A Teenager in the House

On my thirteenth birthday, I woke at my father’s house, hearing my stepmother exclaim to him, “Steve, there’s a teenager in the house!” She meant me, of course, but I was only half awake and easily confused and I thought someone had broken into the house. It seems like so many stark transitions happen in the space of just a year or two to kids that age: preteen to teen, middle school student to high school student, not to mention puberty. It can be hard to take in sometimes.

And so it was that Wednesday evening, three days before Noah turned thirteen, Beth and I attended an informational meeting about high school choice for parents of seventh-graders. The assignment process begins in the fall of eighth grade, so apparently it’s time to start thinking about this.

The meeting occurred on a day of torrential rain and a couple major roads were closed because of flooding. Our basement was also flooded and Metro was single tracking so Beth’s commute home took longer than she expected and I was downstairs bailing water when the babysitter arrived.  The drive was another a challenge. We had to change routes several times because traffic was backed up due to the road closures and even though Sligo Creek Parkway was open, the creek had overflowed its banks and there was standing water close enough to the road to give Beth pause about continuing that way.

Despite all these setbacks, we were only ten minutes late. I learned a few things at the meeting. The first is that there are even more specialized programs in our area high schools than I realized (they number in the dozens) and that the process for getting into them (a mix of lottery and application programs) is even more complicated than I realized, even though I was expecting a lot of programs and complication. Also, I knew this already, but you have to choose an academy within a high school. It’s a like a major. No one just goes to his or her default school. You have to choose, both the school and the academy within it.

We need to do more research and we are scheduling a meeting with his school counselor to discuss his options, but we know we are probably not interested in pursuing either the accelerated humanities or math and science magnets at our home high school. Noah’s been in academic magnets since fourth grade and up to this year it’s been a good experience for him, but this year had just proved too much. He is quickly burning out and we need to get him off the fast track so he has a reasonable chance at maintaining his love of learning and maybe even having enough free time to enjoy his teen years. Given his mix of giftedness and slow processing, the trick will be keeping him challenged without overwhelming him. Too easy work is as deadly for his motivation as too much work. I’d like to learn more about the performing arts magnet because more drumming and less homework sounds like a healthy change to me.

Noah’s birthday was low-key.  He didn’t want a party, didn’t even want to invite a friend or two to come to dinner with us as he did last year, despite my perhaps too frequent encouragement to do so. I got him a card that said, “Let us celebrate your existence with cake, and possibly ice cream,” and we did that. Beth made him a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting at his request and there was ice cream, too.

And there were presents, of course. He opened them in order of size, so the first box contained a lightning cable.  We are always searching for cords to recharge various devices and Beth has been saying Noah should have his own dedicated cable so he stops swiping hers, so now he has one.

There were several books, including one by the author of the Fablehaven series, which he enjoyed reading last summer and fall. (This was June’s present to him.)  He also got The Hunger Games trilogy because he and his classmates have been collaboratively writing a massive piece of online fan fiction based on the novels, with themselves as characters.  He’s been participating even though he has not read the novels so I thought he might get more out of the experience if he read the books. My mother was surprised I’d get him such violent books, as I have always been strict about media exposure. June’s only recently been allowed to watch most PG movies and I still say no to some of them.  But I reminded Mom that when I was Noah’s age I was reading Dracula and The Shining. I’m not suggesting we go on a slasher film binge together, but I think he’s old enough for any of the young adult dystopian fiction his peers are all reading.

The rest of his presents consisted of film equipment.  From us and from Beth’s mom, he got a new tripod, a lighting kit, a green screen and a frame and clamps to hold it. Noah has always enjoyed making movies. He takes a media class every year as part of the Humanities program. It’s his favorite class and he’s made a number of short films for school and for fun.  He’s working on a documentary about food processing right now (for school). The big project in eighth grade is a biographical documentary.  This involves a five-day field trip to New York and the resulting films are screened at The American Film Institute for family and friends. It’s the defining experience of the eighth grade year and we hope he enjoys it more than his ten-page research paper on product liability law that was his biggest seventh-grade project.

In Noah’s birthday card, I wrote the url for the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association blog, because I’d submitted an excerpt of my blog post about our trip to the beach last month, edited to focus on him and it had been accepted. You can read it here if you like (http://eswa-blog.blogspot.com). It’s the kind of present not every teenager would appreciate, but he seem pleased when he read it. I’d also emailed him a link to Dar Williams’ song “Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” after he went to bed the night before.  It’s worth a listen if you’re not familiar with it: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Teenagers+Kick+Our+Butts/2J28Vl?src=5 Then, to emphasize the point, I sent a separate message titled “the important part” with these lines:

Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

I didn’t send this to him, but my other favorite line from the song is in the chorus, “Tell us what the future will bring.”  That’s the question always on your mind if you have kids, or teach kids, or love someone else’s kids.  Sometimes you get glimpses. For instance, at a local third to fifth grade elementary school (not one either of my kids have attended but within walking distance of our house), there’s a club called the Young Activist Club.  They have been trying to convince the schools to stop using Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria since Noah was in kindergarten. One of the founding members was the older sister of one of his nursery school classmates, a girl who is now in high school.  Because I knew some of the kids in the club and I sympathized with their cause, over the years I followed them on Facebook and cheered when I saw them at Fourth of July parades carrying trays with environmental messages written on them in marker. To a casual observer, though, it never looked like their campaign was getting any traction. Then I recently heard the whole school system is changing over to compostable trays, staring next year. The last publicity photo I saw was of a girl speaking on stage. She also went to my kids’ preschool, and is only a year older than June.  (She was the one playing guitar at June’s music school recital.) It took eight years, almost three cycles of students through that three-grade school, and it’s still not clear the compostable trays will actually be composted, but I know those kids will keep organizing if they aren’t, and that makes me feel hopeful about what my kids and all their peers can accomplish.

Noah asked if he could have a day without homework for his birthday and I really wanted to say yes, but when Beth and I looked at his assignments for the weekend, it just didn’t seem possible. He did do less than he would usually do on a Saturday. He did some algebra in the morning and then we took a break while Beth and June were at kung fu to finish And Then There Were None. When the murderer was revealed Noah said, “I thought it was him and then I didn’t,” which is usually how it goes when you read a mystery.

When Beth and June returned, we left for lunch because Noah had also asked if he could have lunch and dinner out and this time we said yes. We went to Noodles & Company, a favorite of Noah’s. I got Pad Thai because that’s what I had for dinner the night before I went into labor with him and for a long time we had a tradition of going out for Thai the day before his birthday, though we don’t do it any more.  In search of dessert afterward, we spotted a crepe cart at the Fenton Street market, and we got Noah a banana-pecan crepe, because after noodles, crepes are one of his favorite foods. (He’s all about the carbs.)

We ran into traffic on the way home because Commencement had just ended at the college around the corner from our house.  Watching the young people walking down the sidewalks in their caps and gowns I was thinking about middle school graduation a year from now, high school in five years, and college perhaps, in nine (unless he takes a gap year or graduates on the five-year plan). Either way, it suddenly seemed nearer than it had the day before.

Back home, Noah went back to factoring quadratic equations, with some help from Beth, who was in between the steps of making his cake. He and I took another study break to read the first two chapters of The Hunger Games on the porch because he asked if we could, and how could I say no on his birthday?

Later that afternoon Noah read Act II, scene I from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream while I had coffee with a friend from college and his partner, who were visiting from out of town.  When I came back, we left for dinner at Vicino’s, an Italian restaurant in Silver Spring. The food was good but I’d forgotten how slow the service is there, so when we got home we had cake and ice cream and put June straight to bed, a half hour late and without her bath. Noah had to practice on his practice pad instead of his real drums, so she could sleep. He was up past his bedtime, too, finishing his percussion practice. So he and Beth and I all went to bed at the same time, ten, on the first night we had a teenager in the house.

An Out of This World Birthday

I. Star of the Week: Friday

“Have a good time, star of the week,” I called out to June as she and Beth headed out the door at 8:15. Beth was taking her to school because she was chaperoning the second-grade field trip to Air and Space. It was the first event in an almost unbearably exciting three days: first the museum trip, which corresponded with June’s birthday party theme—outer space—followed by a school fundraiser at Chuck E. Cheese that evening and then June’s birthday party, which would start late Saturday afternoon and last until Sunday morning, on June’s actual birthday.

“You were star of the week?” Beth inquired.  Star of the week is a rotating position in June’s afternoon class.  Mainly it consists of being responsible for classroom chores, but Ms. K has done a good job selling it.  Beth wanted to know if it was a coincidence that it was the week before her birthday.  It was, June said.

While they were gone I read a few chapters of a P.D. James mystery, cleaned the kitchen, exercised, worked on the outline for a brochure, and gathered June’s early birthday gifts.  I’d bought her a sweater and a skirt with starts on them to wear at her party, and a pair of pajama bottoms with glow-in-the-dark stars, also for the party.  June has two pairs of much loved and now ragged glow-in-the-dark space pajamas (hand-me-downs from Noah) which would have been perfect for the party if not for the fact that one pair no longer glows and the other has a huge whole in the crotch I’ve mended multiple times and which is now beyond fixing. So clearly, new pajamas were needed. It turns out glow-in-the-dark space pajamas are harder to find than you’d think. I spent several evenings looking online and finally found a pair (bottoms only) in her size on eBay.  I put everything in a dark blue gift bag, which I decorated with outer space-themed stickers. These were for a build-your-own solar system craft for the party but we had more than we needed.  In fact, June and I had spent much of the previous afternoon sticking identical stickers back to back, punching holes in them and suspending them from the ceiling with fishing line for party decorations. June also drew Saturn (sans ring) with marker and glitter glue and then made rings for the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game.

Beth got home from the field trip a little after two, reported it had been a success, especially the IMAX 3-D movie about the Hubble space telescope and then she started baking the cake. June decided she wanted a three-tier cake with sky blue frosting and roses on it before she settled on her party theme and she could not be swayed to a more space-themed cake, even after I found out through a photo posted on Facebook that one of my local friends owns a star-shaped cake pan that would have been perfect. June did agree to some star-shaped candles and picked out black plates, cups, and napkins with gold stars on them.

