About Steph

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We Know the Way

Girl Scout Camp

About a week ago, Beth and I drove out to Southern Maryland to pick June up from Girl Scout sleepaway camp, where she’d been making calzones and mac-and-cheese in an outdoor cooking-themed program. Of course, she also swam in the pool, kayaked in the pond, did archery, and spray-dyed a t-shirt. (It’s like tie-dying but with no knots and a spray bottle of dye.) She also learned a lot of songs and ghost stories we’ve been hearing since she got back.

One of the most exciting things that happened to June at Camp Winona was that after two years of being put in the lowest swimming group and confined to the shallow end of the pool, she was placed in the highest of the three groups and allowed in the deep end. She’d been plotting about this for years. She tried taking swimming lessons in the spring of fourth grade in hopes of getting in a better group, but to no avail. This year she decided she was going to swim breast stroke during the test because she had a theory it impressed the camp staff when anyone did this and they automatically put them in a higher group. The only flaw in the plan was that she doesn’t know how to do the breast stroke. But when I saw a picture of her in the daily photos the camp releases playing with a pool noodle right next to the tile on the pool wall that said “7 feet, 10 inches,” I thought her plan might have worked. It turns out breast stroke wasn’t an option this year, so we’re not sure what happened, but we were happy because it was important to her and, as always, I admire her persistence and strategic thinking.

Choir Camp

June had a day to relax before it was time for her next camp. Choir camp orientation was Sunday afternoon. In addition to a couple of information sessions, the campers had their first practice and parents were invited to observe, so I tagged along. The choir director had them do some posture and breathing exercises and then some vocal warmups before he introduced them to their five songs.

Three of the songs had a water theme: “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie,” “The Quiet Sea,” and “We Know the Way,” from Moana. This song is partly in English and partly in Samoan. They also sang a sixteenth-century French song, “Je Ne Fus Jamais Si Aise” and “In My Life.” When the director asked how many people had heard of the Beatles song, only about half the kids’ hands went up and June’s was not among them. I’ve noticed over the years that band, orchestra, and choir concerts are an excellent way for kids to learn the music of their parents’ and grandparents’ day.

They started practicing. Beth said she found it very interesting how the director stripped the songs down into little pieces to start working on them in different combinations—only sopranos for one bit, altos for another, sopranos and baritones together—rather than having everyone sing together as they would eventually. Also, they didn’t sing the French words on the first day, just the words “one” and “two” in place of them so they didn’t have to struggle with unfamiliar pronunciations and the music at the same time. He did give them some pointers on diction for the English songs, though.

There were about fifty kids in the choir, aged ten to fifteen, plus a handful of sixteen and seventeen-year-old junior counsellors who sing with them. Campers seemed to skew a little to the older side of the range, though, especially the boys. I wondered if it takes a while to own being the kind of boy who wants to go to choir camp. (The choir was about eighty percent female.)

The last thing that happened, back in the auditorium once the choir campers were reunited with the orchestra campers, was a raffle. They have these every day at all the music camps. The prizes range from t-shirts from previous years to Six Flags tickets. One tradition is to raffle off a cardboard box every day. This stands for the right to sit in the box seats of the auditorium during the next day’s post-lunch concert.

When I picked June up from camp on Monday she seemed cheerful. She’d painted in her art elective and played theater games in her drama elective. There had been an all-female barbershop quartet at the post-lunch concert. She was wearing her t-shirt from orchestra camp last year because it was summer youth music camps alumni day. (All the days had themes. One day they wore funny hats and glasses; another day they were supposed to dress in the colors of the Maryland flag.) Best of all, the chorus teacher had singled her out while the sopranos were practicing, saying people should sing the piece as she was, “lightly” and he also praised her pitch.

This was a relief because June had worried a little before camp started if she really had enough experience because a year of school chorus is required to register for this camp and she didn’t precisely have a year of school chorus experience. She was in chorus in fourth grade until it disbanded without explanation right after the Holiday Sing in December. But I thought a third of a school year of chorus, plus several months of private voice lessons in fifth grade, plus musical drama camp every summer since she was five had to be the equivalent of at least a year of chorus so I’d checked the box that said one year on the online form.

On Wednesday, she reported that after trying out for it, she’d been put into a small group that would come to the front of the stage and sing part of “Bring A Little Water, Sylvie.” Also, her drama class had selected a scene from Aladdin to perform for the rest of the campers on Friday afternoon before the concert and they had started to work on the choreography. Auditions were the next day and she planned to try out for the genie. (She didn’t get the part, but it was just as well because her foot started bothering her, for no discernible reason on Thursday evening and by Friday she was on crutches—luckily, we have a lot of orthopedic equipment in the house after all her injuries last year.)

Friday I made my way to the University of Maryland on two buses through torrential downpours. I’d been worried if I got drenched I’d be chilly in the air-conditioned concert hall, so I wore a long raincoat and rain boots and carried and umbrella, and I managed to arrive fairly dry, also forty-five minutes before the doors were supposed to open, but when I’m taking public transportation, I like to be on the safe side. I’d been arriving thirty to forty minutes early all week and enjoying the down-time to read a novel or the newspaper or to keep listening to the podcasts I listened to on the bus. This was the first time all week I wasn’t the first one in the music building’s cavernous lobby. At least a dozen people were already waiting when I got there and settled in with the Washington Post’s Health and Science section.

When the doors opened, I got a seat near the front in a place I thought would be good for taking pictures. And it would have been if they hadn’t rolled out a grand piano right into our sightline in between the orchestra and choir concerts, or if June hadn’t been seated because of the crutches.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The orchestra was divided into two groups, one for students entering fifth to seventh grade and one for those entering eighth to tenth grade. I spied two of June’s friends, both cellists, on stage in the younger group. One was from her Girl Scout troop and the other attended her elementary school one year ahead of her and played in the string ensemble with her when they were in fourth and fifth grade. I think it might have been seeing Ingrid, who’d played with June when she was in a well-run school orchestra, and the fact that two-thirds of the kids on stage had just finished fourth or fifth grade that made me angry all over again about how unambitious the instrumental music program at her elementary school was last year, but I pushed that thought from my mind.  

Anyway, the word “unambitious” cannot be applied to any summer music camp at UMCP. The performances are always very impressive and they would be even if the kids had more than six days to practice the music. The younger orchestra group had five pieces. In a medley of Japanese folk music, one of the melodies struck me as very familiar. Later Beth said it was “Sakura, Sakura,” which we’ve heard at more than one concert. June played it in orchestra in fourth grade and it was a favorite of hers. The last song, “Red Pepper,” was a lively tune fitting of that name.

The older orchestra played four pieces. The first two were pretty— “Strip the Willow” had a folksy fiddle sound—but it was the last two “Lullaby to the Moon,” and “Sansaneon,” that really impressed me. I’m not a musician so I often feel I don’t have the language to adequately describe the music at all these concerts I go to because of my very musical kids. I’ll just say the complexity and precision and beauty of it was uplifting.

The choir was on next. They started with the French song, this time with the actual words. It seemed to have come together quite nicely since we heard their first practice on Sunday. All the songs had. When they started “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” June and five other sopranos and altos stepped in front of the choir and finally we could see her. We could hear her, too. I wasn’t expecting to be able to pick her voice out, but I could, and that was exciting.

I think “In My Life” sounded the most different in its choral arrangement, even more so than “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie.” (I’m fond of the Leadbelly version of that song.) On the car ride home June asked Beth which one she liked better, the Beatles’ or choir camp’ and Beth had to say the Beatles, even though the choir camp version was good. “But I didn’t sing in that one,” June commented.

The last of the choir’s five songs was “We Know the Way,” from Moana. This was the one with the most instrumentation. Most of the songs had accompaniment—flutes most predominantly in the old French song and the grand piano for “In My Life,” but this song started with people blowing conch shells from the balconies and a strong drumbeat.

It seemed fitting as the final song of the concert because it’s about mastery. (It’s from the part of the movie when Moana discovers the disused boats, learns her people used to be sea voyagers, and determines they will be again.) Mastery is a lot of what music camp is about. Getting large groups of talented kids to work together play or sing complicated music and get it up to concert quality in a very short period of time. I’ve been to a lot of these concerts—Noah was in band camp for four years and June’s been to orchestra camp one year and choir camp one year. Still, this aspect of it never fails to impress me.

It was a lovely concert and a wonderful way to end a week of political ups and down which included the confusing and upsetting announcement about transgender troops, discouraging words from the Justice Department about its current thinking on employment discrimination against gay and lesbians, the President’s appalling comments in front of crowds of Boy Scouts and police, the alarming debut of the new White House communications director, the resignation of Reince Priebus, and the President’s continued sadistic treatment of his own Attorney General, and finally, mercifully, the defeat of the Republicans’ latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Am I forgetting anything? I probably am.

Consequently, it was a busy week for Beth at work. On Wednesday, she messaged me that she’d be late getting home, “because I am at this rally saving health care.” And it worked!

My point is not exactly that the kids in the summer youth music camps at UMCP spent their week more profitably than the President and his administration, although they did. And it’s not that this experience of working together to make something beautiful will help them work effectively with others in the future, although it may. My point is more modest, just that cooperation to make something worthwhile is still possible, in the arts and even in politics. And it always will be, if we can find the way.

