take you all around the world. But for now, I’d settle for seeing you walk to the school bus stop.

Head to Toe

I think I’ve failed to mention here that June broke her ankle again. That actually happened around three weeks ago, at basketball practice. She got knocked over during a scrimmage and re-broke the growth plate of her right fibula, right where she broke it in October. She got a new boot and was getting around okay until her left foot started to bother her. We assumed it was strained from walking with the boot but about a week and a half ago the pain got worse and then she couldn’t walk at all. Beth took her to urgent care and they x-rayed that foot. It wasn’t broken, but she was rendered immobile. 

We took her to the end-of-season Panda party (hosted as usual by Talia’s family) because she begged to go, and we all ended up having a good time. June held court from her chair and when the girls wanted to go outside and run around, we helped her to a bench, where she could sit and watch. I think she might have been giving out clues in some kind of mystery game they invented.

She stayed home from school Monday and Tuesday there was no school because of a weather event. We got three inches of the white stuff. It was the first school cancellation of the year and it was unlikely June would have gone to school that day anyway so I couldn’t be too grouchy about it. It was kind of sad, though, because June was too hurt to go play outside and while I might have been able to convince Noah to take June sledding if she’d been able-bodied, he wasn’t going to do it alone, so everyone just stayed inside. I ghost wrote a blog post on apple cider vinegar and Noah worked on a research paper. (I did make hot chocolate for the kids and brownies that evening because Beth was in the mood, so I was not a completely inadequate winter mother and wife).

Megan came over for a play date and as June was bed-ridden, they decided to play hospital. Soon June’s room was supplied with an EKG graph, an IV line, and other medical accoutrement.

That night right before I got into the shower, June, who was in bed but not asleep, started complaining of dizziness. Beth said she’d come back and check on her in a little bit. When I got out of the shower, June was sobbing. The dizziness had worsened and she was seeing double. When June cried, “I can’t move my hands!” Beth said, “Call 911,” and I did.

Soon there were three paramedics in June’s bedroom. (I wondered later if they noticed the prescient medical décor.) They did a good job calming her down so she stopped hyperventilating and after asking some questions, they carried her out to the ambulance waiting in front of our house. I rode with her to the hospital and Beth and Noah followed in the car. I was grateful it hadn’t happened the night before when the streets were slushy.

We had to wait a little while in the ER, which Beth said was a good sign, that they weren’t taking her right away. Eventually, June got signed in. Beth and I could go with her to the exam room, but Noah had to stay behind. During a lull in all the tests, Beth drove him back home so he could get some sleep.

Over the course of the night, we saw many, many medical professionals and nearly everyone was truly kind, caring, and reassuring. (Over and over we had to say we were both June’s mothers and I thought how not very long ago, this would have been harder than it was for us. We were even in a Catholic hospital and it was a non-issue.)

June had an EKG, a CT scan, and an MRI, plus blood work. Everything was normal and her blood pressure, which had risen into the 140s over the 90s, probably from stress, also returned to normal. So, we knew she didn’t have a skull fracture, blood on her brain, or a brain tumor. (No one said anything about what they were looking for until they knew it wasn’t an issue, which I kind of appreciated, but of course Beth and I were both already thinking brain tumor, and not saying it to each other either.) However, despite all these tests, June still had all the symptoms that brought her to the hospital.

Around four in the morning, they transferred us to Children’s Medical Center, so June could see a pediatric neurologist. I rode in the ambulance again and Beth drove. It was eerie driving along familiar streets in downtown Silver Spring and D.C. in the dead of night. I was surprised how much traffic there was along Georgia Avenue, even though nothing but gas stations was open. The driver was kind of chatty so I asked him if he always worked nights. He said yes. I told him it was only my third time staying up all night and the first two times I was in labor.

All night June had been staying calm, putting up with new and scary tests and getting pricked with needles multiple times. She had an IV of saline at the first hospital and then another one with more saline and migraine medication at the second hospital. But soon after arriving at Children’s, she lost her resilience. She was crying and saying she just wanted it to be over and to go home. (I might have lost my composure earlier in the ordeal than she did.) One difficulty was that the IV fluids made her need to use the bathroom urgently and because she couldn’t walk and she couldn’t go in a bedpan, we had to get her unhooked and take her there in a wheelchair every time and this meant she was often uncomfortable because had to wait until someone could disconnect her IV.

But the second IV drip started to relieve some of her symptoms. She gradually re-gained the ability to move her fingers and toes and her hands warmed up. (They’d been ice cold earlier.)  The pauses between visits from medical professionals started to get longer and around 6:15 June fell asleep on her gurney and slept there most of the morning whenever she wasn’t being examined. Beth and I dozed off in our plastic chairs as well. I slept around forty-five minutes in two pieces.

When we got a diagnosis, it was complications of a migraine. It was a little surprising because although she did have a headache it wasn’t severe and it lasted all night, unlike her normal headaches, which are intense and relatively short-lived. But when June was first diagnosed with migraine-like headaches three years ago they told us the pattern could change around puberty and she is almost eleven.  They gave us a prescription for high-dose ibuprofen and a reference for an outpatient neurological consultation.

June was discharged a little after noon, improved but still a little dizzy and seeing double. The three of us slept all afternoon. When I woke up, I made a kale, potato, and mushroom soup because eating something nourishing seemed appealing.

June still couldn’t walk and I thought she could use another day to recover, so she stayed home Thursday. But I had a long phone conversation with the school nurse about everything that had happened over the past week and secured permission for June to use the health center’s wheelchair, which allowed her to return to school Friday.

I also tried to get her Saturday morning guitar lesson—have I mentioned she’s taking guitar?— moved off site because her music school is on the second floor of a building with no elevator. (They are expanding into a more accessible space eventually but it’s not ready.) We’d had to cancel her lesson the weekend before because of the stairs and I was on a mission to return her life to as close to normal as possible. I failed here, though, because they can’t do lessons outside the building for insurance reasons. So June practiced at home.

We have an appointment with a physical therapist on Monday and an orthopedist on Tuesday. Our neurologist appointment isn’t until May but they said if they get a cancellation they’ll see us earlier. We’re hoping soon June will be better from head to toe.

I’ll give Beth the last word. This is what she said on Facebook, on Wednesday: “I am grateful to have so many well-trained and caring health care professionals within a few miles of our house. I am grateful to have a job with good health insurance so that I didn’t even hesitate to take her to the hospital. I am more committed than ever to fighting to preserve the gains we’ve made in providing affordable health care to people living in the United States and look forward to the day when we make universal health care a reality.”

A Death in the Family

My stepfather Jim died yesterday morning. He’d had a massive hemorrhagic stroke about a week and a half earlier, but he seemed stable and to be gradually recovering so it was a shock for everyone.

The day Jim had the stroke, before I knew, before it happened, I was walking home and I passed by Long Branch creek, where every year some time in February or March the woods explode in pale purple crocuses. This sight is one of my favorite heralds of spring, so I detoured to walk along the dirt path along the creek, with crocuses growing all around me. I found one that had snapped off at the bottom of its stem and was lying on the ground. I picked it up, took it home, and put it in a little paper cup of water on my desk. By evening, after it had happened, after I knew, I saw the flower had already wilted, causing me to think about how fragile life and health are. Jim had gone from seeming perfectly healthy to being partly paralyzed and deeply disoriented in a heartbeat.

Jim had the stroke at my sister Sara’s house. He had been helping her build a tiny house she intends to use as a rental property in her yard and the cabinets had arrived. He collapsed and couldn’t get up. Sara called an ambulance and followed in her car after it. Luckily, her long-distance boyfriend Dave happened to be in town and could look after her almost four-year-old daughter. She called me en route to the hospital.

Jim was intensive care for the whole time he was in the hospital. They were thinking they might be able move him to a regular unit several days ago but he still needed the tube draining fluid out of his head so they were waiting. He had limited mobility and some numbness on the right side of his body, though my mom says he had gotten some of the feeling back in his face and could move his leg a little. He could carry on a conversation, but he was still confused much of the time, he couldn’t read, and he slept a lot. After a week or so, he could say when he was born, which was progress, but whenever they asked him what year it is, he guessed something different, often in the 1960s but once in the 30s, which is actually before he was born.

Jim couldn’t have too many visitors in the ICU, but some friends were able to see him and my Aunt Peggy, Uncle Darryl, and cousin Blake were passing through Oregon anyway so they detoured for a weekend visit to offer their support.

