About Steph

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

Jammin’

The kids went back to school Monday and I admit that even after Noah told me there was an official announcement on the school district web site to this effect, I kept checking it to make sure they weren’t going to take it back. I’m just a little paranoid now. But they did go back and then yesterday the groundhog didn’t see his shadow, which was cheering, as I am all for an early spring.

But before the kids stepped on their buses and I went back to my empty house to enjoy my normal workday routine, we had a very musical weekend. Both kids had a public performance. To my amusement, June played violin at something called a jam and Noah played drums at something called a recital.

Saturday Afternoon: Peanut Butter and Jam

Saturday June performed with Becky, her old preschool music teacher, and the Takoma Ensemble string quintet in a program for children seven and under. It’s part of a series called Peanut Butter and Jam. The theme of this performance was feelings. We dropped June off at the community center for a dress rehearsal a couple hours before the show. (Or rather Beth dropped her off. I was already there, having stood in line an hour and fifteen minutes to register June for drama camp next summer. Early in-person registrants got a hefty discount that day, so it was worth it.) June had rehearsed a couple times previously with Becky but this was the first time all the performers would be together.

When Beth, Noah and I arrived at show time, we took our seats. Most of the audience was in seats, but there was a kind of toddler and preschooler mosh pit right in front of the stage.

We saw a lot of people we know, most with younger kids: the toddler brother of a boy from June’s school bus stop, a preschool classmate of June’s who was there with his younger sister, the two little girls who live down the block and whom June helped watch last week. But we were especially happy to see June’s best friend Megan and her dad. June had missed a Pandas’ game due to the dress rehearsal and Megan reported they’d won “by a lot of points” and that she’d scored a basket. (I later found out from the coach that they won 23-8! Since they won their last game as well, the Pandas are now, surprisingly, having a winning season.)

The show started with Becky talking about the snow and how it caused many people to have feelings—happy, angry, and sad. I could relate to that. Then she sang a couple songs with the audience. During “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” June entered from backstage, looking sad and singing, “If you’re sad and you know it, drag your feet.” Then for the bulk of the program she and Becky then discussed various feelings, with the string quintet playing or Becky singing music that demonstrate those feelings.

At once point when Becky asked her what she does to feel good, June said she plays the violin and then she played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Her right pinky was still in a splint, but it didn’t seem to affect her playing. If you’ve ever seen June act, you won’t be surprised to hear she was very expressive and enjoyed hamming it up with Becky. The cowered together during the scary music (a Vivaldi piece meant to evoke a thunderstorm) and scowled and stomped during the angry music (Shostakovich). Finally, the musicians introduced their instruments—violin, viola, cello, and bass and then Becky sang a few more songs with the audience and it was over.

After the show there was a reception and we stayed and June ate snacks (fruit and sunflower butter sandwiches, in deference to possible allergies) and we talked with people we knew and a few we didn’t, a few of whom came up to congratulate June.

Sunday Afternoon: Winter Recital

The next day the music school recital was being held in three shifts, at 4:00, 5:00, and 6:00. Noah was playing in the middle performance. He and his drum teacher had composed a partly improvisational piece called “Percussion Duo.” They’d been working on it for a few weeks and Noah even came in for an extra lesson that the teacher gave him free of charge. They also had to go to a jury, or audition, for the school administrators a couple weeks before the recital.

I was glad about this because Noah gets very nervous at auditions and his last two haven’t gone very well. The music school juries aren’t as competitive as the honors band and jazz band auditions, so I thought it would be a good way to re-build his confidence for the next one he has, whenever that is. This one went fine. If you’re judged not ready you can come back for a second jury, but he passed the first one.

Before the recital I went swimming (at the pool! Which was open!) and then to the library and when I’d finished there I realized I was actually closer to the music school than home and if I walked home it would just be time to get in the car and go, so I called Beth and told her I’d meet everyone at the recital. So naturally, I was forced to go wait at the bakery and have a cup of tea and a slice of marble cake and read the Sunday Arts and Style section of the Post, which I happened to have in my backpack. (I have been spending far too much time at that bakery, or more precisely eating too much there, but it had been a very hard week.)

At ten of five I left the bakery and I saw Beth and June in the car driving around looking for parking. Noah was already in the building. I went in and saved three folding chairs in the rapidly filling room and watched as Noah and his teacher Jason set up the drum kit. Noah looked very serious and avoided eye contact with me as he went up and down the aisle.

On the program Noah was second to last out of sixteen performers. They generally order them from less to more experienced musicians. The school’s students range from preschoolers to teenagers, but they skew young, so I wasn’t surprised to see him so close to the end.

The drum kit was right in front of the piano and there were chairs for the musicians and audience almost right up to it so I wondered where the violinists would stand and where they would put the guitarists’ chairs. I like the music school front room. It’s warm and sunny, with three windows facing the street and the walls are painted in nice shades of blue and cream. Nonetheless, it’s a small space for these events and I’ve often thought they should rent a larger space for recitals.

Then the office manager answered my questions by announcing they were changing the order of performances to have Noah and Jason go first, after which they’d disassemble the drums to make room for the other performers. Compared to the rest of the performers, Noah and Jason were dressed casually—Noah in his trademark sweater vest over a tie-dyed t-shirt and Jason in a black short-sleeved button down. Later Noah asked why we didn’t tell him to dress up. The answer was he’d been to enough music recitals of June’s that I thought he’d remember what people generally wear and he could make his own decision. Besides, he’s a drummer, and his teacher wasn’t really dressed up either.

Noah and Jason took their seats at the drums. Jason warned the audience it might get loud and said, by way of explanation and to some laughter, “There’s not much we can do about that. It’s drums.” They began to play. Noah continued to look very serious as he played. They sounded good to me and I liked their composition, but I can never tell when he’s going to be satisfied with a performance and when he won’t.

The rest of the kids played, a couple in duets with their teachers. The next three performers after Noah were pianists and then there was a violinist who plays in the advanced strings ensemble at June’s school with her. A girl played “Ode to Joy” on the guitar, alongside her teacher. I’d never heard that song on guitar and it sounded a lot different, in an interesting way. Because the winter recital is often in December a few kids had prepared holiday music—we heard “Greensleeves,” “The Dreidel Song,” and “Jingle Bells.” In a music school recital first, one of the guitarists went electric and played The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me Now,” which was fun. The recital ended with a very skilled teenage violinist who played a Bach concerto.

After the recital, we asked Noah how he thought it went. Okay, he said. He didn’t have a list of errors he’d made as he sometimes does, but he didn’t seem buoyed as he is at other times by a good performance. I was glad he did it, both to practice composing and to stay in the habit of public performance.

This duo of musical events was actually supposed to be a trio, ushered in last Wednesday by June’s first full-length elementary school orchestra concert but the concert was postponed due to the snow. It’s been rescheduled for next week, so we’ll be in the audience again soon. It’s one of my favorite places to be. I love to listen to my kids play.

Siberian Train Wreck

When I was in college I ate and most years lived in the student-run co-operative houses at Oberlin. A friend of mine who was a menu-planner at one of the co-op where I lived recently posted a recipe on Facebook for a casserole from those days. It features noodles, canned tomatoes, kidney beans, ground beef, and cheddar. I didn’t recognize the exact recipe but it seemed like the sort of simple, hearty, easy-to-cook-on-a-large-scale fare we ate back then. For some reason it was called Siberian Train Wreck. I decided I’d give it a try, for old time’s sake. It amused me to write the name on the white board, and given the predicted weather and how it was likely to derail the region, it seemed appropriate.

If you live on the East Coast or know someone who does you’re probably aware we had a big storm last weekend. Snowzilla dumped two feet of snow on the Washington area. It snowed from early Friday afternoon into the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Friday

The school system panicked and cancelled Friday, which irritated me because if they’d done an early dismissal, the kids would have been home before the first flake fell and even if they’d had a full day of school they would have been home before the roads were messy.

When the first flakes did fly, around one p.m., I was at the food Co-op, picking up a few groceries. I knew it would be crowded but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found there. There were easily three times as many people as I’d ever seen in the small store and the line snaked halfway around its perimeter. When I saw it, I almost abandoned my oranges, soups, kidney beans, and bag of vegetarian ground beef. But I was on this errand partly to get out of the house and have a little alone time while I still could and I had part of an episode of This American Life I hadn’t listened to yet, so I got into the line. To my surprise it moved pretty quickly and I was out of the store fifteen minutes later. The staff was doing a great job handling the crowd and with one notable exception the customers seemed understanding and in good spirits. (The one who wasn’t was pushing her way past people with her cart. What is the point of acting like that?)

From there I went to Spring Mill Bakery for a cup of Earl Gray and an enormous brownie. Their shelves were almost bare and the woman at the counter kept announcing they were out of bread, though they had baguettes in the oven. I got a table by the window, to watch the snow. I was making an effort to see the beauty of it, which I know is there, but I have been having trouble seeing it for a few years. I have to admit I didn’t quite succeed because I was just full of dread about the storm, or more precisely its aftermath, which was likely to be lengthy and trying. (The last time we had two feet of snow was when Noah was in third grade and June in preschool and a few days later there was another foot of snow and school was cancelled for almost two weeks straight.)

An inch of snow is just about the right amount for me. I know this because we got an inch two days before the big storm and even though the roads became impassable and I had to walk home from book club and there was a two-hour delay the next morning, it was kind of fun, walking home in the snow in a group of fellow book clubbers and taking June down to the creek for a walk the next morning.

It was a fluffy, sparkly snow, quite pretty, and I let June venture out onto the ice of the half-frozen creek further than seemed 100% safe because I’ve been trying to encourage her to get back into the habit of playing outside and I thought she’s only going to do it if I let it be fun. And what’s more fun than a little danger?

I didn’t stay at the bakery long because I needed to go get June from Megan’s house They had a five-hour play date that day—it started at our house and then moved to Megan’s house during the gap between my press release deadline and Megan’s mom’s conference call.

June and I got back home around 2:40, twenty minutes before the blizzard warning took effect. Beth had come home early and Noah, who had been home all day, was studying his lines for a scene from Romeo and Juliet his drama class is going to perform whenever they go back to school. So everyone was present and accounted for.

We passed a quiet afternoon and evening. We live on a busy road so it’s notable when traffic stops but by evening it was only plows, police, and emergency vehicles in the deepening snow.

