In Memoriam

My father died at 4:15 on Friday afternoon. He passed peacefully in his sleep at his vacation home in Key West. His wife and two close friends were in the room with him. My sister and I did not make it down to Florida in time to see him before he died. I wish we had, but I am relieved that he died without pain, in a place he loved, and surrounded by people who loved him.

I am not going to write an obituary. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked as an editor from 1972 to 1996, published a fine one ( It’s mostly about his professional achievements, which were many and far-reaching. But of course, when I think of him, I don’t think of him primarily as a brilliant editor—I think of him as my father.

One of the difficult things about his death is that it happened so fast. He was only diagnosed with cancer last summer and after a seven-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy that ended in early October, it seemed he was in the clear. He died about four weeks after finding out the cancer was back in mid-December.

When I went to see him in New York right after Christmas we talked about the fact that we had not been close. We exchanged apologies and I told him I wanted him to know the kids better. The last time he saw them was over two years ago and he only met June twice—once at two months and once at twenty-one months. (I wrote about that last visit in my 12//27/07 entry.) He said he wanted that too and he invited us to come visit him in Key West, but then his condition deteriorated with such astonishing rapidity that he never did see them. When I was planning my trip to Florida, I kept changing the dates in my mind, pushing them forward from late February to late January to this week and
I considered various groups of us going—all of us, just Noah and me, just Beth and me, and just me. In the end we settled on just me. He wasn’t going to get to know the kids better and they wouldn’t get to know him. It was too late. He was too sick. It just wasn’t going to happen. Even my last-minute plans to have Noah interview Dad about his life or at least to write him a letter never came to fruition. This is the part that really tears me up.

“He got out of the god-damned ice cream line again. That’s what he did,” I told Beth on Friday evening after the kids were finally in bed. My father loved ice cream and I have many fond memories of him taking my sister and me out for ice cream. On one occasion, however—I don’t have any idea how old we were—he got impatient in a long, slow-moving line for soft-serve and we got out of the line and went home. I made a solemn vow to myself at the time that if I ever had kids I would never, ever get out of an ice cream line. I just wouldn’t do it. And I never do. I even use the phrase as shorthand when I’ve made a promise to the kids and something arises to make that promise inconvenient and I fulfill it anyway. To do otherwise would be to get out of the ice cream line. But this time, he didn’t decide to walk away. He was pushed out of that line.

I do find myself angry at times. Why did he smoke for forty-seven years, I wonder? Why didn’t he quit when my sister was seven and left collages of photographs of healthy and diseased lung tissue lying around the house and made him a offer that she’d stop sucking her thumb if he would quit smoking? (I feel compelled to note that she held up her end of the bargain.) And then I find myself irrationally angry at anyone over the age of sixty-six, anyone who has had cancer and beaten it, anyone who smoked and never got cancer. While I was feeling this way on Friday night, I made Noah promise me he would never take up smoking. I didn’t do it in a dramatic way. I just said to him as I was tucking him into bed, “Don’t ever smoke. Just don’t ever do it.” He gave me a solemn, wide-eyed nod.

But these angry feelings are short-lived flashes. Mostly I feel sad. And I have the most unoriginal thoughts sometimes. I eat something, or read a newspaper story and I think he’s never going to eat anything again. He’s never going to read the newspaper again. But why should I have original thoughts about death? Isn’t death the great universal?

So I find myself wondering what it’s okay to do. I was planning to bake a cake on Saturday morning—the spice cake from the recipe we used for our wedding cake. I make it on or around our anniversary every year. But should I? And Beth and I had a date scheduled for Saturday afternoon, our first date in almost a year. Was it wrong to go out and see a movie the day after my father died?

I thought about it and I made the cake. It could even be a sort of tribute to him because of all of our parents, he was the one who was most on board with Beth’s and my relationship in the beginning. His support around the time of the commitment ceremony marked a high point in our relationship. And we went to the movie, too. A few hours away from the kids and alone with Beth seemed like just what I needed. We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and then grabbed a quick dinner at an eco-friendly combination salad bar/frozen yogurt place in Bethesda ( It might seem like seeing a movie about a father-daughter relationship on the day after one’s father has died might be a spectacularly bad idea, but it wasn’t. Parnassus and Valentina did not remind me much of my father or myself. My father never, for instance, made a deal with the devil regarding my soul.