As I said, everyone thought he was going to make it. The doctors even said a full recovery might be possible, though it wasn’t certain and it would be at least a year. My mother was hoping that when he was ready to transfer out of the ICU he could go to the hospital’s rehabilitation center and she’d already toured it. But on Thursday he was having trouble breathing and he deteriorated from that point. The doctors think he might have had a pulmonary embolism but it was too dangerous to give him blood thinners because he still had blood on his brain.

I got the news about a half hour before June was due home from school. The kids had an early dismissal that day and she was bringing a friend home for an almost five-hour play date. I decided not to tell her or Noah until her friend had left. I made the girls some quesadillas and left them to their own devices. They played with June’s American Girl doll. June was the doll’s mother. Zoë was her kidnapper. They made an improvised soup with water, lime juice, raw celery, and fake chicken. They watched Word Girl and Maya and Miguel, while I listened to their play with a heavy heart.

An hour or so before Zoë’s mom was due to come get her, June asked if she could sleep over. I told her it wasn’t a good night and she wanted to know why. I told her I’d tell her later. She kept pestering me to know why, which was a bit awkward, but once Zoë was gone I called the kids together and told them.

June burst into tears. Noah looked stoic but sad. It was about what I expected from each of them. I hugged June first and then Noah. She cried, “All my grandfathers are dead!” It’s true. Both my dad and Beth’s dad died while she was in preschool. I told her Jim had lived long enough for her to “remember him forever” because she doesn’t really remember either of the other two grandfathers. She nodded. Noah was silent but gave me a hard hug back when I hugged him.

We had pizza, a little late, because I was distracted and forgot to order it. Friday is normally family movie night, a newly instituted tradition, and after some discussion we decided to go through with it, but just as Beth was finding Time Bandits, June announced she had a headache and wanted to go to bed early and Noah didn’t want to have family movie night without her, so Beth and I watched Spotlight and went to bed.

Because Jim wanted to be cremated instead of buried, there’s no rush to have a funeral. My mom is going to scatter his ashes at one of their favorite spots on the Oregon coast and she’s thinking of a memorial service in April. She’d like to have it at the church where her peace choir sings. She doesn’t attend this church, but it’s pretty and she’d like the choir to sing at the service.

Mom and Jim started dating when I was in tenth grade and they got married in the spring of my junior year of high school. It was a second marriage for them both. For twenty years of their almost thirty-four-year marriage they lived in a big old house in the Philadelphia suburbs, in Delaware County. He was renovating it the entire time because restoring houses was both his work and his passion.

Four years ago, they moved to Oregon. Their house there was newer and less in need of work, but in between their frequent camping trips and visits to Mom’s family in Idaho, Jim still spent a lot of time doing work on my sister’s house. So, it’s fitting that’s what he was doing when he fell ill. Helping people was second nature to him.

Our family has lost a husband to one, stepfather to two, and grandfather to three. He will be missed.

You Lose Some

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, from “One Art”

Over the course of twenty-four hours, June’s team finished near the bottom of the GeoBowl competition, her basketball team lost a game, and she was waitlisted at her top choice of middle schools. But she wasn’t at all discouraged by the first two and only a little by the last. I’m not either. Here’s why.

GeoBowl

Beth and I both quit work early on Friday afternoon to attend the GeoBowl, the annual geography contest at June’s school. June didn’t make her class’s team last year, so it was the first time I’d been to one in a couple years. Beth swung by the house on her way from work to pick me up and drive to June’s school.

The way the GeoBowl works is all the third to fifth graders in the school get a packet of geography facts about that year’s region(s) to study in September and then there’s a team from each English/social studies class, consisting of the six kids who did best on a quiz given in November. (I volunteered to help grade these.) Teams are announced in December and then they study and compete at the GeoBowl in February. This year the theme was the Americas and Africa.

We arrived early so we helped set up folding chairs at the back of the multi-purpose room, where the floor was freshly mopped and slippery after the last lunch shift of the day. They were a judge short so Beth volunteered, even though usually parents don’t judge their own kid’s grade. Soon the fifth grade came filing in. Six teams went up to the stage and their classmates sat on the floor in front of the stage to watch.

Two of the teams wore team shirts. Da Beasts were in red t-shirts, as were the Pirates of the Caribbean, who also wore red bandanas on their heads. June’s team, the Golden Globes, had made a last-minute attempt to get everyone to wear blue or purple (not, puzzlingly, gold), but most of them forgot.

The GeoBowl is often extremely competitive. When Noah was in third grade, his team finished last, only three points behind the winning team. When June was in third grade, it went into three tie-breaker rounds and in the end, they had to declare a tie so the next grade could take the stage.

This one started with a question for every team about capitals of countries. Each team got their question correct. June was her team’s spokesperson in the oral rounds so she came to the microphone to give the capital of Madagascar (Antananarivo).

Soon after, the scores began to diverge. For most of the contest, Da Beasts and the Pirates of the Caribbean were neck and neck, with the Smarties close behind. When there was a round of questions about bodies of water and June’s team was asked what’s the deepest lake in Canada, I knew they’d get it right because June was her team’s designated Canada expert and I’d been quizzing her so I knew she knew the answer. (It’s the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.)

They missed a question about the location of the Galapagos Islands, guessing it was off the coast of Mexico and after that they missed some more—they could only name four or five of the seven capitals of Central American countries—and then they were out of contention because top three teams were getting everything right or close to it.

The high point-value questions are saved for the whiteboard round in which all the teams answer the same questions and hold up whiteboard with the answer. The very last one– worth seven of the total twenty-five points for the whole GeoBowl—was “What seven Canadian provinces border the United States?” June’s face lit up. She knew that one! Her team provided the correct answer. The M.C. drew out the suspense by having the top-scoring teams give their answers last and pointing out, after Da Beasts had submitted their correct answer, that if the Pirates of the Caribbean got all seven right they would win the GeoBowl and if they got six right it would go to a tie-breaker. They knew the answer and won, with Da Beasts just one point behind, and the Smarties two points behind them. June’s team tied for fourth place.

As always, it was fun to watch. I love it when there’s a team (or more than one team) that gets every question right. It’s inspiring to see kids who’ve studied hard and know their stuff, even if it’s not your kid’s team. And because the Golden Globes got all their questions pertaining to Canada correct, June was stoked when it was over and quite gracious about congratulating her friends on the winning team.

This is what Beth had to say on Facebook: “Love the GeoBowl. Our country is strengthened by our public schools and the terrific teachers, staff, parents and students who invest their time each day building our future.” I think that about sums it up.

Panda Game

On Saturday afternoon, June played two quarters in her basketball game, up from one quarter in the last one. She was a little reluctant—not having played much this season seems to have made her unusually skittish about getting in the game—so I was glad she did it.

It was quite a game, too. The teams seemed evenly matched for most of the first quarter and then the orange team (I never caught their name) hit their stride and scored two baskets in the last forty seconds, bringing the score to 8-4. And almost as soon as the second quarter started they scored again. I think they were ahead for the rest of the game after that, but the Pandas didn’t give up and they didn’t lose heart. They played hard, scored a few more times, and in the end lost 16-11. This wasn’t one of those times when the shots just kept bouncing off the rim and it just seemed like bad luck that they lost. The other team was highly skilled. They were fast and several of their players were excellent shots. Considering how good the other team was, the final score was quite respectable.

It was also nice that the coach’s daughter scored two of the Pandas’ five baskets because she’d had a hard morning, finding out she’d been rejected at one middle school magnet and waitlisted at another while her older brother got into a high school magnet. No other Pandas had received their letters, so a ripple of anxiety went through the bleachers as parents realized their kids’ letters might be at home in the mailbox right then. We discussed it quietly, while watching the game and writing our postcards to elected officials. This seems to be a Panda parent tradition now. At Beth’s suggestion, a few of us wrote to both our senators urging them to vote against Andy Puzder for Secretary of Labor.

Waitlisted

So, we got home and the letter from the humanities magnet was there, in a thin envelope. June asked if she could take it to her room and open it. She was in there so long Beth and I were sure it was a rejection and that she didn’t want to tell us. But it seems she was just studying the letter, because eventually she came out and told us she was waitlisted. She had memorized all the statistics in it—how many kids are on the waitlist, how many are accepted in the average year, etc. She seemed upbeat about it. “At least I still have a chance,” she said.