Derailed: One day of school

Saturday

We woke to thunder and eighteen inches of snow on the ground and more coming down hard, but we decided we’d better start shoveling so it wouldn’t be impossible when it did stop. We have a corner lot and a big back yard so we have a lot of shoveling.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and buckwheat pancakes that Beth made and after Noah vacuumed the living and dining room—I asked him to do it, thinking we might lose power at any time as some of our neighbors already had—all four of us shoveled for a couple hours. We hired a passing man with a shovel to clear the driveway because that was too much for us to tackle. At first he said he’d do it for $100, but part way through the job he changed his mind and said it would be $200. I don’t know if this is standard operating practice or if it’s because we have a long driveway, but it’s how it usually seems to go whenever we hire someone to do this job. (In the end, we had to have it done again and paid $325 total.)

June wanted to try sledding on the rise in our back yard, but the snow was too deep and powdery and the sled just got stuck. I asked Noah to try to make a sled run for her by going down it a few times and he tried but he couldn’t make anything workable.

When we came inside I read a chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to June and we all had hot chocolate and soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Noah had a list of sixty English vocabulary words to memorize and exercises to do with them, so I quizzed him on these while Beth and June made chocolate chip cookies.

In the late afternoon, we watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. June had seen it already at a slumber party but even so, she needed to sit between Beth and me and hold Muffin (her favorite stuffed animal) on her lap during the basilisk scene. This strengthened my resolve not to let her watch anything past the third movie for a while because I know they just get scarier as they go along.

No one felt like making dinner, so we heated up frozen tamales and lasagna and June had hot dogs with leftover soup from lunch. I got into warm bubble bath to soak my sore back and read the newspaper, which had miraculously arrived that day. Meanwhile Beth and June listened to a Nancy Drew audiobook and Noah practiced his drums.

Once June was in bed, I read Library of Souls to Noah. It was snowing when we all went to bed and the sidewalk we’d shoveled was filling back up.

Derailed: One day of school, a gymnastics class, and a basketball game

Sunday

The next morning the snow had stopped—Beth measured 23 inches on our patio table—and the sun was shining. Beth, Noah, and I shoveled the walk all over again, an easier job the second time around, and Beth and Noah lent some neighbors a hand as well. We had one fewer shovel to do it with, as someone had stolen one off our porch. The footprints in the fifth photo belong to the thief.

I read to June again while Noah started to memorize a monologue for another drama class assignment. Then two neighbor girls came over to play with June so their mom could return a child who had gotten snowed in with them while her younger sister was being born. Our neighbor needed to re-unite the girl with her parents at the hospital and then drive the whole family to their house in D.C. This was why Beth and Noah dug out their car earlier in the day.

By mid-afternoon school we’d found out had been cancelled through Tuesday. (Monday was a scheduled day off because the kids get a day off between marking periods.)

I was tempted to go to bed and hide with a book when I got this news but instead I checked in on Noah and found him despondent about his progress memorizing the monologue (which is based on Beth’s mom’s memories of her youth in the 1950s). I broke it into chunks for him to make it easier to learn, ran him through the first five chunks several times, and then suggested he take the rest of the day off since he wasn’t going back to school until Wednesday at the earliest.

He went downstairs to practice his drums while Beth made a white bean soup for dinner and June played with the little girls. They are in first grade and preschool and June’s really good with them. It makes me think she might be babysitting in a few years. They played with My Little Pony figures they brought, June’s American Girl doll, magna tiles and the castle and its inhabitants. They only had to resort to a Care Bears video almost three hours into the visit.

Derailed: One day of school, a gymnastics class, a basketball game, and my weekly swim

Monday

By Monday I was feeling I needed to get out of the house so I was happy to meet Becky, June’s preschool music teacher and a friend of the family for lunch at the bakery. Becky and June have an upcoming acting and musical performance together (more on that in another blog post) and they needed to go over their lines.

It was quite a challenge getting there. Nearly all the sidewalks were shoveled but the bridge over Sligo Creek wasn’t (it never is) and there was a long stretch of sidewalk belonging either to the hospital or the university that wasn’t either. Usually we could walk in other people’s footprints, but on the bridge there were no footprints and the snow was halfway up my thighs. I struggled along for a while, with June trailing me, but eventually we had to walk in the street.

At the bakery they were still out of a lot of their menu items, but they had the makings of grilled cheese sandwiches, so we ordered three of them and chips and drinks, and a big lemon bar to share three ways. We ate and then June and Becky practiced their lines. I went across the street to the Co-op for more groceries for us and a gallon of milk for a neighbor. When we’d left the house, there were two men shoveling out our driveway again and I texted Beth to see if they were done and if she could come get us. She could and she did. It had been just about the right amount of adventure walking there but I didn’t really want to do it again.

Beth took the kids sledding shortly after we got home while I stayed home to work. They came home sooner than expected and when they got onto the porch I could hear June was crying. She’d flown off her sled and sprained the pinky on her right hand. Beth took her to urgent care to make sure it wasn’t broken and they came home with June’s pinky in a splint.

That night I made the Siberian Train Wreck for dinner. Beth said it was “just like Hamburger Helper” and it was. Sometimes that’s the kind of food you want.

Derailed: One day of school, a gymnastics class, a basketball game, and my weekly swim

Tuesday

Tuesday was the day I really lost it. The trigger was Girl Scout sleep-away camp registration. Last year the process had taken three hours and nearly brought me to tears. This year was worse. It was also worse than the dream I’d had the night before before about walking down a long, swaying bridge with no handrails.

I was logged onto the site at 10:01, one minute after it opened. There were 1,004 people ahead of me in line. I waited patiently, watching the count go down until it was my turn. This took a little less than an hour, about what I’d expected. Once in the site I rushed to find June’s choices. There were two spaces left in Storm the Castle, an archery-themed program and her first choice. Her friends Maggie and Leila were trying to get into that one, too.

But by the time I got through the registration process it said the session was full. I thought it had filled while I was registering, but when I went back to the selections to see what was left, it was still showing spaces, more in fact than there had been before. I kept trying over and over to register her either for Storm the Castle or to get on the waiting list for her second choice, Artistas, which was full but allegedly had space on the waiting list.

I asked Beth (who was working from home) for help and she tried, too, but all we could get to work was my very last choice—Moonlight Mania, a program based on staying up late. Even though I’ve gotten more relaxed about bedtime recently, it’s still a hang-up of mine and this seems like an almost comically bad choice. Plus June doesn’t even really like staying up late.

I regretted registering her almost immediately, as it leaves me with the decision of whether being the mean mom who says June can’t go to Girl Scout camp or whether to worry for six months about sending her to this camp. Beth gingerly suggested we all give it time before making any decisions. She seemed wary of me. This could have to do with the fact that after I got off the computer I started to cry and once I started, there was no stopping and I had to shut myself in our room. I wasn’t even sure what I was crying about anymore. There were too many options.

Later in the day I learned Maggie got in to Storm the Castle and Leila got on the waitlist for the same session, which I would have considered a better outcome than what we had.

I was so upset about the whole thing that I almost didn’t care when school was cancelled for Wednesday or that I seemed to be getting sick. In an email to a friend, I wrote, “I hate summer and winter and everything.”

Derailed: Two days of school, a gymnastics class, a basketball game, my weekly swim, a Girl Scout meeting, and my mental stability

Wednesday

Beth went to work for the first day since Friday. June had a friend come over for a morning and early afternoon play date. I ran Noah through his vocabulary, the Romeo and Juliet scene, and the monologue and then we did an extra long reading from Library of Souls because it seemed more worthwhile than anything else I could be doing. (Later that day I read June an extra chapter of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

After I’d made lunch for all three kids and Claire left, I decided I really should be getting some work done, so I outlined a couple of brochures and worked on some social media posts.

If Tuesday was the day I lost it, Wednesday was the day my stay-at-home mom friends started to lose it. After three snow days with nary a complaint, when the fourth was announced around 3:30, my Facebook feed lit up with laments. This must be the point at which it seems the kids are really never going back to school. Apparently we live in the worst possible place for this kind of misery: south and we wouldn’t get big snows; north and our cities and towns would own the equipment needed to clear them away in a timely fashion.

Derailed: Three days of school, a gymnastics class, a basketball game, my weekly swim, a Girl Scout meeting, my mental stability, a basketball practice, and an elementary school orchestra concert

Thursday

Thursday morning I was tempted not to get out of bed but I decided it really would be better for me if I did and that it might even be a good idea to try to get out of the house, which I hadn’t done since I waded through the snow banks to get to the bakery on Monday. We were running low on milk, so I walked to the 7-11, which was good and bad. Good because it got me moving and it was a mild, sunny day. Bad because it allowed me to assess how well cleared the streets and sidewalks are in my neck of the woods and how ridiculous it is that we can’t break our huge county into at least two pieces for snow cancellation purposes.

Anyway, after lunch Becky came and rescued June from her cranky mother and took her to her house for three hours, where they practiced for the performance and had a tea party. I wrote most of a brochure on fiber supplements while she was out of the house.

When Noah told me school was cancelled the next day I wanted to say some very bad words. Instead I said, “I suppose you wouldn’t make that up just to torment me,” and I went back to work. I am a paragon of restraint.

But there was a small ray of hope. In the evening Noah had a drum lesson that wasn’t cancelled. It was the first organized activity either kid had that hadn’t been cancelled in a week.

Derailed: Four (soon to be five) days of school, a gymnastics class, a basketball game, my weekly swim, a Girl Scout meeting, my mental stability, a basketball practice, and an elementary school orchestra concert

On Track: One drum lesson

I don’t know when the kids will be back to school. I hope it will be Monday, but at this rate, who knows? We once had a longer cancellation, but that was for three feet of snow. We’ll exceed our allotment of snow days for the year when we have our fifth one tomorrow and then there will probably be some more and then there will be drama about whether or not we’re going to make up the extra days and chances are we won’t and then I’ll be mad about that all over again.

But in the meantime, I’ve invited Megan to come to our house tomorrow morning and then in the afternoon Megan’s mom is taking both girls to meet another friend at Kung Fu Panda 3, so chances are I’ll get some more work done and we’ll all survive another day.

Gay Marriages

When I was pregnant with June, shortly after we found out she was a girl, I bought this refrigerator magnet. I liked imagining the little girl as her, asking the same question. But of course gay marriages are a lot like straight marriages: some happy, some unhappy, some in between.

Beth and I had an anniversary on Monday. This one felt a little different, not because it was the twenty-fourth anniversary of our commitment ceremony or the third anniversary of our legal wedding, but because it was the first one since the Supreme Court ruling last summer that legalized gay marriage in the states that did not yet have it. I was happy to be celebrating knowing that everyone in the U.S. finally has the right to be doing the same.

