Home for the Holidays

I. Christmas Preparations

Because we didn’t travel this year and the kids had almost two weeks off school, we had a long stretch of time at home, but somehow it seemed to go quickly.

The Saturday before Christmas in between making six trays of gingerbread cookies and a pan of fudge, we binged on Christmas specials. We own a lot and we all had a great pent-up desire to watch them after telling June night after night that we couldn’t because Noah had too much homework, so we watched four in a row, pausing only to deliver gingerbread cookies to friends of the family who were leaving town the next day. We had decided to give away a lot of the cookies and candy we made this year so we could still have a little of everything we usually make but not be overwhelmed with sweets with only the four of us to eat them. This ended up being really fun, making the treats as well as all the little visits.

Sunday we only watched one movie from our stash, but we also went to the American Film Institute to see The Muppet Christmas Carol in a theater, which was great fun. Noah and I read the book when he was nine, but it was June’s introduction to the story, and a pretty good one at that.  I didn’t remember that it was so faithful to the original. After the movie, we discussed similarities between Scrooge and the Grinch. I told June how when she was three and we were watching the How the Grinch Stole Christmas she kept saying over and over, “He is so mean. He is so mean,” and then at the end, surprised, “So now he’s nice?”  Same story, really.

Beth went to work Monday and Tuesday, but Tuesday she only worked a half-day and she took June with her so I could get some work done. Monday the kids and I made buckeyes (chocolate-covered peanut butter balls) and we made deliveries to Sasha’s family and to Megan’s because they live within walking distance and Megan’s family was also heading out of town.

While I was gathering ingredients for the buckeyes, I switched on the radio, heard they were about to play an excerpt from “The Santaland Diaries,” thought about it for a moment, decided Noah was old enough for a mild introduction to David Sedaris, and called him in to listen. The part that really made Noah laugh was when a mother wants the department store elf to tell her child Santa won’t bring presents if he doesn’t behave, but he goes quite a bit further, describing how Santa will steal everything from the house, despite the mother’s urgent attempts to hush him.

On Christmas Eve, Beth made cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, I wrapped presents and the kids practiced their homemade production of The Nutcracker, which they performed for us before dinner. (They planned to make a video version on Christmas day, but artistic differences scuttled the project.) We put out gingerbread cookies in the shape of the word “Ho” (Noah made these) for Santa and I went into the garden with a flashlight to pick one of the last carrots for Rudolph because he deserves the best.

II. On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day

On Christmas morning the kids were opening their stockings by 6:00 a.m., the earliest they were allowed out of bed. I’d heard June going to the bathroom two hours earlier and she told me later she thought she’d heard Santa and the reindeer on the roof while she was in there.  Beth and I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and well before 7:30 all the presents were opened. I won’t list them all, but June got books, a skateboard and an American Girl doll (Kaya, the eighteenth-century Native American girl, as well as a box set of books about her and a bunch of accessories). Noah got books, a camcorder, a shirt, gift certificates and a check.  I got books, audiobooks, and gift cards.  Beth got books and a metal thermos that entitles her to 10% off each drink at a local coffee shop. But our main present to each other was to get the kids’ preschool self-portraits framed, only two and a half and seven and a half years after they finished preschool. Better late than never, no?

June and I went to the playground in the afternoon where I sat on a bench and read Doctor Sleep, struggling to turn the pages with my fingers in gloves while June climbed on the rocks by the creek and swung on the swings for a half hour or so. Later Beth and I cooked dinner—mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, mushroom-Swiss cheese puff pastry, cranberry sauce and rolls. It was all quite delicious.

Overall, it was a strange day; I was half content, half melancholy about being separated from my family of origin on what would have normally been their turn. I didn’t predict it would be as hard as it was because I don’t feel sad when we’re with Beth’s folks for holidays—it’s what we do half the time, I’m used to it and I enjoy seeing them as well. But whenever anyone posted photos on Facebook from my aunt Peggy’s house in Boise where Mom, Jim, and Sara were staying along with Peggy’s family, I had the feeling we should have been there.

III. Christmas Aftermath

But my mood improved after Christmas day was over. The two days after Christmas June went to an ice skating camp run by the county park system. We thought it would be good to get her out of the house for a couple days so she didn’t end up bouncing off the walls, and also so we could have some time alone with Noah and with each other. Thursday was Noah’s day. We took him into the city, where we went to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips, browsed at Kramerbooks, where he spent some of the Christmas money he got from my mother, and then we went out to lunch.

Friday, Beth and I left the house at 11:30 and we were kid-free for five and half hours.  We delivered more treats (which now included pizelles Beth had made) to families who live in Silver Spring, had lunch at Republic (Takoma Park’s newest restaurant) and then went back to Silver Spring to see Inside Llewyn Davis. It was our second time in that theater in less than a week but I don’t remember the last time Beth and I saw a movie in a theater alone together. It might have been a year ago, or even two. The movie was fun and it felt good, restorative even, having that long block of time together, and made me think we should get a sitter for our first (or twenty-second) wedding anniversary in a little over a week.

Around this point, halfway through break, Noah started doing homework in earnest. Up to then he’d either been enjoying some homework-free days, or working just a few hours a day. I’m sad to say that he spent the last six days of his twelve-day break mostly working. Because he’s taking high school-level algebra and Spanish he has to take countywide standardized tests in those subjects in January and he had a preparation packet for each of those classes. The math didn’t take long, but he was working on the Spanish for four or five days, full days.  I was sad that homework ate up so much of his break, but at least he had some time to relax at the beginning, and he got to go to a movie, and a museum, and I read to him from the fourth and then the fifth book in the Fablehaven series (Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary and Keys to the Demon Prison) every day of break except the very last one.

I worked several days over break, too, but not nearly as hard as Noah did. I’m not even sure what I did the Saturday after Christmas except make our final cookie and candy delivery and take June to another playground where she spun on a merry-go-round and swung on a tire swing until it was so dark out that her blonde hair, jewel-red coat, and the sparkles on her shoes seemed to glow in the winter dusk. And then Sunday I spent an exceedingly slothful day in my pajamas, taking the occasional break from reading one of my own Christmas books to read to the kids from theirs.

However, Monday I roused myself to get dressed and leave the house a few times.  Beth and June went ice-skating at the outdoor rink in downtown Silver Spring and I tagged along to watch.  She really did learn a lot at skating camp.  Over Thanksgiving she was had to hold onto the wall or one of those metal things you push in front of you, but now she can skate by herself and even do a rudimentary twirl. If you are fond of June, this one-minute video is worth watching just for her smile at the end.

We also went to the frame store to drop off the portraits. Going after Christmas turned out to be a good idea. The framer said he’d been swamped right up until Christmas but he did our job in one day.  Finally, I met up with my best friend from graduate school and adjunct days, who was in town visiting her folks.  We had a leisurely chat over tea, coffee, and dessert, and talked about work, kids, marriage—all the things that really matter. Joyce lives in Indiana now and I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was great to reconnect.

The kids both spent time with friends on Tuesday. Sasha came over and he and Noah played a lively game of Forbidden Island, and then started a game of Monopoly. (Does anyone ever finish a game of Monopoly? Sometimes, I suppose, but not often.) Meanwhile, June was at Zoë’s house, and I got a few hours’ work done. We had sparkling apple-grape juice at dinner but that was the extent of our observation of New Year’s Eve.  Everyone was in bed by ten. As someone who doesn’t like to stay up late and doesn’t drink, I have never figured out a good way to celebrate this holiday.

New Year’s Day June had another friend over and I worked some more because Sara was swamped and asked me if I could. Beth was engaged in various cleaning and organizational projects. She hung the pictures and a coat rack, and helped June clean the kids’ room. Earlier in the break she’d organized the Tupperware shelf and straightened some areas of the basement. I was not as ambitious, but I ran some errands and made black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year along with a glazed beet and cranberry salad.

Yesterday the kids were back to school and Beth went back to work.  I used one of the Starbucks gift cards I got for Christmas as an excuse to go read in a quiet place before diving into work myself. I think we all had a good break. Even though I missed seeing my family, sometimes it’s good to tend the home fires.

IV. Bonus Day Off

And that’s how that blog post was going to end, but today, after only one day back at school, the kids were home again. We were just at the edge of that big Nor’easter you’ve probably heard about on the news if you’re not from around these parts. We only got three inches, but it was enough to cancel school and what would have been June’s first basketball practice of the season.

The timing was bad in terms of work, because Sara’s been really busy and I’d hoped to put in a longer day than I did, but it wasn’t going to be a really productive day anyway because I had a dentist appointment to get a new crown. Fortunately, Beth and I share a dentist and we happened to have back-to-back appointments so I brought June into the city, the three of us had lunch together and they we traded June off during our appointments and took the train together as far as Beth’s office, where we parted ways.

