Tho’ Much is Taken, Much Abides

And did you get what
You wanted from life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

These are the poems I read at my father’s memorial service on Sunday. I put off practicing them for the longest time, mainly because I didn’t want to think about the service. I did buy some new clothes for myself and for Noah in various shades of gray and blue, after Beth researched the question of what to wear to a memorial service (black or muted colors is the answer if you need to go to one yourself). Still, I resisted even looking at the poems until a few days before the service. The grief I felt after Dad’s death in January had faded more quickly than I thought it would, probably because I saw him so infrequently—he just wasn’t part of my day-to-day life. I knew this was going to bring it all back and make it real again and I wasn’t relishing that. My sister said she’d been putting off writing her speech, presumably for the same reason.

But she wrote the speech and I practiced the poems and two o’ clock Sunday found us seated in the journalism building at Columbia University waiting to begin. It had been something of a wild ride getting there.

We woke that morning at my mom’s house outside Philadelphia. We’d driven up Saturday and were planning to leave June with my mom and stepfather. As we were sorting items to take with us to New York and those to leave at Mom’s house, I discovered we didn’t have Noah’s nice shoes. I could remember getting them out of his closet, but I had no clear memory of putting them in his suitcase. It looked like Noah would be wearing his crocs to the service unless we stumbled across a shoe store en route between Penn Station, the guesthouse and Columbia because we didn’t have time for a detour. At least he’d be wearing underwear, though, because when we realized we hadn’t packed any for him the night before, my mom had run out to Target to buy some. If you’re scratching your head and remembering the times last summer when we left his pajamas at home (West Virginia trip) or his whole suitcase (North Carolina trip) and wondering why we can’t pack for Noah—I have no idea.

But as I was considering Noah’s shoes, Beth told me, “We have a bigger problem.” She couldn’t find the folder with the addresses of everywhere we needed to go, the maps she’d printed and our train tickets.

“It’s okay,” she said, not sounding at all okay. “We can buy new tickets.” I agreed, though we were both nervous on the way to the station. I wondered, would there be time? Would there be seats left on the train? But there was no way to find out, other than to go. I didn’t even tell my mom as we left her house, because I didn’t want her to fret. Beth and I had that covered. To take my mind off the tickets, I read the poems aloud to Beth and Noah as we waited for a SEPTA train to take us to 30th Street Station. I explained the Tennyson one to Noah after I’d finished. He said he’d understood “about 50%” of it.

Once in the station we found a ticket kiosk and purchased new tickets. There was time. There was room on the train. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in New York. We took the subway to our guesthouse. Our lodging had also been the source of a little anxiety because my uncle David had found it and the price seemed just too good to be true. Would the neighborhood be dicey, would it be a roach-infested dump? Online reviews proved positive, though, so we’d made the reservations. And it was fine. The neighborhood felt safe and it was clean and quiet inside. It had a shabby, eccentric charm. Space was at a premium and used creatively. Our shower was not in the bathroom, but in a closet down the hall. There was a pretty pressed tin ceiling in our room and the bed was comfortable. Now the front door of the building was hard to unlock and it was a little tricky to track down the manager so we could pay and then when we found out it had to be cash, we had to go searching for an ATM, and getting the cot we’d requested for Noah and sheets for it was another adventure, but we paid $72 for three people to stay in New York so I am most definitely not complaining. I will take David’s advice on lodging any day.

We ate lunch at a pizzeria around the corner (where we found the ATM we needed). It was greasy and delicious. I really liked the garlic rolls and wrapped the leftovers in foil to take with me. After a quick and fruitless search for boys’ dress shoes in some neighborhood shops, we met up with David and walked to the service.

David is my father’s brother, two years younger. I hadn’t seen him since my father’s fiftieth birthday party in 1993, but I’d seen some recent pictures on his wife’s Facebook page just a few weeks ago and I’d been surprised by how much more he looks like Dad as he’s aged. My first sight of those familiar features online hurt and delighted me at same time. So I was even more surprised to see him face to face and to discover he’s shaved his head. I was a tiny bit disappointed because it definitely reduced the resemblance. Soon I was seeing it again, though. He has the same eyes, not just the dark coffee-brown color, but also something in the expression and the way the skin wrinkles around them. David’s nose is similar, too, but it was his eyes that felt comforting.

