Of Pumpkins and Presidents

We live pretty near the Maryland/Virginia border but we don’t go to Virginia often. We’re more often in the District, where Beth works and where our doctors and dentists are. However, in the past week, we’ve visited our sister state twice, or at least June and I have.

1. Pumpkins

Late last Saturday afternoon we drove forty-five minutes to Potomac Vegetable Farm, our traditional source for jack-o-lantern pumpkins. There are certainly closer places we could get pumpkins or pumpkin farms with more bells and whistles in terms of activities, festivals, etc. But we started going to Potomac Vegetable Farm before the kids were born because the family of a friend of ours from college ran it, and now it’s a sacred tradition. We’ve only missed one year when we all had a stomach bug.

On the way there I noticed Northern Virginia is Clinton/Kaine country, if yard signs are any indication. And that’s good, because unlike reliably blue Maryland, Virginia is a swing state, or it often is, in a normal year. (It went for Obama twice, but Bush twice before that.) It’s looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment.

Noah was working on the script and storyboard of his dystopian trailer before we left and it was hard to pull him away from it, but I’m glad he agreed to come because it turned into a pretty fun family outing. We picked out some decorative gourds and our jack-o-lanterns—I opted to go with a white pumpkin this year—took the traditional pumpkin farm photo of the kids, and stocked up on cider and fall produce. I got beets, squash, a sweet potato, and some late cherry tomatoes to cook with and Beth got a couple green tomatoes, which would supplement our garden tomatoes when she made her signature fried green tomatoes for dinner on Sunday.

From the farm, we headed to Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we’ve never tried before and which we all enjoyed. If you go, I recommend the fake shrimp. I also appreciated the owners’ commitment to sunflowers in the décor. There were real sunflowers growing outside the restaurant (dead now of course, but I’m sure it was pretty when they were in bloom) and sunflowers decorations everywhere you look inside.

As we finished our meal, we discussed dessert options. June’s been wanting to try bubble tea for a while now and Beth looked on her phone and found a (mostly) Asian dessert place nearby that carried it. June got mango and I got coconut and Beth and Noah went for chocolate cake and raspberry cheesecake respectively. As we drove home, sipping our sweet drinks and listening to Halloween music and catching glimpses of the enormous full moon that kept popping in and out of view, I felt deeply content. Over the next week, whenever I glimpsed the little pumpkin and yellow and green gourd on my desk, it kept reminding me of that pleasant day.

2. Presidents

Almost a week later, on Friday, I chaperoned a fifth grade field trip to Mount Vernon. I signed up because the last field trip I went on to Saint Mary’s City last spring was fun. But as happened last time, I didn’t really expect to be chosen because there are often more parents who want to chaperone trips than there are slots. But when June came home the next day with a form about a new online training about child abuse and neglect all school volunteers have to complete and I asked if I could wait to see if I was chosen before I did it, she said, “Oh, you’re in.”

So I did the training, and it was kind of annoying, because near the end I lost all my progress due to a computer glitch and then I had to start over. But I persevered and Friday morning found me at June’s school.

We almost didn’t go on the trip because on Wednesday at recess June twisted her ankle and on Thursday morning she still couldn’t put any weight on it, but she really wanted to go so we decided to give it a try.

We got a ride to school with Megan’s mom, who was dropping off her younger daughter. The buses left the school at 9:40 and crossed the Maryland/Virginia border about twenty minutes later. It was a pretty drive. The leaves are just starting to change and we passed the Washington Monument, National Airport, and drove through charming Old Town Alexandria with all its colonial architecture. I noticed some water birds in the Potomac. And then about 10:35 we arrived at Mount Vernon. As we disembarked from the bus, Zoë noticed the Clinton button on my backpack and said, “I like your button.”

Chaperones were allowed to wander with their groups until our tour of the mansion at 11:30. I was sharing a group of eight girls with the father of one of June’s friends, but it soon became clear June couldn’t keep up on her crutches, so I told him I was going to peel off with her so we could go at her pace. We made our way slowly toward the mansion, stopping to rest on benches and to read short bits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while her classmates went to explore the farm and gardens.

June was a trooper with the crutches, but she was getting tired and red-faced, so when we got to the mansion, I left her with her math teacher—I couldn’t find my co-chaperone or her social studies teacher—to go see if I could get a loaner wheelchair. In retrospect, I should have done this at the entrance, where they have more wheelchairs, but we were still trying to keep up with the group then and there was no time to stop and ask. They only had an adult size wheelchair at the mansion. The wheels were too far apart for June to comfortably maneuver it by herself but all we needed was some respite from walking for her and I could push her.

She rode in the wheelchair through the line to get into the mansion and then we stowed it outside because she wanted to go up to the second floor. During their reading about George Washington and his family she got especially interested in his step-granddaughter Nelly and she wanted to see her room, so she hopped up the stairs while I held the crutches.

There were a lot of school groups visiting that day (or maybe every day) and so they really hustle you through the house, but you can explore the out buildings at your leisure. We peeked into the smokehouse, the stables and carriage house, the storehouse, the clerk’s office, and the paint storage cellar. They used a lot of paint at Mount Vernon because even though the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s really made of wood carved to look like masonry and painted with paint mixed with fine sand, to give it the glitter of mica in stone. Anyway, it needed frequent repainting. We got shooed away from the ice house because we’d gotten too close to a private tour group, so we never saw inside it.

Reading the signs, I noticed they almost never used the word “slave.” Instead it would say “enslaved gardeners,” “enslaved cooks,” “the enslaved population,” etc. It made me reflect on how this shifts the concept from slavery as a state which is continually forced on a person rather than a slave being something he or she inherently is.

I asked June what else she wanted to see and she said the Washingtons’ tomb so I pushed the wheelchair carefully down a pebbly hill to see George and Martha’s white marble sarcophaguses housed a big brick tomb that also houses the remains of other relatives as well. I would have liked to go see the slave memorial and the wharf but I was afraid of going even further downhill with the wheelchair. I learned later from the Mount Vernon website we were only fifty yards from the slave memorial at the time, but I didn’t know that, just what direction the signs said to go. It was hard pushing the chair back up the hill so when a passerby asked if he could help I accepted his offer. Thanks, stranger!

We peeked into a vegetable garden and an orchard on our way back to the museum but we didn’t go into them, as there were stairs. At the museum we toured exhibits about Washington’s childhood, the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. It was nice to have a flat surface for the wheelchair. We didn’t have time to see the 4-D movie we later heard June’s classmates extol, but maybe we’ll go back some day.

We returned the wheelchair and re-joined June’s classmates for a late picnic lunch on the lawn near the driveway. As we ate the sky clouded over, the temperature dropped dramatically, a terrific wind kicked up, blowing leaves everywhere, and it started to sprinkle rain. By the time we were gathered to wait for the buses, it was raining in earnest. I helped June into her raincoat and urged her to go slowly on the wet pavement. (She’d fallen twice on wet restroom floors in the museum.)

We ran into traffic on the way home and there was a lot of water on the road the bus pushed up in sheets and the drive that took less than an hour getting there two hours and fifteen minutes getting back. We were an hour and twenty minutes late returning to school and the whole fifth grade missed their school buses. (Something similar happened on the way home from St. Mary’s last spring so I wasn’t surprised.) I’d been hoping to put June on her school bus and walk home by myself, but we got a ride with another chaperone. Thanks, Mindy!

During the bus ride, I asked June if she was glad she went and she said, “Yes. Are you?” I said I was glad to have gone and also to have been there to help her get around. “I wouldn’t have gone without you,” she said, leaning against me and resting her head on my shoulder. She was so tuckered out she actually fell asleep for fifteen minutes or so.

I have a piece of paper on which I jotted down these words, a quote from Washington, which were painted on the wall in the museum: “That the Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the world, I have little doubt.”

Our democracy was far from perfect then, as I’m sure the enslaved population and many of the women would have attested, and it’s still far from perfect, but it’s gradually getting closer to fulfilling its promise and I think it’s quite a lot better than near-apocalyptic vision of one of the Presidential candidates. It was moving to visit the home of our first President near the end of the second term of our first African-American President and on the eve, I hope, of the first term of our first female President. It makes me wonder what other almost unimaginable changes will take place in my children’s lifetimes.

Wintry Mix

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

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

I. Thursday to Saturday: Visit with Uncle Johnny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Tuesday: Two-Hour Delay

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

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

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

III. Thursday: Band and Orchestra Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Friday to Sunday: Valentines’ Day Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

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

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

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

Boxing Day

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

The Music is So Delightful

The Holiday Sing at June’s school was the subject of unexpected controversy this year. First the times for the performances changed and parents who had taken time off work were inconvenienced. There was quite the hullabaloo about it on the PTA listerv. You wouldn’t believe it, unless you’ve ever read a PTA listerv, in which case it was just about what you’d expect. After some discontent about the schedule change and how the event is publicized in general, it eventually turned into a critique, by a kindergarten parent, about the whole format of the Holiday Sing, in which fourth and fifth-graders in orchestra, band, and chorus perform and kids in the younger grades participate in a sing-along.

I think what it comes down to, for some parents anyway, was a desire for it to be more like the elementary school holiday concerts of our youth, with every kid in the school up on risers and singing for parents. But June’s school has nine hundred students. That’s just not going to work. Even as it is, they have to do the Holiday Sing over the course of two days, in three shifts, one for an audience of kindergartens and first graders, one for the second and third grade and one for fourth and fifth grade students who aren’t taking instrumental music or chorus. I think the pre-K gets split in half, as some attend school in the morning and some in the afternoon.

In my opinion, it’s actually a pretty elegant solution. There are advantages to having only the students who’ve shown enough interest in music to join band, orchestra, or chorus perform. (I will discreetly let you imagine what these are.) In fact, it’s not even the whole band and orchestra that play. Just fifth graders, advanced fourth graders, and a few beginning fourth graders who play needed instruments. Yet with the sing-along component, everyone gets to participate, even if the kids are sitting on the floor, facing the stage so their parents sitting on folding chairs at the back of the room can only see the backs of their heads (and sometimes their hands if the song has hand motions).

Anyway, being a veteran elementary school parent, I knew what to expect from the Holiday Sing. And it was a big deal for June this year because after years of anticipation, she was finally old enough to be on stage. And she’d be there over and over because she’s in orchestra and chorus. The chorus started practicing the Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa songs back in September. The orchestra songs, “Skaters’ Waltz” and “Sleigh Ride” were merely wintry, rather than holiday-themed because they are going to perform them again at their full-length concert in late January.

June was excited in the days leading up to the concert. The weekend we were in Rehoboth Beth took her to the outlets and bought her an outfit to wear—a white cowl-necked sweater, a black pleated skirt, black tights with rhinestones, and shiny black shoes, with costume jewels on the toes. I had suggested making do with a white cardigan, navy skirt, and navy leggings she already owned but I was apparently missing the point of the concert dress code—new clothes. (She did wear the other outfit on the second day she performed because she didn’t want to go to school in the same outfit two days in a row, another thing I failed to understand.) As a final touch, she donned a Santa hat, as did a few other musicians and singers.

June also had a preference for which performance she wanted us to attend. The chorus was singing different songs at different shifts and they were only doing her favorite song, “Little Saint Nick,” at the fourth and fifth grade show, on Thursday afternoon. Thursday was a tricky day for Beth, as there was a board meeting she needed prepare for, and there was also a press conference to announce her union was endorsing Bernie Sanders. She said she’d do her best to come, but she couldn’t promise.

I didn’t know if she was coming until I got a text from her twenty-five minutes before I left the house, saying she was leaving her office. I met her inside the school. She’d saved a seat in the front row. So we sat and watched the kids take their places. We’ve been to a lot of elementary and middle school band concerts since Noah started to play percussion five years ago, so all the group kids in the black and white dress clothes milling around up on stage was a familiar sight, but there were a couple of differences. For one, because Noah switched elementary schools after third grade, he never played at this school’s Holiday Sing. More importantly, though, for the first time, the kid up on stage with an instrument was June.

“She’s growing up,” I whispered to Beth, and then we both cried a little.

The band and orchestra alternated songs. The brass instruments played first. We knew two of the trumpet players and one of the saxophonists from June’s bus stop. (One was probably wearing a hand-me-down band shirt of Noah’s.) The orchestra had two songs and the second one in particular “Sleigh Ride” sounded really good. June looked very serious as she played.

After the instrumental music was over, the chorus sang three songs alone (“Winter Wonderland,” “The Eight Days of Hanukkah,” and “Blitzen’s Boogie”) and then nine more with audience participation. June may have liked “Little Saint Nick” best but the kids in the audience went crazy for “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” They always do. There was also quite a commotion when it was announced any teacher who wanted to wear reindeer antlers during the sing-along could. All the kids were clamoring for their teachers to go get some and a few of them did.

There are always at least a couple songs in Spanish (or Ladino) because of the large Spanish-speaking population at June’s school and its Spanish immersion program. This year it was “Ocho Kandelikas” and “Dale Dale Dale.” Another of the Hanukkah songs was in Hebrew and one of the Kwanzaa songs was partially in Swahili, so it was all quite international.

The program was over in about forty-five minutes. Then June went to an abbreviated gym class (in her dress clothes) and Beth and I headed home. On the way out, Beth snapped a picture of a bulletin board promoting the Holiday Sing. It said, “The weather outside is frightful, but music is so delightful.” We haven’t had much wintry weather yet this year—the day of the Holiday Sing it was in the fifties and raining, but watching our kids play and sing is always delightful. That never changes.

December Sunsets

Friday

Beth worked from home Friday morning and took the afternoon off, so we could leave for our annual Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth when the kids got home from school. After she drove Noah to school she swung by Starbucks and returned with a peppermint mocha, which she delivered to me at the bus stop where I was waiting with June. I knew then it was going to be a good day.

It was, even though we got to the beach later than expected. There was traffic around Annapolis and a detour toward the end of the drive. But we made the best of it, singing along with our Christmas music and admiring people’s lights as well as what we could glimpse of the light display at Sandy Point State Park from the highway. By the time we got to our dinner destination of Grotto Pizza it was 7:40, which is quite late for us to eat, and everyone was so tired and hungry we all just sat around the table silently until the food came and then we perked up a bit.

After dinner Beth drove the kids to the condo we’d rented. I walked there because it was just off the boardwalk and I wanted to see the ocean. It was a clear night, so as soon as I left the lighted portion of the boardwalk I could see a lot of stars, though the only ones I could identify were in Orion’s belt. I think if I lived at the beach, I’d learn all the constellations. I walked down onto the sand for several minutes and got close enough to the water so it almost touched my feet, yet somehow I managed not to get my Birkenstocks and socks soaked. I had the briefest flash of feeling the bigness and beauty of the world before I turned back to land.

I walked the block to the condo where Beth and the kids had been searching its somewhat confusing floor plan for our unit. They met me at the corner, coming down to get the luggage from the car, and cheerfully told me the building was “creepy” and “like a horror movie.”

It was a concrete building, with approximately thirty units in two levels over a parking garage, with balconies connecting the units like a motel. It was completely deserted—we never saw another soul coming or going or another lit window the whole weekend. It was also a bit down at the heel; there were rust stains on some of the outside walls, and cobwebs in the lobby. Also, the pool had been left uncovered and was full of dirty rainwater. Inside our unit was clean and comfortable, however. Our biggest complaint was a lack of blankets—we had to turn up the heat higher than we otherwise would have—and a lack of WiFi. But the location couldn’t be beat and there was a partial ocean view from two rooms, so I was satisfied. We did call it “the creepy condo” the whole time we were there, though, because that sort of thing amuses us.

Saturday

7:30 Saturday morning found me on the beach. The last golden-pink light of the sunrise was still lingering when I arrived. One of the nice things about being at the beach in December is I can see the sunrise over the ocean without getting up any earlier than I usually do.

I watched the daylight get brighter and clearer. I walked north and noticed a big deposit of shells on the sand I thought June might like to see and I stood on wooden jetty (on one of the few pilings not covered with slick, wet moss) and watched the water rush in and out under my feet. After an hour, I returned to the house, hungry for the oatmeal Beth had made and left on the stove for me.

“How was the beach?” Beth said.

“Invigorating. I am full of vigor. I have the vigor of ten Stephs plus one. Or is it two?” I struggled to remember the line from the Grinch. I think it’s the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. We’ll see when we watch it this year.

After eating my oatmeal, I settled down on the couch to read June from a book about a zombie stuffed animal that wreaks havoc in an elementary school, suitable reading material for a creepy condo, I suppose.

Sometime around ten, Beth, June and I left to start our Christmas shopping, while Noah stayed at the condo to work. He was collaborating on a group presentation about contemporary drama with the members of his group contributing to a document in real time. They do this kind of thing a lot, the young people.

