Goodbyes

Friday

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

A Death in the Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Forward

Maybe it was because had been getting light earlier or maybe it was just one of those random fluctuations in the kids’ sleep patterns, but for a few weeks before the time change they had been waking up early.  Earlier than their usual early, I mean. They are supposed to stay quietly in bed until six a.m. and then Noah is allowed to read and June, until Sunday, was allowed to come snuggle with us in bed.  She’d been doing that with disheartening regularity, right at six o’ clock on the dot, instead varying her entrance time within the 6:00 to 7:00 hour as was her previous habit.

Now when June was three and four years old, she’d usually fall right back asleep between us, and then the three of us would get some more rest, but that hadn’t been happening much recently.  Instead, there was more kicking and pulling off of covers and chatter than slumber once she came to join us.  Coming in at the earliest allowable time also meant that on the all too frequent mornings she woke me up at 5:30 because she’d forgotten to look at the clock or she’d lost her pacifier (yes, she still sleeps with one) or she wanted to tell me about one of her dreams I couldn’t get back to sleep, knowing she’d be back at 6:00.

So some time in February I started thinking about how June was close to the age Noah was when we pushed back his snuggle time to 6:30 on weekdays and 7:10 on weekends (“Welcome to 6:47”). And I started thinking it was time for a change. The late February weekend when June woke me before six on Saturday and Sunday put me over the edge.  I realized that pushing back the time she’s allowed to enter the room would not stop the unauthorized forays to our room (and in the short run might actually increase them) but it would give me more time to fall back asleep when they occurred. When I told Beth I was thinking of changing the morning rules she said, “Please!” so I knew she was on board.

I was only waiting for a good time to break the news to June when I realized switching over to Daylight Saving Time would create the perfect opportunity because it would be easy for her to stay in bed until seven the first day and then we’d just need keep her in the habit.  So on Saturday I told her the new rules—6:30 on weekdays and 7:00 on weekends–stressing it was because she was getting older and these are our rules for older kids. She wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t get as much pushback as I expected. Maybe I did a good job selling the big kid angle.

Day 1: Sunday

As expected, the first day was easy.  We set the clocks forward an hour and also set the time June was allowed into the room forward an hour, so it was a wash, and it felt pretty much like a normal Sunday when she popped into the room at precisely seven a.m.  I asked her how long she’d been up and she said since 6:42, so that was an eighteen-minute sleep bonus for the grownups, I suppose.

She took a brief nap that afternoon so I let her stay up until 8:20 (thirty-five minutes past her no-nap bedtime) and she fell asleep easily.  Noah said he didn’t think he’d fall asleep when I put him to bed, but if he had any trouble he was quiet about it. I didn’t hear any tossing or turning. I fell asleep pretty easily at my normal bedtime as well.

Day 2: Monday

“Mommy, it’s 6:40,” June whispered.  She was standing by my bedside in the dark, the deep, quiet kind of dark that makes anything but sleeping seem like a very poor idea.

“C’mon in,” I mumbled and she climbed in. It felt early, too early, even though I’d gotten about the same amount of sleep as usual. I wasn’t up for reading a story until 7:15, but I then I read it and we got up and everyone got to work and school on time, though it felt like a bit more of a scramble than usual.  For instance, June and I were having a leisurely conversation in the kitchen while I made her lunch when I glanced at the clock on the stove and saw it was 8:12, only eight minutes until we needed to be at the bus stop and I stopped whatever I was saying to urge her to go get dressed.  I went to check on her several minutes later and found her out of her pajamas but wearing only a pair of flowered underpants and apparently not in the process of putting on clothes.  I pulled a shirt over her head and socks onto her feet while she got into a pair of leggings, then I brushed her hair into a sloppy ponytail–“no time for pigtails”– I told her and we were out the door.

At the bus stop I listened to parents of third and fourth graders complain about their kids having to take the MSA (Maryland’s No Child Left Behind tests) on the day after a time change.  Fifth-graders don’t start the tests until Wednesday, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

The kids got into two fierce arguments that evening.  The first one was about the rules of a soccer game they were playing before dinner (longer daylight and a light homework day for Noah facilitated this game) and the second one was over ownership of a candy necklace.  Two squabbles in one evening would not be unusual but they were really mad, crying and screaming at each other and using escalating words like “cheating” and “stealing.”  I wondered if the time change was making them out of sorts.  Once June had calmed down and we were talking about what had happened, she said they’d been “bitten by the argument bug,” quoting a favorite book of hers.  I suggested a make-up hug before June went to bed and they complied, but Noah was half-hearted about it.

Day 3: Tuesday

“It’s 6:30,” June informed me before crawling into bed with me.  Too dark, too early, too dark, too early, my brain was telling me.

Meanwhile, Noah was in the bathroom singing “Fifty Nifty United States” with a good deal of brio.  Then he popped his head into the bedroom and said, as if just noticing, “It seems really dark. It must be the daylight savings time.”

