The Ocean Life’s For Me

The Week Before the Beach

The week before we went to the beach, Noah was in West Virginia visiting with Beth’s mom. June’s last day of school was on Monday and it was a half-day. I parlayed that into a full day of work by sending her home with a friend and then the next morning I sent her to another friend’s house and in that day and half I did most of my work for the week. June and I had a fun day Wednesday—we took a friend of hers to see Annie at the theater than plays second run movies for a dollar a couple mornings a week during the summer. Afterward the girls played in the Silver Spring fountain until Evie’s mom picked her up and June and I had lunch at Austin Grille. At home we read in the twin hammocks in our back yard, I mowed the lawn, and made chocolate chip cookies for homemade chipwiches. I worked a little on Thursday and Friday. June had a friend over—it was her fifth play date in four days—and we packed for the beach.

Getting to the Beach: Friday and Saturday

Late Friday afternoon Beth’s mom and Noah arrived in Silver Spring, where YaYa would stay in a hotel overnight before we drove to Rehoboth. We all had a pizza dinner at zPizza and then we left June to stay the night with her and we took Noah home. They swam in the hotel pool that evening and visited a flea market in the morning while we finished packing. At the market, YaYa bought June a teddy bear made of multicolored yarn there she named Tie-Dye, or Ty for short. We met up with them at the hotel and hit the road around eleven.

We made great time, arriving at the realty around three, even with a long stop for lunch. When we got inside the house, Noah exclaimed, “This is a cool house. This is an awesome house!” It was certainly the biggest house we’ve ever had—it had six bedrooms so no one but Beth and me had to share and it featured a mix of wood-paneled and airier rooms, a retro-looking kitchen painted aqua, plus a screened porch that wrapped part way around the side of the house. And it was only a half block from the beach.

Mom and Sara arrived around 4:30—Mom had another teddy bear for June, this one from her recent trip to Europe—and our party was complete. While Beth went on a grocery run and the kids got to work on the script of a movie they were planning to film, Mom, Sara, and I took a short walk down to the beach and then we came home and collaborated on a quick dinner—scrambled eggs with asparagus they bought at a farm stand on the drive, vegetarian bacon, and toast with orange-pineapple-apricot-peach jam from the same stand.

Sunday: First Day at the Beach, First Day of Summer

I woke around six to the sound of rain on the windowpanes. I stayed in bed dozing until around seven and then I got up and had breakfast with June on the screened porch. I was getting ready for a rainy walk on the beach when the sun came out so I left the raincoat I was borrowing from Beth at home and put on sunblock instead. The kids were working on their movie again and the rest of the adults were all either still getting up or eating breakfast.

I spread a towel on the sand. The sky had cleared considerably—it was bright blue with big puffy white clouds scuttling across it. The sea was silver and sparkly and full of leaping dolphins, some quite close to shore. I stayed about an hour and a half, leaving around eleven to avoid most of the mid-day sun.

At the house I read to the kids for a long time—over an hour each. June and I finished The Letter, The Witch and The Ring and started The Hobbit. Noah and I finished Crystal Keepers, which we’ve been reading slowly—sometimes just a few chapters a week—since his birthday in early May. While I was reading to Noah, Mom took June to Candy Kitchen and to Funland, where over the course of the week June won countless stuffed animals and both kids won tails you can clip to your pants.

About 3:30, I headed back to the beach, leaving Sara and Beth to work at the house. Sara’s whole vacation was a busman’s holiday, but Beth didn’t work much after Sunday. I was glad of that, as she often works through vacation.

The day was now sunny and hot. I got a cherry snow cone at the snack bar on the trail down to the beach. We’ve never stayed on this stretch of beach before, but I’d explored this trail from the beach side during an off-season beach trip and I’d wondered if the little hut sold food in the summer, so I was happy to see it did. I’d tried to bribe Noah into coming to the beach with me by offering frozen treats but he preferred to stay in his room with the blinds shut. YaYa, who had just spent a week with him, had taken to calling him the Prince of Darkness, because of similar behavior at her house.

I thought the idea of a secret little store, not visible from either the beach or the road, would appeal to June but she was so focused on her goals of getting someone to take her to 1) Funland, 2) Candy Kitchen, and 3) Jungle Jim’s water park that my description barely registered with her. Nonetheless, it reminded me of one of the years we stayed in The Pines and we discovered a grassy path that ran between the backyards of houses down the length of two blocks. We’ve been coming to Rehoboth for twenty-five summers now but I still love finding its hidden places.

While June was off accomplishing goals #1 and 2, I got a voicemail from my mom, asking if June could go on the Sea Dragon, one of those swinging Viking ship rides. She loves those but she’d never been tall enough until this year. I said yes but advised my mother to skip it.

The snow cone was bigger than I expected and I ate it in small bites to avoid brain freeze, so it was after four by the time I got in the water. It was early in the season so the water was cold—68 degrees, a 22-degree drop from the air temperature, so it was hard to get in, but once I was acclimated it was perfect—everything was perfect, the warmth of the air, the cool water, the pellucid light, the gulls wheeling overhead. The angle of the sun turned the sea spray from wave after wave into rainbows. I must have seen dozens of them. The waves were promising, big and breaking just where I like them. Then I jumped into the perfect one—it swept me up and into its inward curve and I flew over the top and dropped down to the water behind it, which is my very favorite thing to do with a wave. When it’s just right I swear I hang in the air for a moment before I drop, like Wiley E. Coyote, but without any injury resulting from the fall. Sometimes a whole beach week goes by without a wave like that.

That evening Beth and I took a walk to the beach and watched the sun set on the longest day of the year.

Monday

Monday started early because the alarm on my phone went off at 5:45. Noah had set it to go off Mondays to Wednesdays two weeks earlier when Beth was on a business trip to Detroit and I was getting him off to school. Since I usually leave it in its charger in the study overnight apparently I hadn’t noticed it going off in the interim. Neither Beth nor I really got back to sleep and the kids slept in that day, so we were eating breakfast together at 7:15 before anyone else in the house was awake.

Later in the morning we went on a series of errands together. We got coffee and visited Browse-About books where we picked up Into the Wild, part of Noah’s required summer reading (or so we thought—he’s actually supposed to read Into Thin Air—Beth exchanged the book later in the week). I looked for my book club’s next book—Cloudstreet and Sara wanted some books on toxins for work, but they didn’t have any of them. We also visited the olive oil store, or tried to; it was closed. Lastly, we rented a bike for me and one for Sara (Beth had brought her own bike) and we rode them home. I’d been telling Beth I wanted to get back into the habit of going on dates and while it wasn’t the most romantic outing, we were alone for a couple hours, so I think it qualified.

Back at the house, we ate lunch and then I started dinner because it was my night to cook and I wanted to go back to the beach in the late afternoon. I enlisted Noah’s somewhat reluctant help to trim and chop green beans and June’s enthusiastic help to shuck corn.

I made it down to the beach by 3:30 and around 4:30 Mom, