Underneath the Sycamore

We are the same
We are both safe
Underneath the sycamore

From “Underneath the Sycamore” by Death Cab for Cutie

What it Means to Be Brave: Saturday to Monday

Sunday morning I was settling into the wrought iron chair and arranging my cell phone, reading glasses and a copy of How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword so I could begin to read it to June. But June was looking upward into the branches of the sycamore. It looked like a good climbing tree, she observed. Could she try it?  Yes, after we read, I said.

For my birthday back in May I asked for a summer weekend in Rehoboth. Our big trip this summer is to Oregon in August so we weren’t planning a Rehoboth trip at all. Beth surprised me with an offer of a few days instead, midweek, when it would be less crowded. But it was hard finding lodging for a few days and we ended up booking a whole week at a condo on the outskirts of town. It was different from the places we usually stay, not a classic beach cottage, but it had its perqs: price, access to a pool, and a big lawn no one but people walking their dogs or feeding the resident stray cats ever seemed to use. June enjoyed watching the cats as well as deer from our veranda.

The lawn also had a huge sycamore with four chairs underneath. The kids and I quickly fell into a pattern of reading under the tree in the morning while Beth biked or grocery shopped or worked. It was Hiccup’s adventures for June, and Katniss’s for Noah. June and I were up to #9 in the How to Train Your Dragon series and Noah and I were up reading the last book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Early in the week, in the afternoons Beth took the kids to the pool (Sunday) or the water park (Monday) while I had some solo time at the beach. We arrived in Rehoboth on Saturday afternoon and it was Tuesday afternoon before anyone but me set foot on the beach. Pretty much the first thing I did on Saturday after we’d unpacked was to have Beth drive me to the boardwalk so I could rent a bike and be able to make the trek back and forth myself.

After two chapters I asked June if she wanted another. She usually does but she was impatient to climb the tree. She needed a boost to get into the lowest branches and I needed to stand on one of the chairs to give it to her, but then she scrambled along the length of a couple of them. She didn’t go too far up it.  I suggested she wait until another day to go higher. She seemed to like both the idea of going higher and the idea of not doing it right then. She’d been happy but also nervous in the tree. She’s like that, not naturally fearless like some kids, but always pushing her own boundaries. Later in the day I told her that’s what it really means to be brave.

Meanwhile, Noah had come outside. June was standing on a branch a couple feet over his head. “I’m taller than you,” she observed. He reached up and jiggled the branch a little. June told him to stop, lest she “plummet” to the ground and then they started to argue over the exact definition of the word “plummet” and whether she was high up enough to “plummet.”  He always has to try to burst her bubble. I guess it’s an older sibling thing. Earlier in the day when she came into the room with a phone on which she’d been playing Bejewelled and said, “I beat your high score,” he responded with something about different scoring algorithms on different versions of the game, which was probably true, but it served to deflate her.

But June had plenty of opportunities to prove herself that day. She swam deep underwater in the pool diving for pennies and that evening she rode the Paratrooper, a fast, tilting, sometimes backwards-travelling kind of Ferris Wheel at Funland. It was her first time on it and she was just barely tall enough at forty-six inches. She loved it. Noah loves it, too, so it was fun to watch them high in the air together, all smiles, their bare feet dangling high above us.

But part of the reason June was smiling was that we’d just gotten out of the Haunted Mansion. June’s been asking to go on this ride for years and years ago I said she could do it when she was eight. I based this on the fact that when Noah first rode it at the age of ten (which was the first year he asked) he was only mildly scared and I remember thinking he could have done it a couple years earlier. But what I failed to take into account in this calculation, and realized as we were standing in line and June pressed her body against mine at the sight of the hanging corpse outside the mansion, was that as a younger child, Noah was always more scared of stories (the Cloud Men in James and the Giant Peach terrified him) while June has always been more spooked by visual frights (think any Disney witch, but especially Maleficent).

