Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

Thursday: Pre-birthday

“I’ve never been to any part of this hospital other than the emergency room and neurology,” North noted on Thursday morning as we were walking through the corridors of Children’s National Hospital. It was true, we were in a different part of the hospital than the one where we go for the specialist we see about North’s migraines. We had an intake appointment with a doctor, a social worker, and some other staff members in the Gender Development Program. We were there all morning, filling out forms and talking to people. We’re getting into their system now in case we ever need their services. We also signed up to get on the email list for two support groups we may attend, one for trans and non-binary kids and one for their parents. We have a follow-up appointment scheduled for July.

After the appointment was over we dropped North off at school and Beth and I went out for a pre-birthday lunch at Arepas Pues in Silver Spring. It was very good. Beth says she is going to be craving the cilantro sauce that came with the tequeños (fried cheese sticks) because cilantro has that effect on her. Arepas Pues is next to Smoothie King and I remembered I had a frequent buyer card in my wallet I hadn’t used in years because I am not actually a frequent buyer at Smoothie King. But the card was full because I used to be a frequent buyer, back when both kids used to go to drama camp in Silver Spring every spring break and summer and we’d often go get smoothies after camp.

Well, when I tried to redeem the card for a free smoothie, the cashier looked at it like she’d never seen such a thing, then called another employee over, then talked to someone on the phone and the upshot was there was no free smoothie for me. I was mildly annoyed because even though they clearly don’t use these stamp cards any more (they have an app now) the card had no expiration date. It would have been pretty easy to give me a smoothie, but I didn’t make a fuss because I’ve been a young person working retail and I didn’t want to be that customer.

Friday: 51/3 = 17

The next day was my birthday. Fifty-one is kind of an anti-climactic birthday, but it’s pleasing to me that now that Noah is seventeen and I’m fifty-one I’ve been a parent exactly one-third of my life. The day was pretty ordinary, at least until the evening. I sat on the porch and read a short story from this collection as well as the first few pages of Romeo and Juliet because I want to brush up on the play before I see it next weekend (North has a small part as a servant in the Capulet house). Then I finished ghost-writing a blog post on GMOs, exercised, and cleaned the kitchen. I had nice talks with both my sister and my mom on the phone.

When North got home from school I reminded them Beth was going to pick them up in a half hour for an appointment to get their braces off (the first phase is finished now and they have two years’ reprieve before the second phase) and then I left to go to Starbucks to redeem my birthday reward. Here I had better luck and successfully obtained a free iced strawberry-green tea and a couple cake pops.

When I got home North was gone but Noah was home, so we read Wolves of the Calla for almost an hour. We’ve been reading this book since January and we are tantalizingly close to the end, but I knew he’d be studying for AP exams all weekend and it was unlikely we’ll get to it again until next weekend. Then he practiced his bells and drums and Beth and North got back from the orthodontist with no braces and a new retainer and we all piled in the car to go to Highwood Theater.

It was Fine Arts Night, which is part preview for the two shows they have in production (Romeo and Julian and West Side Story) and part open mike night for the kids acting in these or previous Highwood shows. We had to drop North off for rehearsal at 6:30 but the event didn’t start until 8:00, so North while ate at home (a small pizza Beth picked up for them on the way home from the orthodontist), the rest of us had my birthday dinner of wood-fire oven baked pizza with eggplant and mushrooms and Greek salad on the patio of Pacci’s on a near perfect spring evening. We skipped dessert because we were going to have a red velvet-strawberry ice cream cake after the show.

The scenes from Romeo and Julian were the play prologue, the fight scene, and the balcony scene. The play was cast gender-blind and will be performed in modern clothes. Both leads are played by trans boys. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing on Friday. The kids in West Side Story did the scene in which Tony is convinced to come to the dance and the scene in which Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty.” Chances are we’ll go to that show, too, although North’s not in it. We pretty much go to all Highwood shows now because North always has friends in them.

Because kids come back to act in this student-based theater season after season, they get to know each other and they’re bonded. During the open mike part of the show, every single kid got thunderous applause from the other kids and many of them were enveloped in huge group hugs after they sang.  That’s what happened to North after they sang their original song “Guess What?” Beth said later it made her happy that North has found their people. Here’s how the song starts:

Guest what?
I’m not like anybody else
And guess what?
Maybe sometimes I mess it up myself
But guess what?
Maybe someday I’m going to be
Something you could never even see

‘Cause it’s not in my light hair
Not in my blue eyes
Not in my fair skin
Not in my freckles
Not in my big feet
Or the way I hold my tongue
But in the way I sing
And have always sung
‘Cause music takes the bad parts out of everything
And somehow kind of picks and chooses for me
And I love it oh so much
When I need it, it’s my crutch
Music’s always there
For me.

