White Christmas

Solstice

Thursday after school North went to AFI with their new friend Xavier and one of his moms to see A Muppet Christmas Carol and Noah came home still wearing a party hat from a party in his calculus class and no homework due the next day. He was quite chipper—drumming and reading Wizard and Glass ensued. Beth got home late—she was out getting a Christmas tree—but we had enough time to open presents from my mom and sister and eat gingerbread cookies. We were opening some of our presents early so we wouldn’t have to pack them all and I’d made gingerbread dough so we could take it with us to bake at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we were spending Christmas again. When I’d finished the dough, I baked about a dozen cookies for our Solstice celebration—a mix of snowmen, stars, and Christmas trees. After we’d opened the books, essential oils, a narwhal puppet, a cookbook, and spices and other goodies from my mom’s recent trip to Asia, North went to bed. When, later that evening, I found Noah up past his bedtime and told him to go to bed, he seemed genuinely surprised. He felt so unencumbered he’d forgotten it was a school night. (He’d been drumming on things other than his drums all afternoon and evening, which is often how I know he’s happy.)

Rain to Snow

After everyone had finished another day of work and school and errands and packing, we left Saturday morning a little after ten-thirty and drove to Blackwater. It was raining on and off the whole way and the temperature dropped from the high fifties to the high forties. (I know this because we have a new—to us—car we bought just last week and it has a screen on the dashboard that tells you things like that. It also tells you the name and artist of songs when you play music, which is educational for people like me with poor recognition of currently popular artists.)

About twenty minutes into the drive I told Beth it was good it was raining because it would make her happy when it changed to snow. Although the week overall was very cold, it didn’t get cold enough for snow during the drive, though we did see ice in the road cuts and patches of old snow here and there at the higher elevations.

On the way, we sang along with Christmas music and the kids had a spirited discussion about mistletoe and consent. Noah finds the whole concept of mistletoe problematic while North thinks it’s not that hard to ask before you kiss someone and he should just lighten up. Another topic of conversation: are all songs that portray Santa in a sexual or romantic light—e.g. “Santa Baby,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus”—automatically creepy? North is a definite yes on this one.

We got to the cabin just before three, where we found YaYa and a pot of delicious homemade vegetable soup, which we enjoyed between putting up and decorating the tree and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as a light snow fell.

Christmas Eve

We woke to a pretty dusting of snow on the ground and all over the tree branches outside the window and spent a cozy and relaxing day. North and I made hash browns to eat with breakfast. Then the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough and decorated them with colored sugar and dried cranberries. In the afternoon YaYa took North to the pool up at the lodge—they stayed for hours—while Beth and I took a walk down some muddy trails to the partially frozen pond and on from there to the edge of the gorge where we admired the deep slopes of snow-frosted evergreens and the Elakala waterfall on the far side.

When we got back Beth and Noah watched Rogue One while I read. I was trying to finish a book I got last Christmas in time to start a new stack. (I didn’t quite manage it by Christmas but I did finish it while we were there.) I recommend it if a true crime-based, Appalachian Gothic novel that inspired a classic noir film sounds like your thing.

I made kale and potato soup for dinner with North’s help, while singing Christmas music together. I thought we harmonized particularly well on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” After dinner, we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns and just before North went to bed, Noah gave a very dramatic (and slightly menacing) reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for some reason in an English accent.

Christmas Day

Santa’s first gift to Beth was seven inches of fluffy white snow that fell overnight. I’d given North instructions not to get out of bed until six at which point they could look in their stocking, and to be very quiet, as the fireplace was right outside the adults’ rooms. However, it was Noah who was up first, at 6:30, and he decided to wait for North to wake before they opened their stockings together at 7:10. Beth and I were up soon after that, and then YaYa soon after us. 

Everyone gathered around the tree with chocolate and clementines from our stockings to eat while we opened presents. (Did you know they call clementines “Christmas oranges” in Canada? I just found this out this year and now I want to call them that, except I’d feel like a poseur, since I’m not Canadian.) There was a great quantity of books, socks, soap, jam, tea, mugs, pajamas and clothes exchanged in all directions.  Noah’s big present was a new video camera and he also got three bags of pasta, while North got new headphones, an essential oil dispenser, and the promise of a hair dye job. Noah helped set up the oil dispenser and soon North’s room smelled pleasantly of peppermint.

Beth and North made a cranberry cake for breakfast and we ate it spread with lemon curd, along with eggs and veggie bacon. While we were looking out at the snow, I made an idle comment that someone should decorate the tiny evergreen tree in front of our cluster of cabins. Well, North was right on that, choosing several ornaments from our tree and adorning the little one.

While everyone else read, YaYa helped North run through their lines for the school play. It’s not Romeo and Juliet after all, but The Canterbury Tales. North is playing the Pardoner, which seems like a pretty good part, even though they were hoping for the Wife of Bath.

Noah worked on a puzzle of famous book covers he and YaYa had started earlier and everyone else went for a walk. We went back to the gorge overlook, but this time we took a more direct route, walking along the park road instead of the trails, because of the trails were covered with snow and it was quite cold. It was twelve degrees, three with the wind chill, which is about how cold it was most of our stay. Even so, it was good to be outside and moving in the fresh air and peaceful scenery. (Somewhat less peaceful while we were singing “Frosty the Snowman” and North was trying to make snowballs out of the powdery snow and throwing them at trees.) As we did many times during the trip, we saw deer with big fluffy white tails bounding across the road and into the woods.

When we got back to the cabin, Beth and North stayed outside to dig out the cars (Beth) and make a snow angel and a snowman (North). YaYa and I went inside and I made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up soup for everyone’s lunch.

That evening we watched The Polar Express and most of us watched a Dr. Who Christmas special, which centered around the WWI Christmas truce. I knew that story but I wasn’t sure if it was real, apocryphal, or from a work of fiction. But then my friend Regina posted this on Facebook so now I know. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the eighties, so I didn’t have the whole backstory, but I could follow well enough. The kids are both fans, especially Noah.

Post-Christmas

We spent three more days at Blackwater. Sadly, after taking the first three days of break off homework, Noah had to start working the day after Christmas—he had considerable homework, some of it due during break. There was a paper revision to submit online the day after Christmas and a history quiz (on two chapters of new reading) to take on New Year’s Eve. And that was just a small part of it. Homework over break is nothing new, but homework due during break is. I blame Governor Hogan, for compressing the school year and making us start a week late, even though the dates of the AP tests didn’t change.

Part of what Noah had to do was read in a four hundred-page book about how high-achieving high school students are overworked. I am finding this bitterly ironic, even though the book’s interesting. (I’m reading it, too.) He was working the rest of the time we were at Blackwater, though he took occasional breaks to work on the puzzle or read with me or go on outings. (Once we were home he worked straight through the last three days.)

The rest of us spent a lot of time reading our new books and we went to the pool two more times. I swam about sixty laps in the tiny pool each time, spending almost as much time turning around as swimming, but it was still good to be in the water and moving. North and I had it to ourselves the first time I was there and most of the second time. The pool was in a very pleasant room with a lot of natural light and windows looking out on snow-covered trees. And there was a hot tub, which Beth, North, and I all enjoyed the last time we were there.

We got three more inches of snow a couple days after Christmas and the kids tried out the park’s sled run. There’s a track that conveys your sled—with you on it—up the hill and then you sled down. They did three rides each, two together and one separately, after much negotiation about that ratio. The adults stood by the bonfire at the bottom of the hill or watched from inside the snack bar, which had a nice view of the hill.

Our last full day we all went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Davis, the nearest town. Afterwards Beth and I left everyone at the cabin and ventured slowly and carefully down a series of snow-covered wooden staircases that lead to Blackwater Falls. We’d all seen them the day before from an overview on the other side of the gorge, but they are lovely and close to Beth’s heart, so she wanted to see them up close, even in nine-degree weather. It didn’t feel quite that cold because it was a sunny day and we were exercising, climbing up and down all those stairs. (I did feel my nose hairs freeze, though.)

The falls were half-frozen, with water stained gold from the tannin in the hemlock and spruce trees tumbling over the bulging layers of ice. There were impressive icicles as well, of varying colors, from white to gold to brown, hanging from the rocks near the falls.

Later that day we watched as four well-fed looking deer pawed at the snow in front of the cabin, uncovering grass to eat. Earlier in the week I’d spent a long, fascinating time watching a woodpecker hollowing out a hole in the dead tree branch from the comfort of the cabin’s couch. I couldn’t tell it had just found a particularly tasty cache of bugs of it was making a shelter, but it kept climbing most of the way into the hole it was making, with just its tail sticking out and then getting back outside to make it bigger.

On Thursday, our last day at Blackwater, Beth and YaYa took the ornaments off the tree and dragged it out behind the cabin. North also removed the ornaments from the outside tree and then we all started to pack. As we sat around the table eating YaYa’s homemade cheesecake that night, Beth said, “I don’t want to go home.” I knew how she felt. It’s how I often feel when we leave the beach. But it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next year. On Friday morning as we were checking out, YaYa made reservations for another cabin, for Christmas 2018.

Year’s End

We’ve had a few days at home before work and school resume tomorrow. I’ve been extraordinarily social. On Saturday morning, I had coffee with a close friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce now lives in Indiana but was in Maryland visiting family. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was nice to catch up with each other. That afternoon we drove out to Northern Virginia to visit a high school friend of Beth’s who was having a small get-together with us, her son, nephew, and a co-worker. Heather put out quite a spread, including a homemade apple tart and a cheese pie made with puff pastry. We contributed pizzelles Beth and North made. (Later I made buckeyes and we continued taking sweets to everyone who invited us anywhere.)

On Sunday evening, we went to a New Year’s Eve party at our neighbors’ house, where Beth learned to play a card game called Hand and Foot. I don’t pick up games easily so I watched. I still have no idea how this game works, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Meanwhile North and the other kids jumped on the backyard trampoline in the dark. The kids had glow sticks so it was very pretty to watch from inside, but apparently, it was less harmonious out there because they all came inside with different versions of an argument the adults seemed uninterested in getting to the bottom of.

Back at home, we set the kids up with two bottles of sparkling cider and a wide array of salty snacks so they could welcome in the new year without us, as we preferred to go to bed. It was a big deal for North who had never stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve before. It’s possible Noah never has either but he was unimpressed with the television coverage of Times Square. “So we’re going to watch this for two hours?” he said after a few minutes and then it seemed like he might bail and North was upset because they didn’t want to be all alone at midnight, but a compromise was reached and he stayed in the living room along with some electronics to entertain himself. The kids were very quiet and we actually got to sleep before eleven and everyone got the New Year’s Eve they wanted.