Thanks to Beth and everyone else who rallied, and wrote and called their Senators, and worked behind the scenes to preserve Americans’ access to health care this week.

Tale as Old as Time

For two weeks after we got back from the beach, June was at musical drama camp. This is one of her favorite camps—it’s tied with Girl Scout sleepaway camp—and the one she’s been attending longest. She’s been going since she was five, making Beauty and the Beast her seventh show.

Ever since we learned which show they’d be doing, June had been saying she wanted to be the Beast. I was skeptical, remembering the year when she was seven and wanted an adult role in Oliver! (Nancy, I think) and how Gretchen, the camp director, thought a taller girl would be better. Surely, she’d want one of the older girls, one of the thirteen or fourteen year olds, to play the Beast. 

But then I remembered how surprised we were when June was nine and wanted to play Olaf in Frozen because she seemed like such a perfect Anna. And that ended up being her best part ever. In fact, she was so good in that comic role, Beth and I were both encouraging her to try out for Mrs. Potts, or Chip, or Lumière. Well, you know where this is going, right?  She tried out for the Beast and Gaston (her second choice), and she was cast as the Beast.

This is the first summer June’s been allowed to ride the bus by herself so took the bus in the mornings and alternated between walking home with her friend Maggie or taking the bus in the afternoons. I only picked her up once and that was because she was having a play date with another camper who wasn’t allowed to be out and about without an adult. I arrived twenty minutes early and I got to watch them rehearse the scene in which the Beast discusses how to win Belle with various members of his household staff and ends up giving her a book.

Maggie, who went to preschool with June and is one of her oldest friends, was playing Lumière and there was a teenage girl who went to the same preschool (in Noah’s class) acting as an assistant director. Another cast member, playing Cogsworth, also went to the school, one class ahead of June. As I sat in the auditorium watching them all, I just kept thinking of how they were when they were little and how nice it was to be able to see them all grow up. I moved a lot as a child and it’s been important to me to give my kids a childhood in one place.

Two days later it was show time. Noah and I met Beth in the community center, outside the auditorium door.  There was a big crowd and as I noticed a few parents with bouquets I thought what I often think—that we should really get June flowers one year.

There had been a dress rehearsal earlier in the day with campers from another community center camp serving as the audience and that ran late, so that set them back and the doors opened a bit late. Noah quickly got the camera set up and discovered it was missing the plate that stabilizes it. Hoping for the best, he started it when the show started.

I knew June was going to be a suitable Beast from her first scene. She growled and yelled and was as fierce and ill-tempered as you could hope a Beast to be. Maggie’s dad, who is also June’s basketball coach, said June “brought the Beast.” She did indeed.

There were a lot of stand-out performances. To mention just a few, Gretchen’s older daughter Lottie was spot-on as Mrs. Potts, her younger daughter Grace played Le Fou with broad physical humor, Maggie’s Lumière had good chemistry with Anna’s exemplary Cogsworth, and the girl playing Babette had a perfect delivery of one of the show’s funnier lines.

Beast: I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I want to do something for her, but what?Cogsworth: Well, there’s the usual things. Flowers. Chocolates.
Babette: Promises you don’t intend to keep.

There was also a group of younger kids in a separate camp Gretchen runs during the second week of rehearsals, who played village children and flatware (most effectively in the battle scene).

One thing I liked about this show was that it really seemed like an abbreviated version of the story and not just a selection of scenes. Gretchen accomplished this by making it longer (almost an hour) and by having a narrator describe some of the omitted scenes. I also liked the choreography in the village scene and in “Be Our Guest.” And June’s death/transformation scene was comic. The girl playing Belle in this scene (there were four of them) tried to block her from view as they both rapidly stripped off June’s headpiece and paws and then June appeared transformed.

After the show, June heard a few families making plans to meet up for pizza that evening at Roscoe’s. We had already decided to go there, too, and we decided to go a little earlier than planned so June could meet up with her friends.  Well, it turned into a regular cast party, with nearly all the actors and their families there, probably forty people all told, and we didn’t even make reservations. The staff was a little flustered but they gave us a room to ourselves. They pushed tables together so the actors could sit together, though a few of the older ones elected to sit at an adult table. It was quite a spirited gathering, as you can imagine with more than a dozen dramatically-inclined nine- to fourteen-year-old girls. There was also singing. That goes without saying, right? A lot of people went straight from Roscoe’s to Dolce Gelato, and then, finally, the big day was over.

The next day, Saturday, was the thirtieth anniversary of Beth’s and my first date. We started the celebration by going out for breakfast at Takoma Beverage Company. I highly recommend the iced mocha and rosemary-apricot bars there. At breakfast, we opened presents—Beth got two books for me The Night Ocean and In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, and I’d written in her card we had dinner reservations at her favorite restaurant in D.C.

From there we went down the block to go reading glasses shopping for me. This is how you know we’re fifty now and no longer twenty. Beth helped me pick out some new frames, black with a slight cat’s eye shape and then we went back to the house to pick up the kids for our yearly berry-picking trip to Butler’s Orchard. The day was hot but not oppressively so (we were enjoying a several-day break between heat waves) and it was just a lovely day to be outside picking berries, visiting the farm animals, watching June go down the big slide, and browsing in the farm stand where we bought fruit, vegetables, pasta, and treats.

We were home just long enough for me to put a tray of blueberries and one of blackberries into the chest freezer, read with both kids, and then change clothes to go out to dinner in the city with Beth.

Dinner was fun. Jaleo is a tapas restaurant so we got five things to share—gazpacho, a sampler plate of Spanish cheeses, sautéed spinach, the salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce Beth loves there best (and has learned to make herself) and a white bean salad. She got chocolate custard for dessert and I got almond nougat ice cream. As we walked back to the Metro, the air had cooled to a near perfect summer evening temperature. It was beautiful. The whole day was beautiful. I felt lucky to have spent it partly alone with the girl I fell in love with thirty years ago, and partly with the kids who made us a family.

When we saw the new Beauty and the Beast movie back in April, we gave June a long lecture about the dangers of its message about love. It’s not a good idea to get into or stay in a relationship hoping to change someone who’s cruel to you, we told her. Sometime during the two weeks of Beauty and the Beast rehearsals, I asked her if the camp director had talked to them about that. I thought she might because I remember her talking about Miss Hannigan’s poor life choices when they did Annie the year June was six. June said no. So, I gave her an abbreviated version of the lecture from three months earlier, which she endured with quiet resignation.

It’s harder sometimes to know what to tell a girl on the cusp of adolescence about how love should feel rather than how it shouldn’t. No-one’s life is a happily-ever-after fairy tale and everyone’s love story is different and unpredictable. But I hope some day both kids find themselves in their own tale as old as time and that it’s just what they need, if not just what they imagined.

Sea Dreams

He stakes all his silver
On a promise to be free
Mermaids live in colonies
All his sea dreams come to me

From “Dawntreader,” by Joni Mitchell

Saturday 

For the first time in nearly two decades of extended family vacations in Rehoboth, we arrived before check-in time. This must have been satisfying for Beth because she comes from a family of early arrivers and I come from a family of late arrivers and in general, when you mix these groups the late arrivers prevail.

But we managed to leave the house earlier than planned and there was surprisingly little traffic on the Bay Bridge, so even with a lunch stop our family of four plus Beth’s mom Andrea arrived in Rehoboth at 2:15. We had some time to kill before we could get into the house at three. I went to the beach and put my feet in the water while everyone else went into town for cool drinks.

Eventually we settled into the house and Beth went out for starter groceries and the West Coast contingent—my mother, sister Sara, and four-year-old niece Lan-Lan—all of whom had just spent two days in Philadelphia visiting with old friends—arrived and we socialized and Noah and I made a dinner of burgers, hot dogs, corn, fruit salad, and potato salad.

Sara tried to keep Lan-Lan from adjusting completely to East Coast time so the girls had the same bedtime much of the week (until biology eventually took over). After they were in bed and Beth and Noah were settled in front of an episode of Dr. Who, Mom and I walked down to the beach and I got my feet wet again. 

Sunday

June and Andrea went for an early morning walk and were back before the late risers were awake. Much of the morning was occupied with menu planning and grocery list making and grocery shopping. June played with Lan-Lan much of the morning while Beth, Noah, and Andrea started a thousand-piece lighthouse puzzle. I made the girls lunch and took them to the beach so Sara could work. The whole week was something of a busman’s holiday for her—she’s self-employed and this often happens.

The weather at the beach was perfect—low eighties, sunny, and not too humid, with cumulus and cirrus clouds scattered across a deep blue sky. We were there four hours and for most of that time, June was swimming in the ocean by herself while I stayed on shore with Lan-Lan, who was alternating between jumping happily in the surf and digging in the sand.

She was talking the whole time, sometimes to me, but often to herself, saying the waves were “awesome” and reassuring herself, “Okay, Lan-Lan, okay,” when the water got rough.  Most of what she said, she said over and over, but this exchange took place just once:

“I love this ocean.”

“I do, too.”

“It fun. It always fun.”

Lan-Lan’s main construction project was to build a hole so big “there’s no sand left” and I was kept busy filling her pail with water to fill the hole. At one point, she befriended a teenage girl who was digging her own hole and she started to help. The girl’s friend came by and seeing Lan-Lan dig with her hand and her foot said, “That’s impressive.” For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Lan-Lan was digging. Kids dig at the beach. Then I remembered she has just one arm and it is novel to see her do thing with her foot until you get used to it. (I saw her use her foot to press down on a knife she was using to slice cheese later in the week.)

We left the beach at 5:30, all three of us somewhat reluctant to go, but it was getting on dinnertime. No one had chosen this day to cook for the group, so some people cooked for themselves and others ordered takeout and we all ate a makeshift meal together.

I might have been wrong about the weather being perfect. A few more clouds might have helped. Despite being conscientious about re-applying sunblock, June’s face, neck, shoulders and back were badly burned and my shoulders burned, too. June’s ear, now exposed by her brand new asymmetrical hair cut was the worst casualty. Fortunately, Lan-Lan didn’t burn at all.

Monday

We decided to keep June off the beach entirely for a day, to buy her a rash guard to go over her suit, and enforce a no sleeveless tops rule for the rest of the week, to give her burned areas a chance to heal. That made Funland an appealing choice for Monday afternoon. Lan-Lan spent the morning at Kids’ Cottage, a drop-in daycare so Sara could work. When Lan-Lan got home, Mom, Sara, and I took all three kids. (I’d offered to take them by myself so Sara could get more work done but she said, “I don’t want to miss this.”)

I must admit I was hoping Lan-Lan would spend more time in the little kids’ rides because all week I was feeling a little nostalgic for when my kids were her age (especially when I’d see her in June’s hand-me-down pajamas or shorts or when I’d read Where the Wild Things Are to her). But Lan-Lan is more of a daredevil than either of my kids were at four and after a trip on the sedate airplanes, she wanted to go on faster rides. The race cars were a big hit—she did these three times and she also tried the little Ferris wheel, the helicopters, and the Freefall, which my kids didn’t ride until they were ten and six, respectively. She looked a little nervous on it but said she liked it. Next, she wanted to go on the swinging Viking boat. This was also scary, more so than the Freefall, and June had to put her arm around her when it got to be too much.

Both Sara and I thought the netted climbing structure would be a good way to calm down after all those exciting rides. There are two entrances—one for little kids and one for big kids. Lan-Lan did the little kid course while June did the big kid course. But then we discovered Lan-Lan was in the height overlap so she went through the big kid course, too, but she got stuck at the top, twenty or thirty feet above the ground, couldn’t figure out the way down, and started to cry, so we sent June in after her. Lan-Lan found her way down before June reached her but she was shaken up, so we tried the swings as the final ride. That helped some, but Sara says she was still upset in the car.

Noah, June, and I walked home, stopping at Candy Kitchen, and then taking the scenic route along the beach. We were walking along the waterline for twenty minutes and no one got soaking wet. That never happens with preschoolers. There are advantages to having older kids, even if I sometimes miss my little ones.

Mom was making a black bean-sweet potato stew when we got home, so I helped her finish it while we listened to a fifties music Pandora station. After dinner, Lan-Lan had her first taste of fudge—Sara is strict about sugar—and it was a hit. Often when Lan-Lan was allowed a small treat later in the week, she chose the strawberry fudge (we had four flavors in the house).

Tuesday

Andrea, Beth, the kids and I went out to get bagels and crepes on the boardwalk Tuesday morning. While we were there June and I ducked into a shop and got June a peach-colored rash guard that coordinated with her suit, so she could swim that afternoon. When we met back up with Andrea, Beth, and Noah we learned the cook at the crepe stand had undercooked the eggs in Beth’s crepe and then did the same to Andrea’s, so they got a refund and went elsewhere. My crepe and Noah’s were safe, being fruit-based, so we ate them. Noah finished before I did and he went with Beth and Andrea to get a second breakfast. Once they were gone, I heard another customer complaining about uncooked eggs.  I thought the employee should just start telling people she was out of eggs until someone could retrain her.

Late that morning, Mom took June to get pedicures and lunch at a Mexican restaurant. They both came home with dark purple toenails, in slightly different shades.

In the afternoon, we drifted down to the beach in groups. Andrea stayed behind to make dinner. Beth, Noah, and I got to the beach first and we all went into the water, which was very calm and in Noah’s rather vocal opinion, too cold, but he stayed in a half hour until he and Beth returned to the sand and I stayed a little longer, first alone, then with June when Mom, Sara, June, and Lan-Lan arrived.

Sara and Lan-Lan dug a complicated set of pools with connecting canals and I helped a little. I reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I used to recite to June when she was little and dug at the beach:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
Our holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.

We’d all left the beach by six, then we showered and devoured a whole pan of Andrea’s spinach lasagna as well as half of another pan of the gluten-free version she made for Sara.

After dinner, Noah and June settled in with a bowl of popcorn and an episode of Dr. Who, while Beth and I left for a dessert date. We rode our bikes into town in the twilight and got a milkshake for her and a whoopie pie for me and ate on the boardwalk. It was short, but it felt romantic. Then bringing home a brownie and a cookie for our mothers, we biked home and stayed up late talking with Andrea, Mom, and Sara on the screened porch. Sara marveled that we’d left our kids to put themselves to bed, trying to see her own future in this. 

Wednesday

The next morning Mom and Andrea went to see an art exhibit and a historic property while Beth and Sara took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s water park. I did not attend, as going to water parks at the beach is against my religion. (In fact, it’s one of the only tenets.) Instead I biked into town and picked up a book I’d ordered from Browse About and then hung out on the boardwalk for a while until it was time to meet Mom for lunch at a boardwalk restaurant.

I went to the beach in the late afternoon, alone because Andrea was taking June to high tea at a hotel, Sara was working, Lan-Lan was at Kids’ Cottage, Beth was cooking, and Mom and Noah felt like relaxing at the house. The day was beautiful again—we had an almost unbroken string of beautiful days. It was in the high seventies and sunny. The sea was calm and I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get to swim in waves this week.

That evening Beth served her signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro sauce and fancy cheeses. Then Beth and I made another dessert run, this one more hurried because we wanted to get June her cinnamon bears before bedtime, though we ended up letting her stay up past bedtime anyway, because she and Grandmom were deep in conversation. Meanwhile, Beth, Andrea, and Noah worked on the nearly completed puzzle.

Thursday

Sara had been working all week and Thursday morning I finally broke down and asked if I could help with anything, but she said no because what was left was editing my work from the previous week and a project for a new client and it would take too long to bring me up to speed for that.

Noah and June played with Lan-Lan a long time that morning, pretending to be a family of performing octopi (they hummed different songs) and making cards for Sara and me with stickers. I was still trying to keep out of the sun until mid-afternoon, so once the kids were finished playing with Lan-Lan, we read the books we’d been reading all week, New Lands from the Chronicles of Egg with June and The Other Wind, the last book in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle with Noah. We finished it that day.

Sara did manage to get to the beach in the late afternoon. She came with Lan-Lan, who had spent a few hours at Kids’ Cottage, and Grandmom and June, who had been resting at the house. Andrea came down just a little before they did. Beth had been reading on the beach and I’d been swimming around an hour in better waves. They were still smaller than I like and a bit closer together, but it was a good swim. When June got to the beach we swam some more, but eventually I left her alone in the water and sat in Sara’s beach tent with Sara, where we sheltered from the sun and blowing sand and let Lan-Lan bury our feet in the sand. Then she’d pour water on them. Once when she did this, my big toe was exposed.

“Oh no!” I said, “A toe came out.”

“That’s just how life goes,” Lan-Lan told me.

While thus engaged, I realized I no longer watch June every minute when she’s in the water alone (though I think Beth does). She’s gotten to be a pretty strong ocean swimmer. Everyone noticed how confident and comfortable she seemed in the water.

Sara made eggplant parmesan that night and then we went to the boardwalk for dessert. We split up and there was a mix-up with June’s mermaid shake. It comes with a cloud of cotton candy and Swedish fish and a strip of rainbow-striped candy on top and I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost because it’s a ridiculous amount to pay for a milkshake. Anyway, Beth and Mom both bought one not realizing the other was doing the same. We’d told June we were going to buy her shake when she left the house in Sara’s rental car with Mom, so Beth was irritated.

While June and I were on the beach, leaving the rest of the party on the boardwalk, I told June she should probably apologize to Beth because she was supposed to pass the message on to Grandmom about not buying the expensive shake. She told me she already had and offered to pay for the extra shake out of her allowance. I told her that was very mature of her, even though Beth said she didn’t have to do that. Sometimes kids grow up when you aren’t expecting it.

Friday

Friday Sara didn’t work and she went to rent a bike so we could go on a bike ride on the Gordon’s Pond trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. While she was doing that I took the kids to Browse-About because Mom had given Noah some money to buy a book. He selected The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a YA horror novel. I’ve read some of the author’s middle grade books with both kids, but this one looks considerably darker. June wanted to tag along and when she found there’s a new book in the Serafina series she wanted it, so I bought it for her. It was a hot day, the first real hot one since we’d been at the beach so we got smoothies for the walk home.

Beth, Sara, and I set out for our bike ride shortly after lunch, with Lan-Lan riding on the child seat of Sara’s bike. This was a new experience for Lan-Lan and she was enthusiastic about it. We biked about an hour, most of it through a pretty salt marsh full of water birds, including a few egrets, which are Sara’s favorite bird. Lan-Lan didn’t like the smell of the mud, but Sara said it reminded her of catching salamanders in puddles near the lake in the Berkshires where we vacationed as kids.

When we got to the ocean, we were hot and ready to get wet. The waves were about the same as they had been the day before during my first swim, but the second time I went in they’d gotten bigger and spaced out and I had the best swim of the week, including two waves I sailed up and over, dropping down the other side after just a moment with the top half of my body airborne.

Lan-Lan was getting hungry and Sara had forgotten snacks, so she approached a mom with a large group of kids and asked if she had anything and she came back with a feast of goldfish, cheese sticks, and watermelon. That’s something I could never do, but it’s the kind of thing that often works for Sara.

Meanwhile, Beth spied a water ice truck parked up near the jetty and she and I snuck off to get a sugary treat Lan-Lan wasn’t allowed. I could have been smoother, though, as I came back with vivid blue stains on my shirt, arm, teeth, and lips.

“Why your mouth blue?” Lan-Lan wanted to know. I told her I drank something that made it blue and that seemed to satisfy her.

On the ride home, Lan-Lan fell asleep. She’d been up past her bedtime on the boardwalk the night before and she was tuckered out.

But we still had a big night ahead of us. We were going out to dinner—Mom and Sara split off and went to a seafood place while the rest of us went out for pizza and Stromboli and gelato at Grotto. Lan-Lan was beside herself about the pizza, the gelato, and the balloon they give kids as you leave. It was a completely satisfactory dining experience in her opinion.

From there, Beth, Andrea and Noah went home and I took the girls to Funland where we met up with Mom. June and I were going to the Haunted Mansion and Mom was going to take Lan-Lan to revisit some of her favorite rides while Sara read a magazine on the boardwalk. While we were in the Haunted Mansion, our car went out on the balcony and we got a glimpse of the boardwalk and the ocean. This only happens once in a blue moon and I always hope it will. June didn’t even know it was a possibility as it’s never happened in the three previous times she’s been on this ride.

After the mansion, June went on the Graviton and the Free Fall, and we found Grandmom and Lan-Lan. June and Lan-Lan went on the teacups together, which Lan-Lan loved, though they scared Noah when he was in preschool. She was laughing the whole time. Based on her other favorites, I think fast but low to the ground is what she likes right now. Everything that spooked her went too high.

Everyone else drove home, but I decided to walk because the night was so lovely. The sky was still pinkish orange from the sunset and the wet sand was silvery and reflective.

Saturday

Saturday was the usual rush of cleaning out the fridge and packing the cars and saying goodbye. We had to return the keys by ten, so we left before Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan were out of the house and on their way to Philadelphia where they’d fly to Oregon the next day. We were planning to linger in Rehoboth a few hours. Beth, Andrea, and June went to town to get henna tattoos for June—a treble clef on her hand and a moon and stars just above her ankle.

Noah and I went to the beach and I was pleased that he came in with me again for fifteen minutes or so. Then he went to relax on the towel while I swam for another fifteen minutes. I had only changed into my swim bottoms and a t-shirt at the house, thinking I might just wade, or we’d walk up to the boardwalk and change in the restrooms there, but I had developed some painful blisters on my toes and breaking up the walk was appealing and once I was in the water, so was diving under the waves, so I just did it in my clothes.

Around eleven we started walking toward our meeting place on the boardwalk. We got lunch at a crepe stand, ran some errands, and drove out of town, around two-thirty. We stopped at home furnishing store where Mom had pointed out some birdcages she liked to June (Mom collects them) because June thought they would be a good birthday present for her, but it turned out they were store decorations and not for sale.

Around quarter to five, we got to the Bay Bridge, where the sky got suddenly ominous. Then as we reached the middle of the bridge, it was just like driving into a high-domed cave. The clouds were that defined, and they had clearly visible projections like stalactites hanging from the bottom. Once we were completely under the cloud cover, it began to pour rain, which lasted for just a few minutes before petering out to light rain and pale gray skies.

On one side was vacation; on the other was the rest of the summer with all its chaos and camps and performances, and music lessons, and driving school, and whatever else awaits us in the next nine weeks.

Culminations

School’s out, or it will be in a couple hours. When the kids get home from school, Beth’s driving them to Wheeling where Noah will spend a week with Beth’s mom and Beth and June will visit for a day before returning home.

In the last few weeks of school June attended the safety patrol picnic and the fifth-grade picnic. The first one was the bigger deal as it took place at the Montgomery County fairgrounds, which they had to themselves that day. They ate their lunch in the empty livestock barns and they got to ride carnival rides and there were free popsicles. The fifth-grade picnic was in a playground near school, and they had pizza, and chips, and candy and an ice cream truck dispensing free treats. June got a lime popsicle there. Come to think of it, there were popsicles at the instrumental music party the week after their concert, too (though June missed that, being home sick that day). Popsicles are clearly the common denominator for spring celebrations at her school.

Even with all these festivities, it didn’t feel quite as busy as the end of the school year often is, maybe because there was no art show or field day at June’s school this year, the carnival was held on a date we couldn’t attend, her Girl Scout troop’s annual potluck was cancelled at the last minute and without explanation—not a big surprise as the troop is organizationally challenged—and June had to drop out of her music school recital. Her hand and arm injuries this spring prevented her from learning the song she’d hoped to play on the guitar. This was a disappointment for all of us.

CAP Hollywood

As for Noah, his big end-of-school event was CAP Hollywood, a showing of fifteen short student-made films with an accompanying award ceremony, which was held the second to last week of school. Noah was nominated for Best Editing and his group’s film was up for several more awards—Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Score, and Best Picture. It seemed like a good bet they’d win something.

We all got dressed up and had an early dinner at Noodles and Company before the show. I’m pretty sure that’s where Hollywood stars dine before the Oscars, right? There was a Hollywood sign made of light bulbs and a red (construction paper) carpet for photos in the lobby, but Noah declined to have his taken.

Before the tenth-grade films started, they announced the winners of a twelfth-grade competition and showed their entry, a one-minute ad for Black CAP, a student-run advocacy organization that recruits and mentors African-American middle school students who are interested in applying to the Communications Arts Program. (The CAP student body is only 7.5 percent African-American, while Noah’s school is 27 percent African-American, so there’s clearly a disparity there.)

Then the main event began. The films were the culmination of a months-long project for CAP sophomores. First students had to come up with ideas for a short story in their English class and a feature story in their journalism class. After completing the first few steps of each project, they were assigned to complete either the fictional story or the journalistic one. Noah wrote a science fiction story that was an homage to Ray Bradbury’s “The Earthmen” (from The Martian Chronicles). After all the stories were written, fifteen were chosen to be filmed by groups of five students each. Noah’s story wasn’t chosen. Maybe that was just as well as it took place in a rocket and on the surface of Mars and would have been hard to film.

Noah’s group made a film called “The Pool Hall.” It was about a college student who has a recurring dream in which he returns to a pool hall in different decades, always meeting the same young woman. They filmed it at the local VFW hall, among other locations. There were thirteen other fictional films and just one documentary on the program. Common themes across the fictional films were murder and the discovery of long-lost siblings. They were all well done and it was an entertaining night.

“The Pool Hall” won for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. Noah didn’t win the editing award, but you know what they say: It’s an honor to be nominated. June was surprised and possibly a little disgruntled when a CAP student’s younger brother who’d acted in one of the films won Best Supporting Actor. She didn’t think you could win if you weren’t in CAP and it’s possible she was wondering why she had not been tapped to act in Noah’s film. (Because there were no preteen roles would be the short answer.) Best Picture went to the only documentary, which was about an artist who paints portraits of people with scars to tell their stories of trauma and healing.

It was already twenty minutes past June’s bedtime when we left, but a celebration seemed in order so we went out for frozen yogurt.

Equality March for Pride and Unity

In between CAP Hollywood and fifth-grade promotion, on Sunday morning, Beth, June, and I marched in the Equality March for Pride and Unity. We weren’t sure what to expect because although we’d heard last winter that there was going to be an LGBTQ march in June, we hadn’t heard much about it since then. Publicity was almost non-existent and it didn’t seem to have as clear an agenda as other historical gay marches, or other big marches of the Trump presidency. I even suggested at one point that we skip it and go to the Pride parade instead. That was held the day before, on Saturday, a day which wasn’t predicted to be as oppressively hot. But Beth said, “No, we should do the political thing” and I agreed.

We gathered in front of the AFL-CIO building because we were marching with a labor contingent. When it was time to start moving, we lined up on I street and then there was a long wait in the hot sun to get going. But once we did there were a lot of signs to read and people in costume to watch.