But because it fell on a Monday, we did some of our celebrating the weekend before. We went out to a movie and had dinner at an Indian restaurant in Bethesda on Saturday night. But before that we attended the first Pandas game of the season. And what a game it was. Regular readers may remember that June’s basketball team went all last season without a single win. This year their coach started practices in November, rather than December, so I was curious to see if it would help the team I was starting to think of as the Bad News Panda Bears.

They were playing the Spiders. Late in the second quarter, the Pandas were down 8-2 and I thought it was all over. But they scored twice at the very beginning of the third quarter and then there was more scoring on both sides. For a while the Pandas were actually winning and then for a long time they were tied 12-12 and in the bleachers I could hear three separate conversations about whether they let games end in ties at the fourth-grade level or whether the game would go into overtime. One grandmother said, “I’d be happy with a tie.” I think all the Panda fans would have been. But we didn’t get to find out about the overtime policy of the Montgomery County basketball league because in the last 30 seconds the Spiders scored and the Pandas lost the game 14-12.

That was an agonizing moment, but five minutes later I was finding a lot of reasons for optimism. I lost track of everyone who scored baskets, but at least four girls did, meaning the team is not relying on one star player. Plus Megan did a great job guarding the opposing team’s best player, June took a shot at the basket which she never did until last season, and our newest player showed a lot of hustle in getting and keeping the ball and took a quite a few shots at the basket. Even some of the weaker players were looking better in their control of the ball. So I’m looking forward to more exciting games over the rest of January and February and maybe even some wins.

We brought June home and shortly afterward left for our date. We went to a late afternoon show of Carol. We saw it at the Landmark, which has the quirk of assigned seating. They show you what’s left on a screen when you buy your tickets and you choose. Beth and I got the last two seats in the theater, which were in the front row and not next to each other, which was kind of sad. But even so, we enjoyed the film.

Beth and I read The Price of Salt, the 1952 novel on which the movie is based, some time in the 90s but neither of us remembered the lesbian classic very well. Despite this, I’m pretty sure it reads differently to me now than it would have then. In my twenties I would have been rooting for the lesbian couple without reservation, but as the character embroiled in a nasty divorce and custody dispute continually risked her access to her child, I found myself thinking things like, “What are you doing? Think of your daughter! You barely know this woman.” But it was very well written and acted and beautifully shot. Overall, it left me deeply grateful to live in a time and a place where I don’t have to choose between romantic and maternal love.

We were thinking of going to Jaleo for dinner, but there was a forty-minute wait there and long waits at the next two restaurants we tried, but eventually we found an Indian restaurant that could seat us. We got a very tasty appetizer of potatoes, chickpeas, and chutney in tiny crispy shells, grilled paneer, a black lentil curry, and roti. We get Indian a lot, but it was nice to try a new restaurant and new dishes.

We wrapped up the evening sitting on a bench outside Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar, sipping thick Italian dark chocolate and looking at the strings of white lights wrapped around the trees all down the street. It was a nice winter evening–chilly enough for hot chocolate but not too frigid to sit outside. I found myself wondering why we don’t go out more often now that we don’t even need to get a sitter.

Two days later was our actual anniversary. I made kale, potato, and red bean soup for dinner because it’s a favorite of Beth’s and mine and I also made a cake I make every year, using the recipe from our commitment ceremony cake. It’s a spice cake, with a lemon glaze. This year I decided to dye the frosting blue but I used too much food coloring paste and instead of the light to medium blue I was envisioning, it was a deep, midnight blue. I finished it with red, cinnamon-flavored sprinkles. The frosting turned everyone’s tongue and teeth blue and Noah’s lips were dark blue, too. He looked like he was wearing some kind of Goth lipstick, which I suppose was appropriate, as it was the day after David Bowie died.

Beth and I exchanged presents between dinner and dessert. One of the advantages of having an anniversary just two and a half weeks after Christmas is that we can consult each other’s Christmas lists and buy something the other one didn’t get. This year there were a lot of items left on Beth’s list and I almost went with a book, but I changed my mind at the last minute and got her a waffle maker instead. She seemed really pleased with it so I was glad I did. She got me Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I’d nearly impatiently bought for myself between Christmas and our anniversary, but we have an implicit understanding not to do that, so I didn’t.

The rest of the week unfurled like a fairly normal week. On Tuesday night Beth and I went to STEM night at June’s school and watched her present the poster on her experiment “Where Does Ice Melt Best?” (Spoiler: in hot water.) On Wednesday I went to basketball practice with June and I thought the Pandas seemed pretty pumped after their near non-defeat on Saturday.

“See you at the game,” I said to Megan’s dad as he dropped us off after practice.

“For the next exciting installment,” he said.

I do look forward to the next week and month and year and all the installments of our married life, whatever ups and downs it may bring us. And this weekend we’ve decided to go to the movies again.

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

We flew to Oregon on Christmas Eve. It was a long day of travel (three flights in total) and I had a bad head cold that caused me some ear pain that got worse every time we landed. It would have been a trying trip even if on the longest flight I hadn’t been seated next to a woman who was so determined to discuss God’s role in her reproductive life that when I rebuffed her attempts at conversation (as politely as I could), she just had the conversation with the poor couple in the row in front of us. Beth and Noah were seated a few rows ahead and they watched Star Wars and part of The Empire Strikes Back because he’s recently gotten interested in watching these films, what with all the attention the new one is receiving.

We did get to visit with Beth’s brother in Seattle, in between the first and second flights, as we had a long layover. We left the airport, saw his house, and had lunch with him. We don’t see enough of Johnny, so that was nice. His wife Abby was out of town but she thoughtfully left us a tin of pinwheels and soft ginger cookies.

My mother and stepfather picked us up at the last airport and as rain changed over to snow, drove us through downtown Ashland to see the Christmas lights in the business district, which were quite lovely, though I had to strain to keep my eyes open to see them. Then we had a dinner of Mom’s delicious homemade minestrone after which Beth, June, and I all crashed. Noah, who is apparently made of sterner stuff than us, wanted to adjust to West Coast time in one fell swoop and stayed up until his actual bedtime.

Christmas

I told the kids if they woke before five (and I thought it was a pretty sure bet they would) to try to go back to sleep, but that at five they could read or entertain themselves with electronics until six, when they could come out their rooms and open their stockings. I left a couple oranges in June’s room to tide her over until six and hoped for the best.

I was awake for the day at 4:05 but I followed my own rules and didn’t look at my phone until five. At six sharp I heard June leave her room so Beth and I got out of bed. I inadvertently woke Noah by going into his room to see why an alarm was going off in there. He’d set it but slept through it though the door opening woke him. We all opened our stockings and then Beth and June and I went outside to play in the snow, because there was snow, about an inch or so, but that was enough for June to make not one but two little snowmen, one on Mom and Jim’s deck and another in a small park just across the street. We haven’t had any snow at home so she wasn’t going to let it go to waste and it was a good thing she acted quickly because later in the day it melted almost completely.

When Mom and Jim got up we had breakfast—French toast casserole, scrambled eggs, and veggie sausage. Sara and our new niece and cousin, Lily-Mei (also known as Lan-Lan) whom Sara adopted from China just two months ago, arrived around ten. I opened the door when they rang the bell and Lan-Lan was clearly surprised and somewhat dismayed not to see her familiar grandmother. She hid briefly behind Sara’s legs, but she acclimated to us pretty quickly. June in particular was very good with her and by the end of the day they were fast friends. Lan-Lan called her “Goo” and wanted to hold her hand all the time (going down slides, in the car, walking around the house, etc.)

As she warmed up to us, Lan-Lan enjoyed playing a game with our Christmas card. Sara had been using it to help her recognize us before we arrived. Sara would point to someone on the card and say, “Who’s that?” and Lan-Lan would (usually) point to the right person. This never got old. She was fetching the card so we could do this for days.

The rest of the morning was dedicated to opening presents. There was a great quantity of books, soap, tea, socks, and cashmere scarves exchanged. Sara and I got each other peppermint soap and I got Sara the exact same brand of chocolate tea Mom got for me. In addition, Beth got a big stack of books, mostly about women in rock, I got a camera and a teapot and tea cups from China, Noah got a bunch of Amazon gift certificates he’s already used to purchase a new monitor and other computer equipment, and June got ice skates, a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again and some jewelry.

But it was Lan-Lan who really cleaned up (because so many of Sara’s friends gave her gifts). The big hits were a rocking horse and a set of little bean bags. Noah decided to put reindeer antlers on the rocking horse and to make a red nose out of a barely-inflated red balloon and soon it was a rocking reindeer. Lan-Lan rode it and delighted in the neighing noise it makes when you press a button and all three kids played for a long time tossing the bean bags into empty boxes. Every time Lan-Lan got one in everyone would applaud and then she would sit down so she could clap, too. She does it with her one hand and the opposite foot. Lan-Lan also found time to scribble with her new crayons and play with her egg shakers.

Sara and Lan-Lan went home for her rest time and while they were gone I had a nap. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and slept deeply for nearly an hour, which helped me stay up until 9:30 that night. When Sara and Lan-Lan came back June and I went to the playground with them. Once we were there the simple scene seemed momentous to me and I said to Sara, “We’re at the playground with our kids.”

“We are,” she said simply.

This was a long time coming. I didn’t have kids until my mid-thirties and Sara not until her mid-forties, both after long waits, but here we were watching our kids tear around the snowy mulch (June yelling “I’m going to get you” and Lan-Lan shrieking happily) like sisters who’d been watching their kids play together for years.

The girls held hands going down the slide and Sara made a video of it. Lan-Lan wanted to watch over and over and over again. Later June helped push Lan-Lan on the swing. Sara stood behind her and June in front and they pushed her back and forth saying, “She’s mine! No, she’s mine!” while Lan-Lan laughed. (This kid has the cutest laugh you can imagine.) Things only got more hilarious when they invented the game “Switch.” Either Sara or June would yell “One, two, three. Switch!” or to make it more suspenseful, “I feel a switch coming on” and then they would run and switch places. This was funny for a long time. I’ve found you’re never as good a comedian as when you have babies or toddlers.

We came back to Mom’s house and changed clothes for Christmas dinner. Lan-Lan wore a black and gold dress that used to belong to June. (The whole time we were there I took a lot of pleasure in seeing her in Noah and June’s old things—pants, socks, barrettes.)

We ate our dinner—chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, rolls, and a gluten-free chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. (Sara’s gluten-intolerant.) We ate on the early side so Lan-Lan, who has an early bedtime, could get to bed. As a result, after Sara and Lan-Lan left, we had time to watch A Christmas Story, which we’d never seen before. Mom and Jim enjoyed the nostalgia factor, as they were kids in the 1940s, when it’s set, and June appreciated the broad humor.