And at thirty-three to fifty percent it’s a considerably better chance than she had of getting in outright, as the acceptance rate at the humanities magnet is less than twenty percent. I started messaging and emailing the parents of friends of hers who had applied to the same magnet. Four were rejected, two more—including her BFF Megan—were waitlisted, and one was admitted. I think June’s both glad to have a chance of going to the same middle school as her best friend after two years of separation while Megan’s been at the Highly Gifted Center and proud of the achievement of even being still under consideration at a competitive program, but also realistic about her chances.

Meanwhile, June’s second-best friend is going to our home middle school where June will go if she doesn’t get into the magnet. If she goes there she’ll stay in Spanish immersion, which is a good thing, and you can take guitar there as an elective which interests her because she’s about to start guitar lessons. So, I’m confident she’ll land on her feet at either school and I think she is, too. She says if she doesn’t get into the humanities magnet she will be only “moderately disappointed.”

Sanctuary Meeting

Shortly after we got home, Beth left to go to a teach-in about Takoma Park’s status as a sanctuary city. I stayed home to make some lunch for Noah so he’d eat something (he didn’t seem willing to tear himself away from his homework) and then I followed her. While I was waiting for the bus, she texted me that it was standing room only in the community center auditorium and they were sending people to overflow rooms. I arrived about twenty minutes into the meeting and slipped in the back. They were still letting people in, but it was packed. There were people sitting in the aisles and standing behind the seats.

When I got there Maryland Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez was speaking. (I’d missed the poem by Takoma Park’s poet laureate. What? Your small town doesn’t have a poet laureate?) The speeches were interspersed with musicians. Basically, the meeting, which lasted over two hours, covered the history of Takoma Park’s status as a sanctuary city (one of the first) and then elected officials, community activists, and the police chief took questions about what to expect in terms of federal funding cuts, now that sanctuary cities are under attack. It seems to me the answer is no one really knows.

Being there, though, and hearing people speak about the stakes for undocumented immigrants in our community made the question of what middle school my relatively privileged fifth grader will attend seem a smaller concern than it had earlier in the day. I know for instance that she’ll be going to one and won’t be deported. A couple days later I donated to CASA de Maryland, because they do a lot of good organizing that’s needed more than ever now.

DeVos and Sessions Nominations

Beth was planning to go to the DeVos nomination protest after work on Monday, but she had to come home and pick up our Girl Scout cookie order. A lot of people we knew were there, though, and a couple of them were close enough to Elizabeth Warren to get pictures. (That’s a celebrity citing in our neck of the woods.) A sixth-grade girl we know was there with her mother, holding signs that said, “There Are No Grizzly Bears in My School” and “DeVos Gets an F.”

Nonetheless, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education on Tuesday and unlike all the little personal setbacks that didn’t rattle me this week, I took this politcal loss hard. I knew her confirmation was the most likely outcome, but she was so unqualified and so corrupt and it was so close, a fifty-fifty vote with the Vice President breaking the tie. It was just heart-breaking and it plunged me into despair because she seemed like the only nomination we really had a chance to defeat. Sure enough, Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General on Wednesday and Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services today. I hadn’t been holding out any hope there, but it didn’t cheer me up any.

I asked Beth at dinner on Wednesday if she thought the left has had any real practical victories in the past few weeks, not just morale-boosters like half a million people marching. Getting the travel ban stayed, she said without hesitation. But that’s not settled, I said. It will be going back and forth in court for a while until it gets to the Supreme Court and who knows what will happen then. Yes, but it got people who were detained in airports out and gave others time to complete planned travel to the U.S., she said. That is something, I agreed. We have to appreciate the victories, even if the defeats outnumber them. At least in the short run, they undoubtedly will. But just yesterday, the stay was upheld, which was very good news indeed.

I know it’s a marathon and not a sprint, so when I get tired and discouraged, as I inevitably will, I’ll pick myself up again. What other choice do we have? Like Elizabeth Warren, we will persist.

We Can Be That Girl

The first week of the Trump administration was sickening. No, really. June, Beth, and I all came down with a stomach virus. June stayed home Monday and Tuesday, went to school Wednesday and came right back home after only an hour a half. It was bad timing because I’d gotten sick the night before and had to drag myself out of bed to go get her. That same day Beth came home from work early, quite sick, and after that I didn’t even bother making June go to school Thursday, even though she probably could have gone. She also missed two basketball practices and a Girl Scout meeting. Beth said being too sick to follow the news from Wednesday afternoon until Thursday was kind of perverse relief.

I worked a couple hours each day (being the least incapacitated of the three of us) and cooked dinner for whoever was in any shape to eat, though on Thursday, reading “Cabbage and Noodles” on the white board, I decided no-one’s digestive system was up for cabbage, except Noah’s (he never got sick) and I didn’t make it.

By Thursday night, everyone was well enough to sit up at the same time and Noah didn’t have any homework because the next day was a teacher grading day, so we watched the fifth episode of Series of Unfortunate Events. (Over the course of the weekend, we watched the last three, so now we have to wait impatiently until they make more.)

June played in her first Pandas’ game of the season on Saturday afternoon. She missed the first two because her ankle was still weak and the third one because we were at the women’s march. She was tired from her recent illness so she only played a quarter, but she played up to her usual level and did a good job keeping the ball away from opposing players. The Pandas won, 10-6. They were ahead or tied for most of the game and they were just on fire in the last quarter, taking shot after shot at the basket and getting most of the rebounds. Megan scored three of the five Panda baskets. She also brought cupcakes with white and teal frosting (the Pandas wear teal shirts this year) and plastic basketballs stuck in the frosting, so everyone lingered in the mid-county community center lobby longer than usual after the game, eating cupcakes and talking.

During the game, the parents had shown a different kind of team spirit, writing postcards to our elected representatives with postcards, pens, stamps, and addresses provided by the coach’s wife. It was hard to decided what to write about, but the Mexican border wall and the Muslim ban were front of mind, so I went with that.

Noah had almost no homework because it was the weekend between semesters so he and I were planning to make a vegetable lasagna and a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting, but shortly after we got home from the game he fell asleep and slept for three hours. I was afraid to wake him, thinking he might be sick, but at 6:30 he woke disoriented and disappointed that it was too late to make the lasagna. Everyone fixed themselves something quick for dinner and he and June went ahead and made the cake.

Sunday afternoon Beth and I went to the White House to protest the refugee and Muslim travel bans. I didn’t decide whether I was going until the last minute. I had to skip my weekly swim to do it. And so there would be something for dinner after the rally and June’s voice recital, Beth, Noah, and I worked that morning in shifts on the lasagna we didn’t make the night before. (Beth grated cheese, Noah and I grated, diced, and sautéed vegetables and then Beth assembled it.)

The kids stayed home (though Noah considered coming with us). The timing unnerved me because the rally lasted from one to three and June’s recital was at four-thirty. We decided we’d just stay for the first half. Beth bought poster board while she was out grocery shopping and we painted our signs. Hers said, “Stop playing politics with immigrant and refugee lives” and mine said, “America is better than this.” I thought they complemented each other, plus I can re-use mine at future rallies.

This was a more or less spontaneous rally and tens of thousands of people came, so we weren’t sure if Metro would be overwhelmed, but it wasn’t too bad, though definitely more crowded at Metro Center than on a normal Sunday afternoon. If there was a stage or speakers, we never saw it or heard them.

The chain link fencing they put up to block off Pennsylvania Avenue during Inauguration is still up (maybe they’re not planning to remove it, given all the protests), so the crowd was on Pennsylvania Ave and in Lafayette Square and the surrounding streets. We were kind of cut off from each other, which meant competing chants kept starting and drowning each other out. “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” was the most popular one, though. Beth seemed to particularly like, “We won’t go away! Welcome to your ninth day!” It seemed like a good way to pledge ourselves to oppose him every step of the way, not to let this be easy for him because it’s certainly not easy for us.

We left the rally around two, stopped at La Mano for coffee, and we were home in plenty of time for the recital. It started like they all do, with the youngest children, those who need reminders about where to stand when they play the violin and whose feet don’t touch the floor when they sit on the piano bench. The beginning students played songs like “Lightly Row” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Then a mother-daughter pair played a Beatles song (“And I Love Her”) on the guitar, followed by another guitarist who June knows from drama camp who played “Worried Man Blues” and “Au Claire de la Lune.”

June went on about halfway through the program. The teacher who was announcing all the students spoke enthusiastically about how June had written her own song. It surprised me a little because June’s played her own violin compositions at previous recitals and Noah and his teacher played a drum duet they wrote at his recital last winter and no-one’s ever mentioned it before. But I was glad for her because she likes to be recognized like that.

Then just as she was ready to sing, someone realized her accompaniment wasn’t set up, so the next child on the program, a pianist, played “A Little Night Music” while they set up the laptop with the recording of June’s voice teacher playing her song on the piano. (The teacher was unable to come to the recital and play it in person.) Poor June, I thought. She’d probably gotten herself all psyched up to sing and then she had to wait.

When it was finally her turn, I knew she was nervous, but she wasn’t showing it, unless you noticed her grip on the microphone stand. She smiled and sang:

If you ever need a friend who has a shoulder to cry on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I can be that girl if you need it

If you ever need a friend who has a warm bed to lie on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I will be that girl when you need it

I’ve been thinking ‘bout how we used to hang out
And I was wondering if you wanna start over again
Over again
I’ve been thinking ‘bout our old lemonade stands
All the things we said
We called ourselves potatoes…potatoes

If you ever need a friend who has a shoulder to cry on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I can be that girl if you need it

If you ever need a friend who has a warm bed to lie on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I will be that girl when you need it

I’ve been noticing you glancing over at me
Maybe thinking ‘bout how we used to sing

If you ever need a friend who has a shoulder to cry on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I can be that girl if you need it

If you ever need a friend who has a warm bed to lie on
I’m that girl
Yeah, I will be that girl when you need it

Here’s the video. You knew there would be a video, right? It’s about two minutes long.

There was a satisfying amount of applause and then June’s school friend Toby played a jazzy song on the piano. He and June haven’t had the same recital slot for a while so I was pleased to see how good he’s gotten. A few kids later there was the only other vocalist, who sang a song from Moana. She was a big hit, too. The last three students were teenage pianists, who were all quite talented.

As we were filing out of the room, the director of the school pulled me aside and asked if June would like to do an encore performance at the 5:30 recital. At first I said no because it had been a long day, but then I thought I should leave it up to her so I found her in the back room where the performers were getting cookies and juice and she said yes.Beth and Noah went home, but I settled in to watch another recital.

This time I got a better seat in the front row. As I looked over the program I noticed that there were a few repeats from the 4:30 program, namely the Moana girl and the last three pianists. I didn’t know they did that. June’s never been asked to perform more than once, either ahead of time or spontaneously.

So, there was another recital with more adorable tiny children, more elementary and middle school kids starting to show mastery of their instruments and a few very accomplished teens, the ones from the first program as well as a slender teenage boy who sang “Amazing Grace” in what I was expecting would be a tenor but in what turned out to be a booming baritone voice. (I imagined his mother in the audience remembering his little boy voice and marveling.)

After both performances, people kept stopping June to praise her. One woman said she’d cried during her song. “Why would she do that?” June asked us later.

Beth ventured that it might be that in these times the idea of someone being a good friend, a welcoming person offering a shoulder and shelter could be especially moving. It’s a good reminder we can all be that girl, that boy, that man, or that woman.

And the next day Beth was at the Supreme Court after work, protesting again.

This is What Democracy Looks Like

Monday: MLK Day

The Monday before the inauguration was MLK day. Our traditional service project for this day is to participate in a creek cleanup. We choose this activity a long time ago because it’s easy for little kids to participate, or if they choose not to participate, to run around in the woods while the adults fish beer cans and trash out of the creek and off its banks.

It’s been a few years since I’ve participated. Two years ago, I was miserably sick with strep throat on MLK day and a year ago I don’t remember what happened but I know I didn’t go—maybe Noah had too much work and I stayed home to supervise. But this year everyone was well and community service seemed too important to waive because of homework. Beth and I wondered, independently of each other, if a creek cleanup was enough given the circumstances. My first thought for an alternative activity was volunteering at a food bank, but you have to be thirteen and June’s only ten, and the environment is dear to my heart, so we stuck with the creek cleanup.

All the creek cleanups I’ve done over the years have been along Long Branch creek somewhere between our house and June’s school, but this one was a bit farther away, in between the Long Branch community center and library. The strip of woods that surrounds the creek is wider there so instead of working in the creek and very close to it, we had a bigger area to cover. The amount of litter was greater, too. In under two hours the four of us filled five garbage bags full of recycling and two with trash.

It does seem like a worthwhile activity when you’re confronted with the trash-strewn woods and then you and a bunch of strangers get to work and after a couple hours, large swaths of it are cleared. But as Beth pointed out, it just points to bigger social problems, because someone might have been sleeping on those two mattresses other volunteers dragged out to the community center parking lot. This is not an uncommon find and I always wonder if we should just leave them be. Not to mention that well over half of what we were picking up was empty beer cans and bottles, probably not the leavings of social drinkers.

So, feeling simultaneously like we’d accomplished something with our morning and that we hadn’t, we went to La Mano and got lattes and steamers and headed home, where Noah immediately took a bath to get the smell of stale beer off himself.

Friday: Inauguration Day

Beth and the kids only had three days of work and school the next week because they were off Friday for the inauguration, not that we had any intention of going, or watching it on television or turning on the radio any time between the hours of eleven and four. I also observed a Facebook blackout during those five hours. (Beth decided to watch the Obamas get on their plane and fly away and it made her cry.)

We decided the best thing we could do with the day would be to binge-watch A Series of Unfortunate Events, as the first eight episodes were released on Netflix on Friday the thirteenth. I made (vegetarian) pasta puttanesca and chocolate pudding for dinner the night before, a meal the children make for Count Olaf and his theater troupe in the first book. We are hard core fans of this series, and the audiobooks, especially the ones Tim Curry narrates. We even bought a new, modern-sized television to watch it. This was an event.

I would have liked to be watching at the exact moment Trump was taking the oath of office, but Noah had a classmate coming over at noon so they could finish a documentary they were making on Edward Snowden for their media class (and submitting to a student documentary contest run by C-SPAN), so we had to stop shortly before then. Starting Thursday night and continuing Friday morning and evening, we watched the first four forty-five minute episodes, which I realize might not constitute a binge for some people but for us it does.

If you love these books, you will probably love the show, which captures their quirky essence much better than the movie. If you haven’t read them, start there. I have to say, though, I was identifying with the three Baudelaire children, with their house burned down, the people who were supposed to be looking out for them dead or missing and suddenly in the care of someone who does not wish them well. So, maybe it was not as escapist an activity as planned. Still, the Baudelaires and resourceful, brave, and loyal to each other. That counts for something.

After lunch, June and I made peanut-butter chocolate chip cookies while listening to the Indigo Girls, I read several Shirley Jackson essays, and then I took her to a voice lesson. She’s got a recital next weekend so she and the teacher worked on diction, expression, and other performance considerations. After the lesson, June had her jury for the recital and she passed it. I could tell she was nervous because she was clutching the front of her pants with both hands, but from her face you would have never known it.

On the way home, we swung by Roscoe’s to pick up pizza and an arugula-beet salad, which we ate at home, not really wanting to interact with other people than necessary on this bleak day. Once Noah had put the finishing touches on his movie and had submitted it to C-SPAN, we watched one last episode of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and went to bed so we could all be rested for the big event of the weekend.

Saturday: Women’s March

Beth and Noah were out the door by seven. Beth was supposed to show up at her office to greet the busloads of CWA members arriving at her office and Noah was going to assist Mike, the CWA photographer who was filming the march. I was proud of Noah for going because he absolutely hates crowds, but he knew was important. It helped that he had a task to focus on and that he got to use some cool photographic equipment like a 360-degree camera and a steady cam. He even endured holding hands with strangers during a CWA sing-along, but I missed that as it happened before June and I got there. This must have been horrifying for him. 

June and I left about an hour later, right after she made her “Another Girl Scout Against Trump” sign. It was a last-minute job, but if you look carefully you’ll see she printed out and taped the Girl Scout insignia to it. She chose this message because she was appalled to hear some Girl Scouts marched in the inauguration parade. She also decided to wear her Girl Scout vest over her hoodie.

While we were at the bus stop in front of our house, a stranger pulled over and asked if we’d like a ride to the Metro. I thought about it and decided it was a day to trust women, so I said yes. She told us she had a disability that made marching hard so she was shuttling friends to the Metro and seeing June’s sign, she figured that’s where we were headed. As we approached the Metro I could see steady streams of people on foot, many in pink hats, all walking toward the stop. June looked surprised and excited to be seeing crowds already, in our little town. The trains were crammed, but we got on the first one we saw because people packed themselves in tighter to make room for us.  We were right next to a group of women scientists in their lab coats.

We arrived at CWA headquarters shortly before nine. There was a mini-rally on the sidewalk in front it, which repeated every time new busses arrived, meaning we heard some of the speeches and chants twice. In between we went inside and sampled fruit and an egg and bagel sandwich at the breakfast buffet for members who’d been on buses since the wee hours of the morning. They’d come from states as far away as North Carolina, but the ones who arrived while we were there were from New York and New Jersey.

We set off to march with the second group, but we got separated from them almost immediately in the chaos on the mall. We were much too far away from the stage to hear the rally program or even to catch more than glimpses of the Jumbotron blocks away. So, we turned our attention to the crowd. We drifted through it to people-watch and read signs.

Some of the most popular signs were “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-damental Rights” and “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and various feline-themed signs. I also saw a lot of “Love is Love is Love” and “Black Lives Matter” signs and portraits of Trump in the style of Obama’s iconic Hope posters, except they either say “Nope” or “Grope” and there were also a lot that said “Make America Think Again.” The next day over dinner we discussed how making fun of Trump’s physical appearance (hair, skin, small hands) was a slippery slope, even though he himself treats people that way. (It was our “When they go low, we go high” moment.) But we all thought “Super Callous Fragile Ego, Trump You Are Atrocious” was fair game.

I thought this one summed up things pretty well: “There Are So Many Things Wrong with Trump I Can’t Fit Them on This Sign.” June’s sign was popular as well. All day people were taking her picture and many former and current Girl Scouts wanted to pose with her. (Beth tweeted her picture to the Girl Scouts.) I learned later people left drifts of signs in front of the Trump Hotel and lined the White House fence with them and when the fence was completely obscured, they tossed more over the fence. I wish we’d seen that and done it, too.

By eleven-thirty, the mall was completely packed, I was feeling a little claustrophobic and needed to use the bathroom badly. The march wasn’t even supposed to start for an hour and a half, so we started looking for porta-potties, I found a bank of them but the lines were several dozen people deep behind each one, so Beth suggested we walk back to her office and re-group. We got back there around noon, used the facilities, and stayed over an hour, mixing with more members who’d arrived. We split one of the box lunches that had appeared on the buffet table between the three of us, to supplement the hard-boiled eggs and trail mix we were carrying. Beth ate the veggie wrap, I ate the apple, and June had the potato chips.

Back at the mall, we hung back a bit to avoid getting trapped in the mass of pink-hatted humanity crammed onto it. It was unclear how we’d know when it was time to march because no one within blocks of us could hear anything, but eventually people started walking down the length of the mall. Beth noted the crowd wasn’t going along the official march route. Later we learned there were too many people to fit on the official route. It was already filled from end to end by the time the march was supposed to start so people spilled out into nearby streets and reached the White House by various routes, like water pouring into all available channels.

Our tributary went by the Trump Hotel and a small pro-Trump counter rally. The crowd took a break from chanting “Black Lives Matter!” “Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like. This Is What Democracy Looks Like!” “Hands Too Small, Can’t Build a Wall,” and “We Need a Leader, Not a Creepy Tweeter!” etc. to chant “Shame” at them.

We also were going along the Inauguration parade route for a while and the stands were still there. They were quickly packed with people who wanted to watch the march go by. Workers who had been taking one of the stands down before the march arrived stood by and watched. One of them was standing on a truck full of stand parts, grinning and laughing.

Considering how chaotic the march was, the police response was restrained. There was not a single arrest. I realize this was probably because while diverse, the march was still majority white. A group of half a million people of color marching on the street without a permit might not have been so tolerantly received. However, once we were almost to the White House the police started throwing up metal barriers in the street to keep the marchers away from it. Some verbal communication would have been appreciated here because it looked like people might get trapped between the fence that was already blocking access to the White House and the new barriers. We had to look lively to get back on the other side ourselves before the line of barriers was complete.

At this point, we turned around and walked back to Beth’s office again. Mike and Noah were already on the Metro, so we got in the car and drove home, tired, footsore and joyful. June kept commenting on the fact that neither Beth nor I had been to a big march until we were in college. She seemed happy to have reached this milestone earlier than we did.  But she’s living in more dire times.

Of course, I would have rather taken my ten-year-old daughter to the inauguration of the first woman president. That’s what I fully expected to do and I’d been looking forward to it. Beth and Noah went to Obama’s first inauguration when he was seven and it was a great experience for him. But this was excellent experience for her, too, if the point is learning about democracy.

Today, two days after the march, Beth and Noah went to work and school. I was home working, too, but also tending to June who had been felled by a stomach bug Sunday night, and was staying home from school. It was a chilly, rainy day, but I was still warmed by the thought of half a million people all returning to their regular routines, but possibly taking a short break to write their Senators and representatives, as I did.

Silver

Late Saturday morning, Beth came into the bedroom where I was reading Catcher in the Rye to Noah. “I opened an anniversary gift,” she said. It was four days before our anniversary and I knew what had happened. The card that announced I’d donated to Friends of Blackwater must have arrived. Since I’m almost always alone in the house when the mail comes, I’d counted on whisking it away when it arrived, but I didn’t think to check the mailbox before her on Saturday.

Beth read the message in the card saying it was to save “the silver birches and everything else you love at Blackwater.” I’d taken that angle because she’d admired the birch bark on the ground when we were hiking in Blackwater over Christmas and because it was the silver anniversary of our commitment ceremony (as well as the fourth anniversary of our legal wedding). “Mommy likes themes,” Beth observed to Noah.

“Remember the time she got you all those gold gifts?” he said, sounding close to laughter. If you’re a long-time reader with a very good memory, you may recall that on the twenty-fifth anniversary of our first date, thinking twenty-five was the gold anniversary, I got her a bevy of golden-colored gifts. The problem with this is twenty-five is the silver anniversary. Well, I didn’t return all the gifts but I resolved to wait four and a half years and have a do-over on the twenty-fifth anniversary of our commitment ceremony. The amazing thing is that I remembered and carried it out this plan.

“Well, now you know something about the rest of you gifts,” I told her.

Later that day, Beth, June and I attended the first Pandas game of the season. I almost didn’t go because June wasn’t playing. Her recently healed broken ankle had been acting up ever since she jumped from a platform at Seneca Creek State Park on New Year’s Day. Beth, June and I had gone on the First Day Hike. (The hike was otherwise fun.  We saw a beaver dam and swans on the lake and the park provided hot chocolate and S’mores at the end.) I asked her coach whether he thought she should play and he thought it was best to rest it a little while longer.

I always go to June’s basketball games and often to her practices, even though I don’t need to go because she has a standing ride. It still surprises me how much I enjoy watching, given how little interest I have in sports in general. Even knowing June wouldn’t play, I realized still wanted to see the game. I wanted to watch her friends, all these girls who’ve been together for years, some since kindergarten. I wanted to see who had a good game and who’s improved since last year. It’s official. I am a Panda fan. Or maybe I should say “Fanda.” Beth came up with that one, to describe the big stuffed panda June dressed in her team shirt and brought to the game.

We’d had our first real snowfall this year the day of the game. It only amounted to about an inch, but it was falling pretty hard in the late morning and early afternoon. That might have been the reason the games were running late when we got to the community center. We had a long wait and some of the moms started to reminisce about the Pandas’ very first game, mainly about how shocked the girls were when the opposing team knocked the ball out of their hands. They’re not surprised by that any more.

They’re ten and eleven now instead of five and six and they’re used to the game. That was a good thing because it was a somewhat rougher game than usual or maybe the referee was just more apt to call fouls on both sides. The game was constantly interrupted for free throws. In the first quarter the Pandas got a basket and one of those free throws and going into the second quarter they were winning 3-0. I was glad to see them score early because the Pandas only had seven players to the Sharks’ ten so I thought they’d be worn out by the end of the game. That didn’t turn out to be a problem. They weren’t being outrun at the end, but they didn’t score again and the other team did, so they lost 7-3.

Sunday evening Beth said, “You know how I opened one of my gifts early? I think you should have one of yours.”

“To make things even?” I asked.

“No, I think you should have it. It’s Kindred,” she said. Just that day I’d gone to the library to check out Octavia Butler’s time-travel fantasy because it’s my book club’s January book. On finding all the copies were checked out and the second closest library didn’t have an available copy either, I’d purchased one online from a local bookstore that very day. I was able to call Monday morning and cancel the order. Beth and I listened to Kindred together on audiobook on a long-ago car trip, either pre-kids or when Noah was small enough to sleep through it, so it was a sweet gift and I was happy to be able to start reading it Monday morning.

