Monumental Getaway

Gettysburg: Thursday

Three out of the past four summers we’ve gone to Hershey Park at the end of August. And, no, I will not write it Hersheypark, I just won’t, and you can’t make me. This year our trip wasn’t quite at the end of the kids’ summer break because our school calendar changed and they won’t go back until after Labor Day, but was close enough. We didn’t want to go too near Labor Day weekend, for fear of crowds. That’s also why we went during the week instead of on a weekend.

The kids had dentist appointments on Thursday morning, so we left early that afternoon. We’ve been squeezing in as many medical appointments as we can before school starts—two pediatrician appointments, two dentist appointments, one orthodontist appointment, and Noah got his wisdom teeth out, all in two weeks. I got in on the fun, too. I contracted a raging case of poison ivy on my right arm and left hand while weeding in the yard and had to go see my doctor to get a prescription for steroids after aloe, apple cider vinegar and some OTC remedies failed me. Between all the appointments and needing to work, most of my tentative plans to do some fun things with the kids during the last three weeks of summer break when their camps were all over went by the wayside. But this should make up for it.

We hit the road, drove an hour and fifteen minutes and had a picnic lunch at Cunningham Falls State Park at a pretty spot near the dammed lake. After we ate we went down to the water and watched the sunfish swimming in the shallows. June, hoping to get nibbled, waded in and stood still, but the fish did not oblige.

Our next stop was Gettysburg. One of Noah’s summer homework assignments is to write a short paper about monumental architecture and he didn’t want to use any of the many examples in our back yard, because he thought that’s what a lot of his classmates would do. He asked me if there were any monuments on the way to Hershey Park and I suggested Gettysburg.  There are dozens of monuments there. He chose the Pennsylvania State Monument, which is an excellent example of this kind of thing, having columns, a dome, the names of thousands of Civil War soldiers on metal plates, statues of many historical figures, plus Nike the goddess of Peace and Victory. It doesn’t get much more monumental than a goddess with a sword and an olive branch standing on a dome.

We spent most of our time at Gettysburg at this monument so Noah could photograph it and June and I could climb to the top. (There’s a staircase inside.) There was a nice view of the battlefield from up there and you also get to see the back of Lincoln’s head from a tiny window part way up the stairs. We looked at the lists of soldiers who served and learned that of the 34,000 Pennsylvanian soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, 1,200 were killed or mortally wounded and almost 4,000 more were wounded or went missing.

We also visited the Virginia State Monument and the statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the visitor’s center, where we read the Gettysburg Address on a big metal plaque. We could have read it many times, as it’s all over Gettysburg and not just in the park. I saw a motel that had the text of the address written all along the balcony rail. I was quite taken with that. The Visitor’s Center is also not without whimsy. The coffee shop is called Battlegrounds. I was a little surprised by that and thought they might as well have called it Hallowed Grounds, if they wanted to go there.

But a battlefield is a solemn place and while of course I did think about divisions in our country now and then while there, what hit me the hardest was watching my sixteen-year-old son walk along one of the trails and thinking about the fact that a lot of the soldiers—twenty percent by some estimates—were boys under eighteen. I also thought about the fact that while the last seven months have certainly felt like an ever-deepening crisis, it’s far from the worst crisis our country has seen. I think we’ll survive it.

And speaking of the present moment…as Confederate monuments are much in the news these days, Beth posted this essay to Facebook the day we were there. It’s a reflection by an African-American resident of Gettysburg about the Confederate monuments there. It’s worth a read.

Hershey: Thursday to Saturday 

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon, settled in, and headed to Chocolate World. Chocolate World is a separate attraction, adjacent to Hershey Park, featuring a huge store, a food court, a simulated chocolate factory tour and other activities such as chocolate tastings. We ate dinner there and entered the park. June wanted to be measured for her ride classification immediately and was disappointed to be a Hershey bar, having missed the Twizzler cutoff by a fraction of an inch.  I don’t think there was ever a time June wanted to ride a Twizzler-and-Jolly-Rancher-only ride, but it was the principle of having the options limited like that.

That evening we rode the mine ride and the swings, which were all lit up with red lightbulbs. Beth, June, and I had had a late night Wednesday because June had insomnia so I was exhausted and we only stayed until 8:30.

Friday morning Beth and June went to swim in the hotel pool while Noah and I stayed in the room, reading The Waste Lands. We’re up to the third book in the Dark Tower series and I’m really enjoying sharing it with him, as I love these books. Mostly I’m impatient for the kids to go back to school, so I can have some peace and quiet to work, but the fact that it will slow our progress through Roland’s world is one drawback.

Being in such a chocolate-centric place had put me in the mood for mocha so Beth found a coffeehouse and I got one, plus a hot chocolate for June and at 10:07 we were walking through the gates of the park. We’d stay for almost eleven hours. (When we left, Noah said, “Why are we all so tired?”).

We were tired because we walked between 18,000 and 22,000 steps according to Beth’s and Noah’s phones. We went on all manner of rides, together and in different combinations. The picture is of us on the Wild Mouse, a little roller coaster with lots of sharp turns but no big drops. The picture is like every amusement park ride picture we’ve ever purchased, with all of us looking excited or scared except Noah who is unperturbed.

We also rode the smaller flume ride, which is a favorite of June’s, and the sky tram, which I love because it winds between the tracks of big coasters I’d never ride, and gives me a vicarious view of them. One of these is the Great Bear, which Noah always rides alone because no one else in the family wants to do quite that many loops. Noah, June, and I rode the sooper dooper looper, though and I even bought a tie-dyed t-shirt that says, “I survived the sooper dooper looper.” It’s one of only two coasters I’ve ever ridden that goes upside down (the other is the Corkscrew at Cedar Point) so while Noah thinks the slogan on the shirt is a joke given the small size of the coaster, for me it’s only partly one.

While Noah was off riding the Great Bear a second time, Beth, June, and I went to the water park. We didn’t stay too long there so we didn’t get to do the lazy river, which Beth and I would have liked or any of the water slides, which June and I would have liked. Instead we went in the wave pool for a couple of its cycles. It was refreshing the first time but by the second cycle I was starting to feel claustrophobic, because it was quite crowded.

Over the course of the day, I was dithering about whether to go on the Comet, the smallest of the three wooden coasters at Hershey Park. I’ve always loved wooden coasters best but as I get older, I get more scared of them and I always think maybe this is the year it will be more scary than fun, but I went on it with Noah and it was more fun than scary so that day hasn’t come yet. Beth probably knew I was going to go on it but she listened patiently while I talked myself into it. I do this every year. While we were riding the Comet, June went on the Laff Track, an indoor, glow-in-the-dark coaster that goes backward.

Of course, since it was Hershey Park, we didn’t just go on rides, but we ate a lot of sweets, including but not limited to sundaes and shakes with various kinds of Hershey candies in them. The strangest thing anyone consumed, though, was the soda Noah got that had frosting on top (not whipped cream, but buttercream frosting) and pop rocks at the bottom. It was advertised as an “immersive, multi-sensory beverage experience.” Before he drank it, Noah regarded it and said, “It’s like soda for Millennials… I see the Instagram potential.”

After a pizza dinner, June got a caricature drawn and we started repeating rides. June would have liked to stay until closing time at ten, but the rest of us were ready to call it a day by nine. (Well, some of us were ready earlier than that.)

We were finished with the park, but not with Hershey.  On Saturday morning, we spent a few hours in the botanical gardens on the site of Milton Hershey’s original rose garden, visiting the butterfly atrium, the rock, ornamental grasses, and herb gardens, and of course, the roses. With Beth’s help, June (who has decided to use gender-neutral pronouns) shot a short film about what they would do all day if they lived in the gardens.

We had lunch at an Italian bistro in Hotel Hershey and then went back to Chocolate World for dessert and to shop for candy. June also came out of there with a doll wearing a dress with Hershey’s kisses all over it. Its name, of course, is Candy. And as tradition dictates, we rode the factory tour ride, though the kids were distressed to find they’d changed the theme song the cows sing.

Finally, around mid-afternoon, we drove away from Hershey and the last of our summer getaways was over. But someday we’ll be back. And when we are, June will be a Twizzler.

Sea Dreams

He stakes all his silver
On a promise to be free
Mermaids live in colonies
All his sea dreams come to me

From “Dawntreader,” by Joni Mitchell

Saturday 

For the first time in nearly two decades of extended family vacations in Rehoboth, we arrived before check-in time. This must have been satisfying for Beth because she comes from a family of early arrivers and I come from a family of late arrivers and in general, when you mix these groups the late arrivers prevail.

But we managed to leave the house earlier than planned and there was surprisingly little traffic on the Bay Bridge, so even with a lunch stop our family of four plus Beth’s mom Andrea arrived in Rehoboth at 2:15. We had some time to kill before we could get into the house at three. I went to the beach and put my feet in the water while everyone else went into town for cool drinks.

Eventually we settled into the house and Beth went out for starter groceries and the West Coast contingent—my mother, sister Sara, and four-year-old niece Lan-Lan—all of whom had just spent two days in Philadelphia visiting with old friends—arrived and we socialized and Noah and I made a dinner of burgers, hot dogs, corn, fruit salad, and potato salad.

Sara tried to keep Lan-Lan from adjusting completely to East Coast time so the girls had the same bedtime much of the week (until biology eventually took over). After they were in bed and Beth and Noah were settled in front of an episode of Dr. Who, Mom and I walked down to the beach and I got my feet wet again. 

Sunday

June and Andrea went for an early morning walk and were back before the late risers were awake. Much of the morning was occupied with menu planning and grocery list making and grocery shopping. June played with Lan-Lan much of the morning while Beth, Noah, and Andrea started a thousand-piece lighthouse puzzle. I made the girls lunch and took them to the beach so Sara could work. The whole week was something of a busman’s holiday for her—she’s self-employed and this often happens.

The weather at the beach was perfect—low eighties, sunny, and not too humid, with cumulus and cirrus clouds scattered across a deep blue sky. We were there four hours and for most of that time, June was swimming in the ocean by herself while I stayed on shore with Lan-Lan, who was alternating between jumping happily in the surf and digging in the sand.

She was talking the whole time, sometimes to me, but often to herself, saying the waves were “awesome” and reassuring herself, “Okay, Lan-Lan, okay,” when the water got rough.  Most of what she said, she said over and over, but this exchange took place just once:

“I love this ocean.”

“I do, too.”

“It fun. It always fun.”

Lan-Lan’s main construction project was to build a hole so big “there’s no sand left” and I was kept busy filling her pail with water to fill the hole. At one point, she befriended a teenage girl who was digging her own hole and she started to help. The girl’s friend came by and seeing Lan-Lan dig with her hand and her foot said, “That’s impressive.” For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Lan-Lan was digging. Kids dig at the beach. Then I remembered she has just one arm and it is novel to see her do thing with her foot until you get used to it. (I saw her use her foot to press down on a knife she was using to slice cheese later in the week.)

We left the beach at 5:30, all three of us somewhat reluctant to go, but it was getting on dinnertime. No one had chosen this day to cook for the group, so some people cooked for themselves and others ordered takeout and we all ate a makeshift meal together.

I might have been wrong about the weather being perfect. A few more clouds might have helped. Despite being conscientious about re-applying sunblock, June’s face, neck, shoulders and back were badly burned and my shoulders burned, too. June’s ear, now exposed by her brand new asymmetrical hair cut was the worst casualty. Fortunately, Lan-Lan didn’t burn at all.

Monday

We decided to keep June off the beach entirely for a day, to buy her a rash guard to go over her suit, and enforce a no sleeveless tops rule for the rest of the week, to give her burned areas a chance to heal. That made Funland an appealing choice for Monday afternoon. Lan-Lan spent the morning at Kids’ Cottage, a drop-in daycare so Sara could work. When Lan-Lan got home, Mom, Sara, and I took all three kids. (I’d offered to take them by myself so Sara could get more work done but she said, “I don’t want to miss this.”)