On New Year’s Day, North and I met up at the U.S. Botanic Garden with one of my oldest friends, Brian, and his wife Jann who were in town for a wedding.  (I met Brian when I was twelve and he was twenty-four and renting the apartment on the third floor of our house and he used to babysit my sister and me if my mom was out at night or out of town overnight). The gardens are all inside a big greenhouse. We wandered from room to room admiring desert, tropical, Mediterranean, and medicinal plants and then we climbed up on the catwalk to see the plants in the atrium from a higher perspective. There are models of iconic D.C. buildings (the Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments, etc.) all made of natural materials in the lobby and Brian really got a kick out of these. Finally, we toured the model train display. The tracks go through elaborate landscapes that change from year to year. This year the theme was Roadside Attractions, so there were models of Mount Rushmore and other less well known sights such as the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the world’s largest statue of a pistachio, etc. It was a nice place to stroll and talk for an hour and a half on a bitterly cold day.

Beth picked us up at the Metro and we dropped North off at Xavier’s. His moms invited us to come in and socialize later when we picked them up. They were having another lesbian couple with kids over for dinner. It so happens we know this couple. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours, though in different years. So, we ended our holiday with a brief, impromptu three lesbian couple get-together over tea and cranberry cake.

2017 was not an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I doubt 2018 will be either, but I hope the combination of nature, family, and friends we enjoyed over the past ten days will help give us the strength to face whatever’s coming our way in the months ahead.

They’re in the Band (and the Chorus)

Overture

North’s play, School of Rock, is in the middle of its run right now and the past couple weeks have been intense. We’ve all been at the theater a lot, though no one more than North, of course. There were some pre-show events earlier this month—a combination talent show/preview of scenes from the show and a cocktail hour for parents of the actors which also featured a preview of more of the songs.

As opening night approached, rehearsals got closer together and ran longer.  During tech week, or the week before the show opened, there were three school-night rehearsals that ran until ten p.m. For context, North’s regular school night bedtime is eight-thirty. (We are an early-to-bed and early-to-rise family. Even Beth and I are generally abed by ten at the latest.) But we did know what we were getting into when we signed North up for the play, so we can’t complain too much. Okay, we can and have, but I won’t right now.

As a result of this unusual schedule, we learned North can sleep until eight a.m., which I don’t think has ever happened in their whole life, but it did a few times after these late nights (though not consistently). We let them sleep as late as they could and they went to school about an hour late two days during Tech Week. They also missed the whole day Monday for reasons completely unrelated to the play.  They got a very big, deep splinter in their foot Sunday night, which Beth couldn’t completely remove, and they couldn’t walk on it.

North didn’t sleep well that night and didn’t want to do anything but rest Monday morning, so they slept on and off all morning and I worked and after lunch I took them to urgent care, where a doctor removed the splinter with a scalpel after numbing their foot. Then I took them to Starbucks nearby where they had a restorative cup of mint tea and we made a pit stop at home so they could grab something to eat, pack their theater bag, and head to rehearsal. We were on six buses that day over the course of five and a half hours.

Act I: Chorus Concert

Tuesday there was no rehearsal but there was an orchestra and chorus concert. Beth’s mom and her aunt Carole came from Wheeling for a four-day visit to see the concert and the opening night of the play on Friday. Unfortunately, Noah was swamped with homework that night (he had a history test the next day and he hadn’t finished reading the chapter) so he couldn’t go to the concert. We were all disappointed about that.

The concert was at the high school because North’s school has no auditorium. Noah’s middle school didn’t either but they had their concerts in the cafeteria or gym and everyone sat on folding chairs. This new arrangement was much more comfortable and the acoustics were better, too.

The orchestra was on first. They started with the “William Tell Overture” and played several songs, ending with an arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” One of the nice things about having musical kids and attending a lot of concerts is that the musicians get better as they get older and the difference between this orchestra and North’s elementary school orchestra was pronounced.

The a capella club sang a few numbers next, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I guess the idea was to appeal to both parents and kids. They also did “Só Danço Samba,” which was fun to hear, although it bothered me that there was instrumental accompaniment in this song. Singing without instruments is what a cappella means, after all. (Beth thinks I am being pedantic here.) All three singing groups had at least one song in another language. It was all very international, which makes sense since the word “International” is part of the name of the school.

After intermission, the sixth-grade chorus came on. North was using a cane to walk (after having been on crutches at school—due to their troubles last year we have a wide variety of orthopedic devices at the ready) so the chorus director had them sit in a chair in front of the risers. Beth was worried it would hurt their projection, but they projected just fine. I swear I could pick their voice out not only when they sang with the smaller sixth-grade group, but also when sixth-grade and advanced choruses (about eighty kids total) sang together.

The sixth-graders started with “Sing a Jubilant Song” and they did sound jubilant. Next was “De Colores,” which having had two kids in an elementary school Spanish immersion program is very familiar to us, in a nice, nostalgic way. “Dansi Na Kuimba” (“Dance and Sing” in Swahili) was next and they ended with “Peaceful Silent Night.” This song is “Silent Night” with some additional lyrics woven into it.

The advanced chorus sang a few songs next and then the two choruses sang together along with a several fifth-graders from the elementary school that shares a building with North’s middle school. (The new chorus teacher is cultivating ties with this conveniently located feeder school.) My favorite of the joint songs was “Carol of the Bells.” It was very complicated and intricate and they sounded great. They ended with “America the Beautiful.”

Intermission

Wednesday North went to school on time, still using the cane, because their foot was still sore. Beth and I both worried it wouldn’t be better by Friday night when they had to stand (and jump) onstage, but there was nothing to do about it. North had another rehearsal that night, I went to book club (where we discussed Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre) while YaYa, Carole, Beth, and Noah went out for Lebanese. After the history test, Noah had surprisingly little homework the rest of the week and was able to socialize with his grandmother and great aunt. Ironically, North saw very little of them because they were in school or rehearsal pretty much all the time they weren’t performing. This caused a little jealousy, even though (or perhaps because) North was the principal reason for the visit.

Thursday North was walking unassisted. Beth took the day off work and went with her mom and Carole into the city where they went to see an exhibit about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Gallery and took in the Christmas decorations at Union Station. That evening all the adults and Noah went out for tapas and then to see Lady Bird (which you should see if you haven’t yet). Seeing a movie on a weeknight is highly unusual for us but Beth had to be up late to get North from rehearsal anyway so we made a night of it.

Friday I took the day off, too, and joined Beth, YaYa and Carole on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opened over a year ago but we hadn’t been yet—we were hoping eventually the crowds would diminish, but it’s still a pretty hot ticket. It’s free, but you need to get timed tickets either months ahead of time or very early on the morning of the day you want to go. Beth secured these by getting online at 6:30 a.m.

We had eleven a.m. tickets and needed to get back by mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have time to take in the whole museum. It’s divided into a history section and a culture section. I was the slowest in our party, only making it to 1968 in the history section before we needed to meet up for a late lunch in the café, and even so, I missed some parts of that (such as the whole room with Emmett Till’s coffin).

I was prepared for the child-sized shackles, or as prepared as you can be. What really did me in was a white cotton sack a woman had given her nine-year-old daughter when the child was sold away from her. At the time, it contained pecans and a lock of the mother’s hair. The bag was handed down through the generations and in the early twentieth century one of the child’s descendants embroidered the story on the bag. On the wall, all around the bag’s glass case were many published descriptions of people to be sold at auction—name, age, special skills and any physical defects, which really drove in the point that the nine-year-old girl sold away from her mother was one of countless others torn from their families. I think it might have been heartening to visit the culture section, after all that, but even the music I could hear drifting from other rooms—Billie Holiday, Sweet Honey in the Rock—lifted the spirit.

Act II: School of Rock

North’s call time was 5 p.m., which left the rest of us with three hours to kill before the show. We had leisurely dinner at Pacci’s, which is just around the corner from the theater. Standing in line, I saw parents with bouquets and remembered much to my chagrin that last summer when North was the beast in Beauty and the Beast at drama camp, I’d resolved to get them flowers at their next performance. Oh well.

Entering the little black box theater, we were alarmed to see a sign that said the running time of the show was two hours, forty-five minutes. This was going to be an even later night than we’d realized. We got settled into seats in the last and highest row, which offered a good view. The beginning of the show establishes the main character Dewey’s tribulations, both musical (he’s been thrown out of his band) and personal (he owes his roommates for the rent and is in danger of being thrown out of his apartment) so the early scenes are all between the adult characters, who are played by seventh to twelfth graders. Patty, one of Dewey’s roommates and his best friend’s girlfriend, is played by North’s friend Anna from drama camp. (Anna played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast last summer for those of you who watched the video.) When she came onstage in a power suit Beth exclaimed, “Anna looks like a grownup!” And she did, even though she’s only fifteen months older than North.

The fifth-grade students at the swanky private school where Dewey ends up working as a substitute teacher are played by second to sixth graders. North is playing Billy, an effeminate boy who hides his copies of Vogue behind a Sports Illustrated while at home with his football-loving father. When Dewey organizes the class into a band, Billy is their costume designer.

The first song the kids sing is their school’s alma mater, and as at the chorus concert I could pick out North’s voice. One thing they have learned from seven years of musical drama camp is how to project. Some of their other numbers were “You’re in the Band,” in which Billy is assigned to design costumes and gives a little leap of joy and “If Only You Would Listen” in which four students, including Billy, are shown with parents who misunderstand them and they all sing about it. North had a solo in this song and was very plaintive.

The whole cast was great and we all enjoyed the show. Beth (who did theater tech in high school) was impressed with improvements in lighting technology since her day. Andrea loved the red sparkly cap Billy wore in the final scene and at breakfast the next morning she pressed North to explain what the phrase “stick it to the man” meant to them.

After the show the actors stood near the doors in costume to greet the exiting audience. After that, the concessions booth was still selling treats and North wanted ice cream but like all the other parents I heard, I pointed out it was quite late—something like 11:15—and we needed to get home and go to bed. (North wishes it to be known that some parents did let their kids eat ice cream at that late hour.)

The next morning, we all slept in (for us anyway—we were all up between 7:45 and 8:30) and then we met YaYa and Carole at the restaurant of the hotel where they were staying in Silver Spring and ate a hearty breakfast as the first snow of the year fell outside. Shortly after, YaYa and Carole hit the road.

North performed again on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. She had friends in the audience of both those shows. We’re in a three-day no-rehearsal, no-show lull right now. There will be a brush-up rehearsal Thursday night and then four more shows from Friday to Sunday. Beth and I will be attending the closing night performance, maybe with flowers if I get my act together.