Boxing Day

The big activity the next day was a trip to Jacksonville, a nineteenth-century mining town that has a lot of its original Old West architecture. This was almost a trip to Crater Lake, which Mom really wanted us to see in the snow. But the snow up in the mountains posed a problem. Most of the roads there were closed. Only one entrance was open. Various routes were considered and debated and when we left the house, we were actually intending to go there but then we saw a sign for a closed road ahead and we gave up and went to Jacksonville instead. There we browsed in the shops and Lan-Lan stopped to pet the many dogs of Jacksonville, and we had coffee and pastries in a nice coffee shop Beth found, where I got a hazelnut mocha breve and Sara and I shared a gluten-free crème de menthe brownie. Sara said it was the best brownie she ever had and I said, except for Mom’s crème de menthe brownies and she solemnly said, yes, of course.

Mom and Beth were both disappointed not to make it further up into the mountains, but there were lovely mountain views along the drive and there was a spectacular sunset as we drove home.

We went our separate ways for the day then. Sara and Lan-Lan went home and the rest of us went back to Mom’s house where we watched a DVD of pictures from Mom, Sara, and Sara’s boyfriend Dave’s trip to China. (We didn’t get to meet Dave on this trip, as he was with family in Arizona.) Then we went out for pizza. June and I were done in by this point. She was resting her head on the table as we waited for our food and I might have done the same if it were socially acceptable adult behavior—I could have used another nap that day. But the pizza came quickly and we got home in time to put June to bed by her (new, West Coast) bedtime.

Sunday

I slept until 6:15 the next morning and as a result it was the first day I wasn’t feeling jet-lagged. We had brunch at Sara’s house—her famous almond pancakes. Noah and June kept Lan-Lan occupied while Sara cooked, mostly by tossing dishtowels to each other in the living room. Did you know this is the best game ever? Now you do.

We devoured a huge stack of pancakes, a quadruple batch. Noah alone had fourteen. (They’re pretty small, but still…) Sara said it was her first time having people over to eat since Lan-Lan came home and she seemed pretty pleased with how it went. Soon it was time for Lan-Lan to rest so we cleared out.

In the afternoon Mom, Beth, Sara, June, Lan-Lan and I went to a different playground and there was more sliding and swinging and games of Switch. When we got cold we went back to Mom’s house. Sara swung by the food co-op while toddler-free and then we had a big late afternoon snack of chips, crudités, dips, cheese, summer sausage, lentil and green bean salads and spiced nuts. This plus an eggroll was dinner for Sara and Lan-Lan, but after they left, we had baked macaroni and cheese and Christmas dinner leftovers. Needless to say, we were all very full after that. That night Beth and Noah finished Return of the Jedi, which they’d been watching little by little.

June lost a tooth that day and she was hoping the Tooth Fairy would find her. We’d been having snow flurries on and off all day and she also was hoping it would stick overnight and there would be snow in the morning.

Monday

The next morning there was a dollar under June’s bed (it fell off in the night and took some finding) and there was snow, a wet, heavy snow that clung to the tree branches and then fell in clumps. But apparently the second snow of the year is not as exciting as the first snow because June didn’t go out and play in it until Sara and Lan-Lan arrived mid-morning. Instead we read a couple of chapters of Harry Potter (the Platform 9 ¾ chapter and the Sorting Hat one). Beth went for a walk to the UPS store to mail home a package of presents that wouldn’t fit in our luggage and then Sara and I walked to Dutch Brothers to get eggnog lattes, while Mom, June, and Lan-Lan went on their own walk and made a third snowman. It was harder to make a snowman with a two year old than June anticipated. “I don’t think she understands the words ‘Don’t kick the snowman,’” she later told us ruefully. But it was still standing when Sara and I got home after a pleasant walk and conversation.

In the afternoon we made gingerbread cookies. Mom couldn’t find her recipe so I was going to look for a similar one online when Beth told me she’d scanned some important recipes onto her phone a while back and sure enough, she had it. We had to tinker with the recipe, using gluten-free flour and butter instead of shortening (because of trans fats). This is what happens when you try to make gingerbread with a nutrition writer, but at least we used real sugar and not stevia or something like that. (I love you, Sara, really I do.)

Mom mixed the ingredients, letting Lan-Lan dump in the pre-measured baking soda and spices. We decided to have separate workstations on the kitchen counter for Sara and Lan-Lan and for Noah, June, and me. Lan-Lan mostly played with the dough while the rest of us rolled out dough, cut it and put raisins on it. When my kids started to bicker over access to the most desired cookie cutters and over who squashed whose cookie, I told them not to act like toddlers, as that job was taken and then they got along a little better. Even cutting the recipe in half we made three trays of cookies and frosted some of them with leftover frosting from the cake.

We finished in time for an early dinner at a Chinese restaurant and then Sara and Lan-Lan went home and Mom and Jim went to a violin and piano concert while Beth, the kids and I settled in to watch Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Tuesday

In the morning we had time for a visit at Sara’s house before we left for the airport. Lan-Lan got us to dance by playing one of her musical toys and as that was a hit, she got a great quantity of other toys (mostly dolls and stuffed animals) from her room to see if we’d like those as well. We could only stay about an hour. When we left, Sara and Lan-Lan watched us from the living room window as we got into Mom’s minivan and began our journey away from snowy mountains, my mom’s house, and our first visit with the newest member of our family.

The Music is So Delightful

The Holiday Sing at June’s school was the subject of unexpected controversy this year. First the times for the performances changed and parents who had taken time off work were inconvenienced. There was quite the hullabaloo about it on the PTA listerv. You wouldn’t believe it, unless you’ve ever read a PTA listerv, in which case it was just about what you’d expect. After some discontent about the schedule change and how the event is publicized in general, it eventually turned into a critique, by a kindergarten parent, about the whole format of the Holiday Sing, in which fourth and fifth-graders in orchestra, band, and chorus perform and kids in the younger grades participate in a sing-along.

I think what it comes down to, for some parents anyway, was a desire for it to be more like the elementary school holiday concerts of our youth, with every kid in the school up on risers and singing for parents. But June’s school has nine hundred students. That’s just not going to work. Even as it is, they have to do the Holiday Sing over the course of two days, in three shifts, one for an audience of kindergartens and first graders, one for the second and third grade and one for fourth and fifth grade students who aren’t taking instrumental music or chorus. I think the pre-K gets split in half, as some attend school in the morning and some in the afternoon.

In my opinion, it’s actually a pretty elegant solution. There are advantages to having only the students who’ve shown enough interest in music to join band, orchestra, or chorus perform. (I will discreetly let you imagine what these are.) In fact, it’s not even the whole band and orchestra that play. Just fifth graders, advanced fourth graders, and a few beginning fourth graders who play needed instruments. Yet with the sing-along component, everyone gets to participate, even if the kids are sitting on the floor, facing the stage so their parents sitting on folding chairs at the back of the room can only see the backs of their heads (and sometimes their hands if the song has hand motions).

Anyway, being a veteran elementary school parent, I knew what to expect from the Holiday Sing. And it was a big deal for June this year because after years of anticipation, she was finally old enough to be on stage. And she’d be there over and over because she’s in orchestra and chorus. The chorus started practicing the Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa songs back in September. The orchestra songs, “Skaters’ Waltz” and “Sleigh Ride” were merely wintry, rather than holiday-themed because they are going to perform them again at their full-length concert in late January.

June was excited in the days leading up to the concert. The weekend we were in Rehoboth Beth took her to the outlets and bought her an outfit to wear—a white cowl-necked sweater, a black pleated skirt, black tights with rhinestones, and shiny black shoes, with costume jewels on the toes. I had suggested making do with a white cardigan, navy skirt, and navy leggings she already owned but I was apparently missing the point of the concert dress code—new clothes. (She did wear the other outfit on the second day she performed because she didn’t want to go to school in the same outfit two days in a row, another thing I failed to understand.) As a final touch, she donned a Santa hat, as did a few other musicians and singers.

June also had a preference for which performance she wanted us to attend. The chorus was singing different songs at different shifts and they were only doing her favorite song, “Little Saint Nick,” at the fourth and fifth grade show, on Thursday afternoon. Thursday was a tricky day for Beth, as there was a board meeting she needed prepare for, and there was also a press conference to announce her union was endorsing Bernie Sanders. She said she’d do her best to come, but she couldn’t promise.

I didn’t know if she was coming until I got a text from her twenty-five minutes before I left the house, saying she was leaving her office. I met her inside the school. She’d saved a seat in the front row. So we sat and watched the kids take their places. We’ve been to a lot of elementary and middle school band concerts since Noah started to play percussion five years ago, so all the group kids in the black and white dress clothes milling around up on stage was a familiar sight, but there were a couple of differences. For one, because Noah switched elementary schools after third grade, he never played at this school’s Holiday Sing. More importantly, though, for the first time, the kid up on stage with an instrument was June.

“She’s growing up,” I whispered to Beth, and then we both cried a little.

The band and orchestra alternated songs. The brass instruments played first. We knew two of the trumpet players and one of the saxophonists from June’s bus stop. (One was probably wearing a hand-me-down band shirt of Noah’s.) The orchestra had two songs and the second one in particular “Sleigh Ride” sounded really good. June looked very serious as she played.

After the instrumental music was over, the chorus sang three songs alone (“Winter Wonderland,” “The Eight Days of Hanukkah,” and “Blitzen’s Boogie”) and then nine more with audience participation. June may have liked “Little Saint Nick” best but the kids in the audience went crazy for “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” They always do. There was also quite a commotion when it was announced any teacher who wanted to wear reindeer antlers during the sing-along could. All the kids were clamoring for their teachers to go get some and a few of them did.

There are always at least a couple songs in Spanish (or Ladino) because of the large Spanish-speaking population at June’s school and its Spanish immersion program. This year it was “Ocho Kandelikas” and “Dale Dale Dale.” Another of the Hanukkah songs was in Hebrew and one of the Kwanzaa songs was partially in Swahili, so it was all quite international.

The program was over in about forty-five minutes. Then June went to an abbreviated gym class (in her dress clothes) and Beth and I headed home. On the way out, Beth snapped a picture of a bulletin board promoting the Holiday Sing. It said, “The weather outside is frightful, but music is so delightful.” We haven’t had much wintry weather yet this year—the day of the Holiday Sing it was in the fifties and raining, but watching our kids play and sing is always delightful. That never changes.

December Sunsets

Friday

Beth worked from home Friday morning and took the afternoon off, so we could leave for our annual Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth when the kids got home from school. After she drove Noah to school she swung by Starbucks and returned with a peppermint mocha, which she delivered to me at the bus stop where I was waiting with June. I knew then it was going to be a good day.