“I know it’s not polite to stare, but a lot of people here are dressed interesting,” June observed. It was true. There was a man in a light blue Care Bear costume, who was earnestly telling a reporter from BuzzFeed, “People keep telling me I must be dying [in the heat], but I am living. Fully living.” There was a woman dressed up as the zebra from Fruit Stripe gum (for the rainbow stripes I’m guessing). The sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there, too, as you’d expect.

Many signs commemorated the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting last year. There were also some classics (“If God hates gays, why are we so cute?”) and new ones:

Cuz
Only
Very
Fragile
Egoes
Fear
Equality

Beth’s favorite sign was of a fish-shaped group of rainbow-colored fish about to swallow an orange fish with Trump hair.

The message on June’s sign: “I have girl crushes and boy crushes. So what?” was prettily adorned with rainbow stripes, and it was news to us. Like her “Another Girl Scout Against Trump” sign at the women’s march, it caused a lot of people to ask if they could take her picture.

It was a bigger crowd than we expected; a story in the Post said it was over 200,000, but that seems high to me. In any case, it was nothing like the big marches of 1987, 1993, and 2000. It felt more like a Pride parade, without the floats, and without spectators on the sidelines. We all had fun. I always forget how much I like being in a big crowd of gay people until I am. I think the last time was when we went to Pride with the kids ten years ago and I had the exact same thought then.

Toward the end of the march, Beth spotted three friends from the years she worked at HRC in the 1990s and early 2000s and there were hugs all around. Back in the day, we were good friends with Don, Stephen, and Patrick. (Don and Stephen, who’ve been together thirty-six years, may be the only gay couple among our friends who’ve been together longer than we have.) Sadly, we’ve drifted apart over the years, but it was a real treat to see them. They admired my old-school t-shirt from the ’93 March. In a Facebook discussion after the march with the designer of the shirt, another old friend of Beth’s, I said, “I wanted a shirt that said, ‘I’ve been marching since before you whippersnappers were born.’ Because I have.”

I can’t say this march was the culmination of any specific political achievement, nor does it seem like we’re on the verge of one right now, but you never know. We talked as we marched and afterward about how if you had told me in 1993 we’d be marching again in 2017, married and (theoretically) able to serve openly in the military, but without the basic protections from employment discrimination we were marching for twenty-four years ago—the goal we thought was the low-hanging fruit at the time—I’d have thought you were crazy. History takes unexpected turns sometimes. I probably would not have been surprised that it would take this long for trans issues to come to the forefront of the movement. We and our kids live in interesting times, in good and bad ways, but progress for LGBT folks, however incomplete, is one of the good things.

Fifth-Grade Promotion

June came home on Wednesday with a card from her morning teacher, Mr. S, who had written a note for each kid in his class. It ended, “Your ability to capture an idea and express your thoughts are way beyond your years. I believe your insights will help make you a great actor and interpreter of songs. As they say—Break a leg (oh, you already did).”

Promotion was that evening and Noah had no homework (Monday being the last night of the school year he was up late doing any and Tuesday’s pre-calculus worksheet being the last assignment of all), so we had a relatively relaxed afternoon before it was time to make our way to California Tortilla for an early dinner and then go back to the high school auditorium to watch the fifth grade be promoted.

The auditorium was decorated with blue and white balloons and a painted sign on the podium that said “2017.” At each fifth grader’s seat was a creature made of blue and white yarn with googly eyes and a mortar board, a souvenir from the PTA. We sat near the families of two of June’s best friends (Zoë and Evie) and her new friend Edwin.

The program started with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish and with “words of encouragement” from the principal of the middle school most of June’s class will attend, and “words of wisdom” from current middle school students. Because June’s school is majority Latino and because of the Spanish immersion program, school events are always bilingual, usually with the aid of translators. The middle school students self-translated, however, giving their speeches first in English and then in Spanish and they sounded equally at home in both languages, which impressed me.

Even though June’s going to the middle school this principal and students represented, I felt it wasn’t quite right to tell the students that instead of tigers, they were now jaguars, because some of them will be eagles (at the humanities magnet) or devils (at the math and science magnet) and it seemed to me those kids’ achievements should be recognized, too.

After all the speeches, we were forty-five minutes into the program, which was supposed to last an hour, but none of us really believed that anyway, so we weren’t surprised or antsy. Six classes worth of kids walked across the stage next, to collect their promotion certificates, and shake the teachers’ hands or hug them. At least one kid in each class had a bouquet for the classroom teachers.

What most struck me watching the fifth-graders walk by was what a great variety of sizes eleven and almost eleven year olds come in. Also, most of them were very dressed up and snazzy-looking. June had on a short black dress. When she brought it home from the thrift store, I was surprised because I was expecting something spring-like, either in white or a pastel color. When I said, “It’s black,” June replied, “It’s not just black, Mommy, it has rhinestones and fake fur.” And it did. As she crossed the stage, she was limping a little because the multicolor flats she got to go with it gave her blisters.

The final part of the program was a video slide show divided into three sections: Past, Present, and Future. The past was photographs from kindergarten to fourth grade, including one of June playing Mozart in the wax museum last spring. The present was the kids holding white boards that answered various questions such as what was your best moment of elementary school, what will you miss, etc. June’s class had to answer the question “What’s the best thing?” about their school. Her answer was the book fair. Friends, teachers, field trips, and recess were popular responses.

For the future, they’d all had their pictures taken dressed as what they wanted to be when they grew up. June had gone to school that day dressed in skinny jeans, a rhinestone-studded t-shirt and carrying her (old, broken) guitar and a microphone. They were photographed in small groups, often though not always, with people who gave the same answer. Beth observed that if they all realize their career goals, there will be no shortage of doctors, veterinarians, and athletes in the future. Software designers and chefs were also well represented.

The last part of the video was the six fifth-grade teachers performing a song that was half rap and half to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” The chorus went, “It’s time for middle school/You better follow the golden rule/Be sure that you never act the fool/Because it’s time for middle school.” June said it was embarrassing, but the teachers seemed to be having a good time and embarrassing preteens is one of the duties of the adults in their lives.

After promotion, we met up with Zoë and Evie’s families for ice cream at Cold Stone in Silver Spring. The line was long and slow and it was very late but I tried to relax and enjoy the moment as a part of these girls’ pasts slipped away and they moved toward their futures.

Welcome to New York

Saturday

The train pulled out of Union Station at 11:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and by the time we got to the next station at New Carrollton, rain was streaking across the windows. I hoped it would be a passing squall or we’d travel past it because we were planning a busy twenty-six-hour trip to New York City—a belated birthday present for June— and for a lot of that time we’d be outside on a boat, in a horse-drawn carriage, or walking from place to place. I needn’t have worried. The rain cleared quickly and we didn’t see another drop until we were on another train, heading south the next day.

We passed the train ride reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts and playing games on the IPad. June talked me into buying her a Gatorade and the world’s most expensive Twix bar ($3!) at the café car. June must have noticed me leaning forward a little in my seat to see Boathouse Row and the zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as we passed through my home town.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

“Philadelphia,” I said a little sadly, because I haven’t been there in several years, since my mom moved to Oregon.

We got off the train around 3:45 and walked to our hotel. Beth had reserved a room with two queen beds but for some reason we’d been upgraded to two separate rooms with a king bed apiece. The kids don’t like to sleep in the same bed, so Beth was rooming with June and I was with Noah.

Once we were settled into the rooms, we walked to pub on 47th street in Hell’s Kitchen, where Beth’s high school friend Michelle, an actor and singer, was singing. We caught the last few songs of her set, including a syncopated version of “Breakfast in America” and “Blue Bayou.”

When her act was over, she came over to our table, where June was drinking a virgin mojito and Noah had a soda. Michelle hadn’t seen Noah since he was three and she’d never met June, so they got acquainted and she and Beth started to catch up about family and friends from home, a conversation that unspooled throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. While June was in the bathroom, Michelle asked why she was walking with a cane, and we filled her in on June’s year of injuries—some of which I haven’t even chronicled here. Did I mention the dislocated finger? Or the elbow injury? I don’t think so, but if you looked carefully at the picture on Noah’s birthday blog post, you may have noticed June’s arm was in a sling.

As if to drive all this home, on a subsequent visit to the restroom (the Gatorade June drank on the train was a very big one), Michelle was the first witness to a new injury as she crossed paths with a tearful June who had just slammed her fingers in the restroom door. Michelle fetched some ice from the bartender and we proceeded from the pub to a drug store for painkiller. For much of the evening, I was carrying the ice in a plastic baggie and leaving a trail of water drops everywhere I went.

Next up was dinner. June wanted New York pizza and Michelle had a restaurant in mind, but we were in the theater district and it was around five so there was a long line of theater goers who wanted an early dinner and the greeter predicted an hour wait. We left, found a promising hole in the wall with no line, but by this time June had to go to the bathroom again and they didn’t have one, so we found a Starbucks, used the facilities there and stopped at the next pizza place. Fortunately, they weren’t in short supply. This one had a sign saying the restroom was out of order, and as we were trying to decide whether June could stay long enough to get some pizza and eat it, the proprietor said we could use the bathroom after all. (The toilet didn’t flush but it looked like this state of affairs was a very recent development, so we made do.)  We got two kinds of greasy pizza, vegetable Stromboli, garlic knots, and mozzarella sticks. It was very satisfying. Thanks for your intrepid pizza-finding skills, Michelle!