David lives in Costa Rica, so he and Noah spoke a little in Spanish as we walked to the university and he told a story of how when they were six and eight, Dad made him pick a library book to take home before he could read because Dad “wasn’t going to have a brother who didn’t read.” David says he learned quickly, partly out of intimidation on my father’s part and partly out of a desire to emulate his older brother and parents, all of whom gathered in the living room to read each evening.

There were at least one hundred and fifty people at the service and at times it felt like I spoke with most of them, either beforehand or afterwards, at the reception. It was overwhelming for me so I can’t imagine how it must have been for Ann. A lot of the people attending I’d never met, but they wanted to extend their condolences. Others remembered me from when I was “this high.” They all held their hands at about June-height. Apparently, a hand held thirty six and a half inches from the floor is the universal symbol for “small child.” A lot of them I did remember, though. I saw Ann’s brother Peter and her aunt Doris and uncle Art for the first time in decades. Lee, the trainer for the racehorses Dad used to own, was there. There were old neighbors, too, but mostly there were Dad’s colleagues. It was a writer’s send-off and you could tell. There were ten eulogies.

We sat in the front row, which was reserved for family and speakers, close enough to smell the big bouquet of pink and white lilies and carnation onstage. Noah was the only child in the room and he did a reasonably good job sitting still through a lot of long, grown-up speeches. When he started to kick his legs too vigorously, Beth would lay a hand on his thighs and he’d stop.

I won’t try to summarize the eulogies. When a wordsmith dies, it’s amazing how much text is generated in the form of public obituaries and blog posts and private emails, letters and cards. My stepmother has been forwarding all the emails and links she receives to me and to my sister and I have read it all. I think the most important thing I have learned from reading and listening to all these memories and observations of my father is what a valued mentor he was to other writers. Countless people have said he gave them confidence in themselves and made them better writers.

Two of the eulogies were more personal. Sara spoke movingly about Dad as a father—the eccentric ways in which he showed his love for us. Dad’s friend Bob Schwabach talked about their friendship and how he introduced my father to the racetrack. It was a long, rambling and funny speech that ended, “He was the smartest guy I knew and I loved him.” What more needed to be said? I concluded with the poems and that was the end of the program.

At the reception, Sara taped Schwabach and Lee telling more stories about Dad and we ate tiny cupcakes, cheesecakes and brownies. My dad had a wicked sweet tooth and he loved coffee so I thought it was fitting that at the reception they served nothing but coffee and dessert.

Sara had been to Dad and Ann’s apartment earlier in the day and sorted through some things. She brought me the following mementos: a yellow metal toy car, a wooden elephant wearing a beaded harness, a watch, a leather shoulder bag, some family photos and a t-shirt from the Green Parrot Bar in Key West. The back says “No Sniveling Since 1890.” It was originally printed “Snivelling” but Dad had used White Out to correct the spelling. I love this. She also gave me a bag full of sympathy cards on loan from Ann.

We ate dinner at The Deluxe Diner (http://www.deluxenyc.com/) near Columbia. My plan was to order a chocolate malted because Dad loved them. Sara was going to get one, too, and when the waitress told us they were out of malt powder such a gasp went out around the table that the poor woman was taken aback.

Despite the lack of malteds, it was a good meal, with good company. David and Sara and I laughed about how many people spoke or wrote about Dad’s humility or lack of ego, because that was not at all how we had known him. (I should say this comment was almost always in a professional context, usually about how he made sure his writers got credit and never tried to steal their glory when they won prizes. Under his stewardship there were a lot of prizes for writers at The Inquirer.) David said when I was reading the poems he didn’t want me to finish because it would mean the service was over and we would all need to move on.

Monday morning, we said our goodbyes to David, visited the New York Hall of Science (http://www.nysci.org/) in Queens and made our long journey home (three trains, then a three-hour drive). While June was at school this morning, I read through the stack of sympathy cards. They were different than the ones I received, more detailed, because they came, for the most part, from people who knew Dad. They also came from a generation of people who own dark-bordered stationary for writing letters to the bereaved. A couple of the letters were typed on actual typewriters. Somehow, this really brought home that when my father’s peers follow him in death, it will be the end of an entirely different era from the one in which we live, and that made me sad all over.

But as so many people have pointed out, the dead live on in the lives of those they’ve touched. Much abides.