I must admit I was hoping Lan-Lan would spend more time in the little kids’ rides because all week I was feeling a little nostalgic for when my kids were her age (especially when I’d see her in June’s hand-me-down pajamas or shorts or when I’d read Where the Wild Things Are to her). But Lan-Lan is more of a daredevil than either of my kids were at four and after a trip on the sedate airplanes, she wanted to go on faster rides. The race cars were a big hit—she did these three times and she also tried the little Ferris wheel, the helicopters, and the Freefall, which my kids didn’t ride until they were ten and six, respectively. She looked a little nervous on it but said she liked it. Next, she wanted to go on the swinging Viking boat. This was also scary, more so than the Freefall, and June had to put her arm around her when it got to be too much.

Both Sara and I thought the netted climbing structure would be a good way to calm down after all those exciting rides. There are two entrances—one for little kids and one for big kids. Lan-Lan did the little kid course while June did the big kid course. But then we discovered Lan-Lan was in the height overlap so she went through the big kid course, too, but she got stuck at the top, twenty or thirty feet above the ground, couldn’t figure out the way down, and started to cry, so we sent June in after her. Lan-Lan found her way down before June reached her but she was shaken up, so we tried the swings as the final ride. That helped some, but Sara says she was still upset in the car.

Noah, June, and I walked home, stopping at Candy Kitchen, and then taking the scenic route along the beach. We were walking along the waterline for twenty minutes and no one got soaking wet. That never happens with preschoolers. There are advantages to having older kids, even if I sometimes miss my little ones.

Mom was making a black bean-sweet potato stew when we got home, so I helped her finish it while we listened to a fifties music Pandora station. After dinner, Lan-Lan had her first taste of fudge—Sara is strict about sugar—and it was a hit. Often when Lan-Lan was allowed a small treat later in the week, she chose the strawberry fudge (we had four flavors in the house).

Tuesday

Andrea, Beth, the kids and I went out to get bagels and crepes on the boardwalk Tuesday morning. While we were there June and I ducked into a shop and got June a peach-colored rash guard that coordinated with her suit, so she could swim that afternoon. When we met back up with Andrea, Beth, and Noah we learned the cook at the crepe stand had undercooked the eggs in Beth’s crepe and then did the same to Andrea’s, so they got a refund and went elsewhere. My crepe and Noah’s were safe, being fruit-based, so we ate them. Noah finished before I did and he went with Beth and Andrea to get a second breakfast. Once they were gone, I heard another customer complaining about uncooked eggs.  I thought the employee should just start telling people she was out of eggs until someone could retrain her.

Late that morning, Mom took June to get pedicures and lunch at a Mexican restaurant. They both came home with dark purple toenails, in slightly different shades.

In the afternoon, we drifted down to the beach in groups. Andrea stayed behind to make dinner. Beth, Noah, and I got to the beach first and we all went into the water, which was very calm and in Noah’s rather vocal opinion, too cold, but he stayed in a half hour until he and Beth returned to the sand and I stayed a little longer, first alone, then with June when Mom, Sara, June, and Lan-Lan arrived.

Sara and Lan-Lan dug a complicated set of pools with connecting canals and I helped a little. I reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I used to recite to June when she was little and dug at the beach:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
Our holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.

We’d all left the beach by six, then we showered and devoured a whole pan of Andrea’s spinach lasagna as well as half of another pan of the gluten-free version she made for Sara.

After dinner, Noah and June settled in with a bowl of popcorn and an episode of Dr. Who, while Beth and I left for a dessert date. We rode our bikes into town in the twilight and got a milkshake for her and a whoopie pie for me and ate on the boardwalk. It was short, but it felt romantic. Then bringing home a brownie and a cookie for our mothers, we biked home and stayed up late talking with Andrea, Mom, and Sara on the screened porch. Sara marveled that we’d left our kids to put themselves to bed, trying to see her own future in this. 

Wednesday

The next morning Mom and Andrea went to see an art exhibit and a historic property while Beth and Sara took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s water park. I did not attend, as going to water parks at the beach is against my religion. (In fact, it’s one of the only tenets.) Instead I biked into town and picked up a book I’d ordered from Browse About and then hung out on the boardwalk for a while until it was time to meet Mom for lunch at a boardwalk restaurant.

I went to the beach in the late afternoon, alone because Andrea was taking June to high tea at a hotel, Sara was working, Lan-Lan was at Kids’ Cottage, Beth was cooking, and Mom and Noah felt like relaxing at the house. The day was beautiful again—we had an almost unbroken string of beautiful days. It was in the high seventies and sunny. The sea was calm and I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get to swim in waves this week.

That evening Beth served her signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro sauce and fancy cheeses. Then Beth and I made another dessert run, this one more hurried because we wanted to get June her cinnamon bears before bedtime, though we ended up letting her stay up past bedtime anyway, because she and Grandmom were deep in conversation. Meanwhile, Beth, Andrea, and Noah worked on the nearly completed puzzle.

Thursday

Sara had been working all week and Thursday morning I finally broke down and asked if I could help with anything, but she said no because what was left was editing my work from the previous week and a project for a new client and it would take too long to bring me up to speed for that.

Noah and June played with Lan-Lan a long time that morning, pretending to be a family of performing octopi (they hummed different songs) and making cards for Sara and me with stickers. I was still trying to keep out of the sun until mid-afternoon, so once the kids were finished playing with Lan-Lan, we read the books we’d been reading all week, New Lands from the Chronicles of Egg with June and The Other Wind, the last book in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle with Noah. We finished it that day.

Sara did manage to get to the beach in the late afternoon. She came with Lan-Lan, who had spent a few hours at Kids’ Cottage, and Grandmom and June, who had been resting at the house. Andrea came down just a little before they did. Beth had been reading on the beach and I’d been swimming around an hour in better waves. They were still smaller than I like and a bit closer together, but it was a good swim. When June got to the beach we swam some more, but eventually I left her alone in the water and sat in Sara’s beach tent with Sara, where we sheltered from the sun and blowing sand and let Lan-Lan bury our feet in the sand. Then she’d pour water on them. Once when she did this, my big toe was exposed.

“Oh no!” I said, “A toe came out.”

“That’s just how life goes,” Lan-Lan told me.

While thus engaged, I realized I no longer watch June every minute when she’s in the water alone (though I think Beth does). She’s gotten to be a pretty strong ocean swimmer. Everyone noticed how confident and comfortable she seemed in the water.

Sara made eggplant parmesan that night and then we went to the boardwalk for dessert. We split up and there was a mix-up with June’s mermaid shake. It comes with a cloud of cotton candy and Swedish fish and a strip of rainbow-striped candy on top and I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost because it’s a ridiculous amount to pay for a milkshake. Anyway, Beth and Mom both bought one not realizing the other was doing the same. We’d told June we were going to buy her shake when she left the house in Sara’s rental car with Mom, so Beth was irritated.

While June and I were on the beach, leaving the rest of the party on the boardwalk, I told June she should probably apologize to Beth because she was supposed to pass the message on to Grandmom about not buying the expensive shake. She told me she already had and offered to pay for the extra shake out of her allowance. I told her that was very mature of her, even though Beth said she didn’t have to do that. Sometimes kids grow up when you aren’t expecting it.

Friday

Friday Sara didn’t work and she went to rent a bike so we could go on a bike ride on the Gordon’s Pond trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. While she was doing that I took the kids to Browse-About because Mom had given Noah some money to buy a book. He selected The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a YA horror novel. I’ve read some of the author’s middle grade books with both kids, but this one looks considerably darker. June wanted to tag along and when she found there’s a new book in the Serafina series she wanted it, so I bought it for her. It was a hot day, the first real hot one since we’d been at the beach so we got smoothies for the walk home.

Beth, Sara, and I set out for our bike ride shortly after lunch, with Lan-Lan riding on the child seat of Sara’s bike. This was a new experience for Lan-Lan and she was enthusiastic about it. We biked about an hour, most of it through a pretty salt marsh full of water birds, including a few egrets, which are Sara’s favorite bird. Lan-Lan didn’t like the smell of the mud, but Sara said it reminded her of catching salamanders in puddles near the lake in the Berkshires where we vacationed as kids.

When we got to the ocean, we were hot and ready to get wet. The waves were about the same as they had been the day before during my first swim, but the second time I went in they’d gotten bigger and spaced out and I had the best swim of the week, including two waves I sailed up and over, dropping down the other side after just a moment with the top half of my body airborne.

Lan-Lan was getting hungry and Sara had forgotten snacks, so she approached a mom with a large group of kids and asked if she had anything and she came back with a feast of goldfish, cheese sticks, and watermelon. That’s something I could never do, but it’s the kind of thing that often works for Sara.

Meanwhile, Beth spied a water ice truck parked up near the jetty and she and I snuck off to get a sugary treat Lan-Lan wasn’t allowed. I could have been smoother, though, as I came back with vivid blue stains on my shirt, arm, teeth, and lips.

“Why your mouth blue?” Lan-Lan wanted to know. I told her I drank something that made it blue and that seemed to satisfy her.

On the ride home, Lan-Lan fell asleep. She’d been up past her bedtime on the boardwalk the night before and she was tuckered out.

But we still had a big night ahead of us. We were going out to dinner—Mom and Sara split off and went to a seafood place while the rest of us went out for pizza and Stromboli and gelato at Grotto. Lan-Lan was beside herself about the pizza, the gelato, and the balloon they give kids as you leave. It was a completely satisfactory dining experience in her opinion.

From there, Beth, Andrea and Noah went home and I took the girls to Funland where we met up with Mom. June and I were going to the Haunted Mansion and Mom was going to take Lan-Lan to revisit some of her favorite rides while Sara read a magazine on the boardwalk. While we were in the Haunted Mansion, our car went out on the balcony and we got a glimpse of the boardwalk and the ocean. This only happens once in a blue moon and I always hope it will. June didn’t even know it was a possibility as it’s never happened in the three previous times she’s been on this ride.

After the mansion, June went on the Graviton and the Free Fall, and we found Grandmom and Lan-Lan. June and Lan-Lan went on the teacups together, which Lan-Lan loved, though they scared Noah when he was in preschool. She was laughing the whole time. Based on her other favorites, I think fast but low to the ground is what she likes right now. Everything that spooked her went too high.

Everyone else drove home, but I decided to walk because the night was so lovely. The sky was still pinkish orange from the sunset and the wet sand was silvery and reflective.

Saturday

Saturday was the usual rush of cleaning out the fridge and packing the cars and saying goodbye. We had to return the keys by ten, so we left before Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan were out of the house and on their way to Philadelphia where they’d fly to Oregon the next day. We were planning to linger in Rehoboth a few hours. Beth, Andrea, and June went to town to get henna tattoos for June—a treble clef on her hand and a moon and stars just above her ankle.

Noah and I went to the beach and I was pleased that he came in with me again for fifteen minutes or so. Then he went to relax on the towel while I swam for another fifteen minutes. I had only changed into my swim bottoms and a t-shirt at the house, thinking I might just wade, or we’d walk up to the boardwalk and change in the restrooms there, but I had developed some painful blisters on my toes and breaking up the walk was appealing and once I was in the water, so was diving under the waves, so I just did it in my clothes.

Around eleven we started walking toward our meeting place on the boardwalk. We got lunch at a crepe stand, ran some errands, and drove out of town, around two-thirty. We stopped at home furnishing store where Mom had pointed out some birdcages she liked to June (Mom collects them) because June thought they would be a good birthday present for her, but it turned out they were store decorations and not for sale.

Around quarter to five, we got to the Bay Bridge, where the sky got suddenly ominous. Then as we reached the middle of the bridge, it was just like driving into a high-domed cave. The clouds were that defined, and they had clearly visible projections like stalactites hanging from the bottom. Once we were completely under the cloud cover, it began to pour rain, which lasted for just a few minutes before petering out to light rain and pale gray skies.

On one side was vacation; on the other was the rest of the summer with all its chaos and camps and performances, and music lessons, and driving school, and whatever else awaits us in the next nine weeks.