It was, even though we got to the beach later than expected. There was traffic around Annapolis and a detour toward the end of the drive. But we made the best of it, singing along with our Christmas music and admiring people’s lights as well as what we could glimpse of the light display at Sandy Point State Park from the highway. By the time we got to our dinner destination of Grotto Pizza it was 7:40, which is quite late for us to eat, and everyone was so tired and hungry we all just sat around the table silently until the food came and then we perked up a bit.

After dinner Beth drove the kids to the condo we’d rented. I walked there because it was just off the boardwalk and I wanted to see the ocean. It was a clear night, so as soon as I left the lighted portion of the boardwalk I could see a lot of stars, though the only ones I could identify were in Orion’s belt. I think if I lived at the beach, I’d learn all the constellations. I walked down onto the sand for several minutes and got close enough to the water so it almost touched my feet, yet somehow I managed not to get my Birkenstocks and socks soaked. I had the briefest flash of feeling the bigness and beauty of the world before I turned back to land.

I walked the block to the condo where Beth and the kids had been searching its somewhat confusing floor plan for our unit. They met me at the corner, coming down to get the luggage from the car, and cheerfully told me the building was “creepy” and “like a horror movie.”

It was a concrete building, with approximately thirty units in two levels over a parking garage, with balconies connecting the units like a motel. It was completely deserted—we never saw another soul coming or going or another lit window the whole weekend. It was also a bit down at the heel; there were rust stains on some of the outside walls, and cobwebs in the lobby. Also, the pool had been left uncovered and was full of dirty rainwater. Inside our unit was clean and comfortable, however. Our biggest complaint was a lack of blankets—we had to turn up the heat higher than we otherwise would have—and a lack of WiFi. But the location couldn’t be beat and there was a partial ocean view from two rooms, so I was satisfied. We did call it “the creepy condo” the whole time we were there, though, because that sort of thing amuses us.

Saturday

7:30 Saturday morning found me on the beach. The last golden-pink light of the sunrise was still lingering when I arrived. One of the nice things about being at the beach in December is I can see the sunrise over the ocean without getting up any earlier than I usually do.

I watched the daylight get brighter and clearer. I walked north and noticed a big deposit of shells on the sand I thought June might like to see and I stood on wooden jetty (on one of the few pilings not covered with slick, wet moss) and watched the water rush in and out under my feet. After an hour, I returned to the house, hungry for the oatmeal Beth had made and left on the stove for me.

“How was the beach?” Beth said.

“Invigorating. I am full of vigor. I have the vigor of ten Stephs plus one. Or is it two?” I struggled to remember the line from the Grinch. I think it’s the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. We’ll see when we watch it this year.

After eating my oatmeal, I settled down on the couch to read June from a book about a zombie stuffed animal that wreaks havoc in an elementary school, suitable reading material for a creepy condo, I suppose.

Sometime around ten, Beth, June and I left to start our Christmas shopping, while Noah stayed at the condo to work. He was collaborating on a group presentation about contemporary drama with the members of his group contributing to a document in real time. They do this kind of thing a lot, the young people.

We started with a pit stop at Café a-Go-Go, where we’ve been getting coffee and pastries for ten years, and learned they were closing the next week, as the owners are moving to Texas. Maria was saying goodbyes and hugging customers and posing for pictures the whole time we were there. She and her husband Jesús will be missed. They’ve seen Noah grow up from a preschooler and June from an infant and they always remember us, even though we’re only in town two or three times a year. I was sad to hear the news, but Beth, who has spent many hours reading and drinking coffee there while I was at the beach, seemed stricken.

We hit our favorite stores: the book store, the seashell shop, the tea and spice shop, and the candy store. As we were exiting Candy Kitchen, we noticed Santa was in his little house on the boardwalk and was open for business, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there until three. June, who had been debating whether to ask for a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again or new ice skates, decided she’d visit Santa right then and ask for the hair dye. Santa commented he’d never had that request before but he’d see what he could do.

With that accomplished, it was time to think about lunch. We split up, with Beth and June going to a new build-your-own pasta bowl restaurant and me going to the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the ocean view, though I do like the apple-pecan salad. We invited Noah to join us, but he stayed at the condo and heated up leftover pizza.

Beth had developed a bad headache so after lunch she took to her bed and stayed there until dinnertime. I took June to the beach to collect shells, which she needed for someone’s gift. Never mind whose, it could be yours.

We went back to the condo where I was hoping to pick Noah up and take him Christmas shopping but he was still working on his drama presentation so I went alone. Before hitting the stores, though, I lingered on the boardwalk, watching the sky turn pinker and pinker. Late afternoon sunsets are another bonus of December beach weekends.

By the time I returned, Beth was well enough to get out of bed so all four of us went to admire the boardwalk lights and the kids posed for pictures with them. Then we got takeout (Thai and more Grandpa Mac) to eat in front of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

After June was in bed I quizzed Noah for a test on the Spanish-American War and WWI, using a very helpful collaborative study guide he and his classmates made.

Sunday

We were packed and out of the creepy condo by a little after nine. We drove out to Lewes to have crepes at our other favorite coffee shop in Rehoboth, which is no longer in Rehoboth, having inconveniently moved up the highway last year. But when we got there, after a twenty-minute drive, it was dark and the furniture was all gone so I guess it didn’t survive the move and its name change, from Gallery Espresso to Paradigm. I ask you, is that an improvement? I think not. In fact, we kept calling it Paradox and Parabola and Parasail and Noah’s favorite, Parasite. Silly name or not, I was sad to see it closed. I really liked the pumpkin crepes there and it’s another place they always recognized us.

So we found somewhere else to eat, and then Beth took Noah Christmas shopping while June and I went to the Victorian-themed Boardwalk Plaza Hotel to look at their Christmas decorations. Next we took a walk on the beach, stopping at one of the rock-and-concrete jetties to observe the flock of seagulls that was perched there.

June was exuberant, singing Christmas songs and doing cartwheels and back bends on the sand. A passerby pointed out a white smudge on the ocean to the north of us and said it was a flock of thousands of snow geese. It wasn’t much to look at from that distance but maybe ten minutes later June noticed they had taken to the sky and we could see the air full of the migrating white birds. It was a beautiful sight.

We met up with Beth and Noah for Thrasher’s fries on the boardwalk and then we switched kids and I took Noah shopping. He was pretty efficient and between Beth’s trip with him and mine he got almost all his shopping finished by early afternoon. The kids and I went to say goodbye to the ocean, by putting our feet in for fifteen waves (it’s a tradition). June and I were wearing rain boots but Noah was barefoot. He didn’t start screaming from the cold until the eighth wave.

I was downcast on the drive home, even as I scolded myself for feeling that way. It had been a good trip. I got in some beach time and did a good bit of my shopping and helped both the kids nearly finish theirs. But for whatever reason, the weekend felt too short, like I wasn’t finished with it. Maybe I was wishing Beth hadn’t been feeling ill most of Saturday or that Noah hadn’t spent his second weekend in a row on the road, mostly doing homework in a hotel room or rented condo. Or maybe I just wanted to see another December sunset stain the sand in apricot tones before going back to my regular routine.

A Fine Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Keep packing! And don’t take out your phone!” It wasn’t Beth or me urging Noah to stay on task. It was June. We’d been planning to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving that night but not before everyone was packed for our drive to Wheeling the next day. Everyone but Noah was packed.

“But I need to check the weather to pack,” he protested.

“Sure you do,” said June dismissively.

Despite her best efforts to crack the whip, by the time Noah was packed, it was her bedtime so we decided to download the movie to the laptop and take it with us.

Thanksgiving Day

We arrived in Wheeling a little past two, after an uneventful five-hour drive. The day was warm and clear, good driving weather, though Beth might have preferred some white and drifted snow. The closest we got was some big icicles in a road cut at one of the higher elevations.

We went straight to Beth’s mom’s house. Noah wanted to take video of himself walking up to her door and then text it to her and June just wanted to run up to the door in the more traditional way. We said he could do it, but just this once because it seemed like a cumbersome tradition to start.

Inside we socialized with YaYa and Ron. Beth and June gave her a basket they bought for her birthday and Noah gave her a DVD with the last two movies the kids made, including the one in which she played a ghost last summer in Rehoboth. Then Noah showed everyone a video clip of the student-anchored newscast at his school from the morning when they announced the winners of the school-wide Halloween costume contest. Kids submitted photos and they picked three winners—third prize was a witch, second was a pirate lass, and first prize was….a Fiji Water bottle.

“We both won a contest,” June said, in case anyone had forgotten her triumph. “I won the parade contest and Noah won his school contest.”

Next we checked into our hotel to change for dinner. The room had a nice view. You could see the church where Beth’s parents were married and the school she attended from fourth to sixth grade. It made me think how much more rooted a childhood Beth had, compared to mine. I’m honestly not even sure what state my parents were married in, and I went to four different elementary schools to Beth’s two.

June was eager to get into her Thanksgiving outfit, dress with a tight black sequined bodice and a full, gauzy red and black skirt, a white cardigan, white tights, and black shoes with a moderate heel. The rest of us weren’t so fancy, but we cleaned up okay. In the lobby on our way out, Beth had the idea to take some pictures in front of the Christmas tree for our Christmas card, as everyone was already dressed up.

There were sixteen people at Beth’s Aunt Sue’s house—all from Carole’s, Sue’s and YaYa’s branches of the family. (The fourth sister, Jenny, had Thanksgiving at home with her daughter, who’s due with her first child very soon.)

“I am the matriarch,” Carole, the eldest sister, announced. She’s about to become a great grandmother and is pleased as punch about it. Her daughter Meg and twenty-something grandson Kawika were also those who had travelled furthest, all the way from Ireland and Austin, TX, to be in Wheeling for Thanksgiving.

There were two other kids there—Sue’s granddaughters Lily (who’s June’s age) and Tessa, who at six was the youngest person present. The three girls picked up right where they left off when they last saw each other two years ago.

Sue put a lot of care into the cooking and decorations. She’d collected and preserved red maple and Japanese maple leaves in wet paper towels in her fridge to keep them fresh and arranged them on the tables. There were bowls of appetizers out and she had set up a cookie decorating station for the four kids, with sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies, and little pots of frosting, sprinkles, and M&Ms. She asked ahead of time to make sure Noah wasn’t too old for this activity. He most certainly was not, though he used a different technique than the girls, who carefully used the provided paintbrushes to apply a light glaze of frosting. He spackled his on with the spoon.