I’ve been tagged to do the Ten Things You Might Not Know About Me meme by not one but two bloggers, Tara of 040508 (http://www.040508.blogspot.com/) and Tyffany of Come What May (http://btmommy.blogspot.com/). I think the name is self-explanatory, but I can never do these memes straight. I always have to find an angle that turns it into something I really want to write about at that moment, so here are ten things about me that come from my father (some of which you probably already do know if you read here regularly, but bear with me.) I see some of them reflected in his brother and my sister and my kids, too, because we’re all part of what abides, along with the mark he left on the writers with whom he worked and on American journalism as a whole. Here’s the list:

1. My brown eyes
2. My high forehead
3. My sweet tooth
4. My stubborn streak
5. My pedagogical bent
6. My love of the written word
7. My love of narrative
8. My love of newspapers
9. The most excellent last name a lesbian could want
10. My children with their high foreheads, stubborn streaks and love of words and stories.

When I was pregnant with Noah I visited Dad and showed him the ultrasound picture. “He has the Lovelady forehead,” Dad commented. I agreed and ventured that I thought he had the Higgins nose, too. “Baby noses mean nothing,” he said in his exasperatingly imperious way. While they are also Higginses, and Allens and Niehauses and, genetically at least, parts of families we don’t know, they are most definitely Lovelady children.

Inside the Snow Globe: A Countdown to Normal

Friday: Normal Minus Five

On Friday, Beth went back to work, after four days at home. The kids were still home and June’s drama class was cancelled, but I was determined to attempt something close to our normal routine. Our old Friday morning routine before drama class started up was a leisurely morning at home, laundry and Sesame Street, followed by a walk to Starbucks. I knew the walk would be a challenge and Beth thought we should take a bus, but I walk a lot and this snow will be weeks melting so I wanted to get a lay of the land, on a low pressure outing without needing to arrive anywhere at any specific time.

With June in the stroller it’s fifteen minutes to Starbucks and fifteen minutes back, making it a forty-five to sixty-minute outing, depending on time spent inside. If she rides her tricycle or scooter it’s more like an hour and a half. So taking that into account, I think the fact that we walked there — sometimes on neatly shoveled walks, sometimes on narrow paths pedestrians had packed down on unshoveled walks, sometimes on the street, sometimes scaling the glacier-like peaks at intersections– in two hours and five minutes is not so bad. And we even stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I intended to pick up some Valentine candy for everyone to share, but somehow we ended up leaving with a heart-shaped box of candy, a heart-shaped balloon, a vase filled with candy and a tiny balloon and one Valentine card (for June—she picked it out herself, being a little unclear on the concept of Valentines). And June was crying at the register because I drew the line there.

Of course, we lost the balloon on the way home. It was a Mylar helium-filled balloon, the kind that comes with a weight on the end of the ribbon. I figured if June let go, it would be too weighed down to escape. But after a while she got tired of carrying it and handed it to me. As I walked under some low-hanging branches, it got entangled and the ribbon came untied. I turned to find it about a foot above my reach. A tall man or a very tall woman could have easily rescued it. But there were no tall men or very tall women in evidence. As I considered my options a breeze parted the branches and the balloon drifted up into the wild blue yonder. June started to cry, a keening sob, occasionally punctuated with the single word “Balloon!” She kept it up all the way home, even as I lifted her over snow banks and backtracked a quarter of a block to retrieve a lost mitten. It was the low point of the trip, worse than when the man who was shoveling out his driveway yelled at us for walking by him too slowly and delaying his ability to dump snow onto the street. So, I’d have to say it was only a partially successful outing. I did get a latte and we all got some sunshine and exercise. Beth spent two hours on a windy Metro platform that morning as train after overloaded train went by, so that puts things in perspective.

Noah spent a lot of time outdoors that day, exploring the wild new terrain of our yard and working on reconstructing his sled run. In the afternoon, he made Valentines for his classmates and helped June make Valentines for hers. He actually did most of the lettering on her cards (I did a few) and he drew all the hearts for June to color in and he was much more patient than I would have been with her often unclear instructions and teary recriminations when these instructions were not followed to the last detail. I feel he should be awarded some kind of medal for his participation in the project. He’s such a good brother sometimes. So when they disagreed about dinner music—he wanted Blue Moo (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Blue-Moo/Sandra-Boynton/e/9780761147756) and she wanted Wheels Go ‘Round (http://www.kindermusik.com/shop/product.aspx?pid=3-10-90040&cid=1100)—I went with his choice.