Once both kids were home from school and June had showed me her rainbow-striped coloring page of the space shuttle, she opened her early presents, which also included some fabric and sewing patterns from YaYa, a clue that June was getting the sewing machine she asked for from us. Then Beth and June set out on their second trip to Party City in less than a week, this time to get the star and moon-shaped balloons we’d already bought filled with helium and to procure additional balloons, including a huge one that says, “another year of fabulous!”

When they returned, it was off to Chuck E. Cheese.  We ate pizza and June ran around with friends and played games and had several pictures taken of herself, with and without a statue of the mouse.  Beth, Noah, and I played a lot of skee ball and I shot hoops, too. The tickets we earned playing games with twenty dollars worth of tokens netted June a bookmark, a container of purple play dough, a glow-in-the-dark plastic snake, a box of Nerds and a roll of sweet tarts. No one ever said the prizes are a good deal, but we had fun and we also raised $9 for June’s school between the tokens and our meal and Noah didn’t complain too much about being forced to set foot in Chuck E. Cheese, the very concept of which seems to offend his preteen sensibilities. There’s a Fro-Zen-Yo next door so we had dessert there (except for June who opted for an ice cream sandwich plucked from a machine by a robot arm at Chuck E. Cheese).

After June was in bed I wanted to make sure Noah and I had some one-on-one time during a busy, June-focused weekend, so we started reading The Martian Chronicles, a book I used to teach. He liked the part where the astronauts from the second expedition end up in a Martian insane asylum.

II. Out of This World: Saturday

Saturday was a whirl of party-related chores.  We cleaned and reorganized the living room so that there was enough floor space for five sleeping bags and cleared everything on the porch to one side to make room for the piñata and the Pin-the-Ring-on-Saturn game. June and I cleaned the kids’ room, filled the goody bags, and worked on the party timetable. Beth and Noah hung a paper curtain in the living room and practiced projecting a movie onto it, and Beth and June frosted the cake. In the excitement we forgot that June had a make-up violin lesson, but her teacher dropped by with a small gift for her (polka-dotted rosin).

All day June was singing “Let it Go,” because we were going to show Frozen at the party.  June had not seen the movie because with rare exceptions she was not allowed to watch PG-rated movies until she turned eight and Frozen has been the hottest movie for kids June’s age for months.  She’s watched the video of the most famous song many, many times and has it down pat.  She was also wearing a small tiara like Elsa’s from the time she got dressed that morning.

The party started at five, but June had asked if Megan could come an hour early, ostensibly to help with last-minute preparations. I remember my sister and I doing this when we were kids; the real reason is to affirm best-friend status, and as Megan is without question June’s best friend, I said yes.

Once the rest of the guests began arriving, June directed them to page through a book about the moon she’d set out on the living room rug along with one of Beth’s old astronomy textbooks from college.  Noah started a playlist of songs about the moon for atmosphere. Then we directed them to the table I’d covered with newspaper and set out clear plastic sun-catchers in the shapes of the moon and stars, along with paint, brushes, and cups of water.  This proved a popular activity and the girls painted a few each before Beth and Noah returned with pizza and we had to clear off the table to eat.

After pizza, the beautiful blue tiered cake, and ice cream, June opened her presents. Marisa got her a book about space.  There were several presents of fabric and a sewing kit and Lego and Lite-Brix kits. Maggie made a nice card with chalk drawings of outer space on black construction paper.

The piñata was the last order of business before the big event—getting into pajamas and watching the movie.  This year’s model was star-shaped and covered in shiny gold foil. It was actually quite pretty. Last year was the first year one of June’s guests broke the piñata without maternal or fraternal assistance and it was after everyone had a had a few turns so I was unprepared when Megan, only the third girl in line, broke it.  In retrospect, I should have only let each girl hit it once during a turn so more girls had a chance. Live and learn.

I was a little worried before the party started that in an effort to fill sixteen hours, we’d actually planned too many activities.  Beth looked over the schedule right before the party started and said it was “ambitious,” but I ended up glad for the full schedule because the party, surprisingly loud considering the small number of guests, always got louder and more chaotic whenever there was a down moment. And as it turned out, we had all the girls in pajamas and sleeping bags, supplied with popcorn and ring pops and ready to watch the movie at 6:55, five minutes ahead of schedule. I noted this with some satisfaction and Murphy’s Law immediately took effect. The movie wouldn’t start. It wasn’t compatible with one of the devices we were using to project it. Beth and Noah tried several fixes and finally Beth had to purchase a new copy online, which at fifteen dollars was totally worth it.  The film began at 7:03.  Luckily, speedy tech support is Beth’s specialty.

There was some chatter during the movie and many admonishments not to give anything away because June had not seen it already (it’s possible all the guests had).  They certainly knew the songs and there was some singing along.  When “Let it Go,” was about to start they all sat up in their sleeping bags.  I told Beth it’s like the anthem of their generation, and she predicted they will all be belting it out when they’re thirty and going through bad breakups.

Marisa was not spending the night so her mom came to pick her up when the movie was over and everyone else brushed their teeth and got back into their sleeping bags. I explained the rules, everyone was to stay put unless they needed to use the bathroom but they could converse until ten.  It was around nine-fifteen, an hour and half past June’s bedtime and she said she was tired and just wanted to go to sleep and not talk at all. Her friends all wanted to stay up and June was starting to look upset. Someone suggested reading and she went and got an armful of books for her friends.  I supplied flashlights to those guests who had not brought their own (a surprising number of them had) and soon everyone but June was reading quietly and she was snuggled down with her eyes closed.

I was surprised by this turn of events and wondered if getting them quiet for the night might be as simple as that but by nine-thirty I was hearing voices, including June’s, now sounding cheerful. Shortly before ten I came to remind them it was time to sleep.  I returned with a similar message shortly thereafter and then Beth went in at 10:15, got water for everyone who was thirsty, and spoke somewhat sternly about the need to stop talking and by 10:30 they were all asleep or doing a reasonable imitation of asleep.

III. The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars: Sunday

I fully expected them to all be up at the crack of dawn, but they surprised me by sleeping until almost seven and they were sluggish and disinclined to get up even then.  The girl who’d kept the rest up after they wanted to go to sleep was complaining that she wanted to go back to sleep, but everyone was talking. I put in a Magic School Bus DVD about the solar system and they watched it, still lying on the floor, while Beth made pancakes and I sliced bananas and set the table. June wanted a candle in her pancake because it was her real birthday so I put one in and they all sang “Happy Birthday” to her in English and Spanish.

Breakfast perked the girls up and they got dressed and went outside with their moon observation journals (the fact that they are studying the moon at school might have inspired June’s party theme). Although it was supposed to be out at that time, it was too cloudy to verify and they all dutifully noted that in Spanish in their journals.  Next they played Pin-the-Ring on Saturn on the porch. June had the first turn and went several feet wide of the mark, taping her ring to the front door, making everyone including her laugh.  Zoë went second and almost walked off the porch steps before I grabbed her jacket, so from then on after blindfolding and spinning each girl I took her by the shoulders and gently pointed her in the right direction and then they got more accurate.  We had an extra ring so I let June have another turn and she got hers onto the paper with the rest of them.

The last two scheduled activities were making a solar system map with stickers and playing a game Megan had invented especially for the party called Catch-the-Star. It involves chasing a beam of light from a flashlight around the living room. I didn’t quite understand the rules, but the girls all did, and that’s what mattered.

We ran out of activities just ten minutes before the end of the party so we sent them outside to chase one of the balloons. One guest’s mother thought the party ended at ten instead of nine, and she had to come all the way from Rockville so she was just setting out when I called at nine-thirty to inquire if she was on her way.  The girl and June worked on building the car from the kit she’d gotten for her.

Once the party was finally over, June opened her presents from immediate and extended family: the sewing machine and a case to carry it, a kids’ guide to herbs, a shawl she’d admired, a saddle for her American Girl doll’s horse, two Edgar and Ellen books, and a lot of clothes. I went overboard with clothes this year because June’s new favorite colors, light blues and greens are easier to find than orange, her old favorite, and blue and green are also my favorites.

Becky, June’s preschool music teacher and the mother of her favorite babysitter, came by in the afternoon with more presents, a historical book about women’s basketball, and certificates for activities with Becky and Eleanor—a manicure, gelato, a tea party, and a game of Horse.

June spent the day quietly playing with her new building kits, reading Harry Potter, which I wouldn’t let her read until she turned eight, watching Frozen again and singing “Let it Go,” under her breath. After dinner we ate leftover birthday cake and June wanted us to put candles on it and sing to her again, so we did.

Happy birthday, dear June. As your card said, I wish you the sun, the moon, and the stars.

A Game of Twister

The week leading up to our anniversary was full of unusual events. Sara and I had some looming deadlines so I’d worked both days of the previous weekend and that left me feeling slightly disoriented about what day of the week it was all week.  It always seemed like the week should be further along than it was.

Polar Vortex

And then there was the Polar Vortex on Tuesday.  You probably heard about this even if you don’t live in the American Midwest or the Eastern seaboard. There were record-breaking lows everywhere, but it was considerably less dramatic where we live than in the Great Lakes area.  We were supposed to get highs in the teens and single digit lows, but the high on Tuesday was around twenty.  It was basically just an unusually cold day.  Even so, surrounding counties panicked and cancelled school. Shockingly, Montgomery County did not.  The most notable thing that happened as a result of the cold was that a bottle of detangling spray we’d ordered for June arrived frozen. It’s really a wonder we all survived.

Monday after school I took June for a walk down to Long Branch creek so we could compare the landscape pre and post-freeze. Beth thought the creek might freeze solid the next day and if it did June wanted to walk on it. We couldn’t go back on Tuesday because June had a violin lesson after school and by Wednesday she’d lost interest in the project and didn’t want to go. I’d peeked out the bus window on the way to violin the day before and noticed that Sligo creek was only about half-frozen anyway. Long Branch is a little smaller and slower but I doubted it had frozen solid so I didn’t push it.

