About Steph

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

That’s Love

Friday: Before Valentine’s Day

On Friday morning Beth got up at 5:45, as she does every weekday morning. It’s her job to get Noah out the door and mine to get June out the door and I have the easier job by far. June requires much less oversight to stay on task and she doesn’t have to be at the bus stop, which is right across the street from our house, until 8:15. I am not even sure what time Noah is supposed to leave as the actual time of his leaving varies so dramatically. Sometimes he walks to the school bus stop, which is about a mile away. More often he takes a public bus to the school bus stop or when he’s really running late or trying to finish some undone homework, Beth drives him to school. I guess they leave around seven a.m. on average, but sometimes it’s as early as 6:45 or as late as 7:30.

The difference on Friday was that after driving Noah to school, Beth headed out to the grocery store to buy a bouquet of blue flowers for June to take to school for Valentines Day. She wanted one flower for her morning teacher, one for her afternoon teacher, one for her morning bus driver and one for her afternoon bus driver. I’m not sure why she specified blue, but Beth said there were a lot of artificially colored flowers there and she thought she could find blue ones. I was expecting dyed flowers, but the flowers she bought were actually white with some blue tinting spray-painted onto them.

There were flowers left over once June had extracted four so I put the rest in a vase on the dining room table. For the rest of the day whenever I saw them I thought about how Beth was shepherding Noah through his morning routine or fetching flowers for June for two and a half hours before she even left for a full day’s work. I posted about it on Facebook and one my friends commented, “That’s love.”

June left for school with her freakish flowers and with lollipops for all her classmates. This might have been the first year she didn’t make any homemade valentines. I know last year it was mostly store-bought. And that’s basically what she brought home, candy and store-bought valentines, with a couple simple red construction paper hearts, nothing like the elaborate creations she used to make and receive in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. It made me a little sad, but I guess that’s part of growing up. In two or three years, she’ll be too old for valentines at all (except maybe for family)…until she isn’t again.

Saturday: Valentine’s Day

Saturday morning Noah was not ready to exchange Valentines yet, as he was still working on our cards, so we left for June’s basketball game, agreeing to do it when we came home.

The Pandas lost their fifth straight game, actually getting shut out for the first time this season. The score was 8-0. It’s hard to explain that they are not playing as badly as it might sound like they are. Put as simply as possible, they prevent a lot (but not all) of the opposing teams’ balls from going into the basket, and they take a lot of shots at the basket, but for the most part they just don’t go in. Sometimes the shots are wild, but maddeningly often they bounce off the rim.

June’s actually having a pretty good season. She’s gotten a lot more aggressive on the court. She steals the ball and takes shots at the basket much more often than she did in previous seasons, though she’s never gotten a basket in a game. (She gets them in practice all the time.) In this game she took a ball to the face, which caused her to bite her tongue so hard it bled. She sat out the rest of the quarter but when she came back into the game, she played just as hard as she had previously. That’s heart.

Back home, candy was exchanged, as well as cards. June also received sidewalk chalk and glitter glue, which she put to almost immediate use. “I was almost out of glitter glue,” she said appreciatively. Noah got a t-shirt with Roscoe the rooster, the unofficial mascot of Takoma. I got a Starbucks gift card and my favorite hazelnut-Ceylon tea (special ordered from the tea shop in Rehoboth) and Beth got a gift certificate for two movie tickets. Everyone was happy.

That evening Beth and I headed out to the movies. It was snowing when we left and icy roads were predicted but we decided to go anyway. We saw Birdman, which I really liked, especially the uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not and the way it used point of view. When we emerged from the theater, the roads were indeed a mess. We could see cars spinning their wheels and Beth said she thought maybe we should leave the car in the parking garage and take a bus home. But after we waited fifteen minutes at a bus stop that usually has a stream of buses arriving and only one came in all that time (and not the route we needed), she decided to chance the drive home. There was a bus stuck just a block from the bus stop and getting stranded if a bus had to offload halfway home didn’t seem appealing either.

Beth had to think a lot about the best route home, assessing each intersection and what looked safest and changing course several times. We ended up on Sligo Creek Parkway, where traffic was slow, but moving. There wasn’t a lot of snow on the ground but the winds were so high it was blowing all over and all the tree trunks and signs were coated with snow. Close to Maple Avenue, we saw a car in the creek. I should clarify here that in this part of the country we don’t call any body of water that would be deep enough to sink a car a creek. Those are rivers. The creek in question was probably about a foot deep and the car nearly spanned it. The headlights were on and there was a woman, or maybe a teenager standing on the bank. I called 911 to report it and the dispatcher thanked me but said someone else had already called about it.

When we got to the hospital near our house, the roads were very well cleared and we got up the hill of the hospital campus with no trouble. Beth decided to park the car there as our street might be messier and we were close enough to walk home. We picked our way through the icy parking lots and sidewalks as the snow swirled around us, passing a few people trying to push a car along our street. I wished I’d worn a warmer jacket. Beth wished she wasn’t wearing crocs.

We got home an hour after we set out on a trip that usually takes ten or fifteen minutes, but as we lay in bed listening the wind whipping around the house and rattling the windows and the sound of snowplows scraping the roads, I felt lucky to be warm and safe and that Beth got us home. That’s gratitude.

Sunday to Tuesday: After Valentine’s Day

Monday was President’s Day so it was supposed to be a long weekend and then Tuesday was a snow day so the weekend just went on and on… Knowing this was likely to happen, I worked a little every day from Sunday to Tuesday, trying to stay more or less on schedule.

Sunday morning Noah and June watched a movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, together. They hardly ever do this anymore and I was touched by the sibling togetherness, even if they did have an argument about how long to pause the movie for a breakfast break. (Later I found out they’d also been working on a movie they started filming last fall while we’d been out the night before.) They went out briefly to play in the snow that same morning, but it ended badly with June crying because Noah had dumped snow on her face and then he was grumpy because she left him alone after begging him to come out and play with her. But he made it up to her by coming in and making her cocoa.

Later Sunday morning Beth and June went grocery shopping and then Beth and I took her to the pool that afternoon, but Monday, everyone but me stayed home all day. I took a walk to Starbucks, but it was bitterly cold and no one wanted to come with me. June was antsy and bored, but it led her to write a murder mystery, so I guess it was a productive boredom. I asked if the parents on the cover are sad because they are psychic and know in advance they are going to die and leave their child an orphan but apparently, they are in heaven, looking down sadly at their orphan child. June found the photo by googling “sad parents.”

We ate a lot of comfort food over the course of the weekend. Beth made spinach lasagna and garlic bread Sunday night and pancakes and fruit salad Monday morning. I made braised cabbage and carrots, with mashed potatoes and fake Italian sausage on Monday night and fake beef and cremini stew on Tuesday night.

Tuesday I was a little grouchy about the snow day. I just wanted the kids to go to school and leave me in my quiet house and the morning was challenging. I was trying to work and the kids were bickering and June kept interrupting me to tell me she was still bored. But she had a friend over for most of the afternoon and things got better. They played outside and built a platform out of blocks where Playmobil people enacted some kind of drama and they wrote more stories. June was working on a sequel to “Another Orphan Made” and Maggie started a series called Horror Hilarious, which I am assuming is some kind of horror-comedy hybrid.

We walked Maggie most of the way home (her mom met us on the way) and it did me good to get out into the bright, sparkly day. It is always pretty down by the creek when it has snowed. Earlier in the day I had cheered myself by buying spring clothes for June and looking beach houses to rent for our summer vacation in late June. I found one I really liked, close to the beach, beautiful, and a workable arrangement of bedrooms for all the relatives we’re inviting. It was pricy, though.

When we got home, I saw Beth had answered my email about the various houses with the following message, “Let’s rent the one you love.” That’s love for sure.

Team Players

Hawks and Jaguars

Thursday evening in the car on the way home from basketball practice, June and Megan were chattering about the GeoBowl, which would be held the next day. Both of them were competing in it: June’s team was the GeoHawks; Megan’s was the GeoJaguars. Megan’s younger sister, who was out of sorts, said she was glad they were on different teams. Why, they wanted to know. Because it was time they stopped being friends and started being enemies, she said.

“We’re not enemies because we’re on different teams!” Megan exclaimed, and then added stoutly, “I’ll be glad if June’s team wins.” June chimed in she’d be happy if Megan’s team won, too. They’ve been best friends since kindergarten and it would take more than a geography contest to come between them.

June had been studying for Geobowl since September. The way it works is that packets of information are distributed about a month into the school year to every student in the third, fourth and fifth grade. Then the kids fill in the blanks on the packets, which are corrected and returned to them. Then they take a qualifying quiz in November, and the top seven kids in each class comprise that class’s team. This year’s theme was Europe and Asia.

I volunteered to help grade the quizzes the week of Thanksgiving. A bunch of moms, plus a grandmother and an older sibling came over to the organizer’s house, ate popcorn and drank wine and soda while we graded. I did a big chunk of the fourth grade and then double-checked someone else’s work on a third grade class. No one graded her own child’s class, but people were discreetly informing other parents of their kids’ scores as we went along. As it turned out, there was a strong correlation between your mother volunteering to grade the GeoBowl quiz and a high score on the quiz. I suppose that’s not surprising.

Nevertheless, I didn’t actually expect June to do as well as she did, because her studying had been sporadic until the night and morning before the quiz, when she crammed for about an hour. Anyway, as a result of the grading party, I knew weeks before June did that she would be in the GeoBowl (and to some extent which of her friends would be), but I didn’t think I should tell her until it was official. Then one afternoon in December she came running off the bus, yelling that she was on a GeoBowl team.

There were two before school practices for all participants in January and June’s team had a couple weekend practices and also stayed in the classroom at recess or lunch a few times. They also put a lot of thought into their team name, slogan, and t-shirt design. June was an early proponent of the slogan, “Eat Our Feathers,” but in the end they went with “We Fly with Knowledge.” I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed about that. The logo was of a hawk flying with the Earth in its talons. Beth helped June find the clip art she needed and then she made the transfers and ironed them onto the shirts.

The morning of the Geobowl I quizzed June, picking about forty questions at random from the packet. She got all but three right, so I thought she was in pretty good shape. Beth and I arrived at the school cafeteria shortly before nine a.m. Almost all of June’s friends were on the stage, with one team or another and the audience was full of parents we knew. Most the teams had t-shirts, but in the case of the Mind Avatars, each member was in a different kind of costume. Some of the GeoRockers wore sunglasses and bandanas around their heads in addition to their t-shirts and one of the Wise Wizards had a wizard hat.

The competition started with two rounds of questions about capitals. None of the six teams missed a question. A couple rounds later the scores were still very close. Four teams, including the GeoHawks and the GeoJaugars, still had perfect scores and the other two teams were only a point behind each. The master of ceremonies, who was the father of one of June’s friends, looking very dashing in a tux, had been making jokes throughout the event, but at this point he got serious and said it was anyone’s game. It turned out this wasn’t true because at the end of the regular questions, the GeoJaguars and the Wise Wizards still had perfect scores. The GeoHawks lost to these two teams by one point because when asked to name nine of the ten largest counties in Asia by land mass, they included one incorrect answer: Iraq, which should have been Iran. At that point it went to tie-breakers and when after three more questions the GeoJaguars and the Wise Wizards still had perfect scores, it was declared a tie so the fourth grade could take the stage.

June didn’t seem disappointed to have lost and was happy for Megan, as promised. Beth had volunteered to serve as a judge for the fourth grade so she stayed and I left. We knew a lot of kids in this one (at least four fourth-graders from June’s bus stop were in it) and I would have stayed to watch, but I had not gotten ahead enough in work to do it. I heard it was a nail-biter, too.

Pandas and Blazers

About an hour and a half after June got home from school, we left for Megan’s house because there was even more excitement left in the day. June’s basketball team takes a field trip to a girls’ high school basketball game once a season, for inspiration. It’s always a fun outing and this year, because the game was in the late afternoon instead of the evening, we were going out for pizza afterward. We were picking up Megan and bringing her with us.

The game was at the high school Noah will attend next year. We’ve known he’ll go there for a while because it’s our home school and he selected it as his first choice. What we didn’t know was whether he would be in the general school population, in the math and science magnet or the Communication Arts Program, as he’d applied to both. We found out about a week ago he got into CAP, which was his first choice. He wanted to be in it because he’s enjoyed the Media classes he’s been taking in the Humanities magnet in middle school. (He didn’t get into the math and science magnet but since that was his second choice, he didn’t care.) I didn’t really understand how much he wanted to get into CAP until the day he did. He tends to play his cards close to his vest.

Beth took him to an information session on Thursday night while June and I were at basketball practice, but this was the first time I’d been to this high school since he got into CAP, so it felt different somehow, to be there, and suddenly a lot more real that Noah will be in high school next year.

The Pandas wore their team shirts to the game and were greeted on the loudspeaker. Right before the game started they joined the cheerleaders in two lines through which the high school players ran as they came onto the court.

I’ve been to a four Blazers’ games now so there weren’t too many surprises but it is still notable when one’s main experience of basketball is elementary school games, how much faster the high school game is, and how skilled the players are at passing to each other. They don’t seem to need to look for each other at all. They just throw and, magically, someone’s there to catch the ball. It’s not quite like this with third graders. It wasn’t the Blazers’ finest night, they lost 55-37, but the Pandas have lost all four of their games so far this season, too, so maybe it was heartening to see more skilled players lose big. The cheerleaders and the pom squad, which performed at halftime, were also the subject of much discussion.

I heard one Panda’s younger sister and another one’s younger brother have very similar conversations with their mothers about the Blazers’ mascot painted on the wall. It’s a devil, wearing a cape. The team used to be called the Devils, and while the name got changed a while back, the visual representation of the mascot did not. Both children stared at it and asked, “Is that a good guy or a bad guy?” The combination of the horns and the cape was confusing, I think. Finally the little girl decided, “It’s a devil superhero.”

After the game, we took over the dining room of Zpizza in Silver Spring, and consumed five pizzas and a few salads, despite the fact that the Pandas had been running back and forth from the gym to the concession stand all through the game. (June got Cheetos and root beer and knew better than to ask if she could go again.) The kids sat at one table and the adults at another, and we chatted about work and other things until the girls were getting antsy at their table and starting to wander around the restaurant and it seemed like a good idea to leave.

It was late, but June wanted to get ice cream, and it had been such a big day I decided to say yes. Megan and June sat at their own table and ate their ice cream, while Beth and I sat at a table across the room and watched them. Sometimes they are on different teams and sometimes they are on the same team but since they were in kindergarten, they’ve been a team of two. They both have other friends, of course, and you never know which childhood friendships will last and which will fade away, but when I think of them in high school, I imagine June’s sweet, loyal, big-hearted best friend still at her side.

Just Like Today

I’ve had days and some were better
And some were worse and some just like today

“Only Today,” By Two Nice Girls

Looking at my recent posts you might think my life is one never-ending celebration. (They go straight from Beth’s birthday to Thanksgiving to Christmas to our anniversary.) Believe it or not, this is not the case. So I thought before Valentine’s Day rolls around, I ought to write about a regular day. It should be a weekday, I decided, and one June had an afterschool activity because there are three of those every week, which is more than the two weekend days or the two weekdays she doesn’t have an activity. The problem was, the week I got this idea there weren’t many normal days.

The Not So Normal Days: Sunday to Wednesday

Sunday afternoon Noah started to feel unwell. He was tired and headachy and had a sore throat so bad he was having trouble swallowing water. Given that I’d been diagnosed with strep throat six days before, Beth and I were sure that’s what he had, but when she took him to the urgent care on Monday morning the rapid strep test came back negative, as did the cultures at twenty-four and forty-eight hours.

Anyway, he was in no shape to go to school Monday, so he stayed home. He slept most of the morning and then tried to do some homework in the afternoon. After school, June had her violin lesson. It was her first lesson since we got a new time slot (4:45) that gets us home in time to cook and eat dinner at a less frenetic pace than has been our wont on Mondays for the past few months. I can’t tell you how happy I am about this. Now that June has activities either shortly before or after dinner three nights a week, cooking has become a real stressor for me.

Tuesday was a snow day. It was not a particularly impressive snowfall (less than two inches) and the roads seemed pretty clear, but nonetheless, the kids were home. As snow days go, it was okay. I’d worked over the weekend to bank enough hours to take it easy for this very contingency, so I didn’t need to work much. June played outside at my strong suggestion, sledding down the little hill in our yard and throwing snowballs at the fence. She and I read These Happy Golden Years and made homemade whoopie pies, which were very well received by everyone but especially Beth who is a big fan of this confection. Even though school was cancelled, June’s Girl Scout troop meeting was not, though it took an email thread of at least a half of dozen messages from several moms (whose opinions were all over the map) before the troop leader finally settled the matter.

Wednesday Noah went back to school, still a bit sick, but better than he’d been. I was looking forward to getting back into the swing of a normal weekday, but it was not to be. Registration for Girl Scout sleep-away camp opened at ten a.m. I knew from other moms that this is the kind of camp that can fill up within hours, so I logged on right at ten, with June’s list of top five programs. She and three other girls from her troop had spent a couple days trying to match their lists in order to get into the same program at camp. In the end everyone compromised some but they could only get their top two to match. Their first choice was Backwoods (which takes place in a wooded area of the camp) and their second choice was Watered Down (which features swimming, canoeing and kayaking).