The show was diverse with teens singing songs from musicals, an adorable boy of eight or nine singing “Movin’ Right Along,” from The Muppet Movie, a girl about the same age singing “Octopus’s Garden” and accompanying herself on the ukulele, and a band of high school students that focused on classic rock (Pink Floyd, Toto, and Talking Heads). The teenage girl who sang “Hold the Line,” really rocked it.

The show was a lot of fun, but it was also long, about two hours instead of the one hour we were expecting. I was thinking I might rather delay my cake and presents until the next day (as Noah had the week before) rather than rushing through them at the end of a long day. I still wanted to pick up the cake, though, because Cold Stone was right around the corner, and it seemed silly to go make Beth go back to Silver Spring the next day.

Well, Cold Stone is open after ten on a Friday night, but thinking back to my own days as a Baskin Robbins employee one summer in college, I might have realized this isn’t the best time to pick up a cake. The staff was busy and unprepared for what I assumed would be a simple transaction. (I was in the store alone while Beth and the kids waited in the car.) I thought just giving them Beth’s last name would be enough but apparently there were a lot of cakes in the back and they didn’t have names on them. And because I hadn’t ordered the cake I didn’t know what size it was or if she’d ordered lettering. I said it might say, “Happy Birthday, Steph,” thinking that might narrow things down, but there was no such cake. (I later learned it just said “Happy Birthday.”) Employees kept coming to talk to me and wandering off and then new ones would come. Eventually Beth texted me the receipt and I thought that would help but it didn’t. Finally, they just took a cake from the display freezer and wrote “Happy B-day, Steph” on it right there and then and I was free to leave. It was ten-thirty by the time we got home and everyone went to bed, with no cake.

Saturday: Birthday, Belated

We had the cake after lunch the next day, after I organized a campaign to get everyone to finish their lunches by 12:15 (because North had to leave for rehearsal at 12:45). I opened my presents—an umbrella, headphones, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled and to buy Stephen King’s new book The Outsider when it comes out later this month. Earlier I’d received a Starbucks card from my mom and a card telling me Beth’s mom had a tree planted in my name in a national forest. I was very happy with the gifts. Beth’s card said “Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too,” which I thought was funny given the trouble we’d had with the cake.

Sunday: Mother’s Day

The next day was Mother’s Day so there were more gifts. Beth got a pink carnation at the supermarket, where they were giving them away to moms. The kids got Beth some treats—a dark chocolate bar and a bag of chocolate wafer cookies. I got another Starbucks card from Noah and a little herb garden in a pot from North. It has oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and nasturtiums. It was a thoughtful gift, as I’d been saying I thought I’d focus the garden on herbs and flowers this year because I’m tired of squirrels, rabbits, and deer eating our vegetables and melons. I already had basil, chives, cilantro, and parsley in various stages, so this makes a nice assortment. (And because I can’t stop myself sometimes, I do have some lettuce plants in the ground already and cucumber seeds planted in starter pots. And when North brought kale seeds home from church on Mother’s Day, I planted some of those, too, though I’m saving most of them for a fall crop.)

Monday to Thursday

We’re near the end of a busy week for both kids. Noah took four AP exams—in Biology, Calculus BC, English Language and Composition, and World History. He just took the last one this morning. It’s tech week for Romeo and Julian, which means North has had rehearsal until ten o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and tonight and then the show runs from Friday to Sunday, three evening shows and two matinees.

North also got to go to a ceremony at school honoring kids who were on the honor roll and/or got straight As third quarter. It was their first time getting straight As so that was exciting. And then they were nominated by their chorus teacher to join the Tri-M Music Honor Society and that was even more exciting. Finally, after an article in the school magazine in which North was interviewed about why separating boys and girls in gym class was problematic for non-binary kids, their gym teacher started having them do their pacer tests all together. North is proud to have made a difference. And we’re proud, too.

Life seems full these days, in a good way. I’m appreciating this more keenly because early spring—from early March to mid-April or so—was a hard, out-of-sorts time for me. Now it’s better. It’s like I have my cake and I’m eating it, too.