Saturday: Normal Minus Four

On Saturday morning, the Valentine-making bug had not left June. But she did not want to make them herself and she had run out of people willing to help her. This resulted in crying. I muttered something about never celebrating another holiday again. June heard me and was stricken. She has a birthday coming up next month. I had to promise her that yes she would indeed have cake and presents and a party for her birthday.

Clearly it was time for me to get out of the house without children. Fortunately, Beth and I had a date scheduled, our second in the space of about a month. We’d been unable to get a sitter for Valentine’s Day and decided the day before was just as good. We were planning to leave at three for a movie (Crazy Heart), coffee and dinner at Mandalay (http://www.mandalayrestaurantcafe.com/), a Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring and one of our favorites. Since June usually wakes from her nap between two-thirty and three I expected a nice long mental break. Her nap started early though and was quite short. The disproportionate depth of my despair when she woke at one-thirty and I found myself alone with her and needing to fill an hour and a half (Beth had taken Noah to his swim lesson, which—hooray!—was not cancelled) was instructive. Since becoming a stay-at-home mom, I never get enough time alone, but I am operating on a much thinner margin right now. And what I miss just as much, if not more, is time alone with Beth, which is always in short supply.

So the date was fun. The movie was reasonably good and dinner was delicious. We ran into another lesbian couple we know at the movie and then again at coffee portion of the date. Their older son was in Noah’s class at the Purple School and their younger son just finished preschool last year. We didn’t talk long, but it was nice to get a dispatch from the outside world, to be reminded that the world has not shrunk to our little family of four.

Sunday: Normal Minus Three

“Is today a regular day?” June wanted to know when she woke up. Beth wasn’t sure what she meant and said yes. June was exasperated, “But it’s the day after yesterday!” she said. We told her the day before that the next day would be Valentine’s Day. Once that was cleared up she had me dress her in her “holiday dress,” the green velvet jumper with rosebuds on the bodice. We took to calling it that so she would wear it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and not require separate dresses for separate holidays, but now she will use any semblance of a holiday as an excuse to wear it. She wore it to school on the Red Gingko’s birthday because birthdays are holidays. And Valentine’s Day is a holiday, too, she reasoned. I’ve never considered Valentine’s Day a dress-up occasion, especially if you intend to spend it entirely at home and at the grocery store, but apparently June does.

At breakfast the kids discussed their favorite holidays. Noah said he liked his birthday best. June said she liked them all. I felt a little guilty for my anti-holiday tirade the day before, but I was still unable to maintain a spirit of cheerfulness as the morning wore on.

“I need another date,” I told Beth after she found me crying in the study around ten in the morning. She was getting ready to take the kids grocery shopping and Noah had been looking for his boots for a long while. Every time I suggested a new place to look, he asked, “Have you seen them there?” in a snotty tone until I snapped and yelled, “Noah, stop saying that!” I hate it when I yell at them, but I do sometimes and more often now than when Noah was little. I just run out of patience more quickly these days.

Beth pointed out that Noah didn’t seem to have suffered any lasting damage. It’s actually pretty hard to hurt his feelings, while it’s quite easy to hurt June’s. She had spent much of the morning whimpering about some mysterious slight she refused to divulge. Beth also said, by way of cheering me up, “You get to go to the dentist on Tuesday.” She was only partly kidding. These days a dentist visit to get an impression taken for a crown qualifies as me time.

Eventually, Beth found Noah’s boots (they were in the study with me ironically) and they left. While they were gone I cleaned house and wrapped the kids’ Valentines presents and arranged the wrapped presents, cards and candy on the dining room table. They returned shortly before noon with a pink, heart-shaped Hello Kitty balloon and heart-shaped shortbread cookies with pink and red sprinkles. And while this was not strictly speaking a Valentine’s present, Beth bought a Pepperidge Farm lemon cake because she knew I’ve had a hankering for one for several weeks and she saw one at the grocery store for the first time since I mentioned it. I put it in the freezer for after the Valentine’s treats are gone.

June was simply delighted with everything. She loved her card (the one she picked out herself); she loved her books (Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse! and Maisy’s Valentine Sticker Book) and thanked me multiple times. She wanted to try all the treats. She had made Valentines for all of us. She had drawn a box of Mike and Ikes on Beth’s because Beth often buys them for her; mine had a heart colored blue, because blue is my favorite color; and Noah’s had a stick figure carrying a bouquet. June’s drawing has recently and suddenly become representative and all she wants to do some days is draw and paint. I have a thick folder of her drawings just from the past few weeks. I’ve been meaning to sort through them and pick a few to save, but I’m pretty sure the blue heart is a keeper, even though there are a lot of them in there that are more detailed or technically adept. It’s the first Valentine she ever made for me.