From there we walked to the water, because we were taking a sunset cruise on the Hudson and East rivers. We saw the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, the Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue for Memorial Day and many other sights.

June, Michelle, and Beth were out on the deck most of the time, while Noah and I stayed inside. The view was good from there and I could hear the narration better. When we were at the Statue of Liberty, the tour guide read Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”— you know, the one with the lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He read the whole thing and I was glad of it because I’ve always been fond of that poem and it seems particularly relevant now.

Near the end of the cruise, I joined June out on the deck and Beth and Michelle went inside. I asked June if she was cold in her thin cotton dress (because I was cold in a turtleneck) and she said no. We said goodnight to Michelle at her subway stop and walked back to the hotel, where we crashed, well past everyone’s bedtime.

Sunday

We had breakfast at a hotel restaurant several blocks away. We’d picked it because June wanted pancakes and they were on the menu, but we’d missed the detail that they were on the weekday breakfast menu and not the weekend brunch menu. She chose doughnuts instead and didn’t like them because they were more like cream puffs filled with cannoli cream. There were three of the offending pastries and Beth, Noah, and I took care of eating them for her, while Beth gave June half her berry-covered waffles and everyone was happy. (I had a mushroom omelet and a salad.) Noah had to write a restaurant review for his journalism class and he’d decided to review this one so we kept giving him suggestions about what to say about it.

June’s next agenda item was a carriage ride in Central Park. Noah asked if he could go back to the hotel instead and we let him, because he seemed to need some alone time. Beth gave him directions on how to get to the Broadway theater where we were going to see a show and we decided to trust he’d find his way there.

When you approach Central Park on foot you are accosted by dozens of people with laminated cards explaining why their carriage ride is the best, but we found a driver who wasn’t too aggressive with the upsell and settled in for a pleasant ride through the park. Beth and June got a soft pretzel and Belgian waffles in the park but I was too full from breakfast, so I skipped lunch. We walked to the theater, where we arrived just in time for the show. Noah was waiting for us, having managed to get himself lunch and find the theater. Beth commented on Facebook, “This raising the kids to be independent adults thing is moving along quite nicely.”

The play was fun. I’d expected June to choose Cats, as it’s the only show currently on Broadway her musical drama camp has tackled and I thought she might like to see a professional sing her solo from “Memory,” but she went with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instead. I guess that’s not surprising as both kids were quite fond of the book when they were younger.

I liked the set for the first act, which mainly takes place in the Buckets’ tumble-down house, with the bed the four grandparents share elevated high above the rest of the house and tilted slightly forward, which gives you a good view of the actors and makes it seem like it might collapse at any moment. The second act sets, in the factory, were kind of minimalist for what’s supposed to be a place of exuberant wonders. The best one was the meadow made of candy where Augustus Gloop falls into the lake, but it takes up a surprisingly small portion of the stage.

And speaking of Augustus, I thought the German stereotypes in his portrayal went overboard and this ethnic and racial stereotyping was evident in most of the kid characters (who, except Charlie were all played by adults). There were some clever updates, with Mike Teavee being a hacker obsessed with all screens and not just television, and Violet Beauregard being a social media celebrity.

The Oompa Loompas were imaginatively portrayed by kneeling actors with puppet bodies hanging from their heads. Their colonialist back story is still in there, but you have to lay the blame for that on Road Dahl. I also liked the spooky squirrels in the nut room. They’re huge and have red eyes. It’s a ballet scene so Beth thought they were supposed to evoke the Rat King from the Nutcracker. As for the acting, the boy who played Charlie was good—and I liked the way the script made him a more well-rounded character than in the book. (It’s always bothered me that Charlie inherits the factory merely for not misbehaving, but this production gives him more motivation.) Ms. Teavee was also more well developed than in the book and I liked her character. The actor who played Willy Wonka was fine, but he wasn’t Gene Wilder. That’s all I have to say about that.

Overall, we enjoyed the show and we also got some overpriced candy during intermission because how could you not?

We had a little time to kill before the train, so we window shopped a bit. June had already gotten a smiley face fidget spinner as her one promised souvenir but she wanted to buy another one with her own money. She tried on a baseball hat that said New York in rhinestones and looked at a lot of New York magnets, but she went with a pocket watch she found in a warren of booths near the theater. Once she’d made her purchase, we walked to Penn Station, bought some food to eat on the train and said goodbye to New York until our next visit.

Spring Things

I can tell the school year is winding down because in the space of a little over a week Noah had a band concert, June’s Girl Scout troop went on their annual camping trip, her running club participated in a 5K, and she played in an orchestra concert and went on a field trip to Baltimore. These are the things that happen when spring is about to give way to summer.

Thursday: High School Band and Jazz Concert

In the week and a half before the band and jazz concert, Noah practiced for a total of five minutes and then only because I suggested that he run through his bell piece one night just before bedtime. The reason for this is that he’d been absolutely swamped with work (he had two research papers in progress at the same time until he turned one in last week) and we were at the beach the weekend before the concert. He generally practices around three hours every weekend and often not at all for the rest of the week. Because of this I was half-glad there was an after-school practice the day of the concert. (The half of me that wasn’t glad was thinking about the paper outline and pre-calculus packet he had due the day after the concert.)

He got home around 4:15 and had less than an hour to work before he needed to change into his band clothes and eat dinner. He got about three-quarters of the way through the pre-calculus. I made a last-minute attempt to convince June to come with us, but she remembered how long the winter concert was and begged off.

We dropped Noah off at school a half hour before concert time and swung by Starbucks for cold drinks to fortify us for the concert. We did this because Beth knew the band booster organization was lying in wait for parents. We donate to the band and Beth might be giving them some computer help, but we weren’t in the mood to hear the boosters’ spiel, so we came in just before concert time.

Six different groups were scheduled to play at the concert—the Jazz Combo, the Jazz Ensemble, the Concert Band, the Symphonic Band, and the Wind Ensemble, plus there was a guest appearance of part of the orchestra. Noah was playing with Symphonic Band, and the Wind Ensemble. If you’re thinking, wait, I thought Noah was a percussionist, he is. The Wind Ensemble does not consist, as you might think, solely, or even mostly of wind instruments. I don’t know why it’s called that. No one knows why.

The concert was lovely. There are many talented musicians at Noah’s school and many dedicated music teachers. At various points in the concert students were recognized for their participation in honors bands, all state bands, etc. The seniors in each band were also called to the front of the stage so the band teachers could say where they were going to college. Several were intending to major in music, but engineering was the most popular choice. (This lead to a discussion of right brain skills in the car on the way home. Noah says many of the kids in the bands are also in the math/science magnet. There are more of them than Communications Arts Program kids like him.)

We watched Noah play bells, marimba, and chimes with the Symphonic Band. He sounded especially good on the marimba during Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in B-Flat Major” and it was fun to watch him play a set of chimes taller than he is in “Among the Clouds.” (Though he was standing behind it, so technically we weren’t watching him but only a sliver of his face between the chimes, and the mallets at the very top of the chimes, seeming to move on their own.) He sent Beth a text noting the song was not “in” the clouds, but “among” them. This was a Sean Spicer joke. (He recently chose that hiding in/among the bushes episode when he had to draw a political cartoon for his journalism class.) With the Wind Ensemble, he played claves, woodblock, cabasa, and he had a triangle solo in “A Longford Legend.”

The very last piece of the concert was played by a group of students selected from the various bands and orchestras. By the time they started, we’d been at the concert for three hours and the auditorium, which was comfortable at the beginning of the concert, was getting quite warm, so I was restless. I asked, a little grumpily, why members of the orchestra had to play a song when they had their own concert just two days earlier. Then the band teacher announced that the selection, from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” was a surprise for his wife, because they had it played at their wedding last fall, so I felt somewhat churlish. Still, three hours and ten minutes is a very long concert when everyone has homework and chores left to do and alarms that go off at times that start with five.

Weekend: Camping Trip and 5K

The next day Beth and June left for the Girl Scout camping trip. Noah and I were on our own from late Friday afternoon until early Sunday afternoon. He didn’t have as much homework as usual, so when he wasn’t working on what he did have, we went out for pizza and gelato, read a couple stories from Tales of Earthsea and watched Harold and Maude. It was a very pleasant weekend.

When Beth and June got home, June was limping. It turns out that in between tie-dying pillowcases, making candles, kayaking, and eating massive quantities of s’mores she’d twisted her ankle. It’s not the same one she broke twice this year and it seems to be just a mild sprain, though almost a week later, she’s still limping. And sadly, it kept her from walking the 5K Sunday morning. She wanted to support her team, though, so she and Beth stuck to their plan of leaving the camping trip early and they went to see the runners off and wait for them to come back. (Beth was glad that by cutting out early they missed doing archery because it turns out a lot people got ticks on the archery range.) June’s friend Evie was the first back from her school’s team. That was no surprise. There are a couple of girls on the team who are serious runners and she’s one of them. 