Edge of Seventeen

Not His Birthday 

As we walked into Roscoe’s on Friday evening, Beth offered to sing “Happy Birthday” to Noah in the restaurant and he declined adamantly, adding, “It’s not my birthday.” It was in fact the day after his birthday. He’d had a band concert on the actual day so we’d decided to go out for pizza, have cake and ice cream at home and open presents on Friday instead, when we’d have more time and be more relaxed. So repeatedly over the next few days when he’d ask for something, like for someone who was in the kitchen to bring him a fork, we’d say, “Why? It’s not your birthday.”

His Birthday

There was some festivity on the day of his birth, however. He opened his presents from Beth’s mom when he got home from school on Thursday because she was going to fly to Ireland the next day and we knew she’d call, so Beth wanted him to be able to thank her when she did. She got him some Amazon gift cards, a t-shirt from Oglebay Park, and some Cow Tales caramels and M&Ms. I also had him open one of his presents from us, a loaf of bread from Zingerman’s, his favorite online food catalog, because I needed it for dinner. I gave it to him with a birthday hat on it, with little curls of ribbon hanging from the elastic chin strap. Never say I skimp on presentation.

I needed the bread to make garlic bread. When I asked Noah want he wanted for dinner on his birthday, he said lasagna and then surprised me by upping the ante and asking if we could have pasta every night from Monday to Thursday; he knew we were going out for pizza on Friday. He doesn’t ask for much, so I said yes. Monday I prepared fresh spinach fettucine with asparagus and a lemon-cream sauce; Tuesday I made lo mein; Wednesday I lowered the bar a bit and served the kids macaroni and cheese from a box with broccoli while I had something else (Beth was working late and ate at work); but on Thursday I rallied and made homemade lasagna with garlic bread (which is one of the best ways to show Noah you love him).

We had to eat the lasagna on the early side because we needed to leave at six for concert, which started at 6:30. There are five bands at Noah’s school—the Jazz Combo, the Jazz Ensemble, the Concert Band, the Symphonic Band, and the Wind Ensemble. Noah plays percussion in the Wind Ensemble, which you might think was an ensemble of wind instruments from, you know, the name, but it’s actually just the advanced band. I’ve often wondered if there’s some history behind the nomenclature, but I’ve never heard an explanation.  Noah also pinch hits for the Concert Band and the Symphonic Band when they need extra percussionists. At festival this year he played in all three bands and at this concert he was playing in the Symphonic Band as well as the Wind Ensemble. In the past when this has happened he’s had advance notice and the chance to practice with the other bands, but this time he was going to be sight reading a piece for Symphonic Band. He didn’t seem too nervous about this and I remembered how jittery he was before his first high school band concert just last year.

Once we were seated, I scanned the program. Each of the five bands had three songs, except the Jazz Ensemble, which had six. This was going to be a long concert. I wouldn’t have minded, as I enjoy my kids’ performances, but Noah still had two homework assignments left and one of them was a one-a-half page paper on Hurricane Katrina, which he hadn’t even researched yet. I tried to put it out my mind and listen to the music.

After both jazz bands had played, the jazz band director recognized all the seniors, speaking a little about each one and noting where they were all going to college and their intended majors. I am finding this ritual more interesting as my own musician gets closer to being a senior. It will be him in that lineup next spring, if the powers that control scheduling let him into band. (He’s only been in band three of his six semesters in high school because of conflicts with required classes.)

In the break between the Jazz Ensemble and the Concert Band, North and I went out to the lobby to use the restrooms and to patronize the bake sale. Either we missed the announcement to go back or there was none and we missed half the concert band’s set, re-entering the auditorium in the middle of their second song, and waiting to go back to our seats until that song was over. I was a little abashed and glad Noah wasn’t playing with that band.

When the Symphonic Band was setting up we were excited to see Noah standing next to a gong, as that’s an unusual instrument but it turned out this was the piece he’s never practiced and he missed his cue and never played it. He did play the suspended cymbals, though.

Finally it was time for the Wind Ensemble. The band director noted the ensemble had advanced to state festival this year and got top marks there. Then they played their three festival pieces—“The Liberty Bell March,” which you might recognize if you are familiar with the Monty Python theme song; an excerpt from “Appalachian Spring,” (the part based on the Shaker song “Simple Gifts”); and “Children’s March.” Noah played crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, triangle, xylophone, and chimes. In the last song he was playing three different instruments and running around a lot from one station to another. (In the photo you can see him in the back holding the crash cymbals.) Afterward, Noah said the band had made some mistakes, but “percussion sounded pretty good.” For Noah, this represents a high level of satisfaction. And for the record, I didn’t hear the mistakes. I never do, except sometimes in elementary school concerts.

It was almost ten when we got home and Noah was too tired to start a research paper, so he did the other assignment and went to bed, I’m not sure when because it was after Beth and I had gone to bed.