I asked her gently if she wanted to get out of line and said it was okay if she did. No, she said, sounding grimly resolved.  I waited a few minutes.  Maybe she’d like to rethink her decision to sit with Noah and sit with me instead, I suggested.  Yes, she said, sounding relieved, she’d like that. Noah protested; he didn’t want to sit with a stranger. But it turned out the three of us fit in the car, just barely, as I am not exactly svelte, and in we went.

June snuggled up against me and I slipped an arm around her. It was dark inside and there was black light so June’s white t-shirt glowed. She liked that. I’m not sure exactly what else June saw in the Haunted Mansion because by her own account her eyes were closed about half the time and sometimes she had her hands over her ears as well. She did not see the giant spider, but she saw the room full of tiny skulls because Noah persuaded her to open her eyes in there. “It’s cool,” he promised her. The effect is made with mirrors and it’s one of his favorite parts. She did keep her eyes open for the zombie, she wanted us to know, even though she “desperately wanted” to close them. I asked her afterward if the ride was just the right amount of scary or too much. Just right, she said. She was proud and elated on exiting, so much so that we had to buy the souvenir photo. She does not mind that she is cowering in it. She says she will show it to her friends and they will be amazed at her bravery.

Meanwhile, Back at the Beach…

I went to the beach every day. On Saturday just for a ten-minute dip in the ocean when I got the bike, Sunday and Monday for most of the afternoon. I swam and took a walk, watched lifeguards train and teenagers on skim boards and the foamy water swirling around mossy rocks of my favorite jetty (yes, I have one) and found a little ruffled clear jellyfish washed up on the sand. I read and wrote and dozed under the shade of an umbrella someone donated to me when she left before her rental period had ended. I had fries and iced tea on the boardwalk and people-watched on the beach.

I think I saw my future self on Sunday afternoon. She was probably in her seventies, with long gray hair, unstyled, and wearing a simple black one piece. She was full of grandmotherly enthusiasm for her grandchildren’s swimming ability and their (really very impressive) deep hole ringed with dribble castles. But when they interrupted her praise to say they wanted to go back to the house, her face fell. “But I thought we’d stay…a lot longer,” she said. She didn’t really look happy again until some other relative agreed to take them and she settled back into her chair to stare at the ocean.

While alone I went to town long enough to do a little shopping, buying some hazelnut-Ceylon tea at the tea and spice shop for myself and looking for an anniversary present for Beth and a birthday present for my mom.

Star of the Sea: Tuesday to Thursday

Tuesday afternoon we all made it down to the beach. The kids and I biked (or scooted in Noah’s case). Part of the ride is along Rehoboth Avenue, a very busy street, so I decided the safest formation would be me in front, since I knew the way, with June in the middle and Noah bringing up the rear. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but all the way to the beach I could hear June yelling, “Get behind me” (though she never added, “Satan”) and Noah yelling “Get in front of me” and I’m pretty sure the distraction of their constantly switching places must have cancelled out any temporary gain in safety.

We hit Candy Kitchen first and then Funland, where Beth met up with us.  She’d been at the Farmers’ market. It was about 2:30 when we settled our towels on the beach, in front of Funland, just north of the Star of the Sea condominiums. June dashed off for the water before I could re-apply the sunblock we’d put on hours ago, she was that eager. She stayed in the water two and a half hours, pausing only a few minutes when I insisted on the sunblock, and then only getting out because the lifeguard had blown the 5 o’clock whistle when everyone has to get out of the water (at least temporarily).

Noah thought he wanted to swim in the deeper water with me, but changed his mind when he decided the waves were too big. June didn’t want to go in the deeper water either that day even though I told her it’s gentler there. I was getting tired of being buffeted by breaking waves so I left them to swim further out and then came back to the towel to read. June complained initially about having to play alone, after Beth and Noah left to go to the cheese monger (sadly closed) and to start dinner, but she reconciled herself to it, and we had a much more peaceful ride home.  “Let’s go, star of the sea,” I said as we began to pedal up Maryland Avenue.

“I’m not the star of the sea, Mommy,” she said, but she was laughing.