I wasn’t awake enough to respond. I guess it’s going to be this way for a while, but June’s doing a great job sticking to the new rules, and I think when I finally adjust to the new time, I’ll appreciate having a little extra time to sleep in the morning. Three days out, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Meanwhile, other things are springing ahead besides the time.  June will be six in ten days and we’ve been busy planning her party.  The theme is cats and she and I spent a lot of time selecting and ordering cat-themed plates, cups and goody bag loot–pencils, pencil sharpeners, erasers, bookmarks and stickers all in either Hello Kitty or Cat in the Hat patterns, plus cat bracelets and cat rubber duckies. June drew her own invitations with pictures of birthday hats and cats and Noah made an insert with the date, time and place info, plus a graphic of the number six and an exclamation point made from Hello Kitty’s face and the Cat in the Hat’s hat. Then June made a large drawing of a cat and seven tails for a homemade pin-the-tail-on-the-cat game and Beth and June purchased a piñata while they were grocery shopping on Sunday.  The party is not until the weekend after next but June’s in a state of high excitement about it.

Spring is also in evidence in the yard, even though it’s still officially winter.  Our crocuses are finished and the daffodils and hyacinth are in bloom, with tulips and even tiger lilies putting up shoots.  We have light and dark purple hyacinth. The dark ones we got last year in a pot as a condolence gift from our friend Megan when Beth’s dad died.  I planted the bulbs and they came up in February and started to bloom in early March right when I hoped they would. On Saturday, the first anniversary of his death, they were in full bloom. I like having a small living memorial there, to let us look back, even as we spring forward.

The Love That I Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer, Queer Fun

On Wednesday morning, the morning of the twentieth anniversary of our commitment ceremony, June crawled into bed with us at 6:40 a.m.  We all dozed a bit longer and around 7:00 Beth got out of bed and was walking around my side of the bed on her way out of the bedroom when I put my arms up for a hug.  The cue reminded her. “Happy anniversary,” she said.

The kids went to school and Beth went to work and the day unfolded like a normal weekday.  I read a few chapters of Catch-22, which I’m reading for my book club, and I exercised and cleaned the refrigerator.  I worked on a set of instructions for growing hydroponic green beans, cucumbers and lettuce.  I found out I’d landed a job writing three grants for a group of D.C. public charter schools. Okay, that last part was not so routine.  I haven’t written a grant since 1994, when I worked for Project Vote, so I greeted this development with a mix of excitement and trepidation.  But I can’t even start until I attend a series of meetings with school officials in early February so I can put it out my mind for now.

That morning Beth posted a picture of the two of us at our commitment ceremony on Facebook, along with a copy of a newspaper story from the Philadelphia Gay News, about how our commitment ceremony announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer was the first one ever for a gay or lesbian couple.  (At the time my father was the managing editor of the Inquirer. He did not participate in the discussions about whether to publish the announcement but I imagine the fact that I was his daughter must have been a factor in people’s minds.  If nepotism did help break down the door for other people behind us, I have no problem with that.)

One of the things I love about Facebook is all the positive feedback you get on milestone posts.  All day long the congratulations poured in on both posts.  It made me cheerful every time I checked it and gave the day a festive feel, even if I was at home alone, writing or doing chores for much of it.

Shortly after June got home I started cooking dinner.  I wanted to get an early start on the eggplant-bulgur casserole because I was also making a cake, the spice cake with lemon glaze I make almost every year on our anniversary. It was our wedding cake.  June helped pour the ingredients in the bowl, mix the batter, consulted with me on what shade of pink to dye the glaze (it was a very deep pink, almost red) and helped spread the glaze on the cake.

While we ate dinner, we listened to one of the three mix tapes we made for our ceremony.  (Our ceremony was a very low-budget, DIY affair so we provided our own music.) I haven’t attempted the play the tapes in years and I wasn’t even sure if the one I’d selected would still play or if it would be warped, but it sounded fine after two decades (or almost two decades- a notation on the case indicated we’d re-made it in 1994. I don’t remember why).  It was the one we played last, the most upbeat one.  It starts with Prince’s “Let Pretend We’re Married” and the Eurhythmics “Would I Lie to You?” and goes on in that vein.  It’s a fun tape and I only had to rush to the tape player to turn down the volume once so the kids would miss some not quite age-appropriate lyrics.

The music, familiar and yet from such a different time in our lives, and the photo of Beth with her early 90s trademark flattop really took me back. Sometimes it seems like it hasn’t been that long since we were in our mid-twenties and childless and new to living in the big city, and sometimes it seems like another life entirely.

After dinner and before cake, we exchanged gifts. Beth got me Stephen King’s latest—11/22/63— and I got her a gift certificate for Giovanni’s Room, a gay bookstore in Philadelphia.  And why would I get her such a thing when we live in suburban Maryland?  We had a kid-free weekend in Philly ahead of us, that’s why.

We drove everyone up to Mom and Jim’s house on Saturday afternoon after June’s basketball game, dropped the kids off and enjoyed two nights and one day to ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love.  We had two very nice dinners at the Kyber Pass Pub and Cuba Libre. If you go to the first, the vegetarian meats (BBQ and fried chicken Po Boys) and the fried vegetables (okra and sweet potato fries) are very good. If you go to the second, you must order the buñuelos con espinaca. We visited Reading Terminal Market and had lunch there.  I got a vegetarian cheesesteak at a stand where the service was so bad it crossed over from aggravating to comic, but the cheesesteak was not half bad once I finally got it. We browsed at Giovanni’s Room and came out with a few books. We spent a lot of time in our hotel room and in a local coffee shop reading. We saw a non-animated, R-rated movie, the lesbian coming-of-age film The Pariah, which was well acted and a good story, though there were some odd things going on with the camera work, probably meant to indicate the protagonist’s emotional state.  Our room had a gas fireplace and a Jacuzzi and we employed them both.