And he left me with some good memories. One of the best ones I already shared on this blog last summer. It was in one of those long beach entries you may just skim through because who but me could possibly want to read so much about the beach? Here it is: “I remember being small, older than June but not by much, riding on my father’s shoulders in the ocean, so deep in that the water sometimes went over his head. He was holding on tight, though, and it never occurred to me to be afraid.”

So now he’s gone, and the condolences are pouring in, and whatever remained undone between us will remain that way forever. I am very glad I got to see him in New York, though, and that we got to make our peace. He told my sister you really find out who loves you when you have cancer and on questioning him further, she found he meant me, among others. It’s something. It has to be enough.

A House Without Heat

This wasn’t going to be another post about my father. It was going to be a post about Beth’s and my anniversary and I guess it is, but it’s about my father, too. That’s just how it turned out.

On Sunday night, as I was getting ready for bed, and Beth was lying in bed with her eyes closed, I slipped an anniversary card into a zippered compartment on the front of her suitcase. She was leaving for Sacramento in the morning on a three-day business trip, the first day of which was the eighteenth anniversary of our commitment ceremony.

“I’m not as grumpy about it as I was the last time this happened,” I’d told her at dinner. I was referring to the fact that she’d been out of town on the twentieth anniversary of our first date. We have two anniversaries and she travels a lot, so it happens. Although possibly I shouldn’t have let on that I didn’t mind so much because the last time she took me to the beach for the weekend to make up for being gone on the actual day. Anyway, we decided to celebrate the following weekend. I got a babysitter for four hours on Saturday, enough time for a movie and dinner out. It was what I meant to do for her birthday back in November.

June woke me around two in the morning and I noticed it seemed cold in the house. I was too sleepy to give it much thought, however. When she woke me again around five, though, I realized it really was quite cold. I put my hand on the radiator in our room and found it stone cold. I decided I’d tell Beth about it when she woke, but she got up and checked the furnace before her usual 6:30 wake-up time and before I was awake enough to tell her. She placed a phone call to the emergency number for our heating oil company and was told the message would be forwarded to the local office when it opened at 7:30. Beth and I conferred about what to do if the heat could not be restored quickly. We’ve been having unusually cold weather for the past week or two. It’s in the twenties at night, with daytime temperatures in the thirties. (The snow that fell in mid-December is still lingering in patches here and there on our lawn. It’s still deep enough in places to make snowballs, which we do on occasion.) I thought with the use of a space heater in the kids’ bedroom we could probably stay in the house for at least another night. The house has thick walls and holds its heat pretty well. Beth was out the door on her way to the airport by 7:20, agitated about leaving us behind with no heat. I put my arms around her shortly before she left and joked, “An anniversary without you is like a house without heat.”

I took advantage of the fact that Monday is the one day of the week I pick June’s clothes to bundle her into corduroys over her pajama bottoms and a heavy sweater over a turtleneck. She’d been spending the morning at school but I wanted her to be prepared for a chilly afternoon. I decided if we had no heat tomorrow, I’d institute a no-short-dresses-with-tights rule until the heat was back on, but I didn’t tell her. No point in having an argument before its time.

I carried my cell phone with me (which I almost never do) on our way to school. Usually Beth waits for Noah’s 8:20 bus with him while I take June to school since she needs to be there at 8:30 and it’s a fifteen to twenty minute walk depending on how many acorns need to be picked up or how many frozen puddles need to be slid across. When Beth is out of town, Noah walks with us and we try to catch his bus as it passes a different stop. This usually works, and it did this day, too, but just barely. As we were approaching the busy street where the bus stops, nearly a block away, I saw it pulling up. “Run, but don’t cross the street!” I yelled to Noah, hoping the bus driver would see him waiting on the wrong side of the street. I grabbed June off the ground and ran with her. I don’t think we would have made it if it hadn’t been for other bus stop parents who saw us coming and asked the bus driver to wait. I thought that was nice of them, given that it’s not our normal stop and they don’t know us. By the time the bus pulled away, with Noah on it, I was coughing hard and struggling for breath. It turns out running uphill while sick and carrying a three year old winds me pretty quickly. I didn’t mention I’m sick on top of all this? Well, I am. I’ve had this cold for close to two weeks, and it’s moved down into my chest. It seems to happen all the time now when I get sick. It’s a disturbing pattern.