The next morning we were on the boardwalk before 8 a.m., breakfasting at the Dolles crepe stand. This lead to June playing in the ocean from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. I wasn’t in my suit and hadn’t intended to stay more than a half hour, but it’s hard for me to make anyone leave the beach.  When we finally left it was because I wanted to avoid the strongest sun of the day.

That day would have been my dad’s seventy-first birthday. I marked it as I often do, with food. He loved coffee and nice restaurants and chocolate ice cream so I had an iced café con leche that morning and for dinner we went to Planet X, Beth’s and my favorite restaurant in Rehoboth, and one we usually only visit when we’re staying with relatives and have babysitting. June liked the funky-fancy décor and by being flexible (sharing entrees so everyone could eat just the parts they wanted) both kids managed to eat. If you go there this summer, I recommend the seitan dishes. We had two of them and they were scrumptious. We followed it up with ice cream and frozen custard on the boardwalk. I had chocolate-peanut butter custard with chocolate jimmies.

Earlier in the day while I returned to the beach, June made her third trip to Funland, this time with Beth. She rode the Sea Dragon, one of those rocking Viking ship ride, for the first time. She liked it, but it made Beth sick. June also added to her stuffed animal winnings. So far she had two medium turtles, a mini rainbow-colored dolphin, and three mini beach balls. She’d been gunning for a large all week.

Thursday was my longest day at the beach. Ironically, this was because rain was predicted in the afternoon. After her morning bike ride, Beth found Noah and me reading under the sycamore and suggested we all hit the beach earlier than usual to beat the rain. We were by a little after ten.  Beth and the kids left three hours later to go home for lunch, but there was no sign of rain so I stayed until 4:45 when I left to meet them at Funland. June had won a small stuffed turtle and both kids had ridden the Graviton, one of those rides where you stand against a wall and centrifugal force pins you to it. I’d spent the day swimming, reading, and finally I saw dolphins and pelicans, for the first time that week. I also got my first sunburn in years on my arms and shoulders an on the part in my hair, even though Beth rented an umbrella. I guess I didn’t notice and move quickly enough when the sun shifted. Still, it was a very nice day.

The Rockets’ Red Glare: Friday to Saturday

Hurricane Arthur finally brought us some rain on the Fourth.  It started around 6:10 a.m. After a round of Sleeping Queens (we’d all been playing a lot of games—Quirkle, Uno, Roundabouts and Sleeping Queens), June and I read on the sheltered veranda, but by the time we’d finished and eaten breakfast the rain was blowing onto it, so I couldn’t read to Noah there and we had to do it inside. June amused herself listening to songs from Cats she needed to memorize for her musical drama camp the next week, playing with her menagerie of new animals, and practicing her violin.

Around 10:20 Beth and June left to go to the movies, a promised rainy day activity. They wanted to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, because June and I have been reading the series since Christmas and we’d just rented the first movie from a Red Box earlier in the week. (We also watched The Dark Crystal, which we found in the house’s stash of movies.) However, their first choice was sold out and they watched Maleficent. June is now completely unfazed by the witch who was terrorized her and caused her to run out of the room every time she tried to watch Sleeping Beauty as a preschooler.

Noah and I headed out to Starbucks while they were gone, braving ankle-deep water in the condo parking lot to get coffee and milk and pastries and sit and read for an hour and a half. Half of Rehoboth had the same idea apparently, so the lines for ordering and pickup were long, but orderly and cheerful, as everyone was on vacation. We did get a seat, too, and could have had the comfy armchairs, but sweetly Noah wanted a table so we could sit closer to each other.

After lunch, Beth drove me down to the beach and parked so the car would be handy after the fireworks. The rain had stopped by then but the surf was high and the lifeguards weren’t letting anyone in the water. They had a job of it, too, keeping people on shore. The atmosphere of the beach was odd—there were many more people than you’d expect on a cloudy afternoon when swimming was prohibited. The umbrella and chair rental stands were closed, too, so a lot of people who might have been swimming or sitting were just milling around. I read on the beach and then went into town to do some more birthday and anniversary shopping. The shops weren’t too bad, but Candy Kitchen, where I was forced to buy some chocolate-walnut fudge so I could break a twenty for bus fare, was mobbed.