Not His Birthday

The next day, after we got home from pizza, we sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the privacy of our own house, ate Beth’s homemade chocolate cake with strawberry frosting (a common birthday request from both Noah and me) and ice cream and then he opened presents. He got a gift card to 7-11(for $17) because he often stops there on the way home from school, a book in a series we’re reading, more food from Zingerman’s (chocolate-caramel shortbread cookies, two kind of imported Italian pasta, Piave Vecchie cheese, which is supposed to taste like a cross of Parmesan and Gruyère—his favorite cheeses), a wireless charger, a headphone splitter, and a wallet.

The next day a check from my mom arrived and we completed our last birthday-related ritual, going out for Thai food. My last meal before going into labor with Noah was Thai food, so we often go out for Thai near his birthday.

Noah is seventeen years and three days old today. I am increasingly aware of how short our time with him still at home is. Why do you think that is? Could it be those college tours? And I’m also mindful of how much I will miss him when this boy on the edge of seventeen crosses over to eighteen and his adult life. But I’m proud of him, as a student, a musician, and increasingly, as an active citizen. I’ll be sad to see him go but I’m also eager to see what kind of man my boy will be.

Ease on Down the Road

North’s birthday was a week-long affair this year. In lieu of a party, they asked for tickets to see The Wiz at Ford’s Theater with Zoë and to have dinner before the show and a sleepover afterwards. They also had birthday get-togethers with Xavier and Megan the weekends before and after their birthday. And then we went to a somewhat larger gathering, with 800,000 people to protest gun violence.

Pre-Birthday Celebrations: Sunday to Thursday

Xavier and his one of his moms and his grandmother took North out to the lunch buffet at a vegetarian Indian restaurant the Sunday before their birthday. He gave them a rainbow-striped scarf, which might have been a reference to the fact that they both belong to their schools Rainbow Alliance (the gay-straight union). Then they went swimming at the community pool where I do my Sunday afternoon laps. This was a spontaneous development, so I was surprised to see them come in the door to the pool deck while I was doing the kickboard part of my routine.

The weather and the school district gave North an early birthday present of a day off on Wednesday and a two-hour delay on Thursday because we got four and a half inches of the white stuff. North went over to Zoë’s house and they spent Wednesday hand coloring invitations for Zoë’s birthday party, walking to the bakery to get treats, and sledding. North was the only one of us who had any fun that day, as Beth, Noah, and I were holed up in the house working.

Thursday, the day before North’s birthday, I made tacos for dinner, because they love tacos and I don’t make them much anymore because I made them on Election night 2016 and now tacos just make me sad. North thinks this is a ridiculous reaction and maybe it is, but it’s my reaction.

After dinner, Beth and North went to the party store to get the balloons they’d bought earlier inflated with helium. I thought it was kind of funny that despite the fact that North wasn’t having a party, we still ended up with balloons and a piñata. For reason I can’t quite articulate, this reminded me of the year they turned five and asked for a surprise party and then tried to plan exactly what was going to happen at the surprise party.

The Birthday: Friday

On Friday morning I got up earlier than usual and made my newly minted twelve year old a birthday breakfast of cheese grits and an egg. (They usually make their own breakfast so that was part of the treat. Also, they are quite fond of cheese grits.)  They went off to school and came home with Zoë, who admired the balloons, and helped them smash the piñata and dye the frosting for the baked but not yet frosted birthday cake a pretty teal color.

Just before five, I herded Noah, North, and Zoë to the bus stop so we could meet Beth for pizza at Roscoe’s, where North opened cards and presents. Zoë gave them a card she’d circulated around school and gotten a bunch of friends to sign. North was delighted and read the messages—many of which were mysterious in-jokes—aloud.

Zoë’s folks were dropping off her presents for North later, so the gifts were just from us and the grandmothers. North received some money, an Amazon gift card, three novels (A Wish After MidnightEvery Day, and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda), a mug that says, “Warning: I may spontaneously break out in show tunes,” a t-shirt that says “I’m not yelling, I’m projecting” and permission (and funds) to dye all their hair purple. Up to now, they’ve always had to keep at least half of their hair its natural color. This has been my rule since they first started dyeing their hair the summer before fourth grade.  I like their natural golden blonde color and I didn’t like the idea of their whole head being white blond when the purple dye fades. But this is something they’ve wanted a long time and it’s not my hair, so I finally relented.