Welcome to New York

Saturday

The train pulled out of Union Station at 11:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and by the time we got to the next station at New Carrollton, rain was streaking across the windows. I hoped it would be a passing squall or we’d travel past it because we were planning a busy twenty-six-hour trip to New York City—a belated birthday present for June— and for a lot of that time we’d be outside on a boat, in a horse-drawn carriage, or walking from place to place. I needn’t have worried. The rain cleared quickly and we didn’t see another drop until we were on another train, heading south the next day.

We passed the train ride reading books and magazines, listening to music and podcasts and playing games on the IPad. June talked me into buying her a Gatorade and the world’s most expensive Twix bar ($3!) at the café car. June must have noticed me leaning forward a little in my seat to see Boathouse Row and the zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as we passed through my home town.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

“Philadelphia,” I said a little sadly, because I haven’t been there in several years, since my mom moved to Oregon.

We got off the train around 3:45 and walked to our hotel. Beth had reserved a room with two queen beds but for some reason we’d been upgraded to two separate rooms with a king bed apiece. The kids don’t like to sleep in the same bed, so Beth was rooming with June and I was with Noah.

Once we were settled into the rooms, we walked to pub on 47th street in Hell’s Kitchen, where Beth’s high school friend Michelle, an actor and singer, was singing. We caught the last few songs of her set, including a syncopated version of “Breakfast in America” and “Blue Bayou.”

When her act was over, she came over to our table, where June was drinking a virgin mojito and Noah had a soda. Michelle hadn’t seen Noah since he was three and she’d never met June, so they got acquainted and she and Beth started to catch up about family and friends from home, a conversation that unspooled throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. While June was in the bathroom, Michelle asked why she was walking with a cane, and we filled her in on June’s year of injuries—some of which I haven’t even chronicled here. Did I mention the dislocated finger? Or the elbow injury? I don’t think so, but if you looked carefully at the picture on Noah’s birthday blog post, you may have noticed June’s arm was in a sling.

As if to drive all this home, on a subsequent visit to the restroom (the Gatorade June drank on the train was a very big one), Michelle was the first witness to a new injury as she crossed paths with a tearful June who had just slammed her fingers in the restroom door. Michelle fetched some ice from the bartender and we proceeded from the pub to a drug store for painkiller. For much of the evening, I was carrying the ice in a plastic baggie and leaving a trail of water drops everywhere I went.

Next up was dinner. June wanted New York pizza and Michelle had a restaurant in mind, but we were in the theater district and it was around five so there was a long line of theater goers who wanted an early dinner and the greeter predicted an hour wait. We left, found a promising hole in the wall with no line, but by this time June had to go to the bathroom again and they didn’t have one, so we found a Starbucks, used the facilities there and stopped at the next pizza place. Fortunately, they weren’t in short supply. This one had a sign saying the restroom was out of order, and as we were trying to decide whether June could stay long enough to get some pizza and eat it, the proprietor said we could use the bathroom after all. (The toilet didn’t flush but it looked like this state of affairs was a very recent development, so we made do.)  We got two kinds of greasy pizza, vegetable Stromboli, garlic knots, and mozzarella sticks. It was very satisfying. Thanks for your intrepid pizza-finding skills, Michelle!

From there we walked to the water, because we were taking a sunset cruise on the Hudson and East rivers. We saw the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, the Empire State Building lit up in red, white, and blue for Memorial Day and many other sights.

June, Michelle, and Beth were out on the deck most of the time, while Noah and I stayed inside. The view was good from there and I could hear the narration better. When we were at the Statue of Liberty, the tour guide read Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”— you know, the one with the lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He read the whole thing and I was glad of it because I’ve always been fond of that poem and it seems particularly relevant now.

Near the end of the cruise, I joined June out on the deck and Beth and Michelle went inside. I asked June if she was cold in her thin cotton dress (because I was cold in a turtleneck) and she said no. We said goodnight to Michelle at her subway stop and walked back to the hotel, where we crashed, well past everyone’s bedtime.

Sunday

We had breakfast at a hotel restaurant several blocks away. We’d picked it because June wanted pancakes and they were on the menu, but we’d missed the detail that they were on the weekday breakfast menu and not the weekend brunch menu. She chose doughnuts instead and didn’t like them because they were more like cream puffs filled with cannoli cream. There were three of the offending pastries and Beth, Noah, and I took care of eating them for her, while Beth gave June half her berry-covered waffles and everyone was happy. (I had a mushroom omelet and a salad.) Noah had to write a restaurant review for his journalism class and he’d decided to review this one so we kept giving him suggestions about what to say about it.

June’s next agenda item was a carriage ride in Central Park. Noah asked if he could go back to the hotel instead and we let him, because he seemed to need some alone time. Beth gave him directions on how to get to the Broadway theater where we were going to see a show and we decided to trust he’d find his way there.

When you approach Central Park on foot you are accosted by dozens of people with laminated cards explaining why their carriage ride is the best, but we found a driver who wasn’t too aggressive with the upsell and settled in for a pleasant ride through the park. Beth and June got a soft pretzel and Belgian waffles in the park but I was too full from breakfast, so I skipped lunch. We walked to the theater, where we arrived just in time for the show. Noah was waiting for us, having managed to get himself lunch and find the theater. Beth commented on Facebook, “This raising the kids to be independent adults thing is moving along quite nicely.”

The play was fun. I’d expected June to choose Cats, as it’s the only show currently on Broadway her musical drama camp has tackled and I thought she might like to see a professional sing her solo from “Memory,” but she went with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instead. I guess that’s not surprising as both kids were quite fond of the book when they were younger.

I liked the set for the first act, which mainly takes place in the Buckets’ tumble-down house, with the bed the four grandparents share elevated high above the rest of the house and tilted slightly forward, which gives you a good view of the actors and makes it seem like it might collapse at any moment. The second act sets, in the factory, were kind of minimalist for what’s supposed to be a place of exuberant wonders. The best one was the meadow made of candy where Augustus Gloop falls into the lake, but it takes up a surprisingly small portion of the stage.

And speaking of Augustus, I thought the German stereotypes in his portrayal went overboard and this ethnic and racial stereotyping was evident in most of the kid characters (who, except Charlie were all played by adults). There were some clever updates, with Mike Teavee being a hacker obsessed with all screens and not just television, and Violet Beauregard being a social media celebrity.

The Oompa Loompas were imaginatively portrayed by kneeling actors with puppet bodies hanging from their heads. Their colonialist back story is still in there, but you have to lay the blame for that on Road Dahl. I also liked the spooky squirrels in the nut room. They’re huge and have red eyes. It’s a ballet scene so Beth thought they were supposed to evoke the Rat King from the Nutcracker. As for the acting, the boy who played Charlie was good—and I liked the way the script made him a more well-rounded character than in the book. (It’s always bothered me that Charlie inherits the factory merely for not misbehaving, but this production gives him more motivation.) Ms. Teavee was also more well developed than in the book and I liked her character. The actor who played Willy Wonka was fine, but he wasn’t Gene Wilder. That’s all I have to say about that.

Overall, we enjoyed the show and we also got some overpriced candy during intermission because how could you not?

We had a little time to kill before the train, so we window shopped a bit. June had already gotten a smiley face fidget spinner as her one promised souvenir but she wanted to buy another one with her own money. She tried on a baseball hat that said New York in rhinestones and looked at a lot of New York magnets, but she went with a pocket watch she found in a warren of booths near the theater. Once she’d made her purchase, we walked to Penn Station, bought some food to eat on the train and said goodbye to New York until our next visit.

On Turning Fifty

Before my birthday

I got the AARP card in the mail about a week before I turned fifty. Even though a few of my friends have already turned fifty and mentioned that this happens, I was still surprised. I don’t mind turning fifty, but it does take you aback.

Ten years ago, I wrote about turning forty with flashbacks to my tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth birthdays thrown in for fun. To sum up the last two milestone birthdays: When I turned thirty I was mired in the endless, early stage of dissertation writing and not sure if I was going to make it through my Ph.D. program, and when I turned forty I’d recently come to the decision to quit looking for academic work, after a decade spent finishing the degree, then working at non-tenure track jobs or none, while chasing after the brass ring of a tenure track job. I described myself as “somewhat adrift” and uncertain what would come next. But I was an at-home mom to a one year old and six year old, so I was plenty busy and had some time to think about a plan.

But instead of planning a new career, I just sort of fell into the work I do now. That summer I started doing a couple hours of research a week for my sister’s free-lance writing business because she had a big project and she needed some help. After another year or so I was ghost-writing the occasional article for a natural foods newsletter for her. When June started kindergarten, we made it a regular part-time job. Will I still be working with Sara when I turn sixty? Your guess is as good as mine.

The weekend before my birthday Beth and I went to see Fun Home, a musical adapted from Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir of the same name. I’d asked for tickets as a birthday present, because I am a fan of Bechdel’s work in general and this book in particular. Part of it even takes place at Oberlin as Bechdel attended Oberlin, graduating in 1981, seven years before Beth and eight years before me. And while the scenes depicting a young lesbian coming out at our small liberal arts college during roughly the same historical period I did were certainly familiar, the childhood scenes were, too.  Like Bechdel, I also lived in a small town in Pennsylvania in a Victorian house my unhappily married parents were restoring. There were differences, too, of course. The two main ones being my father wasn’t a closeted gay man and he did not die by suicide. Also, we only lived in that town for four and half years, not my whole childhood, so we weren’t rooted there. But I still consider that period from the end of third grade to the middle of eighth grade to be the heart of my childhood and it had outsize importance to me. Anyway, the play was well written and well acted and we enjoyed it.

The evening before my birthday I spent pleasantly sequestered in my room, reading with Noah or looking at my phone, under orders not to come out while everyone was wrapping presents and signing cards and the smell of a chocolate cake baking wafted into the room.

The Big 5-0

The day itself was a normal work day. In the morning, I cleaned the bathroom and then I ghost wrote a blog post about pregnant women’s intake of omega-3 fatty acids. I did take myself out for a late lunch at Republic, where I had a Brie, arugula, apricot, and pistachio sandwich. From there I walked to Capital City Cheesecake where I ran into the children’s librarian from our public library. She greeted me my name, even though it’s been quite a while since June and I were regulars at her Circle Time for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I told her it was my fiftieth birthday and she said, “That’s a big one,” in the exact same tone she uses when someone is turning three and she’s about to lead the room in a round of “Happy Birthday.”  (And if that sounds like it was patronizing, it wasn’t at all. She’s not one to talk down to kids.) I got a latte and free mini chocolate mousse there because it was my birthday. (I would not have known free treats were on offer if Karen hadn’t told me while we were in line). Then I headed back home to exercise and wait for Beth and the kids to come home.

Beth and June came home around the same time (which early for Beth and late for June) because Beth cut out after a meeting and June had been walking a practice 5K with her running club. (She’s not confident enough on her recently healed feet to run yet.) It was a cold, wet day and she was soaked through, so I hustled her off to a warm bath while Beth went out to pick up dinner, which was Mexican take out at my request.

I opened my presents after dinner. Noah got me two graphic novels by Margaret Atwood I didn’t even know existed, so that was a nice surprise. And June got me a gift certificate to Starbucks, a purple tie-dyed beach towel, and a home-made gift certificate for the Tea and Spice Exchange in Rehoboth because my big present, from Beth, was a weekend in Rehoboth.

I knew there was a surprise planned for this weekend because Beth told me not to schedule anything and we had to cancel some plans as well. I was thinking a trip to Rehoboth was likely but I didn’t know for sure until I was working at the computer on the morning of my birthday and a notification about our hotel reservations flashed across the screen. I resolved not to tell anyone I knew and even rehearsed what I’d say when I opened the card to make it sound as if I was just learning the news.

“Hooray! That’s what I hoped it would be,” I said, which was true.

I didn’t fool Beth for a second. “You knew,” she said, so I told her about the notification.