That took four hours out of the middle of the day, but I worked before and after. June played in the snow before and after. She made a snow angel and a snow volcano (which she colored with red food coloring so it could appear to have erupted), she went sledding on the little hill in our back yard and she went exploring down the block to see how it looked in the snow. She was outside a long time, considering the temperature never rose above 25 degrees, probably two hours, not counting time spent at bus stops, on train platforms and walking down city streets where the wind rushed as if we were in a canyon.

Noah spent the day at home. He went outside to clear the snow off the car with June and then he took all the ornaments off the tree (which he said made him feel like the Grinch), practiced his drums for two hours, and did some algebra homework.

It wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend the day, but last year around this time I was really, really sick with bronchitis, so anything better than that seems like an improvement.  Happy 2014, one and all!

O, Christmas Tree

We are spending Christmas at home this year for the first time ever. For the kids’ whole lives we’ve alternated Christmases at my mother’s house and Beth’s mother’s house.  Even before Noah was born we usually spent Christmas with one family or the other, though the alternation was less strict back then. But last January my mother and stepfather moved to Oregon, and it’s not as easy to travel to see them now so we decided to stay home.

Of course I am sad about not seeing my family on Christmas, but there are upsides: no packing, no travel, a more relaxed winter break, and the biggie in June’s eyes—we got a Christmas tree. Because we were always away on Christmas day and our parents had their own trees it never seemed worth getting one before.

On a Friday evening not quite two weeks before Christmas, we all piled in the car after a diner of frozen pizza and drove to the lot of volunteer fire department to buy a tree. Except when we got there the lot was dark and unstaffed and there were only a couple of trees lying on their sides on the asphalt.  It looked as if they’d sold out.

We reconsidered our options. Ace Hardware had trees in their Garden Center behind the store.  And there was a temporary lot in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.  We decided if we couldn’t support the fire department we’d support a local brick-and-mortar business. Ace it was.  The trees were mostly bundled up and it was hard for me to tell one from another or to guess what they might look like with their branches down but Beth and the kids settled easily on one in the seven to eight feet area and we bought it. When the store employee lifted it to make a fresh cut on the bottom and trim the lower branches, Noah whispered to me, “Tree hugger,” which made me laugh.

The next day Beth set to work cleaning out the clutter of toys in the living room to make room for the tree. Some she moved temporarily down to the basement and some she put aside to give away. Then she set the tree up in its stand.  Sunday she strung lights on it—the lights a thoughtful early Christmas present from my sister who picked lights similar to those we had growing up. However, we didn’t put the ornaments on it because we wanted to wait until after Noah’s paper was turned in and he could participate.

June was delighted with the tree, even only partially decorated, and with the tall candles we put in the fireplace (the chimney doesn’t draw well so we never build fires) and she spent a lot of time reading in front of it, or listening to me read to her.

All weekend and through the week that followed the tree kept taking me by surprise, the unexpected smell of fresh pine in the house, the warm feeling I got from seeing its colored lights shining the dimness of the living room. We thought the cats, or at least Mathew, who’s the more easily spooked of the two, would show some surprise and perhaps even dismay at having a tree in the house, but they had no reaction whatsoever. Apparently we’ve done stranger things than bring a live tree into the house. It is a very odd tradition when you think about it, but it’s also a wonderful one.

The lights proved a bit fickle, as Christmas lights will, and one day a section was blinking on and off, even though they are not blinking lights.  I noticed the neighbors’ tree was doing the exact same thing, about a quarter of their tree was blinking, when it had not been previously, so maybe something about the electric current was odd that day. Or maybe the trees were communicating with each other in Morse code. If so, they said what they needed to say and then stopped.

A week after we bought the tree, we decorated it. Noah had turned in his research paper the day before and was in high spirits.  We’d let him pull the middle school version of an all-nighter on Wednesday night—he was up several hours past his bedtime that night and was still tinkering with it on Thursday morning before he left for school but he got it done. I was super proud of him for completing such a big project and also super relieved.  It felt as if a weight had been lifted from all of us and now we could celebrate.

Friday evening, we got take-out pizza and let Noah choose the restaurant. I thought it would be a quick job to decorate the tree because we didn’t have that many ornaments, just the ones we’ve accumulated over the years as presents from people who didn’t know we didn’t have a tree, a few we’d bought this year, and some spare ones YaYa gave the kids over Thanksgiving.  But I hadn’t actually gone upstairs with Beth, YaYa and the kids when they were selecting ornaments or looked in the box afterward and I didn’t realize it wasn’t a few ornaments she gave us, it was several dozen.

I’d imagined the end result would be a sparsely decorated starter tree, but by the time we’d finished the tree was loaded.  It holds several cherished ornaments from Beth’s childhood, many of which I recognize from Christmases we spent at her family’s house. We also have a newly purchased tree topper, a rusted metal angel holding a star (because we couldn’t settle on whether to get an angel or a star) and our new ornaments everyone had a hand in choosing. June got an angel playing the violin. I meant to buy an ocean-themed one in Rehoboth but I forgot and settled on a Starbucks cup instead.  Beth and Noah picked ornaments with characters from classic Christmas specials.  Beth got the Grinch in a wreath and Noah got a set of four characters from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Once the tree was decorated, and after June was in bed, Noah sprawled on the floor next to it staring at the candles in the fireplace and playing with the melted wax, and just being still for a long time. I thought this inactivity might be just what he needed after working so hard for so long, but eventually he and Beth got the idea to set up the train and they threw themselves into this task with great enthusiasm.

Last summer Beth’s aunt, who had been storing it, gave Beth the train set, circa 1979, which used to wend its way around the Christmas trees of Beth’s youth. It took some trouble shooting to get it going but once they did, Beth and Noah spent a lot of time happily watching it go around the tree. It was like having Noah’s six-year-old self back for a visit, and I for one was happy to see him so carefree.

Every Christmas I have spent with my mother, from childhood to adulthood, she has declared, with utter sincerity, that this year’s tree is “the best tree we’ve ever had.” It’s become something of a family joke. My sister posted a picture of her own tree on Facebook this year, saying it was the “best xmas tree ever!” Since we’ve only had one tree, I suppose this one is by definition the best one we’ve ever had, but considering the happiness it’s brought all of us, I think it could be the most memorable one we’ll ever have.


Every year we go to the beach for a weekend in early to mid-December, to Christmas shop and for me to get an off-season beach fix. When I wrote my speech about our family traditions for our wedding last January, this one was prominently mentioned. It’s right up there with going a little crazy with Halloween decorations and always going to see the cherry blossoms even if they bloom at an inconvenient time.  It’s part of our family culture, so much so that both of my children have believed (and one still may) that the Santa in the little house on the boardwalk is the real Santa and any others they might see in the weeks leading up to Christmas are fakes.

So a week ago, on Thursday morning I was in the kitchen with June singing a Christmas song—I don’t remember which one—except I kept substituting “Beachmas” for “Christmas.” This was because we were leaving for the beach the next day. I’d been cheerful all week contemplating this trip, but I also had some trepidation.

Last year we considered not going on this trip, to save money, but in the end we went because I couldn’t bear the idea of not going.  This year I was more worried about time, Noah’s time that is. It was the second to last weekend before IDRP is due and I didn’t know if going away was a good idea.  But I knew if we cancelled a long-standing tradition on account of his workload we’d all be sad, including, maybe especially him—Noah thrives on tradition—so I didn’t even tell Beth I wasn’t sure if we should go, and we went.


We got a late start Friday afternoon, largely because Noah had not had time to pack beforehand and it was past four-thirty before he was ready to go. We ended up in rush hour traffic on a rainy afternoon, and our progress was excruciatingly slow.  I told Beth I wasn’t going to worry about getting the kids to bed on time, and she said that was good, because there was no chance of it.

We had an audiobook (one of the ones we couldn’t listen to over Thanksgiving because there’s a CD stuck in the drive) downloaded onto a device, but we decided rather than listen to it we’d all be quiet so Noah could read and take notes on the Holocaust memoir he had to re-read because he (along with half the class) failed the test on it. This was less fun than listening to a book together or singing along with Christmas music would have been, especially for June who can’t read in the car without getting sick and was bored and restless.  We decided it was best for Noah, though, and because of his workload and his learning challenges (his ADHD-NOS and his slow processing speed being most relevant here) often what’s best for Noah determines what we all do.

We arrived at the hotel around 9:15, June having slept around a half hour in the car. After we unpacked and June was tucked into bed, I slipped out for a walk on the beach. It was misting and 43 degrees according to the big thermometer on Rehoboth Avenue, with a fierce wind blowing.  I wore my raincoat, rather than the warmer fleece jacket I’d brought, largely to keep myself from yielding to the temptation to stay on the beach too long.  When I came back to the room fifteen minutes later my boots were sandy, my cheeks were tingling with the cold and I felt lighter, more alive, the way I always do after my first trip to the beach in any given visit. Noah still wasn’t in bed and June was awake, too.  It was probably ten-thirty before we all fell asleep.