Old Friends

Tuesday evening we got a surprise call from a friend of our Iowa days.  From 1989 to 1991 Beth and I attended grad school at the University of Iowa and lived in a housing co-op. Our house had twelve people, a mix of undergrads, graduate students, and several twenty- and thirty-somethings unaffiliated with the university, one of whom was a city council member. If you’d like to see a picture of the house, go to the url above and choose Anomy from the house list on the left.

Sue and her husband Scott were among our best friends in the house.  She was a doctoral student in history and he was a musician and a writer. They got married around half way through the time we lived there and I remember translating a poem from Portuguese for them as a wedding present.  (I know all you engaged folks are now rushing to add me to your guest lists.)

Now Sue’s a history professor and she was in town for a conference and to visit her mother, who lives in D.C. She invited us to lunch, so we met her near Beth’s office.  If my count is correct, this was only the fourth time I’d seen Sue since we finished our Masters degrees and left Iowa to go work for non-profits in D.C.  But as Sue pointed out, you just don’t make friends in middle age the way you do as a young adult, especially when you’ve lived together, so it felt easy to pick up where we left off.  (The only exception might be parents in your child’s class in a co-op preschool, which is why a large part of my social life still revolves around people we met when the children were very small.)  Well, there’s always the nursing home, I pointed out.

A lot of our conversation centered around predictably middle-aged topics—growing children (between the two couples we have one in college, one in high school, one in middle school, and one in elementary school), aging or recently deceased parents, career successes and discontents. It wasn’t a long lunch, as Beth had to get back to work, but we covered a lot of ground. It was good to see her.

On the way there, I got leafleted by a D.C. mayoral candidate who was handing out literature at the Gallery Place Metro stop.  I could have said no thanks, I live in Maryland, but I liked being taken for a city dweller, as I associate it with my younger, hipper days. (Not that I was ever hip, just marginally more so than now.) Beth and I lived in the city when we tied the knot, twenty-two years ago. We did it in the living room of our apartment seven months after we moved there, with around thirty guests crowded onto the couch and rented folding chairs. And we still lived in the city when Noah was born nine years later and for his baby year, so I will always associate it with those heady days of new adulthood and new motherhood.

The Children Go to School (or Don’t)

I didn’t work much on Wednesday as it takes a big chunk out of my day to get into and out of the city so the next day I was somewhat dismayed when June announced on Thursday morning she had a sore throat, a stomachache, and a headache and she wanted to stay home from school.  Noah had been sick with a stomach bug the previous weekend so I was cautious and let her stay home. She was pretty lethargic all morning and spent a lot of time under a blanket staring into space without making a lot of demands so I actually managed to get a good bit of work done in between reading to her and making her snacks (her appetite was unaffected). She perked up after lunch, so we took a walk to the 7-11 to get milk.  We passed Long Branch creek and noticed it was more frozen than Sligo had been the day before, but not frozen solid. There were some big frozen puddles in the woods by the creek, though, so we paused there a while so she could slide across them and pretend to be skating.

Friday morning there was freezing rain and a two-hour delay, because why wouldn’t there be?  The sidewalks were kind of treacherous, though, so I can’t complain too much. I wasn’t too stressed about getting work done because I knew I’d have enough time for my only deadline that day and I’d logged plenty of hours the weekend before.  I actually enjoyed getting to sleep a little later and have a more relaxed time getting the kids out of the house.

June had Megan over for a play date after school and before basketball practice.  When Noah got home about twenty minutes after the girls did, they had the Twister mat out and soon he joined them in the game. Noah doesn’t usually play with June’s friends (being five years older) so it was heart-warming to peek at them as I fried tofu and sliced apples for an after school snack. The girls are a lot more limber than he is, but he is longer, so everyone had some kind of advantage.  As is always the case when anyone plays Twister, there was a lot of laughing.

At four-thirty, Megan’s mom Kerry picked up Megan, June, and me and drove us all to the elementary school gym where basketball practice is held. I normally enjoy the walk but it was still cold and rainy so I was glad of the ride. It was the first Friday afternoon practice of the season. I always enjoy these, both for the chance to see the girls in action, but also to talk with other moms.  (And it is almost entirely moms on Fridays; more dads make it to Saturday practices.) I ended up having extended chat with the mother of three girls in the gym, one of the Pandas and the two assistant coaches, both of whom attend Noah’s school, one in sixth grade and the other in eighth. We talked about middle school and the crazy workload and the ups and downs of each grade. When practice was over Kerry drove us home, where Beth, Noah, and hot pizza awaited us.

Date Night

Saturday was our anniversary, both of our commitment ceremony, twenty-two years ago, and of our wedding, one year ago. So now it’s official, we’re not newlyweds any more. Beth took June to basketball practice in the morning and I made our anniversary cake (from the same recipe as the cake at our commitment ceremony) in the early afternoon, with some help from June. In the mid-afternoon, we ate it and exchanged gifts. Beth got me a wallet like hers because I’d admired it, and I got her a shoe rack. I realize this doesn’t sound very romantic, but the kids’ shoes tend congregate in an untidy pile in the hall outside their room.  Two years ago, I got Beth a shoe rack for Christmas and it worked for a while, but it was too small for the number of shoes the kids had and it was kind of flimsy. It met its end after a year or so when one of the kids crashed into it. I thought I’d try again with a sturdier (and taller) version.

Around four-thirty, we left for a movie-and-dinner date.  We saw Philomena and then went out for tapas, followed by coffee. I can’t tell you how nice this was, but I’ve been thinking of it a lot in the days that have followed, about how important it feels to do things like this. We’ve been married a long time, and sometimes it does feel like a game of Twister. Remember the slogan, “the game that ties you up in knots”?  But then we end up laughing and having fun.  And when something breaks, we try to build a stronger version of it, something that can last another twenty-two years at least.

A Quiet Birthday

When on the day before Beth’s birthday I told the kids one of the best presents they could get her would be to be quiet in the morning and let her sleep in, they looked at me skeptically. One of them, I don’t remember which, said it sounded more like a present for me.  I assured them that while I am more of an enforcer when it comes to sleep-related rules, Beth likes to sleep, too.  And because she gets up at 5:45 every weekday morning to rouse Noah and make sure he gets ready for school, weekend morning sleep is precious.

Skeptical or not, they were very quiet, and Beth slept until 7:30. And yes, that counts as sleeping in at our house.  Once we were both awake, I went and got the kids and June played “Happy Birthday” for Beth on the violin twice, once a cappella and once with Noah and me singing.  (There would be several repeat performances throughout the day.) Then Beth opened her cards and presents.  June’s handmade card was in the shape of a cake and Noah’s card had images of bread and chocolate printed on the front and inside. This was a hint, but her gift was not from Bread and Chocolate, as she’d guessed and as I predicted she would. But I did guess wrong that she’d miss what Noah wrote on the back of the card after I told him to sign it inside and not on the back: his signature followed by “Do you notice this? Mommy said you wouldn’t.” Beth said she knows always to check all parts of Noah’s cards.

Because I renewed her New Yorker subscription and my mom had mailed an Amazon gift certificate, and the kids’ presents were in the same box, there was only one present to open. It was from the Zingerman’s catalog.  Noah had selected a loaf of chocolate sourdough and June picked Spanish drinking chocolate.  I asked if she’d like to have either for breakfast and she said she’d like to save the drinking chocolate for a snowy day, but she’d have the bread. I heated it up and made eggs to go with it and Beth had breakfast in bed while the rest of us sat on the floor with our plates. (I wanted to minimize crumbs in the bed.)

We ate most of the small loaf. It was very good, crusty and chewy and filled with melted chocolate. Later that morning we all talked to Beth’s mom on the phone and I congratulated her on her forty-seventh anniversary of motherhood while she reminisced about Beth as a newborn.

Next Beth went for her customary Saturday morning bike ride and June and I went to the library and the bank and Noah stayed home to do homework.  After lunch, Beth went on her own errands. I finished an article about Echinacea and then June and I made Beth’s birthday cake, chocolate with coffee frosting.

When Beth came home from her errands, Beth and June and I had a little party, directed by June. (I surreptitiously called Beth and asked her to call back a few minutes before she got home so we could jump out a yell “Surprise!” because that seemed important to June and I really didn’t want to spend too long crouching by the radiator in the dining room.)

June had made paper snowflakes and taped them to the wall because Beth loves snow. While Beth was gone, June had figured out how to play “Happy Birthday” on the keyboard part of the toy piano/xylophone and she performed that.  Next, we danced a bit and then played Splash while Beth sat in a chair June had dragged upstairs from the basement and proclaimed a special birthday throne. Noah was working on his research paper and couldn’t join us, but he supplied us with the music, a Pandora 60s and 70s station. If it had been up to June, the party would have gone on longer, but what Beth really wanted was to do was to go to the bedroom and read.  This was puzzling to June, but she climbed into bed with her to read her own book, How to Train Your Dragon, which she’d checked out the library earlier that day.

Dinner was Burmese at Mandalay, which is one of Beth’s favorites.  Then we came home and ate cake and ice cream. June somehow managed to turn the discussion to her own birthday and to the question of whether or not she could have a slumber party.  I said four months before her birthday was too early to be discussing this and she said, “Four months is a short time.”

“You think five minutes is a long time,” Noah protested. A discussion of the relative nature of time ensued.

I provided the example that five minutes was a long time to be on fire, but four months would be a short time to have left to live.  Beth said these were not very cheerful examples for a birthday celebration and I pointed out I wasn’t the one who’d been discussing previous experiences of vomiting as we entered the restaurant. For the record, that was both kids. We are not always well behaved as a family, I suppose.

June went to bed soon after and the rest of Beth’s birthday was quiet, just the way she wanted. She read, I cleaned the bathroom and wrote this, and Noah continued to write his a paper. (The three of us were all up past our bedtimes because Noah was trying to get to the five-page mark of his draft and we haven’t reached the stage of parenting when you let your kid stay up later than you yet. I’m not sure I could get to sleep knowing he was still awake.)

