Spooky

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.

Advent

Friday

“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.

Saturday

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.

Sunday

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.

Frankenstorm

Monday: Frankenstorm

After spending much of Sunday preparing for the power to be out on Monday, I was pleased to wake up and find it still functioning.  I wasn’t expecting it to last though so the first decision of the day was whether to eat breakfast quickly (and encourage everyone else to do the same) so I could run the dishwasher one last time, or whether to check Facebook.  I can wash dishes by hand, I reasoned, so Facebook it was.  I needn’t have hurried though.  The power was on the rest of the day and all day it seemed like a miracle. Every time I used the computer or opened the fridge and felt cold air or switched on the radio or the television so June could watch Angelina Ballerina I felt grateful.

It was a rainy, windy day—the rain started Sunday night—but in the morning it just seemed like a blustery autumn day, nothing catastrophic. I even wondered if the kids could have been in school.  Montgomery County had cancelled school for Monday and Tuesday on Sunday afternoon, before the first raindrop even fell. As parents received the news on their phones on the sidelines of June’s soccer game I heard the cries of dismay over and over. So the kids were home.  Beth was, too, because in a rare move, Metro had cancelled service and she was working from home.

I spent a lot of time on Facebook, mainly because I kept thinking it would be the last time I could check it for a long time, but we didn’t spend the whole day at our various computers.  Beth did some organizing and straightening in the basement in preparation for possible flooding. Noah and I worked on clutter in the dining room, and June cleaned the kids’ room and even swept it.

June also found some plastic pearls Noah used in a diorama back in fourth grade and she started stringing them onto thread to make necklaces for Beth, me, and herself. She also found a Styrofoam cooler and decided what it needed was to be beautified with magic marker drawings of a flower and a sun on the lid and pink polka dots all over its sides. As Beth noted, where we see utilitarian objects, June sees a blank canvas.

Noah practiced his drums and we read the last chapter of Artemis Fowl: the Atlantis Complex while June played with Megan, who’d come over for a play date. She came bearing chocolate chip cookies because not wanting to throw out her large tub of cookie dough, Megan’s mom had baked the whole thing and now had cookies to spare.  Apparently baking is a common response to an impending hurricane (or an extratropical cyclone to be precise). All day Sunday and Monday I was looking at pictures of home-baked goods (cookies, pies, etc) on Facebook and I, too, had a very strong urge to make brownies.

This was because when I’d picked June up from Maggie’s house on Friday afternoon, I’d asked Maggie’s dad if his wife, who just lost her father, would appreciate some brownies and he said yes, so it was on my to-do list to make some but we had a busy weekend and I really didn’t expect to have power on Monday so I didn’t even put the ingredients on the shopping list when Beth went shopping on Sunday. I was thinking the butter would just go bad before I had a working oven.  But as the day progressed and the power continued not to go out, I started to reconsider.

Late in the afternoon, after the winds had picked up considerably, I decided to walk up to the 7-11 for butter and sugar. Beth was concerned, but I’d been turning the idea over in my head for hours and I knew I wouldn’t be able to let go of it unless I just went and did it.  I called ahead of time to make sure the store was open and had butter and sugar stocked and the clerk said yes.

The walk was uneventful. It was raining hard and the wind buffeted my umbrella but it only turned inside out once and I was able to fix it.  There weren’t even any puddles worthy of my rain boots until I got to the 7-11 parking lot.  Once inside I realized I had not asked exactly the right questions on the phone.  They were open and they did have butter and sugar, but only one box of four half-sticks and I was making fancy mint brownies, which have a layer of crème de menthe flavored frosting and then a hard chocolate shell on top of that.  A pan takes a whopping three and three-quarters sticks of butter.  I bought the small box of butter anyway, figuring I could at least make the brownies. The two top layers don’t require baking, only melting and we have a gas stove so if I got the brownies baked, I could go out and get more butter and finish them another day.

Now it was a question of getting home and getting the brownies baked before the power went out.  The lights flickered as I beat the batter and again about fifteen minutes into the baking, but the power held.  And it held through dinner preparations and eating dinner and June’s bath and her bedtime preparations and Noah’s, too.  When I put him to bed at 9:20, he said, “I hope the power stays on.”