We didn’t sleep well. The room was over-heated and Beth and I both woke several times during the night and then the kids were up and whispering to each other by five-thirty. I stayed in bed until seven, hoping for more sleep, but I didn’t get any.

The kids and I got dressed and went down to play on the beach while we waited for Galleria Espresso, our favorite breakfast spot, to open at eight.  It was colder than the night before, 38 degrees, but it felt a little warmer because it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t as windy.  June dug in the sand a bit and the kids made a perfunctory sand castle—June filled the bucket with sand and Noah turned it over carefully and then immediately stomped on it because that’s what he does with all his sand castles.

We met Beth at the restaurant and were met with the unwelcome sight of it dark and bare inside.  There was a sign saying it was re-locating to Route 1, which meant it would no longer be accessible by foot, and we’d be unlikely to go there much anymore.  We were all disappointed (no pumpkin crepes for breakfast!) and with the nearby Café-A-Go-Go closed for the season, it was unclear where we should eat. We are creatures of habit, all of us (except maybe June).  As it was we were already staying it a different hotel than we usually do because our preferred hotel was partially under renovation and full of runners for a marathon being held that day. We were quite discombobulated. Beth had the idea to eat in the restaurant of the fanciest hotel on the boardwalk, The Boardwalk Plaza, and knowing it has an ocean view, I readily assented.

After breakfast I was ready to get started on my Christmas shopping mission with June while Noah stayed in the room working on homework.  But June wanted to swim in the hotel pool. She was actually the only one of us happy to be in a new hotel, because of the pool, so I said okay.  We had it to ourselves, possibly because it was raining in there. No, really. They seemed to be having a problem with condensation all over the hotel.  There was water pooling on the windowsill of our room and water dripped from the glass ceiling of the pool area.  I covered our clothes with our jackets so they wouldn’t get too wet while we swam.

By the time June and I had finished and had showers it was almost time for lunch, but we made a quick stop at the tea and spice shop.  June was a shopping dynamo, focused and decisive as she picked gifts for immediate and extended family.  We had lunch at a boardwalk restaurant, which I chose again mainly for the view because we’ve had bad service and mediocre food there in the past. I knew Beth and Noah were unlikely to set foot in there again so it seemed like my best chance to eat a salad and sweet potato fries while I watched the gray waves crash against the shore. June ordered fried pickles for an appetizer, and they were about what you’d expect fried pickles to be like. As we were leaving I thought I’d lost my phone and they were really nice about pulling the booth apart into its component parts to look for it and then I discovered it was in my shirt pocket all along.

Our next stop was going to be the bookstore, but we needed to go back to the hotel first because I had a gift certificate I’d forgotten to bring with me. I came into the room and greeted Beth and Noah cheerfully, but it was soon apparent something was wrong.  Noah had started his homework with Spanish and algebra because those are two of his easier classes and he wanted to get them out of the way, but he got unexpectedly snagged on both assignments.  He was frustrated and tearful and he didn’t want to stop working and go out for lunch because he just wanted to break through the impasse.

I was pretty sure his difficulties stemmed in part from the fact that he hadn’t slept well and it was two o’clock and he hadn’t had lunch.  I felt a stab of guilt for coming to Rehoboth at all, when he might have been able to work better at home.  Meanwhile June said she was going to pretend Noah was laughing and not crying because she didn’t like to hear him cry.

In the end Beth coaxed him to the cheesemonger’s for a lunch of fancy cheese and crackers, while June and I continued our shopping until it was time to see Santa. Noah has not believed in Santa since he was six, but up until this year he has gone for June’s sake (and for many years when she was too shy to speak to Santa he conveyed her wishes for her).  This year, though, he declined.  We didn’t push it. He’s twelve and that is a bit old for sitting on Santa’s lap.

The three of us watched as June went into the little house and whispered to Santa and just so all her bases were covered, she left a note in his mailbox. She’d composed and sealed the note several days earlier.  Uncharacteristically, Beth decided to pry open the envelope and read it, largely because being Santa, she wanted to know what June was expecting of Santa. The note was cryptic saying June knew Santa already knew what she wanted but even if he didn’t provide it she would still believe in him.

After Santa we switched kids and Beth and June went shopping while I stayed in the room with Noah. I thought maybe if I read the Holocaust memoir to him it would go more quickly but he was stopping me so often and taking such detailed notes I soon realized the notes were what was making the reading take so long and I wasn’t helping much.  This was frustrating because I had proposed this as a way he could finish something and feel better about the day and we ended up giving up on it and on working any more that day.

We had dinner at Grotto Pizza, his favorite, and as always Beth gave the kids money to donate to whatever charity they thought had the best Christmas tree in the restaurant. Noah seemed in better spirits.  Earlier in the day Beth had seen a sign outside a locked public restroom that said, “Restroom closed. Use Rehoboth Ave,” and we were all joking when I needed to go use the restroom that as the restaurant was on Rehoboth Avenue, perhaps I should just go outside and pee on the street. We’d been making this joke all day in various forms, but it had not gotten old. That’s how it is with family sometimes.

We went back to the hotel room and watched Frosty the Snowman, which we’d brought with us, and after June was in bed, Noah drummed quietly on the side of our bed with his drumsticks for an hour or so until it was time for him to go to bed.  This helps him decompress sometimes and I thought it was just what he needed.

Meanwhile, I went to the beach again. It was clearer, a beautiful night, and I could see Orion and the Big Dipper. But it was still cold and I didn’t stay long.


The next day an ice storm was due to arrive so we left in the late morning, rather than after lunch as we usually would. I took June to the beach while Noah worked a bit.  We found a post in the sand someone had decorated, wrapping it with red tinsel and affixing tiny ornaments and a big bow to it. I was quite taken with it, a little bit of Christmas there on the beach.

Eventually June got too cold to stay on the beach. I can’t complain about her hardiness because although I’d packed snow pants and boots, I’d forgotten to bring any of her winter jackets and she wore a windbreaker all weekend, sometimes over a sweater, sometimes not. We went to the lobby of a nearby hotel as ours didn’t have one and we read until Beth called and said Noah was ready to eat. We had a nice breakfast at Green Man, and Beth and Noah did some shopping while I took June back to the room and packed to go.

The kids and I went down to the beach for one last time before we left, to say goodbye to the ocean. There was a lot of foam on the sand, as there often is when it’s windy, and the kids had fun stomping on it.  Then we let the waves run over our feet, thirteen times Noah decided, because it was 2013 but actually waiting for 2,013 waves would take too long. June and I were wearing rain boots and our feet stayed dry, but we discovered Noah’s snow boots were not as waterproof. Also, he tripped over his own feet and fell into a retreating wave and got his pants all wet and sandy.  But he was laughing, which was good to hear. Like June, I’d rather hear him laugh than cry.

The ice storm came, as predicted, and it was a tricky drive home for Beth. Noah started editing his paper that evening, having not worked on it all weekend.

Monday and Tuesday

In an extraordinary stroke of luck for Noah the next two days were snow days. He did go out and enjoy the snow, but he spent most of those two days at the computer re-writing his IDRP.  He still has a lot of work to do on it this weekend, but by next Thursday it will be done, for better or for worse.

I’m glad we went to the beach, despite the cold and all the time Noah had to spend working.  He go to go to Grotto’s and shop a little and play on the beach twice so it wasn’t a total loss for him. It wasn’t my ideal Beachmas, but we were all there together, doing what we always do as a family. That’s what holds us together and helps us laugh in the bad times and makes the good times even better.

To Grandmother’s House We Go

Tuesday and Wednesday: Before Thanksgiving

The two days before Thanksgiving were cold and wet and above all busy. I had several work projects to finish. Noah turned in the rough draft of his research paper on Tuesday and had a rehearsal for a joint middle school-high school concert after school and the concert itself that evening.  He didn’t get home until 8:15 and was up until 10:30 doing his World Studies homework. We let him stay up that late (and actually went to bed before he did) because the next day was a half-day and the day before Thanksgiving so we didn’t expect much instruction to take place.

Beth came home early that day and took Noah on a series of errands, which included getting new boots for him while I stayed home with June, packed for our Thanksgiving trip and had her try on snow pants, hats, mittens, and boots.  It was cold in Takoma Park and colder in Wheeling, where there was already some snow on the ground.  June couldn’t even get into her snow pants from last winter so I called up Megan’s mom Kerry, who is always giving us hand-me-downs from her two girls and I asked if she had any outgrown snow pants and sure enough she did.  I needed to go to the library to pick up my next book club book (Alice Munro’s Selected Short Stories) and Megan’s house is on the way so an outing was born.  The girls were happy to see each other, if only for a few minutes (Megan hugged June as if she were going on a long sea journey rather than away for a long weekend.)  The rain and sleet had changed over to snow flurries, which made the walk to the library seem festive.  June went so far as to say it was “a winter wonderland,” even though the snow was not sticking, which I think of as a requirement for that label.

