Southland in the Springtime: Part II, Nags Head, NC

Tuesday we drove from mountains to ocean. It took almost ten hours, with a stop for lunch. North Carolina is a really long state. Once we descended into the piedmont, some trees had tiny leaves, not just buds, and all along the road there were small purple flowering trees, maybe Eastern redbuds, based on my Googling.

We had lunch at a diner where Beth and I between us had cornbread, a biscuit, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, sweet potato fries, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter pie. When after a moment of hesitation, I added sweet tea to my order, Beth said I was going for “the full Southern.” It was all very good.

By mid-afternoon the trees were mostly pines and by late afternoon, there was water in ditches all along the road, presumably dug there to drain the swampy land. Then we started crossing broad rivers and sounds on long, narrow bridges with seagulls wheeling overhead and then we were in the Outer Banks.

The house was a classic Outer Banks house on stilts, right on the beach, with an upper and lower deck in the front, plus two landing-type decks in the back. You could walk straight off the front decks onto the beach, which caused June to exclaim over and over, “This house is literally on the beach.” She liked being able to play in the sand whenever she wanted and in fact had started building a sand castle while we were still doing our settling in chores and the next morning right after breakfast, she was at it again.

It was just after seven when we arrived so I needed to feed the kids and get sheets on the beds and make sure June took a bath while Beth made a quick grocery run. But June and I did steal ten minutes between all that to stand with our feet in the waves in the falling dusk. That night we fell asleep with the windows open, listening to the crashing waves.

At 8:45 the next morning, June and I were having a picnic breakfast (cucumber slices for her and an Easter egg for me) on the beach. It was a second breakfast, as we’d eaten the first one on the upper deck, from which we saw both pelicans and dolphins. That was the only time we saw dolphins but there were pelicans flying over the ocean in front of the house all the time. In fact, I started calling the deck Café Pelican because I ate so many meals there and saw so many pelicans, in the hundreds no doubt. Around 9:15 it started to rain—intermittent rain was predicted for the next two days—and we went back to the house.

I put on my raincoat and took a walk to the fishing pier. It was about a half hour walk from the house so it made a good focal point for a stroll. I found a piece of driftwood with large barnacles on it, some pretty shells, and a red, white, and blue crab leg. I pocketed the shells and leg to take back to show June. While I was walking it started to rain harder and I ended up getting pretty wet.

When I got to the pier, I stood under it, sheltering from the rain and watching the waves break around the pilings. When the rain let up, I walked out on the pier. It should have cost $1.50, but for some reason they didn’t charge me. There were little gaps between the boards, so you could see the swirling water far below you, which was a bit unsettling, and the pier itself creaked and swayed ever so slightly in the wind. I was there so soon after the deluge, I had it to myself for a while but eventually some people came to fish.

I went home, changed into dry clothes, and read Return of the Dragon to June on the deck. After lunch, I straightened up the kitchen and made a grocery list for Beth. She went shopping while June and I went to the beach again. It had stopped raining, but a cold fog had rolled in. June was intrigued by my description of the pier and she wanted to see it so we made the whole walk over again. As we approached, she got a little nervous about being so high up and she asked if there was a rail. Once I said there was, she said she’d be fine. She did peer at the ocean between the gaps in the boards and she was a bit horrified people were fishing on a fishing pier. (“I don’t want to see any dead or dying fish!” she said. I advised her not to look in the buckets.) We sat on a bench at the very end of the pier and watched the gentle swells of the water beyond the breakers.

We came home and relaxed the rest of the afternoon, all of us but Noah that is; he was doing homework. That evening he finished a big project for his media class. It’s a website for a fictional pasta company, Noah’s Noodles. It’s basically what he’s been doing with his weekends for the past couple months. Check it out but don’t actually order any noodles. They don’t exist.

It got cold that evening so we had to close all the windows and turn on the heat, after trying to tough it out by wearing sweatshirts and wrapping ourselves in blankets so we could still hear the ocean.

It rained that night and there was a brief but intense downpour in the morning. When it let up a bulldozer started moving sand around in front of the house. It looked like it was making a driveway for a neighboring house. It almost made me wish we had a preschooler to appreciate the show.