The next day would be full of chores, errands, and possibly paid work, too. We all have a lot to do. Sara has a lot of work for me in the next few days. The rough draft of Noah’s paper is due Wednesday. And we’re driving to Wheeling for Thanksgiving with Beth’s mom and aunts and other relatives on Thursday morning so we needed to grocery shop and make sweet potatoes, mushroom gravy, and cranberry sauce to take with us. It was nice, though, to carve out a little time on Saturday for the first of our late November celebrations. We have much to celebrate, and the fact that Beth was born is a good place to start.

No to Yes

The Trouble with Forty-Six

Forty-six is not exactly a milestone birthday, but in the weeks leading up to my birthday it occurred to me more than once that while my new age can still reasonably described as “mid-forties,” it indicates the scale is tipping. It’s closer to fifty than to forty.  When I mentioned this to Beth, she said, “That’s the trouble with forty-six.” (She turned forty-six in November.)  Certain meditations on age from sources as diverse at James Joyce and Bruce Springsteen kept jumping out at me:

I am exhausted, abandoned, no more young. I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general post-office of human life.

So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.

I feel that way some of the time, not all of the time. And of course, one of the nice things about having kids is that your age gets tied to theirs. If you’re curious to see what comes next in their lives, as I am, you have to accept getting older yourself as part of the bargain.  Not that the childless get to opt out of aging, it just happens to take some of the sting out of it for me.

I did have a nice birthday weekend.  The festivities started the day before, when June came into my bedroom at 6:30 a.m. bearing the toaster oven tray laden with a carrot, an apple, a cheese stick, a pita, butter, jam, peanut butter and a glass of water. “Happy day before your birthday!” she said.  Noah had a band field trip to Hershey Park that day and Beth had to get him out the door by 6:15. Left to her own devices for the fifteen minutes between when Beth and Noah left and when she was allowed to wake me, she hatched this plan and executed it by herself.  It was a very sweet surprise, even though I’d been in the mood for scrambled eggs (which I made for both of us once I got out of bed).

That evening, with Noah still gone, we had a girls’ night. We made pizza from a kit and topped it with Kalamata olives and broccoli (June’s choices) and watched Cinderella (also her choice.) She seemed to enjoy being the center of maternal attention for a couple hours.

My birthday was the next day. I opened presents in the morning after breakfast.  This year I had the idea of asking for books by author friends of mine and I got two mysteries (http://www.amazon.com/Shallow-Roots-Anomie-K-Hatcher/dp/1450790569; http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dangerous-and-unseemly-kb-owen/1114666776) and a volume of poetry. I did this partly because the books sounded good, and partly of a desire to support my friends’ work, but also for indirect inspiration. I’m not planning to write a book of my own, but I do sometimes feel I need to be doing something besides raising kids and holding down a part-time writing job, something creative.  I just don’t know what it is.

After hearing me complain repeatedly about how it’s been something like a year and a half since Stephen King’s last book was published Beth also pre-ordered his newest book, which won’t be out until next month. I didn’t even know it existed so it was a big surprise. She also signed us up for a composting service, because after years of dabbling with it, we’ve never quite gotten the hang of maintaining a compost pile.  We will put our organic waste out for pickup and get composted dirt in return. It sounds like a good deal to me. Noah got me some fancy cheese and marmalades (pink grapefruit and lemon) and June got me some sea salt caramels. It was quite a haul and only the first day of presents because Mother’s Day was the very next day.

The rest of the day wasn’t exactly relaxing because we’d been away the weekend previous and so there was a lot to do in the house and garden, but I decided I’d spend the day on outdoor chores, as it was a lovely spring day. I prepared the pumpkin patch and transplanted the largest pumpkin seedling, which was getting too big for its pot, into the ground. I mowed the lawn and swept and hosed the dirt and pollen off the front porch. All the while I was listening to Ulysses on my iPod because I need to finish it by Wednesday for book club.  (I am reading and listening to it. I finished the audio version on Sunday but I still have most of the Molly’s final forty-five page unpunctuated soliloquy to go in the print version.)

It was nice to be outside and moving most of the day and I felt cheerful and productive. We had dinner at Austin Grill and then came home for homemade chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberry frosting (my favorite frosting) and Hershey’s kisses Noah had brought home from Hershey Park. It was a sweet end to the day.

Just Mother’s Day

My birthday is always around Mother’s Day so I often feel sorry for Beth, for having to coordinate two gifts from each kid for me, but she came though, as always.  June wanted to buy flowers for me so we held off exchanging gifts until after Beth and June went grocery shopping.  At the farmers’ market, June selected a big bouquet of bachelor buttons and she also came home with a card that said, “the journey of a lifetime is in a single step from “no” to “yes.” She picked it because it had a seashell on the front. The funny thing about this was that Beth had originally nixed the idea of buying a card because June made cards for us at school, one in English for Beth and one in Spanish for me. But June has a way of turning no into yes, and Beth thought it was so fitting she bought the card.  Noah got a selection of teas for me, and for Beth the kids got a mortar and pestle (June) and green and black rice (Noah).

We opened our gifts at the glass table in the back yard where we’d laid out a picnic lunch (June’s idea, of course).  Beth made lemonade and we had the cheese from my birthday and Noah’s, crackers, watermelon, and the first local strawberries of the year.  June also requested and received a grilled cheese sandwich and goldfish crackers.  We finished the meal with leftover birthday cake.  It was pleasant lingering at the table after the meal. I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the green leaves on the branches of our biggest maple and at the blue sky.  But eventually we got up and I did the dishes, Noah went back to his homework and Beth went back to a project for work.

Later that afternoon, I went to swim laps. Beth asked if I was sure the pool was open and I said I thought so because it was “just Mother’s Day,” meaning not the kind of holiday that causes the pool to close.

“Just Mother’s Day!” she said in mock horror.

Even though it was full of chores, weekend felt celebratory enough. When I came home from the pool, Noah had more or less finished his homework and Beth was making tempeh reubens and June was in her doctor’s coat with the toy syringe preparing to perform surgery on Beth, whom I learned had dangerous germs in her bones. In other words, it was normal Sunday afternoon, but normal in a good way, in the way that turns the no of self-doubt into yes.

Right after the line I quoted from Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” the speaker urges, “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night/You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re all right.” (Beth has always maintained this is one of the best romantic lines in a rock and roll song.)

And you know how Ulysses ends, right?

Yes I said yes I will Yes.

All The World’s a Stage

“This was a nice weekend. I’m glad I forgot my homework,” Noah said.

It was Sunday morning, around 10:40, and Noah was practicing his orchestra bells while we were packing up and preparing to check out of our hotel. This year in lieu of a birthday party, Noah asked for a family weekend in Rehoboth.  The main thing he wanted to do was to film a movie in Cape Henlopen State Park, which we’d visited in March and which struck him at the time as a good location, due to the empty and somewhat eerie WWII-related buildings (watchtowers, barracks, etc.)

We left on his birthday, a Friday, after school.  But it was a big day even before we left for the beach because it was GreekFest at his school. This all-day event is the culmination of a several months-long unit on ancient Greece (mostly myths, but some history, too) and involved long-term projects in all four of his Humanities classes.

We started off the big day with present opening at 6:30 a.m. Noah unwrapped a book, two sets of summer pajamas (a birthday tradition), two hunks of fancy cheese from his favorite gourmet online catalog, and an assortment of rhythm instruments he’d requested, including a set of chimes, claves, a cowbell, and a high quality tambourine. (He often has to play these in concerts but up to now could only practice them at school.) He seemed pleased with everything.

Beth got him off to school and then went shopping for birthday cake ingredients. While I did some chores and exercised, she made the cake and frosting. Then it was off to GreekFest.

On Stage: GreekFest

We went to see the animated films first. All the sixth-grade Humanities magnet students worked in groups to animate a Greek myth and the media teacher was playing a ninety-minute sequence of them continuously all day.  We had almost an hour in the room, but Noah’s film did not come up in the rotation. Fortunately, all the films were also playing on laptops set up around the perimeter of the room so we got to watch his group’s rendition of the Prometheus myth.  They made nice use of special effects including some very realistic raindrops running down the screen during a storm, and instant replay to show the vulture returning to the bound god over and over.  It was fun seeing his classmates’ work as well. The films were smart and funny.

There was a lunch break next. Beth offered to come along and lead the lunchroom in “Happy Birthday,” but for some reason, Noah declined.  (June might have said yes, I think.) Because it was only 10:40, Beth and I went out for coffee rather than lunch.

When we returned, it was time for skits. While we waited, we had time to peruse the newspapers the kids had written.  Noah’s period published “The Greekly Weekly News.” Noah wrote the classified ads. Arachne was selling tapestries, Midas was selling golden objects; Pygmalion was selling statues, there was a Daedalus wing system on offer, etc.

The way the skits worked was that each student chose a character to portray and then they were assigned to groups and had to write a skit in any television genre using all their characters. Noah’s group did a police drama that involved Medusa turning first a pet dog then all the other characters to stone. Toward the end, Noah (as Daedalus) tried to escape by flying away, but did not succeed. There was also a talk show, “Hot Talk With Apollo,” (a good way to incorporate disparate characters, I thought), a soap opera, which made good use of a siren and the Oracle of Delphi, and a game show hosted by Nike, goddess of victory. Like the films, the skits were smart and funny, and the kids were clearly having a good time.

We moved out to the hallway to look at posters about historical ancient Greek figures — Noah’s poster about Aristotle wasn’t on the wall because he’d turned it in late — while the kids set up the podiums for their monologues. Each student was still in character, but now they each had to give a speech, introducing themselves to listeners, who would activate them by pressing a button, or taking some other action. For instance, at Persephone’s podium, you had to take a real pomegranate seed from a paper plate at her feet to get her to start talking.  Noah, as Daedalus, held a square piece of plywood and a toy hammer.  You tapped the board with the hammer to get him to speak. Noah had a little trouble getting the gears on his podium to start turning but a classmate helped him and when the machinery started to work they did a fist bump.  (This was a bit startling, as I’d never seen Noah do that with anyone.)