Our anniversary was Wednesday. I read Kindred in the morning (I’m almost halfway through it now) and wrapped gifts and worked on some pamphlets for a line of supplements distributed by physicians. When the kids got home between supervising their homework and making dinner, I also made a spice cake with a lemon glaze. I used the same recipe from the cake we served at our commitment ceremony twenty-five years ago. I make it almost every year on our anniversary. In fact, because we celebrate two anniversaries, one in July to celebrate our first date and one in January to celebrate the commitment ceremony and the legal wedding (held on the same day twenty-one years apart) whenever we have an anniversary, June always asks if it’s “the cake one.”

Beth got home around 6:45, just as June’s ride to basketball practice arrived, so we had to wait to exchange gifts and eat cake until she got home around 8:15. My presents to Beth were wrapped in silver wrapping paper with pictures of birch trees on it. I’d ordered it for this purpose and Beth enthusiastically admired it. I went all out with the silver theme. I got a card with a picture of a silver tree on it, I wrote on the card in silver marker, I put silver sprinkles on the cake and one of her gifts was a silver-colored pillar candle. (The scent was supposed to be “silver birch” but we all agreed it didn’t smell like tree bark, more like laundry June said. And then Noah wanted to know if it was clean laundry or dirty. Clean, she said, exasperated.)  I also got her a copy of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 because, sadly, a work about the racial strife of a quarter century ago seems more relevant than ever these days.  My second gift from Beth was Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed, which I’ve been eager to read.

Over the long MLK weekend we’ll go to a high school girls’ basketball game (a Pandas field trip) and another Pandas game in which June’s still not playing, and we’ll probably participate in a creek cleanup, which we do most MLK days. Beth and I also have tentative plans to go to a movie. We’re thinking Hidden Figures. During the last few days of the kids’ winter break we actually went out a did a lot of things. In addition to the previously mentioned hike, we all saw a lovely production of The Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre, and Beth, June and I attended our neighbors’ New Year’s Eve party and Beth and I went to see Fences, which was very well acted. We often get stuck in our routine and it feels good when we go out and do something a little out of the ordinary, as a family and especially as a couple, even if it’s just going to the movies.

Beth and I wrote nearly identical things in our cards: “Here’s to 25 more” and “Here’s to the next 25.”  So, here’s to that, to the comforting rituals we repeat and the little jaunts that break them up.

We Need a Little Christmas

Friday: Christmas Eve Eve

We left for Blackwater Falls State Park (http://www.blackwaterfalls.com) on Saturday, the morning of Christmas Eve, and the day before was a whirl of activity. I’d finished my work for the week on Thursday so I could go to the dentist in the morning Friday and pack for the trip. Beth took off work early and she met me at Union Station as I was coming back from the dentist. We admired the big Christmas tree Norway sends to Washington every year and visited the model train display the kids, especially Noah, used to love when they were little. Then we had lunch at Shake Shack and headed home.

I mopped the kitchen floor and did a couple loads of laundry and when the kids got home I had Noah vacuum the dining and living room floors and everyone packed and we took June’s present to Megan’s house and picked up pizza to bring home. All this time there was a tree tied to the top of the car that had been there since Thursday. We were taking it to West Virginia. After dinner, the kids opened gifts from my mom and Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby so we wouldn’t have to pack them. June got books from a series she’s reading and a new basketball and Noah got a gift certificate. “Merry Christmas Eve Eve,” I told June when she went to bed.

The last thing I did before collapsing into bed was to make gingerbread dough to take with us. We hadn’t had time to make any holiday sweets, what with the kids in school and Noah overloaded with homework until two days before Christmas. But I had another motive for baking the gingerbread at the cabin. Eighteen years ago, we spent Christmas in another cabin in the same park with Beth’s parents, her brother, her brother’s then girlfriend and now wife. Beth and I arrived first and made gingerbread before anyone else got there. To this day, Beth’s mom still talks about walking into the cabin and smelling the baking gingerbread and how happy it made her.

Christmas Eve

We left a little after ten and arrived around two-thirty with a stop for lunch at a very festively decorated little Italian restaurant with excellent garlic knots. We also went into the dollar store next to the restaurant, looking for cookie cutters because I’d forgotten to pack those. The man at the counter practically yelled, “Merry Christmas!” at us and I couldn’t tell if it was genuine merriment or political aggression. Maybe we looked like the “Happy Holidays” types. As it was I was just a little nervous about driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia with our “I’m With Her” magnet still on the car bumper. Anyway, they didn’t have any cookie cutters.

Check-in for the cabins was at four and we were hoping they’d be lenient about it because we were eager to set up the tree and get dinner started, but they weren’t, so we had to wait in the lobby of the lodge for an hour and a half. Fortunately, Beth’s mom arrived almost the same time we did, so we all sat around the gas fire and caught up with each other.

Once we got into the cabin, we unpacked and decorated the tree and put presents under it and adorned the mantle with boughs Beth trimmed off it. Then we had chili and cornbread YaYa made (she did most of the cooking while we were there and she fed us well). Then we watched Frosty the Snowman and one by one, we went to bed, ready for Christmas.

One my friends decorated her house for Christmas earlier than usual this year, saying “I’ve never needed Christmas more.” I had some trouble getting and staying in the spirit, but I kept trying and sometimes it worked. As I mentioned this was my second Christmas at Blackwater and it was Beth’s third (her family had Christmas in a cabin there the year she was nine). It seemed like a good year to get far away from everything.

Christmas

I told the kids they could open their stocking gifts at six at the earliest and to be “quiet as mice” until seven. The surprising thing is this worked. Noah slept until seven-thirty, so it was easy for him, but apparently, June opened her stocking at 6:25, right outside our door, so quietly that I thought the faint rustling I heard was Beth’s mom going to the bathroom. Later she told us “You wouldn’t even know I was a kid” from what was in the stocking—some mint tea she’d wanted at the tea shop in Rehoboth, a tin of mints, an orange, a spa cloth, some gloves, and some peppermint Hershey’s kisses.

The rest of us opened our stockings all together and then the rest of the gifts. June got the two things she wanted most, a 3D pen and a gift certificate to get her hair dyed. The pen came with a book of projects and she got busy with these right away. By the time we left, she was almost out of rods for it. She made a pair of eyeglass frames, earrings, a butterfly, a picture frame, and some red and white berries to transform a pine cutting into mistletoe, under which Beth and I were obliged to kiss. She also got clothes and a book/DVD set of Anne of Green Gables and I don’t remember what else.

Noah’s gifts were even more grown up than June’s—a set of flannel sheets, pajama bottoms, gift certificates and three loaves of bread from his favorite food catalog, to be delivered between now and February. The first loaf—cranberry-pecan arrived today.

I got several books, including a Shirley Jackson collection and a Shirley Jackson biography, my two favorite teas (hazelnut and black chocolate), plus lotion and soaps in many scents, and flower seeds. Beth got flavored sugars, basil-infused olive oil, her New Yorker subscription renewed, a gift certificate for a local coffee shop, and the new Springsteen memoir.

YaYa’s main gift was a Google Home. We spent a lot of the day making requests of it—to play the radio, set timers for cooking, even to flip a coin to settle a dispute between the children. She was quite pleased with it. She also got a Carly Simon memoir and a mug with deer on it and some soap with a cabin embossed on it to remind her of the cabin.

After we opened presents, I read to both kids, then everyone but Noah took a walk along the edge of the river canyon and by a half-frozen pond. The sides of the canyon were dotted with evergreens and bare gray trees and cut with a long waterfall on the far side.

It was peaceful by the pond—the ice was a dull silver; the open water was shiny. June wandered by the edge, breaking off little pieces of ice. The trail went on and we might have walked further, but YaYa had a not quite healed fractured toe and Beth was feeling ill. When we got back to the cabin, she went straight to bed while everyone else ate lunch and she stayed in bed all afternoon.

The kids and I made gingerbread cookies while she was asleep. In the absence of cookie cutters, we used glasses and knives and a pizza cutter, and the top of a Tupperware container to shape circles of various sizes, people, a caterpillar, the first initials of our names, and a smiley face as big as a dinner plate. We decorated with bits of hard candy, as I’d also forgotten the dried cranberries we usually use. But it was fun to improvise and I think the kids will remember this year’s cookies for a long time to come.