The first thing that happened was that I was given a place in the queue. There were more than twelve hundred people in front of me. Yes, you read that right. Twelve hundred. It took about an hour to move through the queue and then early in the registration process my page inexplicably froze and would not progress to the next page. It wasn’t the computer freezing, my cursor moved fine. I called the help line and I was so relieved when they said they’d call back and register me over the phone that I waited too long for that to happen (about another hour) before I gave up on them and started again on the laptop. In the meantime I’d gotten a message from the mom of the one of June’s friends saying two of the girls had gotten into Backwoods, but it was closed now, and her daughter was in Watered Down and I should really register June now as spaces were filling fast.

This time I got far enough into the process to find out that June was not in the database as being a Girl Scout even though I had filled out the paperwork and paid dues for both her troop and the national organization in the fall when she joined. I found out later the troop leader never processed that paperwork. Anyway, it was a fairly simple matter and only $15 to join the Scouts online and I did it, rather than lose more time. On my next attempt to register her, my session timed out right at the end and I had to start over. This whole time I could see the number of spaces in each program and watch them getting lower (and in some cases selling out). I kept telling myself quite sternly that this was not a matter of life or death and I did not need to feel so stressed, but didn’t listen to myself and I was near tears more than once.

However, the fourth time was the charm and shortly before one in the afternoon, I got June registered in the water program. I thought it was a pretty good outcome, with two girls in each program, so everyone will have a friend, and the four of them have requested to bunk together. The help line never did call me and a big chunk of my workday got sucked into a black hole, but I was so giddy with this accomplishment, I didn’t care.

The Normal Day: Thursday

Thursday I woke up in a good mood, partly because of my Girl Scout camp triumph, and partly because June had basketball practice that evening. I do enjoy watching the Pandas practice, but more importantly, most weeks this is my prime opportunity for conversation with an adult who isn’t Beth, aside from the five minutes I spend at June’s school bus stop every weekday morning.

June had an 8:00 a.m. GeoBowl practice session before school, so we left the house early, at 7:45. I meant to leave five minutes earlier, but the last time she had one of these I didn’t even remember it until 7:45 and considering that at the moment of realization I was in pajamas and hadn’t eaten breakfast and it’s a twenty-minute walk to her school, the fact that I got her there by 8:15 is really not too shabby. Anyway, I was happy to have improved on our previous performance.

It was a cold morning, and when we got to the creek, June peered at the ice-rimmed rocks in the middle of it and noted how the dead leaves on the ground next to it were outlined in frost. I warned her not to step on a half-frozen puddle and she probed it with her sneaker toe gently until the ice on top broke. There was the thinnest skin of ice on the creek, too, in the still parts. I didn’t hurry her along because she seemed so genuinely interested in her surroundings.

We were about a block and half from home when I noticed she wasn’t wearing her backpack, which contained her GeoBowl packet, her homework and her lunch. So much for getting there earlier this time. I found I really didn’t mind. My good mood was that durable. We went back home and set out again. Just before the playground, we came across a snowman someone had built. It had stones for its eyes and nose, a twig for a smile, a garland made of evergreen and a scarf of dried pokeweed stems. It was listing a bit to one side but that only added to its rakish charm.

We got to school by 8:10 and I left her with her geography-studying peers and came home, after a detour to Starbucks. Once home, I tidied the study, exercised, ghost wrote a blog post about cherries and wrote some marketing materials for a cherry blossom extract. Once June got home, she did her homework and had an early bath. I made dinner and tried to talk Noah through an analysis of “The Long and Winding Road,” which he had to analyze for English class. He was having a hard time with it, despite the fact that the song is not that complicated. I think he might have still been fatigued from his illness.

We got a ride to practice with June’s friend Megan, her sister, and her mom Kerry. As we waited for them, we sucked on two of the last few candy canes we have left from Christmas. The taste was sweet and sharp on the cold, dark porch, lit with the blue and white lights we still have strung along it. When their car pulled up, we gave Megan another candy cane, and she was excited to have it, even if she had to share with her sister.

At basketball practice I was happy to see Talia’s mom, also named Megan, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple weeks. She’s recently returned from a vacation in Puerto Rico so there was that to talk about and she wanted to know more about the Girl Scout camp registration process because the camp her daughter wanted to attend was starting its registration the next day.

At the beginning of practice Mike gave the girls a pep talk about how they shouldn’t be discouraged about their losing streak. (They have lost all three games this season.) He told them he knew they were disappointed and he was too but that since the score was 10-4 at the last game and eight of the other team’s points were scored over the course of several minutes, the Pandas had lost four minutes of the game but they’d won the other twenty-eight. Pretty good spin, I thought.

I had my eyes on the girls most of the time I was talking to Megan, but somehow I missed June scoring two baskets during a drill. She is definitely getting better. In the second game she very nearly scored a basket. It bounced off the rim and then she caught the rebound and shot again. That one went wide, but still, that’s good playing. She also had a few good steals from opposing players. As a result, she’s not too discouraged about how the season is going.

We came home, put June to bed, and I nudged Noah along until he finished his song analysis. It had been a week of many ups and downs (dare I say a long and winding road?) but I was happy to have arrived at a day just like this day.

Find Your Girl

Last week on Thursday evening toward the end of basketball practice, June’s coach divided the team into halves and they played a brief scrimmage. “Find your girl!” he yelled, encouraging them to stay near the opposing players they were supposed to be guarding.

I was sitting on a bench with Kerry, Megan’s mom, chatting with her and enjoying the chance to watch the Pandas practice and to relax a little near the end of a busy week. We’d had three inches of snow early Tuesday morning, which led to a snow day that day and two-hour delay on Wednesday. It had been my first normal workday in a few days and I was feeling a little harried, but I was looking forward to Saturday because the Pandas would be playing their first game of the season, and we had other plans as well.

Saturday morning we arrived at the parking lot of the school where the game would be played around 9:40. Mike, the coach, and Maggie, his daughter, fellow Panda (and one of June’s oldest friends) were getting out of their car. “Hooray! It’s June!” Maggie cried. Clearly she was excited about the game, too.

After incarnations as the Purple Pandas (kindergarten), the Red Pandas (first grade), and the Golden Pandas (second grade), June’s basketball team is the Blue Pandas this year. Most of the girls are returning players, though there are two newcomers. We lost our star player from the previous three seasons because she’s playing on a fourth grade team this year with her sister to streamline her family’s hectic schedule. (They have four girls and I think they’re all in organized sports.) It’s possible this girl may have scored half the baskets in all of Panda history, and I suspect this might be a rebuilding season.

It will be different in other ways, too. They’re playing in a middle school gym this year instead of an elementary school gym, which means instead of sitting on the floor or standing, parents watch from the relative luxury of bleachers. Now that they’re in third grade there’s official scorekeeping for the first time and some rules are more strictly enforced (Mike worked hard reviewing the concept of travelling at practice).

One new rule we didn’t know about ahead of time was that the girls can’t wear any jewelry on the court. June’s been wearing a necklace with a tiny dolphin on it for months, maybe as long as a year. She never takes it off. The clasp at the back was completely wound up in hair that had gotten tangled around it and wasn’t even visible. It was starting to remind me of Victorian hair jewelry, but right now it was presenting us with an unexpected problem. Could we get it off before the game started? Beth tried to saw the hair with her keys but it didn’t work. We asked around to see if anyone had a penknife, but the closest we could get was a set of nail clippers. Thanks, Kerry! Finally, Beth got the hair off the clasp and removed the necklace. Meanwhile, two girls with newly pierced ears fretted about whether or not to take out their earrings, which were not supposed to be removed. One girl took hers out and covered the holes with Band Aids to ward off infection and the other girl secured one-time permission to leave hers in her ears.

Once that excitement was over, there was a short practice period. I saw June make a basket, but I missed seeing her get hit on the nose with a ball. I only saw her crying and Mike putting his arm around her shoulder and comforting her. She recovered quickly enough to play in the first quarter.

When it was time to play the teams were lined up and each girl was assigned a player to guard. I was glad to see there was a girl almost as small as June on the other team (the Red Warriors) and that she and June were paired with each other. The Warriors scored almost immediately and Beth predicted, “They’re going to lose.” I thought it was a little soon to say and sure enough the Pandas scored two or three times before the Warriors scored again. At the end of the first quarter the score was 6-6. June’s counterpart was fast and a good passer and Mike had to remind June, “Find your girl” a few times until June started sticking closer to her.

June sat out the second quarter and played again in the third. She said later she liked this arrangement, getting to play and then rest and then play and then rest. The Pandas didn’t score after the first quarter and lost the game 12-6, but it felt closer than that. There were a lot of baskets that teetered on the rim and ended up falling the wrong way. I didn’t see quite as well thought out and strategic passing as the Pandas had last year, and as Mike pointed out at the next practice they weren’t hustling for the rebounds, but it’s early in the season. They play until early March this year, so there will be plenty of time for them to gel as a team. I am looking forward to watching that.