Not to be repetitive, but the monologues were great. Everything was great. The kids really threw themselves into their roles, especially the boy who played Typhon with appropriate creepiness.  Beth said the whole event, but especially the skits and monologues, made her feel Noah was in the right place in this program.  I felt the same.

On Location: Cape Henlopen and Rehoboth

When we left Greekfest, we had a late lunch at a Thai restaurant, a sentimental choice because the last meal I ate before I went into labor with Noah was Thai. Then we returned home to finish packing for the beach. The kids were both home by 3:30 and a little after 4:00 we hit the road.  As tradition dictates, we stopped at the Taco Bell by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for dinner, and then we ate birthday cake at the outside table at Dairy Queen, with a little soft-serve on the side.

Chances are you’ve never tried to light birthday cake candles by the side of a busy highway on a windy night, but it was a difficulty we failed to anticipate.  We were all shielding the cake with our paper plates, hoping the candles would stay lit long enough for Noah to blow them out, and finally they did.  I think it might be a birthday cake he’ll never forget.

We’ve been using the same numeral candles for Noah’s whole childhood. Some of them are in better shape than others and that morning Beth had melted the edges of the halves of the broken numeral two candle to mend it. We discussed how we’ll have to go visit him at college and bring the candles when it’s time to use the same ones reversed on his twenty-first birthday.  He didn’t seem dismayed by this prospect.

We got to our hotel late and learned that the room was being renovated and was not quite finished.  So there was a sheet tacked up over sliding glass doors that lead out to the balcony instead of curtains and we were lacking some other amenities, such as a second sink.  But the room seemed livable enough and they gave us a $75 discount, so we weren’t about to complain. We also realized in the process of unpacking, that Noah had left his backpack with his sheet music and his homework at home. He said he thought he could practice without the music and fortunately, thanks to GreekFest, he only had homework in one subject (math) so it wasn’t a disaster.

Saturday morning after a diner breakfast, we drove out to a drugstore to get props for the movie and some new bandages for June’s splint (she sprained her wrist almost two weeks ago—more on this later) and then we headed out to Cape Henlopen State Park. Noah had hoped to script the movie before he filmed it, but he’d been so swamped with homework in the weeks leading up to GreekFest, he didn’t have time, and he had to wing it.  It went really well.  I think it might have been close to the experience he wanted from all those mystery birthday parties he hosted (“Up to Eleven,” 5/8/12).  He had a vision and with Beth’s, June’s and my help, he carried it out.  He directed, he and Beth filmed, and we all acted.  Some of our lines he recited to us ahead of time; but mostly he gave us some general outlines and we improvised.

The basic story of the movie is about two kids who are reluctantly visiting the state park because their parents are interested in the WWII watchtowers. (It opens with Beth reading a park brochure in a droning voice.) The kids stumble upon a locked shed with a rusted metal door, and when the padlock falls to the ground (we accomplished this effect by dropping our own padlock), they go inside.  The interior of the small concrete shed expands to the interior of a watchtower (this part of course shot in one of the actual watchtowers). Eerie voices explain that the shed contains the ghost of a watchtower that was never built.  The kids drop pinecones off the top into an arrow pattern to alert their parents, who find and rescue them. Suddenly interested in watchtowers, they are seen in the hotel room researching them on the Internet.  We filmed all the park scenes in the morning and then went out to lunch.

Beth, who was coming down with a bad cold, was wiped out so she napped at the hotel room while I took the kids Mother’s Day shopping. The rest of the afternoon was taken up with reading and percussion practice. We had pizza and gelato at Grotto’s and once June was in bed I had my first extended walk on the beach—I’d had a short jaunt the night before and another one before breakfast.

It was twilight when I left the hotel and as I wandered along the beach and boardwalk the sky darkened to cobalt. The weekend had been exceptionally windy so there were big piles of sea foam on the sand and frequently the wind tore off pieces and sent them spinning up the beach like tumbleweeds.  They are doing some kind of work on one of the jetties, probably something to do with the storm water pipe that empties into the ocean there, but I’m not really sure.  There’s a (presumably) temporary wall made of metal or plastic surrounding the jetty on three sides. At low tide it keeps the sand at the center above water but at high tide the waves crash hard into the side parallel to the beach and sends water jetting high up into the sky. It reminded me of those Japanese paintings of huge ocean waves.

The next morning after we checked out of the hotel, Beth took her Mother’s Day shopping shift while I hung out on the boardwalk. When she and kids returned we ate leftover pizza on with a chaser of vinegary fries. We purchased fudge, chocolate-peanut butter pretzels, and gummy sharks at Candy Kitchen.  Then the kids and I played briefly on the beach. They were so enthralled with the sea foam I wished I’d gotten them onto the beach before it was time to go home, but we’d had a lot to squeeze into a day and a half, and we’ll be back in two months.

So Noah is twelve now, but we are not quite finished celebrating. He has small get-togethers with friends planned (dinner out with the twins and a possible sleepover with Sasha, though we haven’t nailed down a date for that yet).  As I wrote in his birthday card, he’ll be a teenager before we know it. But I like teenagers; otherwise I wouldn’t have had so much fun teaching college freshman for all those years. And if those years are drama-filled, I hope it’s the kind on stage.

Sky of Blue and Sea of Green

Day 1, Saturday: “Happy” and “Birthday”

Apparently turning seven is so exciting that it’s impossible to stay quiet until seven a.m., or to stay in bed until six a.m., or even five a.m., and that you have no alternative but to wake your brother, turn on lights and stand right outside your mothers’ bedroom door, conversing in loud whispers with said brother right before five a.m., causing the mother who’s grumpier in the morning (that would be me) to utter the words “inconsiderate” and “unkind,” before “happy” or “birthday” and to threaten consequences if it happens again, but to pull her punches for today because it is your birthday after all.

I sent the kids back to bed, but at six a.m. June was out of bed like a shot and logged onto Club Penguin to see if she’d received a membership for her birthday. There are things only members can do (like adopt more than two puffles, or virtual pets) and now thanks to Grandmom and Pop, she could. She’d adopted four new puffles before I was even out of bed. (I think she has sixteen now.) She didn’t even want to open her non-virtual presents until she’d exhausted her media time for the day, though she did pause to speak to YaYa on the phone and open her gift, a meditation pillow she’d admired for quite some time. I don’t think she intends to meditate on it. She just thinks it’s pretty.

Eventually, June opened her other presents—some clothes, an orange and fuchsia bath towel she wanted, a build-your-own doll bed and dresser kit, and a set of Club Penguin-related gifts from Noah (a stuffed puffle, a puffle zipper pull for her backpack, coins redeemable on the site and a collection of coloring pages he printed for her). June set to work assembling and painting the doll dresser at once while Beth and I packed for the beach, the first leg of our spring break adventure. It was almost 12:30 by the time everyone was packed and Noah had practiced percussion and we could go.

We arrived just before 4:00 at our apartment, a quarter of a big house a half block from the beach. You could see the ocean from the sidewalk in front of the house. Other than boardwalk hotels, it’s the closest we’ve ever stayed to the beach. When Beth saw how excited I was, she laughed and hugged me. “It makes you so happy,” she said.

“It flips a switch in my brain,” I explained.

“To happy,” she said.

We unpacked and then Beth and June hit the grocery store for dinner and breakfast provisions and a birthday cake. Noah stayed at the house and watched golf on television while I went to the beach. The late afternoon light was golden and the sea was a dark blue-gray in the distance and shining silver closer to shore. I’m reading Ulysses for book club and listening to the chapters on audiobook after I read them for reinforcement.  I happened to be up to the “Nausicaa” chapter, which takes place on a beach at twilight, so I thought it would be fun to walk along the beach and listen to it.  I walked along the beach and boardwalk listening. I found a horseshoe crab on its back, legs waving in the air, set it right, and watched it disappear into the sea.

Back at the house, I took a brief but much needed nap and then Noah and I made June’s requested birthday dinner—veggie hot dogs with melted cheese and cherry tomatoes, and mac-and-cheese on the side. We finished the meal with carrot cake topped with candles shaped like individual letters that spelled “happy” and “birthday.”

June had a bath and watched part of The Wild with Noah. (I pretended to forget she was out of media time) and then she went to bed in the top bunk because she wanted it and Noah wanted the bottom, which was a double bed. I was pleased and surprised that this arrangement worked out so peaceably. And then June’s birthday was over. For her anyway, I slipped down to the beach for a chilly nighttime walk under the moon and stars before collapsing into bed at 9:30 and falling asleep almost immediately.

Days 2-3, Sunday and Monday: Stormy Weather

Some spring break beach trips the kids wade in the water bare-legged and eat ice cream on the boardwalk and read or play games on the porch or balcony, and some spring break beach trips we take short, bundled up jaunts to the beach and the porch is a place to keep sandy boots.  Sunday was cold and cloudy and Monday was the type of day for which the phrase “wintry mix” was invented so it was looking more like the second kind of trip.

Everyone took a short walk on the boardwalk Sunday afternoon, which culminated in a visit to Candy Kitchen. June knew she wanted gummy butterflies before we even got there so she had plenty of time to cruise the stuffed animals while her brother hemmed and hawed and finally chose candy necklaces. June fell in love with a baby penguin and wanted it so badly that she wanted to trade her candy for it, but I told her to get the candy because you never know what the Easter Bunny might put in her basket.

Beth, Noah and June did not set foot on the beach during the first three days of our trip. I went several times by myself, for periods ranging from five minutes (in driving sleet with my umbrella repeatedly turning inside out) to an hour in merely chilly conditions.

What we mostly did these two days was hang out in the house. On Monday, we temporarily suspended media limits and there was much playing on Club Penguin and June watched The Wild a second time, and we all watched two episodes of The Carol Burnett Show on dvd.  But we also played Forbidden Island, and read a lot.  Noah and were steadily making our way through the last book in the His Dark Materials trilogy The Amber Spyglass, I started an Agatha Christie mystery, and June worked on a sticker book, dressing up people in international costumes.