Anyway, my cell phone didn’t ring on the way to school or on the way back home. The message somehow got lost between the answering service and the local office so it was 1:00 p.m. before I was able to get anyone to tell me when someone would be coming to look at the furnace. Fortunately, they acted quickly once that was straightened out and the repairperson arrived at 2:30 and at 2:50 the furnace roared back to life. By this time the temperature in the house had dropped to 53 degrees. (We usually keep it at 64 degrees.) But soon it was climbing again and I thought the day was finally looking up.

Noah came home from school. We played out in the yard, and then he came in to do his daily reading. He’s reading my old copies of mysteries by Wylly Folk St. John. I got the idea to introduce him to them because he liked the A-Z mystery series so much and those are really formulaic and much too easy for him. I wanted to provide him with some better written mysteries. He started with The Christmas Tree Mystery last month, since it was seasonal and from then on he was hooked. He’s on his fifth one now. He watched some television and snacked and did some homework (more than half his math packet for the week actually). My only clue that something was wrong with him came right before he started to read. He and June were playing with Lincoln Logs and he was trying to make a large house with an unstable floor plan. It kept falling over. Then one of the little houses I made for June got knocked over and both kids were crying, Noah as hard as June.

I shrugged it off, since he does get like that sometimes and he calmed down pretty quickly, but when it was time for dinner he said he didn’t feel well. I was surprised because he’d seemed fine up to then. He wasn’t feverish, but he said he had a headache and a stomachache and he didn’t know if he should eat. I’d made macaroni and cheese with broccoli, a standard Beth’s-out-of-town dinner and one of the kids’ favorites. I said it was up to him. He should do what felt right. He wondered if he was hungry or sick. Or maybe he needed to go to the bathroom. (All these states can feel very similar to him because of his sensory confusion.) So he tried going to the bathroom and then he ate a little of his dinner. Go slowly, I advised him and see if it makes you feel better or worse. Worse was the answer. He left the table, went to rest in my room and was asleep on my bed by 7:00. I tried to rouse him so I could move him to his own bed and maybe get him into pajamas, but after opening his eyes, he just closed them and rolled away from me so I decided to leave him there.

Now June does not like to go to sleep in a room by herself, so she wanted to sleep in the toddler bed that’s still in the corner of our room and I let her. Then I had to decide where I would sleep. There was room in my bed, since Beth was gone, but I thought if he’s contagious maybe I’d be better off in the kids’ room. It seemed like a different illness than what I have and I didn’t want two illnesses at once, so I slept in June’s bunk.

Beth and I had been exchanging phone calls and emails all day, about the heat situation and Noah’s illness. I’d told her to look in her suitcase for her card and she couldn’t find it. Eventually, we realized I’d put it in the wrong suitcase. I checked and there it was still in her closet. “This day just keeps getting crappier,” I wrote her, before turning in.

June woke me at 2:00 and again at 3:30, and then Noah was up at 4:30, feeling fine and wanting to know if he could get up for the day. The answer was no. So I was completely exhausted when I got up for the day and read my stepmother’s email.

Once I did, none of it mattered, not missing our anniversary, not the cold house, not Noah’s passing illness. My father’s cancer is progressing much more quickly than we thought it would. He’s close to the end. It could be in as little as a month.

It was my morning to co-op at June’s school. I’d put out a call for a substitute on the class listserv the night before but it since no-one was able to sub on short notice and Noah was feeling better, I put him on a bus and hoped for the best. He does bounce back from illness with amazing rapidity most of the time and he wanted to go. He was even mad at me for not taking him to the before-school Geo-Bowl practice. (He’s participating in a geography contest for third to fifth graders next month. It’s a big deal at his school.) I didn’t think we could make it to the 8:00 a.m. practice in time, though.

I drifted through my co-oping duties, not feeling entirely there. I didn’t want to co-op that day, but once I was there it felt like a good thing to be in a busy, cheerful place full of three and four year olds. When June and I came home, we ate lunch and napped. I fell asleep quickly and slept deeply.

June’s school provided our dinner that night. It was something the membership co-ordinator had been meaning to do for us sometime to thank Beth for her work on the board and the fundraising committee, but when she’d heard about our heat troubles and Noah being sick she decided this was the day. She didn’t even know anything about my father. I can’t even really call it dinner, it was a feast: a baguette, a salad, two kinds of pasta salad, kale, beets, green beans, three kinds of candy, including a big dark chocolate bar with almonds. We could eat off this for days, and I think we will. Thanks, Jill!