“Me, too,” I said. And then the lights flickered again.

Beth and I went to sleep listening to the pelting rain and the wind rattling the windows, and wondering what the night and the next day would hold.

Tuesday: After the Storm

But Frankenstorm ended up being rather anti-climactic, at least in Maryland. (Obviously that wasn’t true in New Jersey or New York.) A few branches fell off our trees and one of the pickets was ripped from our front gate, still tangled in the Halloween caution tape we’d neglected to remove. The power never went out at our house, or as far as I could tell, in most of Takoma Park and Silver Spring. One friend’s house did sustain some roof damage but everyone else I know escaped unscathed. Two of the local families we know who did lose power live near each other and the Co-op.  So it wasn’t a surprise that the Co-op was closed.  I was wondering if the CVS had butter when Beth volunteered to drive to the supermarket, as we also needed eggs. (I’d used nine the day before between the brownies and spinach omelets for dinner.)

Beth worked in the morning, or tried to amidst all the chaos, and then after lunch, we took a family walk to Capital City Cheesecake to get ourselves out of the house and moving after a day and a half cooped up inside.  Noah walked quickly, waited for us at each corner, and asked why we were so slow.  On the Carroll Avenue Bridge we stopped to look down at the roiling waters of Sligo Creek, and Beth noted that the leaves on the sidewalk were an interesting mix of fall colors and still green ones, which are more unusual to see on the ground.

Once at our destination and enjoying our slices of pumpkin and Oreo cheesecake, lattes, and hot chocolate (Noah shared his after June spilled hers), June observed casually that we were close the video store and she had been asking to see a movie.  Noah didn’t want to go and I needed to get back home to start the beans cooking for black bean and quinoa stew, so we split up.

Beth and June came back from the video store with Mulan, which I’d suggested to June many, many times, only to come home with a movie about some more delicate Disney princess.  So I ditched my plans to do a little work and watched it with the kids instead. Next I cooked dinner while Beth and the kids restored most of the Halloween decorations to the yard and porch, as well as some we’d never gotten up in the first place. For this chore June dressed in her Helper Girl Outfit, a superhero cape and a tiara turned upside down and pulled down over her eyes to serve as a mask. (She also wore this get-up to help Beth prep the yard before the storm.)

After dinner I finished the brownie toppings but by the time the chocolate had set it was too late to take it over to Maggie’s house, so I resolved to do it in the morning. What better day to deliver frosted brownies to someone’s house than the most sugar-intensive day of the year? Oh well, I did my best.

Wednesday: Halloween

Maggie lives about a block from June’s school so I walked June to school instead of putting her on the bus and we delivered the brownies.  I had my first normal work day in several days and when June got off the bus at 3:10 we put up more decorations.  Beth had left the big spider web and the tree and bush ghosts for me.  Noah got home around 4:30 and we prioritized his homework.  He’d do his English and math but he’d have to skip percussion practice.  There just wasn’t time to do everything and still be at Sasha’s by 6:30.  (Apparently his math teacher told them sixth grade was too old for trick-or-treating. I disagree.)  After a rush to light the pumpkins, get the police light flashing and the color-changing coffin fog machine going, Beth and the lion left around 6:25 and the metronome was out the door at 6:30.  (I was this close to calling Sasha’s house to say the metronome would be late, but I decided not to over-parent.)  And then I was alone to distribute candy.

By seven we’d had three groups. The first one consisted of a teenage girl in a letter jacket, a younger child with a cardboard jack-o-lantern on his head and a few kids Noah’s age with no costumes at all. I often wish I was assertive enough to enforce a no costume, no candy rule, but I’m not. To their credit, they did say thank you.  Then we got a couple teenage boys dressed as members of Kiss and girl who I think was wearing a sari but her coat covered most of it.  She and her mom lingered to admire the decorations, especially the fog machine and the skeleton emerging from the ground.  “So festive,” the mom said.

In between the second and third groups, Beth and June returned to the house.  “I’m not done,” June said breathlessly. “I just have to go to the bathroom.”