We started with a pit stop at Café a-Go-Go, where we’ve been getting coffee and pastries for ten years, and learned they were closing the next week, as the owners are moving to Texas. Maria was saying goodbyes and hugging customers and posing for pictures the whole time we were there. She and her husband Jesús will be missed. They’ve seen Noah grow up from a preschooler and June from an infant and they always remember us, even though we’re only in town two or three times a year. I was sad to hear the news, but Beth, who has spent many hours reading and drinking coffee there while I was at the beach, seemed stricken.

We hit our favorite stores: the book store, the seashell shop, the tea and spice shop, and the candy store. As we were exiting Candy Kitchen, we noticed Santa was in his little house on the boardwalk and was open for business, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there until three. June, who had been debating whether to ask for a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again or new ice skates, decided she’d visit Santa right then and ask for the hair dye. Santa commented he’d never had that request before but he’d see what he could do.

With that accomplished, it was time to think about lunch. We split up, with Beth and June going to a new build-your-own pasta bowl restaurant and me going to the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the ocean view, though I do like the apple-pecan salad. We invited Noah to join us, but he stayed at the condo and heated up leftover pizza.

Beth had developed a bad headache so after lunch she took to her bed and stayed there until dinnertime. I took June to the beach to collect shells, which she needed for someone’s gift. Never mind whose, it could be yours.

We went back to the condo where I was hoping to pick Noah up and take him Christmas shopping but he was still working on his drama presentation so I went alone. Before hitting the stores, though, I lingered on the boardwalk, watching the sky turn pinker and pinker. Late afternoon sunsets are another bonus of December beach weekends.

By the time I returned, Beth was well enough to get out of bed so all four of us went to admire the boardwalk lights and the kids posed for pictures with them. Then we got takeout (Thai and more Grandpa Mac) to eat in front of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

After June was in bed I quizzed Noah for a test on the Spanish-American War and WWI, using a very helpful collaborative study guide he and his classmates made.

Sunday

We were packed and out of the creepy condo by a little after nine. We drove out to Lewes to have crepes at our other favorite coffee shop in Rehoboth, which is no longer in Rehoboth, having inconveniently moved up the highway last year. But when we got there, after a twenty-minute drive, it was dark and the furniture was all gone so I guess it didn’t survive the move and its name change, from Gallery Espresso to Paradigm. I ask you, is that an improvement? I think not. In fact, we kept calling it Paradox and Parabola and Parasail and Noah’s favorite, Parasite. Silly name or not, I was sad to see it closed. I really liked the pumpkin crepes there and it’s another place they always recognized us.

So we found somewhere else to eat, and then Beth took Noah Christmas shopping while June and I went to the Victorian-themed Boardwalk Plaza Hotel to look at their Christmas decorations. Next we took a walk on the beach, stopping at one of the rock-and-concrete jetties to observe the flock of seagulls that was perched there.

June was exuberant, singing Christmas songs and doing cartwheels and back bends on the sand. A passerby pointed out a white smudge on the ocean to the north of us and said it was a flock of thousands of snow geese. It wasn’t much to look at from that distance but maybe ten minutes later June noticed they had taken to the sky and we could see the air full of the migrating white birds. It was a beautiful sight.

We met up with Beth and Noah for Thrasher’s fries on the boardwalk and then we switched kids and I took Noah shopping. He was pretty efficient and between Beth’s trip with him and mine he got almost all his shopping finished by early afternoon. The kids and I went to say goodbye to the ocean, by putting our feet in for fifteen waves (it’s a tradition). June and I were wearing rain boots but Noah was barefoot. He didn’t start screaming from the cold until the eighth wave.

I was downcast on the drive home, even as I scolded myself for feeling that way. It had been a good trip. I got in some beach time and did a good bit of my shopping and helped both the kids nearly finish theirs. But for whatever reason, the weekend felt too short, like I wasn’t finished with it. Maybe I was wishing Beth hadn’t been feeling ill most of Saturday or that Noah hadn’t spent his second weekend in a row on the road, mostly doing homework in a hotel room or rented condo. Or maybe I just wanted to see another December sunset stain the sand in apricot tones before going back to my regular routine.

A Fine Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Keep packing! And don’t take out your phone!” It wasn’t Beth or me urging Noah to stay on task. It was June. We’d been planning to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving that night but not before everyone was packed for our drive to Wheeling the next day. Everyone but Noah was packed.

“But I need to check the weather to pack,” he protested.

“Sure you do,” said June dismissively.

Despite her best efforts to crack the whip, by the time Noah was packed, it was her bedtime so we decided to download the movie to the laptop and take it with us.

Thanksgiving Day

We arrived in Wheeling a little past two, after an uneventful five-hour drive. The day was warm and clear, good driving weather, though Beth might have preferred some white and drifted snow. The closest we got was some big icicles in a road cut at one of the higher elevations.

We went straight to Beth’s mom’s house. Noah wanted to take video of himself walking up to her door and then text it to her and June just wanted to run up to the door in the more traditional way. We said he could do it, but just this once because it seemed like a cumbersome tradition to start.

Inside we socialized with YaYa and Ron. Beth and June gave her a basket they bought for her birthday and Noah gave her a DVD with the last two movies the kids made, including the one in which she played a ghost last summer in Rehoboth. Then Noah showed everyone a video clip of the student-anchored newscast at his school from the morning when they announced the winners of the school-wide Halloween costume contest. Kids submitted photos and they picked three winners—third prize was a witch, second was a pirate lass, and first prize was….a Fiji Water bottle.

“We both won a contest,” June said, in case anyone had forgotten her triumph. “I won the parade contest and Noah won his school contest.”

Next we checked into our hotel to change for dinner. The room had a nice view. You could see the church where Beth’s parents were married and the school she attended from fourth to sixth grade. It made me think how much more rooted a childhood Beth had, compared to mine. I’m honestly not even sure what state my parents were married in, and I went to four different elementary schools to Beth’s two.

June was eager to get into her Thanksgiving outfit, dress with a tight black sequined bodice and a full, gauzy red and black skirt, a white cardigan, white tights, and black shoes with a moderate heel. The rest of us weren’t so fancy, but we cleaned up okay. In the lobby on our way out, Beth had the idea to take some pictures in front of the Christmas tree for our Christmas card, as everyone was already dressed up.

There were sixteen people at Beth’s Aunt Sue’s house—all from Carole’s, Sue’s and YaYa’s branches of the family. (The fourth sister, Jenny, had Thanksgiving at home with her daughter, who’s due with her first child very soon.)

“I am the matriarch,” Carole, the eldest sister, announced. She’s about to become a great grandmother and is pleased as punch about it. Her daughter Meg and twenty-something grandson Kawika were also those who had travelled furthest, all the way from Ireland and Austin, TX, to be in Wheeling for Thanksgiving.

There were two other kids there—Sue’s granddaughters Lily (who’s June’s age) and Tessa, who at six was the youngest person present. The three girls picked up right where they left off when they last saw each other two years ago.

Sue put a lot of care into the cooking and decorations. She’d collected and preserved red maple and Japanese maple leaves in wet paper towels in her fridge to keep them fresh and arranged them on the tables. There were bowls of appetizers out and she had set up a cookie decorating station for the four kids, with sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies, and little pots of frosting, sprinkles, and M&Ms. She asked ahead of time to make sure Noah wasn’t too old for this activity. He most certainly was not, though he used a different technique than the girls, who carefully used the provided paintbrushes to apply a light glaze of frosting. He spackled his on with the spoon.

Though he decorated cookies with the kids, he ate at the adult table, or one of them—there were two. When everyone had their fill of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy (the mushroom gravy was our contribution), sweet potatoes, green beans with almonds, rice pilaf, succotash, nut patties, cucumber salad, cranberry sauce and rolls—out came the pies—pumpkin, apple, and pecan. I failed to take any of the advice I’ve been dishing out recently in ghostwritten blog posts about eating moderately at Thanksgiving. I had seconds on mashed potatoes. I sampled all three kinds of pies, and I don’t believe they were low-sugar versions. Everything was delicious.

After the adults had conversed and told stories and laughed a while and the three girls watched part of Swiss Family Robinson, Lily, who’s just started playing violin, gave a little concert in a side room. I knew she was going to play and intended to go watch, but I thought she was just warming up in there and would come out to the living room to play for a bigger audience, so I missed it. Then I heard June playing. I knew it was June because it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which she goes around singing every day and has recently figured out how to play by ear. I got there just as she was finishing.

Soon after it was time to go back to the hotel room. It’s nice not having the youngest kid at a family gathering because it’s easier to leave when you can use someone else’s departure to segue into your own. And by the time Lily and Tessa’s family left, June was leaning against me and saying she wanted to go to bed.