You may not be surprised to learn there are more performances in our near future. North will be singing in the Montgomery County Honors chorus this winter. They were the only sixth grader from their school selected to participate. (It took a lot of self-restraint not to brag about that on Facebook but I am slipping it in here.) That concert is in early March. North is also going to try out for the spring play, Romeo and Juliet, at their school. If they get a part, it will be their first experience with Shakespeare, but possibly not their last because for North, all the world’s a stage.

Update, 12/13: Read a review of the show here: http://www.theatrebloom.com/2017/12/school-rock-students-theatre-highwood-theatre/

 

Sea Dreams

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

From “Dawntreader,” by Joni Mitchell

Saturday 

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

“I love this ocean.”

“I do, too.”

“It fun. It always fun.”

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

“Oh no!” I said, “A toe came out.”

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

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

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbyes

Friday

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

A Death in the Family

My stepfather Jim died yesterday morning. He’d had a massive hemorrhagic stroke about a week and a half earlier, but he seemed stable and to be gradually recovering so it was a shock for everyone.

The day Jim had the stroke, before I knew, before it happened, I was walking home and I passed by Long Branch creek, where every year some time in February or March the woods explode in pale purple crocuses. This sight is one of my favorite heralds of spring, so I detoured to walk along the dirt path along the creek, with crocuses growing all around me. I found one that had snapped off at the bottom of its stem and was lying on the ground. I picked it up, took it home, and put it in a little paper cup of water on my desk. By evening, after it had happened, after I knew, I saw the flower had already wilted, causing me to think about how fragile life and health are. Jim had gone from seeming perfectly healthy to being partly paralyzed and deeply disoriented in a heartbeat.

Jim had the stroke at my sister Sara’s house. He had been helping her build a tiny house she intends to use as a rental property in her yard and the cabinets had arrived. He collapsed and couldn’t get up. Sara called an ambulance and followed in her car after it. Luckily, her long-distance boyfriend Dave happened to be in town and could look after her almost four-year-old daughter. She called me en route to the hospital.

Jim was intensive care for the whole time he was in the hospital. They were thinking they might be able move him to a regular unit several days ago but he still needed the tube draining fluid out of his head so they were waiting. He had limited mobility and some numbness on the right side of his body, though my mom says he had gotten some of the feeling back in his face and could move his leg a little. He could carry on a conversation, but he was still confused much of the time, he couldn’t read, and he slept a lot. After a week or so, he could say when he was born, which was progress, but whenever they asked him what year it is, he guessed something different, often in the 1960s but once in the 30s, which is actually before he was born.

Jim couldn’t have too many visitors in the ICU, but some friends were able to see him and my Aunt Peggy, Uncle Darryl, and cousin Blake were passing through Oregon anyway so they detoured for a weekend visit to offer their support.

As I said, everyone thought he was going to make it. The doctors even said a full recovery might be possible, though it wasn’t certain and it would be at least a year. My mother was hoping that when he was ready to transfer out of the ICU he could go to the hospital’s rehabilitation center and she’d already toured it. But on Thursday he was having trouble breathing and he deteriorated from that point. The doctors think he might have had a pulmonary embolism but it was too dangerous to give him blood thinners because he still had blood on his brain.

I got the news about a half hour before June was due home from school. The kids had an early dismissal that day and she was bringing a friend home for an almost five-hour play date. I decided not to tell her or Noah until her friend had left. I made the girls some quesadillas and left them to their own devices. They played with June’s American Girl doll. June was the doll’s mother. Zoë was her kidnapper. They made an improvised soup with water, lime juice, raw celery, and fake chicken. They watched Word Girl and Maya and Miguel, while I listened to their play with a heavy heart.

An hour or so before Zoë’s mom was due to come get her, June asked if she could sleep over. I told her it wasn’t a good night and she wanted to know why. I told her I’d tell her later. She kept pestering me to know why, which was a bit awkward, but once Zoë was gone I called the kids together and told them.

June burst into tears. Noah looked stoic but sad. It was about what I expected from each of them. I hugged June first and then Noah. She cried, “All my grandfathers are dead!” It’s true. Both my dad and Beth’s dad died while she was in preschool. I told her Jim had lived long enough for her to “remember him forever” because she doesn’t really remember either of the other two grandfathers. She nodded. Noah was silent but gave me a hard hug back when I hugged him.

We had pizza, a little late, because I was distracted and forgot to order it. Friday is normally family movie night, a newly instituted tradition, and after some discussion we decided to go through with it, but just as Beth was finding Time Bandits, June announced she had a headache and wanted to go to bed early and Noah didn’t want to have family movie night without her, so Beth and I watched Spotlight and went to bed.

Because Jim wanted to be cremated instead of buried, there’s no rush to have a funeral. My mom is going to scatter his ashes at one of their favorite spots on the Oregon coast and she’s thinking of a memorial service in April. She’d like to have it at the church where her peace choir sings. She doesn’t attend this church, but it’s pretty and she’d like the choir to sing at the service.

Mom and Jim started dating when I was in tenth grade and they got married in the spring of my junior year of high school. It was a second marriage for them both. For twenty years of their almost thirty-four-year marriage they lived in a big old house in the Philadelphia suburbs, in Delaware County. He was renovating it the entire time because restoring houses was both his work and his passion.

Four years ago, they moved to Oregon. Their house there was newer and less in need of work, but in between their frequent camping trips and visits to Mom’s family in Idaho, Jim still spent a lot of time doing work on my sister’s house. So, it’s fitting that’s what he was doing when he fell ill. Helping people was second nature to him.

Our family has lost a husband to one, stepfather to two, and grandfather to three. He will be missed.

We Need a Little Christmas

Friday: Christmas Eve Eve

We left for Blackwater Falls State Park (http://www.blackwaterfalls.com) on Saturday, the morning of Christmas Eve, and the day before was a whirl of activity. I’d finished my work for the week on Thursday so I could go to the dentist in the morning Friday and pack for the trip. Beth took off work early and she met me at Union Station as I was coming back from the dentist. We admired the big Christmas tree Norway sends to Washington every year and visited the model train display the kids, especially Noah, used to love when they were little. Then we had lunch at Shake Shack and headed home.

I mopped the kitchen floor and did a couple loads of laundry and when the kids got home I had Noah vacuum the dining and living room floors and everyone packed and we took June’s present to Megan’s house and picked up pizza to bring home. All this time there was a tree tied to the top of the car that had been there since Thursday. We were taking it to West Virginia. After dinner, the kids opened gifts from my mom and Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby so we wouldn’t have to pack them. June got books from a series she’s reading and a new basketball and Noah got a gift certificate. “Merry Christmas Eve Eve,” I told June when she went to bed.

The last thing I did before collapsing into bed was to make gingerbread dough to take with us. We hadn’t had time to make any holiday sweets, what with the kids in school and Noah overloaded with homework until two days before Christmas. But I had another motive for baking the gingerbread at the cabin. Eighteen years ago, we spent Christmas in another cabin in the same park with Beth’s parents, her brother, her brother’s then girlfriend and now wife. Beth and I arrived first and made gingerbread before anyone else got there. To this day, Beth’s mom still talks about walking into the cabin and smelling the baking gingerbread and how happy it made her.

Christmas Eve

We left a little after ten and arrived around two-thirty with a stop for lunch at a very festively decorated little Italian restaurant with excellent garlic knots. We also went into the dollar store next to the restaurant, looking for cookie cutters because I’d forgotten to pack those. The man at the counter practically yelled, “Merry Christmas!” at us and I couldn’t tell if it was genuine merriment or political aggression. Maybe we looked like the “Happy Holidays” types. As it was I was just a little nervous about driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia with our “I’m With Her” magnet still on the car bumper. Anyway, they didn’t have any cookie cutters.

Check-in for the cabins was at four and we were hoping they’d be lenient about it because we were eager to set up the tree and get dinner started, but they weren’t, so we had to wait in the lobby of the lodge for an hour and a half. Fortunately, Beth’s mom arrived almost the same time we did, so we all sat around the gas fire and caught up with each other.

Once we got into the cabin, we unpacked and decorated the tree and put presents under it and adorned the mantle with boughs Beth trimmed off it. Then we had chili and cornbread YaYa made (she did most of the cooking while we were there and she fed us well). Then we watched Frosty the Snowman and one by one, we went to bed, ready for Christmas.

One my friends decorated her house for Christmas earlier than usual this year, saying “I’ve never needed Christmas more.” I had some trouble getting and staying in the spirit, but I kept trying and sometimes it worked. As I mentioned this was my second Christmas at Blackwater and it was Beth’s third (her family had Christmas in a cabin there the year she was nine). It seemed like a good year to get far away from everything.

Christmas

I told the kids they could open their stocking gifts at six at the earliest and to be “quiet as mice” until seven. The surprising thing is this worked. Noah slept until seven-thirty, so it was easy for him, but apparently, June opened her stocking at 6:25, right outside our door, so quietly that I thought the faint rustling I heard was Beth’s mom going to the bathroom. Later she told us “You wouldn’t even know I was a kid” from what was in the stocking—some mint tea she’d wanted at the tea shop in Rehoboth, a tin of mints, an orange, a spa cloth, some gloves, and some peppermint Hershey’s kisses.

The rest of us opened our stockings all together and then the rest of the gifts. June got the two things she wanted most, a 3D pen and a gift certificate to get her hair dyed. The pen came with a book of projects and she got busy with these right away. By the time we left, she was almost out of rods for it. She made a pair of eyeglass frames, earrings, a butterfly, a picture frame, and some red and white berries to transform a pine cutting into mistletoe, under which Beth and I were obliged to kiss. She also got clothes and a book/DVD set of Anne of Green Gables and I don’t remember what else.

Noah’s gifts were even more grown up than June’s—a set of flannel sheets, pajama bottoms, gift certificates and three loaves of bread from his favorite food catalog, to be delivered between now and February. The first loaf—cranberry-pecan arrived today.

I got several books, including a Shirley Jackson collection and a Shirley Jackson biography, my two favorite teas (hazelnut and black chocolate), plus lotion and soaps in many scents, and flower seeds. Beth got flavored sugars, basil-infused olive oil, her New Yorker subscription renewed, a gift certificate for a local coffee shop, and the new Springsteen memoir.

YaYa’s main gift was a Google Home. We spent a lot of the day making requests of it—to play the radio, set timers for cooking, even to flip a coin to settle a dispute between the children. She was quite pleased with it. She also got a Carly Simon memoir and a mug with deer on it and some soap with a cabin embossed on it to remind her of the cabin.