That night was tidying up a little while Noah was in the bath and I realized I hadn’t gotten past the front page of the newspaper and I hadn’t ridden the exercise bike that day. It wasn’t that I hadn’t gotten around to those things or I’d decided I was too overwhelmed to do them. I’d just forgotten two of the most ingrained parts of my weekday routine. I decided I needed to be finished with this day, so soon after both kids were asleep, around 9:35, I was in bed myself. June let me sleep until almost six, for which I was deeply grateful.

I think I’m going to Florida soon. I’ve been exchanging email with my sister and stepmother about it, but I need to wait until I can talk to Beth in person to figure out what makes the most sense. And depending on when I go and for how long, she’ll need to make arrangements for childcare, either taking time off work or inviting her mother to come stay and watch the kids while I’m gone. It’s all up in the air right now. I can’t wait for her to get home this afternoon so I talk to her in person and not be alone with this grief.

But I’m also wishing I could go back to Monday when my biggest problems were a sick child and a house without heat.


God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Savior
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” traditional Christmas carol

I could bring you tidings of comfort and joy from our Christmas at my mother and stepfather’s house. My sister and her boyfriend Dune came east for the first Christmas in four years so we had a full house. We made gingerbread cookies on the morning of Christmas Eve, which June decorated so thoroughly with raisins that Dune asked her if she’d like some gingerbread with her raisins. That afternoon we went to Longwood Gardens ( and toured the conservatory, which was full of poinsettias and Christmas trees as well as the usual flowers and plants, and we walked through gardens at dusk, winding our way through the trees strung with Christmas lights and stopping to watch the light show at the fountain while music from The Nutcracker played and the lights turned the snow every color of the rainbow while we stomped our feet to keep them warm.

On Christmas morning the kids were thrilled with their presents. Santa came through with the pink princess tent and Clara (who is now called Violet) was waiting for June inside it when she came down the stairs. June’s been toting the doll around with her and sleeping with it ever since. June was almost comically gracious while we opened presents, telling each person who gave her a gift, “It’s just what I wanted,” as she opened the stuffed ladybug, unicorn slippers, magnetic dress-up doll, etc. Noah, remembering the pirate treasure hunts Jim used to organize for him when he was younger, organized his own for Jim, complete with a rhyming poem to lead him to the treasure he’d buried in the woods near their house. (I helped him pick a hiding spot and gave him some advice on the poem when he was worried about the meter being off.) Noah got several games for Christmas and enjoyed playing Sleeping Queens ( with Beth and Quirkle ( with Sara and Beth in the days immediately after Christmas. He’s looking forward to jumping on his mini-trampoline, once we set it up, and to playing with the baking-soda-and-vinegar-fueled rocket and making pizza with the pizzeria kit. We had a delicious dinner and June charmed my mom by telling her that the table was “beautiful” when she saw it set with the tablecloth, pink candles and pine needle-and-flower centerpiece. The children were preternaturally well behaved, leading my mom and Sara to ask why on earth I say they fight all the time and June has temper tantrums (though Dune did witness one when a raisin fell off a piece of gingerbread).

I’m not going to write at length about any of that, though, partly because I wasn’t there for a lot of it, and partly because I have other tidings, sadder ones. The day after Christmas, on a cold, rainy morning, I took the train up to New York to visit my father, bearing presents from my sister and myself and from the kids and some of the freshly baked gingerbread. Beth and I had discussed going up together with the kids, but since it would be the first time I’ve seen him since I learned of his cancer diagnosis in late August, I decided it would be better to go alone so we could spend some time together without the distraction of the kids. My sister spent Thanksgiving with him at his vacation home in Key West, so I knew he was not well, but soon after I arrived, Dad took me to his bedroom and told me that his cancer has returned and it’s more widespread than before. It’s back in his throat where it started, and it’s also in lungs and, well, it doesn’t look good.

We all thought he had it beat, so I’m still reeling from the news. When he told me I was too shocked to even cry, though I’ve cried plenty in the past few days. I spent a lot of that day staring out the window at his neighbor’s Christmas lights and at the people walking through the streets of the Upper West Side, four stories down, when we weren’t talking, or trying to read or eating (he ate a misshapen gingerbread man with relish, being sure to tell Ann that June made it). I found myself looking frequently at photographs of my children—on our Christmas card on my dad’s bedside table or in framed photos on the mantle in the living room. It was comforting to see their faces looking back at me. I know people my age who have lost parents, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking he’s too young—only sixty six—and I’m too young—forty two—for this to be happening, but of course, we aren’t. No one is too young.