Though he decorated cookies with the kids, he ate at the adult table, or one of them—there were two. When everyone had their fill of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy (the mushroom gravy was our contribution), sweet potatoes, green beans with almonds, rice pilaf, succotash, nut patties, cucumber salad, cranberry sauce and rolls—out came the pies—pumpkin, apple, and pecan. I failed to take any of the advice I’ve been dishing out recently in ghostwritten blog posts about eating moderately at Thanksgiving. I had seconds on mashed potatoes. I sampled all three kinds of pies, and I don’t believe they were low-sugar versions. Everything was delicious.

After the adults had conversed and told stories and laughed a while and the three girls watched part of Swiss Family Robinson, Lily, who’s just started playing violin, gave a little concert in a side room. I knew she was going to play and intended to go watch, but I thought she was just warming up in there and would come out to the living room to play for a bigger audience, so I missed it. Then I heard June playing. I knew it was June because it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which she goes around singing every day and has recently figured out how to play by ear. I got there just as she was finishing.

Soon after it was time to go back to the hotel room. It’s nice not having the youngest kid at a family gathering because it’s easier to leave when you can use someone else’s departure to segue into your own. And by the time Lily and Tessa’s family left, June was leaning against me and saying she wanted to go to bed.

In retrospect we should have recognized that as a sign of an incipient migraine and not lingered for another five minutes as we did. June was quiet on the ride back to the hotel but when Beth pulled up into the lot, she started crying and saying she had an upset stomach. She seemed in quite a bad way all of a sudden and I asked if she’d like to go straight to the restrooms off the lobby, but she wanted to go up to our fifth floor room. She almost made it, too, but she was sick in the hallway about halfway between the elevator and our door.

Then we were busy calling the front desk and washing her face and Beth’s jacket June had had draped around herself in the car and her sweater and tights and my shoes (her dress was miraculously spared), and changing her into pajamas and making up the foldout couch for her and looking for children’s painkiller, because the headache had come now. Once she was in bed, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept all night. I made sure the menagerie of stuffed animals she’d brought with her was at a slight distance from her, but it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

(Not So Black) Friday

She woke the next morning recovered, early (about 5:30), and hungry, as she effectively hadn’t eaten dinner. I heard her walking around the room, but she eventually went back to bed and stayed there until 6:20, at which point I gave her a Clementine and Beth offered to take her down to breakfast. Noah and I followed once he was dressed.

As the weekend was going to be something of a busman’s holiday for both Beth and Noah, the plan for the morning was for them to work in the room while I took June to the pool. Beth was still working on the project from the previous weekend. There had been some registration glitches on a rather large scale in a union election and she was directing efforts to sort it all out and make sure everyone who was eligible could vote. Noah was working on a paper and PowerPoint about El Greco.

I started off reading Daniel Deronda in a lounge chair by the pool and then swam sixty or sixty-five laps in the tiny pool. It was so small it was hard to keep track. I was mostly pushing off the side and turning around, but it felt good to be moving through the water. Afterward, I sat in the hot tub and went back to the chairs to read some more. YaYa came to watch June swim and the three of us were there for a good chunk of the morning, almost two and half hours.

We had lunch at Panera and then YaYa took the kids to see the Peanuts movie. Noah wanted to go but was undecided because he’d spent the morning researching El Greco, but he only had a half a slide to show for it. We convinced him to take a break and go.

Beth and I repaired to the hotel room. She had to work and I read some more Daniel Deronda and we shared some orange-cranberry dark chocolate I had been saving for after Thanksgiving. It was quite a pleasant day for an introvert the day after a big family gathering, plus I was starting to believe I’d actually finish Daniel Deronda by the last book club meeting on it the following Wednesday. (I did, too, with a day to spare.)

Dinner was pizza at YaYa’s. Afterward June played her entire repertoire of orchestra songs, which took about ten minutes. Then YaYa thought June might like to hear some David Garrett and June thought YaYa might like to see a video by her own favorite pop violinist Linsdey Stirling. I find this video somewhat less disturbing than I did the first time I saw it, now that I know how it ends. We left June at YaYa’s for a sleepover and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday

Saturday morning Beth and Noah continued to work while June and YaYa entertained each other at her house. They made bird’s nest cookies, then went over to Sue’s house where Lily and June played a duet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was duly videotaped and sent to us.

We met YaYa for lunch at a crepes place and visited the talking Christmas tree of Beth’s youth, though she wasn’t conversing with passersby until the first week of December. Still, Beth said, it “warmed [her] heart” to see her.

Beth and June went skating after lunch and then over to Carole’s while Noah and I stayed at the hotel. He’d switched to a Citizen Kane paper since it was due sooner. This was slow going, too, and he didn’t want any help, so I was starting to wish I’d gone to Carole’s as I was now feeling a little cooped up and ready to socialize, but I wanted to stay near Noah, just in case. I knew it was going to be challenging day for him as he had a lot of work and not much mental speed. He’s not on his new medication yet as we’re having some insurance trouble with it. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I hope so.

At breakfast I’d asked Beth for advice about how not to be dragged down by Noah’s situation myself and she suggested, “Pretend to be a different person.” Later she told me this was how she got through the last couple weeks at work, so I think it was sincere advice. That’s a hard thing to do, though and I had mixed success at best.

Just before five when Noah had finished the first section and it was a half page too long, he asked for suggestions for cuts and I gave some. Just around the time he finished editing that section, Beth and June came to pick us up and take us to drive through the light display at Oglebay Park. We do this every year, either during Thanksgiving weekend or around Christmas. The kids enjoy seeing their favorite displays and someone always points out the one that says “JOY” and says, “Look, it says ‘June’” because when she was two she thought every word that started with J was her name and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

We were playing Christmas music for the first time this season, and as I listened to all the songs about peace on earth, the kids were squabbling in the back seat, about various things, but mostly about the light tunnels. When Beth was a kid she and her brother used to try to hold their breath in tunnels and now the kids like to do it, too. But the first two tunnels are long and traffic was slow and I thought they’d pass out if they tried to hold their breath through them, so I advised against it. Noah tried anyway, without success, but June declined. A long argument about whether or not this constituted her “forfeiting” and him “winning” ensued and was repeated at the next tunnel. At this one, Noah tried again and June started breathing loudly to taunt him. I asked her why she was doing it and she said, “Because I like to.”

By the time we got to the third tunnel, the snowflake one, traffic was lighter and this is the shortest one, so they both tried, and succeeded in holding their breath the whole time. I was surprised they did not seem to be exhaling even after we were out of the tunnel. They were playing chicken, as it turns out. June breathed first, Noah was a little too exuberant in saying he won, and June, who was worn out, got teary, but she recovered as soon as she saw the Twelve Days of Christmas display. Or maybe it was Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football. She likes that one, too.

After the lights, we returned to YaYa’s house for a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers that had migrated over from Sue’s house. Then we watched another Peanuts Thanksgiving special—the one in which they are characters on the Mayflower. Have you ever seen it? It was made in the 80s, past my time, but it came bundled with the older one, so now we watch it, too. We left Noah at YaYa’s for his sleepover (which June noted with satisfaction would be shorter than hers) and went back to the hotel, where June crashed.

Sunday

The next morning, Beth worked some more, while I read a couple chapters of The Magician’s Nephew to June and then we went to collect Noah at YaYa’s house, say our goodbyes, and hit the road.

As we drove, fog wreathed around the bare branches of the trees and nestled in the clefts of the hills. At higher elevations we were driving right through it. Sometimes we could only see a car or two ahead of us and the headlights of the oncoming cars. But Beth steered us safely home.

“How was your weekend?” I asked Beth, early in drive.

“It was fine,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to work on this assignment.”

“I wish you and Noah were both more free,” I said. But it was a good visit nonetheless. We got to see family, swim, skate, and visit familiar holiday sights in the form of a tree with a human face and lights spelling “Joy.” It was a fine Thanksgiving.

Monday

And then on Monday afternoon, as I was settling into a seat at Starbucks with an eggnog latte and a Cranberry Bliss bar, my phone beeped and I saw the following message from Beth: “Contract passed, huge yes vote. My work was worth it. Very happy and very tired.”

Getting It Done

The Weekend Before

Friday afternoon around five June and I got on a bus to go to downtown Takoma and get a birthday present and card for Beth. I already had a present but not a card and June had a card but no present, so we each needed something. We left Noah at home to practice his drums with the plan that we’d call him from the Co-op to let him know what the selection of fancy chocolate bars was like, so he could pick a few. He’d given me $15, which was all the cash he had on hand, and told me to buy as many as I could with that.

We went to the Co-op first and after conferring with Noah on the phone I bought five bars—dark chocolate with orange peel, dark chocolate with raspberry, dark chocolate with caramel and sea salt, plain dark chocolate, and milk chocolate with coffee beans. June asked if she could have a muffin and I bought that, too, along with a orange-cranberry chocolate bar for myself because I’d been looking at chocolate bars so long I wanted one for myself.

The next stop was Capital City Cheesecake, for liquid sustenance for June and me. I needed a latté and she needed a juice box. She finished the muffin she’d started to eat on the walk there while I read her a chapter from A Horse and His Boy.

At Tabletop, we made pretty short work of the gift and card buying. June considered many items, but in the end she chose a glass votive candleholder shaped like a turkey because we don’t have any Thanksgiving decorations and it’s Beth’s favorite holiday. She also got a penguin-shaped hot/cold pack, which she thought Beth might use on aches and pains. I got a card with a drawing of bookshelves, since I’d gotten her a book, The Gay Revolution.

It was close to six by the time we finished and we always have pizza on Friday nights so I decided to pick some up from Pizza Movers, which is just down the block. I ordered two pizzas and an order of mozzarella sticks and while we waited for them to make it June and I sat in the window seat and read another chapter of A Horse and His Boy. It was in this chapter that the dwarf Thornbut is introduced. June was considerably entertained by this name and kept muttering, “Thornbut” under her breath and giggling. We like to keep it classy.

The next morning, Saturday morning around 9:30, I was sitting across the dining room table from Beth. Noah and I had just come inside from raking leaves out of the driveway to the curb for the leaf truck and then we’d gone over his homework goals for the weekend and he’d left, presumably to start his Algebra II take-home test. Beth was absorbed in her work laptop. I reminded her she’d said she wanted to talk about strategy for the weekend, basically who was doing what and when.

On her list was picking up her own birthday cake from Cold Stone when she went ice-skating with June on Sunday afternoon. She’d been undecided for a while whether she wanted a homemade cake or a store-bought one and she’d settled on buying an ice cream cake, so it made sense for her to get it when she was going to Silver Spring anyway, rather than having me schlep out there on the bus. But still, it seemed wrong somehow. I’ve always baked or bought her a cake.