I’d eaten a late lunch and a big dinner so I wanted to wait on the cake. I read Deadweather and Sunrise to June and then we had cake and ice cream. It was a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting, which is the cake I most often request for my birthday—you would, too, if you ever tried Beth’s chocolate cake with strawberry frosting—and Neapolitan ice cream.

Friday

The next day was our beach trip. We hit the road around 4:45 in the afternoon. It was raining on and off, sometimes pretty hard, so between the rain and rush hour traffic and a stop for dinner (at a pizza place near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where June got a sorbet served in a frozen, hollowed out lemon for dessert) it was around 9:15 by the time we checked into our hotel. June and I slipped down to the beach for a quick visit and we all went to bed around ten.

Saturday

We went out for breakfast at Victoria’s, a restaurant in a boardwalk hotel June likes for its fancy Victorian décor and I like for the ocean view. The food’s not bad either. Beth and I both got the blueberry banana blintzes. The day was cold and rainy so we decided I’d hole up in the hotel room and read with Noah in hopes it would clear up later. Meanwhile Beth and June went to the hotel pool. We had lunch at Grandpa Mac where three out of four of us got mac and cheese with various add-ins. (I went with spinach.)

In the early afternoon, I took a walk on the beach. It had stopped raining but it was still chilly and overcast. As I walked, I was feeling pensive about turning fifty. I saw several teenage girls who seemed to be playing volleyball without a net. They were all in identical black capri leggings, which made me think they were in uniform under their various hoodies and windbreakers. Then I saw an older man in a tweed jacket and a ball cap who was probably doing tai chi. I thought life is like that. Sometimes you’re just reacting to other people’s moves, knowing what general direction you want to move the ball, but unsure if you’re getting over the goal or not because you can’t see it. And sometimes it’s being on your own, making what may look like crazy moves even as they have an underlying purpose and grace.

Beth and June had gone to Funland, so I headed over there to meet them. I got nostalgic walking past the little kid rides, but then I remembered I’ll have a chance to see my niece ride them this summer, which was a cheering thought.

June had almost used up her ride tickets and was moving on to the games. We left with two new stuffed animals (a llama she named Lorenzo and a tiny sea turtle she named Flo) to add to the little Japanese cat (Sakura) she bought earlier in the day at Candy Kitchen. We swung by the tea and spice shop where I got three kinds of tea, vanilla sugar, and a new infuser. Then we got some free Earl Gray crème tea they were giving away for Mother’s Day. I’m not sure if they were giving it to all women or just those with kids in tow.

Back at the hotel where Noah was doing pre-calc, I took June back to the pool. We read for a little while, but it was too loud to keep going, so we gave up.  She got in the water, I stayed poolside and we tossed a ball back and forth. Then Beth came down and I went up to the room to read with Noah. By dinnertime, we were three-fourths of the way through the 120-page reading he had to do in The Sympathizer, a novel about espionage within the Vietnamese-American community shortly after the Vietnam war. It’s good, but intense, so I would have preferred it in smaller doses.

We had dinner at Grotto. I was supposed to pick all the restaurants because it was my birthday weekend, but there would have been an uprising if we hadn’t gone to Grotto and to tell the truth, a trip to Rehoboth would have felt strange without it.

While June was in the bath, I made a quick visit to the beach. It wasn’t raining but it was still cold and windy. The waves were big and full of foam, which the boardwalk lights gave a yellowish cast, like the whites in old photographs. The foam gathered on the sand, only to be half blown away before the next wave could wipe the remnants off the wet sand.

Mother’s Day

Sunday morning was sunny and sparkly, so June and I took a pre-breakfast walk down on the beach. We saw volleyball nets all lined up om the beach, as if for a tournament and someone setting up mile markers for a race on the boardwalk.

We’d wondered if everywhere would be mobbed for Mother’s Day, but we got to Egg by eight and there was only a twenty-minute wait, so we took a walk by the canal. I recommend the peanut butter French toast, (though if you’re there in the fall or winter, the pumpkin pecan French toast is even better). Noah’s lemon curd crepes looked pretty good, too.

We returned to the hotel where Noah and I sat on the balcony and knocked off another chapter of The Sympathizer, while occasionally looking up to enjoy the ocean view. Beth and June made their third visit to the pool. After we checked out of the hotel, Noah went to work in the lounge of another hotel, Beth and June went to a coffee shop and I walked down the boardwalk, where I saw a man playing the pan pipes and a group of mostly middle aged and older folks—a church group perhaps—gathered by one of the gazebos singing “Kumbaya.” I heard someone say they saw dolphins but I couldn’t spy any.

We all met up and gathered food from various establishments to eat on the boardwalk and then June and I went to put our feet in the water before leaving. (She did it in boots, I did it barefoot as it had gotten surprisingly warm.) While we were on the beach we did see a few dolphins. Then we drove home to unpack, grocery shop, and open our Mother’s Day presents- a Busboys and Poets gift certificate for Beth and a black umbrella with clouds on the underside for me. (I’d just left my umbrella on a bus the week before.)

Though my birthday weekend is over, I am not quite finished with celebration. I’m having dinner out with several friends, but not for a few weeks because June’s Girl Scout is going camping next weekend and over Memorial Day weekend, we’re going to New York City to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway, which was one of June’s birthday presents. Fifty is getting off to a busy start.

Goodbyes

Friday

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

Beach Replenishment

Thanksgiving

It was a quiet drive to the beach. It usually is now that the kids disappear into their electronics on long drives. Beth and I didn’t have much to say and I was trying to keep my mind off current events. I made sure to admire the trees along the highway, past peak, but still pretty. But my thoughts inevitably wandered from nature and as we were exiting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I realized I’d barely looked at the water and this is the loveliest part of the drive to Rehoboth.

We arrived at the house and ate a late lunch of sandwiches we’d picked up at the WaWa just outside town. June and I left around 2:30 to take a walk on the beach. It was a warm, sunny day. We’d brought hoodies in case it was windy on the beach, but we didn’t need them. June took her shoe and sock off her good foot and walked half-barefoot on the sand. She’s using crutches on and off since she stopped wearing the boot and I wasn’t sure how she’d do with them on the sand, but she got along decently.

We rambled back and forth between the beach and the boardwalk. I was happy to be moving, enjoying the mellow late November sun and the salt tang of the air. We ran into the family of a sixth-grade girl who was in the string ensemble at school with June last year. Her dad was on crutches, too, and we exchanged stories about why. By the time we left the beach at 3:45, the clouds were just touched with pink.

Back at the house the kids and I made our traditional apple-turkey table decorations, with a twist this year. June gave hers three heads and Noah’s had none. Then Beth and I finished cooking the dinner we’d started at home the previous day.

We feasted on a tofu roast, stuffed, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushroom gravy, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and rolls. We didn’t share what we’re thankful for as sometimes do at Thanksgiving dinner, but I thought about it as we ate. There’s plenty. We have each other, decent health, enough for our needs and many of our wants, like a house at the beach for Thanksgiving weekend.

We did the dishes and Beth made a fire. We sat in front of it and ate pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple tart. (I think everyone sampled two of the three desserts.)  Once June was in bed and Noah was soaking in the big, clawfoot tub and Beth had retreated to our bedroom to read, I called my mom, and we talked while I watched the fire die. 

Black Friday

We got off to a slow start on Friday. Noah slept in—I woke him at 9:15 and he either went right back to sleep or just stayed in bed. He didn’t make it down to breakfast until 10:15. Around 10:50, the rest of us left him doing pre-calculus at the dining room table and went to take a walk on the beach and boardwalk and then to start our Christmas shopping. Beth split off by herself a couple times. Mostly I was helping June do her shopping. Between Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the seashell shop, and the bookstore, she nearly finished it.

She wanted fries so we got some and sat on a bench on the boardwalk to eat them. We were right next to Santa’s house and we noticed there seemed to be a lull in the line so we got into it. The people in front of us were forcing an unwilling toddler to sit on Santa’s lap. He was crying and covering his eyes with his hands. They took pictures anyway. What is wrong with people? When it was June’s turn, I noticed Santa had a safety pin and I wondered if it was political, but it was on his pants, so maybe he just had a rip there.

The fries were just an appetizer. Next June and I had lunch at the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the view, so June thought it was logical to ask for a balcony seat. It was in the mid-fifties, not frigid but colder than I might think to eat a restaurant meal outside. I asked anyway. The manager was a little reluctant, but he seated us out there and we had the whole balcony to ourselves. The server said it was nice to step out of the overheated restaurant, but I tipped her 25% for having to go out of her way.

I got my usual off-season meal there—hot tea, fried mozzarella, and apple-pecan salad. June got pizza. It was fun looking down on the people strolling along the boardwalk and we had a great view of the beach. June started the crossword on her menu and was disappointed that the “large animal with one horn” was a rhinoceros and not a narwhal, which she though would more appropriate for a seaside eatery. Irritated, she switched over to the connect-the-dots of a sea turtle. (I didn’t bother telling her The Greene Turtle is a chain with non-beach locations.)

June wanted frozen custard next but I was a little chilled from eating on the balcony so it was easy to say no. We went back to the house where Noah was still doing homework. He didn’t want to go out shopping with me, so I read to June and we relaxed until it was time to leave for an early dinner at Grotto’s. We wanted to finish in time for the holiday sing-along and tree-lighting downtown. Our regular Grotto’s had a line so we went around the corner to the smaller one on the boardwalk. The kids were slightly disgruntled because it wasn’t decorated for Christmas like the big one and there’s no gelato there. So after we ate, we went back to the bigger location where Beth and Noah got take-out gelato and June and I assessed the Christmas trees decorated by Delaware charities and she chose to bestow the dollar I gave her on a local cancer charity’s tree.

The sing-along was much more crowded than two years ago, a year when it was bitterly cold and the only other time we’ve gone. Between not being able to get very close to the bandstand and the sound system only working intermittently we often couldn’t even make out what song the chorus was singing but eventually it got better and we could sing along. Noah hadn’t been that enthusiastic about attending this event so Beth and I were surprised and pleased when he started singing. I guess I haven’t heard his singing voice in a while because I was also surprised at how deep it is now.

I also learned I’m the only one in my family who knows the words to “Home for the Holidays” as I sang:

I met a man who lives in Tennessee
And he was headin’ for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania folks are trav’lin’ down
To Dixie’s sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee,
The traffic is terrific!

The songs were mostly secular (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let it Snow,” etc.) until the very last one, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and then they lit the tree.

June and I got frozen custard to eat on the way home. (I was going to abstain but they had pumpkin-cinnamon, so what could I do?) Given the crowds, I was glad we’d walked instead of driving. I’m sure it was a massive traffic jam getting out of there.

June was pretty tuckered out from walking most of the day on her crutches but she managed to stay awake long enough to watch The Year Without a Santa Claus before she went to bed. After she was in bed I took a bubble bath in the big tub and read half an Alice Munro short story, which was the only reading I did on the whole trip.

Saturday

We had breakfast out, at Egg. We’re looking for a new go-to place for crepes, now that Gallery Espresso went out of business, after a brief stint out in Lewes under the name Paradigm. We all liked it, though June had been hoping to eat at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s fancy Victorian-themed restaurant.

As Noah was already out of the house, he and I did some of his Christmas shopping, while Beth and June did the same. Later Noah returned to the house to work, and I met up with Beth and June, who’d been to see the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s Christmas decorations. The next thing on June’s agenda was for me to read to her in the lounge of the Sands Hotel. This is something we used to do when we stayed there or when we stayed in nearby hotels without lounges and we needed to give someone (usually Noah) some peace and quiet. As we had a whole house to spread out in, it never occurred to me we’d need to camp out at the Sands. But apparently, it’s a tradition now, so I brought Eleven Birthdays and read it to her in front of their Christmas tree.