Not that he’s dying right away. In about a week and a half, he and Ann are heading for Key West, where they will be spending the rest of the winter and part of the spring. It will be a better place for him than their apartment in New York, a fourth-floor walkup. He can sit in the sun and swim in their pool. They have friends nearby. I’m glad they’re going, although it will make it harder for me to see him. I’m considering a short visit and my sister, who’s childless and self-employed, is considering a longer one.

The next day was warmer and sunny. I left about a half hour earlier than I needed to so I could walk around and get some fresh air before descending into the subway. I ended up sitting on a bench in the little park outside the 72nd Street subway stop, absently sipping a coffee I’d picked up along the way, telling myself he’s not dying right now. We could have years even, time enough for the kids to get to know their smart, funny, interesting grandfather better than they do now and for him to get to know them.

Overall, though, I am more dismayed than comforted or joyful right now.

Pink is the New Black

June has a new favorite color. Yes, it’s that one. For a year a half, from the age of two until just a couple weeks ago, she favored yellow and I was quietly, possibly even a bit smugly, proud of her originality. I’d look around at the swarms of little girls in head-to-toe pink at the library or at music class and then I’d look at June, dressed either in her older brother’s hand-me-downs or in the dresses I’d buy her (in blue or purple or green) or in the yellow clothes she picked out. I’d think we were breaking the mold, she and I. We were in this together. No following the crowd for us.

Well, that’s all over now.

We had some warning it was coming. Last spring she started saying pink was her second favorite color, after yellow. When the Bugs class made their paper lanterns for the end of the year celebration, she chose pink paper over yellow. Her teacher Andrea, who knows her way around the preschool set (and has two daughters of her own in elementary school) told us she’d be crossing over to the pink side soon. And she has.

I took it pretty well at first. It’s just a color I told myself, not an ideological worldview. I even have a pink shirt myself, which is something I would have never worn as a kid or really until the past few years. It’s comfy and I wear it a lot. June had almost no pink clothes that fit, so I bought her a pink long-sleeved t-shirt, a pair of pink and orange striped leggings and two pairs of pink socks. I was looking for versatile pieces that could make a lot of outfits without having to invest in a whole new wardrobe.

Even Beth, who was more alarmed than I was at the pink turn of events, melted when June asked her “pwease, Bef” for the pink cardigan with little hearts on it and the pink hooded sweatshirt with the picture of Dora on the front while they were shopping at Value Village ( during their Columbus Day sale. “I love Dora,” June often says. I’m not sure if she realizes Dora has a television show or not. She may think she just adorns Band Aids, toothbrushes and hoodies.

But of course sometimes pink is an ideological worldview. Along with June’s newfound passion for pink have come a lot of stern pronouncements about what boys do and what girls do. She chastises Beth for having “boy hair.” She says the stuffed animals belong to her and to Noah but the dolls are all hers because “dolls are for girls.” This despite the fact that two of the three dolls she owns used to belong to Noah, and one was a cherished favorite of his when he was a toddler. I know this is normal. She trying to figure out the big, complicated mess of gender and to get her brain around it she needs to simplify it. This is why she has latched on to pink with such ferocity, why she points to every pink toy she sees in a catalogue and says she wants it, why she will point to a girl she doesn’t know in public and declare she is her “favorite girl” just because she happens to be wearing pink. The fanaticism is starting to wear on us and it’s only been a few weeks.

So I have been asking everyone I know with a daughter older than June these questions:

1) Did she go through the pink phase?
2) When did it start?
3) How long did it last?

Feel free to answer them in the comments. I’d love more data. So far, everyone says yes, she did, but there’s a lot of variation in the age question. When June was much younger, someone told me it would be all pink, all the time from the age of two to ten. So I took comfort in the fact that we’d made it well past three and I thought we were home free. But when I ask now, people tell me it started any time between two and four. Ending dates go from not quite five to ten. I’m hoping we can get through it as quickly as possible. Six and a half years seems like a long time to me, although there’s general agreement that the preschool years are the most pink-intensive ones.