We took a train into the city, had some pre-show lemonade, café au lait, and pastries. Then we hurried to Ford’s Theater and found our seats. The Wiz was fun (and a sentimental favorite if you happened to be a kid in the late 1970s). Of course a show like this is mostly about the song and dance numbers and these were just what you’d want. I’ve actually been singing “Ease on Down the Road,” to my kids on school mornings when they need a little push to get out the door since they were little. I’m not sure they believed it was a real song other people knew until we saw the show. Anyway, the actress playing Dorothy was full of earnest emotion and a powerful singer, but Zoë and North liked the scarecrow best for his physical humor and comic line delivery. The costumes were sumptuous and the set effectively used projections as well as physical pieces. There were some updates, such as references to Black Panther and the guard at the Emerald City using Siri to open the city gates but overall, it was pretty faithful to the original show.

We got home very late. Metro was single-tracking on the Red Line and while we were waiting at Metro Center  it was announced that the train was coming on the opposite side of the track from where it actually arrived so there was a stampede across the bridge that goes over the tracks. We made it onto the train, which was good because it would have been a twenty-minute wait for the next one. At home, North opened Zoë’s presents—a 3D puzzle, a stress ball, a fidget cube and a big Tootsie Roll—and we all went to bed.

After the Birthday: Saturday and Sunday

Zoë slept over at our house and the next morning different people ate fruit salad, leftover pizza, vegetarian sausage, and birthday cake for breakfast. (Everyone had cake.) Beth and I made signs for the March for Our Lives. Beth mixed up some orange paint and painted “#Enough. End gun violence” on hers. I went with a similar sentiment: “Enough is Enough” on one side and “¡Basta ya!” on the other because I am fired up enough to say it in two languages. Noah affixed a sticker that says “2019” to his shirt. The date represents the year he can vote in state and federal elections. He got it at school and a lot of teens at the march were wearing similar ones.

Dropping Zoë back at her house, we were headed back into the city to attend the March. The name was something of a misnomer because it wasn’t a march so much as a rally; once we found a place to stand we didn’t ease on down Pennsylvania Avenue as much as stand there for several hours, along with masses of other people. The stage was in front of the Capitol and screens were set up along the road at intervals. We were in front of the Archives building, several blocks away, but we were close to a screen and Beth, Noah, and I could see and hear well. North, being shorter than most of the people around us, could only hear.

We were there an hour before the speeches started so we had plenty of time to people watch and read signs. There were many variations on the idea that there should be a background check before you could buy a Republican senator and quite a few said, “The NRA is a terrorist organization.” A girl in front of us had one that said, “Please DO NOT arm my gym teacher.” Kids held signs that said, “Am I next?” and “I am not a target.”

I have to say it was pretty well organized as these things go. Even though it was a huge event, there were enough porta potties and even after it was over, they still had toilet paper. It was also possibly the most moving political rally I have ever attended. I think that’s because all the speakers were young people—kids, teens, and one or two twenty-somethings (including the brother of a teacher killed at Sandy Hook). There was not a politician in the bunch. Several of the Parkland students spoke and their eloquent speeches were interspersed with other heartfelt speeches by young people from all around the country who had lost siblings or other family members to gun violence. There also musical acts. Andra Day opened the program, and Common, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and others all sang.

Even if you weren’t there, you’ve probably seen a lot of the speeches online already, so I won’t try to summarize them all. The eleven year old girl from Alexandria was a big crowd hit, as was Martin Luther King’s nine-year-old granddaughter. They saved Emma González for last. If you haven’t seen her speech, which begins passionately, and ends with a long silence that stands for the six minutes and twenty seconds it took the Parkland shooter to kill his victims, you should. You can see all those speeches here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43531391.

North, who’d been up more than two hours past their bedtime the night before and who was using a cane because of a twisted ankle and who couldn’t see the screen, tired of the speeches before the rest of us did, so Beth took them home for a nap. Noah and I stayed until the end.

We lingered in the city for a while the crowds slowly dispersed. Noah wanted pizza and I tried to convince him we should just eat the snacks in my bag but having established a post-protest pizza tradition this year, he was adamant and he stood in line that snaked out the door of a pizza place while I sat wearily on the sidewalk and looked at my friends’ pictures of the march on my phone. While I was waiting for him I saw a big group of kids from Newtown High School go by in matching t-shirts and considered how some of them were young enough to have been fourth and fifth graders at Sandy Hook Elementary five years ago.

Noah came back with the pizza and we ate it, still sitting on the sidewalk. Then since we’d already ruined our dinner it seemed like a good idea to get milkshakes from an ice cream truck. It ended up being a good plan because the Metro wasn’t crammed by the time we got there and we got seats on the train.