At the library we saw June’s friend Riana and her mom. Riana was sitting in front of an impressively tall pile of books with her nose in one of them. Her mom, Shannon, explained these were necessary supplies for a long, cold weekend. As June and I waited outside the library for Beth to come fetch us, June engrossed in a book of poems she’d selected, Riana and Shannon left the library; Riana was reading while walking.  I pointed to both girls, “They can’t stop,” I said.

“Do you think we’re raising readers?” Shannon asked and she bid us a happy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, Part I: Through the White and Drifted Snow

We left around nine a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. We usually drive on the holiday itself to avoid traffic.  There was very little traffic and the roads were dry, and we made only two short stops, so we arrived in Wheeling a little after two.

The drive was lovely. About ten thirty I started seeing big icicles on the rock face of the road cuts and little ones fringing the road signs like beards.  Fifteen minutes later I noticed the trees in the distance were an oddly fuzzy gray, as if they’d been frosted, but I didn’t think it was snow. It wasn’t white enough. As we got closer I saw it was ice. There had been an ice storm and all the trees were glazed and sparkling in the sun. The photo only pays it partial justice. There was an occasional flurry, enough to be scenic but not enough to hinder driving.  When we stopped for gas, snacks, or a restroom there was just enough snow on the ground for June to stomp. For a brief part of the drive, the snow on the side of the road was deep enough to qualify as “white and drifted snow,” I noted to Beth, but that was only at the highest elevation.

The only mishap of the drive was at the very beginning. As I tried to insert the first CD of the carefully chosen selection of audio books Beth got at the library for the trip, it wouldn’t go in; there was another CD stuck in there.  We listened to Noah’s summer band camp concert on someone’s device (iPod, iPad, phone, who knows, we have a lot of gadgets) and then June suggested we try to play the CD stuck in the drive.  We had no idea what it was but Beth pressed play and Magic Tree House #20, Dingoes at Dinnertime started. These are not my favorite children’s books, but it was forty-five minutes of entertainment for June on a long trip, so I didn’t mind.

Thanksgiving, Part II: Hooray for the Fun! Is the Pudding Done? Hooray for the Pumpkin Pie!

We went straight to Beth’s mom’s house to socialize for a while before going to the hotel to change clothes for dinner, which was at Beth’s aunt Susan’s house. She had a big crowd, twenty-one people, including her three sisters and a small fraction of their children, grandchildren, and one great grandchild. There was a group of four girls aged three to seven, including June and another seven year old and they were immediately fast friends. They ate early at the kids’ table and then watched an animated film about a cow who wanted to be a reindeer.

Noah was the only other kid there and because of the big age gap between him and the other kids or maybe because he’s taller than me now (a fact which did not go unnoticed), Susan said she would seat him at the adult table.

While half the party was eating appetizers and chatting in the living room and the other half was in the kitchen, June played “Happy Birthday” on the violin for the three people who had November birthdays.  And she didn’t make them share. She played it three separate times, each time facing the birthday boy or girl.

Here’s a video Susan took:

Right before dinner, Beth’s aunt Jenny asked for everyone’s attention and delivered a heartfelt speech about how she was grateful for her sisters’ support after her recent heart surgery.

And then we ate.  Dinner was great. Susan’s granddaughters Lily and Tessa had made place cards decorated with pumpkins, acorns and autumnal leaves.  Almost everyone had brought food. The vegetarians among us feasted on mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy (June’s favorite), sweet potatoes, rice, Jenny’s corn pudding, Carole’s nut loaf, green bean casserole, Brussels sprouts, deviled eggs, rolls, and cranberry sauce (Noah’s favorite). Then there was pie. There were three pumpkin pies (including one YaYa made and a pumpkin chiffon Carole made), two pecan pies (one of which YaYa contributed), and a coconut custard pie. It reminded me of the picnic in Harold and the Purple Crayon: “There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie Harold liked best.”

After the meal, June played “Over the River and Through the Woods,” twice because Beth’s cousin Laura dropped by to socialize after her own dinner and had missed it.  June had been practicing this piece for weeks for just this occasion.  (Her violin teacher is a flexible, easy-going young woman who lets June depart from the standard Suzuki songbook when June suggests another song she’d like to learn instead.)

Shortly before seven, most of the families with kids started getting ready to go. Lily and Tessa handed out gingerbread people to everyone and Thanksgiving was over, at least for us. I suspect those with bedtimes after eight stayed a bit longer.

Friday to Sunday: After Thanksgiving

We passed a pleasant weekend in Wheeling. We visited some more with Beth’s aunts, ate leftovers, and went out for crepes and for Chinese. Beth visited with a friend from high school; I read most of an issue of Brain, Child and a good chunk of an Agatha Christie novel, while Noah and I read seven chapters of Fablehaven #4, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary. June spent hours in the hotel pool, one morning with me and the next with Beth and she went skating with Beth. We saw a holiday laser light show and drove through the light display at Oglebay Park. Noah spent two mornings doing homework but he didn’t have to spend the whole weekend holed up in the hotel room, as I’d feared he might. I was glad he was able to come on our outings so he could have a break and spend time with family, because that’s the real reason we give thanks.


Thursday: Halloween

On Halloween, June forgot to attend her after school reading-cooking-art class and came home on the bus.  I was a little dismayed to see her home earlier than expected because the class wasn’t cheap and I’d gone to some trouble to get her on the wait list when it filled before she enrolled. Not to mention it was the second time that week my workday was unexpectedly cut short. I’d had to pick her up at school on Tuesday because she lost her shoes at recess.  (Don’t ask. I don’t know why she removed them or where they went.) On the other hand, I remember how exciting Halloween can be when you’re seven so I wasn’t too surprised the class slipped her mind.

June was dressed as Amy from the 39 Clues series because students at her school were invited to come to school dressed as their favorite character from a book on Halloween. In the past her school has not observed Halloween (unless you count the vocabulary parade last year—and I don’t). I suppose this compromise was meant to straddle the line between those who want some festivity and those who don’t approve of the holiday or at least the more ghastly aspects of it.

I don’t think there’s a very detailed physical description of Amy in the books and they’re not illustrated, so that left June free to imagine how she thought Amy might dress, based on the choices available at our local thrift store. A pink and orange, tiered dress with a green belt, a brown scarf, teal leggings, and sparkly white shoes were what she choose.  It wasn’t that different from what June might wear on a normal day. Noah, who’s been reading this series for years, protested,  “That’s not what Amy would wear,” but as Beth pointed out, June likes Amy so she assumes whatever she likes, Amy would like.  To clarify things, she carried a copy of the first book in the series to school with her.

At June’s bus stop that morning there was a boy dressed as Rin Tin Tin, which also needed explaining, and a girl (the same one who was a picnic table at the parade last weekend) dressed as Ramona Quimby. Ramona had a helpful identifying sign attached to her shirt with a safety pin.  It made sense once I read it because the girl’s outfit was more tomboyish than her usual style.

Noah got home about fifteen minutes after June because he didn’t have band practice. While June watched the special Halloween episodes of The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That and Curious George, Noah and I settled on the porch where he proceeded to give his SmarTrip costume some finishing touches, and I read to him from Grip of the Shadow Plague while he painted. It was an unusually warm day, around 70 degrees. He wore a t-shirt and I was barelegged in denim skirt.

After Noah finished working on his costume, or stopped rather—he never quite finished all the details he wanted to paint—I ran a bath for June and started making dinner (grilled cheese and minestrone from a can). Meanwhile, Noah got the little coffin/fog machine going, lit the jack-o-lanterns and tried to replace the dead batteries in the light-up ghost head, a project that ended up being harder than we anticipated and required Beth’s help.

Beth came home early, exclaimed over Noah’s costume—“You made it even more beautiful!”—and we were eating dinner by 5:45.  Then it was time to cut hand holes in Noah’s costume so he could hold his candy bag and to attach it to him with suspenders, as it had been somewhat awkward to carry during the parade.  Beth said she hated to cut it, though, because she had to remove part of the Washington Monument and some of the lettering at the bottom. June got herself into her costume and Beth painted her face white and applied lipstick to her lips with little drops of blood going down her chin.

June’s friend Megan and her sister Fiona came by shortly before 6:30, dressed as Hermione and the Bride of Frankenstein. After they left, Noah went to meet Sasha and Beth and June set out in search of treats. I was left at home to hand out candy to a fairy, whose dad said we had “the spookiest house on the block,” a firefighter, and a skeleton with a bloody face. Around 7:20, we got a group of about a half a dozen boys including a box of Cheerios and a chicken. When I opened the door, I realized it had started raining. This was a surprise as I’d heard on the radio there wouldn’t be any rain until midnight, well after trick or treating time.

I wondered if Beth and June would come home early.  I’d authorized Beth to let June stay out a little past her bedtime, until eight, but just as I was wondering if they’d stay out that long, they were on the porch. Given that Sasha and Noah were out without any adults, I didn’t expect him much before his appointed return time of 8:30, rain or no rain. I remember being twelve, too.