Of course, while Beth and I see it as conformity, there is another way to look at it. Beth mentioned June’s new favorite color while talking to her mother on the phone the other day. She had her on speaker so I overheard the conversation. As Beth wondered how this could have happened, YaYa said, “She’s learned to rebel early.” And I think I heard a trace of amusement in her voice. She is going to give us the grief we dress-eschewing tomboys gave our mothers in reverse. The chickens have come home to roost.

After several days of very intense interest in what she was going to wear for the day, June didn’t seem to care this morning, so I got out a pair of jeans that used to be Noah’s, a yellow t-shirt, yellow socks and yellow barrettes. (She does still like yellow. It’s her second favorite, she says.) She accepted the outfit without comment. We went to Spanish Circle Time at the library. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the toddler girl next to her was wearing embroidered jeans, a pink t-shirt and a pink hair ribbon. It wasn’t until we were dancing around to the music that the girl faced me and I could see her shirt said, “Pink is the New Black.”

Around here, it is. It’s just going to take some getting used to.

Note: My dad completed his chemotherapy and radiation treatment earlier this month. According to his doctors, the tumor in his throat seems to be completely gone and his vocal chords are still functional. About that, we are all tickled pink.

Look at the Sunflower

Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust…

Yesterday was a strange day, happy and sad all at once. June had her first day in the Leaves class and my father had his second round of chemotherapy for throat cancer. I only found out he had cancer last week so it’s been weighing on me. He’s made it clear he wants his space right now, no phone calls or visits. So I sent a bouquet of sunflowers with a quote from Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” ( and I’m contemplating what to put in a care package and taking comfort in the fact that my stepmother says his prognosis is good. We haven’t always had an easy relationship, but I don’t want to go into all that now.

June came into our room yesterday morning at 6:05, asking me to come lay down with her, just as she had at 3:15 and 11:55. Alert readers may be thinking “came into our room”? at this point. Over the Labor Day weekend, Beth and Noah cleared all the toys he’d been storing up on his top bunk, put them in bins inside the drawers under the bottom bunk and drilled holes for a hasp and combination lock into the drawers and locked them up. (He was put out that Beth insisted on knowing the combination to the lock.) Now Noah’s room is officially Noah and June’s room. They were just in time with the toy relocation, too. June learned to scale the back of the ladderless bunks on Sunday after almost two years of trying. We put the ladder back and she is constantly going up and down with and without it.

On Sunday night June slept on the lower bunk and Noah slept on the top bunk for the very first time. The first night June went right to sleep (after I’d reminded them to stop talking to each other a few times) but Noah tossed and turned, unused to sleeping on the top bunk. The second night they both fell asleep a little more quickly (after I’d admonished Noah a few times to stop trying to amuse June with beams of light from the flashlight he keeps up there so he can read in the mornings if he wakes before she does.) Two wake ups during a night is within the realm of normal for June, so I think the transition is going pretty well. Now we’re all trying to call it “the kids’ room” instead of “Noah’s room” and thinking about getting some wooden letters that spell out her name to put next to Noah’s name on the wall and putting up some of her artwork on the door.

When June got up for the third time, just after six, I let her into our bed in hopes of getting a little more sleep, but she was wiggly and wide awake. I pretended to sleep while she crawled all over me. Around 6:50 I gave up the pretense and we read a couple books and got out of bed to eat breakfast. Around 7:40 I broke up a fight between the children by telling June it was time to get dressed and asking her to choose between the purple and blue striped dress and the blue and green one. She pointed to the purple one. Then she wanted to know if she was going to a party. (It was reasonable supposition since she’s only worn this dress three times and always to a party.) No, school, I reminded her, much to her delight.

Her delight turned to dismay, however, when I mentioned that she was going to wear underwear to school. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” June said. She seemed surprised, too, as if we’d never brought up this bizarre requirement before. I told her she could wear a diaper until we got to school, mainly because I wanted her to at least arrive at school in dry clothes so I could jump into my co-oping duties without having to change her. Then she surprised me by saying she wanted to put the underwear on right away. I decided to throw caution to the wind and said okay. The pink underwear, she specified.

Once she was dressed and her hair was combed, she was satisfied that she looked “good and pretty” (a recent concern of hers). After a last minute scramble for my keys and quick photo session at the front gate, we were off.

We arrived at school at 8:20. When we came in I asked June if she wanted to use the potty and she declared she wasn’t “old enough” to use the potty. (This is what she says whenever she doesn’t want to do something.) Lesley asked how old would be old enough. June held up four fingers.

“Hmm…” Lesley said in a neutral tone.