In retrospect we should have recognized that as a sign of an incipient migraine and not lingered for another five minutes as we did. June was quiet on the ride back to the hotel but when Beth pulled up into the lot, she started crying and saying she had an upset stomach. She seemed in quite a bad way all of a sudden and I asked if she’d like to go straight to the restrooms off the lobby, but she wanted to go up to our fifth floor room. She almost made it, too, but she was sick in the hallway about halfway between the elevator and our door.

Then we were busy calling the front desk and washing her face and Beth’s jacket June had had draped around herself in the car and her sweater and tights and my shoes (her dress was miraculously spared), and changing her into pajamas and making up the foldout couch for her and looking for children’s painkiller, because the headache had come now. Once she was in bed, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept all night. I made sure the menagerie of stuffed animals she’d brought with her was at a slight distance from her, but it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

(Not So Black) Friday

She woke the next morning recovered, early (about 5:30), and hungry, as she effectively hadn’t eaten dinner. I heard her walking around the room, but she eventually went back to bed and stayed there until 6:20, at which point I gave her a Clementine and Beth offered to take her down to breakfast. Noah and I followed once he was dressed.

As the weekend was going to be something of a busman’s holiday for both Beth and Noah, the plan for the morning was for them to work in the room while I took June to the pool. Beth was still working on the project from the previous weekend. There had been some registration glitches on a rather large scale in a union election and she was directing efforts to sort it all out and make sure everyone who was eligible could vote. Noah was working on a paper and PowerPoint about El Greco.

I started off reading Daniel Deronda in a lounge chair by the pool and then swam sixty or sixty-five laps in the tiny pool. It was so small it was hard to keep track. I was mostly pushing off the side and turning around, but it felt good to be moving through the water. Afterward, I sat in the hot tub and went back to the chairs to read some more. YaYa came to watch June swim and the three of us were there for a good chunk of the morning, almost two and half hours.

We had lunch at Panera and then YaYa took the kids to see the Peanuts movie. Noah wanted to go but was undecided because he’d spent the morning researching El Greco, but he only had a half a slide to show for it. We convinced him to take a break and go.

Beth and I repaired to the hotel room. She had to work and I read some more Daniel Deronda and we shared some orange-cranberry dark chocolate I had been saving for after Thanksgiving. It was quite a pleasant day for an introvert the day after a big family gathering, plus I was starting to believe I’d actually finish Daniel Deronda by the last book club meeting on it the following Wednesday. (I did, too, with a day to spare.)

Dinner was pizza at YaYa’s. Afterward June played her entire repertoire of orchestra songs, which took about ten minutes. Then YaYa thought June might like to hear some David Garrett and June thought YaYa might like to see a video by her own favorite pop violinist Linsdey Stirling. I find this video somewhat less disturbing than I did the first time I saw it, now that I know how it ends. We left June at YaYa’s for a sleepover and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday

Saturday morning Beth and Noah continued to work while June and YaYa entertained each other at her house. They made bird’s nest cookies, then went over to Sue’s house where Lily and June played a duet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was duly videotaped and sent to us.

We met YaYa for lunch at a crepes place and visited the talking Christmas tree of Beth’s youth, though she wasn’t conversing with passersby until the first week of December. Still, Beth said, it “warmed [her] heart” to see her.

Beth and June went skating after lunch and then over to Carole’s while Noah and I stayed at the hotel. He’d switched to a Citizen Kane paper since it was due sooner. This was slow going, too, and he didn’t want any help, so I was starting to wish I’d gone to Carole’s as I was now feeling a little cooped up and ready to socialize, but I wanted to stay near Noah, just in case. I knew it was going to be challenging day for him as he had a lot of work and not much mental speed. He’s not on his new medication yet as we’re having some insurance trouble with it. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I hope so.

At breakfast I’d asked Beth for advice about how not to be dragged down by Noah’s situation myself and she suggested, “Pretend to be a different person.” Later she told me this was how she got through the last couple weeks at work, so I think it was sincere advice. That’s a hard thing to do, though and I had mixed success at best.

Just before five when Noah had finished the first section and it was a half page too long, he asked for suggestions for cuts and I gave some. Just around the time he finished editing that section, Beth and June came to pick us up and take us to drive through the light display at Oglebay Park. We do this every year, either during Thanksgiving weekend or around Christmas. The kids enjoy seeing their favorite displays and someone always points out the one that says “JOY” and says, “Look, it says ‘June’” because when she was two she thought every word that started with J was her name and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

We were playing Christmas music for the first time this season, and as I listened to all the songs about peace on earth, the kids were squabbling in the back seat, about various things, but mostly about the light tunnels. When Beth was a kid she and her brother used to try to hold their breath in tunnels and now the kids like to do it, too. But the first two tunnels are long and traffic was slow and I thought they’d pass out if they tried to hold their breath through them, so I advised against it. Noah tried anyway, without success, but June declined. A long argument about whether or not this constituted her “forfeiting” and him “winning” ensued and was repeated at the next tunnel. At this one, Noah tried again and June started breathing loudly to taunt him. I asked her why she was doing it and she said, “Because I like to.”

By the time we got to the third tunnel, the snowflake one, traffic was lighter and this is the shortest one, so they both tried, and succeeded in holding their breath the whole time. I was surprised they did not seem to be exhaling even after we were out of the tunnel. They were playing chicken, as it turns out. June breathed first, Noah was a little too exuberant in saying he won, and June, who was worn out, got teary, but she recovered as soon as she saw the Twelve Days of Christmas display. Or maybe it was Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football. She likes that one, too.

After the lights, we returned to YaYa’s house for a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers that had migrated over from Sue’s house. Then we watched another Peanuts Thanksgiving special—the one in which they are characters on the Mayflower. Have you ever seen it? It was made in the 80s, past my time, but it came bundled with the older one, so now we watch it, too. We left Noah at YaYa’s for his sleepover (which June noted with satisfaction would be shorter than hers) and went back to the hotel, where June crashed.

Sunday

The next morning, Beth worked some more, while I read a couple chapters of The Magician’s Nephew to June and then we went to collect Noah at YaYa’s house, say our goodbyes, and hit the road.

As we drove, fog wreathed around the bare branches of the trees and nestled in the clefts of the hills. At higher elevations we were driving right through it. Sometimes we could only see a car or two ahead of us and the headlights of the oncoming cars. But Beth steered us safely home.

“How was your weekend?” I asked Beth, early in drive.

“It was fine,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to work on this assignment.”

“I wish you and Noah were both more free,” I said. But it was a good visit nonetheless. We got to see family, swim, skate, and visit familiar holiday sights in the form of a tree with a human face and lights spelling “Joy.” It was a fine Thanksgiving.

Monday

And then on Monday afternoon, as I was settling into a seat at Starbucks with an eggnog latte and a Cranberry Bliss bar, my phone beeped and I saw the following message from Beth: “Contract passed, huge yes vote. My work was worth it. Very happy and very tired.”

The King and Queens of Halloween

Early Saturday afternoon, after gymnastics and a quick lunch, June was in the bathroom applying her corpse makeup. She was already in her corpse clothes, a long-sleeved black t-shirt and jeans from the thrift store she’d distressed the weekend before. Most of the holes were in the front of the clothes, though, and I was looking at her from the back. As a result, when I first saw her (without focusing on her gruesome-looking face), it felt as if I was catching a glimpse of June in high school or college, in her black top, skinny jeans, and ankle boots, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. This was a disconcerting vision, but Halloween is all about being unsettled, isn’t it?

I was actually kind of unsettled for the three weeks leading up to Halloween. It was for a happy reason. My sister was in China, picking up her newly adopted daughter and her business was temporarily closed. I had some small work projects to do and I picked up a big outside editing job so I had work, but not as much as usual and I was continually uncertain as to how I should be divvying up my time and spent a lot of time fretting about it, which made the extra free time feel less like leisure.

Worse still, very few of the big housework projects I had in mind, other than the usual cooking, cleaning and laundry, actually happened. I dealt with a drawer full of papers and cleaned most of the fridge, but I didn’t even finish that. I did read more than usual. I read an Agatha Christie mystery and Stephen King novel I somehow missed when it came out (Blaze). I got about of a third of the way through Daniel Deronda (which my book club is reading this fall) and I spent the last two hours of my furlough before June got home from school on Friday finishing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which seemed like an appropriate thing to do the day before Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween—this is a post about Halloween, so I suppose I should get back to Halloween—as I was watching June in the bathroom, we were all getting ready to leave for the Halloween parade. Noah’s Fiji Water bottle costume was so big we needed to go in shifts. Beth drove June and me to the Co-op parking lot where some carnival games were in progress and then she went back home for Noah.