After the game June was hungry and wanted an early lunch at California Tortilla. It’s in the same shopping center with a Starbucks and a Trader Joe’s and we needed to pick up some mac and cheese anyway, so we headed over there and got quesadillas and coffee— I tried the new Flat White, which is kind of between a cappuccino and a latte in terms of foam—and more than $50 worth of groceries because that’s what happens when you go into Trader Joe’s for mac and cheese, or it’s what happens to us anyway.

Back at home, I helped Noah study for his science and English midterms for a couple hours and then Beth and June and I went to the community center to hear a storytelling presentation. One of the storytellers was Noa Baum, whose CD (Far Away and Close to Home) Noah loved when he was younger and June loves now. In fact, when we invited Noah to come, too, he wavered and almost decided to come, too, before opting to stay home and practice his bells and drums. I think he would have enjoyed it because in addition to an Anansi story I hadn’t heard before (Noah used to be a big Anansi fan), she also told both kids’ favorite story from the CD, about a clever turkey who defeats the rich man who steals a gold piece from him. June, who had been listening intently all along, lit up when she started in on that one.

We came home and had a quick dinner. I reheated leftovers for Beth and myself while Noah made the mac and cheese for June and himself because Beth and I were going to a movie, which we don’t do nearly enough, especially considering we don’t even need a to get a sitter anymore. But it was the day before our wedding anniversary, so that spurred us to go on a date.

We went to see The Imitation Game on my mother’s recommendation. Toward the beginning of the film, during the first boarding school flashback, Beth’s phone vibrated and she went out into the lobby to answer it. I could hear her saying, “What’s up, Noah?” as she went through the doors. She was gone a good ten minutes, which was confusing, because I thought if it was an emergency she would have run back in for her coat and we would have been out of there, but if it wasn’t an emergency I thought she’d tell him it could wait.

When she finally came back, I whispered, “Was it an emergency?”

“A minor emergency,” she whispered back. June had a splinter in her foot and Beth had been trying to calm her down and then talking Noah through the removal process. It was the first time he’s ever taken a splinter out of someone else and he did a good job staying calm, but then again calm is his default setting (not unlike Alan Turing, though it seems unlikely Noah will break a code and help win a war).

I tried to remember the parts Beth had missed and to fill her in as they became relevant later in the film, which was very well acted and moving, I thought. Even with the small crisis at home, it was a fun evening.

The next day was our actual anniversary. We exchanged practical gifts. I got Beth a new case for her phone, because she needed one and she got me swim goggles and an umbrella, because I needed those. In the afternoon I made a cake, the same cake we had at both our commitment ceremony twenty-three years ago and our wedding two years ago. In her card I wrote, “Thank you for making my middle age much less terrible,” because we’d recently discussed this article from the Post.

It was another hectic week. Two more two-hour delays (one for ice, upcounty I guess—I didn’t see any here, and another one for a dusting of snow) cut into my workdays. I was so hurried getting dinner ready before June’s violin lesson on Monday afternoon that I didn’t answer the phone call that would have told me it was cancelled and we waited at the bus stop in a cold rain to go to the music school and only to turn around and go straight back home. Wednesday I had a book club meeting and I couldn’t get the book read in time, which was frustrating.

Still even with these irritants, I know my week, my middle age, and my life is a lot less terrible than it would have been if I hadn’t found my girl.

A Merry Little Christmas

Christmas Eve

We spent Christmas at home again for the second year in a row. The kids’ first day off school was Christmas Eve, so after dentist appointments for both of them, we had lunch at Maggiano’s, a cavernous and ornately decorated Italian restaurant in the city. Then we went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at AFI. Though I didn’t have an opinion beforehand, afterward I wished we’d seen Miracle on 34th Street instead because it would have been easier to for June to follow. Nonetheless, everyone did enjoy the film. Beth and I used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year for a stretch from our mid-twenties to our early thirties and possibly not since then. I find it reads differently, more darkly and also more richly, when you’ve reached middle age yourself.

If it had been up to me, we would have just eaten our ample lunch leftovers for dinner and skipped cooking because I had a lot of wrapping and other last minute Christmas chores, but June had specifically requested chili, cornbread, and homemade applesauce for Christmas Eve dinner and she wanted to stick with that plan, so we did. After dinner we watched Christmas is Here Again, put June to bed, and I got to work.

Christmas

The kids were awake and whispering well before six, when they were allowed to get out of bed and open their stockings. When Beth asked June later what she’d been thinking about while she waited, she said she wondered what Santa had written in his thank you note for the gingerbread cookie and carrot we left him, so I was glad I’d remembered to ask Beth to write one while I wrapped presents and stuffed stockings.

Beth and I rolled out of bed at 6:45 and we commenced the present opening, without making the kids wait for us to eat breakfast, though I did make some peppermint tea for myself. June had proposed a new method of opening gifts. In my family everyone opens gifts one at a time, in a youngest-to-oldest rotation, but Beth’s family has everyone opening gifts at the same time. Having only done Christmas as a foursome once before, we have no set protocol. June wanted to take turns but to have everyone open all of his or her gifts in one turn. Beth tested June’s dedication to this idea by asking if she’d be willing to do it oldest to youngest and to everyone’s surprise she said yes, so we did it that way. (She must have really wanted to do this because she also let Noah have his choice of Christmas special on Christmas Eve, as a bargaining chip.) I think it might have taken as long to negotiate how we were going to open the gifts—over the course of a couple days—as to actually open them.

I won’t list all the gifts, but there were many books all around and gift certificates. Fancy teas and sweets were also popular. Noah got a pasta machine, a game, new lined Crocs, and a microphone. June got ice skates, a basketball, a doll dress-making kit, a set of CDs with stories about classical composers, and dog and sled set for her American Girl doll. After opening presents, June and I made cranberry-chocolate chip-walnut pancakes from a new cookbook she ordered from Scholastic.

I’d gotten Beth a mix for cheese dip and she wanted to make it for lunch but we didn’t have any cream cheese so I asked if anyone wanted to go for a walk and when no one did (I was pretty sure of this outcome ahead of time), I walked to the grocery store to get some to surprise her. It was pleasant to be outside on a secret errand, listening to Christmas music on my iPod.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon reading to both kids—The Long Winter to June and The Rogue Knight (a Christmas book) to Noah. Then it was time to make Christmas dinner. We had another tofu roast because June liked the one we had at Thanksgiving so well, plus stuffing, sweet potatoes, creamed kale, cranberry sauce, sparkling cranberry-apple juice, and Dutch apple pie—purchased from a fifth grader at June’s bus stop for their class trip fundraiser. (June will be in fifth grade before you know it and what goes around comes around.)

It was an enjoyable day, but it felt too short. I’d hoped to take a nap, or to have a long soak in the bath, or to read one of my Christmas books. It would be three days after Christmas before I even opened one, but then over the course of three days I read all of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, and it was worth the wait.

Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve

The day after Christmas we drove to Wheeling for a five-day visit with Beth’s mom and extended family. We stayed at a hotel but June spent the first two nights of our stay at YaYa’s house (she made her breakfast in bed one morning) and Noah spent the next two, so they each got some one-one-one grandmother time.

There were two family gatherings—one night Beth’s cousin Sean made Indian curries for a crowd (June played “Jingle Bells” for everyone that night and we contributed homemade gingerbread cookies) and another night Beth’s mom made spinach lasagna. Beth took June skating and I took her swimming in the hotel pool three times (once for almost two hours). We went to the playground and YaYa took June to church and to see Annie at a theater and watched Maleficent with her at home. Beth and the kids played Noah’s new game and the kids bought books at a local bookstore with gift certificates they got from Beth’s aunt Carole. I spent a lot of time the first couple days we were in Wheeling working on an outside (i.e. not for my sister) editing job, but once that was finished I had more time to read and relax. Noah also worked, doing long packets in preparation for upcoming county exams in geometry and Spanish.

One morning a friend of Beth’s mom took us on a tour of the Victorian mansion-turned-retirement home where she lives so we could see all the Christmas trees and decorations. There were at least a dozen trees, all with different themes. YaYa liked the snowman tree best. It had a snowman head for a topper, mittens coming out of the sides, snowman decorations, and two oversized boots underneath. June liked the angel tree and Noah liked the candy cane tree. (We got samples there.) It’s a really lovely facility, but one odd effect of the tour was that when I read a story in the Atwood collection that takes place in an upscale retirement home, of course I was picturing it taking place there, and as something truly awful happens in the story, that was a bit disturbing.