Around 9:40 I headed out to the beach with a copy of Anna Karenina, a towel and a thermos of hot tea. There was a chair on the beach not far from the house so I sat there, covering it with the towel and propping an umbrella up over my book during a passing shower. While I was there an enormous flock of migratory birds, black, smaller than gulls and long-necked, flew north just over the water. It took at least ten minutes for them to pass. June came down from the house to watch them and play on the beach while I read.

After lunch we visited Jockey’s Ridge State Park to climb the tallest natural sand dune on the East Coast. We took a nature trail down to the sand, through a small pine wood and back up onto the dune. It was a fun hike, with nice ocean and sound views, and eerie vistas of twisted, windswept trees. June was full of energy and running circles around the rest of us. Noah was moody and alternately saying the park was “fun” and “cool” and then glumly complaining about his lack of progress on a history project. He cut his foot on something in the sand (glass perhaps—June found some nearby) and said it was a metaphor. I said yes, because his progress was impeded but he had not sustained a life-threatening injury. It’s not easy being thirteen going on fourteen, I remember that. We did stop on the way home for ice cream—a banana split for me, brownie sundaes for Noah and Beth, and Heath bar flurry for June. I hoped the combination of fresh air and frozen treats would help raise his spirits.

I went back to the beach to read more Anna Karenina, coming inside when my hands got too cold to turn the pages. June and I made dinner, scrambled eggs with chopped olives meant to represent a shell-strewn beach and a green asparagus sea. (This was all her idea.) After dinner she and I read more of her book on the beach. She wrapped herself in the beach towel to stay warm.

Friday morning—a warm, sunny morning—we packed up the house and dropped off the keys at the realty. Noah and I took a brief walk on the beach while we waited for the dishwasher to finish its cycle. He wanted to go as far as the pier but there wasn’t time. I found a nearly whole conch shell I was going to take back and add to the collection I was leaving on the deck rail for the next people but then I discovered another shell inside and thinking it might contains a tenant, I tossed it back into the sea.

Since it was sunny in Nags Head and storms were predicted in Williamsburg, where we were headed next, we decided to spend the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon at the beach before driving north.

For the next couple hours we split up. Beth took the kids to play miniature golf and they dropped me at a public access beach. There were a lot more people on this beach—either because there was a parking lot or because it wasn’t fifty degrees and raining I’m not sure. Maybe both. Anyway, the weather was lovely, around seventy and sunny, and the waves were big and scenic. I spent two hours reading and napping and taking a walk.

We had lunch at a pizza place on the highway, eating on the patio, and then we drove to the stately red brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse, where we climbed 220 steps to the top and enjoyed the wind and the the beautiful views of sea and sound. “Some day we are going to be too old to do this,” I said to Beth, after we’d descended.

“But that day is not today,” she answered me cheerfully and she was right.

Next installment: Bush Gardens and cherry blossoms.

Southland in the Springtime: Part I, Ashville, NC

We just got back from a very fun spring break road trip. We spent the first leg with Beth’s mom in Asheville, North Carolina, where she lives part of the year now.

Five hours into our drive, around three in the afternoon and near Roanoke, Virginia, Beth said, “It’s greener here.” It was. There was light green, gold, and dark pink fuzz on the branches, all of which were bare at home. I thought once we reached Asheville the altitude might cancel out the effect of a day’s drive southwest but it didn’t. Lawns were green, flowering trees were blossoming, and daffodils were in bloom, with some already finished. Over the course of nine and a half hours and four states (Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina), we’d driven into spring.

The drive would have been about twenty minutes shorter but we went to a different street by the same name (Way instead of Court), which as it turns out is a very similar looking cul-de-sac in an entirely different neighborhood. The residents of the house drove up as we were standing on their porch and an elderly man said, “Can I help you?” which I think is Southern for “What the hell are you doing on my porch?” Eventually we found the right house, where Beth’s mom, Ron, and a homemade spinach lasagna awaited us. It was warm enough that evening to eat ice cream on the screened porch.