Tuesday: Elementary School Band and Orchestra Concert

Noah didn’t have any urgent homework on Tuesday night but because June didn’t go to his concert, I didn’t insist he go to hers. He considered it, but ended up staying home.

“I’ve heard terrible things about the conductor,” he said. He was referring to the fact that I’ve been dissatisfied with the new instrumental music teacher at June’s school. Now it would have been hard for anyone to fill Mr. G’s shoes, but it’s not an exaggeration to say the year was a total loss for June on the violin. She learned nothing.

There was no winter concert and what I heard from the orchestra at the Holiday Sing was not promising—though the band was a little better—so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, not completely sure. Let’s say I was trying to keep an open mind.

It’s a small thing, but I think the fact that the musicians’ names were not on the program was emblematic of the larger problem. I never got the sense the teacher recognized June as an individual, with musical strengths and weaknesses, so he never used her talent and experience to build the orchestra and he never helped her stretch herself.

I can’t bring myself to critique a group of nine to eleven-year-old, mostly beginning musicians too harshly, especially as none of what happened was their fault, so these are the positive things I can say:

The advanced band sounded not half bad on their medley of Queen songs, though I do find it amusing how often young musicians are compelled to play the popular music of their parents’ youth. This seems true across elementary and middle school bands. There was some nice stagecraft, as when a fifth-grade percussionist ran up to the stage in a shark costume during “Shark Attack!” and the whole advanced orchestra threw silvery banners into the air at the end of “Silly String.”  This was June’s favorite song to play. The advanced orchestra sounded better than the beginning orchestra. And the concert was short. Clocking in at just over an hour, it was the shortest school concert I’ve ever attended.

Friday: Field Trip

The fifth grade went on a field trip to the Maryland Science Center on Friday. It was their last field trip of the year, and of elementary school. As I affixed stickers to her brown bag lunch, as I have done for every field trip since kindergarten, I started to feel nostalgic, whereas I hadn’t at all at the concert. Sometimes it’s the little things.

Beth chaperoned the trip and when the two of them came home, surprising me by arriving almost an hour before I expected them, June was laden with gift shop toys and she was wearing a t-shirt with all her classmates’ signatures printed on it. She’d seen a planetarium show, gone into a wind tunnel, lain on a bed of nails, experimented with pulleys, watched a model of tornado, and seen a very large blue crab in a tank (half as big as my head, she informed me).

There are three weeks left in the school year and then I’ll be the mother of two secondary school students. That makes the end of this school year seem a little more momentous than most, but I’m ready, and I think June is, too.

On Turning Fifty

Before my birthday

I got the AARP card in the mail about a week before I turned fifty. Even though a few of my friends have already turned fifty and mentioned that this happens, I was still surprised. I don’t mind turning fifty, but it does take you aback.

Ten years ago, I wrote about turning forty with flashbacks to my tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth birthdays thrown in for fun. To sum up the last two milestone birthdays: When I turned thirty I was mired in the endless, early stage of dissertation writing and not sure if I was going to make it through my Ph.D. program, and when I turned forty I’d recently come to the decision to quit looking for academic work, after a decade spent finishing the degree, then working at non-tenure track jobs or none, while chasing after the brass ring of a tenure track job. I described myself as “somewhat adrift” and uncertain what would come next. But I was an at-home mom to a one year old and six year old, so I was plenty busy and had some time to think about a plan.

But instead of planning a new career, I just sort of fell into the work I do now. That summer I started doing a couple hours of research a week for my sister’s free-lance writing business because she had a big project and she needed some help. After another year or so I was ghost-writing the occasional article for a natural foods newsletter for her. When June started kindergarten, we made it a regular part-time job. Will I still be working with Sara when I turn sixty? Your guess is as good as mine.

The weekend before my birthday Beth and I went to see Fun Home, a musical adapted from Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name. I’d asked for tickets as a birthday present, because I am a fan of Bechdel’s work in general and this book in particular. Part of it even takes place at Oberlin as Bechdel attended Oberlin, graduating in 1981, seven years before Beth and eight years before me. And while the scenes depicting a young lesbian coming out at our small liberal arts college during roughly the same historical period I did were certainly familiar, the childhood scenes were, too.  Like Bechdel, I also lived in a small town in Pennsylvania in a Victorian house my unhappily married parents were restoring. There were differences, too, of course. The two main ones being my father wasn’t a closeted gay man and he did not die by suicide. Also, we only lived in that town for four and half years, not my whole childhood, so we weren’t rooted there. But I still consider that period from the end of third grade to the middle of eighth grade to be the heart of my childhood and it had outsize importance to me. Anyway, the play was well written and well acted and we enjoyed it.

The evening before my birthday I spent pleasantly sequestered in my room, reading with Noah or looking at my phone, under orders not to come out while everyone was wrapping presents and signing cards and the smell of a chocolate cake baking wafted into the room.

The Big 5-0

The day itself was a normal work day. In the morning, I cleaned the bathroom and then I ghost wrote a blog post about pregnant women’s intake of omega-3 fatty acids. I did take myself out for a late lunch at Republic, where I had a Brie, arugula, apricot, and pistachio sandwich. From there I walked to Capital City Cheesecake where I ran into the children’s librarian from our public library. She greeted me my name, even though it’s been quite a while since June and I were regulars at her Circle Time for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I told her it was my fiftieth birthday and she said, “That’s a big one,” in the exact same tone she uses when someone is turning three and she’s about to lead the room in a round of “Happy Birthday.”  (And if that sounds like it was patronizing, it wasn’t at all. She’s not one to talk down to kids.) I got a latte and free mini chocolate mousse there because it was my birthday. (I would not have known free treats were on offer if Karen hadn’t told me while we were in line). Then I headed back home to exercise and wait for Beth and the kids to come home.

Beth and June came home around the same time (which early for Beth and late for June) because Beth cut out after a meeting and June had been walking a practice 5K with her running club. (She’s not confident enough on her recently healed feet to run yet.) It was a cold, wet day and she was soaked through, so I hustled her off to a warm bath while Beth went out to pick up dinner, which was Mexican take out at my request.

I opened my presents after dinner. Noah got me two graphic novels by Margaret Atwood I didn’t even know existed, so that was a nice surprise. And June got me a gift certificate to Starbucks, a purple tie-dyed beach towel, and a home-made gift certificate for the Tea and Spice Exchange in Rehoboth because my big present, from Beth, was a weekend in Rehoboth.

I knew there was a surprise planned for this weekend because Beth told me not to schedule anything and we had to cancel some plans as well. I was thinking a trip to Rehoboth was likely but I didn’t know for sure until I was working at the computer on the morning of my birthday and a notification about our hotel reservations flashed across the screen. I resolved not to tell anyone I knew and even rehearsed what I’d say when I opened the card to make it sound as if I was just learning the news.

“Hooray! That’s what I hoped it would be,” I said, which was true.

I didn’t fool Beth for a second. “You knew,” she said, so I told her about the notification.

I’d eaten a late lunch and a big dinner so I wanted to wait on the cake. I read Deadweather and Sunrise to June and then we had cake and ice cream. It was a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting, which is the cake I most often request for my birthday—you would, too, if you ever tried Beth’s chocolate cake with strawberry frosting—and Neapolitan ice cream.

Friday

The next day was our beach trip. We hit the road around 4:45 in the afternoon. It was raining on and off, sometimes pretty hard, so between the rain and rush hour traffic and a stop for dinner (at a pizza place near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where June got a sorbet served in a frozen, hollowed out lemon for dessert) it was around 9:15 by the time we checked into our hotel. June and I slipped down to the beach for a quick visit and we all went to bed around ten.

Saturday

We went out for breakfast at Victoria’s, a restaurant in a boardwalk hotel June likes for its fancy Victorian décor and I like for the ocean view. The food’s not bad either. Beth and I both got the blueberry banana blintzes. The day was cold and rainy so we decided I’d hole up in the hotel room and read with Noah in hopes it would clear up later. Meanwhile Beth and June went to the hotel pool. We had lunch at Grandpa Mac where three out of four of us got mac and cheese with various add-ins. (I went with spinach.)

In the early afternoon, I took a walk on the beach. It had stopped raining but it was still chilly and overcast. As I walked, I was feeling pensive about turning fifty. I saw several teenage girls who seemed to be playing volleyball without a net. They were all in identical black capri leggings, which made me think they were in uniform under their various hoodies and windbreakers. Then I saw an older man in a tweed jacket and a ball cap who was probably doing tai chi. I thought life is like that. Sometimes you’re just reacting to other people’s moves, knowing what general direction you want to move the ball, but unsure if you’re getting over the goal or not because you can’t see it. And sometimes it’s being on your own, making what may look like crazy moves even as they have an underlying purpose and grace.

Beth and June had gone to Funland, so I headed over there to meet them. I got nostalgic walking past the little kid rides, but then I remembered I’ll have a chance to see my niece ride them this summer, which was a cheering thought.