We walked a lot on Sunday and made some serendipitous discoveries, stumbling upon the President’s House where the first two Presidents lived while the Capitol moved to Washington. The building is no longer there, but they have rebuilt parts of it, with low brick walls to show where walls went and some chimneys and doorways recreated.  You can also look down into the ground to see the actual excavated foundations through glass.  There is a lot of information posted on signs about the house and its inhabitants, including the nine slaves who lived there. It seemed a fitting place to visit during MLK weekend and we would have lingered longer and read more if it had not been so very cold (in the twenties most of the day and quite windy).

We also found the block where I lived from the ages of five and half to almost nine, quite by accident, and from there I remembered how to walk to my elementary school a few blocks away, so we did.  I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1976 but other than new playground equipment (and what I believe to be an addition) the soaring one-hundred-year-old red brick building looks just as I remember it.  It was odd, but not unpleasant to be walking around our old neighborhood on Sunday, because it was the second anniversary of my father’s death. As we walked along the blocks where he must have walked so many times, I imagined him in his thirties walking with a little-girl version of me, maybe headed to the playground, maybe going for ice cream or to peek inside antique stores.

On Monday morning we picked up the kids and heard all about their trip to the Franklin Institute. June loved the giant heart and veins you can tour (what kid doesn’t?) and the movie they saw in the planetarium about black holes and Noah liked the city that changed colors depending on environmental choices the citizens made.  June left Mom and Jim’s house laden with necklaces, a jewelry box and a wicker doll high chair.  (Mom is downsizing in preparation for her move).  On our way out of the Philadelphia area, we made one last stop, for soft pretzels, and then we were homeward bound, arriving mid-afternoon, in time for undone homework and weekend chores.  Our anniversary celebration was over.

But I still have one song from the commitment ceremony tape running through my head. It’s “The Queer Song,” by Two Nice Girls.  It makes me think how much has changed, not just over the past twenty years, but maybe the past thirty.  The speaker is re-assuring her love interest, who is still insecure in her sexual identity:

I’m gonna take you to queer bars
I’m gonna drive you in queer cars
You’re gonna meet all my queer friends
Our queer, queer fun it never ends
We’re gonna have a happy life
Both of us are gonna be the wife
I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
It’s queer queer fun for you and me

(If you don’t know this song, it’s worth knowing that it’s sung partially to the tune of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”)  I have to reach far back into my life to remember a time when the idea of my own happiness being possible would have produced a subversive, defiant thrill, but I do remember.  I do.  I would not say my life is a never-ending parade of queer, queer fun—it has as many disappointments and sorrows as anyone else’s—but there is happiness in it, too.

As the Presidential election will no doubt remind me on a more regular basis than I’d like, my family’s happiness is still a hard pill for some people to swallow. That’s why this was a commitment ceremony anniversary and not a wedding anniversary we just celebrated. I have faith we’ll get there, maybe soon. Gay marriage will be on the table again in Maryland this year, as it was last year and a few years before that. I try not to get my hopes up.  I do want to be legally married for both symbolic and practical reasons, but on the deepest level, both of us already are the wife and we have been since that mid-January afternoon when we were twenty-four and twenty-five and stood before our friends and family and dared to imagine living a happy life together.

My Father’s Office

A guest blog entry by Beth.

My father died unexpectedly earlier this month. There is so much to say about his life and the complex feelings that his death brings that it is impossible to say it. My brother’s eulogy was just about right: He wasn’t the best dad and he wasn’t the worst dad. He was our dad. We will miss him.

My father and his work were somewhat inseparable. He practiced law with the same firm for over 40 years. He would bring home stacks of used paper so we could draw on the blank sides. Sometimes he’d bring home his Dictaphone with its state-of-the-art cassette tape technology and let my brother and me record our voices. It was awesome when he did that.

When I arrived in my home town after learning of dad’s death, I had a strong urge to see his office. He’d sometimes take my brother or me in with him on a Saturday when we were young and I loved going there. I hadn’t been there for ages. I finally had time to go the day after the memorial service.

The law library, with its smell of old books and tobacco, was now a conference room but otherwise not much about the building had changed. Dad’s actual office space had moved a few times over the years, from an upstairs room to the first floor then closer to the front of the building. One of his law partners showed us into his office, which was filled with the things you’d expect to see if someone left work thinking they’d be back the next day – a table piled with files and maps of a local mine he was working with, a jacket draped over a chair, umbrellas in the closet.

There were two things there I was particularly glad to see. The first was a letter opener, shaped like a sword, that rested in a crystalline glass base, Excalibur-like. I was fascinated by it as a child, watching dad as he sliced open the mail we had picked up from the firm’s post office box, thinking it sharp and dangerous and, perhaps, a little magical.