I asked if it had just started raining and Beth said it had been raining a while. Apparently when it started June, in Beth’s words “declared that vampires love rain, that, in fact rain is the favorite weather of vampires and there was no reason whatsoever to consider cutting our route short.”

June dumped her candy on the living room rug to inventory it and decide what pieces to eat right away. A leprechaun came to the door and when I commented how everyone who’d come had been very polite, saying thank you for the candy and complimenting our decorations, June whispered something to Beth and thus reminded, Beth reported that June had also remembered to say thank you at each house without any prompting from Beth.

We were playing Halloween music and June and I danced together to “Spooky.” When it got to the line “Love is kind of crazy with a spooky little girl like you,” I pointed to her and she pointed back to me. Then she said we should both point to Beth at the next repetition of the chorus, but we were interrupted by another group of trick-or-treaters. The rain did not seem to be deterring anyone. In fact, around eight, as I was handing out candy to a dragon and a pirate, I saw Noah and Sasha, who was wearing I thought might have been a mummy costume—he was in white and had a big round head anyway—pass by our house without pausing.

They were back by 8:20. On closer inspection, I could see Sasha was wearing a lab coat and a pale green fright wig.  “Mad scientist?” I guessed and he said yes.  The paint on Noah’s costume was smeared from the rain and had rubbed off on his candy bag. I told him to leave it out on the porch so it didn’t stain anything in the house.  I said I didn’t think anyone would steal it and he said it “wasn’t unheard of” for people to steal SmarTrips.

When I asked what people thought of his costume, Noah said a few people told him his was the best one they’d seen all night. One person even said it should be in a museum and some people offered him extra candy for his effort. (June had been told she made a “beautiful” vampire, so her ego was satisfied, too.)

A group of students from the college just a couple blocks from the house came by, explaining that they’re on the track team and they’d noted our house while out on a run and determined this would be a good place to go for candy on Halloween. They were our second to last group. Around 9:20, Noah and I went outside to blow out the candles in the jack-o-lanterns, switch off the glowing skulls and other battery-operated props, turn off the fog machine, and call Halloween a wrap.

Friday: Día de los muertos

The kids had Friday off school, not because it was the day after Halloween, not because it was All Saints’ Day, and not because it was the Day of the Dead. They had it off because Thursday was the last day of the first marking period and Friday was a grading day for teachers.  Beth took it off, too, and in the morning we took Noah to the orthodontist for a diagnostic appointment.  They came up with a treatment plan and a payment plan and took all manner of photographs and x-rays and impressions of his teeth.  One of the x-rays was of his whole skull and neck, which was kind of cool to see, especially given the date. He will be getting braces in mid-January and will wear them for approximately two and a half years if all goes as planned. I felt morose and sorry for him the whole appointment because I did not particularly enjoy having braces, but I guess it’s a rite of passage and surely there have been advances in orthodontia since the 1980s that should make it more comfortable.

Afterward we had lunch at California Tortilla, which did not appear to be observing the holiday at all (missed opportunity there) and the kids and I coaxed Beth into trips to Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, which are both located in the same shopping center. Beth and I both worked a little in the afternoon and June had a make-up violin lesson, which Beth got to attend for the first time.

Saturday: All Souls’ Day

Noah and I made pumpkin bread Saturday afternoon. While I was scooping out the shell of the pumpkin, I found a sprouted seed inside it. I kept it to show everyone. June wanted to plant it and I automatically said no, because it’s November and the wrong time to plant pumpkins, but then Beth said why not put it in a pot and see what happened, so I relented and wrapped it up in a wet paper towel to keep it moist until I got a chance to plant it. It did seem determined to live.

Later that afternoon, Beth and I participated in June’s therapy club and her martial arts club. This was the second meeting of the therapy club. I’d missed the first one last weekend while I was at the pool.  Therapy club consists of sitting in chairs outside and chanting a series of syllables after June, lying on the ground on a beach towel, and eating fresh mandarin oranges.  Her martial art—Niclimba—involves doing movements with sticks and was less soothing to my soul, largely because I could never remember the sequence of the movements.

Sunday: Fall Back, 12.5

We set the clocks back on Saturday night, which meant that when the kids’ conversation in their bedroom woke me at 6:15, it felt like 7:15 and I wasn’t as irritated as I might have otherwise been.

June had a birthday party to attend with a wraparound play date because we were planning to take Noah to see Ghostbusters at the American Film Institute and our regular sitter was not available. When I asked Megan’s mom Kerry if June could play at their house that day (completely forgetting Kerry had a birthday party—a Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday party no less—to supervise that day) instead of saying, “Are you crazy?” she welcomed June to their house before and after the party.  Thanks, Kerry! I owe you.

When we got to the theater, Beth said what she always says, that the full-size, ornately decorated theater is how all theaters should look.  I remembered surprisingly little about the film, but I enjoyed it.  Bill Murray’s comic timing and delivery of his lines is exquisite. The film was both scarier and sexier than I remembered, but I think it was okay for Noah. He laughed at the right places, anyway, and seemed to especially like when the demon takes the form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end. He’s growing up—in fact Beth actually forgot to buy a twelve-and-under ticket for him and then she said, “It’s because you’re so mature. I don’t think of you as a child.” And he won’t be eligible for that twelve-and-under price much longer. It was his half-birthday on Sunday, so we stopped at Cake Love after the movie, for the traditional half-birthday cupcakes.

Later that afternoon (or should I say evening, as it was dark), June and I took down the Halloween decorations from the porch and yard and packed them in boxes.  Beth made a white bean soup for dinner and after dinner we had the cupcakes to celebrate a decade and a quarter of Noah.

“How did our baby get to be twelve and a half?” I asked Beth. She just shrugged.

Time marches on, Halloween is over, and my kids keep insisting on getting older. That’s okay, though. Whether he’s dressing himself as public transportation fare card or she’s inventing a new martial art, wondering what’s around the corner is what keeps me going sometimes.  Love is kind of crazy with a spooky little girl and boy like these two.

Very Halloweeny, or Three Weekends in October

Halloween is a big deal at our house, nearly as big as Christmas, so early in October I made up a tentative schedule for the three weekends before Halloween, just so we wouldn’t forget anything we’d planned to do.

Weekend 1

The first event was supposed to be a ride on the Halloween train at Cabin John Regional Park. We’d never been on this train and I had a feeling June would be too old for it soon because it’s designed for kids eight and under. Two years ago we took Noah to the scarier train at Wheaton Regional Park, but I didn’t think June was quite ready for that one.  If you read this you’ll see why (“If You Dare,” 10/24/11). I was looking forward to a more gently spooky trip, but fate intervened in the forms of cold and rainy weather and the train closed due to wet tracks.  We were all little disappointed, but we promised June to try to work it in later.

As an alternative activity, we went to a thrift store to get June some shoes for her vampire costume. Beth and I thought vampires would wear black, or maybe red shoes, but June picked a pair of white patent leather shoes with heart cutouts along the opening and a small heel. Vampires always wear heels, she informed us.

Weekend 2

The next Thursday when I picked June up from her after-school reading-cooking-art class, she said it was going to be “a very Halloweeny weekend” and it was. It was also a three-day weekend because the kids had Friday off because of a teacher convention and Beth took the day off, too. June’s lacy-sleeved Goth Vampire costume arrived in the mail Thursday and June wore it (including the fake fingertips with blood-red nails she ordered separately) all evening.

The kids had dentist appointments Friday morning and then we went out for lunch at Maggiano’s Little Italy. The D.C. location is a downright cavernous space, with soaring ceilings and huge velvet curtains.  June was suitably impressed. In the bathroom when she noticed the paper towels had the restaurant’s name printed on them, she whispered, “This really is a fancy restaurant.”

After lunch we drove out to the Virginia farm stand where we always buy our pumpkins. We got three jack-o-lantern pumpkins (only three because one of our homegrown pumpkins was big enough to use for this purpose), a soup pumpkin, a spaghetti squash, some decorative gourds, and cider. Driving home we listened to the Pandora Halloween station and sang along, which was fun. June liked “Witch Doctor,” Beth was horrified to learn there’s an Alvin and the Chipmunks remake of “Time Warp” and Noah seemed half amused and half embarrassed that the rest of his family was howling during “Werewolves of London,” even though there was no one around to hear us.

That night we carved our jack-o-lanterns. Beth printed out a stack of stencils and chose a Frankenstein head for herself.  June did a spooky tree and Noah did Medusa.  I was intending to do a zombie hand rising from the grave, but when I started to cut into my pumpkin (I had the homegrown one) I found it exceptionally hard to cut. There was green ring in between the skin and the flesh of the pumpkin—I’m guessing I picked it a tad unripe. I realized I’d need to simplify.  I decided a freehand Cyclops would be easy—just one eye and the mouth. Even so I was lucky not to break any of our knives.