We got home around the time Megan was arriving for the second of North’s back-to-back sleepovers. North opened her gift—a Broadway-themed board game—and after an hour or so we went out to dinner. Noah was full from his mid-afternoon lunch and stayed home. I went along but didn’t eat much. At home, we all ate more birthday cake and everyone was in bed by ten o’ clock.

The following morning, I went to church with Beth and North. The religious education leader had put out a call the night before for kids to speak at the service about gun violence. Never one to shy away from a microphone, North jotted down some notes in the time between when Megan left and when we left for church. Here’s the speech. It’s about the experience of sheltering place because of a (false) rumor about a kid with a gun at their school and about the walkout they organized during a field trip. It’s a little over three minutes long.

When the service was over we went to the coffee social afterward and listened to people congratulate North on their speech.

Back at home, we settled in for a day of work, homework, housecleaning, and packing because tomorrow we are easing on down the road again—on a spring break college visit road trip to Burlington, Vermont and Boston to see Champlain College and Emerson College, with a side trip to Cape Cod so North and I can get a beach fix. After all the celebrating, protesting, and traveling, we will all be ready for some R&R.

Joys and Sorrows

The new year got off to a bit of a rocky start. In the first two weeks after winter break, the kids had a snow day, two two-hour delays, and an early dismissal—all for three-quarters of an inch of snow, one unusually cold morning, and a little (I swear not much at all) ice on the sidewalks. It was disheartening, especially because it was a busy couple of weeks for work. I can and did work with the kids home– they’re old enough not to bother me too much when I’m working—but I just can’t concentrate as well when I’m not alone in the house, so each new cancellation or delay was frustrating. It’s possible I’ve been ruined for working in an office, after almost six and a half years of working at home.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad two weeks, though. North attended the first rehearsal for both the school play and Honors chorus. I didn’t have much post-holiday letdown and whenever I was tempted to wish we could just fast-forward through the next two months, have done with winter, and let spring come, I remembered two things. First is that Beth loves winter. Second is that Noah will leave for college in less than two years, so I really shouldn’t be wishing away any time. He’s been working on his senior year course schedule, which is why this is front of mind. I just can’t believe he’s picking courses for his last year in high school, as if that were truly happening any time soon. (Yes, I know, it is.)

Anniversary

Beth and I had an anniversary on Thursday. It was the twenty-sixth anniversary of our commitment ceremony and the fifth anniversary of our legal wedding. Beth’s mom posted this photo, taken in our apartment in D.C, of us opening wedding presents on Facebook. Look at us! We were practically babies. Well, twenty-four and twenty-five. I was a mere eight years older than Noah is now. Now I am trying to imagine myself at his wedding eight years hence and wondering where the baby who lived the first year of his life in that apartment with the salmon-colored wall went.

As of Tuesday, I didn’t have a gift for Beth. I’d decided to get her some gift certificates from AFI too late to order them through the mail, so I got on a bus to Silver Spring that morning and picked them up from the theater. While I was in downtown Silver Spring, I also got a mocha, lunch at BurgerFi, and spent a long time browsing for some small gifts at Whole Foods so I’d have something to wrap. I settled on treats one might eat at the movies (dark chocolate-covered almonds and milk chocolate-covered pretzels) to keep the gift thematically consistent, and got a card with a heart on the front and I was done.

Except when I got home, I opened the card and discovered it was a Valentine’s Day card. Why are these on sale already? Who buys valentines a month in advance? Clearly not me. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about another card I’d seen there, which was obviously superior. So, the next day, instead of being practical and going somewhere in Takoma for a new card, I went back to Silver Spring and got the card I wanted. It has different colored buttons all over it in the shape of a heart and it is blank inside.

Thursday I made our anniversary cake, the one we had at our commitment ceremony and at our legal wedding. It’s a spice cake, with a lemon glaze. I covered it in red and blue colored sugar. Because I didn’t leave myself quite enough time to bake a cake for forty-five minutes and scalloped potatoes for an hour at different temperatures, dinner was a little late, so Beth and I exchanged gifts before dinner rather than after. She got me Reckless Daughter, the Joni Mitchell biography that came out last fall and which I thought someone might get me for Christmas. That’s one of the advantages of a mid-January anniversary—it’s a chance to get (or give) what you didn’t get (or give) at Christmas.  North had dinner at Xavier’s, but when they got home, we all ate the cake we always eat together in mid-January and our anniversary was over.