I was home briefly and then we all set out for our Fourth of July festivities, dinner at Grotto followed by fireworks on the beach. This would be the first time June had ever seen fireworks. I am so crazy strict about bedtime that Noah had to wait until he was eleven, so I guess I must be loosening up a bit. It’s also possible that the idea of seeing them on the beach swayed me, as I have not seen fireworks since Noah was an infant and doing on the beach seemed really cool.

We’d finished our dinner by 6:15 so we had a three-hour wait until the fireworks were scheduled to start.  Beth and Noah started by reading on the boardwalk while June and I staked out a place on the beach. I got out my book and she was running around singing songs from Cats and practicing her cat moves. Then I got cold and went to buy a long-sleeved t-shirt and Beth and Noah came down to join June on the towel.  We read and played some more. Noah wanted to go buy popcorn and June wanted to go play in the arcade, so I stayed with the towel while everyone else went up to the boardwalk.  Finally it was almost show time.  June bought a glow stick from a vendor at dusk and around nine we could see the fireworks from Dewey (to the south) and Lewes (to the north), which was a surprise because we’d heard all the neighboring towns had postponed theirs, due to Arthur, but I guess they changed their minds.  June kept marveling that she was at the beach, at night, past her bedtime!  And Noah kept her excited by continually announcing the time: it was 9:04, 9:07, 9:10, 9:12 and then exactly on time, the fireworks started.

My favorites were the coordinated ones that seemed to spin in the sky like a Ferris wheel, but I also liked the squiggly, fizzy-sounding ones. We went to the fireworks in D.C. for many years before Noah was born and the year he was two months old (and too young to have a bedtime) so I’ve seen fancier fireworks, but never in a more beautiful setting and never with a more appreciative audience.  June could not pick a favorite. She loved them all and leaned happily against me for the whole show.

We were all happy and feeling as if the outing had been a success as we headed for the car. We had considered walking or biking home, to avoid the traffic, but we were afraid June would be too tired to walk a half an hour starting an hour and half past her bedtime, thus the car.  We’d have been better off with any other plan, including taking a bus, which we didn’t consider. Many streets, including Rehoboth Avenue, the main drag, were closed off and we got stuck almost immediately. Around 10:30, after forty minutes in the car and twenty minutes on the same block, Noah and I bailed and walked home.  June was asleep in her car seat, or we would have taken her, too. I was afraid to call Beth too often because I didn’t want to wake June, but I called once we got home and I offered to come back and get June when Beth said she’d woken and had been crying at being left behind, but she was asleep again, so I didn’t. It was 12:30 before they got home. I’d gone to bed but I couldn’t sleep until they were back.

The next day we were all short two to three hours sleep (June was the only one able to sleep in) and I felt weepy with exhaustion as we packed up the house. I don’t deal well with sleep deprivation and I had more than my share of it raising two children who were both very poor sleepers until they were five or so. (Remember they are five years apart and consider the implications.) I think this is the reason I’m so tightly wound when it comes to any sleep-related issue. So it was ironic that this was how I was rewarded for relaxing and acting like a normal American parent on the Fourth. I think I have to keep doing it, though, because you can’t put that cat back in the bag. I will just have to be brave enough to try it again. In a way, it’s good for just what you fear to happen because then you can see it’s not the worst thing in the world after all.

We got out of the house on time the next morning, though, enjoyed an hour or so on the beach, had lunch, paid one last visit to Funland, where June exchanged two of her medium stuffed animals for the much desired large and we hit the road. As we walked to the car, she told me cheerfully, “Next year I’m going for a giant.” Somehow, I think we might have to start making room in the toy box.

True to Type

My birthday is always around Mother’s Day. In fact, whenever I talk to my mom on either day (whichever happens to come first) she never fails to mention she brought me home from the hospital on Mother’s Day. Some years my birthday actually falls on the holiday and that’s what happened this year.  Even though both events were on a single day, the whole weekend had a relaxed but celebratory feel.