“Don’t get your tail in the toilet,” Beth advised.  Soon, they were gone again.

They were back for good at 7:20.  June lined up all her Kit Kats.  There were around ten of them, much to her satisfaction. I was going to put her straight to bed, but she begged for a bath so I gave her a quick one, and put her to bed. We got a few more trick-or-treaters, a teenage cat, and then two girls from June’s school bus stop dressed as a bee and a witch.

Noah had been given strict instruction to be home by 8:00, but by 8:10 he wasn’t home so Beth called his phone. No answer. At 8:20 I called Sasha’s house, after going out the broken gate and peering down the deserted sidewalk. They weren’t at Sasha’s house either, but a few minutes later they arrived. I was angrier with him than Beth was, which is ironic given that she’s usually more insistent about punctuality than I am.  I’m stricter about bedtime, though, and I’d been worried. I explained that to him once he’d been home and safe for twenty minutes and Beth came as “an ambassador from Noah,” wanting to know if he could have a piece of candy. (I’d snapped no when he first came home.) I told him how parents get scared when their kids don’t come home when they’re supposed to and how that fear turns to anger as soon as they see the kids. Then I let him have a piece of candy and he went to bed. It’s good I got to practice this speech on Noah because I have a feeling I will need to give it to both kids at least a few times during the teen years, which are just around the corner.

We had a few more trick-or-treaters. Megan, dressed as Maid Marian and disappointed to hear June was in bed, came to the door shortly after Noah came home, and then there was a group of teens, including Batman.  Around 9:25 I blew out the candles in the pumpkins, and turned off the police light and the glowing ghost head, skull and coffin, and called it a night.

We’d thought Frankenstorm might ruin Halloween, if it was still raining or if there were massive power outages. Every time we warned the kids of this possibility, Noah said I sounded like someone in a Christmas special, talking about how Christmas was cancelled. But in those specials Christmas always goes on and so did Halloween, complete with the sweetness of a long line of Kit Kats and a little taste of fear as well.

The Gathering Storm

The line for early voting at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Saturday was long, jaw-dropping long.  It snaked through the plaza in front of the building, around the corner, down a block, around another corner and past the Whole Foods and it was still rapidly growing in the direction of the parking lot once we found the end of it.

My mother, who was visiting for the weekend, predicted in dismayed tones that it would take two hours to vote if we got into the line.  Beth offered to drive Mom, June and me home and return. She was determined to vote because she was afraid Hurricane Sandy, due to arrive on Sunday or Monday, might cancel the rest of early voting and she didn’t want to stand in long lines on Election Day, a work day for her.

I hesitated, and suggested everyone but Beth go to Starbucks to buy some time to consider our plan.  We’d see how far Beth had progressed when we were finished and decide how to proceed from there. I wasn’t going to make Beth get out of line after a long wait, but the rest of us could go home on the bus, an option that was looking attractive as I considered the line. Mom was amenable to the Starbucks plan because she hadn’t had any coffee that morning. We’d been rushing to get out of the house by 8:45 for June’s gymnastics class and the coffee pot Beth and I never use had been temporarily mislaid.  So Mom, who suffers from insomnia and had not slept well the night before, was in need of caffeine and I’m never one to say no to a latte so we left Beth and went in search of coffee, chocolate milk and pastries.

We took our time and when we got back Beth was almost to the plaza so I decided to stand in line with her for a little while and see how things went.  Mom and June settled down to sit on a low wall. Mom started reading a Ladybug magazine to June. (I have been gradually handing these down to my cousin Holly’s four-year-old daughter since June reads Spider now, but we still have a few around and she does still like them.)

By the time we could see the blue no-electioneering-beyond-this-point line up ahead I knew I couldn’t turn back even if the line inside the building was also long. I went to confer with Mom about whether she wanted to stay or take the bus home.  In Starbucks, she’d just told me a long, detailed story about getting lost between a parking spot and a nearby restaurant and ending up the wrong borough on recent trip to New York with her sister, which made me hesitate just slightly about putting her on a bus with June, but the 17 goes right from the block were they were sitting to our doorstep and June knows the route so I would have let them go.