Saturday we explored the city. We took a trolley tour through its beautiful Victorian neighborhoods, downtown area, and arts district. We learned a lot about Asheville and its famous residents, particularly the Vanderbilts and Thomas Wolfe.

After that we had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, with a lot of plants, a sheet of glass with water coursing down it and skylights. I got barbequed tofu with cole slaw—all the barbeque joints the tour leader pointed out put me in the mood—and a spicy carrot-apple-ginger drink. I was glad to have something zippy because I was stuffy from a cold the four of us had been passing back and forth for weeks. (It was my second time around with it.)

From the restaurant we proceeded to the establishment that most intrigued Beth on the trolley tour—The French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Noah was hoping for couches made of chocolate, but instead there was an extensive selection of chocolate in solid and liquid forms and a line out the door. There was an employee—a chocolate bouncer if you will—monitoring the line and admitting people in groups. There were tiny chocolate-mole truffles to sample in line. Once inside we ordered drinking chocolate (I recommend the dark chocolate liquid truffle) and various other treats.

Next we moved on to a festival in a nearby park. June spent most of her time climbing up and sliding down inflatable structures. There was also a kids’ karaoke booth that inspired Noah to say, “I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that,” but June studied the songbook and was seriously considering it before losing her nerve and deciding against it. Many kids performed songs from Frozen, but oddly one chose “Piano Man,” and sang it as if she’d never heard it before, which might have been exactly what was happening. June got her picture taken with the Easter Bunny and we went home, where we dyed Easter eggs and I had a short but deep nap.

We’d had such a big and late lunch no one but the kids even wanted dinner so they had leftover lasagna. Noah finished a take-home geometry test and then he and I read a Douglass Adams short story, “Young Zaphod Plays it Safe,” that comes between books four and five in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Easter morning after the kids found their baskets, we had a cinnamon roll-French toast casserole Ron made and then we went to church. YaYa had asked me to bring some half-opened cut daffodils from our yard for the flower ceremony, which is a Unitarian tradition. Members of the congregation bring flowers to make an eclectic communal bouquet and then at the end everyone takes different flowers home. There was a lot of music at the service and people lit candles to symbolize their joys, concerns, and sorrows. The children had an Easter egg hunt during the sermon. As we left we collected flowers, leaving with more daffodils, a tulip, a sprig of grape hyacinth, and a yellow, spiky flower I couldn’t identify.

After church we went shopping for provisions and then had a picnic and a hike to a waterfall in Pisgah National Forest. It was a pretty walk, but the trees were a bit more bare than in downtown Asheville. The fall wasn’t a steady stream of water, more like a heavy rain falling from a high rock into a creek. The kids and I went behind the water where we climbed rocks, observed the multi-colored cliff wall, and got good and muddy.

On the way out of the forest we stopped to see Sliding Rock, a natural waterslide Beth and I slid down during road trip through the Southeast we took in our mid-twenties. When YaYa and the kids saw it, the older and younger generations had a similar reaction, “You went down that?” We used to be interesting, apparently. June said she wanted to try it some day, until she learned the pool where you land is eight feet deep.

We came home and June had a bath in YaYa’s whirlpool before we went out to dinner at a Jamaican restaurant. I had jerk tofu with grilled pineapple and vegetables. Asheville is known as a foodie town for good reason.

Monday we visited the Biltmore, a mansion belonging to the Vanderbilts and the largest private residence in the U.S. It did make Hillwood, a D.C. mansion June and I toured two weeks previous, look downright modest, though as far as I know, the Vanderbilts had no Fabergé eggs. What they did have was a 250-room Gothic style house with 99 bedrooms, lovely mountain views, a swimming pool, and a bowling alley on 125,000 acres of woods and farmland. There weren’t as many formal gardens as I expected but we did see a very nice area planted with tulips.