The other item was a clock, an odd clock, really, though it had never seemed odd to me. It was made of a square wooden plaque with coins embedded in it to mark the hours. The coins were from 1964, two years before I was born and the last year that U.S. dimes, quarters and half dollars were made primarily of silver.

My brother and I spent several hours in dad’s office that afternoon as his colleague went through my father’s personal effects so we could decide what to do with them. He’d gone to law school with dad and was instrumental in bringing him to the firm. I think it was hard for him to believe that my father was suddenly no longer there.

Some things we looked at were mundane, like car repair receipts for vehicles dad hadn’t owned for years. Some came with great stories, like the certificate of admission to the bar of the Supreme Court that he had obtained early in his career when he had a conscientious objector case that might have gone that far (though it ultimately didn’t). Some were mysterious, like the dozens of empty cigarette lighters that he kept in drawers at the office and at the house. They were bits and pieces of my dad’s life but, like my words, the picture they create is incomplete.

Dad’s clock is now in my office. My kids will see it there when they come in with me on a snow day or a weekend. It’s not always easy or convenient to bring them to work with me. But when they ask, I often say yes, remembering how special it felt whenever I got a glimpse of my dad’s work world, where he spent so many hours, with his clock of silver and the sword in the stone.

Anniversaries, Part 2

When my father died it was like a whole library
Had burned down. World without end remember me.

From “World Without End” by Laurie Anderson

This is a picture of my father and me at a block party in Brooklyn during the summer of 1971 or 1972. I was four or five. He was twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I think he looks a little like Cat Stevens and that I look a lot like a certain almost-five year old I know. I have a foggy memory of this party. I remember running around in the street with my friend, a neighbor boy whose father took the picture (and sent it to me last summer) and I remember thinking it was very funny that we were all in the middle of the street because under normal circumstances that’s exactly where your parents are always telling you not to be when you are a small child. It felt delightfully transgressive. I also remember drinking a can of grape soda and just being able to handle the full can by myself and feeling very grown up holding it. Undoubtedly if my father was alive and I could ask him what he remembered about this party, he would have an entirely different set of associations. I wish I knew what they were.

Our memories of the dead are how they live on, but those memories are so frustratingly partial and particular to our own point of view. I asked Noah what he remembered about Dad the other day and he said, “Going out to dinner.” It wasn’t a surprising response. Dad loved good food and he loved going out to eat. I asked Noah whether he remembered going out to eat in New York, when we were visiting Dad or in Maryland, when he was visiting us. He said in New York, which made sense because that was the last time Noah saw Dad, in New York when Noah was six and a half. The last time Dad came to see us was in May 2006, when Noah was five and Dad and my stepmother Ann had come to meet the new granddaughter.

The second picture is from that visit. It was taken in Downtown Silver Spring. I don’t remember precisely what we were doing there. It’s possible we went to get a picture of the silver turtle. There were turtle statues all over suburban Maryland that spring and summer as a public art project. (The terrapin is the mascot of the University of Maryland.) Noah loved them and we took his photograph with around twenty of them. So maybe we went to get the picture, but more likely we were going out to eat and we happened upon it.

I like these pictures together not only because Noah and I are close to the same age in them, but because they were taken in my father’s twenties and sixties, the bookends of his adult life. So much happened in between: most of my life and my sister’s, much of his first and second marriages, the births of his two grandchildren, his whole tenure at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time and its associated magazines and the website Campaign Desk. That list of relationships and jobs is one way to fill in the middle. Another is to consider how even though he’s gone, in the year since his death there has been a lot in our everyday life that would be familiar to him:

He loved old houses.

And ice cream.

And vacationing at the beach.

And walking in the woods.

He was funny.

And well read.

For a while I was dreading today, the first anniversary of his death, and as it got closer I found I was impatient for it to come, so I could get past it. But a few days ago I decided I could try to make the day a testament to him. Beth joked we should go to the track because that was one of my father’s passions and I actually did some research and found that Laurel Park (http://www.laurelpark.com/) is open this time of year, but on thinking it over I decided an experience that would be new for the kids and possibly over-stimulating wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a quiet, reflexive day. I thought it should include reading, writing, some alone time for me, coffee,chocolate and a meal out. So that’s what we did.

In the morning I read to both kids (nothing unusual there) and I took a solitary walk by Long Branch creek. We’ve had an unusually cold week and the creek is covered in places with a layer of ice that looks a half-inch thick. The path was snowy and there were brown leaves on the ground. It was suitable locale for elegiac thoughts. It also reminded me of the landscape around the vacation cottage Dad and Ann had on French Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania when I was in my teens and twenties. From there I went to Starbucks and read the Washington Post magazine while I sipped my latte. (The barista wanted to know where my “little one” was. I am so seldom out and about without her.) We had lunch at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/) and I got a big slice of chocolate cake for dessert. After lunch, I finished writing this.

I am going to give my sister Sara the last word in this post, or close to it. This is an excerpt from eulogy she gave at his memorial service in April. It was in the section about how he showed his love for us:

You could tell he loved us by his use of pet names. He called me princess. He called my sister angel. I don’t think he ever knew how special that made us feel.