Friday: Girls’ Night In

Friday Noah was on a band field trip to Hershey Park and wouldn’t be home until late, so June had Beth and me to herself for the evening.  When I asked her if she wanted to go out for pizza, or stay home and watch a movie or play games, she wanted to do it all.  That’s more than can fit in between Beth’s usual arrival home between six-thirty and seven and June’s usual bedtime of 7:45, so we stretched things out on both ends. Beth came home early and we let June stay up late.  I knew the rest of us would be up late waiting for Noah and I was hoping that if we let her stay up late, too, no one would be up and making noise at 6 a.m. (It didn’t work. It rarely does, but a mom can hope.)

Before Beth got home, June and I scrubbed the grime off a couple fans because hot weather was predicted the following week and then we drank iced tea and played a board game of her own invention, plus two card games (Rat-a-Tat Cat and Sleeping Queens, both favorites of hers).  I suggested we watch Tangled or Brave, because she had not seen either of them and I am getting tired of Tinkerbell movies, even though they’re really as horrible as you might think. I thought she’d go for Brave, but she said, “Tangled!” immediately and so when Beth came home, bearing pizza, she set it to download while we ate.

June got herself a raspberry-lemon popsicle from the freezer and we settled on the couch to watch the movie.  When the backstory of how Rapunzel ended up locked away from the world in her tower was established, I said to Beth, “Didn’t we just see this movie?” Beth later concluded Frozen was better, but Tangled was entertaining enough.  Ironically, I’d suggested Brave and Tangled largely because I thought Noah wouldn’t mind missing them, but guess what movie they showed on the bus on the way home from Hershey? That’s right. It was Tangled.  What are the chances?

We put June to bed at 8:30 and Beth didn’t need to leave to get Noah until 10:00. She had a long phone conversation with her brother, but even so that left us with forty-five minutes just to hang out and talk, which felt luxurious. Noah’s bedtime is so close to ours that we’re rarely alone together in the house for any extended period of time. It’s that kind of thing that reminds me we need to be more proactive about carving out time to spend together.

Saturday: Dinner Out

Saturday Beth took June to Kung Fu and ran errands and Noah did homework and I did some chores around the house and started a project of collecting photos of my mom, Beth, and Beth’s mom for a set of Mother’s Day albums I would post on Facebook the next day.

We were planning an early birthday dinner at the Vegetable Garden, a vegan Chinese restaurant, because we wanted to avoid the Mother’s Day restaurant crush.  It’s a bit of a hike from Takoma, so we were intending to leave around five, but we were delayed over an hour by a flat tire. I almost gave up on the idea of going, because while I’m getting more flexible about bedtime, two nights in a row is pushing it for me.  But Beth gently nudged me into going, and we did.  I was glad of it as soon as the crispy black mushroom appetizer arrived because it is really, really good. We also got spring rolls, hot and sour soup, dumplings, a noodle dish, and a couple of vegetable-with-fake-meat dishes (my favorite was the “chicken” with asparagus). I just finished the leftovers for lunch today.

Sunday: The Big Day

The first notable thing about Sunday was that I slept in until 8:20. It’s rare for me to sleep past seven on a weekend and I’m usually awake earlier than that. The kids get up early (even the teenager) and though they are pretty self-sufficient about breakfast and entertaining themselves, they are not as quiet as I’d like, plus it’s a small house, and I’m a light sleeper, so there you go. I’d had trouble sleeping the night before, though, so I guess I really needed the extra sleep and it was enough so that I felt reasonably well rested when I woke.

We exchanged a great many gifts: Mother’s Day presents for Beth and me from the kids, and birthday presents for me.  Beth got a David Sedaris book from Noah and a big candle from June. I got fancy orange marmalade and a brownie from Noah, salted caramel-flavored sugar crystals and a bottle of shells and sand and shells glued to some driftwood from June. I also got a few books, two mysteries and Joyce Carol Oates’ Accursed, from my mom and Noah. Beth gave me a gift certificate for the American Film Institute, (our favorite date destination), another gift certificate for a Takoma coffee shop, and–best of all–the promise of a mid-week getaway to Rehoboth some time this summer. (We won’t be spending our usual week at the beach this summer, because we are going to Oregon to visit my mom, stepfather, sister and other relatives.) Books, coffee, time with Beth, and time at the beach is pretty much all I want out of life sometimes.