Saturday the kids and I decorated the yard while Beth went for her weekly bike ride. Do you live on a street where people decorate for Halloween? Maybe some cobwebs strung over the bushes and a few ghosts dangling from the trees? And is there that one house that looks like a Halloween store truck just pulled up and dumped all its merchandise? That’s our house. We’ve got ghosts big and small, we’ve got skulls and skeletons (some hanging from the porch and one emerging from the ground), we’ve got a giant spider on a web, we’ve got mummies, we’ve got cartoon-like cardboard pumpkins stuck in the ground on pegs, and that’s not counting the things that don’t come out until Halloween proper.

Saturday Noah and I made penne with pumpkin sauce for dinner and Sunday Beth and June baked a tombstone-shaped pumpkin cake, using the second biggest of our homegrown pumpkins. The frosting was cream cheese with crushed gingersnaps and we adorned it with a small plastic skull. It was delicious.

Late Sunday afternoon, we drove out to Cabin John to ride the train.  We only had one ticket because when Beth went to purchase tickets online she snagged the very last one for the 5:00 train. It was unclear if there would be additional tickets available to buy in person so we knew it was possible that June would be riding the train alone.  In the car, she said she hoped we wouldn’t get on, because she wanted to ride alone. I was coming down with a cold, and feeling in low spirits already for other reasons, so it was easy to slide into not quite rational thoughts of how soon she wouldn’t need me for anything any more, which made me sad.  As it turned out, the train was completely sold out for the rest of the day so June did ride alone.

Beth asked if I was upset, as we watched June board the train; I allowed I was. She seemed surprised, and told me when it comes to June’s pulling away, I should “get used to it.” I should, she’s the more independent of the kids. It’s her nature.

Beth, Noah, and I were standing by the fence waiting to watch the train leave the station.  We could see the first few wooden cutouts by the sides of the tracks. Some Halloween themed—a ghost and a black cat, but there was also, inexplicably, a duck.  The whole train ride was a game of I-Spy. All the kids had sheets of images to check off as they saw them.  There were a lot of licensed characters among the Halloween images, Clifford, Elmo, Thomas, etc.

“It was really for younger kids,” June said, somewhat scornfully when she got off twenty minutes later. She had completed her card, however. Every image was xed out in crayon.

As we walked back to the car, Beth took my hand and commented on what a lovely fall afternoon it was. She was right. It was warm—I wore a wool shirt with no jacket—and the light filtering through multi-colored leaves of the tall trees all around us was golden.

Meanwhile, over the course of the weekend, I boiled and roasted pan after pan of pumpkin seeds and Noah was hard at work on his costume.  He’s going as a SmarTrip, (an electronic fare card that works on several D.C. area public transit systems).  He printed out an image of a SmarTrip and drew a grid on it. Then he drew a grid on a big piece of poster board, in preparation to sketch and then paint the card design on it.

Weekend 3

Friday afternoon, June and I took a walk to Maggie’s house to deliver some extra finger-extenders (there were seventy-two in the package and Beth had put the surplus on offer on Facebook). Maggie’s going as a zombie princess and her mom thought she might like blood-red fingernails with her gray and black face paint and tattered gown.  Maggie’s dad invited June to stay for an impromptu play date, so she did.

Saturday morning Noah and Beth made pumpkin waffles for breakfast, with a maple-cream topping, which Beth described as being like a melted maple milkshake. By this point, Noah had sketched the design of his SmarTrip in pencil and painted part of it, but there was a lot of painting left to do, and the Halloween parade was that afternoon at five.

He settled in to spend most of Saturday on the living room floor with his paints and brushes and I settled in to spend it sitting on the floor with him, keeping him company and reading to him.  We started with assigned reading—a chapter of Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down and three chapters of a Holocaust memoir—so he wouldn’t have to try to cram all his homework into Sunday.  And then we read a little of Grip of the Shadow Plague (from the Fablehaven series) just for fun. I took breaks to clean the bathroom and go on an outing with Beth and June.  Dolci Gelati was giving away free crepe samples (they are really more like filled waffle sticks) and the children of our friends Amy and Amy were having a stand in front of their house selling homegrown decorative gourds, bookmarks, and origami. Given how often June does things like this and how grateful we are when anyone shows up, we felt it was our duty.

Around four, Beth told Noah he needed to stop painting so the paint could dry enough for them to cut a hole in the posterboard for his head. He wasn’t finished and he kept wanting just a little more time, but just before four-thirty, he called it quits and they cut the hole and fashioned grips out of duct tape to stick to the back of the board.  The design was not completely painted, but it was close and from a distance I didn’t think anyone would notice.

We drove to the start of the parade route, which was in a different place this year, the food Co-op parking lot.  Beth and Noah went to wait there while I walked June a few blocks to her friend Claire’s house.  June had elected to skip the parade this year and attend Claire’s family’s Halloween party. It had been a hard decision for her but she was excited to be going.  She was in her vampire costume and chanting, “I want to suck your blood” over and over in a keyed up way.

It felt a little odd to be dropping June off alone at a party that wasn’t just for kids.  I let Claire’s mom know she was a vegetarian (no problem, she was too and wasn’t serving any meat) and checked to make sure there wouldn’t be any scary movies (there wouldn’t) and I left. June had no qualms at all, had already compared costumes with Claire (they were both vampires), and had disappeared into her room.

Back at the parking lot I learned that even though multiple publicity emails said the costume contest would start at five, as soon as Beth and Noah arrived there was an announcement that it would be at five-thirty.  That might have been the last announcement we heard because though there was a man with a bullhorn who often seemed to be talking into it, we could never make out what he was saying.

Five-thirty passed and then 5:45.  The sun had gone down and while I’d been plenty warm in my turtleneck at the beginning of the event I soon realized I’d made a tactical error in not wearing a jacket. We socialized with various people we knew.  A third-grader from June’s bus stop was dressed as a picnic table with cheese, bread, grapes and sparkling juice laid out on it.  The table was balanced on the girl’s shoulders and her head emerged from a basket in the center.  June’s friend the zombie princess was there, along with her family and we chatted with her folks and with the mother of Noah’s best friend from preschool  (we saw the boys talking to each other, too, although I don’t think they recognize or even remember each other).

Because it was crowded, with a lot of people milling around, we didn’t realize the different age groups were marching for the judges until they’d gotten all the way up to the eight to ten group, though there was no danger or Noah missing his cue. He was staying very near the Rec center employee holding the eleven-to-twelve sign.

After the judges had seen all the groups, the parade started moving. Along the route people kept stopping Noah to take his picture. It happened at least four times and many other people yelled compliments or pointed him out to friends. Noah was clearly pleased. Beth said she was glad for his moment of celebrity, and I was too. He rarely seeks the limelight, but he always puts a lot of work into his costumes and he takes pride in them. He wanted to win a prize in the contest for years and when he finally did the year he was ten (and dressed as a newspaper—“The Curse of the Mummy’s Hand” 11/1/11), it was a great victory.

When we passed Claire’s house, there were party-goers watching the parade from the yard and the porch and the balcony, but we didn’t see June.  She told us later she watched part of the parade as it passed but went inside before it was over and didn’t see us.

We were marching to downtown Takoma, where there would be refreshments, a band, activity tables, and the contest winners would be announced.  We weren’t too interested in anything other than finding out who won the contest, though, because it was cold. The parade used to end inside a local elementary school and I thought with longing of its hot, crowded gym.  Beth bought hot chocolate and coffee at Takoma Bistro and we sipped it while we waited.

Finally, the band stopped playing and they started announcing winners.  I missed the two and unders while I’d gone to use the bathroom, again at Takoma Bistro (and perhaps to linger longer than strictly necessary with my hands under the hot air of the dryer).  It was harder to see the winners as they approached the stage than it was at the old location, which was disappointing. I always like to admire the winning costumes.  I heard from the zombie’s mother later that she won scariest in the five-to-seven category but I missed hearing that and she wasn’t there because she’d gotten too cold and gone home.  We were glad that the picnic table won in eight-to-ten because it was a fabulous costume and she deserved it.  In the eleven-to-twelve category there were three winners: the boy holding his own severed head, the girl who walked the parade route on stilts, and… the SmarTrip!

Noah got a certificate and a bag of candy and trinkets and then we left to collect June from Claire’s house, where the kids were engaged in whacking a skull piñata out in the yard. We waited until it was broken and June had her hands full of candy to tell her it was time to go home.  “Did Noah win?” she asked.  We said he had. She didn’t seem surprised or jealous. I’m sure she’ll want march in the parade again some year, but right then she was clutching her piñata booty, full of stories about the party, and happy with her evening. We all were. Even with the main event still a few days away, it had been a very satisfying Halloween season.

No to Yes

The Trouble with Forty-Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you know how Ulysses ends, right?

Yes I said yes I will Yes.