She asked what I thought they should do. She didn’t seem set on going home so I suggested they swing over to the farmers’ market that was in progress just steps away and buy some apples and we’d meet them back there.

Eventually, Beth and I breached the perimeter of the Civic Center.  The line did twist around in there, too, but it didn’t take too long to get in sight of the voting booths.  Because throughout most of the experience I’d been considering bailing and voting another day and I was preoccupied with the decision and the logistics of who would stay and who would go and how they’d go I had given very little thought to what I was actually doing.  It was the sight of those booths that jolted me into remembering. I was here to vote, on various offices and ballot questions, but most importantly for the re-election of President Obama and for Question 6, which would allow gays and lesbians to marry in Maryland.

After we voted, I found Beth in the lobby and, holding hands, we walked outside into the festive atmosphere of a warm October Saturday afternoon in downtown Silver Spring with the flea market and farmers market in full swing and crowds of our fellow Marylanders in line for their turn to exercise their franchise.  Mom was right. It did take two hours to vote. It was worth every minute.

After lunch at Panera–“Does this make us Panera voters?” I asked Beth — we went home to put the finishing touches on June’s lion costume (she sewed the tail herself!) in time for the Halloween parade that afternoon and to carve jack-o-lanterns. Mom participated in the pumpkin carving and used a pattern for the first time.  (Hers is the arch-backed cat.)  I decided to go with a quicker, traditional jack-o-lantern face so I could get a jump on dinner preparations.  The parade starts at five, which always presents us with a dinner timing challenge.  Do we want to eat at 4:30, or after June’s bedtime?  Some year we should make sandwiches to eat as we walk, but this year we were having pumpkin pancakes. Noah and I cook together on Saturday nights and he picks the recipes. He’s been on a pumpkin kick recently—pumpkin muffins, pumpkin bread and now pumpkin pancakes, always with fresh pumpkin, never canned.  I decided the thing to do was make the pancakes ahead of time, feed June before the parade and have everyone else eat reheated pancakes after she was in bed.

We drove to the start of the parade route and everyone but Beth got out of the car, while she drove it to the end of the route and walked back.  Mom took June to the area where the five-to-seven year olds were assembling and I accompanied Noah to area for the eleven and twelve year olds, and silently sized up the competition.  It’s the smallest age group so I thought he might have a chance at reclaiming his costume contest glory of last year (“The Curse of the Mummy’s Hand” 11/1/2011).  There was a kid dressed in the trademark Steve Jobs black turtleneck and jeans with a poster board iPhone screen full of app icons hanging from his neck, another one in a big rubber horse mask wearing a fedora and a trench coat, but no other serious contenders for Most Original.  And Original is the prize you’re gunning for if you show up dressed as a metronome.  A few ninjas and knights came over to Noah and asked him what he was.  He got that question quite a few times (and he was nice enough to give a patient, age-appropriate explanation to a curious preschooler). There were a few people who guessed without prompting however, some took his picture, and a girl in his age group wearing silver face paint said “A metronome. Awesome.”

The parade made its way through its initial loop up and down one block, which is where the judging takes place. No official asked Noah or June for their names so we had a pretty good idea they were not in the running for a prize.  Noah didn’t seem too disappointed.  He’s easy-going that way. The parade then made its leisurely way through the streets of Takoma Park, to the local elementary school where the Halloween party is held.

We heard the Grandsons perform and waited to hear the contest results. I watched June’s face as the winners in her age group were called and I thought I saw a flash of disappointment when she didn’t win anything, but there were some pretty good costumes in her group, including a boy who had a shirt rigged up so he appeared to be carrying his own head.  The horse, a horse detective apparently, took the original prize in Noah’s age group.  I liked the iPhone and thought if Noah couldn’t win, he should have but those are the breaks. (Later when this boy won the contest to guess how many candy corns were in jar I was surprised to learn it was his best friend from preschool—still lanky and blond but so much older than the last time I’d seen him as to be unrecognizable.)