I continued to gather and post photos while Beth and June went grocery shopping and Noah read A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. In the afternoon Beth went to her MOOCs on capitalism and Andy Warhol.

While she was gone June and I toured the house next door, which after being vacant at least fifteen years and then undergoing a gutting and renovation that lasted about a year is finally for sale.  The realtor noted somewhat wearily that a lot of people at the open house were not potential buyers but curious neighbors like us. Because the house next door is three stories and ours is just one, we got to look out the windows at our own roof, which June found quite amusing. She’s hoping a family with kids moves in and soon.  Beth is not looking forward to having to share the driveway with neighbors, but it has to be better than sharing it with contractors’ vehicles and dumpsters, one of which clipped our eaves and did $800 worth of damage last summer. A side note: For those of you who don’t know the story of our cat Xander’s adventure in the basement of this house, I recommend this post—it’s a good one, with a surprise ending: “Xander in the House” (3/2/13).

Later I went for a swim and came home to the smell of lasagna baking. I’d requested spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and a salad with Romaine lettuce for dinner and that’s just what Beth made, along with a vanilla birthday cake with lemon frosting served with strawberry ice cream, also at my request. Everything was delicious. I very much appreciate everything Beth did to make my birthday special.

The weekend was especially nice because it came on the heels of a week in which I’d been sick, and after several weeks of high stress at work for Beth and my feeling kind of lost and sad.

There were a couple little things that cheered me during this time, though. My friend Megan very sweetly brought me a latte once day when June was home sick and I was complaining on Facebook that I couldn’t get out of the house to buy myself one.  Then I met an old friend from college who was passing through the DC area briefly. While we were catching up I told him about the online courses Beth is taking and about my book club, which was reading the Iliad at the time (we’ve since moved on to Thomas Pyncheon). Because Jim met us when Beth was a philosophy major and I was a comparative literature major–I was reading the Aeneid in Latin one semester when he and I lived together– he was clearly delighted we were proving to be so true to type even at the ripe old age of forty-seven.  As for Jim, he was math major, always very interested in computers, and he now works for Square, a company that runs a credit card payment app.

I guess underneath all the trappings of motherhood and middle age, the twenty year olds we once were are still in there somewhere.

Icons of Spring

Have I mentioned we had ten snow days this year, six over the limit of built-in school days and the school district is only making up two? I have?  Oh, yes, of course. What I haven’t mentioned is that despite the fact that there are five contingency days clearly scheduled on a calendar sent home at the beginning of every year, that when the school district decided to make up the measly two days, only one of those two make-up days was on one of the contingency days?  The other one came out of spring break.

Now it could have been worse, we could have been faced with the horrifying prospect of school in session while we had a beach house rented, but it was just the tag end of spring break, Easter Monday, which fell two days after our return.  But the fact remained that Beth had made an orthodontist appointment and a dentist appointment for Noah on Monday and June had more exciting plans, in the form of two tickets for the White House Easter Egg Roll Beth received from a colleague.

We decided to stick with our plans and kept Noah out of school. June went to school in the morning, but I picked her up around noon to take her into the city.  So despite my letters to the superintendent of schools and to state officials about how the school year should be extended, I ended up in the seemingly hypocritical position of only sending one kid to school for a half day on the first make-up day.

But perhaps you wanted to hear something about the Easter Egg Roll itself?

Crowded would be one description. While we were standing in one of many lines I heard someone say there were thirty thousand people there. I checked later and it’s true, although they weren’t all at once—thirty thousand tickets were issued in five time slots. We were in the fourth slot, 2:30-4:30.  After a picnic lunch outside the Takoma Metro stop where Beth dropped us off en route to Noah’s dentist appointment and a train ride into the city, we arrived at the Ellipse and got into line around 1:40. I did consult my map when we got off the Metro, but if I’d misplaced it I could have just as easily followed the hoards of dressed up children heading in the direction of the White House.