June entered a contest to guess how many plastic spiders were in a jar and then she won a tiny checkers set with cardboard pieces in the shapes of pumpkins by throwing a football into a net with holes. Mostly, though, we wandered around, looking for people we knew. We found Keira, a fifth-grader from June’s school, who always has great costumes. This year she was a contortionist. She achieved this by covering her own legs with drapery and having fake legs bent over her shoulders. Then we met Grace (the witch from Wicked) and Lottie (Mozart), who in real life are two sisters June knows from years of drama camp. Lottie said, “June, I can’t look at your face. You are freaking me out.” I think this was exactly the reaction June had for been going for when she and Beth covered her face with peeling latex flesh and bloody wounds. It might have been especially satisfying because Lottie is two years older than June.

One of the parade officials announced the parade would start in fifteen minutes, which made me nervous because Beth and Noah hadn’t arrived yet and I didn’t want him to miss the judging. His water bottle costume was beautifully executed and he’d been working on it for several days, unlike last Halloween when he basically threw together his (still impressive) calculator costume in less than a day. Indulge me and take a close look at the details—the QTY line at the bottom of the front is one of my favorite parts, as is the whole back panel.

I caught sight of Noah shortly after the announcement. Shuffling along in the big blue box that covered most of his body, he was hard to miss. I directed him to the section of the street where teen and adults were supposed to stand. Luckily, it was right next to the nine-to-twelve area. Beth was parking the car, so she didn’t arrive until later, just in time to adjust the straps that attached June’s coffin to her back. Noah was having trouble keeping his lid on his head, so I was staying near him to balance it as needed.

Noah scoped out the competition and decided the motorized cupcake was the only real threat for Most Original. At first I thought it was a wheelchair costume, but when I looked more carefully at the wheels, they didn’t look like wheelchair wheels, so it might have been constructed over an ATV. In any case, the cupcake-on-wheels was getting a lot of attention. There was a zombie with a zombie dog, but I figured she was probably shooting for Scariest. A judge did complement Noah on his costume as she passed through the area and later a teenage girl ran up to him and said, “Fiji Water, I love you!”

“Do you think she’s a fan of Fiji Water or is she in love with you?” I asked him and he gave me an irritated look. (What’s the point of parenting a teen if you don’t embarrass him every now and then?)

There were photographers circulating, both journalists from the Takoma Voice and regular parade-goers. Both kids had their picture taken multiple times and June was interviewed. But the judges took June’s name and not Noah’s. In our experience, having a judge take your name doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily won (June’s was taken last year for instance and she didn’t win that year) but Noah’s never won without having had his name taken, and he’s won Most Original in his age group three times. I held out a sliver of hope, though, because I do remember a few times a winner being announced by costume only. It doesn’t happen often, though. Trust me, we are pretty close observers of the ways of this contest. It’s serious business to our kids. June’s been gunning for Scariest for a few years and so far, she had never won.

I don’t know if it was a desire to win that made her insistent on the gory makeup, or if it’s a developmental stage. At the a Halloween party at her friend Claire’s house the weekend before Halloween, Claire was a “psycho clown” and June’s friend Zoë was a “zombie triathlete” so maybe they are all just ready for scarier costumes. This does seem to happen at an earlier age than when I was a kid, though. And even as a fan of things scary, I’m not sure that acceleration is a good thing. The only thing I did to put the brakes on it, though, was not to offer to buy her a little wooden axe at the Takoma Park street festival two weeks ago. I saw it, thought it would be perfect for her costume, then wondered what I’d say if she asked for it. As I was thinking it over, she picked up a dagger from the same stand and pretended to fence with it, but then she just put it back and didn’t ask for either weapon and I didn’t suggest we buy them. I think having a weapon stuck in her mid-section would have been over the line for me…this year anyway.

Soon the judging was over and the parade started moving. We’d find out who won at the end of the route. Noah’s costume proved cumbersome to walk in, so sometimes he’d hike it up higher, which made walking easier but seeing impossible. I held his hand, which stuck out through a slot in the side of the box and told him when to slow down or stop to avoid trampling small children. When he got tired of not being able to see, he’d lower the costume again and walk more slowly. After a while he gave me the lid and I wore it on my head. I told him we were a group costume now. He was the bottle and I was the lid.

Once we got to the end of the route, the Grandsons, Jr. were playing. In between numbers, Rec Center employees announced the winners of the contest, starting with the four-and-unders. June and I went in search of a bathroom because we knew there would be at least one song between age groups and we both had to go.

We got back in time to hear the winners for the five-to-eight group. I have to say this particular set of judging was mystifying. A girl dressed as Hermione won Scariest. Hermione is many fine things, but scary is not one of them. A girl dressed as Katniss won Funniest. Again, Katniss is many fine things, but funny isn’t what comes to mind. Now we never saw Katniss so I allowed maybe it was a joke costume, maybe a cat with a bow and arrow or something. But then a Rubik’s cube won Most Original and I gave up any hope of things making sense for the poor five-to-eight year olds, one of whom was wearing a Montgomery County basketball league t-shirt and had half a basketball on her head, her face painted to resemble the rest of the ball, and was walking around with her head in a hoop with a backboard behind her. Clearly this child was robbed. But that’s how it goes sometimes.

We could only hope for better judging in the nine-to-twelve group. Scariest was announced first and it was June! They mangled her last name, but she didn’t care. She’d finally won! Beth looked relieved and said, “Thank God.” June’s been more gracious in recent years about Noah’s string of wins than she was when they were five and ten, but she’s seen him win several times and never won herself and they have at least the normal allotment of sibling rivalry, so she really wanted it. It helps that they’re never in the same age group and thus not in direct competition with each other, but still…

June went up to collect her bag of prizes (candy, pencils, a $10 gift certificate for Rec Department programs we can use for drama camp, etc.) A boy dressed as a ninja in a mechanized contraption along with dummies of the villain from Scream and a mummy with all three of them hooked up to each other to move in unison won Funniest and a girl in a shower stall won Most Original.

More songs, more waiting… Finally, they announced the teen and adult results. Scariest was predictably the zombie with zombie dog. Funniest went to the cupcake, which I thought might leave an opening for Noah to win Most Original after all. But it went to the lamppost from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. None of us had even seen said lamppost, which was odd because the teen and adult area was not as crowded as some of the kids’ groups where it would be easy to miss someone.

Noah was disappointed, as were Beth and I for him, but he took it okay. He’s generally a pretty easy-going kid. I hope this doesn’t sound like favoritism because I don’t think it is, but I seem to feel his disappointments more keenly because of that. He’s the one who doesn’t ask for as much, so I want him to have those things he does want. But you win some and you lose some. That’s life. We all know that. And he takes satisfaction and pride in crafting his costumes for their own sake, even if he also likes the outside validation. (He ended up getting some of that by tweeting a picture of his costume to Fiji Water. They re-tweeted it and by the time he went to bed he had more than a dozen shares or re-tweets or something. I don’t really understand Twitter.)

We waited to see who won the group competition, out of curiosity, and because June’s friend Marisa’s family always enters that and they’ve had some spectacular costumes over the years. This year they were the “Atoms Family” according to a sign they carried. They were all in black clothes, with hula-hoops orbiting their bodies at various angles. They won Most Original. We exchanged congratulations with them, and headed home to 1) make some adjustments to Noah’s costume (trimming it for easier walking and making a chin strap for the lid), 2) watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 3) put the finishing touches (spotlights, fog machines, etc.) on our yard display and 4) to eat a supper of butternut squash ravioli and broccoli.

The kids left for trick-or-treating around 6:45. Last year they went with friends, but this year they decided to go together, which I thought was sweet. I stood on the porch watching the corpse and the water bottle go around the corner while I stayed behind to greet a few dozen trick-or-treaters. The first one came while we were still watching Charlie Brown. She was a tiny Princess Leia who was too shy to say either “Trick or Treat” or “thank you,” despite her father’s gentle reminders.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” the dad said, gesturing to the skeleton and zombie emerging from the ground and all the ghosts, skeletons, etc., hanging from the trees and porch.

The kids were home and trading candy with each other by just after eight. Based on their walk around the neighborhood, Noah reported we were still “the king and queens of Halloween decoration.” Of some of our neighbors he said, “It’s like they don’t even take it seriously.”

The kids had today off school and June spent the day going from makeup violin lesson to first play date to second play date. When the second mom brought her home, she surveyed our yard and said, “You went all out.”