After we opened presents, I read to both kids, then everyone but Noah took a walk along the edge of the river canyon and by a half-frozen pond. The sides of the canyon were dotted with evergreens and bare gray trees and cut with a long waterfall on the far side.

It was peaceful by the pond—the ice was a dull silver; the open water was shiny. June wandered by the edge, breaking off little pieces of ice. The trail went on and we might have walked further, but YaYa had a not quite healed fractured toe and Beth was feeling ill. When we got back to the cabin, she went straight to bed while everyone else ate lunch and she stayed in bed all afternoon.

The kids and I made gingerbread cookies while she was asleep. In the absence of cookie cutters, we used glasses and knives and a pizza cutter, and the top of a Tupperware container to shape circles of various sizes, people, a caterpillar, the first initials of our names, and a smiley face as big as a dinner plate. We decorated with bits of hard candy, as I’d also forgotten the dried cranberries we usually use. But it was fun to improvise and I think the kids will remember this year’s cookies for a long time to come.

YaYa made spinach lasagna for dinner and Beth got up to eat, though she went back to bed while the rest of us watched Frosty Returns. And then Christmas Day was over.

Boxing Day

Beth was feeling better the next day, so after Noah did some pre-calculus and Spanish, we went out to lunch and then we went to see Blackwater Falls. It’s a 57-foot fall on the Blackwater River. There’s a boardwalk of steps that goes down to various viewing platforms. It was a warm day, in the fifties and sunny and some of us didn’t even wear jackets—but there was ice along the rocks near the bottom of the falls, and rapidly dripping ice along the rock walls to our side as we descended. The water going over the falls is stained brown from the tannin and very loud as it crashes to the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight.

Back at the cabin, Beth and Noah watched Revenge of the Sith (they’ve been making their way through all the Star Wars movies over the course of the past year or so) while YaYa took June swimming at the lodge pool and I wrote this.

Then Noah and I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a YA novel about growing up Latino and gay in the Southwest in the 1980s I highly recommend. While we read, he started to feel ill, so he skipped dinner, which was YaYa’s signature baked macaroni and cheese and spinach pies she buys from a Lebanese bakery in Wheeling.

Our dinner conversation turned for the first and only time on the trip to the sad and frightening moment we’re in politically. It came up because YaYa was talking about being in high school and she mentioned her civics class was called “Problems in Democracy.” It seems like a good title for Noah’s current AP Government class, though it’s called NSL Government (National, State, and Local Government), a somewhat less appealing course title. But then again, YaYa graduated from high school in 1961, right on the verge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, so democracy had its own problems then, too, didn’t it? We turned our attention from our national nightmare to Nightmare Before Christmas, which YaYa, June and I watched until it was time for June to go to bed.

Some More Days

Noah still felt ill the next day and Beth had relapsed so he spent the day in bed, emerging around four o’clock for a banana and some toast—his only meal of the day, and she spent the day on the couch, making her way through the Springsteen memoir. YaYa took June back to the pool and they were gone for hours.

Around four-thirty, I went for a walk. It seemed like a good time for winter walk. I’d see the sunset and if I walked an hour, I’d be back before full dark. I set out along the road in front of the cabins, and returned via a cross-country ski trail behind them. It was a straight, narrow trail with yellow-brown grass and tall, slender, bare trees swaying in the wind on either side. The sky reddened and then darkened and clouds blew quickly across it. I stumbled on a playground near a picnic shelter, well, just swings, and I sat on one and swung for a while, with the lyrics from Suzanne Vega’s “Freeze Tag” going through my mind:

We go to the playground
In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime
Wintertime
Wintertime
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night

There’s so much we’ll need to say no to in the coming months and years, loudly and repeatedly if we don’t want to lose our way as a country, but it’s also important to remember to say yes, too, to ourselves, and to each other. I’m still working on that.

Beth made tacos for dinner and June contributed a tiny piñata to each place setting. She made them out folded notebook paper and filled them with bits of ribbon candy. She drew designs on them I thought might be poinsettias or snowflakes, but she said they were just abstract decorations. After dinner, YaYa made drinking chocolate with condensed milk and whipping cream. June said it was “as think and rich as melted chocolate bars.” It’s a quote from the Polar Express, June’s favorite Christmas book. We drank it while we watched the rest of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The next day, our last full day in the cabin, everyone woke up feeling well. Beth made pancakes for breakfast and all the womenfolk went for a hike, leaving Noah to soak in the bath and do some Government homework. (His teacher gave them a series of small assignments do over break and was perverse enough to call it an “advent calendar,” even though there was no chocolate involved and it started on Christmas Eve instead of ending then.)

We started with the Elakala Falls trail, which was about as much hiking as YaYa wanted to do, so we split up there and she went home while we tackled the Balanced Rock trail and then used the Shay Run trail to get back to the lodge where we’d parked the car.

It was cold when we set out—in the mid-twenties—but sunny and still so it didn’t feel too bad, though Beth and I both wished we’d thought to put on long johns under our jeans. The trails were surrounded with ferns, rocks covered with moss and lichen, evergreens of all sizes, including a lot of saplings growing quite close together, and towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves curled against the cold. There were icicles on the boulders and needle ice pushing up out of the ground all over. Beth was quite taken with these intricate crystal formations.

The water at Elakala Falls and in all the little creeks and runs was reddish brown with tannin and where the sun fell on it, it glowed. All along the Balanced Rock trail but especially near the end and at trail intersections, people had built cairns. June took pleasure in adding to them, and collecting icicles, and walking along a fallen log like a balance beam. The log was on the ground on one end and stuck in the fork of a tree on the other so it was inclined and slightly bouncy, making it a challenge, but she didn’t fall. And of course, at the end of the trail, we found the Balanced Rocks themselves, two boulders resting on each other.

After lunch, there was another expedition, YaYa and Beth took the kids tubing on artificial snow, while I stayed home to read. When everyone got home, Beth took the decorations off the tree and I read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a Road Dalh story, to Noah. It’s about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks it and serves it to the detectives who come to investigate. Apparently, his English teacher thought it would make cheery Christmas reading. (It’s actually a fun story, though I probably just wrecked it for you.)

We had noodles and cabbage with veggie sausage for dinner and then Beth and Noah took the denuded tree outside and came back to report the sky was full of stars—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers, plus Mars and Venus.

Beth and June played a set of Christmas songs together on the violin and then Beth played “Silent Night” while June sang it. YaYa was a suitably appreciative audience. After Beth diagnosed and fixed a problem with the gas fire, we watched a little bit of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town while June toasted marshmallows on said fire and we had more drinking chocolate.

The next day we checked out of the cabin and did a little shopping at the lodge gift shop. While we were there it started to snow hard after hours of sleet. It was the first real snow we’d seen the whole time we were there. The timing seemed cruel, as Beth loves snow and she loves Blackwater canyon. I suggested we stay, but we left, for fear the roads might get bad. Within twenty minutes we’d driven entirely out of the snow, though back at the park they were supposed to get six inches. (We did get a little snow squall of our own today in Takoma Park, but it only last a half hour or so and melted almost immediately.)

Despite illness and the lack of snow, we did spend time with each other and appreciated the natural beauty of one of Beth’s favorite places. I think we all got a little Christmas.

Moderate Thrills

On Tuesday evening we got back from an eleven-day road trip to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. It’s been so long since we took a trip longer than a week that it felt luxurious to be away from home that long.

The main event was a family reunion in Wheeling. For five days we stayed in a cabin in Oglebay Resort with around twenty relatives, mostly descendants of Beth’s aunt Carole, plus other local relatives who dropped by the cabin daily. If twenty people sounds like a lot to fit in a cabin, don’t worry. It was two stories, with eight bedrooms, each equipped with two double beds. It was like a small hotel.

Because Carole and her late husband Gerry moved to Ireland while they were raising their family, her kids, most of her six grandkids, and her infant great granddaughter still live there, though Carole now lives in Wheeling, where she and Beth’s mom and their two sisters were raised.

1) Morgantown, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon

On our way to Wheeling, we stopped in Morgantown. Beth’s parents met at West Virginia University and as we were also going to stop in Oberlin, our own alma mater, later in the trip, I observed we were visiting the college towns to which Beth, Noah, and June owed their very existence.

The reason for our stop in Morgantown was to visit a friend from our own college days. Stephanie was Beth’s first-year roommate in Noah Hall, where Beth and I met the following year and after which we named Noah. That’s why when she was letting us in her front door she said, “Hi, Noah. I lived in your hall.”

A brief story about Stephanie: For much of my first year of college I hung around the edges of a social group that centered around Beth and several of her friends. Stephanie was away my first semester and sometime during the spring semester, shortly after we’d met, she said to me out of the blue, “Do you write poetry or prose?” I was startled and alarmed and felt as if she had seen right into me because I did write fiction. It was years before I realized she was just playing the odds. We were at a liberal arts college and I was an intensely shy kid who observed more than she spoke. Of course I was a writer.

Stephanie and Cris just moved to Morgantown, where they’ve both taken jobs at the West Virginia University, and she was eager to show us the new house, which is lovely. They told us we were their first guests and put out a big spread for us—fruit salad, apple fritters, olives (much to June’s delight), homemade bread, and cheese. We ate and chatted for about an hour and a half about all manner of things—their move, things to do in West Virginia, and how June came to own a small colony of snails. We were sorry to leave after such a brief visit, but the reunion beckoned.

2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Evening to Friday Morning

We arrived at the cabin on Saturday evening. The rental was Friday to Friday, but another big group had arrived just before us, so there was a festive let’s-get-this-party-started atmosphere as we ate a dinner of cheesy rice bake and spaghetti and meatballs made by Beth’s cousin Sean.

We ate well all week. Beth’s mom and Carole made four lasagnas, and Beth made a big batch of her signature gazpacho with salt-crusted potatoes. Beth’s aunt Jenny made a peach cobbler and Sean’s daughter Rebecca made multiple pans of brownies.

People were arriving and leaving all week, not to mention the in-town relatives dropping by, so it was never exactly the same group, but by the end I knew who nearly everyone was. There was a lot Olympics watching and game playing and keyboard playing over the course of the week. Eanna, Sean’s youngest son, learned the music for two songs from Matilda so June could perform them for an assembled crowd of relatives two nights in a row. (He did the same thing with songs from Annie four years ago when he and June were seventeen and six. He’s a very sweet young man and he and June make a great duo.)

Over the course of the week, the group completed a thousand-piece puzzle of the Wizard of Oz. My contribution was eight to ten pieces in a poppy section. Many people helped finish the puzzle but Noah probably worked on it more than anyone. The puzzle seemed to help him interact with people, which isn’t always easy for him. It made Beth so happy that she went out and bought another puzzle of a wizard in his workshop looking through a telescope when it looked like the first one was almost done. That one got finished, too.