Noah seemed indifferent to his book, Magic Treehouse #43 Leprechauns in Late Winter, which was a surprise. I’m no fan of this series, but he has loved it since he was five. (He started listening to it on tape before he could read.) Even more puzzlingly, as they are well below his reading level, he then said that he never understands them. I wrote it off to the crankiness that is slowly enveloping all of us with each passing day of cabin fever. Later he went to bed and tried to take a nap, which made me wonder if he was sick, but he said he was just tired.

After June’s nap, the kids were tearing around the house, playing with the Hello Kitty balloon. Beth warned them several times, but they chose to ignore her words of wisdom and soon June was crying because the balloon had a big gash in the front and the helium was all out of it. I taped it up so it wouldn’t rip more, but it no longer floats.

Suddenly turning on the Olympics seemed like a good idea. And that’s pretty much what the kids did for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Noah’s interest in the Games is largely technical– how do the cameras follow a skier down the hill, he wants to know—and personal—he likes the features about the athletes, particularly if there’s discussion of gruesome accidents in the athlete’s past (and no, he has not seen the footage of the luger who died). June just likes to watch people swooshing down snow-covered hills and jumping and twirling on the ice. Most of the figure skating is on past the kids’ bedtimes, but the one pair she saw skating riveted her.

Monday: Normal Minus Two

I woke thinking about my father. It was the one-month anniversary of his death and according to my original travel plans, I was supposed to be visiting him over President’s Day weekend. I’m pretty sure that part of my inability to cope with the disruption of this storm comes from feeling emotionally wrung out and near the edge already.

Right before breakfast June finally told us why she’d been crying on and off for hours the day before. Recently, Beth and I have been trying to cut back a little on Noah’s monster breakfasts. He has always woken hungry and eaten his biggest meal of the day then, but because of his sensory issues he’s not always aware of when he’s not hungry anymore and we suspected he was only eating so much out of habit, especially on the weekends when he’ll eat two waffles and then ask for a bowl of cereal and then another. Anyway, he’s been complaining in a joking sort of way that we want him to shrivel up and die and sometimes we joke back that yes, that’s our evil plot. Anyway, June heard this and took it seriously and was convinced we wanted Noah to die. She was relieved to hear this was not the case. Poor June! She’s not even four and often seems to have the weight of the world on her little shoulders. I worry about that.

“Today is going to be boring,” Noah declared soon after that was cleared up.

Beth surprised him and me by saying, “Do you want to come to work with me?” (She would normally have President’s Day off, but because her office was closed four days last week, they cancelled the day off.) It took him a while to answer, but he decided to go. I wasn’t sure whether this would make my day easier or harder. It would be quieter certainly, but as much as they bicker, the children do play together a lot and now I’d have to entertain June by myself all day long. It was different, though, and we all could use a change of pace.

Faced with a different day than the one I thought I was having, I wondered what to do with June. I’d been thinking of just staying home all day, but without Noah, this no longer seemed like a good idea. And while I have standing emergency back-up plans for some days of the week, Monday is not one of them. Before June was in school, I used to take her to the Community Playtime sponsored by the rec center on Mondays, but I never really liked it much. It’s noisy and chaotic and I’m too shy to talk much to other parents without a more organized activity going on. Plus I had no idea what the sidewalks are like on the long, steep hill we’d have to climb to get there.

Then I decided I would try to catch up on the newsletter clipping I do for Sara while June watched Sesame Street and then we could build an outing around going to the post office to mail the packet. Mayorga (www.mayorgacoffee.com) has re-opened at a location in that direction so I was pleased with this plan. Then a few minutes into my work, I realized—President’s Day. The post office would be closed. It’s so hard to keep track of why the children are not at school when they never go. I went ahead and finished the work, getting everything into an envelope, addressed and ready to go so I could take it with me and mail it on my way to the dentist.

When June’s show was over, she came into the study. I told her I thought we should go somewhere. She brightened. Then I told her I wasn’t sure where to go and asked if she had any ideas. She piped right up, “Starbucks!” For once, I didn’t particularly want to go there. I asked her if she remembered how long it took to walk there on Friday and if she was really sure. Yes! Yes! She was sure. She wanted to go. Could we go now?