The group costumes are always fun. The two most memorable winners were the family that came as a power outage and another one that came as the debates.  The members of power outage family (which included a classmate of June’s) were dressed in black, one of them was a darkened light bulb, another was an open freezer full of melting food and one was a utility company worker. They won scariest, which was appropriate, considering Sandy is headed our way. The debates had people in Obama and Romney masks, a little girl dressed as Michelle Obama. Big Bird, and, of course, a binder full of women.  On the way out the door, we picked up cups of apple juices, cookies and small bags of candy on and another Halloween parade was over.

Mom left this morning, and we spent much of the day preparing for the storm. We did two loads of laundry, ran the dishwasher, roasted pumpkin seeds and froze jugs of water. Noah vacuumed and we all charged our electronic devices and Noah and printed the papers we needed to do homework and work once the power goes out. Beth and June secured loose items in the yard, re-arranged items in the basement in case of flooding, and with great sadness, took down our elaborate collection of Halloween decorations so they could live to grace our yard another year.  And then we all watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown while we still had a working television.

It’s looking like a big one. School is canceled for Monday and Tuesday and Metro is shutting down some time tonight, so Beth’s not going to work tomorrow. I have been joking that perhaps this hurricane is the gathering storm the right wing warned about in those silly, anti-gay marriage ads.  If it’s a sign Question 6 is going to pass, though, I’ll take the storm, however inconvenient.

As much as possible, we are ready for the storm, whatever it brings. And as June pointed out, seeking reassurance, I think, even if Question 6 does not pass it will be okay because we’ll still be a family.  And we will, no matter what scary things the weather or politics blow our way.

The Love That I Have

My new blogging program tells me this is my two-hundredth post.  It was also the blog’s fifth anniversary about a week ago.  When I started writing here, I had a kindergartener and an almost eleven-month-old baby.  Now I have a kindergartener and an almost eleven-year-old boy.  Five years ago I was also deep in mourning for the loss of my academic career, though I tried not to write too much about it. I wouldn’t say I’m over that loss by any means, although it’s better certainly, especially now that I have a fledgling freelance career. Five years ago my father was alive and Beth’s was, too.  That pain has receded a little as well. Daily life pulls us along, away from the past and away from pain.  Having kids makes you live in the now, and that’s often a good thing, especially on a day as sweet as Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday but I do like it.  On the first day of February, I posted on Facebook, “Steph has put a heart-shaped eraser on her desk and now considers her Valentine’s Day decorating complete. This holiday does not capture her imagination quite like Halloween, though she does like the candy.”  June’s preparations were somewhat more elaborate.  She drew hearts on strips of paper and taped them to the exterior walls of the house, one on either side of the front door.  She started making valentines some time in early January, storing them in a Clementine box she decorated with more strips of paper on which she drew rows of hearts and flowers.  Two weekends before the big day, Beth took her to a valentine-making activity at the public library where they had construction paper and doilies and foam letters which allowed her to make fancier valentines than the ones she made at home with the paper, crayons and scissors with which we supplied her. Despite getting an early start there was a production rush at the end, as she lost interest in the project for a few weeks in the middle.  Her cards to my mom, stepfather and sister went into the mail the day before Valentine’s Day, too late to arrive on time, and she was making the last few for her classmates over the weekend.

Noah decided not to make cards for his classmates (or anyone) this year.  Last year he did but many of the kids in of his class didn’t, so I suspect this year might have been the last year for a lot of kids. His class had a party and he did bring home valentines, from about half the class, mostly girls.  What he also brought home was a large tower of candy he won for guessing how many pieces it contains.  He guessed 958 and it had 1,027 small pieces of candy (a mix of Tootsie Rolls, Sweet Tart hearts, M&Ms, and Hershey’s kisses). June’s haul, consisting of a paper bag of candy from classmates and a box of conversation hearts from her after-school yoga teacher (devoured on the walk home), was considerably smaller, but it did contain a box of Darth Vader gummy heads, from a classmate named Luke, no less.