We celebrated two birthdays with cake. Carole’s seventy-ninth birthday party was Sunday night and this was the big event of the reunion. There was a cookout and Sean made two Indian curries (his specialty) and he gave a nice speech about how Carole has always made the places she’s lived—in several countries and several states—feel like home. There was an enormous cake decorated to look like Oglebay, with little trees and a lake and rocks made of licorice. There were probably at least forty people at the party, ranging from Carole’s ninety-something-year-old aunt to her eight-week-old great granddaughter. As it was the only night all of them were present, we took a picture of the six Junes—Andrea June (Beth’s mom), Elizabeth June (Beth), Beth’s cousins Meghan June and Laura June, our June, and the youngest, eight-month-old Delaney June, the daughter of another cousin. They are all named after Beth’s grandmother, Ida June, who went by June.

The Irish contingent was very sporty and they were always going off to mountain bike, play tennis, run, or swim. We went to the pool in different configurations almost every day. I usually went and June always did.

Some people went on day trips—there was one to Falling Water, and after we checked out of the cabin, most of the Irish went on an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., which was experiencing the hottest day of the summer with a heat index of over 110 degrees. We stayed behind.

We did go on the outing to Coopers Rock State Forest. The more ambitious people in the party left early and took a long hike while the rest of us joined them for an “epic picnic” (in Beth’s cousin Holly’s words) and then we all took a short hike to an overlook and admired the gorge. Next some of us took another hike to the bottom of the rock and back up again. A few of us squeezed into a narrow, damp crevice in the rock where the temperature fell about fifteen degrees in a few steps. The kids and I scrambled under an overhang lined with a thick layer of dead leaves and Noah saw a salamander and all of us saw a toad. There were huge millipedes all along the trail. It was a rough, rocky climb back up, especially for Jenny and Holly, who were in flip-flops.

On the last day at the cabin we took it easy. Beth and Noah spent most of the morning and good bit of the afternoon finishing the second puzzle. June got passed from one group of pool-goers to another and then after lunch, I took her again. Afterward, as we walked along the wooded trail back to the cabin, she was softly singing songs from Matilda. During the summer I often fret about the ratio of structured activities to down time, because she basically wants to do everything.  But at that moment, I thought we might have gotten it about right.

3) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Friday Afternoon to Saturday Morning

Have you seen the article going around Facebook about the difference between a vacation and a trip? The gist is that if you take your kids or visit extended family, it’s not a vacation, it’s a trip. I think it’s a little hard on trips, because I wouldn’t want to spend most of my time away from home without my kids and I enjoy time with my and Beth’s family as well.  But it’s true there’s a difference between getting away with just your spouse and being in a larger group. And by this measure, Beth and I hadn’t had a vacation in four and a half years, and then only if you count weekend getaways. Well, Beth’s mom helped us rectify that by taking the kids for about twenty-four hours so we could go to Pittsburgh alone.

After we checked out of the cabin Friday morning, we hung out at Beth’s mom’s house for a while and then Beth and I drove to Pittsburgh, stopping at a nice little Mexican restaurant in Washington, Pennsylvania. We stayed at a fancy hotel called The Mansions on Fifth. It consisted of two early twentieth-century mansions—one gray stone in an Elizabethan revival style and one Tudor and red brick. Inside the bigger building, where we checked in there was stained glass and carved wood paneling everywhere. We were staying in the smaller building, which was a little less grand, but still lovely.

Once we got settled, we went out to matinee of Florence Foster Jenkins. We watched Citizen Kane with Noah last fall and I was curious if the talentless singers were based on the same historical figure. I’m thinking yes. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really more sad than funny. It’s very well acted, though, and we both enjoyed it.

We weren’t hungry for dinner yet so we went back to the hotel and relaxed a while. Eventually, we had dinner at a barbeque joint, where you pick what kind of meat or tofu you want and then three sauces from a wide array. You get to taste as many sauces as you like before you chose and that was fun. We got classic tomato, a vinegar-based one, and a honey-based one. There were also a lot of sides and we got cornbread, stewed tomatoes and okra, and purple coleslaw. There was a television on and while we ate we watched part of the U.S./Serbia men’s basketball game.

Next we went out for gelato at a place with more flavors than I’ve ever seen. We got five between us. I liked the peach best. Back at the hotel we watched more Olympics until bedtime, or past it, actually. In the morning we had breakfast at a diner and then brought coffee back to the room where we read quietly until checkout time. I know. We’re maniacs.

(Back to #2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon to Sunday Morning

We drove back to Wheeling, reunited with the kids, and spent the afternoon at Beth’s mom’s condo, Carole’s condo and Carole’s condo’s pool. Noah made a raft out of pool noodles and floated on it, which is his favorite thing to do a pool. I did fifty laps, which sounds impressive, except it’s a tiny pool. Everyone else splashed and soaked in the pool.

Back at Beth’s mom’s house I took a short nap and we had Chinese takeout for dinner with Carole and Meg.

4) Sandusky, Ohio: Sunday Afternoon to Tuesday Morning

We drove to Cedar Point, the amusement park of Beth’s childhood. It’s also kind of a romantic place for us, as Beth and I went twice when we were in college, once alone and once with a group of friends the week between finals and my graduation. The kids have been there three times now, once when June was a baby and Noah was five, which neither of them remembers, three years ago, which they do, and this time.

Noah knew which rides he liked last time and June knew which ones she wanted to ride but couldn’t before because she was too short—and this year she could ride almost anything in the park because she’s 52 inches tall with crocs on—so we headed in the direction of Iron Dragon, a hanging coaster that’s just about right for all of us.

The Iron Dragon is officially a “High Thrill” ride (a 4 on a scale of 5), but this points to a problem with the ride ratings at Cedar Point. I would call most of the 4s “Moderate Thrill” rides, a designation they actually apply to the sky tram and the like. Meanwhile, the 5s (“Aggressive Thrill Rides”) encompasses such an enormous range that Noah joked they should have another category called, “6, Aggressive Thrill Rides…No We Really Mean It This Time” because there are some crazy-scary rides at Cedar Point, enormous coasters that go straight down or have part of the car hanging off the side of the track or one that just shoots the car up and down a U-shaped track that looks like two twisted devil horns over and over.

We don’t go on any rides like that. Beth’s never been much for big coasters. When I was twenty-two I rode the Magnum, which at the time was the tallest coaster at Cedar Point and in the world, but those days are beyond me. Noah’s currently the bravest in absolute terms. He was the only one to ride a level-5 coaster, the Corkscrew, which is a fairly low to the ground looping coaster. June and I almost did it with him, but we bailed out of the line. June might be the bravest relative to age, but she’s had more amusement park experience than Noah did when he was ten, so it’s hard to say.

A lot of our conversation at Cedar Point consisted of what coasters we would ride, what we wouldn’t ride, what we rode in our youth but wouldn’t now, what we might ride when older, and what we might ride if offered a million dollars to do so. At one point we had the following conversation:

June: Would you go on that for a million dollars?

Me: I’m tired of deciding what I’d ride for a million dollars.

Noah: Would you decide what you’d ride for a million dollars for a million dollars?

Anyway, once we got to the Iron Dragon we learned they were running beta testing for a virtual reality version of it so you couldn’t ride the regular version until the next day. You had to be thirteen to do the virtual reality ride and that kind of thing sometimes makes me sick, so Noah was the only one to do it. There was a three-page parental permission form I had to sign in about as many places as the forms when we refinanced our house last month.

In the virtual reality version, you are riding on a dragon and you can’t see the track so you don’t know what’s coming next. Noah said he liked it but he prefers the unenhanced ride. June was disappointed not to be able to ride it right away, but we promised to come back the next day. So we did the Mine Ride and The Woodstock Express, which was the first coaster June ever rode. “It’s emotionally important to me,” she said. We visited a petting zoo, which had an eclectic collection of farm animals, rabbits, llamas, alpaca, kangaroos, and tortoises. When it got dark we rode the Ferris Wheel, where Beth took pictures of the park rides all lit up in different colors.

The last thing we did the first day was watch a show which featured singing, dancing, acrobatics, fireworks and just plain fire. It was kind of like one long music video with a medley of pop songs, a startling number of them from the 80s.  “We’re the target demographic,” Beth said to me, with surprise.

The next day we finally rode the Iron Dragon. One thing I like about it is how it swoops between tree branches and over a misty lagoon. It almost is like riding a dragon. It’s gentle enough for Beth and June loved it.

My top priority that day was the Blue Streak, the smallest of three wooden coasters in the park. I love wooden coasters but they are scarier than metal coaster of the same size and as I get older I scare more easily, so I needed to do it early in the day before I lost my nerve. Noah agreed to go with me, even though it scared the pants off him the last time he rode it, when he was twelve. As we were getting strapped in, I told him, “I am having some second thoughts about this,” but then we were off and it was so much fun, just exactly how much thrill I want out of a coaster, and I was glad I did it. And Noah liked it this time, too. June watched and decided to wait until she was a bit older, which was a relief to me.

Later the kids rode the Wind Seeker, a swing ride that slowly rises three hundred feet into the sky, spins you around for panoramic view of the park and lowers you. I have no desire to be that high in the air, so Beth and I sat that one out and watched the kids’ bare legs, a big pair and a little pair ascended up to skyscraper heights.

In the afternoon, Beth, June and I went to Soak City, the water park within Cedar Point. Noah wanted some down time and stayed at the hotel. We all did the lazy river and June and I did some water slides and Beth and June went into the wave pool. I left Soak City before Beth and June, but independently of each other, we all stopped to wade in Lake Erie on the way back to the hotel.

Back at the park in the evening, the kids and I rode the Iron Dragon a second time and the kids rode the Wind Seeker, also for the second time. June played a bunch of carnival games, which are harder than the ones at Funland, so she didn’t win anything, which was a disappointment, but by then she was out of money and we were out of time, because our moderately thrilling road trip was almost over.

5) Oberlin, Ohio: Tuesday Morning

We had breakfast outside the hotel, gazing for the last time at Lake Erie before we hit the road. About an hour into the drive home, we stopped in Oberlin. As we did the last time we were there, three years ago, we walked and drove around the campus, showing the kids places we’d lived and posing Noah in front of his hall. The kids listened politely as I said things like “And that’s where I lived the first semester of my senior year…” We got whole-wheat doughnuts at Gibson’s bakery because that’s what you do when you visit Oberlin, and we ate them at a table facing Tappan Square.