We go all out. We take it seriously. Don’t you worry about that.

Season of the Witch

This will be a bit of a bait and switch. The first two pictures are from Potomac Vegetable Farms, where we got our pumpkins last weekend (and where we get them every year). I took them because we always take pictures there but I was also thinking I might write a blog post about it. But while a pleasant enough outing, it was uneventful. We weren’t battling a stomach bug. It wasn’t pouring rain and the hatch didn’t pop open letting one of the pumpkins escape. You’ll have to go into my archives if you want to read about any of those pumpkin-related adventures.

I didn’t take any pictures on Wednesday, but it was eventful in a way that the weekend wasn’t. The soundtrack of the day was the evil laugh of the motion and sound-activated zombie in our front yard. The remnants of Hurricane Patricia were drizzling down on us all day and the rain drove the zombie crazy apparently. (Beth thinks it might have been short-circuited.) Whatever the reason, it laughed all day, as I was puttering around the house and editing a manuscript.

Wednesday afternoons and evenings are generally busy because June has a violin lesson at 4:45, or she has up to now. She’s decided being in the strings ensemble at school is enough violin instruction for her and she’s not going to take music lessons once the session is finished. She’s got a double make-up lesson next Monday, but this was her last regular lesson. As we rushed out the door, I was glad of that. It will simplify our Wednesdays, especially when basketball practice starts.

Noah called me while I was turning off the oven where the Brussels sprouts had been roasting to say he’d be home late because he’d missed his bus. I told him we’d be gone when he got home and reminded him to start on the history chapter outline that was due the next day. I regarded the sprouts and decided as they were just shy of done, I’d leave them in the warm oven, thinking it might stay hot long enough to finish them. Then June and I headed out for the bus stop.

On the bus, June said, “Oh man!” I asked what was wrong and she said she’d left the music she’d been practicing right before we left at home. I’d kind of hoped the teacher could bring her lessons to a well-thought out, orderly end, and this wasn’t going to help. But June did have some music with her and that would have to be enough. The teacher seemed ready to work with whatever June had, so I kissed June on the top of her head and decamped for the bakery down the block, where I got a cup of tea and a brownie. I’ve been tempted to do spend June’s lesson there many times but I was afraid of making a habit of it so I resisted. But now that it was the second to last lesson, there was no danger of that, so I went ahead. Also, there’s a nice big table in the center of the shop where I could spread out the pages of the manuscript.

After a crowded bus ride, we got home some time after 5:30. We sat on the porch to read the last few pages of the chapter of The Silver Chair we’d started while waiting for the lesson to start and then we went inside. I checked on Noah and found him working on his outline. I checked on the Brussels sprouts and found them blackened. I guess the oven stayed hot longer than I thought it would. I peeled the outer leaves off one experimentally and found it edible inside. I thought I could salvage the meal, but it would be time-consuming peeling all the sprouts. I got to work assembling the rest of the ingredients for risotto while June started her math homework.

It was not quite 6:30 when June came into the kitchen, looking teary. I wondered if she’d gotten frustrated with her math when she said, “I don’t feel good.” Migraine, I thought, remembering the storm. June’s headaches are often triggered by changes in barometric pressure. I gave her some painkiller and her prescription anti-nausea medicine. She asked if I could read to her, so I abandoned dinner preparations and started another chapter of The Silver Chair while she wept intermittently.

At once point I went to tell Noah dinner would be late and why, and it was then he thought to mention to me that the reason he missed his bus was that he’d had a debilitating headache of his own at school and was in the bathroom being sick at the end of the school day. (Later more details emerged. It was the first time he’d ever taken the Metro bus home from high school and because he had to cross the street to catch it from middle school he automatically did that and got on the wrong bus, getting pretty far from home before getting off and onto the right bus. It’s possible he hadn’t been home long when June and I returned.)

It was not quite seven when Beth got home. She relieved me, keeping June company while I went back to making dinner. It was seven-thirty before it was ready. (The kids and I usually eat between six and six-thirty.) June was feeling a little better but she was still in no shape to eat and Noah, who likes risotto, wasn’t sure he was ready for something with heavy cream and a lot of Parmesan so he had an apple and two pieces of toast. Beth and I ate in shifts, so June wouldn’t be alone. By this time, she was listening to an audiobook and seemed much improved. The crying was all over. I was surprised she hadn’t fallen asleep. She almost always does when she has a migraine. That and the fact that Noah had been ill, too, made me wonder if it was the beginning of a family-wide stomach bug and not a migraine at all. But at the moment both kids were feeling better. June even did some more of her math before going to bed, though she didn’t finish it until the next morning.

While Noah got ready for bed, the songs from the Halloween playlist he was listening to drifted out of the bathroom. I sang along briefly: “You better pick up every stitch/Must be the season of the witch.” It did seem like the kind of evening that might have caused our seventeenth-century counterparts to accuse a neighbor of witchcraft, especially when we went to bed and there was a strange luminance on my bedside table, which turned out to be the glow-in-the-dark spider webs that had arrived in the mail that day–“There were otherworldly cries all day! Our dinner was blackened and our children sickened! An eerie ball glimmered in our bedchamber!”

But the next day was better. The children both felt well and went to school. The zombie was silent. There were no dinner mishaps (other than the fact that both kids turned up their noses at the lentil-rice-cabbage casserole I made). And as a bonus, the repair-person who has visited our house three times over the past month trying to fix the exercise bike finally triumphed. And Noah came home with the news that his drama teacher praised his acting in his All My Sons scene and because he’d finished all his homework in study hall (a rare occurrence) he was able to spend some time working on his Halloween costume and relaxing.

Tomorrow afternoon we’ll be marching in the Takoma Park Halloween parade with June dressed as a corpse and Noah as a bottle of Fiji Water. I’m going to be on the lookout for witches.

What Frozen Things Do in Summer

Musical Drama Camp, Week 1

On our way out of Rehoboth two weeks ago, we stopped at a Crocs outlet to get the kids new Crocs. Noah had outgrown his and June felt she needed more as well, although she has a few pair. She very nearly got some with Olaf the talking snowman from Frozen on them but Beth was concerned that since we were buying big and it takes her a long time to outgrow her shoes that she might find the design too young before she outgrew them. But on the other hand, she was trying out for Olaf at musical drama camp in just two days and it seemed like it could be a good luck omen. In the end, she went for a bee and flower design from the sale bin instead.

June surprised us with her first choice of character. I’d been confident she’d want to be Anna as she is a lot like Anna—a friendly, outgoing younger sibling, often eager for attention, plus in previous years she has rejected any suggestion on the camp director’s part that she play a male role. But she said she thought Olaf was silly and funny and she wanted a funny part. Anna was her second choice. On the first day of camp she tried out for both roles and when she came home on the first day she thought Gretchen’s reaction to her Anna audition had been more positive. She’d arrived in braids that day and she looked the part, plus Gretchen said her voice was better for Anna than for Olaf. But when I dropped her off on Tuesday, Gretchen said, “Hello, Olaf,” and that’s how she found out she got the part.

Musical drama camp was two weeks this year instead of one, though the first week was short because Friday was a federal holiday. It was also the first week of summer in which we were in our most usual summer configuration—Beth at work, June at camp, me working at home, and Noah also at home, doing a little summer homework and house or yard work every day and helping me with camp pick-ups. The kids also had their first music lessons of the summer on Wednesday. As it takes me a while to get into a routine, and that routine changes every week in the summer as camp locations and pick-up and drop-off times differ, I was glad this one lasted two weeks. It was a good way to ease into the controlled chaos of summer.

Fourth of July Weekend

On Friday of the first week of drama camp Beth had the day off work and June had no camp, so we went to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on the Mall. June had been singing the songs from Frozen all the time, particularly Olaf’s number “In Summer” to practice, so they were in my head. As we left the Metro and approached the Festival I started singing and June immediately joined me:

Oh, the sky will be blue
And you guys will be there, too
When I finally do
What frozen things do
In summer!

“Not you, too,” Noah groused.

The focus of the Festival was Peru this year. Usually there are a few counties, but they’re tearing up the mall so there was less room than usual and it was a scaled down affair. We had lunch first: vegetable tamales, quinoa and avocado salad, choclo (large-kernelled Peruvian corn), fresh mango and pineapple, cookies with dulce de leche inside, and chocolate and passion fruit gelato. The corn was gummy so no one cared much for it but everything else was good.