We also drove through the light display at Oglebay Park. Our old favorites—the candy cane wreath, the twelve days of Christmas, and the jumping horse were there of course, but there were also new displays-one of the tunnels had multi-colored lights that crawled across it and some of the huge evergreens had new lights—blue streaking ones and pretty white and gold ones. When we passed the lights that spell “Joy,” I said, “Look! It says ‘June.’” This is a family joke based on the time June was two and thought every word that started with J was her name, including this very light display.

Noah, who’d had a bad headache in the afternoon and taken a two hour, forty-minute nap, was quiet on the drive, not reading the brochure and playing tour guide as he usually does. Toward the end, he started to feel poorly again. We went back to YaYa’s house and he ate a banana and crawled back to bed. The rest of us ate leftover lasagna and then June and I went up to the bedroom where Noah was resting and I read an Edgar and Ellen book to both of them so he’d have some company.

I’d been reading about a lot of friends and kids of friends who’ve had the flu lately on Facebook, and Beth wasn’t feeling so hot either so I feared the worst, but the next day Noah seemed recovered and Beth, while tired and queasy, at least wasn’t violently ill. This was our last day in Wheeling and it was more low-key than the rest. We mostly hung around YaYa’s house.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

We drove home the next day, arriving home around 4:30 on New Year’s Eve. We unpacked, did laundry, ate the Christmas Eve lunch leftovers I’d frozen and had a quiet evening at home, unless you count the noise of bickering kids who’ve been so well behaved at their grandmother’s they had a lot of pent-up arguing to do. Everyone was in bed by 9:45.

On New Year’s Day I had coffee with a friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce lives and teaches in Indiana now but her parents live in the area so I often get to see her at Christmastime. We talked about work, kids, and marriage, and I was surprised to see when we checked the time that we’d been talking for two and a half hours. That’s how it is with good friends. It was a lovely way to ring in the New Year.

Thanks to all of you who read this blog in 2014, and Happy New Year!

Jingle Bell Rock

Nicole, from Girl In a Boy House recently blogged about the inevitability of holiday events if you have children enrolled in any kind of extracurricular activity, apparently even karate in her case. Given that June is in four activities at the moment (due to a three-week overlap between the end of gymnastics and the beginning of basketball), I suppose we’re lucky we weren’t more overscheduled this month than we were. She did make a Christmas ornament in Brownies on Tuesday, but we didn’t have to bring food or show up for anything extra for that or for either of her athletic activities.

However, last week, in various combinations, we did attend and the kids participated in three concerts over the course of six days. June’s music school had a recital on Sunday evening, Noah had a band concert on Thursday evening, and June’s school held its annual holiday concert/sing-along on Friday morning. These events were not all holiday-centric, but there was at least of touch of seasonal festivity in each of them.

I: Sunday Evening, 6 p.m.: Music School Recital

The recital was packed. They had divided it into two recitals and asked people who were originally scheduled for the afternoon one to switch to the evening one to spread the students out more evenly. We were among the people who switched and I don’t know if too many of us did or if the afternoon recital was even more crowded, but in either case, the music school, which has open less than two years, is clearly doing a good business. It was standing room only and quite warm in the main front room.

When we arrived, June called out to Toby, a friend of hers from school, and I waved to the mother of two sisters who attended her preschool, one before her and one after.

Most of the musicians were either pianists or violinists, though there was at least one child playing the guitar. There were some of the standards you usually hear from beginning musicians like “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Ode to Joy,” as well as more complicated classical pieces like “Fur Elise” and a Debussy piece from teenagers. Only two students chose Christmas music, but June was one of them. For weeks before the recital she played “Jingle Bells” and nothing but “Jingle Bells,” even when I tried to get her to practice some of her other songs. She experimented with different tempos and added her own flourish to the end. I knew she was more than ready by the big day.

June played toward the middle of the program. They seem to group the kids roughly by experience, with tiny children climbing up onto the piano bench first and teachers giving guest performances last. When June’s piece was announced, I heard a preschooler in the audience cry out “Oh!” as in “Finally, a song I know!” She did very well and seemed pleased with her performance.

The concert as a whole was quite enjoyable, especially toward the end. The last five students were just fantastic and it’s always fun to see the teachers perform, too. One of them had substituted for June’s teacher while she was on vacation, so we knew him. He played a very difficult sounding piece with a lot of vibrato. On the way to the car I told June she might play that well some day if she sticks with violin. She’s been playing almost a year and a half, but she’s been wavering about whether or not to continue since the summer. She always wants to try new activities and she gets tired of practicing. So, we’ll see.

Thursday Evening, 7 p.m.: Orchestra, Chorus, and Band Concert

Thursday night found us in the gym at Noah’s school, which was a surprise because concerts have always been in the cafeteria up to now. The gym’s a little bigger, which might be the reason. There were enough people there that they had to find extra folding chairs and set them up during intermission. There was a bake sale, to which Beth contributed homemade pizzelles, and from which we bought a bag of assorted cookies, a cupcake, and peanut butter fudge.

Noah had a long wait to play because the jazz ensemble, the intermediate orchestra, the chorus, and the intermediate band all performed before intermission and then after intermission it was the advanced orchestra and the chorus again before the advanced band.

This concert was somewhat more Christmassy than June’s recital. For one thing, the band teacher and a few of the students were wearing Santa hats. The jazz ensemble played “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” as people took their seats. And the chorus’s second set was all Christmas and Hanukkah songs, including “Jingle Bell Rock.” It just wouldn’t be a school concert in December without “Jingle Bell Rock,” would it? There was a lot of popular music of my youth (and earlier) as well—James Brown’s “I Got You, I Feel Good,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and medleys of Queen and Journey songs. I suppose my kids will have to wait until their kids are playing in elementary and middle school concerts to hear the popular music of their day arranged for orchestra and band. In case you were interested in the musical preferences of parents at Noah’s school, the most enthusiastic reception was definitely for the James Brown. Now you know.

When the advanced band performed Noah played tambourine, triangle, and claves. He was a little disappointed not to have a drum or bell part, especially as he’s been practicing the Journey medley a lot, but two of the songs had quite a bit of tambourine. In one song he was supposed to play two notes on the triangle and he missed one. “I missed fifty percent of the notes!” he said on the way to the car, but he seemed more amused than upset. It reminded me how frustrated he used to get about musical mistakes when he was younger and how he just takes them in stride now. Music has taught him that. It’s a good lesson.

III. Friday Morning, 9:15: Holiday Sing

Noah had to stay after the concert to take the percussion instruments back to the band room so Beth and I made ourselves useful folding up chairs and stacking them against the wall for the custodians. It was 9:20 by the time we left the school and Noah still had homework, and Beth and I stayed up to make sure he wasn’t up half the night, so we were all up well past our respective bedtimes—except June who was already in bed asleep when we got home. As a result, I was tired the next morning as I walked to June’s school for the Holiday Sing. Tired, but cheerful, because I really like the Holiday Sing. I never miss it.

At the bus stop that morning there had been a lot of confusion about whether or not the band and orchestra or just the orchestra was playing at this event. In a strange coincidence, most of the kids at our stop are in the fourth grade and nearly all of them play an instrument so there was a lot of consultation between parents. No clear answer emerged. I could see more than one band mother wonder if she should just take her kid’s instrument back home and not risk having her child lose it at school on a day it wasn’t supposed to be there, or if she would thereby deny her child the chance to play at one of the school’s big musical events of the year. In the end all the kids with band instruments took them on the bus.

The way the Holiday Sing works is fourth and fifth graders who play instruments or are in the chorus perform for the whole school in shifts, and after each performance there’s a sing-along with the audience. The whole school practices the sing-along songs (some with hand motions) ahead of time in music class so all the kids know them. Some years the third graders play recorders but they skipped that this year. June is managing her disappointment.

There were three shifts this year instead of the usual two, presumably due to the growing school population. (There are over nine hundred kids at June’s school. The whole third grade is in trailers.) This performance was for the second and third grade, so the chorus and the orchestra (but not the band, at least not at the 9:15 performance) were onstage facing the audience and the second and third graders sat on the floor of the cafeteria facing them. Parents were in the back on folding chairs. June’s class was on the floor pretty close to me, so I could watch her fingers mimic falling snow and other hand motions during one of the Hanukkah songs. That was a nice treat.

Because the performers were closer in age to June than they’ve been in years past, I recognized a lot of them. A girl who used to play on her basketball team was playing cello, as was a boy from the bus stop, and several of her bus stop companions were in the chorus. One in particular looked like he was having a really good time and looked quite dashing in a Santa hat.

The chorus sang “Jingle Bell Rock,” of course, and a Hanukkah song, and “A Hawaiian Christmas.” The sing-along songs were divided into a Kawanzaa set, a Hanukkah set, and a Christmas set. A lot of the songs are the same from year to year, but they do rotate them and introduce new ones every now and them. I think this was the first year they sang “Run, Rudolph, Run.”