I was expecting to be the only experienced co-oper so I was relieved to find out the Yellow Oak’s (aka Ladybug’s) mom was subbing for one of the new co-opers. I thought it would be easier for two of us to show the ropes to one new co-oper than for me to show them to two. It was actually a really easy day because only half the class was in attendance. (The others will start tomorrow.) I showed the Yellow Holly’s mom how to record the kids’ journal entries and between the two of us we did journals for all seven kids. All three co-opers pitched in and did the housekeeping jobs together while Lesley led the kids in dramatic play and for the first time in my two years at the school it wasn’t a mad rush to get it all done.

During Circle Time, Lesley introduced the concept of daily jobs. One of June’s jobs was to stick the number 8 to the calendar that had the numbers from one to seven already on it. Then everyone counted to eight and Lesley asked for predictions about tomorrow’s date. No-one answered but I could see a few of them were thinking about it and from the looks on their faces when she said nine, I think they knew the answer. Next Lesley showed them the talking stick, decorated with beads and the words “Talk” and “Listen.” It gets passed from child to child as they sing their morning greeting to each other: “Hello, Name. How are you?” June was sitting immediately to Lesley’s left so she had the stick first. Lesley explained what she was supposed to do.

“I’m not old enough,”June said softly. Lesley explained again that the singing was optional. Making eye contact and passing the stick is enough. June passed the stick to the next child wordlessly. Either June’s a trendsetter or this singing greeting is really scary for three year olds just getting to know each other because they all passed the stick without a verbal greeting, though I think one of the returning girls did answer “I am fine, thank you,” as Lesley sang the question. (Almost half the Leaves class is new. Leaves is a bigger class than Bugs and we had some last-minute vacancies come open this summer so we have eight returning students and six new ones.) As the stick went around I watched the new children, June’s new crop of friends, with a warm, curious feeling. They will be together for two years, which is a long time when you are only three. I’m eager to get to know them.

When the singing was over, I had the pleasure of hearing Lesley read The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (, a book Noah’s whole class loved. I remember reading it to little groups of them over and over, or rather showing them its eerily illustrated pages and talking to them about what’s going on because it has no words. In between her observations and questions and the children’s, Lesley hummed in a suspenseful way.

“Is this a scary book?” someone wanted to know.

After a snack of peaches, apples, hummus and whole-wheat pita, a session of dramatic play followed. Lesley took the kids on a magic carpet ride to the bottom of the sea and over a mountain range while the co-opers cleaned. Once I peeked in and saw June wearing a blue gown from the dress-up rack. “Let’s go to a party,” she said. Around ten-forty when I needed to go to the bathroom, I realized June was still dry. I’d been asking her frequently if she wanted to use the potty, but every time she said no.

Around eleven, the kids went out to play on the playground. I stayed inside to finish a few last-minute housekeeping tasks since I was the official housekeeping person, but every now and then I looked out the window. Every time I did I saw June tearing around the playground, the skirt of her purple dress flying out behind her. When I finished and came outside, June and two other girls were playing at being cats. This consisted of running around and meowing. Lesley said she foresaw two years of meowing, because a class’s play patterns are often established early. (Noah’s class was all pirates all the time, at least among the boys. The girls were often fairies.) During a quiet moment, Lesley asked me about my father. Before I knew it, it was time to line up and go to the front porch for dismissal. The first day of Leaves class was over.

Once we got home, I asked June if she wanted to use the potty. She did not, but minutes later, as she was standing on a stool in the kitchen, watching me make a grilled cheese sandwich for her, she announced nonchalantly, “I’m peeing.” I looked down at the stool and saw she had.

In the bathroom as I changed her out of the wet pink underwear, I told her that although she would not go back to school this week, she’d go three days next week. She grinned and held up three fingers. “Can I stay until night?” she asked. I think she had a good day. I hope June has many more days like today this fall and that my father has as few as possible.

This afternoon I went to the backyard to pick a tomato for dinner. I surveyed what we have left in the garden: a lot of green tomatoes, herbs, zinnias and black-eyed Susans, some carrots, a handful of green beans and a little bit of lettuce. The cucumber vines are still flowering but there aren’t any cucumbers growing on them. I can’t tell if they are finished or not. And then there’s the sunflower. Most of our sunflowers were toppled by a storm in early August, but the granddaddy, the one that grew to a height of eight feet or more is still standing. A week ago I thought it was dead, but now it has a few new blooms on it. I expect it to stick around a while longer.