While the kids did homework, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of one of the grants I’m writing and sent it off.  The kids and I ate a dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches I cut into heart shapes with cookie cutters while we waited for Beth to come home. June said her sandwich was so beautiful she didn’t want to eat it. The kids hadn’t eaten much of their candy, but they were wound up nonetheless because they knew there would be gifts when she got home. I’d called Beth at 5:45, partly to see how close to home she was (Union Station was the answer) and I was on the verge of calling her again when she walked in the door around 6:35.  I ushered her into the bedroom so she could sign the valentines I’d bought for the kids and she ate her dinner, and then the great exchange of chocolate began.  There were chocolate-covered dried strawberries (a gift from Noah to the family), a chocolate heart, filled with wrapped chocolates (a gift from June to the family).  The kids got more conversation hearts and plastic hearts filled with M&Ms and June got a little Snow White figurine with two outfits, made of rubber.  (You stretch them onto her. It’s very odd.) Beth got me sea salt soap and sea salt caramels (very yummy). I wrote in her card that I’d secured babysitting for Saturday afternoon and suggested we see The Artist.

Soon after we’d opened everything there was a knock on the door. I was expecting canvassers or proselytizing Adventists (we live near a big Adventist church so we get a lot of that) but instead it was Zoli (formerly known as the Bobcat) and her mom who had come to hand-deliver a valentine to June.  We tried to give them some of our chocolate, unsuccessfully. I suspect there might have been a lot at their house, too. It’s a day of bounty, and not just in terms of sugar. It’s been that way consistently for me for a long time, and for that I feel very lucky.

I got a lot more than candy yesterday.  I had the chance to do meaningful work in a quiet house, a walk home from June’s yoga class through woods filled with purple crocuses, the treat of listening to June proudly read the words I wrote in her valentine, almost unassisted (and she probably could have read them all if my handwriting were better).  I have a date with Beth to anticipate.  At bedtime I got a hug and an “I love you,” from Noah.  And here’s what June wrote in my valentine: “You are the Love that I have you are Love that I Love I Love you.” Does it get much better than that?

A New One Just Begun

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

From “Happy Christmas/War is Over” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The kids go back to school tomorrow.  We split their winter break in half so we had five days at Mom’s and five days at home. This was a very satisfactory arrangement. It felt like a substantial visit with the extended family and a nice block of time for nuclear family togetherness as well.  We didn’t do everything we considered—Beth decided against going into her office to straighten it up and do some filing, and we never got organized enough to go to see the U.S. Botanic Garden’s holiday exhibit, but we had a long outing and a short one, we had family friends over on New Year’s Eve Day, and Noah played with three school friends and June with two, and we (mostly Beth) did a lot of cleaning and straightening and hanging pictures and fixing things around the house, so I think our time was well spent.

Thursday: Sentimental Journey

There’s a Degas exhibit at the Phillips Collection that’s been there since October.  We tried organizing a three-ballerina expedition with Talia’s and Gabriella’s families in the fall but we could never find a date that worked so we decided to go and see it ourselves before it leaves town.  The Phillips is in Dupont Circle, the D.C. neighborhood of our childless (and Noah’s babyhood) days so it’s full of sentimental appeal.  We visited a few of our old stomping grounds, including Café Luna, where we ate lunch (pointing out to Noah the Thai restaurant next door where we ate dinner the night before he was born) and Kramerbooks a combination bookstore/restaurant where we had desert after the exhibit and bought books.  I got my next two book club books (Catch-22 and Les Miserables) and June picked out a couple of Dora books, including one in Spanish.  I find it satisfying to buy books in a store these days as bookstores are disappearing rapidly in our area (and probably yours too). I like to support them when I get the chance, in hopes they will not go completely extinct.

In between, we visited the museum.  June enjoyed the ballerina paintings (and looking at herself in the mirrored wall with a barre) but she went through the exhibit at her usual brisk pace, which meant we could not linger as long as the adults might have liked.  Noah liked the sculptures best and was also interested in the computer images of what lies under the visible layer of paint.  When we finished with Degas, we visited some other parts of the museum.  We went into the Rothko room, much to the alarm of the guards, who insisted that June’s hand be held at all times.  (The paintings in that room are not under glass.) June gave the guard an exasperated look when she heard this.  Clearly he did not know how well behaved she is and how many tiger paws she has (twenty-three, third place in her class- not that she’s keeping track).  For a while the kids played a game of Noah’s invention called “Guess the Medium,” in which he’d have June guess whether a piece of art was done in paint, chalk, water color, etc. I caught a glimpse of them spontaneously holding hands in front of a painting (though later Noah claimed he’d done no such thing).  It was a lovely, lovely day, just like old times, except completely different.