MLK Weekend

Saturday I worked a little and Beth took North and Xavier ice skating and out to dinner, bringing back take-out for Noah and me. Yesterday, Beth, North and I went to church. We’ve never been church-goers, but recently North has become curious about church and asked recently if we could try out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (We’ve been to UU services a few times when visiting Beth’s mom.) It was the third time Beth and North have gone to this church and the first time I went with them. There’s a part of the service called the Communion of Joys and Sorrows in which people tell the congregation about a joy or sorrow in their lives and light a candle for it. I recall Beth’s mom’s church does this, too, but with stones dropped in a bowl of water, if I’m remembering correctly.

Two of the people who shared we knew slightly. One of my colleagues from my teaching days shared that her son had won an award at college. And there was a lesbian couple who shared that one of their mothers had suffered a fall and broken an ankle and that a nephew was newly married. Beth thought one of them was a gym teacher from Noah’s middle school. Overall, there were more sorrows than joys. I asked Beth if that was always the case and she said so far yes, speculating that maybe people need more support for their sorrows or don’t want to seem to be bragging about their joys. If I’d had to share something I probably would have gone with a sorrow, too, because it was one day before the eighth anniversary of my father’s death.

I knew the day was coming and I wasn’t feeling very emotional about it. Some years I feel it keenly and some years I don’t. However, when I woke this morning, it hit me hard. I lay in bed thinking about Dad and about the fact that there’s snow coming tomorrow and Wednesday and if we get off with just an early dismissal and a two-hour delay on the affected days, we’ll be lucky. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t particularly want to get up and I didn’t particularly want to spend two hours picking up trash around Long Branch creek, even though that’s our traditional MLK Day of Service activity. We’ve been doing it since the kids were small.

But Beth made homemade waffles, which made getting up a little more attractive and all of us except North, who was feeling under the weather, went to the woods near the creek and picked up trash and recycling, mostly beer cans and bottles. It was cold but we were moving around so it wasn’t too bad. I even got warm enough to unbutton my coat and take off my gloves, which I shouldn’t have done because I got cuts on my hands from the thorn bushes and they ended up smelling like stale beer. I also kept getting stickers in my hair, which I should have worn in a ponytail. Even with all the thorns, it was good to be focused on poking around in the brush, looking for the next can. It kept my mind off other things.

After a quick lunch at home, Beth and I went to AFI to redeem one of the gift certificates I got her for our anniversary. We saw The Post. Have you seen it yet? If not, you should as soon as you possibly can. It made me feel hopeful about journalism and democracy, and that’s no small feat these days. Now, as the fifty-year-old daughter of a journalist I must admit movies that take place largely in 1970s newsrooms are right in my nostalgic sweet spot, so you can take my recommendation with that in mind. From the movie, we went to Eggspectation for coffee and cake. I got a piece of chocolate-peanut butter Smith Island cake.

The best thing about the whole day was how it was a mostly unintentional tribute to Dad. He might not have taken part in an organized creek clean-up, not being much of a do-gooder, but he was in the habit of picking up all the trash on his block.  (I, too, often come home from walks with a tote bag full of recyclables.) He was a newspaper editor in the 1970s (and beyond) with a passion for investigative journalism and politics. He loved coffee and most desserts, but especially chocolate.

But we always do the creek clean-up on MLK day, The Post was opening this weekend and I’d just gotten Beth movie ticket certificates so it was natural we’d go see it. All the plans were made before I even thought about what day it would be. The only detail I added with him in mind was going out for cake.

My father wasn’t an easy man to get along with and we didn’t always get along, especially when I was in my late teens. But there’s no doubt that I am his daughter in many deep and lasting ways. And that’s more of a joy than a sorrow.

Note: The last photo is of a little altar my sister made for Dad today.

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.

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.

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.

Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To make things even?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Fifty

During all the awful tumult of the post-election fallout, a good thing happened. Beth turned fifty. Her birthday usually comes right before Thanksgiving and this year it was the day before. Because of that, it often seems to usher in the holiday season for our family and Tuesday afternoon, as I was out getting a birthday card for her, I felt my heart lighten a little. We still have a lot to celebrate.

When Beth and I started dating, I had just turned twenty a couple months earlier and she was several months shy of twenty-one. We’ve spent our twenties, thirties, and forties together and now we’re embarking on our fifties. It’s a comforting thought, that we’re in this together, come what may.