The whole thing was very efficiently run. Four orchestra songs, three chorus songs, and nine sing-along songs, and we were out of there in forty-five minutes. I think the music department at Noah’s school could learn something from this event. A two-hour concert on a school night, no matter how lovely the music and talented the performers, is a bit trying. And we learned via email the very next day that they are thinking of breaking it up into two concerts in the future. I think it’s a good idea but either way next December I’m hoping to be in the audience again for another music school recital, for a high school band concert (in a real auditorium with comfortable seats), and watching June in a fourth grade chorus, orchestra, or perhaps both. I love watching them play, whenever and wherever they do.

Thanksgiving By the Sea

Thanksgiving

Chances are I was the only one reading Don Quixote on the Rehoboth boardwalk at 3:30 on Thanksgiving. I wasn’t the only one there, however. The beach and the boardwalk were bustling with people walking off their dinners, either in advance or after the fact. It was chilly, 43 degrees according to the big thermometer on Rehoboth Avenue and the sky was mostly overcast, with bits of blue peeking out here and there. The clouds were thick and gray in part of the sky and puffy and white and just touched with pink in another, as the mid-afternoon crept on toward late afternoon. I was sitting on a bench near Santa’s cottage, so passing conversation between parents and excited small children centered on exactly when Santa would be there. (His first shift of the season was the next morning, at eleven. I’d know that even if I hadn’t checked myself because I heard it so many times while sitting there.) Another popular topic of conversation was the teenage girl skim boarding in the ocean and whether or not she was cold, even in a wetsuit. I took it all in happily, the lovely light turning the sand a pink-gold color and the passing words of strangers strolling down the boardwalk, as I dipped into Don Quixote and Sancho’s adventures.

When I returned to the house, I found Beth and the kids reading and playing electronic games in warmer conditions, in front of a cozy fire. I warmed up there for a while and then went to the kitchen to trim the Brussels sprouts and mix them with goat cheese and spices and slip them into the oven where the tofu turkey was already roasting.

Last year was our first Christmas not spent with one extended family or the other (12/23/13, 1/3/14) and this was the first Thanksgiving we spent as a family of four. Since we also usually spend a weekend in early to mid-December in Rehoboth to Christmas shop and visit Santa, Beth had the genius idea to do the Christmas shopping trip on Thanksgiving weekend this year. We could stay three days instead of two, and we could get an earlier start on our shopping. (I rarely buy much before this trip.)

The kids had a half day on Wednesday, so we used the afternoon to pack and we left late Thursday morning and arrived around two on Thanksgiving, with enough time to unpack and for me to go down to the beach before beginning to assemble the dinner we’d partially cooked and frozen at home the weekend prior.

By six we were sitting down to fake turkey and real mashed potatoes and stuffing with mushroom gravy, rolls, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and two kinds of pie (pumpkin and pecan). Beth was pleased to have made our first Thanksgiving dinner without either of our mothers co-ordinating it (or as she said, “providing adult supervision”). I was pleased to be with Beth and the kids and at the beach and I said so when it was my turn to give thanks. Beth was grateful for to have time to spend with all of us, Noah for his “awesome” family and the Internet, and June for family, friends, and “being alive.” After dinner we watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on what was for us, a very big television, though it might be standard these days. I’m not exactly up to date in these matters.

Black Friday

We had breakfast—lattes, juice, pumpkin crepes, oatmeal pancakes, and a bagel—at the Gallery Espresso at their new location at an out-of-the-way office park three and half miles inland. We’ve eaten there for years, but as proximity to the beach is one of my main criteria for choosing restaurants in Rehoboth, it’s possible I might have never crossed its threshold again if not for the fact that Noah loves their crepes and considers a trip to the beach incomplete without them. (For context, when my favorite pizza place in my pre-kid days moved half a block and lost its ocean view, I never went there again.)

Gallery Espresso never had an ocean view, but it was only a couple blocks from the ocean and open in the off-season and the kids liked it so we’d often eat there multiple times in one trip. That probably won’t happen as often now. I don’t think we’ll abandon it entirely though. For one thing, the pumpkin crepes are really good, but maybe more importantly, the owner recognized us when we came in and exclaimed over how the kids had grown in the over a year they’ve been closed for relocation. Something similar happened at Café a Go-Go last spring. In some real ways, Rehoboth feels like home.

Being in Rehoboth Thanksgiving weekend meant a couple things. It meant we’d be there for the downtown tree-lighting and holiday sing-along Friday night, which would be a new experience for us. It also meant we’d be shopping on Black Friday, which we’d never done in Rehoboth. (And I haven’t done anywhere in years.) I wondered if the crowds would mainly converge on the outlets on Route 1 and not on the downtown stores where I do most of my shopping.

The crowds were not too bad, at least not in the morning at BrowseAbout Books, where I picked up a large pile of books I’d preordered, plus a few more I picked out in the store. There and at the Tea and Spice Exchange I helped the kids do most of the Christmas shopping before lunch. They were both really focused and decisive. The older they get the easier this task gets. I suppose the next step is independent shopping, but we’re not there yet.

We hit the boardwalk Candy Kitchen around noon, and as Santa was right outside it, June went to tell him she wanted a doll dressing-making kit for Christmas. The line was short and she was in and out quickly. I am not entirely sure whether June still believes in Santa or not. She claims to, but she also asked us (and Noah) in advance what it was okay to ask for, as if she wanted to make sure it was something she’d really get and as if she knew who would really be buying it.

After a lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers, I did some solo shopping and found the stores more crowded. Not quite mobbed, but close. The kids stayed home and Beth went to Walmart for a Black Friday protest. (She works for a union, so she does this every Black Friday. I always think I should go with her and never do.) Before it was time for everyone to meet for dinner I took another walk on the beach where I settled on the sand and read some more of Don Quixote. I was trying to get hallway through the second volume for my book club meeting on Wednesday. I could only manage three chapters before I was thoroughly chilled and needed to get up and walk some more.

We had an early dinner at Grotto, which was packed with all the many other families who wanted some pre-sing-along pizza. We got there just in time to avoid a long wait. They had characters from the Grinch painted on the front windows, with the faces left blank so you could take photos of yourself. June wanted her photo as Cindy Lou Who and Noah agreed to be the Grinch. Next they went through the restaurant inspecting the Christmas trees sponsored by local charities and made their donation choices—a children’s charity for June and marine animals for Noah. They based their decisions on a combination of the causes and the aesthetics of the trees.

We arrived at the sing-along seven minutes into it but it was quite cold, just over freezing and twenty-three minutes just long enough to admire the boardwalk lights in the shapes of sea animals, a light house, etc, and to sing secular Christmas music in a big crowd of people, dancing a little to keep warm. There were colored lights twined around the street light poles and white lights on the little trees growing in the median of Rehoboth Avenue and lighted wreaths over the doors of some of the stores, but the big tree was dark until seven sharp when there was a countdown from ten and it lit up. Noah claimed to be disappointed that “tree lighting” did not mean setting the tree on fire.

We headed home, walking past the longest line for Santa I’d ever seen on the boardwalk (maybe a couple dozen families). Once home June had a warm bath, and we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beth asked if I’d had a good first day of the Christmas season and I said yes.

Saturday

It only got better the next day. I wanted to take it a little easier, as it was our last full day at the beach. I still had shopping to do, but as I told Beth, we have the Internet at home but we don’t have the ocean, so from a little after ten until 3:30 I was mostly walking or reading at the beach, with occasional breaks to warm up in a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a hotel lounge. I rented a table with an ocean view at the Greene Turtle for an hour. (They also provided hot tea, mozzarella sticks, and a big salad, but I didn’t consider that to be the most important part of the financial transaction.)

While I was roaming the beach and boardwalk, Beth took the kids to the outlets to shop some more and then Beth and June went to Ocean City to skate at a hotel rink, while Noah stayed at the house to do homework.

As I was walking along the boardwalk on my way home, I noticed a pair of causally dressed parents with two very dressed up children on the beach. The boy was wearing khakis and a suit jacket and the girl was in a sleeveless (!) red satin dress. When they started taking pictures I immediately realized what was up: Christmas card photo. And then not ten minutes later I saw two little boys in coordinating cable-knit sweaters posing in front of the dunes and I wondered—why have we never taken our Christmas card photo on the beach? We’ve used boardwalk shots—from Santa’s house or with the lights— but never actual beach shots. I decided to remedy that on this trip.

Once home I had a nice soak in a warm, bubbly, scented bath, courtesy of the bubbling bath oil Beth got me as an early Christmas present. The house had a big clawfoot tub and as soon as I saw it, I regretted not packing any bath oil, so she bought me some because she is nice like that.

Beth and June got home from skating as I was finishing up in the bath and June wanted to get into the water, which still had a fair amount of bubbles, so I got out and let her soak in it awhile before draining the tub.