We had lunch in a restaurant located in the converted stables and visited a few of the numberless gift shops on the property before going back YaYa’s house. Noah, who had been feeling under the weather, had stayed home. We collected him and Ron and headed out for an early pizza dinner, stopping at Barnes and Noble to look for my book club’s next book (Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones). They didn’t have it, but June found a graphic novel her friends had recommended and spent most of dinner reading it. (By breakfast the next day she’d finished it and she risked carsickness re-reading it much of the next day.)

Beth had a work crisis that evening and had to work a little, but afterwards she and I went back to the chocolate lounge, which I think is her new favorite place. We bought chocolate bars and toffee for later and more liquid truffles (I tried the milk chocolate one this time, also very good). Then we came home and ate the cake Ron had made earlier in the day. It was triple layer Italian cream cake with jelly beans and chocolate shavings on the frosting.

Tuesday morning we packed to leave. June gave a farewell violin concert under the tree in the front yard she’d climbed many times and we said our fond goodbyes and hit the road by 9:15 en route for the beach.

Stay tuned for more spring break adventures.

A Merry Little Christmas

Christmas Eve

We spent Christmas at home again for the second year in a row. The kids’ first day off school was Christmas Eve, so after dentist appointments for both of them, we had lunch at Maggiano’s, a cavernous and ornately decorated Italian restaurant in the city. Then we went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at AFI. Though I didn’t have an opinion beforehand, afterward I wished we’d seen Miracle on 34th Street instead because it would have been easier to for June to follow. Nonetheless, everyone did enjoy the film. Beth and I used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year for a stretch from our mid-twenties to our early thirties and possibly not since then. I find it reads differently, more darkly and also more richly, when you’ve reached middle age yourself.

If it had been up to me, we would have just eaten our ample lunch leftovers for dinner and skipped cooking because I had a lot of wrapping and other last minute Christmas chores, but June had specifically requested chili, cornbread, and homemade applesauce for Christmas Eve dinner and she wanted to stick with that plan, so we did. After dinner we watched Christmas is Here Again, put June to bed, and I got to work.

Christmas

The kids were awake and whispering well before six, when they were allowed to get out of bed and open their stockings. When Beth asked June later what she’d been thinking about while she waited, she said she wondered what Santa had written in his thank you note for the gingerbread cookie and carrot we left him, so I was glad I’d remembered to ask Beth to write one while I wrapped presents and stuffed stockings.

Beth and I rolled out of bed at 6:45 and we commenced the present opening, without making the kids wait for us to eat breakfast, though I did make some peppermint tea for myself. June had proposed a new method of opening gifts. In my family everyone opens gifts one at a time, in a youngest-to-oldest rotation, but Beth’s family has everyone opening gifts at the same time. Having only done Christmas as a foursome once before, we have no set protocol. June wanted to take turns but to have everyone open all of his or her gifts in one turn. Beth tested June’s dedication to this idea by asking if she’d be willing to do it oldest to youngest and to everyone’s surprise she said yes, so we did it that way. (She must have really wanted to do this because she also let Noah have his choice of Christmas special on Christmas Eve, as a bargaining chip.) I think it might have taken as long to negotiate how we were going to open the gifts—over the course of a couple days—as to actually open them.

I won’t list all the gifts, but there were many books all around and gift certificates. Fancy teas and sweets were also popular. Noah got a pasta machine, a game, new lined Crocs, and a microphone. June got ice skates, a basketball, a doll dress-making kit, a set of CDs with stories about classical composers, and dog and sled set for her American Girl doll. After opening presents, June and I made cranberry-chocolate chip-walnut pancakes from a new cookbook she ordered from Scholastic.

I’d gotten Beth a mix for cheese dip and she wanted to make it for lunch but we didn’t have any cream cheese so I asked if anyone wanted to go for a walk and when no one did (I was pretty sure of this outcome ahead of time), I walked to the grocery store to get some to surprise her. It was pleasant to be outside on a secret errand, listening to Christmas music on my iPod.

I spent a good bit of the afternoon reading to both kids—The Long Winter to June and The Rogue Knight (a Christmas book) to Noah. Then it was time to make Christmas dinner. We had another tofu roast because June liked the one we had at Thanksgiving so well, plus stuffing, sweet potatoes, creamed kale, cranberry sauce, sparkling cranberry-apple juice, and Dutch apple pie—purchased from a fifth grader at June’s bus stop for their class trip fundraiser. (June will be in fifth grade before you know it and what goes around comes around.)