Friday and Saturday: New Year’s Eve

We didn’t do much on Friday. Noah went over to Sasha’s and the rest of us hung around the house and June played with new Christmas toys while Beth and I cleaned in anticipation of our New Year’s Eve Day guests.  Saturday morning we cleaned some more and made peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses baked into them and I set out our spread of sparkling juice, fruit, crackers and fancy cheeses, cookies and candy.  Noah helped by making little labels for the cheeses, which he stuck into them with toothpicks. They looked like little flags.

Joyce, her husband Smitty and their nine-year-old daughter Gwen came for lunch.  Joyce and I once shared a tiny, windowless, computerless office–which we affectionately called The Shoebox–with five other adjuncts and teaching assistants at George Washington University, when she was a graduate student there and I was an adjunct, back before our kids were born. We reminisced about that and caught each other up on our current lives (she’s an English professor at Ball State University now) and we ate a lot of cheese while the kids made videos on the computer.  I always enjoy seeing Joyce, even though her visits are far between now that she lives in Indiana.

We listened to Christmas music all through the visit and into the evening.  After our guests left we watched our last Christmas movie Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, before declaring ourselves done with Christmas (okay, we will finish the sweets). We didn’t stay up to welcome in the New Year.  Beth and I were in bed before ten p.m., but we had a very pleasant New Year’s Eve nonetheless.

Sunday: New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day was another quiet day, full of grocery shopping and little home improvement projects. Noah and Beth took turns showing me how to use various functions of my new iPod so now I can listen to music, the radio and podcasts, if I remember their instructions.  I made black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year and I finally made good on a resolution to get June some play dates already. She hasn’t had one in months and she’s been asking for ages to have someone come play.  She and her friend played instruments and danced and played Chutes and Ladders and had an earnest conversation about how no one should make fun of Rapunzel because of her long hair.

Monday: The Last Hurrah

Monday was the last day of the kids’ break.  We drove all the way out to Bethesda to have breakfast at Cosi because Noah was in the mood for square bagels.  There’s a Barnes and Noble nearby and Noah was also wanting a couple more 39 Clues books he didn’t get for Christmas, so he bought them himself.  June picked up a discounted Bambi book for herself as well, also using saved allowance.  I was feeling positively virtuous for having patronized two bookstores in five days, even if one was a big chain.

I snuck in a short editing job while June watched television and after lunch, Beth went out for coffee with Lesley and the kids had a play date extravaganza.  June had another friend over and Noah’s twin friends came over, too.  The big kids played with hexbugs and huddled together on our bed playing a game on Noah’s iPod.  The little kids played Chutes and Ladders and staged a medieval lesbian wedding between two of the Playmobile castle women, witnessed by reindeer and snowmen figurines. Later they ran around in the back yard, jumped on the mini-trampoline, played the Cat in the Hat game and made masks from June’s mask kit.  Everyone played so well together I was able to read a longish Margaret Atwood story from The New Yorker in relative peace.

The whole five days felt relaxed and fun and productive at the same time.  The house looks better than usual, as Beth did some deep cleaning and I feel ready to return to work tomorrow (that is if the snow flurries we had this afternoon don’t turn into something serious enough to cancel school).

Sara asked me over Christmas if I’m happy and I gave her a mixed report, but on consideration, I think I really am a lot happier than I was a year ago when I could see June’s preschool years drawing to a close but I had no idea what that would mean for me (see my 1/9/11 post).  Even though Noah will start middle school in 2012 and it’s bound to be an interesting year politically, I feel that the big changes for me have already happened with my transition from stay-at-home mom to part-time work-at-home mom.  The New Year’s just begun– we’re two days in and I’m ready to see what the rest of it holds.