In the mid-afternoon June developed a debilitating headache and slept much of the rest of the afternoon. She woke up a couple times, still in pain, and then went back to sleep until the last section of the nap did the trick and she woke recovered around 6:30, and had some of the matzoth ball soup Beth had made and we’d all eaten while June was asleep.

That evening, feeling a bit cooped up after two days in the house, I started researching possible day trips to take once the weather improved.

Days 4-6, Tuesday to Thursday: All Along the Watchtower

The next three days were predicted to be mostly sunny with highs around 50 degrees. We decided to wait a day to let the trails dry out and set Wednesday as the day for a trip to Cape Henlopen State Park. Tuesday morning I spent hours roaming the beach and boardwalk. I walked along the shoreline and clambered on jetties. There’s one in particular I like because the concrete that holds the rocks together has been worn into organic curves and whorls by the tides, making tiny coves and harbors that fill with every wave. The sky was brilliant blue, scattered with puffy white clouds I could see reflected in the silvery wet sand whenever a wave retreated.

Seeking a dry, sunny place to sit I found a pavilion with benches only a little damp and I read three chapters of my mystery, getting up to follow the sun as it moved along the bench. Later I sat in the sand until the cold and damp seeped up through the seat of my jeans, but mostly I walked.

I went home for lunch—the house was empty because Beth had taken the kids to the outlets for school supplies, underwear, socks and sneakers.  I headed to Browse-About  to get a gift certificate for my sister’s birthday. I’d been window-shopping for her without luck for a few days and decided a gift certificate would be a practical gift because she’s coming to Rehoboth in July. I got myself a copy of Emma Donohue’s Room, because I’d been meaning to read it and it was marked down almost 50%. On my way back to the house I called Sara to tell her about the gift certificate (it was her actual birthday that day) and to hear about her long weekend with her new boyfriend. We are not always timely with gifts in my family. In fact, Beth recently told me I was very good about it, “considering your background.” She made it sound as if I’d been raised by wolves, or heroin addicts.

After I talked to Sara, I went back to the house and collected the kids to bring them to the beach. (But first I had to admire June’s new sparkly, bejeweled, flashing sneakers.)  I watched the kids build sand castles for an hour and fifteen minutes. I was glad to see them finally outside and it was more aerobic than you might think because there were many, many intruders who needed chasing away from their castles. June’s castle had an elaborate security system involving but not limited to a ring of seven watchtowers. They wanted me to award them prizes so June won for “best use of shells, pebbles, watchtowers and artificial roses” (she found them on the beach) and Noah won for “best use of a magic rock and best back story.”  I was the only one in boots so I was the designated fetcher and carrier of water. After tempting fate one too many times, my boots filled with icy water and my jeans were soaked and soon caked with sand. Still, we all came home happy.

Noah and I read, we had dinner and Grotto’s and once June was in bed, we capped off the day with another episode of Carol Burnett. (June’s not so interested in these, but Noah really likes them.)

Wednesday morning we visited Cape Henlopen State Park, where we looked at fish and horseshoe crabs in tanks in the Nature Center. June said the crab felt like “a hard washcloth that was wet.” I flipped over another upside down crab, reaching with some difficulty to the very back of the tank to do it while the kids cheered my rescue.  (Apparently saving animals was going to be a theme of the week because there was a bird trapped in the screen porch of the unit next to ours and I had to make a few phone calls to find the right realty so someone could come over and free it.)

We took an interpretive trail through pine forest and along a section of the bay, and back into the woods. Reading the brochure for the trail, I learned a new word: wrack.  It means the line of detritus (shells, seaweed, trash) waves leave on the beach.  It seems useful.  (“You’d never believe the wrack in the living room after that play date.”)

Next we climbed up a concrete World War II observation tower. If you’ve ever gone up a lighthouse, it’s just like that. The towers were used to monitor the coastline for German subs (“German substitute teachers?” Noah joked more than once).  The view from up there was wonderful.  We could see the bay, two lighthouses, and more observation towers. The kids started throwing little chunks of concrete they found inside the tower off the top until I got worried they’d hit someone.  The park was deserted and I couldn’t see anyone, but you never know.

We went to examine the abandoned bunkers and the big guns (not original to the site but genuine). A concrete shed with a rusty door chained shut we’d seen along the trail, the tower that June thought looked haunted, and the eerie, empty barracks all convinced Noah that he wants to come back and shoot a mystery movie in the park. (I’d like to do return as well and explore some more trails.) Finally we climbed up to the battery, which is on top of the largest dune between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras. It’s eighty feet high and offers a stunning view of the bay.

We were near Lewes, and hungry for lunch so we found an Italian deli with a restaurant attached and had a satisfying meal, complete with Italian pastry, and left laden with olives (which June wanted) and fusilli (which Noah wanted). We made a quick stop at the Crocs outlet, meaning only to get new crocs for me, but somehow we also came out there with a pair of heavily discounted aqua and purple sandals for June.

In the afternoon, I took June to the beach where she made more castles and dug a hole. “Do you think it’s big enough?” she asked.  I asked what she was going to do with it so I could answer.  “Make it pretty,” she said. Of course.  I said it was big enough for that, and she lined the sides with shells and pebbles. Then she climbed on a jetty, choreographed a dance, and made a line of handprints in the sand and pretended they were footprints of a mysterious animal. The outing ended when she unwisely put her hands in a bucket of cold seawater, exclaimed, “My hands are so cold they hurt!” and then she had to go home and take a warm bath.

I’d been rather low in spirits that morning, but spending much of the day outside had done me a lot of good. As I boiled ravioli and made salads for dinner. I sang along with the Beatles, “Every one of us has all we need/Sky of blue and sea of green.”

Thursday was a nice quiet coda to the beach portion of our vacation, or it was for me.  After a breakfast of crepes and bagels at Gallery Espresso, Beth went on some Easter-related errands and I took the kids back to the house. When she returned she took the kids on a series of outings: miniature golf (both kids), playground (June), and tennis courts (both kids).  Our paths crossed when they came home for lunch and I was home doing laundry, so Noah and I finished The Amber Spyglass while Beth and June were at the playground.

Earlier in the day I’d gone out to buy a replacement for the wooden-handled shovel Noah had broken earlier in the week (it belonged to the house) and I had lunch out. I didn’t make it to the beach that day until mid-afternoon, but once there I spent a very satisfying few hours. I read the last five chapters of my mystery on a bench on the boardwalk and I guessed the solution, which I hardly ever do—it involved an evil twin. I wandered far north up the beach, watching an enormous pod of dolphins (there might have been fifty of them) swimming south, and finding four gorgeous conch-type shells stuck to a jetty. I drank a pint of hot take-out lemon mint tea to stay warm, but I still came home chilled, wind-burned, and only a little melancholy that it was our last day at the beach. It’s easier to leave, when there’s more adventure to come, and we were not going home but to New York City, for an overnight visit.

Stayed tuned for more spring break adventures…

Into the Woods

Late Friday afternoon I called Beth at work to find out what kind of toppings she wanted on the pizza I was about to order and we started talking about a problem she was having at work. After a while she said she was leaving it behind and coming home, where she would spend the weekend making a tree-shaped cake and turning the living room into a forest for June’s birthday party.

“It’ll be fun,” I said encouragingly and she agreed.

And it was fun, but also a lot of work, especially for Beth, who hurt her back on Saturday and wasn’t feeling well, but nevertheless soldiered on with decorations and baking.  There was more decorating for this party than any other we’ve done because June’s oft stated goal for the party was for the guests feel “like they’re walking into a forest” on arriving. It sounded like a high bar.

So of course, preparations had begun weeks earlier. At first June said she wanted a fairies party and I thought that would be a nice easy theme, but then she changed her mind to forest. I was initially doubtful, but a quick visit to a party company website made me realize we could mix and match supplies from various party themes to make an eclectic forest party.  June said she wanted it to be a spooky forest, so we found a spider piñata, bats to hang from the ceiling, owl plates and napkins, stuffed owls and owl tattoos for the goody bags, along with frog finger puppets and magic worms.  Do you remember these? They are brightly colored, furry worms with nylon strings attached that allow you to weave them through your fingers. I’m pretty sure they were around in our day, as both Beth and I found their slithery movement evocative when Noah demonstrated their use.

A couple weeks before the party, and after such extensive consultations between June and her friend Megan that I quipped that Megan was the equivalent of June’s maid of honor, the two girls spent part of a play date making paper animals—two foxes, a squirrel, a chipmunk, a moose and a bat—to decorate the living room.  Noah contributed an illustration of a bear, printed out on several pieces of computer paper.

There were two trips to a party supply store, one the weekend before the party for more goody bag favors and decorations, and one the day before the party for balloons.  Over the course of the weekend, we slowly transformed the living room into a forest.  There were strings of butterflies hanging from the ceiling and a line of bats dangling from the beam between the living and dining rooms. Some of our Halloween decorations (the giant spider on its web and the raven) emerged from their boxes in the basement for an unusual late winter holiday.  June took a dark blue blanket and arranged it into a river on the living room carpet, complete with a stuffed frog and turtle.  But the crowning glory was the two trees Beth and the kids made out of cardboard and three different shades of green crepe paper. Finally, June and I waited to see if the cold, cloudy weather on party day would turn to rain but a few hours before the party when it hadn’t, we chalked two hollow trees on the sidewalk leading up to the porch. June’s had an owl perched on a branch and its nest on another branch.

Saturday Beth baked the cake, a lemon cake at June’s request, and Sunday she carved it into a tree shape and frosted it.  It was, as always, a feat of artistry. I told her if not for the children she’d never had realized her gift for cake decorating.

The party was Sunday afternoon, coincidentally Saint Patrick’s Day.  We were having six days before June’s actual birthday because the real date is the first day of spring break and we learned our lesson about planning a party during break when she turned four and half her guests couldn’t come.  (We forgot the other lesson of that party, which was to check for soccer conflicts, so Megan missed the first game of the season in order to come—June’s not playing soccer this spring so it slipped our minds.)  In honor of the holiday, June selected leprechaun hats for all her guests, plus herself and Noah. She handed them out as soon as guests started arriving.