I wanted to head back to the house for lunch and June wanted to eat lunch out so we compromised. Her first choice was Green Man, and mine was Grandpa Mac. I thought we were closer to Grandpa Mac, but I wasn’t sure, so I told her we’d eat at whichever one was closer. She agreed to the deal and I looked the addresses up on my phone. Sure enough, Grandpa Mac was closer, so I got to have baked mac and cheese with spinach for lunch and it was really good. While waited for our food and ate, we went over the test prep packet for the humanities magnet and I showed her how to make a graphic organizer and a web for the essay, as these are required and she’s never learned how to do that at school. That made me feel useful and pleasantly pedagogical.

It was mid-afternoon by the time June and I got home. I had the kids change into their Christmas outfits so we could do a Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. We got some nice pictures, which increases the chances that we’re actually doing a card. Noah looks solemn in all the shots because I’d said I might want to do a pensive-looking card, but June disregarded that suggestion and smiled.

I stayed on the beach after Beth and the kids left and walked south. I usually go north but there’s a beach replenishment project going on in the center of the beach that involves a lot of heavy machinery on the sand and a barge and a floating barrier out in the ocean. We walked by it many times over the course of the weekend and it was kind of fascinating to watch, but I wanted a quieter walk. The clouds were just starting to go pink. It was the time of day when the shadows in all the footprints and depressions in the sand get very sharp and the water is slate gray in places and silvery and illuminated with the last light of the day in others.

Shortly after I got back to the house we all left to see the light festival at Cape Henlopen State Park. It was a nice display, similar to the one we see in Oglebay most years, but smaller. They were also having a winter carnival in the Cape May-Lewes ferry parking lot, with live music and rides. We considered going up in the Ferris wheel but it was colder than the night before—in the mid-forties– and windy. I might have done it if I’d known for sure there would have been a view of the water, but we passed on it. There were also people ice-skating, or trying to, on a small rectangle of plastic.

Back at the house Beth made another fire and we ate a dinner of food from various restaurants and Thanksgiving leftovers in the living room while we watched Christmas is Here Again. It was a cozy end to the day.

Sunday

Beth made pumpkin pancakes, we packed up the house, and I took another short, solo walk on the beach. We drove to downtown Rehoboth where we did some more Christmas shopping and then June finally got to eat at her choice of restaurant, after having been overruled twice. She chose Green Man. I told everyone that the Green Man was a symbol of resistance during insurrections that followed the Norman Invasion, a fact I picked up from this book, which I read for my book club in September.

Over our lunch of sandwiches and smoothies I explained to everyone how the Green Man was a symbol of authentic pagan Englishness in opposition to French Catholicism and how some of the native laborers who built the Norman cathedrals, included Green Men in the decorations as a small act of rebellion.

The kids and I headed down to the beach one last time. Noah always puts his feet in the ocean for the number of waves that corresponds with the last two digits of the year whenever we leave the beach. He does it barefoot, no matter what the season. I do it, too, but with rain boots in the colder months. However, I’d left my boots in the car which was parked quite a distance away so I did it barefoot, too, but only for two waves. It was cold but not as cold as I thought it would be. June was sitting the ritual out because I didn’t want her to get her ankle brace wet, so I said I was doing the two, June the zero and Noah the sixteen in 2016.

June wanted to get her fortune told by the mechanical fortune teller on the boardwalk. I said no reflexively but then she suggested the fortune might contain a phrase I could use as a blog post title. I handed over the dollar. But, alas, Zoltar wasn’t working that day, so we didn’t get to see the future.

It was around three when we finally hit the road after a long stop at the outlets to buy the kids new fleece-lined crocs and shoes for their upcoming band and orchestra concerts and some clothes for June. This timing meant we got to the Chesapeake Bay at 4:45. The sky was burning, the water was shining and as we crossed it, I felt just slightly replenished, more ready to face the uncertain future and to keep making small acts of rebellion.

Moderate Thrills

On Tuesday evening we got back from an eleven-day road trip to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. It’s been so long since we took a trip longer than a week that it felt luxurious to be away from home that long.

The main event was a family reunion in Wheeling. For five days we stayed in a cabin in Oglebay Resort with around twenty relatives, mostly descendants of Beth’s aunt Carole, plus other local relatives who dropped by the cabin daily. If twenty people sounds like a lot to fit in a cabin, don’t worry. It was two stories, with eight bedrooms, each equipped with two double beds. It was like a small hotel.

Because Carole and her late husband Gerry moved to Ireland while they were raising their family, her kids, most of her six grandkids, and her infant great granddaughter still live there, though Carole now lives in Wheeling, where she and Beth’s mom and their two sisters were raised.

1) Morgantown, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon

On our way to Wheeling, we stopped in Morgantown. Beth’s parents met at West Virginia University and as we were also going to stop in Oberlin, our own alma mater, later in the trip, I observed we were visiting the college towns to which Beth, Noah, and June owed their very existence.

The reason for our stop in Morgantown was to visit a friend from our own college days. Stephanie was Beth’s first-year roommate in Noah Hall, where Beth and I met the following year and after which we named Noah. That’s why when she was letting us in her front door she said, “Hi, Noah. I lived in your hall.”

A brief story about Stephanie: For much of my first year of college I hung around the edges of a social group that centered around Beth and several of her friends. Stephanie was away my first semester and sometime during the spring semester, shortly after we’d met, she said to me out of the blue, “Do you write poetry or prose?” I was startled and alarmed and felt as if she had seen right into me because I did write fiction. It was years before I realized she was just playing the odds. We were at a liberal arts college and I was an intensely shy kid who observed more than she spoke. Of course I was a writer.

Stephanie and Cris just moved to Morgantown, where they’ve both taken jobs at the West Virginia University, and she was eager to show us the new house, which is lovely. They told us we were their first guests and put out a big spread for us—fruit salad, apple fritters, olives (much to June’s delight), homemade bread, and cheese. We ate and chatted for about an hour and a half about all manner of things—their move, things to do in West Virginia, and how June came to own a small colony of snails. We were sorry to leave after such a brief visit, but the reunion beckoned.

2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Evening to Friday Morning

We arrived at the cabin on Saturday evening. The rental was Friday to Friday, but another big group had arrived just before us, so there was a festive let’s-get-this-party-started atmosphere as we ate a dinner of cheesy rice bake and spaghetti and meatballs made by Beth’s cousin Sean.

We ate well all week. Beth’s mom and Carole made four lasagnas, and Beth made a big batch of her signature gazpacho with salt-crusted potatoes. Beth’s aunt Jenny made a peach cobbler and Sean’s daughter Rebecca made multiple pans of brownies.

People were arriving and leaving all week, not to mention the in-town relatives dropping by, so it was never exactly the same group, but by the end I knew who nearly everyone was. There was a lot Olympics watching and game playing and keyboard playing over the course of the week. Eanna, Sean’s youngest son, learned the music for two songs from Matilda so June could perform them for an assembled crowd of relatives two nights in a row. (He did the same thing with songs from Annie four years ago when he and June were seventeen and six. He’s a very sweet young man and he and June make a great duo.)

Over the course of the week, the group completed a thousand-piece puzzle of the Wizard of Oz. My contribution was eight to ten pieces in a poppy section. Many people helped finish the puzzle but Noah probably worked on it more than anyone. The puzzle seemed to help him interact with people, which isn’t always easy for him. It made Beth so happy that she went out and bought another puzzle of a wizard in his workshop looking through a telescope when it looked like the first one was almost done. That one got finished, too.

We celebrated two birthdays with cake. Carole’s seventy-ninth birthday party was Sunday night and this was the big event of the reunion. There was a cookout and Sean made two Indian curries (his specialty) and he gave a nice speech about how Carole has always made the places she’s lived—in several countries and several states—feel like home. There was an enormous cake decorated to look like Oglebay, with little trees and a lake and rocks made of licorice. There were probably at least forty people at the party, ranging from Carole’s ninety-something-year-old aunt to her eight-week-old great granddaughter. As it was the only night all of them were present, we took a picture of the six Junes—Andrea June (Beth’s mom), Elizabeth June (Beth), Beth’s cousins Meghan June and Laura June, our June, and the youngest, eight-month-old Delaney June, the daughter of another cousin. They are all named after Beth’s grandmother, Ida June, who went by June.

The Irish contingent was very sporty and they were always going off to mountain bike, play tennis, run, or swim. We went to the pool in different configurations almost every day. I usually went and June always did.

Some people went on day trips—there was one to Falling Water, and after we checked out of the cabin, most of the Irish went on an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., which was experiencing the hottest day of the summer with a heat index of over 110 degrees. We stayed behind.

We did go on the outing to Coopers Rock State Forest. The more ambitious people in the party left early and took a long hike while the rest of us joined them for an “epic picnic” (in Beth’s cousin Holly’s words) and then we all took a short hike to an overlook and admired the gorge. Next some of us took another hike to the bottom of the rock and back up again. A few of us squeezed into a narrow, damp crevice in the rock where the temperature fell about fifteen degrees in a few steps. The kids and I scrambled under an overhang lined with a thick layer of dead leaves and Noah saw a salamander and all of us saw a toad. There were huge millipedes all along the trail. It was a rough, rocky climb back up, especially for Jenny and Holly, who were in flip-flops.

On the last day at the cabin we took it easy. Beth and Noah spent most of the morning and good bit of the afternoon finishing the second puzzle. June got passed from one group of pool-goers to another and then after lunch, I took her again. Afterward, as we walked along the wooded trail back to the cabin, she was softly singing songs from Matilda. During the summer I often fret about the ratio of structured activities to down time, because she basically wants to do everything.  But at that moment, I thought we might have gotten it about right.

3) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Friday Afternoon to Saturday Morning

Have you seen the article going around Facebook about the difference between a vacation and a trip? The gist is that if you take your kids or visit extended family, it’s not a vacation, it’s a trip. I think it’s a little hard on trips, because I wouldn’t want to spend most of my time away from home without my kids and I enjoy time with my and Beth’s family as well.  But it’s true there’s a difference between getting away with just your spouse and being in a larger group. And by this measure, Beth and I hadn’t had a vacation in four and a half years, and then only if you count weekend getaways. Well, Beth’s mom helped us rectify that by taking the kids for about twenty-four hours so we could go to Pittsburgh alone.

After we checked out of the cabin Friday morning, we hung out at Beth’s mom’s house for a while and then Beth and I drove to Pittsburgh, stopping at a nice little Mexican restaurant in Washington, Pennsylvania. We stayed at a fancy hotel called The Mansions on Fifth. It consisted of two early twentieth-century mansions—one gray stone in an Elizabethan revival style and one Tudor and red brick. Inside the bigger building, where we checked in there was stained glass and carved wood paneling everywhere. We were staying in the smaller building, which was a little less grand, but still lovely.

Once we got settled, we went out to matinee of Florence Foster Jenkins. We watched Citizen Kane with Noah last fall and I was curious if the talentless singers were based on the same historical figure. I’m thinking yes. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really more sad than funny. It’s very well acted, though, and we both enjoyed it.

We weren’t hungry for dinner yet so we went back to the hotel and relaxed a while. Eventually, we had dinner at a barbeque joint, where you pick what kind of meat or tofu you want and then three sauces from a wide array. You get to taste as many sauces as you like before you chose and that was fun. We got classic tomato, a vinegar-based one, and a honey-based one. There were also a lot of sides and we got cornbread, stewed tomatoes and okra, and purple coleslaw. There was a television on and while we ate we watched part of the U.S./Serbia men’s basketball game.

Next we went out for gelato at a place with more flavors than I’ve ever seen. We got five between us. I liked the peach best. Back at the hotel we watched more Olympics until bedtime, or past it, actually. In the morning we had breakfast at a diner and then brought coffee back to the room where we read quietly until checkout time. I know. We’re maniacs.

(Back to #2) Wheeling, West Virginia: Saturday Afternoon to Sunday Morning

We drove back to Wheeling, reunited with the kids, and spent the afternoon at Beth’s mom’s condo, Carole’s condo and Carole’s condo’s pool. Noah made a raft out of pool noodles and floated on it, which is his favorite thing to do a pool. I did fifty laps, which sounds impressive, except it’s a tiny pool. Everyone else splashed and soaked in the pool.