Ring out the Old, Ring in the New

“Do you think you were good for so long at Ya-Ya’s that you were just full of bad behavior that just had to get out?” I asked June as we walked to the library on a chilly afternoon, three days after Christmas. It was our first day back from West Virginia—a pleasant five-day stay that involved sledding and ice skating and baking gingerbread cookies and watching Christmas specials and driving through the light display at Oglebay Park and eating Christmas dinner at the lodge of the park and opening loads of presents and visiting with relatives.  The kids were very well behaved at Beth’s mom’s house and at Aunt Carole’s house, where we stayed with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Abby.  There are no other children in the family so they often had to amuse themselves quietly while the grownups talked about boring grownup things.  They were also well behaved on the drive home Thursday, thanks to a headphone splitter that allowed them to listen to the same audiobooks together.

Friday Beth went into the office for a few hours and all hell broke loose soon after she left. Believe it or not, the kids had a fight that ranged over a half hour about toilet paper.  Yes, toilet paper. More specifically, about how many rolls from the recently delivered case that was sitting in the living room each of them would carry to the basement for storage and how they would alternate their trips.  It was a surprisingly explosive argument. There was pushing and crying on both sides. I don’t put the kids in time out very often anymore, but I didn’t think this was going to be settled without some enforced separation first, so I sent June to her room for six and a half minutes, and Noah to mine for eleven and half minutes.  When the time had elapsed I told them they were free to try to work it out again but if they couldn’t do it peaceably I would decide who was carrying the toilet paper downstairs.

They were calmer after the break, and slowly, painfully they worked out a mutually acceptable arrangement.  A couple of times tempers started to flare, but they’d check themselves. At one point June suggested they just let me decide but Noah was afraid I’d say I was going to carry it all downstairs by myself (for the record, this is not what I would have said) and they persevered.

Later that morning June had a play date that was—how shall I say?—more high-spirited than usual.  I was reading the last chapter of The Golden Compass to Noah when June and her friend snuck into the room and started to pelt him with plastic Noah’s ark animals. Because he stooped to their level and started throwing them back I told him he’d just have to read the last two pages of the book on his own.  This upset him considerably more than I thought it would and for the second time that morning he was in tears. He was tired, we all were after five nights sleeping in the same room, and he was sick, too, with a head cold, and I guess he just didn’t have much emotional resilience.  When June’s friend left he asked me to cook lunch with him and I was on the verge of saying no, I just wanted to fix something quick, but then I thought better of it. He likes to cook with me and it is vacation still.  We made egg noodles with sautéed spinach, garlic, thyme, Parmesan, and almonds.

I needed to go to the library and thought it might be good to get the kids separated, so I took June and left Noah, with instructions to practice percussion while we were gone.  I also decided to walk, rather than take the bus in case pent-up energy after a long car ride the day before was part of the problem.

We returned around 2:15 to find Beth home from work. June watched Angelina Ballerina before the four of us set out for Rockville to get a marriage license.  The kids were loud in the car, not arguing exactly but chanting a nonsense poem and coming right up to the edge of argument over and over.

We found the building we needed and the office inside it, a drab bureaucratic suite I don’t think anyone ever would have characterized as a cheery place. There were signs noting that marriage licenses are non-refundable and it is forbidden to throw rice in the marriage room.  (Noah was not familiar with this tradition and was somewhat baffled by the sign until I explained.) Nonetheless, it felt cheery, sitting there along with several straight couples and two other lesbian couples. I wasn’t surprised that two out of three lesbian couples had kids (besides us there was a thirty-something couple with a baby) because many of us have waited long enough for marriage to have established families already.  Oddly, though, most of the straight couples had kids, too, ranging from preschoolers to teens. The oldest girl there was developmentally delayed and just over the moon to see her parents (or a parent and a stepparent?) getting ready to tie the knot.  A small wedding party exited the marriage room while we were there and a guest for another wedding arrived only to discover he was in the wrong place or there at the wrong time, because there was no wedding scheduled for the parties he named. (I wondered if someone got jilted and all the guests but one were notified.)

While we were there I realized that because gay weddings can be performed starting on New Years’ Day and there’s a 48-hour waiting period for everyone and were there the last business day of the year (December 28), it was also the very last day gay couples would have any longer to wait after getting a license than straight people.  Somehow that brought the equality part of marriage equality home.

Once it was our turn, we were called into a cubicle where we showed identification, signed papers and received more forms for the celebrant to submit once we’re married.  We were issued a pamphlet on family planning (though we’ve really got that covered).  Glancing at the kids, the official acknowledged we probably didn’t need it and complemented the kids on their good behavior. (They are well-behaved much of the time.) And then it was finished and we went to the Container Store to buy June a big basket for her dress-up clothes and then out for pizza at Matchbox. On the way home we saw the full moon rise, huge and white, and low in the sky. It was lovely.

The next day we had another excursion, to Baltimore to meet up with my mom, who’s moving out of her house in the Philadelphia area in less than two weeks.  She and my stepfather will take a trip to Peru and then they’re heading West, to stay with her sister in Idaho and finally, in late February Mom and Jim will move into their new house in Oregon.  Mom is in a frenzy trying to sell her furniture and get her packing done.  We’d planned to have lunch in Baltimore and then go to the American Visionary Art Museum but between traffic, heavy snow and getting lost, we didn’t meet up at the restaurant until almost two hours after we’d planned. While we were waiting for Mom to arrive we wandered around the Inner Harbor in the snow, played the big metallophones we found there (think xylophones made of hollow metal tubes), and then we went into Barnes and Noble where we sipped coffee and milk, and watched the snow fall into the canals and browsed.

Because of the late start to our visit, Mom decided to skip the museum.  Still, we had a very nice lunch, and we discussed her upcoming plans and the latest twist and turns in my sister’s adoption quest. Mom gave me a bag full of old stories and poems I’d written as a kid, plus report cards and photographs and other mementos she came across while packing.  After we parted, we made a quick visit to the museum where we admired fairy houses made of natural materials on rotating platforms, kinetic sculptures, a big glass case of Pez dispensers, a dinosaur sculpture made of antique toys and obsolete technology, and a giant elephant with a mustache wearing a sombrero.  I was sad, so whimsy seemed a good antidote. The sun was setting over the harbor as we drove home, turning the windows of the old brick Domino Sugar plant to a fiery gold.

It’s natural to think about beginnings and endings this time of year.  It’s phases of relationships that are starting and ending of course, rather than the relationships themselves. I’d be surprised if Beth’s and my married life is much different than our long courtship has been, and Mom promises to come East to see us two or three times a year. Still, these are real changes. And as always with kids, there’s something new on the horizon.  Noah was invited to join the sixth grade Honors Band this winter (musicians were chosen from ten middle schools) and practice starts Thursday. The next day basketball season starts for June. It’s time to ring out the old and ring in the new.



“Have we ever left for vacation this late?” June wondered.  It was 6:15 Friday evening and we were pulled up at a gas station, waiting for our turn to fill up the tank for our drive to Rehoboth Beach.

I told her that once, before she and Noah were born, Beth had to work so late we didn’t leave for the beach until 10 p.m. and we got there at 1:00 a.m.  Beth doesn’t work that late anymore, but she did have a 4:00 meeting that meant she couldn’t cut out mid-afternoon, as I’d hoped. As a result, our annual Christmas shopping weekend trip was getting off to a later start than I’d anticipated.

We were lucky to be going at all. I’d only made the reservations on Monday, after weeks of wavering about whether to take the trip. Due to other obligations, the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend was the only one that worked. It would mean traveling two weekends in a row and getting behind in household chores, plus we’ve been making an effort to be more frugal lately.

I like the Christmas shopping trip for a few reasons—first off, it’s an excuse to go to the beach.  But away from the distractions of home, it is much easier to focus on shopping and we often get quite a lot of it done.  Also, Santa’s house on the boardwalk is the very best place to visit him. It’s scenic, free, and there’s never much of a line.  Despite all the advantages of the trip, an oceanfront hotel room in Rehoboth is not cheap, even in the off-season. But in the end, I couldn’t bear the idea of not going, so we went.

Normally, it throws me into a panic to have the kids up well past their bedtimes. It has to do with them both being terrible sleepers well into the preschool years, and only fair sleepers now. When they’re up late it dredges up that feeling that none of us is ever going to get any sleep again. Given all that, I felt surprisingly calm to be leaving the Taco Bell near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where we dined, only about a third of the way to our destination, at 7:50, five minutes past June’s bedtime. Maybe it was the call of the beach or maybe it was personal growth. You be the judge.

June fell asleep around 8:20 and remained asleep until we arrived at the hotel at 9:35. By 10:00, we were checked in and the kids were in bed. They were poking each other and bickering when I stepped out onto the balcony to watch the ocean for fifteen minutes and when I came back in they were quiet and awake, but drowsy-looking. I got ready for bed and crawled into bed, too.