So without a stop at the grocery store, this outing takes an hour and forty-five minutes. It would probably go more quickly if June would walk on the sidewalks that are cleared, but she prefers to trudge through the snow. We stopped at the bridge over Long Branch creek and threw snowballs into the coffee-colored water. June was chatty. She asked if I thought the Yellow Gingko has ever watched Sesame Street. I said I bet she had. “Yellow Gingko is cool,” June said. “You are not cool. You are interesting.” Then she paused and asked, “Are cool and interesting the same thing?” Not exactly, I allowed. But even though I am not as cool as her friend, she did tell me at two different points in the walk, “Mommy, I like being with you,” so that was nice. On the way home, she kept falling backwards into snow banks, seemingly on purpose, and closing her eyes.

“Are you tired?” I asked. She said yes. I suggested that home might be a better place for a nap and tugged her gently to her feet, only to watch her do it a few yards later. Finally, we got home, ate lunch, read a book and I put June down for her nap.

All the while I was keeping my eyes on the sky. Slow, sleet and rain were forecast, but when we’d set out on our walk at 10:45, the sky was mostly blue. It clouded over as we walked. And sometime between two and two-thirty, as June slept, it started to snow. I remembered something Beth said after the last snow. She said it was like being inside a snow globe that a giant child will not stop shaking. I even felt a little queasy watching it come down. Within an hour, even though the snow wasn’t even sticking to the streets or the sidewalks (and it never did), Montgomery County Public Schools announced a two-hour delayed opening. This meant Noah would go to school, but June would not. Normal had been pushed back another day.

Tuesday: Normal Minus One

I left for my 11:30 dentist appointment at 8:50. I did not really expect it to take me over two and a half hours to travel from Takoma to my Dupont Circle area dentist, but I simply could not wait to get out of the house. Public transportation is still sluggish, especially the buses, but by 10:15 I’d mailed my packages and was ensconced with a mocha, the Health and Science section of the Post and a collection of Alice Munro stories. Life was good for an hour or so.

I was home with my temporary crown applied and my mouth half numbed by 1:30. I was trying to decide whether to nap in my room or June’s when she met me at the door. “June, you’re still up!” I said. No, Beth informed me, the nap was over. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t seem right to complain, after having cut out so early on a day when Beth was trying to get some work done at home.

We muddled through the afternoon. I read to June and helped her make meals for the castle people out of modeling clay. While the kids watched television, I got back on the exercise bike for the first time in longer than I want to admit. I made cauliflower-cabbage soup. I defrosted the lemon cake and we ate most of it, even though the Valentine’s sweets are not completely gone. I was in a celebratory mood. It was the eve of normalcy.

Wednesday: Normal!

Noah went to school. June went to school. I exhaled.

It was not exactly a normal day. Noah had after-school science, and then we had dinner at El Golfo (http://elgolforestaurant.com/Home_Page.php) with several nursery school families in honor of the boy formerly known as the Grasshopper and his family (they moved to Seattle and were back East for a visit) and after that Beth had a nursery school board meeting. June and I walked a lot. As the sidewalks are not passable by stroller yet, June had to walk to and from her school and then to and from Noah’s school for a total of almost two and a half hours walking in one day. The day was stuffed full, so full that Noah had to do his language arts homework at the restaurant. But it was better than the alternative. We are out of the snow globe, for now.

That evening, I gathered up all the sympathy cards I’ve received, read them one more time and put most of them in the recycling. I put the rest, along with the blue heart, in a box of special papers.

Meteorology is not at its most accurate this far out, but they are anticipating several more storms this winter, including one on Monday, June’s next day of school and the day before the newly re-scheduled Geo-Bowl. If that happens, I am thinking of hopping a freight train south.

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 (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/obituaries/20100116_Steven_Lovelady__ex-Inquirer_editor__dies.html). 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 (http://www.sweetgreen.com/). 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.

Tidings

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 (http://www.longwoodgardens.org/) 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 (http://www.gamewright.com/gamewright/index.php?section=games&page=game&show=140) with Beth and Quirkle (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/25669/qwirkle) 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 (http://www.takoma.com/archives/copy/2008/02/valuevillage.html) 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” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179382) 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 (http://www.librarything.com/work/629786), 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

(http://www.bartleby.com/103/33.html)

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lorax).

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.

http://www.news-register.net/page/content.detail/id/507538.html?nav=516