YaYa made spinach lasagna for dinner and Beth got up to eat, though she went back to bed while the rest of us watched Frosty Returns. And then Christmas Day was over.

Boxing Day

Beth was feeling better the next day, so after Noah did some pre-calculus and Spanish, we went out to lunch and then we went to see Blackwater Falls. It’s a 57-foot fall on the Blackwater River. There’s a boardwalk of steps that goes down to various viewing platforms. It was a warm day, in the fifties and sunny and some of us didn’t even wear jackets—but there was ice along the rocks near the bottom of the falls, and rapidly dripping ice along the rock walls to our side as we descended. The water going over the falls is stained brown from the tannin and very loud as it crashes to the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight.

Back at the cabin, Beth and Noah watched Revenge of the Sith (they’ve been making their way through all the Star Wars movies over the course of the past year or so) while YaYa took June swimming at the lodge pool and I wrote this.

Then Noah and I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a YA novel about growing up Latino and gay in the Southwest in the 1980s I highly recommend. While we read, he started to feel ill, so he skipped dinner, which was YaYa’s signature baked macaroni and cheese and spinach pies she buys from a Lebanese bakery in Wheeling.

Our dinner conversation turned for the first and only time on the trip to the sad and frightening moment we’re in politically. It came up because YaYa was talking about being in high school and she mentioned her civics class was called “Problems in Democracy.” It seems like a good title for Noah’s current AP Government class, though it’s called NSL Government (National, State, and Local Government), a somewhat less appealing course title. But then again, YaYa graduated from high school in 1961, right on the verge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, so democracy had its own problems then, too, didn’t it? We turned our attention from our national nightmare to Nightmare Before Christmas, which YaYa, June and I watched until it was time for June to go to bed.

Some More Days

Noah still felt ill the next day and Beth had relapsed so he spent the day in bed, emerging around four o’clock for a banana and some toast—his only meal of the day, and she spent the day on the couch, making her way through the Springsteen memoir. YaYa took June back to the pool and they were gone for hours.

Around four-thirty, I went for a walk. It seemed like a good time for winter walk. I’d see the sunset and if I walked an hour, I’d be back before full dark. I set out along the road in front of the cabins, and returned via a cross-country ski trail behind them. It was a straight, narrow trail with yellow-brown grass and tall, slender, bare trees swaying in the wind on either side. The sky reddened and then darkened and clouds blew quickly across it. I stumbled on a playground near a picnic shelter, well, just swings, and I sat on one and swung for a while, with the lyrics from Suzanne Vega’s “Freeze Tag” going through my mind:

We go to the playground
In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime
Wintertime
Wintertime
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night

There’s so much we’ll need to say no to in the coming months and years, loudly and repeatedly if we don’t want to lose our way as a country, but it’s also important to remember to say yes, too, to ourselves, and to each other. I’m still working on that.

Beth made tacos for dinner and June contributed a tiny piñata to each place setting. She made them out folded notebook paper and filled them with bits of ribbon candy. She drew designs on them I thought might be poinsettias or snowflakes, but she said they were just abstract decorations. After dinner, YaYa made drinking chocolate with condensed milk and whipping cream. June said it was “as think and rich as melted chocolate bars.” It’s a quote from the Polar Express, June’s favorite Christmas book. We drank it while we watched the rest of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The next day, our last full day in the cabin, everyone woke up feeling well. Beth made pancakes for breakfast and all the womenfolk went for a hike, leaving Noah to soak in the bath and do some Government homework. (His teacher gave them a series of small assignments do over break and was perverse enough to call it an “advent calendar,” even though there was no chocolate involved and it started on Christmas Eve instead of ending then.)

We started with the Elakala Falls trail, which was about as much hiking as YaYa wanted to do, so we split up there and she went home while we tackled the Balanced Rock trail and then used the Shay Run trail to get back to the lodge where we’d parked the car.

It was cold when we set out—in the mid-twenties—but sunny and still so it didn’t feel too bad, though Beth and I both wished we’d thought to put on long johns under our jeans. The trails were surrounded with ferns, rocks covered with moss and lichen, evergreens of all sizes, including a lot of saplings growing quite close together, and towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves curled against the cold. There were icicles on the boulders and needle ice pushing up out of the ground all over. Beth was quite taken with these intricate crystal formations.

The water at Elakala Falls and in all the little creeks and runs was reddish brown with tannin and where the sun fell on it, it glowed. All along the Balanced Rock trail but especially near the end and at trail intersections, people had built cairns. June took pleasure in adding to them, and collecting icicles, and walking along a fallen log like a balance beam. The log was on the ground on one end and stuck in the fork of a tree on the other so it was inclined and slightly bouncy, making it a challenge, but she didn’t fall. And of course, at the end of the trail, we found the Balanced Rocks themselves, two boulders resting on each other.

After lunch, there was another expedition, YaYa and Beth took the kids tubing on artificial snow, while I stayed home to read. When everyone got home, Beth took the decorations off the tree and I read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a Road Dalh story, to Noah. It’s about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks it and serves it to the detectives who come to investigate. Apparently, his English teacher thought it would make cheery Christmas reading. (It’s actually a fun story, though I probably just wrecked it for you.)

We had noodles and cabbage with veggie sausage for dinner and then Beth and Noah took the denuded tree outside and came back to report the sky was full of stars—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers, plus Mars and Venus.

Beth and June played a set of Christmas songs together on the violin and then Beth played “Silent Night” while June sang it. YaYa was a suitably appreciative audience. After Beth diagnosed and fixed a problem with the gas fire, we watched a little bit of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town while June toasted marshmallows on said fire and we had more drinking chocolate.

The next day we checked out of the cabin and did a little shopping at the lodge gift shop. While we were there it started to snow hard after hours of sleet. It was the first real snow we’d seen the whole time we were there. The timing seemed cruel, as Beth loves snow and she loves Blackwater canyon. I suggested we stay, but we left, for fear the roads might get bad. Within twenty minutes we’d driven entirely out of the snow, though back at the park they were supposed to get six inches. (We did get a little snow squall of our own today in Takoma Park, but it only last a half hour or so and melted almost immediately.)

Despite illness and the lack of snow, we did spend time with each other and appreciated the natural beauty of one of Beth’s favorite places. I think we all got a little Christmas.

The Opposite of Terrible

It’s time for school concerts. Noah played in the winter band and jazz concert a couple weeks ago, and June’s school’s holiday sing was Monday.

Winter Band and Jazz Concert

Noah was a nervous wreck in the car on the way to the band concert. He’s been playing drums for six years and he’s not usually too worked up before concerts, but he’s in an advanced band in which he was placed because of a schedule conflict and he’s got a bit of an imposter complex about it. He said he thought the fact that he was so nervous would make it more likely he’d make mistakes.

I thought he might be right, but I told him even if he did make a mistake he’d be the one most likely to hear it, that all the sound the audience is taking in making it hard to hear individual errors. He wasn’t having it.

Noah took private lessons instead of playing in the band last year so this was our first high school band concert. At his school, they split the orchestra, band, and chorus concerts into three different nights. I thought this meant the concert might be shorter than a middle school concert. But there are five different bands at his high school, not counting the marching band, which I don’t think plays at concerts. Noah had attended the orchestra concert the week before and had gotten back later than I expected, so I wasn’t expecting a short night. A glance at the program confirmed that would be the case again.

June was with us, even though it would surely keep her up past her bedtime, because we don’t have a sitter any more now that Eleanor’s in college and we so seldom need one I never invested the time in finding a replacement. If June had her way I would have found her a ride to and from her school’s Reading Night, someone who would drop her off at our empty house when it was over. But even though she’s been staying home alone for years we didn’t feel quite right about having her alone in the house at night, so we made her come. She probably would have been excited about being out late if it wasn’t for the fact that she was missing something she wanted to do. But she was mature and didn’t complain too much. It might have helped that we bought her a brownie at the bake sale and I read to her from Cricket while they were setting the stage between groups.

Another way the concert was different from a middle school concert was the fact that we were in comfortable auditorium seats, the band was up on stage, and there were colored lights behind them that changed from blue to green to red. It was nicely done.

The Jazz Combo played first. This group consisted of two saxophonists, a pianist, a bass player, and a percussionist. Because it was such a small and talented group, there were plenty of opportunities for solos. My favorite piece was probably “Black Orpheus,” but they were all good.