We watched a couple musical and dance performances—cumbia and marinera, which is a dance of flirtation, according to the Smithsonian, and the dancers did use the handkerchiefs they carried to hide their faces and make it look as if they were kissing. I asked June if she thought they were really kissing and she shrugged. I always enjoy the music at the Folk Life Festival and we would have stayed at the performance tent longer but the venue was very small and it was hard to get a seat or even find a place to stand where you could see well so we just sampled a little.

In the kids’ tent, we listened to a creation story told first in an indigenous language spoken by a tribe with fewer than one hundred and fifty surviving members. The story was then translated into Spanish and finally English. June attended a workshop for kids by an urban poster artist from Lima and colored her own poster in bright colors. The artist had made a set of posters of Washington landmarks and Beth admired them so later while I was in the marketplace with the kids, Noah selected a postcard in one those designs and asked me to buy it for her. There were stripes of different colors in the background of many of them, reminiscent of a rainbow, so we looked for the Supreme Court, of course. But they didn’t have that, so he went with the capitol building. Earlier in the outing the kids had been bickering a lot and Noah had been complaining about having to come to the festival at all, so I was glad he made that gesture. And then on the way home, June informed Noah, “You may be annoying but you’re not evil,” which is what passes for sibling harmony some days.

Saturday was the Fourth. Our first order of business was the parade. June was marching with a Girl Scout contingent of several local troops and the rest of us were going to watch. But at 9:15 when it was time to leave, it was raining pretty steadily. I asked if she was sure she wanted to do it and she said yes. Beth had ironed three new Brownie badges onto her vest, since it will probably be the last time she wears it, and I’d dug through the bags of hand-me-downs in the basement to find a pair of khaki shorts since the girls were supposed to wear white shirts and khaki pants with their uniform vests or sashes. Noah wasn’t ready so June and I set out into the rain, with Beth and Noah to follow.

When we found the Girl Scouts it was a pretty small group and there were no girls there from June’s troop, which was a disappointment. After we’d been waiting for about fifteen minutes, a man came by with the news that there would be a half-hour rain delay, so we ended up waiting almost an hour in the rain before the parade started. But the rain cleared and the girls lined up to hold the banner and we bid goodbye to June and told her we’d meet her at the end of the parade. We made a stop at Spring Mill Bread Company, the new bakery in town, where we got coffee and pastries.

Then we walked down to the end of the parade route and waited for it to arrive. The parade was not as well attended as it usually is, so we didn’t need to get up from the benches outside the community center in order to see. There was the usual assortment of groups, starting with political candidates, a bagpipe and drum corps and various school and youth groups. There were multiple musical floats—playing everything from steel drums to zydeco, and dancers from different cultures and people walking dogs and people riding horses. They Boy Scouts rode their pinewood derby cars and the Girls Scouts had a fifteen-foot papier mâché statue of Juliette Gordon Low and a wagon covered with dolls in Girl Scout uniforms and that was enough to net them the prize for the best youth group.

Once we saw them arrive, I walked alongside them for the last two blocks of the parade and brought June back to Beth and Noah. We got funnel cake and ice cream—Beth said we were “taking a holiday from nutrition”—and we headed home. (I did pick some lettuce and the first two tomatoes from our garden for veggie BLTs at lunchtime and Beth made veggie hot dogs and fruit salad for dinner so the day was not entirely devoid of nutrition.)

June was very excited about the fireworks that night because she’s never seen them in her own hometown. I’ve always been strict, some might say to the point of being neurotic, about bedtime and as a result Noah never saw any fireworks anywhere until he was eleven. Last year we all saw them in Rehoboth (because there was no way I was going to pass up seeing them on the beach). I figured there was no putting that genie back in the bottle, so we were all planning to go to the Takoma fireworks together this year for the first time. It was made a little less stressful for me by the fact that the Fourth was a Saturday so June wouldn’t have to go to camp and dance and sing all day while sleep-deprived. And then, just before six we found out the fireworks were cancelled, or postponed rather, until Sunday. I was a little surprised because the rain was over, but they were concerned about the mud, I guess.

Neighboring jurisdictions were less cautious, however, so we were now faced with a choice. You can see the D.C. fireworks from the roof of Beth’s office building and her some of colleagues gather there every year, but in fifteen years of working for CWA, Beth’s never done it. She suggested we try it this year. I was hesitant, not sure what traffic getting out the city would be like, but I agreed. Sometimes I make an attempt to act like a normal person even if when I don’t feel like one.

Surprisingly, June resisted this plan. She really wanted to see the postponed fireworks in Takoma and she knew I would not let her stay up hours past her bedtime two nights in a row, but in the end we decided it made more sense to do it on a Saturday than a Sunday. (We also weren’t sure it wouldn’t rain the next day as well. It’s been an exceptionally rainy summer so far.) We had dinner at home and then drove into the city, stopping for microwave popcorn at Walgreens on our way. (The outdoor thermometer there said minus 196 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cool for July in the Washington area, but not that cool.) Once at Beth’s office we popped the corn and then went up to the roof where several of her co-workers and their families were mingling. There were a few elementary school-aged girls with paper and markers and June soon joined them. Noah found himself talking video production with the husband of the new Secretary-Treasurer of the union.

From the roof we could see two other rooftop parties. In one the participants seemed to have coordinated so everyone was wearing red, white, or blue tops. The fireworks started at 9:09, right on time. There were classic explosions, but also some innovations, like smiley faces and rings within rings. During the show June said, “If this is a dream, I hope I don’t wake up.” One advantage to not seeing fireworks until you are eight years old is that even the second year it’s pretty impressive. It lasted about fifteen minutes and then we were folding up our chairs and heading back to the car. Because we were far from the mall, traffic wasn’t bad at all. June, who’d been pretty zoned out in the car if not technically asleep, was in bed by 10:25 and asleep by 10:30 when Noah followed her to bed.

Sunday Beth, June, and I went to an outdoor pool and I made sour cherry sauce with cherries from the farmers’ market. We ate them with blueberries on vanilla ice cream as a belated Fourth of July treat. June wanted to watch fireflies in the yard while we ate, which I thought we could do without keeping her up past her bedtime again, based on the insects’ previous performance, but the darn bugs were tardy so she ended up staying up about twenty minutes past bedtime that night. I am considering this flexibility a demonstration of personal growth.

Musical Drama Camp, Week 2

The next week June went to camp every day again, and Noah and I held down the fort at home. He finished his summer math packet, started reading Into Thin Air, practiced his drums, vacuumed and mowed and weeded, continued to pick June up at camp and ran errands for me as well, picking up ice cream so I could make brownie sundaes and milk when we ran out.

The performance was Friday at 2:15. In addition to Olaf, June had a few small parts, including one she was assigned just the day before the performance. One of the Elsas was sick and she needed to sing her part in “Let It Go.” On the way to camp Friday morning, June was full of nervous energy.

We invited Megan to the performance and Noah and I picked her up at her house. Megan was very chatty on the walk to the community center and asked a lot of questions about which roles June would play and what songs she would sing. “I know why she wanted to be Olaf,” she commented, even though she had not discussed this with June. “She’s small and she’s funny.”

When we arrived at the auditorium, kids from another day camp in the same building who had watched the dress rehearsal were just leaving. We took our seats, splitting up so Noah could set up his tripod in an aisle and so Megan could sit as close to the front as possible. This ended up being fortuitous because Megan kept up quite the running commentary during the show. She was impatient for Olaf’s scenes and seemed to view all the others as impositions to endure. Whenever June was on stage she waved at her, but June kept in character and didn’t acknowledge her until she was in the wings, when she waved back. “So she did see me,” Megan said with satisfaction.

The cast was bigger than usual because Gretchen had two different age groups working on the same performance this year instead of doing two separate shows in separate weeks. So there were twenty-five kids, about evenly split between the two groups. The younger ones served as a chorus of Elsas, Olafs, and snowflakes. They wore white and changed only their hats depending on the scene.

What can I say about the show? It was wonderful. It gets longer and more polished as the core group of actors gets older each year. (The camp director just keeps shifting the age range upward so a lot of the kids come year after year. This is June’s fifth summer doing it.) The set was simple but cool. Boxes were stacked up to form a wall, with three sides painted to create different backdrops. Between scenes, they would flip them over to show the right one.

June played young Elsa in “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” Her only line there was “Go away, Anna,” but it was delivered with a good amount of realistic older sibling scorn. She was a servant during the party scene, mopping the floor and sometimes dancing with the mop. She sang in a chorus of Elsas during “Let It Go.” There was only one solo line but a pretty long duet and her projection was great.