For dinner we had Thanksgiving leftovers again. This time, at Beth’s suggestion I made the mashed potatoes into potato pancakes and I added some homemade applesauce to the feast. We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas in front of the fire, and Noah and I read from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before bed.

Sunday

The next day was sunny and dramatically warmer. Highs were predicted to be in the high fifties, but it felt warmer. After straightening up the house and doing some packing, I took the kids to the beach for a holiday card photo shoot. I made June wear her red coat because she was wearing green leggings and Noah was in a green shirt and vest, but once we were finishing taking pictures, she shed the coat and the kids set to work making a sand volcano. There were artistic differences, however, and June ended up banishing Noah from the construction site. He and I stood and watched the ocean and I tried to help him brainstorm a topic for a speech he needed to write that used some of the same rhetorical devices as Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Che Guevara. (Every one in the class is using Thomas Paine—he chose the other two orators.) We were at the beach about an hour and a half and we only left because Noah was getting hungry for lunch and we were hoping to hit the road by two o’clock.

Beth and the kids had lunch at Grotto, while I squeezed in some last-minute shopping and then had lunch back at the house. Noah had some trouble getting out of the house and then the kids and I went down to the beach one last time to say goodbye to the ocean where June got hit by a wave that filled her boots and soaked her leggings and left her in tears until Beth found her some dry clothes and she changed in the car while I blocked the window. So it ended up being closer to three than two by the time we left Rehoboth. But traffic was not bad at all and our timing meant we were driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge just before five, during a beautiful sunset, with a pink sky above and shiny silvery water below. Sometimes I leave the beach despondent about returning to my landlocked life and sometimes I leave the beach still a bit drunk on the beauty of the world and mindful of everything that makes me thankful. This time it was the latter.

48: A Birthday Weekend

“Welcome to your birthday weekend,” I said to Beth when she came home Friday evening. Her birthday was on Sunday and we had a busy weekend of Thanksgiving preparations and birthday celebration planned.

We’re going to Rehoboth for Thanksgiving this year and we’re driving on Thursday to avoid the day-before-Thanksgiving traffic (plus today’s rainy, sleety, snowy kind of winter storm, though we didn’t know about that when we made our plans). So we decided to do as much shopping and cooking ahead of time as we could.

Saturday morning while Beth was taking June to gymnastics, I cleaned the kitchen in preparation for cooking. Then shortly after they got back I took June to the Co-op to buy Beth’s new favorite chocolate bar. It was a last minute gift idea. Having bought a gift certificate for Café a Go-Go, Beth’s favorite coffee shop in Rehoboth (from the kids), and three books, which are waiting for her at Browse-About, our favorite book store in Rehoboth (my gift), I thought the presents were all squared away. But when June found out Noah had chosen the same gift as her and I’d just combined it into one gift certificate, she insisted on buying something “that’s just from me.” As it was a day before Beth’s birthday, it needed to be something quick.

Beth was on grocery run when we got home, so June wrapped the chocolate bar and set to work making a card. She was sleeping over at Talia’s that night so she needed everything ready before she left.

After Beth got home, she made mushroom gravy and I made cranberry sauce so the house was smelling nice and festive. Talia’s mom Megan came to pick June up at 3:15. On approaching our house she said to Talia that June must be excited because she was waiting out on the porch. “Not half as excited as I am!” Talia, who was hosting her first sleepover, responded.

Megan and I had gone out for lunch earlier in the week and she asked me what were the chances June would get homesick and need to come home mid-sleepover. She’d nixed a sleepover with another girl because apparently that happens to her.

“Zero,” I responded. June has been to several slumber parties and slept over at least twice at the other Megan’s house–it’s a confusing fact of our lives that June and I each have a good friend named Megan. She has never once gotten homesick.

“Good,” Megan said.

Beth and I decided to take advantage of June’s absence to go out for dinner and a movie, as an early birthday treat for Beth. We saw St. Vincent, which we both enjoyed, even though it was a little schmaltzy. I like watching Bill Murray in almost anything. We had dinner at Rosa Mexicano, which we also enjoyed despite its inexplicably ungrammatical name. We shared cheese enchiladas and autumn vegetable tacos (with squash and Brussels sprouts). If you go there, I especially recommend the churros with chocolate, caramel, and raspberry dipping sauces. I haven’t been to Spain since my junior year of college, but the thick chocolate sauce seemed pretty close to what I remember.

Back home, just as we were getting ready to go to bed, we got a call from Megan (the grown up one). June couldn’t sleep and was homesick and crying and wanted to talk to us. Both Beth and I tried to calm her down, but in the end Beth ended up driving over to pick her up and bring her home. The next day I kept trying to find out what had happened but June would just say, “I don’t know” in a the-incident-is-over-Mommy-why-must-we-continue-to-discuss-it tone of voice. Apparently, at dinner Talia had a shared a story about how her mom got homesick on her first sleepover and had to be picked up and when her friend woke up in the morning, she leapt to the conclusion that Megan had been kidnapped. Hopefully the story was instructive enough that Talia didn’t think the same thing when she woke up to find June gone the next morning.

But despite her early exit, June was full of stories about what they’d done. They played Monster Mini Golf and the black light made her white poncho glow, and they’d eaten at a Mexican restaurant where she’d had enchiladas, too. (I was surprised about this until Megan told me she got the sauce on the side and didn’t touch it, so it was really just vegetables rolled up in a tortilla with melted cheese on top). You can watch the tortilla machine make tortillas there and this made quite an impression. Then they watched the Lego Movie, which was very funny and full of jokes that needed to be repeated out of context. So overall, I think she had a pretty good time, even if she didn’t sleep at Talia’s house.

There was an upside to June being home in the morning, which was that she was there for the homemade pumpkin pancakes Noah and I made for Beth’s birthday breakfast. Noah likes to cook with pumpkin in the fall so some time in October I roasted a couple of baking pumpkins and made eleven cups of pumpkin puree, which I froze and we’ve been using in pumpkin bread, cake, muffins, smoothies, and I don’t remember what else. We used the last cup in the pancakes. Beth proclaimed them “delicious.”

Beth opened her cards and presents at breakfast. She said the cards were a good representation of the children’s personalities. June’s was cut into the shape of a birthday cake with candles and Noah’s had a long rambling note inside about how if she used the Café a Go-Go certificate in the summer instead of on our upcoming trip she’d have two hundred days to think about what else to do to celebrate. He then noted if every human on Earth came up with one idea per second for that period of time, she’d have 123 quadrillion ideas to choose from and “that should be a sampling of ideas statistically significant enough to have at least one good one.”

Beth and June left to do the main grocery shopping around ten and they were gone until mid-afternoon because they went straight from shopping to ice skate. Noah and I straightened and vacuumed the living and dining rooms and I made a chocolate cake. Then I left to go to the pool and the library shortly after Beth and June got home. When I got home, June and I made coffee frosting and frosted the cake. She wanted to use a recipe from a novel she recently read about a girl witch who only wants to bake and not do magic. (There are forty pages of recipes in the back.) It called for espresso powder, which I thought might be the British way to say instant espresso (the book was British) but I looked it up and found it’s made especially for baking and ground very fine. I didn’t have time to order that online, so we used instant espresso anyway and it turned out fine.

For dinner we got takeout Burmese from Mandalay, which is one of Beth’s favorites, and ate the cake, adorned with the numeral four and eight candles we’ve saved and used for years. The four in particular is showing a deep indent from being used for Noah’s and June’s fourth birthdays and all through Beth’s and my forties. Beth noted it will be used next in the spring when Noah turns fourteen. But that will be a story to tell in another birthday blog post.

Do Anything

Saturday afternoon Beth took June ice-skating at the outdoor rink in Silver Spring for the first time this season. This morning June was eager to do it again. She’d “do anything” if Beth would take her skating, she said. Would she crawl under the dining room table and pick up all the dropped food, Beth asked. Would she study her GeoBowl packet and pick up all the pieces of the Operation game that are scattered on the living room floor, I wanted to know. June considered. “I’d do one of those things,” she conceded. (In the end she picked up the food and the game pieces and Beth took her skating.)

It has gotten colder rather suddenly. Our huge and prolific cherry tomato plant died pretty much overnight when the nighttime temperature reached freezing Saturday night. This morning I collected four and a half cups of little green tomatoes, which I plan to use to make a batch of salsa verde later this week.

I had a couple weeks of finding the cold and the early dark that came with the return to Standard Time depressing, but today when I left the swimming pool around 4:20 p.m. and walked out into a cold drizzle, I felt the warmth of my hooded sweatshirt as much as the cold of the rain and I noticed how the reds and the oranges of the turning trees seemed to glow in the dim light of an overcast mid-November late afternoon.