I’d hoped we might all sleep in, as we’d all been up past our respective bedtimes, but I woke at 5:45 and couldn’t get back to sleep and the kids were awake and whispering loudly to each other by 6:10.  We didn’t even bother making them stay quiet until 7:00, even though that is the weekend rule.  We were all out of bed by 6:45, and June and I were out the door at 7:10, on a scouting mission to see if Gallery Espresso was open yet.  It wasn’t and there was no sign indicating when it might open, so June and I wandered Rehoboth Avenue and the boardwalk, gathering intelligence on open restaurants and then we played on the beach, while we waited for Beth and Noah to be ready to leave the hotel.

The early morning light turned the sand an apricot color, while each little hollow lay in blue-gray shadow.  The sea and wet sand near the shoreline were silvery and the last pink of the sunrise was just fading from the sky.  It was hard to imagine anything more lovely.

Gallery Espresso finally opened at eight and we had pumpkin crepes (Noah and me) and bagels (June and Beth) for breakfast.  Beth started to teach June to play chess, and then we split up to shop. June and I shopped downtown Rehoboth while Beth and Noah hit the outlets.  In addition to Christmas shopping, they needed to get underwear for him because I’d left his suitcase on my bed at home and even though he’d decided it would be fun to wear the same clothes for three days in a row, I decided clean underwear was the bare minimum effort we needed to make not to be negligent parents. (We leave suitcases behind all the time. It’s our specialty.  We left Noah’s at home on a trip to the Outer Banks the summer he was eight, and Beth and June left theirs behind just this summer on a camping trip. It no longer fazes us much.)

June and I had a very productive morning. We got her gifts for my sister Sara, Beth and Noah, and she found a Groovy Girl doll bed and she decided to ask Santa for it. This was a more easily obtainable item than “climbing equipment,” which was her most recent idea for a Santa-request. We didn’t have a jungle gym in our budget and it wasn’t even clear that was what she meant because when I said, “like playground equipment?” she said no. We were pondering a promise of an outing to a gym with a climbing wall, but the doll bed was sounding good. June liked the idea because apparently she’d wanted it on a previous trip to a toy store and Beth wouldn’t buy it—prime Santa material. All I had to do was wait to make sure she actually did ask Santa for it and didn’t change her mind in the next few hours.

Satisfied with our morning’s shopping, we headed to the beach to play. Beth and Noah soon joined us and the kids spent almost an hour making sand castles. It was heartwarming to see Noah happily engaged in this activity. He’ll be twelve in the spring and I don’t know how many more times I’ll see the sight of him sprawled on the sand, shaping one of his creations.

The kids thought we should have a sand castle contest. I said I’d be the judge, and there would be at least two categories.  June won “best use of shells” for her shell-topped and ringed castles. Noah won for “cleanest lines” (he smashed a few castles until he got a perfect, uncrumbled impression of the pail) and “best use of shadow.”  He’d filled in the long shadow of his castle with a heap of sand to give the shadow a slightly raised texture.

For lunch we tried a boardwalk restaurant where we’d never eaten, mainly because there’s often nothing vegetarian on the menu, but Beth checked and they had a few options.  It’s on the second floor, over an arcade, so we knew it must have a nice view.  The view was in fact lovely, and the food was mostly okay, despite slow, surly service and oddly thin and grainy milkshakes. On the whole, I thought it was a win, though Beth may disagree.  I do tend to put a lot of emphasis on an ocean view.

After lunch, Noah and I read in the hotel lounge while Beth and June did more shopping.  And then it was time for Santa.

I never thought June would believe in Santa longer than Noah did. He’s more trusting by nature, and she’s more prone to skepticism. When they were babies Noah smiled at everyone he saw, while June watched the world suspiciously from the safety of my arms. But Noah’s also scientific-minded and logical, where June loves magic and romance. She’s the age Noah was when his belief in Santa crumbled under the weight of the logical impossibilities (“Where Santa is Real,” 12/10/07) but so far June’s faith shows no sign of wavering. She has questions, of course.  Does Santa fly home to the North Pole every night after visiting with children on the boardwalk or does he stay in a hotel?  Perhaps our hotel? Is it possible that it’s not really Santa in the house, but a helper?  However, the core of her belief seems unshaken.

She was nervous about the visit, which surprised me because she wasn’t last year and it seemed like a regression. “I don’t know him very well,” she explained. Even though I told her she didn’t have to sit on his lap, she did without any hesitation, and she told him she wanted the doll bed. Noah sat on Santa’s lap, too, for fun or for June’s sake, and he said he wanted a $400 gift certificate for Apple.  Santa seemed taken aback and we rushed to assure him that a smaller sum would suffice.

After Santa, I left the kids with Beth and made a beeline for the doll bed, because Beth said the last time she’d been to that store, there was only one left. They have free gift wrapping there and the wrapper was a chatty elderly woman who wanted to know all about the recipients of the doll bed and something else I was getting for Noah. When I said the kids were with their other mom, she wanted to tell me all about her older brother who came out in the 1950s and “had to move to San Francisco.” She still seemed sad about his departure and she said she was glad there was more social acceptance now.  So I was obliged to tell her we live in Maryland and we’re getting married next month.  I think I made her day she was so happy for us.

I had time for a solo walk on the beach before I was supposed to meet Beth and the kids for dinner at Grotto at 5:00. At 4:10, the light was very similar to how it had been at 7:30. The sand was golden-pink again; the water silvery. As the afternoon progressed, the sky grew pinker, until it was half-covered with puffy, vividly colored clouds.

At Grotto, the kids went over to the Christmas tree display at the back of the restaurant. Local charities decorate trees and set donation boxes underneath. Beth gave the kids some money to donate. June donated to the prettiest trees. Noah tried to take the mission of the charity into account, but it was hard because a lot them were foundations with uninformative names. He did say it helped if “they made an effort” with the tree. On the way out of the restaurant, June got a balloon she named Balloony and wore tied around her wrist on and off for the rest of the weekend.

At the hotel, I bathed June and then took her down to the lounge to read Toys Go Out and assorted Christmas books while Noah practiced percussion in our room until June’s bedtime.


The next morning we had breakfast at Gallery Espresso again and again we had to wait for them to open so Noah read Toys Go Out to June in the lounge, which we shared with a woman and a baby.  I was able to do my own thing while they read and I wondered if the woman was looking forward to having self-entertaining children or thinking with horror “They still get up at the crack of dawn at that age?”

After breakfast, Beth and Noah went back to the room so he could do some homework and I tried to take June to the beach, but it was foggy and chilly and she quit on me after ten minutes.  I hated to leave as the waves were big and beautiful to watch, but it seemed important to keep the kids separated so Noah could work, so instead of leaving her with Beth, I took her back to the lounge, where she drew and I wrote.

When it was time to check out of the hotel, we loaded up the car, left it in the hotel parking garage and walked to a jeweler’s to shop for wedding rings.  We weren’t sure if we were going to buy or just look–the big day is just around the corner, and we thought if we saw something we liked it would be nice to give our business to a gay-friendly establishment, of which there are plenty in Rehoboth.  In fact, in this store, in the corner where you sit to look at rings and get your fingers sized there was a framed poster of three kissing couples in wedding attire—one straight, one gay male and one lesbian–with the slogan “Traditions Evolve.”

It didn’t take long to choose. We knew what we were after, simple, matching gold bands.  We had to decide about carats, width, color and finish and soon Beth was singing a credit card receipt for more than the entire budget for our original commitment ceremony.  (We did that ceremony on the cheap, as we were young and broke. It was a potluck in our apartment.)  The clerks, one male and one female, were friendly and congratulatory.  When we were finished, the man brought out some homemade peanut butter fudge to celebrate.  News of our nuptials spread joy wherever we go apparently.

We had lunch and ran down to the beach to say goodbye to the ocean.  On the walk toward the beach June kept saying she couldn’t wait for Christmas.  This year she’s just as excited about the gifts she picked for other people as the gifts she’ll receive. Three weeks seems like an impossibly long wait to her but to me it seems a pleasant span of time to plan and look forward to the holiday.

At the beach Noah and I and waded into the waves while June watched a few steps behind us. I was wearing rubber boots, but Noah was barefoot. He screamed from the cold but he was laughing at the same time, and he stayed in for twelve waves, just as he said he would.  We’re big on doing what we said we would, all four of us.

It was the first day of Advent the day we left the beach, the day we bought the rings.  We are not Christians, but it seemed fitting to do this at the beginning of a season of joyful anticipation. We’re not having a wedding per se because we’ve done that already. It will just be Beth and me and the kids and the officiant at our house one Friday morning in mid-January, on the twenty-first anniversary of our commitment ceremony. We’ll dress up and there will be flowers and the rings of course.  I’m thinking of that as the day as being like renewing our vows.  We’ll all speak a bit about what being part of our family means to us, and of course, we’ll legally formalize our relationship.  Like Christmas, it’s a joyful thing on the horizon.

Let’s Say Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s say happy.