You could tell by the ridiculous little jig he used to perform for Steph and me every other weekend after not having seen us for two weeks. As we descended from the train into the lobby of 30th Street Station, he’d do a funny little dance where he’d shuffle his feet and occasionally kick out his leg, maintaining a completely serious look on his face. When we’d cry “Dad!” in mock embarrassment, he’d look puzzled, and say “What? It’s my happy-to-see-you dance.”

You could tell by the masterful rainbow he painted on the wall of the bedroom that I shared with Steph. As any child knows, you don’t paint a rainbow on a wall for someone unless you love them very, very much.

We loved him, too. And we remember him, each in our own partial and particular way, but no less for that.

Fear Not

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Luke 2:10

On Saturday afternoon, around 3:45, Beth and I were walking along the boardwalk; Noah and June raced ahead. Every now and then he would tug on her arm or grab her coat to slow her down, telling her she couldn’t go inside Santa’s house until the adults caught up with them.

“Let go of her hood,” I yelled as Beth yelled almost identical words. It’s not like she’d actually go inside without any of us, we joked to each other. June’s always been shy around Santa. In years past it has taken all the courage she can muster to walk into the little house with Noah at her side and stand in Santa’s general proximity while Noah relays her requests. We weren’t expecting anything different this year.

But before we got to the house, a woman dressed as an elf peered around the corner and asked if it was okay for the kids to come in. We indicated it was and hurried up a little.

When we got to the doorway, June was already sitting on Santa’s lap and he was asking her what she wanted for Christmas. She had her answer all ready: “A princess book and a princess doll.” Santa told her to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so he would have time to deliver her gifts. We barely had time to snap a picture before it was Noah’s turn. As the kids came out, admiring their flashing necklaces–hers was in the shape of a stocking and his was a Christmas tree- Beth and kept looking at each other and exclaiming over June’s unexpected bravery.

I’ve been somewhat afraid of Christmas this year, or rather I’ve been afraid of the emotions it might stir up, as my father died in mid-January last year and my last visit to him started on the day after Christmas. But so far, it hasn’t been too bad. I mean, I’m thinking about him a lot, and I even had a dream recently about going to visit him but being unable to find him because I was supposed to meet him at his new office, which was on a street with completely random street numbers. But Christmas music and decorations and sweets seem the same as ever, more comforting than sad. When I am hit with sadness it comes unexpectedly. A few weeks ago the kids and I went to a marionette show at a nearby community college with the Toad and her mother. One of the puppeteers looked a bit like my father. It wasn’t even a very close resemblance, but it was still hard to watch him up there on stage. I think grief is like that–you don’t get to decide or even predict when it will come to you. So I’ve realized it does me no good to go in fear of eggnog lattes or Christmas carols.

And the Christmas story itself is, at least in part, about overcoming fear. How would the shepherds have felt, seeing the angels swoop down on their field at night? How would Mary have received the news about her impending unwed motherhood? I imagine they all would have been sore afraid indeed, at least at first.

After we left Santa, we did some Christmas shopping (this being the ostensible reason for our annual December weekend in Rehoboth—but if you know me at all you know the real reason). Beth and I split up and bought many of June’s Christmas gifts right under her nose, including a princess book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paper_Bag_Princess) and a princess doll. I will not say what, if anything, we bought for Noah because he reads my blog now. Sorry, Noah Bear.

Then we headed to Grotto’s to order a pizza to take back to our hotel room. June had slept poorly the night before and then skipped her nap that afternoon and she was clearly exhausted so our evening plan was pizza and a movie in the room. I was expecting her to conk out on the bed pretty early in the feature presentation so we bathed both kids and got them into their pajamas before starting the movie.

We were watching Christmas Is Here Again (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUpxgaH4F4g&feature=related), which is one of the stranger Christmas films I’ve ever seen. We found it at a video store two Christmases ago and it’s become one of the movies in our regular Christmas rotation. It’s a rather dark tale about an orphan girl who sets out to find Santa’s stolen sack, which has been missing for over thirty years and without which Christmas can no longer celebrated. The girl is accompanied by an elf, a baby reindeer, a polar bear and a fox, one of whom is a double agent, but I won’t give away that part. They have to journey down into the mines of the devilish villain where child slaves toil to extract coal and precious stones. And it goes on like that. The villain, Crad, is very creepy, a shrouded fellow with crooked teeth and red eyes. He scares the pants off June every time. In fact, sometimes Noah only has to sing “I stole Santa’s sack/The sack he carried on his back./I stole Santa’s sack/And I’ll never give it back!” to send June running out of the room.

Nevertheless, she insists on watching this movie, and we let her. I struggle a lot with what’s too scary for the kids to watch, especially June because she’s both younger and more sensitive to on-screen scariness than Noah was at her age. (Interestingly, some of the books that spooked him when he was a preschooler do nothing for her.) But if it’s rated G, I will usually let her watch it, as long as we’re not at a movie theater where the screens are bigger and her habit of running of the room at the scary parts would be more inconvenient for everyone involved.