Once everyone had arrived, we split the guests into two groups by having them draw slips of paper from a witch’s hat that either said “Butterfly Joy” or “Flapping Owls.”  The butterflies went to the living room to play a co-operative board game called Birds of Summer and the owls went to the dining room to work on a craft kit called Forest Friends, an early birthday present from me.  (The board game we already had. In fact, I think it was a gift Noah got for his seventh birthday.)

The kids and I had played the game on Friday afternoon so Noah and I, who hadn’t played it in years, could reacquaint ourselves with the rules and so June, who’d never played before, could decide if she liked it well enough to play it at the party.  The object of the game is to build birds’ nests and defend them from predators. Everyone works together and you all win if more nests are saved than lost at the end of the game. Noah ran this game twice, explaining it to each group and patiently helping them with rules and strategy as they played. The first group seemed to enjoy it and did very well; the second group lost interest before they managed to finish but they played most of a game. There was only one nest left in question when the game dissolved.

Meanwhile, over in the dining room I helped the other girls get the forest animal craft started. You punch out the pieces (which make a deer, raccoon, fox, tree, bush, and mushroom) decorate them by number with different colored foam squares and jewel stickers and then fit the pieces together and arrange them into a tableaux.  This activity proved quite popular with both groups. (And one of the guests commented she had the unicorn version at home.) The only disappointment was that I had to keep telling the girls (one in particular) that they could not take the completed pieces home because they’d been working on them together and there was no fair way to assign them.  Also, the kit wasn’t quite finished when they stopped and I knew June would want to finish it and arrange it the whole scene herself.

The next activity was Pin the Legs on the Spider.  Pin the Tail on the Cat had been such a hit at June’s last party this was an obvious choice.  June painted the spider and legs herself a week or so before the party.  Apparently there’s almost nothing as funny as watching your blindfolded friends stumble toward the door or into the birthday girl’s mother while holding out a painted spider leg with tape attached.  Eventually each participant found (or was gently guided to) the target and in the end the spider had legs all over it, though only two coming out of the side of its body at a remotely realistic angle. One was Talia’s, and the other one was Noah’s but his blindfold slipped so he could see what he was doing. He claimed it wasn’t cheating because it fell on its own, but some of June’s guests disagreed (with more laughter than rancor, though).

Next they took turns whacking at a purple spider hanging from the dogwood tree. This was June’s first party at which the piñata was not broken by an adult or an older sibling.  Some time during the second or third round, once there were several promising cracks in it, Goldie took a good whack at it and it split open in a very satisfying way, spilling its booty of candy and little plastics bugs and glow-in-the-dark aliens all over the ground.  No adult help needed. “They’re getting big,” Beth noted, half-sadly.

Next it was inside for cake and ice cream.  We ran out of activities about twenty minutes before the designated end of the party. This was new, too. I’m more used to parents arriving while the kids are still eating cake, or hitting the piñata.  Maybe six and seven year olds take less wrangling to get from one activity to the next than little kids or maybe I just didn’t plan enough, but they seemed to enjoy running around like maniacs in the yard so it all ended well.

Megan was the last guest to leave and she really wanted June to open her presents while she was still there, so she did, finding a stuffed raccoon that makes a squeaking noise, a ribbon on a stick for twirling and a t-shirt with a cat on a bicycle.  When Megan had left June opened the rest of her presents and after a brief intermission in which she finished her poster about England due at school the next day, she spent the rest of the afternoon and evening twirling the ribbon stick, finishing the mosaic animals, coloring a cupcake-shaped purse, playing two rounds of Operation with her brother and mothers, playing with the My Little Pony figures, and testing out the homemade lavender-scented foot pillow.  At bedtime, she was begging to play a round of Crazy Faces (a Crazy Eights type game) but all good things must come to an end, even birthday party days.

Shortly before she got into bed, she reminded us, “Just because my party’s over it doesn’t mean my birthday is over.”  And it’s not. On the first day of spring break she will open her presents from us and from extended family, and then we’ll drive to the beach. I think we’ll get cupcakes from a bakery there to celebrate.  Some time in between, probably Friday, she will take a bag of frog finger puppets and owl tattoos to share with her classmates and they will sing “Happy Birthday” to her in two languages.

In the morning she worked with her new stamp kit to make notes for a couple of her friends and for me and for Beth. Mine says, “YOU ARE MY LOVE,” with two roses below it. Softened, I let her wear her red cloth dress coat to school, even though I have previously tried to reserve it for special occasions. Anyway, I have an inkling that every day between the party and her actual birthday is going to be a special occasion. After all, you only turn seven once.

Equally So

In Sickness and in Health

Eight days before we got married, Beth drove me to an urgent care so we could find out if I had bronchitis.  We’d all been sick with various illnesses since Christmas and we’d had to cancel our annual New Year’s Day get-together with my friend Joyce and her family a few days earlier. We knew Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby had become sick after we’d parted and Johnny’s illness and mine were following a very similar trajectory—bad cough, body aches, fever, chills, night sweats, dizziness and fatigue with seeming recovery followed by a worsening of symptoms.  He’d called the previous evening to let us know he’d been diagnosed with bronchitis.  I had it, too. That was no surprise.

The next day, Friday, June, who was the only one of us not currently at least a little sick, woke with a fever, and said her whole body hurt.  So she stayed home from school and she missed the first basketball practice of the season and the team field trip to watch a high school girls’ basketball game, and then on Saturday she was still sick and missed a gymnastics class, and the second basketball practice of the season.

It was just after New Year’s so it was a short work and school week—Wednesday to Friday—but for us it was even shorter.  I worked less than an hour, and Beth worked from home Thursday and Friday so she could tend to June and me. And all this time, she was pretty sick herself.  (Noah, whose Christmas cold had dwindled to a persistent cough was the healthiest among us and the only one to follow his normal schedule all three days of the abbreviated week.) Independently of each other, both Beth and Noah commented that this was the sickness part of “in sickness and in health.”

One bright spot in the week was that practice started for Honors Band. We’re car-pooling with Sasha’s family and it’s a half-hour drive there and back so the boys will have a chance to connect every week, which is great because they haven’t been at the same school since third grade, but they are still good friends. On Thursday, Noah got home from band practice after his bedtime, with his homework uncompleted, and sure he couldn’t go to sleep because his head was “so full of music.” And there in a nutshell are our worries about Honors Band and the reason we let him do it.

Gradually everyone got better and went back to work and school.  Monday morning I took a walk on slightly wobbly legs. I got winded easily and it seemed as if someone had lengthened all the blocks in the neighborhood while I was sick but it was good to get out of the house because other than the trip to the urgent care, I’d been cooped up inside for a week.

We had a busy week ahead of us. Noah had another Honors Band practice on Tuesday evening and a regular band concert on Thursday. More often than not this week he went to bed without finishing his homework. Wednesday evening I broke a temporary crown on a piece of hazelnut brittle. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t have been eating it or at least not chewing it on that side of my mouth but I’ve had so much drama with that molar this fall and winter I’ve gotten used to my makeshift tooth and I forgot to be careful.) I panicked a bit wondering how I was going to fit a dental appointment into a busy day of work and wedding preparations, but they couldn’t take me until next Tuesday so that took care of that.

Thursday was a pleasant day. I worked a little, rewriting a catalog page for a bone health product, but mostly I did wedding-related chores, I picked up June’s bouquet from the florist, I made playlists of music to play during the ceremony (one without words for during and one with words for eating cake afterward), and I baked the cake. Before I left to get the flowers, another bouquet was delivered from the same florist and it was similar enough to what we ordered (orange and white roses instead of red and white roses) that I was confused about why the flowers were coming to the house until I noticed there was a card from two of Beth’s co-workers and that clarified things.

Cards and checks and presents had been arriving for a few days, but it wasn’t until I smelled the cake baking that it felt as if the wedding was really imminent. The recipe is the one we used for the cake at our commitment ceremony and I’ve been making it on our anniversary eve since then. It’s a spice cake with a lemon glaze.  Both kids commented on the smell when they came home from school. June said, “I remember what that cake tastes like now that I smell it.” And Noah suggested we all have a slice right then and there, but I told him he had to wait.  As often as we’ve eaten that cake, we’ve waited for this particular one a long time, twenty-one years.  There was only one day left to wait.

June and I frosted the cake and I made dinner and around 6:15 we left for Noah’s band concert.  It was a little different from elementary school band concerts—the orchestra and band are smaller and the choir performs with them.  Everyone sounds a little more polished and the concert itself was shorter.  So short I think we may even take June to the spring concert instead of leaving her at home with a sitter. I think she’d probably enjoy it.  On the way home we stopped at the grocery store because I’d decided the cake really did need colored sugar on top after all.

Happy Wedding Day

The wedding was at nine in the morning on Friday.  We got up around seven—June crawled into bed with us saying “Happy Wedding Day!”— so we had two hours to eat breakfast, get dressed and do a little last minute cleaning. We were married by a friend of Beth’s who used to be the Executive Director of Equality Maryland when Beth did volunteer website work there. The ceremony was very simple. Dan gave a speech and then we all spoke in turn about what being part of our family meant to us. After each person spoke, he or she lit a different colored candle. Beth was purple, I was blue, Noah was green, and June was yellow.  Beth gave some family history and I spoke about family traditions.  Noah read two dictionary definitions of the word family: “A group of individuals living under one roof” and “The basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.” He pointed out we meet both definitions and declared, “We are a perfect example of a family, and equally so before today.”

Then June read her piece: “Being in the family is love, care, generousity and kindness. I always know I am in the family and have alot of love for it.”

Once we all held a lit candle we used them to light a rainbow-striped unity candle. Then we exchanged vows and rings and Dan pronounced us married.  He took pictures of us inside and outside and signed the necessary papers.  We sent him off with a commemorative lollipop with a personalized label with our names and the date and two winter-bare trees growing together.  Then we listened the second playlist, a short selection of songs we’d played at our commitment ceremony and we ate cake and drank juice with heart-shaped ice cubes made from a mold my sister got us for Christmas.