It was an enjoyable day, but it felt too short. I’d hoped to take a nap, or to have a long soak in the bath, or to read one of my Christmas books. It would be three days after Christmas before I even opened one, but then over the course of three days I read all of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, and it was worth the wait.

Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve

The day after Christmas we drove to Wheeling for a five-day visit with Beth’s mom and extended family. We stayed at a hotel but June spent the first two nights of our stay at YaYa’s house (she made her breakfast in bed one morning) and Noah spent the next two, so they each got some one-one-one grandmother time.

There were two family gatherings—one night Beth’s cousin Sean made Indian curries for a crowd (June played “Jingle Bells” for everyone that night and we contributed homemade gingerbread cookies) and another night Beth’s mom made spinach lasagna. Beth took June skating and I took her swimming in the hotel pool three times (once for almost two hours). We went to the playground and YaYa took June to church and to see Annie at a theater and watched Maleficent with her at home. Beth and the kids played Noah’s new game and the kids bought books at a local bookstore with gift certificates they got from Beth’s aunt Carole. I spent a lot of time the first couple days we were in Wheeling working on an outside (i.e. not for my sister) editing job, but once that was finished I had more time to read and relax. Noah also worked, doing long packets in preparation for upcoming county exams in geometry and Spanish.

One morning a friend of Beth’s mom took us on a tour of the Victorian mansion-turned-retirement home where she lives so we could see all the Christmas trees and decorations. There were at least a dozen trees, all with different themes. YaYa liked the snowman tree best. It had a snowman head for a topper, mittens coming out of the sides, snowman decorations, and two oversized boots underneath. June liked the angel tree and Noah liked the candy cane tree. (We got samples there.) It’s a really lovely facility, but one odd effect of the tour was that when I read a story in the Atwood collection that takes place in an upscale retirement home, of course I was picturing it taking place there, and as something truly awful happens in the story, that was a bit disturbing.

We also drove through the light display at Oglebay Park. Our old favorites—the candy cane wreath, the twelve days of Christmas, and the jumping horse were there of course, but there were also new displays-one of the tunnels had multi-colored lights that crawled across it and some of the huge evergreens had new lights—blue streaking ones and pretty white and gold ones. When we passed the lights that spell “Joy,” I said, “Look! It says ‘June.’” This is a family joke based on the time June was two and thought every word that started with J was her name, including this very light display.

Noah, who’d had a bad headache in the afternoon and taken a two hour, forty-minute nap, was quiet on the drive, not reading the brochure and playing tour guide as he usually does. Toward the end, he started to feel poorly again. We went back to YaYa’s house and he ate a banana and crawled back to bed. The rest of us ate leftover lasagna and then June and I went up to the bedroom where Noah was resting and I read an Edgar and Ellen book to both of them so he’d have some company.

I’d been reading about a lot of friends and kids of friends who’ve had the flu lately on Facebook, and Beth wasn’t feeling so hot either so I feared the worst, but the next day Noah seemed recovered and Beth, while tired and queasy, at least wasn’t violently ill. This was our last day in Wheeling and it was more low-key than the rest. We mostly hung around YaYa’s house.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

We drove home the next day, arriving home around 4:30 on New Year’s Eve. We unpacked, did laundry, ate the Christmas Eve lunch leftovers I’d frozen and had a quiet evening at home, unless you count the noise of bickering kids who’ve been so well behaved at their grandmother’s they had a lot of pent-up arguing to do. Everyone was in bed by 9:45.

On New Year’s Day I had coffee with a friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce lives and teaches in Indiana now but her parents live in the area so I often get to see her at Christmastime. We talked about work, kids, and marriage, and I was surprised to see when we checked the time that we’d been talking for two and a half hours. That’s how it is with good friends. It was a lovely way to ring in the New Year.

Thanks to all of you who read this blog in 2014, and Happy New Year!