June had almost used up her ride tickets and was moving on to the games. We left with two new stuffed animals (a llama she named Lorenzo and a tiny sea turtle she named Flo) to add to the little Japanese cat (Sakura) she bought earlier in the day at Candy Kitchen. We swung by the tea and spice shop where I got three kinds of tea, vanilla sugar, and a new infuser. Then we got some free Earl Gray crème tea they were giving away for Mother’s Day. I’m not sure if they were giving it to all women or just those with kids in tow.

Back at the hotel where Noah was doing pre-calc, I took June back to the pool. We read for a little while, but it was too loud to keep going, so we gave up.  She got in the water, I stayed poolside and we tossed a ball back and forth. Then Beth came down and I went up to the room to read with Noah. By dinnertime, we were three-fourths of the way through the 120-page reading he had to do in The Sympathizer, a novel about espionage within the Vietnamese-American community shortly after the Vietnam war. It’s good, but intense, so I would have preferred it in smaller doses.

We had dinner at Grotto. I was supposed to pick all the restaurants because it was my birthday weekend, but there would have been an uprising if we hadn’t gone to Grotto and to tell the truth, a trip to Rehoboth would have felt strange without it.

While June was in the bath, I made a quick visit to the beach. It wasn’t raining but it was still cold and windy. The waves were big and full of foam, which the boardwalk lights gave a yellowish cast, like the whites in old photographs. The foam gathered on the sand, only to be half blown away before the next wave could wipe the remnants off the wet sand.

Mother’s Day

Sunday morning was sunny and sparkly, so June and I took a pre-breakfast walk down on the beach. We saw volleyball nets all lined up om the beach, as if for a tournament and someone setting up mile markers for a race on the boardwalk.

We’d wondered if everywhere would be mobbed for Mother’s Day, but we got to Egg by eight and there was only a twenty-minute wait, so we took a walk by the canal. I recommend the peanut butter French toast, (though if you’re there in the fall or winter, the pumpkin pecan French toast is even better). Noah’s lemon curd crepes looked pretty good, too.

We returned to the hotel where Noah and I sat on the balcony and knocked off another chapter of The Sympathizer, while occasionally looking up to enjoy the ocean view. Beth and June made their third visit to the pool. After we checked out of the hotel, Noah went to work in the lounge of another hotel, Beth and June went to a coffee shop and I walked down the boardwalk, where I saw a man playing the pan pipes and a group of mostly middle aged and older folks—a church group perhaps—gathered by one of the gazebos singing “Kumbaya.” I heard someone say they saw dolphins but I couldn’t spy any.

We all met up and gathered food from various establishments to eat on the boardwalk and then June and I went to put our feet in the water before leaving. (She did it in boots, I did it barefoot as it had gotten surprisingly warm.) While we were on the beach we did see a few dolphins. Then we drove home to unpack, grocery shop, and open our Mother’s Day presents- a Busboys and Poets gift certificate for Beth and a black umbrella with clouds on the underside for me. (I’d just left my umbrella on a bus the week before.)

Though my birthday weekend is over, I am not quite finished with celebration. I’m having dinner out with several friends, but not for a few weeks because June’s Girl Scout is going camping next weekend and over Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to New York City to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway, which was one of June’s birthday presents. Fifty is getting off to a busy start.

Sixteen Springs and Sixteen Summers

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”

The Saturday before Noah turned sixteen Beth and I participated in the Climate March. It was an exceptionally hot day for late April and I know climate’s not weather and it’s that kind of logic that makes people bring snowballs into Congress during debates about environmental legislation, but still… It seemed as if Mother Nature was making a point.

I didn’t take pictures, but Beth got some before I arrived. She had to be there early for work, so I met her there after taking June to her guitar lesson and then taking the guitar June dropped and broke at the bus stop to our local instrument shop to see if it could be repaired. Mike Kepka, the videographer Noah assisted at the Women’s March, also took some (his are the black and whites). For part of the time, we were marching near Mike and his family so we saw some of the same things.

It was a visually interesting march. People were dressed as polar bears and lobsters (“cooked by climate”) and carrots (“I carrot about climate change”) and a cow, to promote vegetarianism. There was also a big inflatable cow. I didn’t get close enough to see if there were explanatory signs for that one, but I did hear a woman on her cell phone giving someone directions by saying she was behind the cow, which for some reason struck both me and Beth as funny. There also was a big light blue bird made with sheets draped over a frame and smaller white birds on wires that seemed to fly over the crowd. At first I thought these were kites. These may have just been celebrations of nature. Whatever the reason, they were lovely.

People carried signs with statistics about climate change with citations carefully printed on the bottom. There were a lot of signs with pictures of the Earth with captions like “I’m with Her” or “There’s No Planet B.” I liked those.

The kids opted not to come with us. Noah was swamped with work and June’s getting choosy about what marches she attends.  She says she’d like to go to the LGBT one in June, so I hope the three of us or maybe even all four of us can go to that one. We have to pick and choose, too.  We skipped the Science March the weekend prior because two weekends of marching in a row seemed like a lot, and Beth’s union had a contingent in the Climate March, making it an easy choice. The turnout was good, maybe as high as 200,000, and people were spirited.

Truth be told, I was feeling more dutiful than inspired, but that’s okay. Duty’s important. It’s what will get us through the next three years and nine months when we get tired of writing letters and making phone calls and taking to the streets. I will admit I’ve slowed down since January and February, but I haven’t stopped. I’m determined not to stop.

When the march reached the White House, Beth and I peeled off rather than follow it to the Washington Monument. We stopped for a bathroom break at a public restroom in a park and to drink some much needed cool drinks and to rest our sore feet at Pret A Manger, and then headed home.

Noah and I usually cook dinner on Saturday nights but I was tired from marching and wanted to go out. I thought Thai would be nice. We used to have a tradition of going out for Thai the night before Noah’s birthday because Beth and I had Thai the night before he was born, but as schedules have gotten more complicated, it’s morphed into Thai sometime near Noah’s birthday. And in recent years Noah has decided he’s not crazy about Thai, so we left him at home working on a paper about the relationship of democracy and political satire while Beth, June, and I went out to celebrate his birth without him. I didn’t feel good about this, but he wasn’t in the mood to go out and it didn’t seem right to force him to come either.

He turned sixteen four days later. Cartwheels haven’t turned to car wheels yet, but Beth’s been investigating driving schools so he can learn to drive this summer. It was a low-key birthday, as his birthdays often are. I marked it by posting seventeen pictures of him on Facebook, one each from the spring or summer of every year from 2001 to 2017, (to keep the seasons in line with Mitchell’s lyrics, and to help me narrow my choices). He said his band class sang “Happy Birthday” to him. The teacher keeps track of all his musicians’ birthdays and does this for everyone, which I think is a nice touch. Otherwise it was a normal school day.

Noah requested a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting, so Beth made it the night before. Dinner was egg noodles with broccoli, tofu, and Parmesan cheese, also at his request. He opened presents between dinner and cake. We got him a charger he doesn’t have to share, which should cut down on family friction, and a set of extra soft jersey sheets in light blue because the flannel sheets we got him for Christmas were an unexpected hit. There were also several iTunes cards from various relatives, totaling and impressive sum of money, a pair of green and white striped summer pajamas, and two Ursula LeGuin books, because Noah and I are reading the Earthsea Cycle.

Did you know this series didn’t stop with the trilogy LeGuin wrote in the sixties and seventies? I didn’t until we started reading it and I looked it up and was surprised to find there are now three more, written between 1990 and 2002, plus a recent short story, for now only available electronically. We checked the fourth book out of the library last month and I bought the fifth and sixth ones. If you love the old Earthsea books, these are very different in tone, but still interesting and fun. (I also bought a copy of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger because the Dark Tower series is next up for us and I don’t seem to have a copy, even though I have the rest of the series. I didn’t wrap it, though, because it’s not his to keep. I want a complete set.)

The day after his birthday, Noah took his first AP test, in Government. When we first found out the exam was the day after his birthday we felt sorry for him, but it turned out to be fortuitous. He’s been studying hard for it for a long time and didn’t feel the need to cram on his birthday. It also meant he had a half day of school on Thursday because kids who took the exam were excused from afternoon classes. We started Tales from Earthsea before June got home from school and he didn’t do any school work for the rest of the day. The next day he had a field trip to the Newseum, and only had to attend one class, so he got an extended post-birthday break. (One down note: He was surprised and indignant to see they were selling MAGA caps in the gift shop of a museum dedicated to the first amendment.)

On Saturday we went out again, this time with him, to his favorite Italian restaurant in Silver Spring. I tried to convince him to try the new Italian place in Takoma Park, but he said he’d prefer to “stick with what we know,” which is a very Noah sentiment. He got baked ziti, which is his favorite dish there. And Beth and I also chose our favorites—eggplant parmesan for Beth, spinach ravioli for me. June branched out, trying the minestrone and the mushroom ravioli. And with that, Noah’s birthday celebration was over.

I would care about climate change, and care deeply, even if I didn’t have kids. Kids aren’t the only motivator for activism, but they are a powerful one. After all, my kids have to live on this planet longer than I do. I want it to be habitable when they’ve each gone around the circle sixteen times, sixty times, and beyond.

Goodbyes

Friday

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

All Around the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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