Noah said, “The next time I come here I could be touring it.” We’ve often joked that he has to apply to Oberlin, if only to say he was named after the dorm in his essay, but it was the first time he’s indicated he might just do it.

That evening, we pulled into a parking garage in Silver Spring, one town over from home, for a dinner stop. “Our House” was had come up on a playlist we were listening to and I sang along: “Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard.” It would have been better, I guess, if it had happened as we pulled into our driveway, right before reuniting with our two cats, but it was a good enough ending for a nice, relaxing trip, with just the right amount of thrills.

The Deep Blue Sea

Day 1

The logistics of getting everyone to the Delaware shore were complicated. Members of our party were coming from Oregon (Mom), Idaho (my aunt Peggy and her ten-year-old grandson Josiah), West Virginia (Beth’s mom and Noah who had just spent a week with her), and Maryland (Beth, June, and me). To make matters more complex, Noah is taking a (mostly) online computer science class this summer and its introductory meeting was Saturday morning in Gaithersburg and the rental period started on Friday, so we’d be arriving in shifts.

The West Coast contingent flew out on Thursday and stayed the night in Arlington, Virginia. Peggy and Josiah arrived first and had time to tour Arlington National Cemetery. Beth drove June and me on Friday morning to meet up with Mom, Peggy, and Josiah so they could drive us to the beach, while she stayed behind with her mom and Noah. They’d follow us to the beach the next day.

Arriving at the motel, we saw Josiah first, walking toward the office. We yelled hi to him from the car and he yelled back, “We’re locked out of our room!”

Sure enough, we found Mom and Peggy outside their room. It took a while and many key cards to sort it out but eventually we got inside so they could collect their belongings and check out. We had to go to the car rental place next because they wanted to change the terms of the car rental. Finally, we hit the road, with Beth leading us through the challenging D.C. traffic. Once she got us safely on the other side she turned around and returned to the airport area, so she could meet her mom and Noah’s plane from Pittsburgh.

When we were on Route 50 and driving at highway speed, Peggy noticed something moving on the hood of the car. It was her sunglasses, an expensive prescription pair. They were partially sunk into the cavity in front of the windshield wipers so they hadn’t fallen off the car the whole hour we’d been navigating stop-and-go city traffic. It was nerve-wracking watching the case jiggle as Peggy searched for an exit, but luckily, they stayed put until she was able to stop the car.

Once stopped, she noticed an Afro-Caribbean restaurant. We’d planned to have lunch near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but we’d gotten off to a slow start, so it was already lunchtime and she was intrigued. I was wary—would there be anything vegetarian? Anything June would eat? The answers were no, but they were flexible about accommodating us, and yes. June and I got beans and rice and vegetables, with curry sauce (me) and without (June). It was tasty and inexpensive. The only downside was that the service was rather leisurely, but we were ordering off menu, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Between the printed directions Beth provided and help from Siri, we managed to reach Rehoboth. My mother, my aunt, and I are all what you’d call directionally challenged, so it was an accomplishment.  And even though I’ve been going to Rehoboth for twenty-five years, sometimes as often as two or three times a year, I don’t have the route completely memorized. I was able to provide useful input of the “this doesn’t look right” variety a few times and that’s when we’d turn on Siri.

We got to the house around 5:30, unpacked, and went out for pizza at Grotto. We shared the upstairs with a baseball team, which seemed to be having an end-of-season banquet. It was so noisy they gave us 10 percent off our bill.

When we left June and Josiah got three balloons between them (Josiah lost his first one almost immediately) and all three had popped or escaped within minutes of leaving. I was thinking we’d get frozen custard but it was cloudy and windy and so cool no one but June wanted any. Peggy opted for hot coffee instead. Mom went back to the house, saying she could be cold at the beach in Oregon, but Peggy, the kids and I ventured out onto the beach where June waded in the surf and Josiah dove right in, clothes and all.

After fifteen minutes we went back to the house and put the kids to bed. Mom and Peggy went out to get a few groceries for breakfast and ended up doing a more substantial shopping than they planned. It was 11:30 by the time they returned and I’d long ago gone to bed.

Day 2

On Saturday morning June and I got coffee and juice at Café a-Go-Go and then we went to Browseabout, where I picked up an order I’d made online—Stephen King’s latest for me and two summer reading list books for Noah. I paid for them using gift certificates my sister got for our birthdays. June didn’t want to be left out so I got her a book, too.

Next we visited a candy store and I got some licorice for my friend Allison. The store wouldn’t ship to Canada, so I took it to the post office, but I discovered there I’d left her address back at the house so I took June home, went to rent a bike, and rode it back to the post office. Did you know you have to fill out a customs form in triplicate to send a bag of licorice to Canada? Now you do. I got myself some lunch while I was out and then I came home and socialized with my relatives while they ate their lunches.

Next, we all headed out to Funland. Josiah was impatient to go back to the beach and not too keen on the idea of going anywhere else, but once we got there he was as happy as June to ride the Freefall, the Sea Dragon, the Paratrooper, and all June’s favorite rides.

It was four-thirty by the time the kids and I got to the beach, and Mom and Peggy didn’t get there until almost five. Josiah wanted to swim out deep so I took him out through the crash zone, through the big waves, out to where the waves were just little swells. My kids have always been cautions ocean swimmers—June only learned to dive under waves last summer and Noah rarely wants to go out deep—so it was quite different, in a fun way, to swim with a kid who seems to have no fear. June watched and said if she had face mask to cover her eyes and nose she might be able to do it.

When we returned to the house, around 5:30, Beth, YaYa, and Noah had arrived. I hadn’t seen Noah for eight days and he gave me a nice, long hug. Peggy made a tasty stir-fry for dinner and finally our whole party was gathered to eat it. Noah and June listened with fascinated expressions to a friendly debate Mom and Peggy had on the topic: “Is Linda sneaky?” Peggy argued pro and Mom argued con; but I think Peggy won the debate with examples of forbidden lipstick worn and movies attended when Mom was a teenager. (They had very strict, religious parents, and Peggy, who is nine years younger than Mom was apparently watching her older sister carefully.) Possibly the kids were wondering if they’d be arguing about their own childhood and adolescence when they’re in their sixties and seventies.

Day 3

On Sunday morning I took the younger kids to the beach to hunt for shells before the sun got too strong. It was a lovely day—with the exception of one cloudy day every day we were there was a lovely day—sunny, and with highs near eighty. We walked as far as the boardwalk where we got a face mask for June and goggles for Josiah. We looked for a boogie board leash for June’s board but we couldn’t find one. Once Josiah had his goggles, there was no keeping him out of the water, so I didn’t try and he got a second outfit in less than twenty-four hours soaking wet. I made a mental note to stop bringing him to the beach in clothes.

We went back to the house and I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to the Js. (He’s only read the first one but was game to jump into the fifth book. We stopped to explain things as necessary.) Next I read The Ask and the Answer to Noah, while the younger kids made things with melty beads—you know those multicolor beads you form into designs and then iron? The Js were playing with these all week. June made a smiley face, Santa Claus, an abstract design, and a princess while Josiah made a huge pile of people and skeletons, mostly heavily armed. The house was well stocked with toys and Josiah also built elaborate train tracks in their room that climbed up onto an unused bed and out into the hall until June told him she needed to be able to close the door.

After lunch I took the Js to the beach. June was excited to try to go deep in the water but the waves were bigger than they’d been the day before and both kids decided to ride the waves on their boards close to shore instead, while I went further out. While they were riding, the foam core of June’s board snapped. The fabric enclosing it held it together but it gave a wobbly ride now, so she wanted a new one. Mom and Peggy had been looking for materials to make her board a leash but they didn’t find exactly what they needed and we ended up buying her a bigger board with a leash, like Josiah’s.

After an hour, the waves had gotten smaller so we decided to give going out deep another try. We left the boards behind for easier entry. June was slow to enter the water. Her mask kept getting fogged up and she was continually taking it off to clear it and adjust the straps. While all this was going on, Josiah was jumping up and down in his excitement, saying, “Let’s go!”

June is not naturally fearless. She can seem like the daredevil in the family but it often takes a lot of effort for her to screw up her courage and try something hard. The remarkable thing about her is she so often makes that effort. In fact, when she agonizes, Beth and I are often telling her it’s okay to wait to do something, there’s always next year, etc. But you know how this story ends, right? She was visibly scared and I was scared for her and wondering if it was a good idea, but after a lot of wading in and running back while Josiah honestly didn’t seem to understand why she wasn’t going in already, we were past the point where we could avoid the waves and I started giving her curt, tense instructions, like “Dive! Dive now!” and she did it. When she came up from under the first really big wave, I said anxiously, “Are you okay” and she exploded into words.

“It was awesome! It was so fun! I love this!” So, she was okay.

I could touch bottom about three-quarters of the time but the kids couldn’t at all, so when she got tired or to needed to clear her mask, June clung to my side and once Josiah realized this was an option he occasionally clung to my other side. We dove under some waves and jumped into others. June loved it when a wave pulled her up its side and dropped her down its other side. “That’s my favorite, too,” I told her.

Sometimes it’s as hard to get out of rough surf as it is to get in, but we were lucky in this respect. A wave carried us gently to shore not once but over and over and we kept going back in for two straight hours. Once toward the end June was tired and I was holding her in both arms and she was sort of slumped down and a lifeguard waded out to make sure we were okay. It’s reassuring to know they watch that closely.

Meanwhile Peggy had arrived and was watching from the shore. We got out to say hi. I was pretty tired so I offered the kids ice cream, partly to get a rest. We went up the sandy path to the snack shack and ate our cones in the shade of the little building among the scrub pines. When I said I wasn’t going back in the water, Josiah decided to go back up to the house with Peggy while June and I went to sit with Mom. June sprawled out on her towel with her eyes shut. She was done in, but happy.

Back at the house, June and I sat on the side stoop, among the blooming hydrangea bushes, waiting for Mom to finish in the outdoor shower. We shared the Sunday comics and listened to Cat Stevens drifting from the screen porch of the cottage next door.  I sang along “Don’t be shy. Just let your feelings roll on by/Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there.”

June said in surprise, “You seem to know this song.” I should, I was a big fan of Cat Stevens and Harold and Maude in my youth. Mom left the shower in a different direction than I anticipated so we waited longer than we needed to but I didn’t care—it was such a perfect moment. And once we were clean and dry and inside, Mom’s delicious fettuccine with asparagus in lemon cream sauce was almost ready.