Back at Beth’s mom’s house I took a short nap and we had Chinese takeout for dinner with Carole and Meg.

4) Sandusky, Ohio: Sunday Afternoon to Tuesday Morning

We drove to Cedar Point, the amusement park of Beth’s childhood. It’s also kind of a romantic place for us, as Beth and I went twice when we were in college, once alone and once with a group of friends the week between finals and my graduation. The kids have been there three times now, once when June was a baby and Noah was five, which neither of them remembers, three years ago, which they do, and this time.

Noah knew which rides he liked last time and June knew which ones she wanted to ride but couldn’t before because she was too short—and this year she could ride almost anything in the park because she’s 52 inches tall with crocs on—so we headed in the direction of Iron Dragon, a hanging coaster that’s just about right for all of us.

The Iron Dragon is officially a “High Thrill” ride (a 4 on a scale of 5), but this points to a problem with the ride ratings at Cedar Point. I would call most of the 4s “Moderate Thrill” rides, a designation they actually apply to the sky tram and the like. Meanwhile, the 5s (“Aggressive Thrill Rides”) encompasses such an enormous range that Noah joked they should have another category called, “6, Aggressive Thrill Rides…No We Really Mean It This Time” because there are some crazy-scary rides at Cedar Point, enormous coasters that go straight down or have part of the car hanging off the side of the track or one that just shoots the car up and down a U-shaped track that looks like two twisted devil horns over and over.

We don’t go on any rides like that. Beth’s never been much for big coasters. When I was twenty-two I rode the Magnum, which at the time was the tallest coaster at Cedar Point and in the world, but those days are beyond me. Noah’s currently the bravest in absolute terms. He was the only one to ride a level-5 coaster, the Corkscrew, which is a fairly low to the ground looping coaster. June and I almost did it with him, but we bailed out of the line. June might be the bravest relative to age, but she’s had more amusement park experience than Noah did when he was ten, so it’s hard to say.

A lot of our conversation at Cedar Point consisted of what coasters we would ride, what we wouldn’t ride, what we rode in our youth but wouldn’t now, what we might ride when older, and what we might ride if offered a million dollars to do so. At one point we had the following conversation:

June: Would you go on that for a million dollars?

Me: I’m tired of deciding what I’d ride for a million dollars.

Noah: Would you decide what you’d ride for a million dollars for a million dollars?

Anyway, once we got to the Iron Dragon we learned they were running beta testing for a virtual reality version of it so you couldn’t ride the regular version until the next day. You had to be thirteen to do the virtual reality ride and that kind of thing sometimes makes me sick, so Noah was the only one to do it. There was a three-page parental permission form I had to sign in about as many places as the forms when we refinanced our house last month.

In the virtual reality version, you are riding on a dragon and you can’t see the track so you don’t know what’s coming next. Noah said he liked it but he prefers the unenhanced ride. June was disappointed not to be able to ride it right away, but we promised to come back the next day. So we did the Mine Ride and The Woodstock Express, which was the first coaster June ever rode. “It’s emotionally important to me,” she said. We visited a petting zoo, which had an eclectic collection of farm animals, rabbits, llamas, alpaca, kangaroos, and tortoises. When it got dark we rode the Ferris Wheel, where Beth took pictures of the park rides all lit up in different colors.

The last thing we did the first day was watch a show which featured singing, dancing, acrobatics, fireworks and just plain fire. It was kind of like one long music video with a medley of pop songs, a startling number of them from the 80s.  “We’re the target demographic,” Beth said to me, with surprise.

The next day we finally rode the Iron Dragon. One thing I like about it is how it swoops between tree branches and over a misty lagoon. It almost is like riding a dragon. It’s gentle enough for Beth and June loved it.

My top priority that day was the Blue Streak, the smallest of three wooden coasters in the park. I love wooden coasters but they are scarier than metal coaster of the same size and as I get older I scare more easily, so I needed to do it early in the day before I lost my nerve. Noah agreed to go with me, even though it scared the pants off him the last time he rode it, when he was twelve. As we were getting strapped in, I told him, “I am having some second thoughts about this,” but then we were off and it was so much fun, just exactly how much thrill I want out of a coaster, and I was glad I did it. And Noah liked it this time, too. June watched and decided to wait until she was a bit older, which was a relief to me.

Later the kids rode the Wind Seeker, a swing ride that slowly rises three hundred feet into the sky, spins you around for panoramic view of the park and lowers you. I have no desire to be that high in the air, so Beth and I sat that one out and watched the kids’ bare legs, a big pair and a little pair ascended up to skyscraper heights.

In the afternoon, Beth, June and I went to Soak City, the water park within Cedar Point. Noah wanted some down time and stayed at the hotel. We all did the lazy river and June and I did some water slides and Beth and June went into the wave pool. I left Soak City before Beth and June, but independently of each other, we all stopped to wade in Lake Erie on the way back to the hotel.

Back at the park in the evening, the kids and I rode the Iron Dragon a second time and the kids rode the Wind Seeker, also for the second time. June played a bunch of carnival games, which are harder than the ones at Funland, so she didn’t win anything, which was a disappointment, but by then she was out of money and we were out of time, because our moderately thrilling road trip was almost over.

5) Oberlin, Ohio: Tuesday Morning

We had breakfast outside the hotel, gazing for the last time at Lake Erie before we hit the road. About an hour into the drive home, we stopped in Oberlin. As we did the last time we were there, three years ago, we walked and drove around the campus, showing the kids places we’d lived and posing Noah in front of his hall. The kids listened politely as I said things like “And that’s where I lived the first semester of my senior year…” We got whole-wheat doughnuts at Gibson’s bakery because that’s what you do when you visit Oberlin, and we ate them at a table facing Tappan Square.

Noah said, “The next time I come here I could be touring it.” We’ve often joked that he has to apply to Oberlin, if only to say he was named after the dorm in his essay, but it was the first time he’s indicated he might just do it.

That evening, we pulled into a parking garage in Silver Spring, one town over from home, for a dinner stop. “Our House” was had come up on a playlist we were listening to and I sang along: “Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard.” It would have been better, I guess, if it had happened as we pulled into our driveway, right before reuniting with our two cats, but it was a good enough ending for a nice, relaxing trip, with just the right amount of thrills.

The Deep Blue Sea

Day 1

The logistics of getting everyone to the Delaware shore were complicated. Members of our party were coming from Oregon (Mom), Idaho (my aunt Peggy and her ten-year-old grandson Josiah), West Virginia (Beth’s mom and Noah who had just spent a week with her), and Maryland (Beth, June, and me). To make matters more complex, Noah is taking a (mostly) online computer science class this summer and its introductory meeting was Saturday morning in Gaithersburg and the rental period started on Friday, so we’d be arriving in shifts.

The West Coast contingent flew out on Thursday and stayed the night in Arlington, Virginia. Peggy and Josiah arrived first and had time to tour Arlington National Cemetery. Beth drove June and me on Friday morning to meet up with Mom, Peggy, and Josiah so they could drive us to the beach, while she stayed behind with her mom and Noah. They’d follow us to the beach the next day.

Arriving at the motel, we saw Josiah first, walking toward the office. We yelled hi to him from the car and he yelled back, “We’re locked out of our room!”

Sure enough, we found Mom and Peggy outside their room. It took a while and many key cards to sort it out but eventually we got inside so they could collect their belongings and check out. We had to go to the car rental place next because they wanted to change the terms of the car rental. Finally, we hit the road, with Beth leading us through the challenging D.C. traffic. Once she got us safely on the other side she turned around and returned to the airport area, so she could meet her mom and Noah’s plane from Pittsburgh.

When we were on Route 50 and driving at highway speed, Peggy noticed something moving on the hood of the car. It was her sunglasses, an expensive prescription pair. They were partially sunk into the cavity in front of the windshield wipers so they hadn’t fallen off the car the whole hour we’d been navigating stop-and-go city traffic. It was nerve-wracking watching the case jiggle as Peggy searched for an exit, but luckily, they stayed put until she was able to stop the car.

Once stopped, she noticed an Afro-Caribbean restaurant. We’d planned to have lunch near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but we’d gotten off to a slow start, so it was already lunchtime and she was intrigued. I was wary—would there be anything vegetarian? Anything June would eat? The answers were no, but they were flexible about accommodating us, and yes. June and I got beans and rice and vegetables, with curry sauce (me) and without (June). It was tasty and inexpensive. The only downside was that the service was rather leisurely, but we were ordering off menu, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Between the printed directions Beth provided and help from Siri, we managed to reach Rehoboth. My mother, my aunt, and I are all what you’d call directionally challenged, so it was an accomplishment.  And even though I’ve been going to Rehoboth for twenty-five years, sometimes as often as two or three times a year, I don’t have the route completely memorized. I was able to provide useful input of the “this doesn’t look right” variety a few times and that’s when we’d turn on Siri.

We got to the house around 5:30, unpacked, and went out for pizza at Grotto. We shared the upstairs with a baseball team, which seemed to be having an end-of-season banquet. It was so noisy they gave us 10 percent off our bill.

When we left June and Josiah got three balloons between them (Josiah lost his first one almost immediately) and all three had popped or escaped within minutes of leaving. I was thinking we’d get frozen custard but it was cloudy and windy and so cool no one but June wanted any. Peggy opted for hot coffee instead. Mom went back to the house, saying she could be cold at the beach in Oregon, but Peggy, the kids and I ventured out onto the beach where June waded in the surf and Josiah dove right in, clothes and all.

After fifteen minutes we went back to the house and put the kids to bed. Mom and Peggy went out to get a few groceries for breakfast and ended up doing a more substantial shopping than they planned. It was 11:30 by the time they returned and I’d long ago gone to bed.

Day 2

On Saturday morning June and I got coffee and juice at Café a-Go-Go and then we went to Browseabout, where I picked up an order I’d made online—Stephen King’s latest for me and two summer reading list books for Noah. I paid for them using gift certificates my sister got for our birthdays. June didn’t want to be left out so I got her a book, too.

Next we visited a candy store and I got some licorice for my friend Allison. The store wouldn’t ship to Canada, so I took it to the post office, but I discovered there I’d left her address back at the house so I took June home, went to rent a bike, and rode it back to the post office. Did you know you have to fill out a customs form in triplicate to send a bag of licorice to Canada? Now you do. I got myself some lunch while I was out and then I came home and socialized with my relatives while they ate their lunches.

Next, we all headed out to Funland. Josiah was impatient to go back to the beach and not too keen on the idea of going anywhere else, but once we got there he was as happy as June to ride the Freefall, the Sea Dragon, the Paratrooper, and all June’s favorite rides.

It was four-thirty by the time the kids and I got to the beach, and Mom and Peggy didn’t get there until almost five. Josiah wanted to swim out deep so I took him out through the crash zone, through the big waves, out to where the waves were just little swells. My kids have always been cautions ocean swimmers—June only learned to dive under waves last summer and Noah rarely wants to go out deep—so it was quite different, in a fun way, to swim with a kid who seems to have no fear. June watched and said if she had face mask to cover her eyes and nose she might be able to do it.

When we returned to the house, around 5:30, Beth, YaYa, and Noah had arrived. I hadn’t seen Noah for eight days and he gave me a nice, long hug. Peggy made a tasty stir-fry for dinner and finally our whole party was gathered to eat it. Noah and June listened with fascinated expressions to a friendly debate Mom and Peggy had on the topic: “Is Linda sneaky?” Peggy argued pro and Mom argued con; but I think Peggy won the debate with examples of forbidden lipstick worn and movies attended when Mom was a teenager. (They had very strict, religious parents, and Peggy, who is nine years younger than Mom was apparently watching her older sister carefully.) Possibly the kids were wondering if they’d be arguing about their own childhood and adolescence when they’re in their sixties and seventies.