And she did run out of the room at least twice, even though she declared several times before we started watching that “This is not a scary movie for me.” I accompanied her to the bathroom and we waited for her to be ready to come back. After a while she decided she could just hide under the covers whenever Crad came on screen, and that’s what she did. Much to my surprise, she did not fall asleep during the hour and fifteen minute film, though when I put her to bed soon after, she fell asleep quickly and slept an impressive ten fours and forty minutes (from 8:05 to 6:45). She may not have made it through the entire movie without hiding, but some year she will. She’d already overcome one long-standing fear and that’s plenty for one day.

Once June was asleep, I took Noah down to the hotel lobby where we could read and then I brought him back up and put him to bed at 8:45. Beth had gone to bed herself and seemed to be asleep. I sat on the bathroom floor with the light on and read for twenty minutes until Noah was asleep and then I got into my warm socks, rubber boots, coat and woolen scarf. It was raining out but it’s not every evening I have the chance to walk on the beach and I’m not afraid of a little rain.

Days of the Dead

Halloween has come and gone. Today is the Day of the Dead, and I am thinking more about the dead than usual, for obvious reasons. I’m wondering if Halloween will be the last of the fall and winter holidays I really enjoy this year since the closer we get to winter, the more I feel my grief for my father returning. My mom and I were talking about this on Saturday. I told her how I feel it approaching, a presentiment of sorrow.

She’d come to visit for the weekend. When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, Beth, Noah and June were at a potluck for the two fourth-grade gifted classes at his school so Mom and I went to Capital Cheesecake (http://www.capitalcitycheesecakes.com/) where she had lunch and I had iced tea and a mini pumpkin cheesecake. We got to have a more leisurely conversation than is usually possible with the kids vying for her attention. She brought me up to date on relatives and told me about the European river tour she and my stepfather are planning. I told her it was good she was doing the things she wanted to do. I was thinking of my father, who surely had things he wanted to do before cancer took him so ferociously and so suddenly last winter.

Mom and I came back to the house and we got the kids into their costumes for the Halloween parade. I thought June would protest against having to wear leggings and a long-sleeve t-shirt under her sleeveless Tiana gown, plus a cardigan over it, but she didn’t. Mom snapped pictures of Tiana and the question mark and we were off.

As we had last year, we ran into the White-Tailed Deer, who was dressed like a witch, and we marched with her in the first short loop of the parade, when the judging takes place. I took a picture of the two girls together and the Deer’s mom said she could tell this was going to be a Halloween tradition for them. There was a big turnout from June’s class. Over the course of the evening we also saw the Red Fox (dressed as a bat), the Racoon (dressed very creatively as a S’more) and the Field Cricket (dressed as a police officer). This last one was no surprise as there were several months last year when the Cricket came to school dressed as a police officer every day. He even had a set of handcuffs he wore at his waist. I used to joke it was like going to preschool with the Village People. This year his mom got into the spirit and was also dressed as a police officer and his baby sister was a Hell’s Angel.

After the 3-4 year olds had marched the judging route but before the 8-10 year olds did, June announced, “I have to go potty,” so we ducked into a nearby video store. June’s doing really well on the potty recently. As of about a week and a half ago, she’s completely trained for pee. She’s still having a lot of the other kind of accident, but we are using so few diapers, I thought it made sense to use the few cloth diapers we bought for night use when Noah was at this stage, wash them myself and cancel the service. So today, I did just that.

Along the long part of the route, from downtown to the elementary school where the party is held, other marchers and people on the sidelines kept calling out to Noah, saying either, “What’s the question?” or “What’s the answer?” My favorite question, though, came from the mom of one of his old nursery school classmates: “Are you questioning authority?” The reasoning behind his costume, by the way, is that the unknown is the scariest thing. The question mark is “the scariest punctuation,” he told us earnestly.

There was a vivid, deep pink sunset as we approached the school. Once inside, we ate cookies and drank apple juice and listened to Noah’s favorite local band, The Grandsons (http://www.grandsons.com/gigs/), play live. He saw them at the folk festival in September and liked them so much that Beth bought their CD. We talked to more people we knew and finally, the kids collected their goody bags and we got into the car to drive home.

When June came into our room at 5:55 a.m. the next morning I thought she was too excited about it being Halloween to sleep, as she usually sleeps until 6:30 or later. I sent her back to her room, but she was back at 6:05 and I let her crawl into bed with us. She didn’t go back to sleep and neither did I, what with all the tossing and turning, but she was quiet at least. When Beth woke around seven, and said, “Happy Halloween!” June sucked in her breath and exclaimed, “It’s Halloween!” So, I guess I was wrong about the reason for the early wake-up.

June wanted to go trick-or-treating right away, but Beth explained she had to wait until dark or people would not be ready with their candy. This argument seemed to work, as it had about a week ago when June said she had “made a plan” to be “the Halloween maker” so she could decide for herself when Halloween would be. The specter of closed doors and empty candy bowls was effective in putting the kibosh on that plan.

June’s impatience was soon forgotten, though, because she had Grandmom’s undivided attention for much of the morning. They played out in the backyard—tag, soccer, imaginative games about going to the beach and berry-picking. June made a bouquet of fall leaves and brought it inside. Then Mom took both kids to the playground (after a long and convoluted negotiation about which playground). I love grandmother visits.