Day 4

Monday morning Beth took the Js out and bought a long-handled shovel for Josiah and a new board with a leash for June and rented a bike for Josiah. They were planning to ride bikes to a pond where there are a lot of turtles, but now that Josiah had a shovel he wanted to dig right then and June wanted to go see the turtles, but he was overruled. YaYa set off on foot before they left and Peggy drove to join them. Surprisingly, they all managed to find each other and the turtles. The Js also climbed a big tree and when June’s croc floated away in the pond, Josiah helpfully fished it out with a stick.

I rode my own bike to the boardwalk where I sat in the shade of a gazebo within sight of the ocean and spent most of the morning chronicling our adventures thus far, by hand in a composition book.

Later Peggy, Josiah, June, Noah and I went to the beach, in groups. When Noah and I arrived, June was riding her board and Josiah was digging. She said he’d been doing that for an hour and a half.  Noah got his legs wet and then retreated back up to the towel while June and I went into the water. There was a strong northward tug so we’d gotten close to the red flag that marks the swim area and we needed to exit more hurriedly than I would have liked, rather than waiting for a good wave, but June handled it well. Later she wiped out and got the wind knocked out of her. She started crying once she could breathe and we went to sit on the sand. I was wondering if this was a get-back-on-the-horse situation or time to call it a day so I just kept quiet and waited until she said, “Let’s go back in” and we did.

I was getting tired of trying to stay in the area between the flags so we took an ice cream break with Noah. I abstained because I knew Beth was back at the house making her signature beach house meal of gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, and Spanish cheeses and I wanted to be hungry for that. Peggy and Josiah had left by that point, but Mom had arrived just as we were getting back to the towels.

June rode her board while Noah and I stood in the surf, talking about books and movies and his computer science class. It’s too easy for him, but it meets a tech credit he needs. It’s silly that the media classes he takes for his program don’t count, but they don’t, and no one can test out, so he’s studying Scratch, which he taught himself how to use when he was seven or eight.

Noah left the beach around 4:20 and June wanted to go soon after because her suit was full of sand but she couldn’t find her crocs. (It was a bad day for those crocs.) We thought maybe Peggy accidentally swept them up with her things so June wore Mom’s sandals to the house and of course, when I returned I forgot to bring them with me and Mom refused to let me go back and get them so she had to walk back to the house barefoot. And it turned out June’s crocs were on the beach after all. Peggy gave me directions to where they’d originally been sitting and there they were. I stayed at the beach past six. It was nice to have some solo time there.

Dinner was fabulous, as I knew it would be. Beth even put on some flamenco music for atmosphere. Peggy said she’d won the beach house cooking competition so far. Even Noah, who wasn’t sure if he like gazpacho, had seconds. We had some lemon curd in the house we’d been eating on short bread and pizelles and Mom and Peggy went out to see if they could find cake for it.

Shortly before bedtime, June, who was sunburned, said it was bothering her. Her face was red and hot to the touch. Her arms and legs were red, too, and the back of her legs looked particularly angry. We had no aloe in the house, so Beth and YaYa left just as Mom and Peggy returned with a lemon cake. They came back with some Solarcaine and I applied it to all June’s red places. Then just as if she was in a commercial, she said, “It is instant relief!” After a few minutes it wore off so we re-applied and then she was comfortable enough to go to bed.

I ate lemon cake with lemon curd on the porch with Beth and YaYa and then we went to bed, full of good food and satisfied.

Day 5

Tuesday we woke to the cozy sound of rain pattering on the roof. June came into our room around seven with the news that her burn felt better. We had breakfast and I was thinking of reading to the Js on the porch but Josiah was getting ready to make pancakes with Peggy and June was busy with a melty beads project. I considered doing laundry but Noah was still sleeping and he was wearing a pair of pajama bottoms he’d had on since Saturday night and my mom’s room was right off the laundry room and she was still asleep, so I decided to wait.

I thought I might take a rainy walk on the beach but the rain stopped as I was getting ready so it was more of a cloudy walk. The sand was only a little damp so I was able to sit on it and read and write. Later I walked pretty far north up the beach where a group of condos sets out free beach chairs for people staying there. As none were in use, I didn’t think it would be much of a transgression to occupy one.

The sea was calm, with moderate waves, widely spaced. It was a leaden color where it was flat, with just the tips of the tallest ways a translucent green-gray. I was on the beach four hours, since I didn’t need to avoid the sun, and I saw two big pods of dolphins, one traveling south and one north, plus plenty more travelling in smaller groups. There were crabs on the sand, not the tiny gray, bullet-shaped ones that burrow in the wet sand, but classic crab-shaped, sand-colored ones, that dart out of holes in the dry sand and scuttle sideways to the next one. I also found two horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach. I thought they were dead, but when I nudged them with my toe they wiggled their legs, one weakly, the other vigorously. I took them back to the water and watched as the waves took them back into the sea.

I came back and had a pleasant lunch of dinner leftovers with Beth. The house was mostly empty as Peggy, Mom, and Josiah had gone on a day trip to Dover to see a plantation and YaYa had taken June to lunch, and Noah was holed up in his room. When June came home she had a bag of gummy butterflies, a new dress, and reservations for high tea at the fanciest hotel in Rehoboth. By the time I’d read to both kids it was late afternoon, but June and I snuck in a quick swim before dinner.

This was our designated eat-out night. The older generation was going out for seafood. Beth and I were taking all three kids to Grotto because Noah hadn’t been there yet and it’s his favorite. June had an attack of reflux during dinner and didn’t eat much. She was quiet and looked unhappy in the way she often does before a migraine so Beth and I kept pestering her with questions about how she felt and asking if she wanted to go home, but she said no, it was just her throat. We were headed for Funland, specifically the Haunted Mansion, which seemed like just about the worst place for a migraine. But we were getting frozen custard and there was the walk to Funland, and no doubt a long wait in line, so there was plenty of time to watch her. And she did start to perk up as we approached Funland, and was fine after that.

There was a long line—when Noah saw it he considered bailing—but the Js were determined, so we got into it. June then had a half hour to listen to the talking corpse on the wall and get nervous. She’d only been in there twice and it still spooks her. After a while, Josiah, concerned, asked, “Is it really scary?”

“Yes!” said June emphatically.

“Moderately,” I said, after some thought.

“Not at all,” Noah said, with teenage nonchalance.

So Josiah had to draw his own conclusions.

Afterward he said he wasn’t scared at all, but the souvenir photo of him and Noah told a different story. I didn’t buy any as we already have a souvenir photo of June looking scared at the Haunted Mansion from two years ago (bought at her own insistence) and I didn’t think Josiah wanted a photo of himself looking scared at the Haunted Mansion.

June needed to use the bathroom afterward so I told Noah and Josiah to go meet Beth who was waiting on a bench on the boardwalk, but somehow they lost each other. “I thought he was following me,” Noah said and I was going to be annoyed with him until I remembered I lost Josiah on the very first night when I thought he was following me to the outside shower and he’d run off to chase a firefly.

It so happened that Mom, Peggy, and YaYa were having a post-dinner stroll on the boardwalk at just that moment and they found Josiah. Eventually everyone was reunited. Having everyone in one place, I was tempted to go home, but the Js wanted to ride the Freefall, so we let them have one ride before going home.

Day 6

In the morning Beth took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s waterpark and I enjoyed more solo beach time. While I was in the water, I saw a perfect V of geese fly above me flying north and quite large pod of dolphins.

Mom and I went out for lunch at our traditional beach lunch spot. Mom asked me if I was sad to be leaving in two days and I said, no, I was still in the moment and enjoying being at the beach. She looked surprised, not without reason. Often I am sad in advance to leave.

Beth and the kids had returned from the water park when we arrived so Peggy took Josiah to the boardwalk and Mom took June on a series of adventures. They went to Funland where she won a stuffed cow at an arcade game, to Candy Kitchen where she got a big lollipop, and the seashell shop where she got a necklace with a seahorse encased in plastic.

I read with Noah and then went back to the beach in the late afternoon. I was thirsty as I was walking down the sandy path to the beach and suddenly a cherry snow cone seemed appealing so I bought one at the snack shack. I walked down to the water’s edge to eat it. The sun was warming the back of my legs and the sea breeze was cooling my face. The shadow of a gull passed over the sand just over my shadow’s head and it was one of those moments you want to seal in your mind and remember forever.

Later Beth and June came down to the beach, followed by Peggy and Josiah. There was time for June and me to have a brief swim and for Josiah to fly his new kite.

YaYa made a scrumptious spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad for dinner, which everyone appreciated.  June had such a busy day we hadn’t had a chance to read so we slipped out to the porch to read another chapter before bedtime.

Day 7

On Thursday morning we split into two groups. Peggy, Mom, and Josiah went to tour a light boat while YaYa, Beth, and our kids had a breakfast at a boardwalk crepe stand and then spent most of the morning wandering around town. June got a pair of yellow flowered flip-flops, required for the showers at Girl Scout camp, and mooned over the hermit crabs we’d staunchly refused to buy her all week. The day before, she’d told me, “Grandmom says if I keep asking, eventually you’ll get me a hermit crab”—a statement my mother flatly denies making, so I’m not sure exactly what went down between them.

Both the snails we got for June’s birthday died within six weeks, along with the last surviving one she brought home from school last fall. We promised to replace the snails but I am over shelled creatures with short life spans. I also don’t like the idea of taking a sea creature away from the sea or the unnatural designs they paint on their shells. When I told June pestering wouldn’t work, she asked what would and I said growing up and buying her own in eight years.

We hit Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the soap shop, and Browseabout books where June bought Harry Potter glasses with three weeks’ allowance and Noah got a book with the rest of his birthday money from Auntie Sara. Finally, we recovered from all this shopping with coffee, juice, and frozen hot chocolate at Café a-Go-Go.

Back home, I read to June, then Beth took her on a bike ride and picnic at Gordon’s Pond and YaYa took her out to tea. I did laundry and hit the beach until it was time to come back and make dinner—veggie burgers with corn, a tomato and mozzarella salad and various leftovers because it was the last night.

We all took a final evening walk on the boardwalk, got ice cream and frozen custard, and Mom bought June a stuffed cat that walks and meows from a boardwalk toy store. June’s been admiring this particular cat for years. Then Mom took Noah to Browseabout to get another book. We split off into various groups and returned to the house in pairs and trios, packed, and went to bed. It was bittersweet as the week and the company were so lovely…

Day 8

Mom, Peggy, and Josiah left the next morning around 8:45. They had timed tickets to Mount Vernon at 1:55.  We finished packing and June and I returned my and Josiah’s bikes to the bike rental place. Then YaYa, Beth, and Noah spent the rest of the morning in a coffee shop while June and I swam for over an hour. By this point June wanted to get right into the waves, no easing in and getting used to the cool water. “Mommy, are you coming?” she kept saying as she strode deeper into the ocean.