“Sometimes it’s nice to feel taken care of on my birthday, but this weekend it’s just about getting it done,” she said. She was embroiled in an ongoing work crisis and she already knew she’d be working most of the weekend and worse yet, Thanksgiving weekend. She wanted to “allocate the family time budget” wisely.

So she bought her own cake, leaving me free to supervise Noah’s homework (my main task on any given weekend), read with both kids, read nine chapters of Daniel Deronda for book club, go swimming, make dinner on Saturday, and clean the bathroom. She worked, grocery shopped, took June skating, and made dinner on Sunday.

The B-Day

When Beth got home from work on Monday, there was a stack of wrapped presents at her place at the table. I’d wrapped them all, as Noah was busy writing a paper comparing philanthropy, self-reliance, and fate in Walden and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Meanwhile, June had a play date with Megan that afternoon and ended up in a rush to finish her own homework as well.

I’d actually forgotten Megan was coming over until she arrived, bearing a bag of outgrown shoes for June. Lest she feel put out by the fact that no one seemed to be expecting her, I told her it was “a pleasant surprise.”

Megan, who’s good-natured as a rule, said, “I’m a pleasant surprise!” and liking the sound of it, said it again.

The girls played, and at the very end of the play date, watched a bit of Cupcake Wars, which is June’s new obsession. This meant I needed to explain to both girls what absinthe is, because it was a required ingredient in one round. That was fun.

Megan’s mom came to pick her up and June did her homework and practiced her violin while I finished up dinner. Beth had requested tofu sticks (think homemade vegetarian fish sticks) and French fries. I was running late with dinner because the tofu needs to marinate in a salt-and-pepper brine for two hours and I’d forgotten to do that until about an hour later than I usually would. But dinner was almost ready when Beth got home. It was lucky in this instance that the kids and I usually eat before Beth gets home because she gets home on the late side most nights. The result was dinner wasn’t late for her at all.

After dinner, Beth opened her cards and presents appreciatively, admiring the glass turkey and said we needed some Thanksgiving decorations. She said she’d use the hot/cold pack on her foot, which has been bothering her all fall. She said the chocolate bars would keep her well supplied with squares of dark chocolate to eat every day after lunch. She flipped through the index of the book immediately, looking for people she knows. She worked at the Human Rights Campaign from 1992 to 1999, so she knows a lot of movers and shakers in the LGBT rights movement. Then she jokingly looked for herself, but she wasn’t there.

“You’re more of a behind the scenes person,” I said.

“I am a behind the scenes person,” she agreed.

We put the numeral four and nine candles in the chocolate-and-salted-caramel ice cream cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to her and Beth’s birthday celebration was over. Noah and I were up late that night as he worked on the Thoreau/Crane paper and I read his drafts and made suggestions. In the morning, Noah and Beth were up early doing the same thing.

Here’s to another year, Beth. You’re the person behind so much of what makes our family work. You get it done. Next year, though, I’ll take care of the cake.

And Now For Something Completely Different

“Why does it say we’re having ‘Chaos Unleashed on Earth’ for dinner on Wednesday?” June asked. She was looking at the whiteboard on the fridge where I write the week’s dinner menus. And it did say “W: Chaos Unleashed on Earth” right after “M: Squash + Kale on Bowties,” and “T: Baked Eggs on Potato Hash.”

I explained we had a lot going on that night. Beth, Noah, and I had an appointment with a doctor in Bethesda to discuss whether to try a new medication for his ADHD—we’re still looking for the right drug and/or dose. I didn’t think we would get back until six at the earliest and then June had basketball practice at seven and I had book club at seven-thirty. So instead of a home-cooked meal that night, we were all going to eat various frozen foods.

Both kids looked at me silently, but skeptically. I asked if they thought calling a doctor’s appointment, basketball practice, and book club on the same afternoon and evening “chaos unleashed on earth” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Two heads nodded.

The point is…I am a creature of habit. Small changes seem like something completely different to me. Sometimes deviations from routine can be fun, though. We’ve had a few unusual days recently, and they all had something to recommend them.

Week 1

Wednesday: Veteran’s Day

On Veteran’s Day, Beth had the day off, June had a half-day, and Noah had a full day of school. The reason for the discrepancy is that K-8 teachers have parent-teacher conferences those afternoons. I’ve been going to these so long I didn’t realize they don’t do them in high school until I asked Beth whether we’d be trying to see Noah’s teachers before our appointment with June’s math teacher and she told me we wouldn’t be seeing them at all, which made the day simpler, though I do miss having that opportunity to touch base with his teachers on a one-to-one basis.

The kids left for school and we were left to our own devices in the morning, so Beth and I went to Busboys and Poets for breakfast. We saw another lesbian couple we know (moms to two elementary school-aged kids) come in as we were leaving. I guess it’s the lesbian-moms-briefly-without-kids hot spot in Takoma. Anyway, it was pleasant to have a mocha and an avocado omelet and uninterrupted adult conversation for breakfast instead of cereal and the newspaper, as is my usual habit.

In the afternoon, we went to see June’s math teacher, who explained what they were studying and told us nice things about June and gave us her report card. June had said earlier that she finds it nerve-wracking when she knows we’re talking to her teachers, so she was happy to hear it went well—not that we were expecting anything else. She just gets a little high strung sometimes.

As far as June was concerned, the big excitement of the day was the first basketball practice of the season. The Pandas’ coach, Mike, had decided to start practice early this year, in November instead of December. The Pandas had a 0-8 season last year, and he must have thought it would be nice to win a game or two. Not that the losing streak affected the team’s enthusiasm. Those girls have heart. It’s the Panda way.

Not counting Mike and his daughter Maggie, we were the first ones there, but soon the gym was ringing with the sound of running feet and shouting voices. I always enjoy basketball practice, partly for the opportunity to socialize with other moms, but also just to watch the girls. They always seem to be having fun and this was no exception. 

Thursday: The Day after Veteran’s Day

June had another half-day because it takes two days for teachers to get through all the conferences. I had an appointment for a mammogram in the city that I knew would eat up a good bit of the day, mostly in transit, so I arranged for her to go home with a friend and stay the whole afternoon, so I could get in a couple hours of work before Noah got home at four.

If I have a late morning or early afternoon appointment in the city I nearly always get lunch out so I tried a new (to me) rice/noodle bowl place. It’s the kind where you get a card with checklist of ingredients and you pick a certain number from different categories and then you get in line and hand it to them and they make it in front of you. I got buckwheat noodles in miso broth, with a fried egg, tofu, peanuts, seaweed, and other vegetables. It was really good.

For most of the five hours I was out of the house, I was binge-listening to a new NPR psychology podcast, Hidden Brain, which I recommend if you’re in need of a new podcast in your life. Other than the actual mammogram, the whole day was another pleasant change of pace.

Week 2

Monday: Sick Day

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to a week of the both kids being in school for five full days. We were two weeks into the third quarter and we’d had exactly four of those this year. So of course June woke up on Monday saying she felt sick and wanted to stay home.

She had no verifiable symptoms and I wasn’t sure she was really sick, but I let her stay home because I never want to send her to school when she says she’s sick and then have the school nurse call me and say she’s thrown up or something. Beth had an idea that she might have been nervous about a missing homework paper. She’d left it at Zoë’s house on Thursday and had been fretting about it ever since, even though she’d called Zoë, who had promised to bring it to school. I’m not sure if that was the problem or not, but that afternoon we checked and found out Zoë came through, giving the paper to their English teacher.

Anyway, she stayed in bed until 12:30, weakly requesting some chamomile tea and toast around 10:30. She seems to have figured out exactly how long she needs to stay in bed before I think walking her to school and back just isn’t worth it, because at lunchtime she was recovered, wanting lunch and cutting out fabric for a dress she wanted to make for one of her dolls.

The fact that June lays low and stays out of my way when she’s home sick means it’s no longer a lost day of work for me. I wrote some web copy about selenium and zinc, exercised, and even read a chapter of Daniel Deronda, which I’d be discussing at book club in two days. I did spend much of the afternoon with her, though, and, as always when something had to give, it was housework. I gave up plans to vacuum and sort through the masses of paper that continually drift onto the dining room table.

What I did instead was read two chapters of The Horse and His Boy to her and quiz her on the multiplication tables and on U.S. geography, as the qualifying test for GeoBowl was Wednesday. Since she was no longer feeling sick, I also had her practice her violin, finish her Native American diorama, and take the laundry down off the line. I kept her busy until dinner time. In exchange for letting her stay home when she requests it, I try to make sure sick days aren’t too appealing.

Wednesday: Chaos Unleashed on Earth

So, I bet you’re wondering how did that busy Wednesday go? It was fine. We got back from the doctor’s appointment at 5:50 (with a new prescription), heated up frozen lasagna, empanadas, and enchiladas and ate more or less at the same time. Beth and June left for practice around 6:45. I stayed at home until 7:25, which was cutting it close, because Noah was working on a 300-word opinion piece about American imperialism and I wanted to be there if he ran into a snag. But he’d written his introductory paragraph with no help by the time I left and for him that’s lightening speed so I was happy as I rode the bus (which came on time) to book club. I was only five minutes late.

I usually manage to remove myself from whatever I’m currently fretting about at book club. I think that’s part of why I find it so restorative—that and because it engages a part of my mind that used to get a lot more exercise—but I did occasionally wonder how Noah’s essay was coming as we discussed the psychological, sociological, and narrative elements of Daniel Deronda.

By the time I got home, around 9:20, Noah was in the bathroom in his pajamas, flossing. The essay was not finished but he was up against the word limit already. I offered to take a look at it and suggest cuts and he seemed open to that plan. Writing to word limits is something I do a lot these days, but he doesn’t always want to avail himself of my expertise. He was probably happy not to be told he had to go to bed with the essay unfinished, as it was twenty minutes past his bedtime.

We moved to the study. I told him to put in his required quotes before we started looking for places to cut. He did that while I perused Facebook. When he had all his points included, the essay was 360 words and had no conclusion. I started highlighting places where he could word things more succinctly and pretty soon he got into the swing of it and was finding them himself. A lot of the changes were actually improvements, but there were a few things I was sorry to see go. His quotes were pretty truncated and would have been more effective if he could have included more of them, but he got it down to 300 words, including a brief concluding sentence.

I help Noah with his homework frequently, everything from quizzing him on Spanish vocabulary, to reading to him (I’d read the one of the two required sources for the essay to him the night before), to helping him outline ideas or edit, to just being in the same room to make sure he’s attending to his work. Some of it I do just to make his life more manageable, but because he’s in a humanities program, some of it is actually fun for me. Anything to do writing usually falls into that camp.