With the chill in the air, Halloween over, and Beth’s birthday and Thanksgiving around the corner it seems we are in a different part of the year, one with a lot of potential new beginnings. This month we applied to the Highly Gifted Center, where Noah spent fourth and fifth grade, for June and she started gymnastics at a new gym, since none of us much liked the one where she took classes a couple years ago. The new program is at the University of Maryland and is reputed to give the kids more individual attention and mentoring. June’s been to two sessions so far and is very enthusiastic about it. She especially likes the bars. Of course, busy girl that she is June has other things on her plate. Along with all the third to fifth graders at her school, she will take the test to try out for the geography bowl next week, although she hasn’t been very diligent about studying—despite her initial enthusiasm about being in the competition. Unless she makes a big effort between now and Tuesday I’ll be a little surprised if she makes the team. Looking ahead a bit, basketball practice starts in early December and she has a violin recital in mid-December (assuming she passes her audition, which she probably will).

Meanwhile after a lot of thought about whether or not he wanted to continue on the magnet track, Noah applied to the Communications Arts Program and a math/science magnet for high school. I wonder sometimes—this weekend for instance, when Beth and June were skating and I was swimming and Noah was stuck home reading and annotating Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—why he is signing up for more schoolwork. Then I remembered that he didn’t even have all that much homework this weekend, it just took forever because he could not seem to attend to it. Eighth grade continues to be less work than seventh, though he’s busier now than he was at the beginning of the year. Last weekend while June was at a slumber party we did find time to take him out to dinner at Asian Bistro and to a Buster Keaton movie at the American Film Institute. He’s been interested in silent film since his media class studied it in sixth grade. And the fact that he has been taking media classes for three years and discovered a rather esoteric new interest like this through the magnet program is one of the reasons he wants to continue. It makes sense, even if I worry about the effects of working so hard so young.

Noah also auditioned for Honors band. It was his first audition ever because he was nominated for Honors Band in sixth grade and didn’t have to try out and last year he didn’t want to do it. He was nervous before the audition and he says it didn’t go well. Sometimes he’s hard on himself, but he did fail to read the instructions carefully enough to notice he needed to get timpani mallets from his band teacher ahead of time so he couldn’t even play one of the required pieces. That can’t help his chances. (He also had to wait an hour and half after being called into the audition room to play, which I’m sure was stressful and may have affected his performance.) Whether he gets in or not, I’m proud of him for trying because it wasn’t easy for him. June, who has more moxie and has auditioned for recitals twice and for roles at drama camp several times already, was not particularly sympathetic when I told her he was nervous. “Oh, I’ve done that,” she said breezily.

It made me realize that in the space of just one month the kids will have applied for three academic programs and tried out for three extracurricular groups or events between them. It seems unlikely they’ll have universal success in these endeavors. I started to write something about how I wouldn’t even want that, you learn as much from failure as from success but then I deleted it because who am I kidding? Of course I want them to be accepted at the magnet programs where they applied and for June to play at her music school’s next recital and for Noah to make Honors Band and June to make the GeoBowl team and if she qualifies for the GeoBowl, I will want her team to win. But I also know it’s okay if they don’t. I don’t think they can do anything; no-one can. But I am proud of them for trying, always, no matter what the outcome.

On a Dark Night

So this waiting until the last minute strategy worked out pretty well for Noah this Halloween. He didn’t call Sasha to see if he wanted to go trick-or-treating until Thursday afternoon. They’ve gone the last few years together, but usually Sasha calls Noah, so I thought it was possible he was going with someone else or maybe not going at all. Noah’s almost thirteen and a half and Sasha’s fourteen and it’s around that age some kids start feeling too old. It wasn’t that, though–Sasha was going with someone else. Maybe next year, he told Noah.

Noah was puzzled about what to do. He couldn’t use June as Plan B because June and Maggie made plans to trick-or-treat together at the Halloween parade last weekend. It’s the first time she’s ever gone with a friend. Because Maggie wanted to go near her house and June didn’t care, Maggie’s folks were taking them. I told Noah that Beth or I would be happy to go with him, but he said he was too old to go with a parent without the cover of a younger sibling. He didn’t seem to like the idea of going out alone either, though.

Out of curiosity, or maybe desperation, I looked in his school directory—which has the convenient feature that after the alphabetical listing, kids are listed by zip code—to see any of his classmates live near us. (Because he’s in a magnet program kids come from a wider area than they would if he went to his home middle school.)  I thought if anyone lived in walking distance it would be easier to set up a last minute meeting. It turned out there were no eighth grade magnet boys in Takoma Park, but three girls, one of whom went to preschool with him, but he has no memory of that and he says he doesn’t know her. The other two he knows but wasn’t interested in calling. Then I wondered if a teenage boy calling a girl to go trick-or-treating might be interpreted as asking her on a date. I have no idea. In a few years June might be able to tell me but in the meanwhile, I decided it was just as well he didn’t want to call them.

By coincidence, Noah’s friends Richard and David were coming over on Friday. (The kids had the day off school because Thursday was the last day of the first quarter). So when they arrived at two o’clock on Halloween, Noah asked if they wanted to go trick-or-treating that night, either in our neighborhood or theirs. They live in Silver Spring and not the closer part, which is the only reason we hadn’t considered them before—they are good friends of his. One twin said yes enthusiastically and the other said no, he’d prefer to stay home and hand out candy, which was their original plan. According to their dad, they’d been thinking they might be too old, but given a willing partner, one of them jumped at the chance to go. I felt as if I were watching them all teeter on the edge of their childhood, right there on my front porch.

June had Megan over Friday afternoon, too, so it was rocking here with five kids playing Forbidden Island and Sleeping Queens and hex bugs and hunting for fairies in the basement and playing Mad Libs and whatever else they were doing. I got into the Halloween spirit by updating my Facebook photo album of all the kids’ Halloween costumes since they were babies (I had not updated it for a few years) and in reconstructing our Halloween playlist, which mysteriously disappeared off the computer. I bought a couple new songs for good measure—“Witch Doctor,” and “Love Potion #9.” I was also making vegetable stock, so the house smelled cozy and autumnal. It was also rather hazy, as my kids wanted to demonstrate our new fog machine to their friends and while the front door was open it drifted into the house. It’s very durable fog.

As lively as the afternoon was, the evening felt strange. In recently years I’ve been the stay-at-home-and-pass-out-candy mom and Beth’s the trick-or-treating mom, so being home alone on Halloween is not new, but this felt different, knowing they were out with their friends and not Beth, who ended up staying at work late.  They weren’t even on our usual route, as both were in their friends’ territory.

The twins’ father took all three boys around five so they could they pick up burritos to eat at their house before the festivities. I dropped June off at Maggie’s, leaving around 5:40. Because I forgot to preheat the oven in time to eat at home, she had to eat her slices of frozen pizza while we walked. On the way, someone asked if she was Wednesday Adams, which was a comment we’d heard about her costume at the parade, so I had to explain to her who Wednesday was, in case she heard it again.

I got home at 6:15 and started handing out candy to little kids in dinosaur and ballerina costumes and middle-sized angels and superheroes and teenagers just barely costumed (one in street clothes and an Obama mask) or not at all.  The strangest costume had to be the dragon with bunny ears. Strangely, we didn’t get a single Anna or Elsa.

Noah called twice to remind me to turn on the fog machine and then to see if I had—I did and it was much appreciated by the people who came to the door. A boy from June’s bus stop called it our “mistifying” machine, but I’m not sure if he intended the pun or not. Noah also texted Beth to say the trick-or-treating was great in the twins’ neighborhood.

Beth got home around 7:20 and June followed around eight. She said after trick-or-treating, she and Maggie and Maggie’s brother and Maggie’s brother’s friend had a big candy swap and she got rid of all her nut-containing candy (she’s not allergic, she just doesn’t like nuts) and steadfastly refused to part with her wild cherry nerds. Just before I put June to bed at 8:20, Megan came to the door, dressed as witch, with a very nice spider-covered veil descending from her hat.

Beth called Noah a little before nine to see if he was ready to come home. He was in the midst of his own candy swap, but it’s a longish drive, so Beth left to get him. They were back by 9:25, thanks to sparse traffic. Beth looked into his bag and predicted it would last him a year. It might. He makes his Halloween candy last.

It was a strange Halloween and probably a preview of many dark October nights to come as the kids celebrate more with their friends and less with us, and increasingly far from home. Originally, June and Maggie were considering asking if they could trick-or-treat alone, without any parents, though they scotched the plan before asking both sets of parents. Since June had asked me, I’d consulted with Maggie’s dad and we decided as a compromise they could go with Maggie’s older brother, who is in sixth grade, if they asked. As it turned out, they didn’t ask, and Maggie’s parents were with them the whole time. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long, though, before June is trick-or-treating without adults. I think Noah was ten the first time he did.

They insist on continuing to grow up, both of them. That’s a trick and a treat, all at once.