We met up with the rest of our party for lunch—boardwalk fries and crepes from a stand in a little alley off Rehoboth Avenue.  Noah said “crepes in the alley” made it sound like they had cocaine in them, but mine was just Swiss cheese and walnuts. I cannot speak for the others.

The kids and I went back to the beach to put our feet in the water one last time. Well, Noah and I put our feet in the water. It was more of a whole body experience for June, but she was still in her bathing suit, so it was okay.

We strolled down to Funland to use up our tickets. June played arcade games and both kids rode the Paratrooper as I watched their bare feet soar high above me, right before we left the deep blue sea behind until our next visit.

Wintry Mix

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, or anywhere in the country where the temperature hovers right around freezing for much of the winter, you’re familiar with wintry mix, precipitation that switches back and forth between rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. We had a whole day of that on Tuesday. I think we had all four kinds of precipitation over the course of the day. Because we were right on the rain-snow line, forecasts for the day varied wildly. We might get ten inches of snow! Or nothing! There ended up being a dusting of snow in the morning that melted by noon with no more accumulation, even though it kept snowing (and sleeting and raining) throughout the day. The afternoon snow squalls, while pretty, didn’t stick.

This post will be wintry mix as well, a mélange of four things that happened over the course of the last week and a half.

I. Thursday to Saturday: Visit with Uncle Johnny

Beth’s brother Johnny, who lives in Seattle, was swinging through the East Coast on a trip that would include New York City, the DC area, Wheeling, WV, and Kentucky. He arrived in DC from New York on Thursday night. Beth met him for dinner after work and they had dinner at a teahouse in the city. Friday she worked a half-day and then they went to the Building Museum before meeting me for lunch at District Taco. (I was already in the city because I had a dentist appointment to get a temporary crown applied.)

From there we went to the Portrait Gallery, where we took in paintings, drawings, sculptures and, in the most interesting interpretation of “portrait,” a short animated film, set to John Lennon’s song “O Yoko.” The film was continuously playing on a small screen mounted on the wall between two paintings. I heard a guard confess it was driving him crazy listening to it all day. I liked it, but I didn’t have to listen to it any longer than I wanted to, so I saw his point. We made sure to show Johnny the portrait of John Brown, which is now a favorite of ours because when June was in preschool she was fascinated with it and always insisted on coming to see it whenever we came to the portrait gallery. (She has no memory of this now, but we are still charmed.)

I peeled off early, leaving Beth and Johnny at the museum, because I wanted to be home when June got home. She had left her violin at school two days running and I wanted her to be able to practice for her upcoming orchestra concert over the weekend, so I’d told her if she forgot again, we’d be heading to school to get it, getting a custodian to unlock the classroom door if need be. It didn’t come to that, as she remembered to bring the violin home. Perhaps this was because I got down on my knees on the wet pavement of her bus stop that morning and begged her to bring it home. That’s the kind of maternal behavior a nine year old will strive to prevent from occurring again.

So Johnny got to listen to June practice the violin when he and Beth arrived at the house, and then he wanted to see Noah’s drum kit, and Noah practiced, too. (I had them do it sequentially to spare Johnny the experience of listening to both at once.) We went out for pizza in Silver Spring and left Johnny at his hotel.

Saturday Beth and June went to meet him so June could swim in the hotel pool, but it was closed until ten and June had gymnastics in College Park at eleven, so they hung out in his room instead and June watched the Disney channel. After watching June’s gymnastics class and eating lunch with her in the University food court, they all returned home just long enough for June to change into her basketball clothes and to pick me up so we could go to the Pandas’ game.

Going into this game, the Pandas had lost a game and won two. It was a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost every game last season. “It’s like they just realized how to play basketball,” another parent said to me. Well, they didn’t forget, winning the game 8-4, against the Warriors, a team I remember beating them twice last year. The Pandas’ offense was apparently not as strong as in the game we’d missed the week before but their defense was great and they caught a lot of rebounds and that was enough to do the trick. It’s so fun to watch them win and Johnny was a good fan, cheering and taking a lot of pictures.

June still wanted to swim in the hotel pool, even after gymnastics and basketball, so we left her there with Johnny and headed home until it was time for dinner. Noah had been working all day but he took a break to go out for Burmese with us. Johnny had never had Burmese before and enjoyed it. He came home with us for a little while and then we said goodbye because he was leaving for Wheeling early the next morning. It was a nice visit, but too short. June had hoped to take Johnny ice-skating and shoot baskets with him at the hoop near the end of our block. But there’s always next time. 

II. Tuesday: Two-Hour Delay

Monday night, considering the forecast and the fact that he had a long history reading on WWII with two dozen questions due Wednesday and only about a third done, Noah said, “I need a snow day.”

“You don’t always get what you need,” I responded, thinking one of us wasn’t going to get that, though at the moment I didn’t know who it was.

But there was a two-hour delay, which was a nice compromise, long enough for Noah to get make some progress on the assignment and for June to practice her violin, make a card for Megan (whose grandmother just died) and for the two of us to take a walk to Starbucks where she had a slice of lemon pound cake and I sipped a green tea latte while I read to her. “That was nice,” she said as we headed for home shortly before her bus was due. And it was.

III. Thursday: Band and Orchestra Concert

The band and orchestra concert delayed during the snow week finally happened on Thursday and it was worth the wait. As Beth came in the door around 5:45, I was exhorting June to change into her concert clothes and find her music. This must have sounded pretty familiar from all Noah’s years of concerts.

I’d laid out a variety of white tops and dark bottoms on my bed so June could mix and match. She chose a white cardigan and a black pleated skirt, with black leggings. But she hadn’t changed out of the socks she’d been wearing that day—they were turquoise with pink hearts.

“What socks are you going to wear to the concert?” I asked, thinking surely not those.

“I am wearing socks,” June said, matter-of-factly.

We looked at each other silently. I almost opened my mouth and said you can’t wear those socks to an orchestra concert, but then I decided why not and said if her dress shoes fit over them it was fine. They did.

June was sure her sheet music was tucked into her music book, but when she looked, she couldn’t find it. So we left without it, telling her she’d have to share with someone.

When we got to the school gym, scores of young musicians and their families were milling around, finding their seats and tuning their instruments. There are one hundred and sixty kids in the band and orchestra, so you can imagine how many people were in the room. And while most kids at the concert were in white and black concert garb, a number of them were in street clothes, so I guess colored socks weren’t really a big deal. And they were packed together pretty tightly so sharing music wasn’t either.

It was a while before the concert got started, so there was time for socializing. We waved from our seats at parents of June’s classmates and fifth-graders we know from the bus stop and elsewhere. The mother of a fifth grade trumpet player came over to ask about the Communication Arts Program at Noah’s high school because her eighth grade daughter just got into it.

After a fanfare by the advanced brass, the whole orchestra played a medley of fiddle tunes. June had a duet with the first violin from the advanced string ensemble. This was originally going to be a solo, because no one but June volunteered, but then the first violin changed her mind. June was a little peeved about this, but I’m pretty sure she’ll get a solo in a concert some day if she sticks with it. I got a little teary while the two girls played. It happens to me at least once at every concert.

Although that was the highlight for us, it was just the beginning of the concert. The beginning band played a series of songs meant to evoke different parts of the country (this part of the program was called “Road Trip”) and the orchestra did a series of songs representing different animals from the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the water and wind.

There were movie themes, from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, which was preceded by two boys acting out the “I am your father, Luke” scene and there was an audience sing-along to “Hey Jude” and later we all stood to do the chicken dance with accompaniment from the advanced clarinets. (“I wasn’t told I would have to dance,” Noah commented afterward, but dance he did.) A girl who attended June’s preschool in the class one year ahead of her played her own original composition on the flute. The advanced clarinets and flutes played “Silent Night,” which seemed little out of place in February, and because there’s a little-known law that at least half of all elementary and middle school band and orchestra concerts should feature a jazz tune during which the musicians don sunglasses, they did that, too.

At one point, the bridge popped out of June’s violin but she ran over to the director between songs and he fixed it for her.

It was a fun evening. I am really in awe of elementary school music band and orchestra teachers. Imagine if your job was to teach a few hundred mostly inexperienced nine-to-eleven-year-old musicians from two different schools enough music to pull off two concerts at each school every year. Because he also works the elementary school where Noah attended fourth and fifth grade, Mr. G was Noah’s first band teacher, too, and he does a wonderful job.

IV. Friday to Sunday: Valentines’ Day Weekend

Friday morning, about twenty minutes before June’s bus was due, she decided she wanted valentines for her class. This happened after weeks of insisting that no, she didn’t want to buy or make any valentines this year. She just wanted to give a few friends some big Hershey’s kisses privately. I never thought June would lose interest in class valentines exchanges at a younger age than Noah did, but apparently she had.

Her last-minute change of heart was partly motivated by the fact that she wanted to bring the candy to school and couldn’t unless she had something for everyone. So I found a bunch of printable valentines online and she selected a page with cartoon animals and robots she liked. Then I printed them and she cut them out and signed them. She thought she had a class list but she couldn’t find it so she left them unaddressed, saying “They will know who they are for because they will be on their desks.” I couldn’t argue with that. Three minutes before we needed to leave for the bus, the valentines were sealed in a plastic bag tucked into her backpack. Sometimes I feel like I’ve really got this elementary school mom thing down.

That afternoon Megan came over. We’d been planning to take both girls on a field trip to a high school girls’ basketball game, an annual tradition for the Pandas, but snow was predicted so the game was cancelled and we decided to switch plans to a play date. June gave Megan a big chocolate kiss and Megan gave June a card with a drawing of bees that says, “We were meant to bee,” with a chocolate kiss taped to it. While they were playing, I swiped a conversation heart from the stash of candy June brought home from school and I broke my temporary crown on it. Karma, I suppose.

On Saturday, Noah wanted to make something heart-shaped for dinner. I was thinking grilled cheese sandwiches we could cut into hearts but he had more ambitious plans: heart-shaped slices of lasagna. So we made spinach lasagna and used a cookie cutter to cut four little hearts out of it. (The rest we ate in more traditional slices.)

On Valentines Day proper, Beth made heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and we all exchanged gifts, mostly chocolate and books, but I also got a Starbucks gift card.

The kids have Monday off for Presidents’ Day and we’re supposed to get more wintry mix Monday through Tuesday—snow, freezing rain, and rain, with an ice storm thrown in for good measure. I guess that’s how we know it’s winter here.

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

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

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

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

Boxing Day

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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