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside…

Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

By A.E. Housman


Like many of you, no doubt, I first encountered this poem in high school. I’ve always liked it, but guess I wasn’t as far-sighted as the twenty-year-old speaker because fifty springs seemed pretty long to me then. Now that I have used up more than forty of my allotment and my parents are in their mid-sixties, it doesn’t seem long at all. My mother recently told me that as she approaches her sixty-fifth birthday, death seems a lot closer, a lot more real. She’s already a few years older than her mother was when she died.

Of course, the poem is as much about life as about death, about enjoying life and savoring its fleeting beauty. There’s a word in Japanese for this, “hanami,” which refers to the act of viewing cherry blossoms and appreciating the “ephermeral nature of life,” (unless the staff writers at The Washington Post are putting us on.). For me, the cherry trees will always be a reminder of June’s birth, because they were just starting to bloom when she surprised us by entering the world six weeks early two springs ago.

Beth and I first started going to see the cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin in 1991, the very first spring we lived in the Washington area. I still remember the magic of that first visit, the delicate beauty of the blossoms, their extravagant profusion, and the holiday atmosphere as people picnicked and strolled around the water. We’ve been back every year since, except one. Having a premature baby in the hospital undergoing phototherapy re-arranges your schedule and your priorities. Even that year, though, we did try, but we missed the hard-to-predict peak and couldn’t get back in time to see it. We have been to the blossoms as a couple, as parents and with extended family on the rare occasion that relatives were lucky enough to time their visits in sync with the fickle blooms.

We made our yearly pilgrimage this morning. The idea was to arrive early, before the crowds and we did make it out of the house by our 8:30 target, despite a meltdown on June’s part and foot-dragging from Noah who had no idea why we would want to go, since blossoms are “not special.” Nevertheless, when we arrived at 9:15, the crowds were already there. Cars were circling around; parking was scarce. This year for the first time, the Park Service is running a free shuttle to remote parking, but it didn’t start running until 10:00, so we parked in remote lot at Hains Point and walked to the Tidal Basin. It was cold, probably around 40 degrees, and there was a stiff wind blowing off the Washington channel. March is apparently not going out like a lamb this year. I sipped my take-out caramel macchiato to keep warm.

“I’m cold! I want to go home!” Noah complained. I wondered if it was really worth the hassle to drag the kids down here every year. It was a lot easier when we lived in the city and we could walk to the blossoms from our apartment. Parking wasn’t an issue and no one whined or complained during the outing. Some years we would go more than once. I remember going alone one year after Beth and I had already gone and camping out under a tree to read or maybe grade papers. I stayed for hours, working, listening to the radio on my Walkman, and taking in the beauty of an early spring day.

Then in less time than I thought it would take, we were there. We hit the peak perfectly this year. Almost every tree was in full bloom, their branches laden with puffs of white and the palest pink. They look like popcorn trees or cotton-candy trees or something out of Dr. Seuss, a more fragile cousin of the Truffula tree perhaps (

We ate a breakfast picnic on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. After the bran muffin, lemon pound cake, coffee cake and orange juice were devoured, Beth bought Noah a cherry blossom festival magnet in the gift shop and soon he was running around happily, shaking hands with trees, hiding behind them and snapping pictures of them. He ended up taking more photographs than anyone else, including two of those featured here.

We didn’t stay long because it was cold and June got cranky. “Aww…Do we have to go?” Noah asked. I would have liked to walk the whole perimeter of the Tidal Basin, as we used to do, and will again someday, but it wasn’t in the cards for us this year.

To look at things in bloom, less than an hour was little room, but it had to be enough.

A Death in the Family: A Memorial

Beth’s uncle Gerry died early Monday morning, at home, surrounded by family. He was a well-traveled man, with a hungry mind, a crusty exterior and a dry wit. He had a Ph.D in math. He could fly planes and speak Polish. While bed-ridden with the cancer that killed him, he was teaching himself ancient Greek. Gerry is survived by his wife Carole (Andrea’s oldest sister), his sister Patricia, his children Meghan and Sean, his daughter-in-law Aine, and six grandchildren: Micheal, Tristan, Holly, Kawika, Rebecca, and Eanna.

Gerry was sixty-nine years old, so he didn’t quite have his three score and ten, but even if he had, it would still seem like too little room, much too little.

R.I.P. Gerry Ryder.