Day 3

On Sunday morning I took the younger kids to the beach to hunt for shells before the sun got too strong. It was a lovely day—with the exception of one cloudy day every day we were there was a lovely day—sunny, and with highs near eighty. We walked as far as the boardwalk where we got a face mask for June and goggles for Josiah. We looked for a boogie board leash for June’s board but we couldn’t find one. Once Josiah had his goggles, there was no keeping him out of the water, so I didn’t try and he got a second outfit in less than twenty-four hours soaking wet. I made a mental note to stop bringing him to the beach in clothes.

We went back to the house and I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to the Js. (He’s only read the first one but was game to jump into the fifth book. We stopped to explain things as necessary.) Next I read The Ask and the Answer to Noah, while the younger kids made things with melty beads—you know those multicolor beads you form into designs and then iron? The Js were playing with these all week. June made a smiley face, Santa Claus, an abstract design, and a princess while Josiah made a huge pile of people and skeletons, mostly heavily armed. The house was well stocked with toys and Josiah also built elaborate train tracks in their room that climbed up onto an unused bed and out into the hall until June told him she needed to be able to close the door.

After lunch I took the Js to the beach. June was excited to try to go deep in the water but the waves were bigger than they’d been the day before and both kids decided to ride the waves on their boards close to shore instead, while I went further out. While they were riding, the foam core of June’s board snapped. The fabric enclosing it held it together but it gave a wobbly ride now, so she wanted a new one. Mom and Peggy had been looking for materials to make her board a leash but they didn’t find exactly what they needed and we ended up buying her a bigger board with a leash, like Josiah’s.

After an hour, the waves had gotten smaller so we decided to give going out deep another try. We left the boards behind for easier entry. June was slow to enter the water. Her mask kept getting fogged up and she was continually taking it off to clear it and adjust the straps. While all this was going on, Josiah was jumping up and down in his excitement, saying, “Let’s go!”

June is not naturally fearless. She can seem like the daredevil in the family but it often takes a lot of effort for her to screw up her courage and try something hard. The remarkable thing about her is she so often makes that effort. In fact, when she agonizes, Beth and I are often telling her it’s okay to wait to do something, there’s always next year, etc. But you know how this story ends, right? She was visibly scared and I was scared for her and wondering if it was a good idea, but after a lot of wading in and running back while Josiah honestly didn’t seem to understand why she wasn’t going in already, we were past the point where we could avoid the waves and I started giving her curt, tense instructions, like “Dive! Dive now!” and she did it. When she came up from under the first really big wave, I said anxiously, “Are you okay” and she exploded into words.

“It was awesome! It was so fun! I love this!” So, she was okay.

I could touch bottom about three-quarters of the time but the kids couldn’t at all, so when she got tired or to needed to clear her mask, June clung to my side and once Josiah realized this was an option he occasionally clung to my other side. We dove under some waves and jumped into others. June loved it when a wave pulled her up its side and dropped her down its other side. “That’s my favorite, too,” I told her.

Sometimes it’s as hard to get out of rough surf as it is to get in, but we were lucky in this respect. A wave carried us gently to shore not once but over and over and we kept going back in for two straight hours. Once toward the end June was tired and I was holding her in both arms and she was sort of slumped down and a lifeguard waded out to make sure we were okay. It’s reassuring to know they watch that closely.

Meanwhile Peggy had arrived and was watching from the shore. We got out to say hi. I was pretty tired so I offered the kids ice cream, partly to get a rest. We went up the sandy path to the snack shack and ate our cones in the shade of the little building among the scrub pines. When I said I wasn’t going back in the water, Josiah decided to go back up to the house with Peggy while June and I went to sit with Mom. June sprawled out on her towel with her eyes shut. She was done in, but happy.

Back at the house, June and I sat on the side stoop, among the blooming hydrangea bushes, waiting for Mom to finish in the outdoor shower. We shared the Sunday comics and listened to Cat Stevens drifting from the screen porch of the cottage next door.  I sang along “Don’t be shy. Just let your feelings roll on by/Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there.”

June said in surprise, “You seem to know this song.” I should, I was a big fan of Cat Stevens and Harold and Maude in my youth. Mom left the shower in a different direction than I anticipated so we waited longer than we needed to but I didn’t care—it was such a perfect moment. And once we were clean and dry and inside, Mom’s delicious fettuccine with asparagus in lemon cream sauce was almost ready.

Day 4

Monday morning Beth took the Js out and bought a long-handled shovel for Josiah and a new board with a leash for June and rented a bike for Josiah. They were planning to ride bikes to a pond where there are a lot of turtles, but now that Josiah had a shovel he wanted to dig right then and June wanted to go see the turtles, but he was overruled. YaYa set off on foot before they left and Peggy drove to join them. Surprisingly, they all managed to find each other and the turtles. The Js also climbed a big tree and when June’s croc floated away in the pond, Josiah helpfully fished it out with a stick.

I rode my own bike to the boardwalk where I sat in the shade of a gazebo within sight of the ocean and spent most of the morning chronicling our adventures thus far, by hand in a composition book.

Later Peggy, Josiah, June, Noah and I went to the beach, in groups. When Noah and I arrived, June was riding her board and Josiah was digging. She said he’d been doing that for an hour and a half.  Noah got his legs wet and then retreated back up to the towel while June and I went into the water. There was a strong northward tug so we’d gotten close to the red flag that marks the swim area and we needed to exit more hurriedly than I would have liked, rather than waiting for a good wave, but June handled it well. Later she wiped out and got the wind knocked out of her. She started crying once she could breathe and we went to sit on the sand. I was wondering if this was a get-back-on-the-horse situation or time to call it a day so I just kept quiet and waited until she said, “Let’s go back in” and we did.

I was getting tired of trying to stay in the area between the flags so we took an ice cream break with Noah. I abstained because I knew Beth was back at the house making her signature beach house meal of gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, and Spanish cheeses and I wanted to be hungry for that. Peggy and Josiah had left by that point, but Mom had arrived just as we were getting back to the towels.

June rode her board while Noah and I stood in the surf, talking about books and movies and his computer science class. It’s too easy for him, but it meets a tech credit he needs. It’s silly that the media classes he takes for his program don’t count, but they don’t, and no one can test out, so he’s studying Scratch, which he taught himself how to use when he was seven or eight.

Noah left the beach around 4:20 and June wanted to go soon after because her suit was full of sand but she couldn’t find her crocs. (It was a bad day for those crocs.) We thought maybe Peggy accidentally swept them up with her things so June wore Mom’s sandals to the house and of course, when I returned I forgot to bring them with me and Mom refused to let me go back and get them so she had to walk back to the house barefoot. And it turned out June’s crocs were on the beach after all. Peggy gave me directions to where they’d originally been sitting and there they were. I stayed at the beach past six. It was nice to have some solo time there.

Dinner was fabulous, as I knew it would be. Beth even put on some flamenco music for atmosphere. Peggy said she’d won the beach house cooking competition so far. Even Noah, who wasn’t sure if he like gazpacho, had seconds. We had some lemon curd in the house we’d been eating on short bread and pizelles and Mom and Peggy went out to see if they could find cake for it.

Shortly before bedtime, June, who was sunburned, said it was bothering her. Her face was red and hot to the touch. Her arms and legs were red, too, and the back of her legs looked particularly angry. We had no aloe in the house, so Beth and YaYa left just as Mom and Peggy returned with a lemon cake. They came back with some Solarcaine and I applied it to all June’s red places. Then just as if she was in a commercial, she said, “It is instant relief!” After a few minutes it wore off so we re-applied and then she was comfortable enough to go to bed.

I ate lemon cake with lemon curd on the porch with Beth and YaYa and then we went to bed, full of good food and satisfied.

Day 5

Tuesday we woke to the cozy sound of rain pattering on the roof. June came into our room around seven with the news that her burn felt better. We had breakfast and I was thinking of reading to the Js on the porch but Josiah was getting ready to make pancakes with Peggy and June was busy with a melty beads project. I considered doing laundry but Noah was still sleeping and he was wearing a pair of pajama bottoms he’d had on since Saturday night and my mom’s room was right off the laundry room and she was still asleep, so I decided to wait.

I thought I might take a rainy walk on the beach but the rain stopped as I was getting ready so it was more of a cloudy walk. The sand was only a little damp so I was able to sit on it and read and write. Later I walked pretty far north up the beach where a group of condos sets out free beach chairs for people staying there. As none were in use, I didn’t think it would be much of a transgression to occupy one.

The sea was calm, with moderate waves, widely spaced. It was a leaden color where it was flat, with just the tips of the tallest ways a translucent green-gray. I was on the beach four hours, since I didn’t need to avoid the sun, and I saw two big pods of dolphins, one traveling south and one north, plus plenty more travelling in smaller groups. There were crabs on the sand, not the tiny gray, bullet-shaped ones that burrow in the wet sand, but classic crab-shaped, sand-colored ones, that dart out of holes in the dry sand and scuttle sideways to the next one. I also found two horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach. I thought they were dead, but when I nudged them with my toe they wiggled their legs, one weakly, the other vigorously. I took them back to the water and watched as the waves took them back into the sea.

I came back and had a pleasant lunch of dinner leftovers with Beth. The house was mostly empty as Peggy, Mom, and Josiah had gone on a day trip to Dover to see a plantation and YaYa had taken June to lunch, and Noah was holed up in his room. When June came home she had a bag of gummy butterflies, a new dress, and reservations for high tea at the fanciest hotel in Rehoboth. By the time I’d read to both kids it was late afternoon, but June and I snuck in a quick swim before dinner.

This was our designated eat-out night. The older generation was going out for seafood. Beth and I were taking all three kids to Grotto because Noah hadn’t been there yet and it’s his favorite. June had an attack of reflux during dinner and didn’t eat much. She was quiet and looked unhappy in the way she often does before a migraine so Beth and I kept pestering her with questions about how she felt and asking if she wanted to go home, but she said no, it was just her throat. We were headed for Funland, specifically the Haunted Mansion, which seemed like just about the worst place for a migraine. But we were getting frozen custard and there was the walk to Funland, and no doubt a long wait in line, so there was plenty of time to watch her. And she did start to perk up as we approached Funland, and was fine after that.

There was a long line—when Noah saw it he considered bailing—but the Js were determined, so we got into it. June then had a half hour to listen to the talking corpse on the wall and get nervous. She’d only been in there twice and it still spooks her. After a while, Josiah, concerned, asked, “Is it really scary?”

“Yes!” said June emphatically.

“Moderately,” I said, after some thought.

“Not at all,” Noah said, with teenage nonchalance.

So Josiah had to draw his own conclusions.

Afterward he said he wasn’t scared at all, but the souvenir photo of him and Noah told a different story. I didn’t buy any as we already have a souvenir photo of June looking scared at the Haunted Mansion from two years ago (bought at her own insistence) and I didn’t think Josiah wanted a photo of himself looking scared at the Haunted Mansion.

June needed to use the bathroom afterward so I told Noah and Josiah to go meet Beth who was waiting on a bench on the boardwalk, but somehow they lost each other. “I thought he was following me,” Noah said and I was going to be annoyed with him until I remembered I lost Josiah on the very first night when I thought he was following me to the outside shower and he’d run off to chase a firefly.

It so happened that Mom, Peggy, and YaYa were having a post-dinner stroll on the boardwalk at just that moment and they found Josiah. Eventually everyone was reunited. Having everyone in one place, I was tempted to go home, but the Js wanted to ride the Freefall, so we let them have one ride before going home.

Day 6

In the morning Beth took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s waterpark and I enjoyed more solo beach time. While I was in the water, I saw a perfect V of geese fly above me flying north and quite large pod of dolphins.

Mom and I went out for lunch at our traditional beach lunch spot. Mom asked me if I was sad to be leaving in two days and I said, no, I was still in the moment and enjoying being at the beach. She looked surprised, not without reason. Often I am sad in advance to leave.

Beth and the kids had returned from the water park when we arrived so Peggy took Josiah to the boardwalk and Mom took June on a series of adventures. They went to Funland where she won a stuffed cow at an arcade game, to Candy Kitchen where she got a big lollipop, and the seashell shop where she got a necklace with a seahorse encased in plastic.