Sunday afternoon, after Mom had left, we ate popcorn as we watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and carved replacement pumpkins. We’d had unusually warm weather the past week, with highs in the seventies three days, and one by one, our pumpkins succumbed to mold and began to collapse. When I carried the last of them out to the compost on the afternoon of Halloween, they were soft and dripping and a beetle even scuttled out of one of them when I lifted it. We couldn’t be without jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, so Beth bought pumpkins we made two more. June wanted a cat, and Noah did a face. He designed it himself. Instead of carving out the eyes, he carved the outline of them. “Instead of carving the eyes out, I carved them in!” he declared. June reminded everyone that when it got dark and “creepy” out (here she held out her hands and wiggled her fingers), it would be time for trick-or-treating. She mentioned this in case anyone was tempted to leave before then, I suppose.

Beth made chili for the grownups’ dinner and noodles and broccoli and cheese for the kids and then we put the finishing touches on our porch and yard. Beth lit the pumpkins, and then placed another votive candle in front of the cement gargoyle to illuminate it. She turned on the light in the skull of the skeleton and hung the ghost lights over the door and got the coffin-fog machine running. Noah set the cawing, red-eyed raven on the porch column opposite the gargoyle and June filled the Frankenstein’s monster head bowl with candy.

Finally, it was time to go. June was in her costume in no time, and kept haranguing Noah to get into his. Since I’ve gone out trick or treating with the kids the past couple years, I offered to stay home and give out candy instead so Beth could go. I was busier re-lighting candles and refilling the fog machine with water than handing out treats. We got about a half dozen groups over the course of the evening, but most of them came after the kids returned at 8:00. We rarely get big crowds coming to the door, but we’re always prepared.

It’s a good thing, too. As we walked through our neighborhood this week, on our way to school or the library or drama class, June would appraise each house. “Those people are ready for Halloween,” she would say approvingly at the more decorated ones. “Those people are not ready for Halloween,” she’d declare scornfully at the undecorated ones. If there was some token effort, say an uncarved pumpkin or a wreath of fall leaves, she’d say, “Those people are almost ready for Halloween” in the tone of one attempting to be generous and encouraging. Lucky for us, we were among the ready.

Beth and the kids got back after an hour of trick-or-treating. They covered more ground than they usually do, including our block and two nearby streets that intersect it. Several people remembered Noah, commenting on his creativity with costumes. (Some even recalled his rain cloud costume of three years ago.) Beth said June skipped along the sidewalk between each house saying, ‘I’m trick-or-treating!” or “Let’s go to the next house!” At the houses where people opened the door but had no candy, she exclaimed loudly, “I don’t know that could have happened!” At one house they told Noah to take two candies and then told June to take three because she was “so cute.” Even our easy-going boy was annoyed by that, although he didn’t grumble until the door was closed. Beth said both kids were polite and said thank you at each house.

We let the kids choose three candies each to eat and got them off to bed. We continued to watch for trick-or-treaters and to check on the water level in the coffin and the flames on all of our candles until around 9:35, when we brought in the candy and called it a night.

Underneath the black turtleneck I wore on Halloween, I wore a t-shirt from a restaurant in Key West. It used to belong to my father. I’m not Mexican, so I don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead by visiting cemeteries or eating sugar skulls to honor my deceased relatives. I’m not a pagan or a Wiccan either. I don’t believe the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is any thinner in these few days when the lingering warmth of October slips away into November’s chill. Sometimes, though, I wish I did.

The Birthday Girl

I entered my mid-forties yesterday on a cold, drizzly Tuesday. It was Beth’s day to co-op at June’s school, which is my very favorite kind of weekday. I’m on my own from the time Noah’s bus comes at 8:20 until around noon when Beth and June return, and then Beth usually works from home in the afternoon. There was work I could have done, but it was my birthday so I decided to read instead. A couple years ago I asked Beth to look for a social history of the beach for some gift-giving occasion and she bought me The Beach: A History of Paradise on Earth (http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-5584915_ITM). It looked really interesting and I never read it. While it’s definitely popular history and not an academic tome, it’s still a bit denser than what I usually read these days (causing me to fret about what has happened to my mind in my five years as a stay-at-home mom). But more importantly, the chapters are discouragingly long. I can read the longest books—twelve hundred page novels don’t faze me—but only if the chapters are short. I like to feel confident I’m going be able to finish a chapter before I’m willing to start one. So anyway, with the end of June’s school year rapidly approaching, I thought I should seize the day and the book. I started reading on the porch, decided it was too cold and moved to the bed, decided I should really be getting some exercise if I was going to read inside and moved to the exercise bike. I spent over two hours reading and went from less than a quarter of the way through the book to almost halfway done. The book is full of interesting tidbits (I liked learning more about Victorian bathing machines—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bathing_machine) but spending over two hours reading about the beach did cause me to wonder why it was again I was not there right then.