Beth took the kids to school (June first so Noah could make an attempt to finish his math homework—he got about halfway through it I think) and then she worked a little while I curled up with the Odyssey and then hit the exercise bike.  We went out to lunch at Takoma Bistro where Beth had a goat cheese tart and salad and I had a lentil quesadilla and then we spent the rest of the afternoon together.  Both kids were home by 3:30 and June watched television while I read The Fire Chronicle to Noah. Then we left Noah to practice percussion while Beth and I accompanied June to basketball practice. During the first part of practice there was a long time while the girls were shooting baskets and even though there were several moms there with whom I was trying to converse, especially Megan and Kerry, I tried to keep my eyes on June the whole time because last season in all her games and practices June made one basket and I missed it because I was looking away. I didn’t want that to happen again. This time she came close over and over—once the ball bounced off the rim—but it never went through the net.  It will sometime soon, I think.

We came home to find Noah had just started practicing two minutes earlier and he was truly unable to account for the past hour and a half. All he knew was he’d been looking for his music and he’d gone to the bathroom.  We readjusted our plans to go out for pizza because I didn’t want him doing his entire practice after June had gone to bed.  Instead Beth and June went to get pizza to bring home and I stayed with him.  We ate the pizza and Noah eventually finished his percussion.

And so ends our first day of wedded life.  Tomorrow June has gymnastics and another basketball practice. Noah will do homework and practice percussion again. We will go and get our portrait taken in our wedding clothes late in the afternoon, but otherwise it will be an ordinary Saturday for a suburban married couple with kids, because as Noah said, “We are a perfect example of a family, and equally so before today.”

Let’s Say Happy

We are big Halloween decorators and moderate Christmas decorators, but we have no Thanksgiving home décor. June took it upon herself to fill that gap this year. She cut out a paper turkey, colored it with crayons and hung it on our front gate, and taped paper tables and cornucopias to the front door and porch pillars. But her Thanksgiving masterpiece was the banner she painted for the porch. Between two turkeys, it reads, “Happy thanksgiving Happy thanksgiving let’s say Happy.”

“I can’t wait for Thanksgiving,” she kept saying in the days leading up to the holiday. We were going to my mom and stepfather’s house and while the nine people there would not be quite the crowd they had last Christmas (“Occupy Christmas” 12/29/11), it was going to be hopping with Mom and Jim, our family, my sister Sara, my cousin Emily and her son Josiah, who’s June’s age. June enjoys these family gatherings. And Beth’s birthday was the day after Thanksgiving so there was plenty to celebrate.

We arrived at Mom and Jim’s house around noon on Thanksgiving, after a three-hour drive. Emily and Josiah came shortly after we did and we took the three kids, who had all spent the morning cooped up either in a car or a train, for a walk down to the creek. They ran around and hung from exposed tree roots at the creek’s edge and clambered on the big rocks. Soon it turned into a game that had something to do with a battle between the Mongolian and New Hampshire armies (June’s been on a Mulan kick recently, which accounts for the first army). Then Noah decided he wanted to script and film the story and Josiah, who is sometimes camera-shy, didn’t want to be filmed, and drifted away to climb some rocks.  As we were leaving, Noah was making plans to return with multiple cameras to film a leaf floating down the creek from different angles. It was supposed to illustrate the king’s speech about not sinking into hardship like a stone but floating over it, like a stick or a leaf.

Back at the house, I showed the kids how to make turkey centerpieces for the kids’ table out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, and green olives. Josiah chose to put just a few raisins on each tail feather, for a spare, minimalist look that let the different colors of the toothpicks show, while Noah packed his raisins on densely and placed the toothpicks very close together to create a solid fan of raisins. June’s design was somewhere in the middle.

Shortly before dinner, June seemed to be flagging. We thought it might be the excitement of the day plus the Dramamine she’d taken for the car ride, but after taking only a few bites of Mom’s delicious stuffing, mashed potatoes, broccoli, and cranberry sauce, she said she didn’t feel well and wanted to go to bed. Between 5:30 and 7:30 we put her to bed three times because she would decide she felt better, get up, eat a little, feel worse and go back to bed. When it was time for desert she declared that because she’d been sick she was only going to have one dessert and not two.  (There was pumpkin pie and apple-cranberry crisp.)   She ended up eating her whole dinner and dessert and going to bed for the last time only a little before her normal bed time. She did feel warm so we gave her some Tylenol and hoped for the best.

She did seem to get a good night’s sleep, but when she woke shortly before 7:00, she was still ill, worse in fact, and she threw up almost right away. She was lethargic and feverish all morning, though she was finished throwing up by 8:00 a.m. I stayed in bed with her most of the morning, reading to her or reading my own magazine (Brain, Child) while she slept. Beth had been planning to go picket at Wal-Mart to show support for the strikers. She was unsure if she should go with June sick, but I told her to go ahead because it was important to her and there were plenty of adults in the house if I needed back up (and in fact I did call Emily to come sit with June after I cleaned up from the final vomiting incident).

Beth returned late in the morning, by which point June was somewhat improved. I’d finally gotten some more Tylenol into her (she’d been too sick to keep in down earlier in the morning) and she’d stopped sobbing from the pain of her headache.

Beth and Noah took a walk to CVS to get more Tylenol for June and then he accompanied Beth on a birthday lunch at the Regency Café.  (She and I had been thinking of going out together but we didn’t want to leave June without either mother so Noah pinch-hit for me.)  By 1:00 pm., June wanted to get up, get dressed and eat something.  I made her a piece of toast. She only ate half of it, but it seemed to perk her up considerably. She wanted to play with Josiah, who had been sad to be shooed away from her sick room earlier in the day, but he was on the verge of leaving with Mom, Sara and Emily to visit a museum of medical oddities.  I think June would have been game to go, too, if we’d let her, but it was just too soon to chance it, everyone agreed.

Instead, Beth, Noah and I took her back to the creek to finish filming their movie. It was a lovely day, sunny and warm. We shuffled through the yellow and brown leaves on the ground and admired the tiny, lacy red leaves still on the Japanese maples. Even Noah, who is often so in his own head he fails to notice his surroundings, had commented on these leaves the day before.

We had pizza for dinner and an ice cream cake from Cold Stone. I’d ordered it about a week before and then called to change the flavor when Beth saw the Holly Jolly Peppermint Cake advertised in the Sunday circulars the weekend before her birthday and said it looked good. When Mom and Sara were a half hour late coming back with the cake, I told myself they were probably just stuck in Black Friday traffic but I was secretly worried something had gone wrong with the cake. Things often seem to go wrong around Beth’s birthday, a gallbladder attack and a family lice infestation, being two of the more notable examples (“Giving Thanks: Food, Water, and Love” 11/23/07 & “A Lousy Birthday” 11/23/11.)

Nothing was wrong with the cake. It was delicious—red velvet cake layers alternating with dark chocolate peppermint ice cream topped with chocolate ganache and crushed candy canes and holly leaves made of chocolate. Beth seemed pleased with her gifts—a box of pastries from Zingerman’s, a box of Godiva chocolates, a DVD of episodes of the Carol Burnett Show (a childhood favorite of hers) and several books. And she really loved the cake.

June asked to go to bed early again. She felt slightly warm but by the next morning she’d made a complete recovery. One thing Beth wanted to do on her birthday that we didn’t get to do because of June’s illness, was to go to the Tyler Arboretum, which we’d visited two years earlier  (“Everything We Have” 11/29/10).  It’s full of tree houses and whimsical cabins on the ground and play spaces made of natural materials (like logs and tree stumps) and less natural big fiberglass frogs.  On Saturday morning we headed out there with Emily and Josiah. It was much colder than the day before but we still had fun wandering down the paths, finding the tree houses and climbing up into them. There was a cabin built to the exact dimensions of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond with a bookcase filled with children’s books.  Josiah’s favorite was a tree full of wind chimes that also had a circular bench around it and ropes you could pull to ring cowbells. Let’s just say that melodious tree got a lot noisier when our party arrived and started pulling on those ropes.

We didn’t see all the tree houses—not even in two visits have we seen them all—but it was cold and everyone was getting hungry for lunch, so we left a little before noon.

Emily and Josiah left for New York that afternoon and the visit started to wind down from there.  Sara and I went out for coffee, Noah started working on long-delayed homework, and we had a spaghetti dinner with leftover birthday cake and apple-cranberry crisp.  After June went to bed we watched a documentary about Machu Picchu, which Mom and Jim will visit this winter, fulfilling a long-time dream of my mother’s.

But before June went to bed, we played a round of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Cat.  (Mom and June made the cat and the tails earlier in the day.)  Then Mom had everyone go around and say what our favorite parts of the weekend had been.  A lot of people said the tree houses. Thanksgiving dinner and Beth’s birthday celebration were also mentioned.

When I was getting June ready for bed she wanted to hear the flip side. What was the worst part of the weekend? Her getting sick, of course, but I told her I was also sad about Mom and Jim moving to Oregon in January (they finally sold their house) and it being our last holiday in the house where they’ve lived the past twenty years. The kids and I may come for a couple days after Christmas, but we’re spending Christmas in Wheeling and even if we weren’t, Mom and Jim would be too busy packing to host another holiday. Mom is in fact very stressed about everything she has to do between now and mid-January when they close on the house, so Sara may be coming out after New Year’s to help them wrap up the loose ends.

On the drive home from the arboretum, I was struck by how perfectly the Philadelphia suburbs resemble themselves, all those gray stone walls and houses, those winding little creeks, that autumnal sky spitting little flurries of snow. I’d lived in four states by the time I was five and a half years old, and though we stuck to the Philadelphia area after that, we still moved around a lot, albeit in a smaller radius.  I used to say because of those frequent moves that I wasn’t really from anywhere.  But once I was an adult and I settled into another place, first in and then near the city where I’ve lived for over twenty years, I finally knew that even though I’ve lived in the Washington metropolitan area the longest, I am not from Washington, I have roots elsewhere.  It’s making me sad at the moment, because I won’t have much reason to visit Philadelphia any more, but Beth did point out to me that I am not exiled from it.  And having roots is good thing, a grounding thing.

So, let’s say happy.