As would happen with each band that followed, the teacher introduced members of the band who were in the school’s music honor society and those who had made the county honors bands, the all State bands, the All Eastern Bands, and the Honors Band of America. There were a lot of names to announce. The musicians at Noah’s school are an accomplished bunch.

Next up was the Jazz Ensemble. They had vocalists, a boy and a girl, for three of their five numbers, which interested June. I think she might have been imagining herself up on stage with a microphone and a big band backing her six or seven years hence.

Then the concert band played a few songs. One was one of those high concept band pieces with which you’re probably familiar if you’ve ever had a kid in band. It was called “The Great Locomotive Chase.” It was inspired by a Union raid on the railroad tracks in Georgia during the Civil War, and featured instruments that sounded like a train whistle and other sound effects. That was fun. June was starting to fade, though, and she alternated between leaning against me and Beth. I was tired, too, as I’d been up late keeping Noah on task the night before as he wrote an alternative ending to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Symphonic Band (the intermediate band) was next. Noah’s going to play in this band next semester. It’s hard to fit in band with as many required classes as the CAP kids have, so this year they’ve just let him play whenever his schedule allowed, which we appreciate. Many kids in CAP just drop music and I’m glad he hasn’t had to do that, even though he had to skip a year.

At last, it was time for the Wind Ensemble, or the advanced band. I don’t know why they call it the Wind Ensemble when it’s not just wind instruments, but there you have it. Noah had told us what he was playing in each song ahead of time. We like to know because it’s usually impossible to see the percussionists all the way in the back. He’d also told me weeks ago he didn’t have any difficult parts, so I was surprised to hear the snare drum as the most prominent percussion sound in their first piece, “Matador.” This is a very fast song and he sounded fantastic, very precise. Beth and I exchanged happy, relieved looks over June, who muttered, “He probably made three little mistakes he’ll go on and on about.”

Noah played timpani in “Amazing Grace,” a smaller part, but I’m always glad whenever he gets some timpani experience because they didn’t have one at his middle school and it’s been an audition bane for him because of that. He played the bass drum and woodblocks capably in “Hebrides Suite” and the concert was over.

As we walked back to the car I asked him how he thought it went and he said, “okay” and later, “not terrible.” This for him nearly amounts to self-promotion. But he’s right. It wasn’t terrible. It was the opposite of terrible. I’m happy he held his own with challenging music and I hope he’ll be comfortable in Symphonic Band next semester. It was clear from the concert he doesn’t belong in the non-audition concert band, which was his first choice (because he hates to audition). But whatever band he plays in, I always enjoy hearing him perform.

Holiday Sing (and Electoral College March)

June sang and played violin at her school’s Holiday Sing once last Friday and twice on Monday. Last year she was in the chorus, but there was no chorus this year, so the whole fourth and fifth grade sang instead, preparing in their regular music class. The band and orchestra played, too.

June is having the opposite problem Noah’s having with music this year, and I think it’s a worse problem to have. Mr. G’s replacement isn’t as skilled at assessing the students’ skill and experience levels and coming up with appropriate lessons for everyone. This was Mr. G’s superpower.  Mr. B is basically treating them all like raw beginners. June says the fifth graders who just started to play last year are incredulous at how easy the music is and she’s been playing for almost three and a half years. Not surprisingly, there’s no advanced string ensemble this year.

So, we’d been considering having June drop out of orchestra after the January concert, but then we found out there wasn’t going to be a January concert this year so the timing is less clear. It’s hard to see the point of pulling her out of her science and Spanish class once a week if she’s not learning anything. But before we take that step, I wanted to address my concerns with Mr. B first. He did offer to give June some harder music and meet with her after school on Mondays, which was generous of him. But the first piece he gave her was “Frere Jacques,” so we still have the same underlying problem.

Meanwhile, to keep from losing ground, June’s been practicing songs from orchestra camp and last year’s orchestra selections, and she’s using online tutorials to learn new songs. She and Beth have also been practicing Christmas songs together in preparation for a joint performance for Beth’s mom at Christmas, which they are both enjoying. The obvious solution is to put her back into private lessons, but between Scouts, basketball, and voice lessons, she has enough on her plate without adding another item to her weekly calendar.

This year the Holiday Sing was the same day the Electoral College met. I’d noticed this coincidence ahead of time and I thought it might mar my enjoyment of the event. Sure enough, I was melancholy as I walked to June’s school.

Just two days earlier I’d taken another long walk, from the Washington Monument to the White House, as part of a rally and march to ask the electors to vote their conscience.

I told June I was going to a rally to ask the electors to vote their conscience and asked if she’d like to make me a poster. She considered. “Is it okay if it has glitter glue and sparkles?” 

“Yes.”

She was sold.

I told Noah where I was going and he said, “Why do you think that will work?”

“I don’t,” I said.
“Then why are you going?”
“Because sometimes you have to try even when it seems hopeless. That’s what we learn from Frodo and Sam, right?”
He gave me a half-skeptical, half-sad smile.

The march started at the Washington Monument and proceeded to the White House. Even though we’d had an ice storm that morning the day had warmed up considerably. The late afternoon light was a lovely pale gold. I wore my coat unbuttoned and even got a little overheated as I tried to keep up with the marchers, who on average were probably about twenty years younger than me and pretty well spread out in the street. The march was spirited, but sparse, as these things go. The signs were about all sorts of lefty issues, relevant I suppose because they were all issues affected by the election, but I would have preferred a narrower focus on our appeal to the electors.  At the end we were standing by the reviewing stands for the inaugural parade, which are under construction. This seemed to point out how little we could really do about it.

But when I got home, Beth had made a lasagna and Noah had made enough progress on his pre-calculus so we could read the last chapter of Return of the King after dinner. I felt I’d done what I could and it was comforting to be back home.

At June’s school before the Holiday Sing, I sat in a row of a few other mothers of June’s friends. The mom next to me and I discussed how neither of us was sad to be leaving elementary school behind at the end of the year and the state of instrumental music at the school. She seemed to agree with my assessment but I could tell from a look of mild surprise on her face, that I am considerably more worked up about this than she is. This had been happening to me every time I talk to someone about instrumental music. I guess I need to tone it down.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the band started to play “Jingle Bells” because they didn’t sound half bad, if a little morose because the tempo was so slow.  Their Hanukkah selection, “My Dreidel” was fine, too. I started to wonder if the orchestra would sound better than anticipated, once all the different instruments were playing at once, as opposed to June’s simple, repetitive piece of it that I’d been hearing at home. Sometimes that does happen. But when they played, it sounded more like an exercise for beginners than a song played by kids with over a year’s experience playing together. I was also having disgruntled thoughts about watching children fiddle while Rome burned.

Luckily, the singing part of the Holiday Sing was next. In this performance, the fifth grade sang a few songs alone and then there was a sing-along with the fourth-grade audience. Half the fifth grade (all that can fit) got up on risers and sang a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas song, followed by a spirited rendition of “Let it Snow.” There was a pause while the two halves of the fifth grade traded places and sang their songs.

I was sitting in exactly the wrong place to see June. The music teacher was blocking my view of her. But the teacher was swaying and the longer the concert went on the more pronounced her swaying became, so I could sometimes see brief flashes of my daughter. This was somewhat amusing.

They sang two songs alone and then it was time for an eight-song Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Christmas sing-along set. Many of the songs were familiar from years past. There’s a Hanukkah song I’ve always liked called “In the Window,” and “Ocho Candelitas.” They shook things up a bit with the Christmas songs. No “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Feliz Navidad,” which are perennial favorites. Among the new songs was “Mele Kalikimaka.” I’d like to think this Hawaiian-themed song might have been a tribute to our outgoing President, but who knows? At any rate, they don’t change the songs much and in my ten years of attending this concert I don’t think they ever sang it before. And then, my last Holiday Sing was over.

That night, doing the dishes, I was trying not to think about what had happened that day, that out of 306 electors who were supposed to vote for Trump, only two had the decency and temerity to consider his appalling words and actions and say no. I wasn’t expecting a different outcome—really I wasn’t—but if it had been even a dozen of them, I might have felt a little better about humanity.

As I pushed these thoughts away, I found myself humming that pretty Hanukkah song, so familiar from years of Holiday Sings. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. The experience of hearing children on the verge of their winter break, singing songs of joy for all these years has also been the opposite of terrible. Maybe I will miss it after all.

Postscript: Beth went to a march about a week ago as well, against the Muslim registry, and President Obama recently took steps to make that registry less likely. We are not powerless.