After lunch and June’s nap, we all headed over to Noah’s school for our meeting with Señor S because a parent-teacher meeting is what every middle-aged mom wants to do on her birthday. No, really we did it because Beth was home for the afternoon and it was convenient. It was a challenging meeting because time was short and what Señor S wanted to talk about was not exactly what we wanted to talk about, but we did learn some valuable things. First, that he’s not as strict about the papers on the desk as Noah thought he was. He said he only discards student work if he finds it on the floor with no name and then he said Noah’s been better about turning in his papers this week. Of course, Noah has his focused days and his unfocused days—like everyone, but more so—so I wasn’t sure a few days of remembering meant much. Anyway, he didn’t seem as concerned as we thought he would be, so we were able to tell Noah later it was important to keep trying to remember to turn in his work, but not to be anxious about it if he didn’t. I suggested taping a checklist to Noah’s desk to remind him of what he needed to do, but Señor S seemed to think it would make Noah feel singled out, so I don’t know if he’ll do it. When we turned the conversation to the aggressive behavior we found out he did mean Noah bumping into people and stepping on their feet. I tried to explain he probably didn’t mean to do it, but I’m not sure Señor S believed me. I’m not sure I’d believe myself in his shoes—I thought I sounded like one of those parents who think their kids can do no wrong. But we did suggest that pointing his behavior out to him, “You are leaning on So-and-So,” or “You have stepped on So-and-So’s feet,” and asking him to apologize might help make him more aware of his impact on others and help him become more considerate of their feelings. Señor S agreed to try it.

What Señor S mostly wanted to talk about is how brilliant Noah is. I think he used that word at least three times. We learned Noah actually figured out the formula for the area of a right triangle all by himself last week, which Noah failed to mention when he was telling us about it, and that now he’s eager to learn how to calculate the area of a cylinder. Now any parent would like to bask in these kinds of anecdotes, and I will admit they were nice to hear, but knowing our son, we know that being smart won’t necessarily help him to act in socially acceptable ways and remember to turn in his schoolwork. I think I was more satisfied with the meeting than Beth was, but in any event we did get some take-home messages for Noah on both issues and I felt that was important.

We got home and I opened my presents—a gift card to Border’s, a t-shirt and a book, a new backpack and metal water bottle, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled, candy and a framed picture of June frowning (she selected the photo herself). My sister’s presents came in a box addressed to The Birthday Girl, which I found amusing because her business —Word Girl—has the same name as the PBS cartoon (http://pbskids.org/wordgirl/) and The Birthday Girl is a character on the show, but I don’t think Sara actually knows this. Or I hope not, because the Birthday Girl is one of the villains. She insists every day is her birthday and expects to get her way all the time because of this. When she’s crossed, she turns green and grows as big as a house and starts trashing things. In one of my favorite Birthday Girl episodes she is upset about having to share her so-called birthday with the Earth on Earth Day and starts uprooting trees. Sometimes when the children are being too insistent on getting their own way or refusing to share, I tell them not to be like The Birthday Girl. Here’s a clip from the show if you want to see her in action. It’s five minutes long, but the first scene, the one in the park, is all you really need to watch– http://kidstube.com/play.php?vid=5008.

After presents, I got Noah started on his homework. My aunt Peggy, my mother’s youngest sister, had a conference in D.C. and we were meeting her for dinner at America (http://photohome.com/photos/washington-dc-pictures/america-restaurant-dc-1.html) in Union Station. This meant leaving the house at 5:00 and it was 3:20. Noah managed to read the last three chapters of The Westing Game, play “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” on the recorder five times and do three long division problems in an hour and five minutes. I was impressed and relieved he was so quick. There would have been more math, he said, but the copier was broken. Normally, I feel for the teachers who have been struggling with this balky copier for years, but for once I thought it was just as well. Noah was able to have a little downtime—he watched Word Girl—and we left.

I don’t know if it was because we skipped the kids’ normal outside playtime so Noah could finish his homework early or what, but both kids were really badly behaved just before we left. They were fighting over a toy and when we hustled them into the car they were both sobbing. I wondered how long they would keep it up but the answer was not long. We passed a graveyard on the drive over and June wanted to know what it was, which led Beth and Noah into a long conversation about burial versus cremation. I almost put in that Grandpa Steve was cremated, but then I decided against it, not sure I wanted to deal with the inevitable follow up questions.

At the restaurant, the kids were both a bit antsy and needed to be taken away from the table for walks twice, but we had time to eat—I got baked macaroni and cheese with some steamed vegetables to dip in the sauce—and time to chat with my aunt and for her to update us on her daughter Emily, son Blake and grandson Josiah. She said June and Josiah could be siblings, they looked so much alike. We hadn’t seen Peggy in a couple of years so it was nice to catch up.

At home we had cake and ice cream and put the kids to bed. When we went to bed, Beth asked me if I had a good birthday. I said yes, but I was also a little sad because I’d moved on, gotten a year older, and my Dad never will. I thought about this on the kids’ birthdays, too, but their excitement about turning four and nine pretty much swept me along and overrode any melancholy. I guess forty-three is not as thrilling.

So, I’m still sad today, but I’m not planning to rage against the universe, demand special treatment or uproot any trees. Yesterday I had some time to myself, a good book, a good meal, time with family including a visit with a member of my far-flung extended family. Life goes on; we all get older. That’s how it should be. It’s better than the alternative anyway.