I read with Noah and then went back to the beach in the late afternoon. I was thirsty as I was walking down the sandy path to the beach and suddenly a cherry snow cone seemed appealing so I bought one at the snack shack. I walked down to the water’s edge to eat it. The sun was warming the back of my legs and the sea breeze was cooling my face. The shadow of a gull passed over the sand just over my shadow’s head and it was one of those moments you want to seal in your mind and remember forever.

Later Beth and June came down to the beach, followed by Peggy and Josiah. There was time for June and me to have a brief swim and for Josiah to fly his new kite.

YaYa made a scrumptious spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad for dinner, which everyone appreciated.  June had such a busy day we hadn’t had a chance to read so we slipped out to the porch to read another chapter before bedtime.

Day 7

On Thursday morning we split into two groups. Peggy, Mom, and Josiah went to tour a light boat while YaYa, Beth, and our kids had a breakfast at a boardwalk crepe stand and then spent most of the morning wandering around town. June got a pair of yellow flowered flip-flops, required for the showers at Girl Scout camp, and mooned over the hermit crabs we’d staunchly refused to buy her all week. The day before, she’d told me, “Grandmom says if I keep asking, eventually you’ll get me a hermit crab”—a statement my mother flatly denies making, so I’m not sure exactly what went down between them.

Both the snails we got for June’s birthday died within six weeks, along with the last surviving one she brought home from school last fall. We promised to replace the snails but I am over shelled creatures with short life spans. I also don’t like the idea of taking a sea creature away from the sea or the unnatural designs they paint on their shells. When I told June pestering wouldn’t work, she asked what would and I said growing up and buying her own in eight years.

We hit Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the soap shop, and Browseabout books where June bought Harry Potter glasses with three weeks’ allowance and Noah got a book with the rest of his birthday money from Auntie Sara. Finally, we recovered from all this shopping with coffee, juice, and frozen hot chocolate at Café a-Go-Go.

Back home, I read to June, then Beth took her on a bike ride and picnic at Gordon’s Pond and YaYa took her out to tea. I did laundry and hit the beach until it was time to come back and make dinner—veggie burgers with corn, a tomato and mozzarella salad and various leftovers because it was the last night.

We all took a final evening walk on the boardwalk, got ice cream and frozen custard, and Mom bought June a stuffed cat that walks and meows from a boardwalk toy store. June’s been admiring this particular cat for years. Then Mom took Noah to Browseabout to get another book. We split off into various groups and returned to the house in pairs and trios, packed, and went to bed. It was bittersweet as the week and the company were so lovely…

Day 8

Mom, Peggy, and Josiah left the next morning around 8:45. They had timed tickets to Mount Vernon at 1:55.  We finished packing and June and I returned my and Josiah’s bikes to the bike rental place. Then YaYa, Beth, and Noah spent the rest of the morning in a coffee shop while June and I swam for over an hour. By this point June wanted to get right into the waves, no easing in and getting used to the cool water. “Mommy, are you coming?” she kept saying as she strode deeper into the ocean.

We met up with the rest of our party for lunch—boardwalk fries and crepes from a stand in a little alley off Rehoboth Avenue.  Noah said “crepes in the alley” made it sound like they had cocaine in them, but mine was just Swiss cheese and walnuts. I cannot speak for the others.

The kids and I went back to the beach to put our feet in the water one last time. Well, Noah and I put our feet in the water. It was more of a whole body experience for June, but she was still in her bathing suit, so it was okay.

We strolled down to Funland to use up our tickets. June played arcade games and both kids rode the Paratrooper as I watched their bare feet soar high above me, right before we left the deep blue sea behind until our next visit.

Portals: Spring Break Report #2

Monday

Monday morning at 10:25 we left for the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, where we’d rented a chalet in the woods for two nights. As we drove to higher elevations, I could see the shadows of clouds on the hills. I remembered how when we drove east across North Carolina last spring break I could see the spring advancing as we drove and I wondered if it would be the reverse this time. At home the flowering trees were all in bloom except the dogwoods and maybe a quarter of the non-flowering trees had tiny green leaves. In Virginia and West Virginia, there were flowering trees everywhere, including an apple orchard blooming prettily about an hour into the drive. I saw forsythia, redbud, and daffodils everywhere, but by the end of our journey I wasn’t seeing leaves on trees any more, except on the willows.

On the way we stopped at Skyline Caverns. Somehow we’ve neglected to ever take June to a cave, though Noah’s been to at least two, and she squealed with excitement as we pulled into the parking lot. We arrived at 11:55 and had to wait twenty minutes for the next tour, so we perused the gift shop. June found a bin of rubber snakes she thought I might like for my anti-rabbit campaign in the garden. I did buy one.

Skyline Caverns is modest as tourist caverns go, but it has the essentials—stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone. And it has a unique feature, a spiky formation called anthodite. It looks kind of like sea anemones stuck to the ceiling. There are also a lot of streams and pools of water that reflect and double all the formations in fanciful ways.

The guide kept the cheesy jokes to the minimum and always gave warning before he plunging us into total cave darkness so June could scurry over to me to hold hands. We didn’t see any animals other than the trout they stock in one of the pools. But there are bats in the parts of the caves where the tours don’t go and the guide told us about a species of tiny eyeless beetles, now thought to be extinct, that once lived in the cave, as well as a rare snail, found only there and in a cave in Germany. (“That snail is better travelled than most,” Noah joked.) June was entranced. When I asked her what she liked best, she said, “Everything!” and afterward she kept repeating cave facts to us, as if we hadn’t heard them ourselves. It made me think we should take her to a bigger cave someday.

After lunch at a pizza place and ice cream, we drove to the chalet. It was high up in the sky and surrounded by trees, with a hot tub on the deck and a Jacuzzi tub in the upstairs bedroom. Our bedroom was a loft overlooking the living room and the woods, visible from the two-story picture window at the front of the house.

June tried out the hot tub right away, while Noah and I read To Kill a Mockingbird in the loft. We were up to the trial. I made dinner—roast asparagus, egg salad (made from our Easter eggs) and fried tofu. Afterwards, June had a bath in the Jacuzzi. I sat perched on the edge of it, with my legs in the warm, bubbly water, reading to her the twelfth and final book in the How to Train Your Dragon series, a birthday present. As I read, I didn’t realize the plug wasn’t in securely and the water level dipped below the jets. Suddenly water was shooting from them, into the air and splashing the whole bathroom. I bolted for the switch on the wall and then had to spend quite a long time, mopping water off the floor and changing into dry clothes. June got out of the bath and it wasn’t until she was in her pajamas that we realized in all the excitement she never actually soaped up or shampooed. We decided to leave that for the next day.

Tuesday

The next morning we left around ten to go on an expedition to the Paw Paw Tunnel trail. Noah was reluctant to go on a hike and after an hour of driving to our destination, asked, “Wasn’t there a closer trail?”

“There were a lot of closer trails, but this was the one I wanted,” Beth replied.

We walked a half-mile between the Potomac River and the C&O canal to get to the tunnel. June wanted to climb up the stairs at the mouth of the tunnel, so I went up with her. She was startled and a little spooked to see there was no rail up there. She noted it was scarier coming down than going up, but we made it down safely.

We entered the tunnel. The canal was on the left and we walked on the towpath where mules once pulled boats through the tunnel. Here there was a rail and that was a good thing because it was dark in there and the ground was muddy. Water dripped from the ceiling, especially at either end, and Beth and Noah used the flashlights on their cell phones to light the floor, so we could avoid puddles. The tunnel is about three-fifths of a mile long and when you’re far from either exit, it’s just the right amount of creepy to feel like an adventure. It took us at least ten minutes to cross.

At the exit, we were faced with a long, deep layer of mud, water, and dead leaves. Beth tried one side and it looked like her feet were sinking so I tried the other side and it was worse. I got one sneaker drenched on one side and the other one completely submerged. The kids did better, using a downed stick as a kind of bridge. Once we were across we were rewarded with a pretty waterfall on the other side of the canal.

Having been through the hill the tunnel traverses, now we needed to take the trail around and over it to get back. It was two miles of switchbacks up and then down. Once we got some height, the kids wanted to throw sticks and rocks into the canal and listen to the satisfying splash they made. Noah got one stick all the way across the canal, where it lodged in a cleft in the rock face. It was around here Noah forgot to be grumpy about being on a hike and seemed to be enjoying himself.

Near the summit, we rested and ate some trail mix. I was happy to be headed downhill soon after that. On this part of the hike, we now had nice views of the Potomac and the rivers and farmland behind the river. All along the trail there were tiny purple flowers and white ones Beth thought might be mountain laurel and little butterflies with pale purple and blue spotted wings.

Back at the tunnel entrance, June wanted to climb up again. It had scared her the first time, so she wanted to conquer that fear. It’s how she is. This time Noah went up with her instead of me.

We had lunch at a sandwich shop, were Beth and I got very tasty avocado Reubens. From there we headed to the famous springs.

Berkeley Springs State Park is the site of several warm water springs that were used medicinally by first Native Americans and then colonists, including George Washington, and pretty much ever since then. It’s been a park since the 1930s, which means you can soak your feet in the source of one of the springs, which is enclosed in a concrete rectangle, watch the water flow through canals into the spas, or fill a water bottle from water fountains for free.

There are also indoor baths where you can immerse yourself in the mineral-rich water for a fee. We went to the Roman baths, which are narrow rooms mostly taken up with something that’s between a large, tiled bathtub and a small swimming pool. You can rent them for a half hour, which we did. There’s a pitcher of water to drink in case you get thirsty in the warm water, which we did, and every now and then we’d add some cool water from the spigot, or get out to cool down. Noah perched for a while on the windowsill.

Beth and I had visited the baths some time pre-kids and we hadn’t been back since, and it’s a little less relaxing with kids splashing each other (both of them) or trying to swim over the limbs of everyone else who is sitting in the warm water (June). It was nice, though, especially after a hike. I left feeling very relaxed. Even Noah, who had said before the outing he didn’t want to go to the baths decided, “I guess it wasn’t that bad.”

We’d been planning to eat dinner out, but it had been a long day and we’d had a late lunch, so we just picked up some food at a health food store and took it back to the chalet to eat there. As we were leaving Berkeley Springs, I noticed a New Age shop called Portals, and I asked everyone where his or her personal portal would go, if we could all have one. No one had to guess mine. It would go to Rehoboth, of course. Beth had to think about it and said somewhere in West Virginia, but she wasn’t sure where, maybe Blackwater Falls and June said “Grandmom’s house” in Oregon because we don’t get to see her as much since she moved west a few years ago. Noah said instead of a place, he’d like his to go to another dimension, one in which he never had homework.

He was taking a three-day break from homework on this trip, with the exception of reading two chapters from To Kill A Mockingbird every day and when we got back to the chalet, we did that, and then we had dinner and made S’mores in the fireplace. It had been such an active day I thought I’d go right to sleep, but perversely, I couldn’t sleep for a long time, and then I was up in the middle of the night for a while so the next day I was sleepy and subdued.

Wednesday

The next morning before we left, Beth, June and I checked out the recreation center associated with the group of houses where we were staying. The pool was in use for a water aerobics class when we arrived so Beth and June shot basketballs while I watched. June couldn’t resist giving Beth pointers on how to pivot and shoot and she sounded just like her coach when she did so, even down to his intonation and wording.

When the aerobics class exited the pool, we had a quick swim. June is taking swimming lessons so she can pass the swimming test at Girl Scout camp this summer and be allowed in the deep end. She showed me her crawl and backstroke.

Next we packed up the house and drove home, stopping in Frederick, Maryland for a couple hours to have lunch and walk around the downtown. Then we drove another hour and we were home.

Travel isn’t exactly like having your own portal that transports you somewhere else, with no expenditure of time or money, but it does take you out of your own reality, even if for a few shorts days, and that’s usually a good thing.

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

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

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

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

Boxing Day

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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