He was in bed, paper printed, by 10:10. Beth and I go to bed very early, around 9:30 or 9:45 most nights, so she was already asleep. But what with all the mental stimulation of the evening, I was wide awake, so I took a melatonin tablet and stayed up another twenty minutes or so, so I wouldn’t end up tossing and turning in bed. And the chaotic day was over.

Monday is Beth’s birthday, which ushers in the holiday season for us. In the coming weeks, there will be a good deal more joyful chaos in our lives. I think I’m up for it.

The King and Queens of Halloween

Early Saturday afternoon, after gymnastics and a quick lunch, June was in the bathroom applying her corpse makeup. She was already in her corpse clothes, a long-sleeved black t-shirt and jeans from the thrift store she’d distressed the weekend before. Most of the holes were in the front of the clothes, though, and I was looking at her from the back. As a result, when I first saw her (without focusing on her gruesome-looking face), it felt as if I was catching a glimpse of June in high school or college, in her black top, skinny jeans, and ankle boots, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. This was a disconcerting vision, but Halloween is all about being unsettled, isn’t it?

I was actually kind of unsettled for the three weeks leading up to Halloween. It was for a happy reason. My sister was in China, picking up her newly adopted daughter and her business was temporarily closed. I had some small work projects to do and I picked up a big outside editing job so I had work, but not as much as usual and I was continually uncertain as to how I should be divvying up my time and spent a lot of time fretting about it, which made the extra free time feel less like leisure.

Worse still, very few of the big housework projects I had in mind, other than the usual cooking, cleaning and laundry, actually happened. I dealt with a drawer full of papers and cleaned most of the fridge, but I didn’t even finish that. I did read more than usual. I read an Agatha Christie mystery and Stephen King novel I somehow missed when it came out (Blaze). I got about of a third of the way through Daniel Deronda (which my book club is reading this fall) and I spent the last two hours of my furlough before June got home from school on Friday finishing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which seemed like an appropriate thing to do the day before Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween—this is a post about Halloween, so I suppose I should get back to Halloween—as I was watching June in the bathroom, we were all getting ready to leave for the Halloween parade. Noah’s Fiji Water bottle costume was so big we needed to go in shifts. Beth drove June and me to the Co-op parking lot where some carnival games were in progress and then she went back home for Noah.

June entered a contest to guess how many plastic spiders were in a jar and then she won a tiny checkers set with cardboard pieces in the shapes of pumpkins by throwing a football into a net with holes. Mostly, though, we wandered around, looking for people we knew. We found Keira, a fifth-grader from June’s school, who always has great costumes. This year she was a contortionist. She achieved this by covering her own legs with drapery and having fake legs bent over her shoulders. Then we met Grace (the witch from Wicked) and Lottie (Mozart), who in real life are two sisters June knows from years of drama camp. Lottie said, “June, I can’t look at your face. You are freaking me out.” I think this was exactly the reaction June had for been going for when she and Beth covered her face with peeling latex flesh and bloody wounds. It might have been especially satisfying because Lottie is two years older than June.

One of the parade officials announced the parade would start in fifteen minutes, which made me nervous because Beth and Noah hadn’t arrived yet and I didn’t want him to miss the judging. His water bottle costume was beautifully executed and he’d been working on it for several days, unlike last Halloween when he basically threw together his (still impressive) calculator costume in less than a day. Indulge me and take a close look at the details—the QTY line at the bottom of the front is one of my favorite parts, as is the whole back panel.

I caught sight of Noah shortly after the announcement. Shuffling along in the big blue box that covered most of his body, he was hard to miss. I directed him to the section of the street where teen and adults were supposed to stand. Luckily, it was right next to the nine-to-twelve area. Beth was parking the car, so she didn’t arrive until later, just in time to adjust the straps that attached June’s coffin to her back. Noah was having trouble keeping his lid on his head, so I was staying near him to balance it as needed.

Noah scoped out the competition and decided the motorized cupcake was the only real threat for Most Original. At first I thought it was a wheelchair costume, but when I looked more carefully at the wheels, they didn’t look like wheelchair wheels, so it might have been constructed over an ATV. In any case, the cupcake-on-wheels was getting a lot of attention. There was a zombie with a zombie dog, but I figured she was probably shooting for Scariest. A judge did complement Noah on his costume as she passed through the area and later a teenage girl ran up to him and said, “Fiji Water, I love you!”

“Do you think she’s a fan of Fiji Water or is she in love with you?” I asked him and he gave me an irritated look. (What’s the point of parenting a teen if you don’t embarrass him every now and then?)

There were photographers circulating, both journalists from the Takoma Voice and regular parade-goers. Both kids had their picture taken multiple times and June was interviewed. But the judges took June’s name and not Noah’s. In our experience, having a judge take your name doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily won (June’s was taken last year for instance and she didn’t win that year) but Noah’s never won without having had his name taken, and he’s won Most Original in his age group three times. I held out a sliver of hope, though, because I do remember a few times a winner being announced by costume only. It doesn’t happen often, though. Trust me, we are pretty close observers of the ways of this contest. It’s serious business to our kids. June’s been gunning for Scariest for a few years and so far, she had never won.

I don’t know if it was a desire to win that made her insistent on the gory makeup, or if it’s a developmental stage. At the a Halloween party at her friend Claire’s house the weekend before Halloween, Claire was a “psycho clown” and June’s friend Zoë was a “zombie triathlete” so maybe they are all just ready for scarier costumes. This does seem to happen at an earlier age than when I was a kid, though. And even as a fan of things scary, I’m not sure that acceleration is a good thing. The only thing I did to put the brakes on it, though, was not to offer to buy her a little wooden axe at the Takoma Park street festival two weeks ago. I saw it, thought it would be perfect for her costume, then wondered what I’d say if she asked for it. As I was thinking it over, she picked up a dagger from the same stand and pretended to fence with it, but then she just put it back and didn’t ask for either weapon and I didn’t suggest we buy them. I think having a weapon stuck in her mid-section would have been over the line for me…this year anyway.

Soon the judging was over and the parade started moving. We’d find out who won at the end of the route. Noah’s costume proved cumbersome to walk in, so sometimes he’d hike it up higher, which made walking easier but seeing impossible. I held his hand, which stuck out through a slot in the side of the box and told him when to slow down or stop to avoid trampling small children. When he got tired of not being able to see, he’d lower the costume again and walk more slowly. After a while he gave me the lid and I wore it on my head. I told him we were a group costume now. He was the bottle and I was the lid.

Once we got to the end of the route, the Grandsons, Jr. were playing. In between numbers, Rec Center employees announced the winners of the contest, starting with the four-and-unders. June and I went in search of a bathroom because we knew there would be at least one song between age groups and we both had to go.

We got back in time to hear the winners for the five-to-eight group. I have to say this particular set of judging was mystifying. A girl dressed as Hermione won Scariest. Hermione is many fine things, but scary is not one of them. A girl dressed as Katniss won Funniest. Again, Katniss is many fine things, but funny isn’t what comes to mind. Now we never saw Katniss so I allowed maybe it was a joke costume, maybe a cat with a bow and arrow or something. But then a Rubik’s cube won Most Original and I gave up any hope of things making sense for the poor five-to-eight year olds, one of whom was wearing a Montgomery County basketball league t-shirt and had half a basketball on her head, her face painted to resemble the rest of the ball, and was walking around with her head in a hoop with a backboard behind her. Clearly this child was robbed. But that’s how it goes sometimes.

We could only hope for better judging in the nine-to-twelve group. Scariest was announced first and it was June! They mangled her last name, but she didn’t care. She’d finally won! Beth looked relieved and said, “Thank God.” June’s been more gracious in recent years about Noah’s string of wins than she was when they were five and ten, but she’s seen him win several times and never won herself and they have at least the normal allotment of sibling rivalry, so she really wanted it. It helps that they’re never in the same age group and thus not in direct competition with each other, but still…

June went up to collect her bag of prizes (candy, pencils, a $10 gift certificate for Rec Department programs we can use for drama camp, etc.) A boy dressed as a ninja in a mechanized contraption along with dummies of the villain from Scream and a mummy with all three of them hooked up to each other to move in unison won Funniest and a girl in a shower stall won Most Original.

More songs, more waiting… Finally, they announced the teen and adult results. Scariest was predictably the zombie with zombie dog. Funniest went to the cupcake, which I thought might leave an opening for Noah to win Most Original after all. But it went to the lamppost from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. None of us had even seen said lamppost, which was odd because the teen and adult area was not as crowded as some of the kids’ groups where it would be easy to miss someone.

Noah was disappointed, as were Beth and I for him, but he took it okay. He’s generally a pretty easy-going kid. I hope this doesn’t sound like favoritism because I don’t think it is, but I seem to feel his disappointments more keenly because of that. He’s the one who doesn’t ask for as much, so I want him to have those things he does want. But you win some and you lose some. That’s life. We all know that. And he takes satisfaction and pride in crafting his costumes for their own sake, even if he also likes the outside validation. (He ended up getting some of that by tweeting a picture of his costume to Fiji Water. They re-tweeted it and by the time he went to bed he had more than a dozen shares or re-tweets or something. I don’t really understand Twitter.)

We waited to see who won the group competition, out of curiosity, and because June’s friend Marisa’s family always enters that and they’ve had some spectacular costumes over the years. This year they were the “Atoms Family” according to a sign they carried. They were all in black clothes, with hula-hoops orbiting their bodies at various angles. They won Most Original. We exchanged congratulations with them, and headed home to 1) make some adjustments to Noah’s costume (trimming it for easier walking and making a chin strap for the lid), 2) watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 3) put the finishing touches (spotlights, fog machines, etc.) on our yard display and 4) to eat a supper of butternut squash ravioli and broccoli.

The kids left for trick-or-treating around 6:45. Last year they went with friends, but this year they decided to go together, which I thought was sweet. I stood on the porch watching the corpse and the water bottle go around the corner while I stayed behind to greet a few dozen trick-or-treaters. The first one came while we were still watching Charlie Brown. She was a tiny Princess Leia who was too shy to say either “Trick or Treat” or “thank you,” despite her father’s gentle reminders.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” the dad said, gesturing to the skeleton and zombie emerging from the ground and all the ghosts, skeletons, etc., hanging from the trees and porch.

The kids were home and trading candy with each other by just after eight. Based on their walk around the neighborhood, Noah reported we were still “the king and queens of Halloween decoration.” Of some of our neighbors he said, “It’s like they don’t even take it seriously.”

The kids had today off school and June spent the day going from makeup violin lesson to first play date to second play date. When the second mom brought her home, she surveyed our yard and said, “You went all out.”

We go all out. We take it seriously. Don’t you worry about that.