Here’s that number:

And then she was Olaf. I didn’t realize how many spoken lines she’d have. She was on stage for probably most of the second half of the show. And here’s her big solo, “In Summer.”

I have to say watching her play Olaf erased all my doubts about whether it was the right part for her. She nailed it, in my objective opinion. Noah even told her later that evening, “You were the best, the best actor,” and he doesn’t offer hollow praise so he must have meant it.

On Saturday morning we went berry picking at Butler’s Orchard and came home with a bounty of blueberries and blackberries. Today I’m making a blueberry kuchen because as I said when we were discussing what to do the berries, I am “contractually obliged” to make one blueberry kuchen every summer. And Beth commented that yes, she was pretty sure it was in our wedding vows. It’s like going to the beach and the Fourth of July parade and drama camp, and later in the summer, band camp and the county fair. These are the things we do in summer.

That’s Love

Friday: Before Valentine’s Day

On Friday morning Beth got up at 5:45, as she does every weekday morning. It’s her job to get Noah out the door and mine to get June out the door and I have the easier job by far. June requires much less oversight to stay on task and she doesn’t have to be at the bus stop, which is right across the street from our house, until 8:15. I am not even sure what time Noah is supposed to leave as the actual time of his leaving varies so dramatically. Sometimes he walks to the school bus stop, which is about a mile away. More often he takes a public bus to the school bus stop or when he’s really running late or trying to finish some undone homework, Beth drives him to school. I guess they leave around seven a.m. on average, but sometimes it’s as early as 6:45 or as late as 7:30.

The difference on Friday was that after driving Noah to school, Beth headed out to the grocery store to buy a bouquet of blue flowers for June to take to school for Valentines Day. She wanted one flower for her morning teacher, one for her afternoon teacher, one for her morning bus driver and one for her afternoon bus driver. I’m not sure why she specified blue, but Beth said there were a lot of artificially colored flowers there and she thought she could find blue ones. I was expecting dyed flowers, but the flowers she bought were actually white with some blue tinting spray-painted onto them.

There were flowers left over once June had extracted four so I put the rest in a vase on the dining room table. For the rest of the day whenever I saw them I thought about how Beth was shepherding Noah through his morning routine or fetching flowers for June for two and a half hours before she even left for a full day’s work. I posted about it on Facebook and one my friends commented, “That’s love.”

June left for school with her freakish flowers and with lollipops for all her classmates. This might have been the first year she didn’t make any homemade valentines. I know last year it was mostly store-bought. And that’s basically what she brought home, candy and store-bought valentines, with a couple simple red construction paper hearts, nothing like the elaborate creations she used to make and receive in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. It made me a little sad, but I guess that’s part of growing up. In two or three years, she’ll be too old for valentines at all (except maybe for family)…until she isn’t again.

Saturday: Valentine’s Day

Saturday morning Noah was not ready to exchange Valentines yet, as he was still working on our cards, so we left for June’s basketball game, agreeing to do it when we came home.

The Pandas lost their fifth straight game, actually getting shut out for the first time this season. The score was 8-0. It’s hard to explain that they are not playing as badly as it might sound like they are. Put as simply as possible, they prevent a lot (but not all) of the opposing teams’ balls from going into the basket, and they take a lot of shots at the basket, but for the most part they just don’t go in. Sometimes the shots are wild, but maddeningly often they bounce off the rim.

June’s actually having a pretty good season. She’s gotten a lot more aggressive on the court. She steals the ball and takes shots at the basket much more often than she did in previous seasons, though she’s never gotten a basket in a game. (She gets them in practice all the time.) In this game she took a ball to the face, which caused her to bite her tongue so hard it bled. She sat out the rest of the quarter but when she came back into the game, she played just as hard as she had previously. That’s heart.

Back home, candy was exchanged, as well as cards. June also received sidewalk chalk and glitter glue, which she put to almost immediate use. “I was almost out of glitter glue,” she said appreciatively. Noah got a t-shirt with Roscoe the rooster, the unofficial mascot of Takoma. I got a Starbucks gift card and my favorite hazelnut-Ceylon tea (special ordered from the tea shop in Rehoboth) and Beth got a gift certificate for two movie tickets. Everyone was happy.

That evening Beth and I headed out to the movies. It was snowing when we left and icy roads were predicted but we decided to go anyway. We saw Birdman, which I really liked, especially the uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not and the way it used point of view. When we emerged from the theater, the roads were indeed a mess. We could see cars spinning their wheels and Beth said she thought maybe we should leave the car in the parking garage and take a bus home. But after we waited fifteen minutes at a bus stop that usually has a stream of buses arriving and only one came in all that time (and not the route we needed), she decided to chance the drive home. There was a bus stuck just a block from the bus stop and getting stranded if a bus had to offload halfway home didn’t seem appealing either.

Beth had to think a lot about the best route home, assessing each intersection and what looked safest and changing course several times. We ended up on Sligo Creek Parkway, where traffic was slow, but moving. There wasn’t a lot of snow on the ground but the winds were so high it was blowing all over and all the tree trunks and signs were coated with snow. Close to Maple Avenue, we saw a car in the creek. I should clarify here that in this part of the country we don’t call any body of water that would be deep enough to sink a car a creek. Those are rivers. The creek in question was probably about a foot deep and the car nearly spanned it. The headlights were on and there was a woman, or maybe a teenager standing on the bank. I called 911 to report it and the dispatcher thanked me but said someone else had already called about it.

When we got to the hospital near our house, the roads were very well cleared and we got up the hill of the hospital campus with no trouble. Beth decided to park the car there as our street might be messier and we were close enough to walk home. We picked our way through the icy parking lots and sidewalks as the snow swirled around us, passing a few people trying to push a car along our street. I wished I’d worn a warmer jacket. Beth wished she wasn’t wearing crocs.

We got home an hour after we set out on a trip that usually takes ten or fifteen minutes, but as we lay in bed listening the wind whipping around the house and rattling the windows and the sound of snowplows scraping the roads, I felt lucky to be warm and safe and that Beth got us home. That’s gratitude.

Sunday to Tuesday: After Valentine’s Day

Monday was President’s Day so it was supposed to be a long weekend and then Tuesday was a snow day so the weekend just went on and on… Knowing this was likely to happen, I worked a little every day from Sunday to Tuesday, trying to stay more or less on schedule.

Sunday morning Noah and June watched a movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, together. They hardly ever do this anymore and I was touched by the sibling togetherness, even if they did have an argument about how long to pause the movie for a breakfast break. (Later I found out they’d also been working on a movie they started filming last fall while we’d been out the night before.) They went out briefly to play in the snow that same morning, but it ended badly with June crying because Noah had dumped snow on her face and then he was grumpy because she left him alone after begging him to come out and play with her. But he made it up to her by coming in and making her cocoa.

Later Sunday morning Beth and June went grocery shopping and then Beth and I took her to the pool that afternoon, but Monday, everyone but me stayed home all day. I took a walk to Starbucks, but it was bitterly cold and no one wanted to come with me. June was antsy and bored, but it led her to write a murder mystery, so I guess it was a productive boredom. I asked if the parents on the cover are sad because they are psychic and know in advance they are going to die and leave their child an orphan but apparently, they are in heaven, looking down sadly at their orphan child. June found the photo by googling “sad parents.”

We ate a lot of comfort food over the course of the weekend. Beth made spinach lasagna and garlic bread Sunday night and pancakes and fruit salad Monday morning. I made braised cabbage and carrots, with mashed potatoes and fake Italian sausage on Monday night and fake beef and cremini stew on Tuesday night.

Tuesday I was a little grouchy about the snow day. I just wanted the kids to go to school and leave me in my quiet house and the morning was challenging. I was trying to work and the kids were bickering and June kept interrupting me to tell me she was still bored. But she had a friend over for most of the afternoon and things got better. They played outside and built a platform out of blocks where Playmobil people enacted some kind of drama and they wrote more stories. June was working on a sequel to “Another Orphan Made” and Maggie started a series called Horror Hilarious, which I am assuming is some kind of horror-comedy hybrid.

We walked Maggie most of the way home (her mom met us on the way) and it did me good to get out into the bright, sparkly day. It is always pretty down by the creek when it has snowed. Earlier in the day I had cheered myself by buying spring clothes for June and looking beach houses to rent for our summer vacation in late June. I found one I really liked, close to the beach, beautiful, and a workable arrangement of bedrooms for all the relatives we’re inviting. It was pricy, though.

When we got home, I saw Beth had answered my email about the various houses with the following message, “Let’s rent the one you love.” That’s love for sure.