It took an hour and ten minutes to go through security, get our wristbands, and wait in line to enter the South Lawn.  As we inched along, I read How to Cheat A Dragon’s Curse to June until we got closer to the front of the line where music was playing and it was no longer possible to read without raising my voice. As we approached the White House June wanted to know exactly when we’d crossed into White House property. We were walking along the sidewalk, next to a wrought iron fence and I told her the squirrel on the other side was on the White House lawn. She seemed thrilled to be that close.

Once we got inside we had to choose from all kinds of activities, but we headed straight for the Egg Roll itself because that’s the classic event and our time was limited. The line there was pretty short and soon June was pushing an egg across the grass with a long wooden spoon right in front of the South Portico of the White House.  Next we headed for the snack area where we shared an apple, some baby carrots in a kefir dipping sauce, and bottled strawberry-kiwi smoothies. We peeked at the White House vegetable garden and noticed that their kale is doing better than ours.

June had a hard time deciding between the story-telling stage where Miss America would be reading stories or the obstacle course. We stood in line for ten minutes outside the roped off storytelling area before realizing that at the rate it the line was moving (not at all) we’d be admitted after Miss America was finished and Debbie Reynolds had begun and as June had no idea who Debbie Reynolds was, we left the line and headed for the obstacle course.

Next we headed to a booth where she did a science experiment, making hypotheses about which objects from a jumble on the table would sink and which would float in a tub of water and then testing her hypotheses and filling out a checklist of her results.  By the time she finished, it was time to hit the restrooms and get in line again to exit.  We were issued a box of Peeps and a commemorative wooden Easter egg as we left.

It had been fun and exciting but also kind of exhausting between the sun and the crowds so when June asked if she could get a soft pretzel from a street vendor the idea of sitting down on the grass and eating seemed attractive so I bought it for her and an eggroll for myself before we got back on the Metro and headed home.

I’m glad we went, though, because although we’ve been to the White House several times—once for a Christmas tour pre-kids, once on a regular tour when June was in preschool (“All The Presidents’ Pictures,” October 19, 2010), and once for a garden tour a year later-—we’ve never been to the Easter Egg Roll and it’s an iconic Washington springtime event, just like the cherry blossoms.

We did go to see the blossoms this year, the Friday before we left for the beach.  They are often a logistical challenge, mainly because of the short peak bloom period, which is difficult to predict more than a few days ahead of time, and parking issues.  We ended up going in the evening after June’s violin recital and pizza dinner because Saturday was busy with June’s kung fu lesson and packing for the beach. It was a hurried trip and not ideal in some ways, but beautiful as always. And the kids did seem to enjoy the novelty of going at night. As we left Noah surprised me by saying, “This was fun. We should do this more often.” I pointed out we go every year. “No, in the dark, in the rain,” he said.

I probably wouldn’t want to go the Easter Egg Roll every year, even if such a thing were possible and it isn’t; most people who go win their tickets in an online lottery, which is a better system than we first moved to the Washington area and I’d read in the newspaper about people camping out overnight in line for tickets. I might also need to give up the tradition of always going to the cherry blossoms, because it is hard to manage some years, especially for Beth, who has to drive and park if we don’t end up taking the Metro. Still, I do feel fortunate to live here, among the symbols of democracy and the fragile pink and white blossoms that herald the arrival of spring each year.

Home for the Holidays

I. Christmas Preparations

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day

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

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

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

III. Christmas Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Bonus Day Off

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

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

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

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

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

O, Christmas Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday and Tuesday

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

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

To Grandmother’s House We Go

Tuesday and Wednesday: Before Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving, Part I: Through the White and Drifted Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a video Susan took:

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

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

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

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

Friday to Sunday: After Thanksgiving

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


Thursday: Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Día de los muertos

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

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

Saturday: All Souls’ Day

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

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

Sunday: Fall Back, 12.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Halloweeny, or Three Weekends in October

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

Weekend 1

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

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

Weekend 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No to Yes

The Trouble with Forty-Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you know how Ulysses ends, right?

Yes I said yes I will Yes.