Beth took her birthday off so we could cook and prepare for our Thanksgiving trip to the beach. (We’re renting a house in Rehoboth from Thursday to Sunday.) The kids had a half-day, so in the morning I took Beth out to La Mano and we got coffee and split a cranberry-orange scone. There were no seats available so we walked up to downtown Takoma and sat at the table outside Dolci Gelato, which wasn’t open yet, so it didn’t feel like we were squatting. It was a pretty day and the morning sun was warm enough so we didn’t feel cold.

From there we went to the hardware store, because Beth knows how to party on her birthday. No, seriously, it was birthday-related. ACE sent her a $10 coupon for her birthday and she bought twenty leaf bags with it. Then we drove to the library so I could return a book and get another one, but I forgot it doesn’t open until noon on Wednesdays, so we came home and puttered around the house. I worked a little and did laundry. Beth made cranberry sauce and mushroom gravy.

June got home around one and started to set up her gift for Beth—fifty origami cups she’d made over the last couple days, each with candy inside (miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups, Hershey’s kisses, or espresso caramels) arranged on the living room floor into the shape of the numerals 5 and 0. I’d told Beth ahead of time June’s gift was “showy and sweet” and Beth replied, “Just like June.”

It took longer to set this up than either June or I anticipated. We’d tested it on the living room carpet the day before to see if the cups would stand up when weighted down with candy and the our test cup did, but it turned out fifty of them were more of a challenge and they kept falling over. They were all shaped just a little differently and different kinds of candies weighed them differently as well. The Reese’s cups worked better than the kisses or the caramels. June also wanted them to touch each other, which she thought would help them support each other and I thought would lead to domino-like toppling. We were both right at different points in the endeavor. She ended up making the five, I made the zero, and since we had cups left over, she made an exclamation point.  Noah observed that depending on where you stood to view it, it could look like 50!, 105, or 501. Beth told June it was “magical.”

All Beth’s presents from us were food. I guess, given the circumstances, we all gravitated toward comfort food. Noah got her a set of dessert sauces—bittersweet chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, sea salt caramel, and dark chocolate sea salt. I got her two boxes of fancy crackers, two hunks of cheeses we’d never tried (Piave Vecchie and dry Jack), two baking mixes (brownies and molten chocolate cake), apple cider syrup, and pumpkin pancake and waffle mix.

After Beth opened her presents, I made brandied sweet potatoes and while they were in the oven, we headed back to the library and then to the grocery store to get a prescription. Noah was just finishing drumming when we got home, so I read most of Act Three of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to both kids. They’re not often free at the same time, so reading this play has been slow going, but we’re all enjoying it.

Next I made Beth’s requested birthday dinner—breaded baked tofu sticks with curried tartar sauce, egg noodles, and homemade applesauce. For dessert, I made a chocolate cake with coffee frosting. I put it in the oven just before we sat down to dinner. About five minutes before it was supposed to come out of the oven, I realized I didn’t smell cake. Turns out I’d turned off the oven when I took the sweet potatoes out and I never turned it back on when I put the cake in. Luckily, it only needed to bake a half hour and by cooling it on the porch, I was able to get it frosted so we could all eat cake and ice cream before June’s bedtime.

A few days ago, I told Beth I was thinking of not doing a Christmas card this year. It just seemed like a lot of work and it was hard to imagine putting a smiling picture of us on the front of it or writing a cheerful letter about what we’ve been up to this past year. The annual card means more to me than to her, so I thought she might go along with the idea of taking a pass. Instead she looked surprised.

I said I wasn’t sure if it was just post-election depression and if I’d regret it later if we skipped a year. She asked if I’d thought it was too much work last year. I said no, so clearly it was post-election depression, but that the part I wasn’t sure about was whether I’d regret it or not. She gently suggested we take some pictures at the beach “just in case.” We discussed the possibility of sending a card with no letter, of taking a more pensive looking picture, of putting some political message on the card.

I’m still not sure what we’re going to do, but I think she handled it just right. If she’d said that we should do the card, I might have said it was pointless and started crying. If she’d said sure, let’s skip it this year, I probably would have cried, too, because that would mean it really was pointless. We’ve had our share of rough patches and misunderstandings over the years, but sometimes she knows just how to handle me. I guess twenty-nine years of experience comes in handy there. I’m lucky to have her in my life and I’m happy she’s been on Earth for fifty years.

I’ll close with this excerpt from Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow,” which Beth put on a mix tape she made for me when we were much, much younger.

Rain and storm and dark skies
Well now they don’t mean a thing
If you got a girl that loves you
And who wants to wear your ring
So c’mon mister trouble
We’ll make it through you somehow
We’ll fill this house with all the love
All that heaven will allow

Happy fiftieth birthday, sweetheart. I love you in good times and bad.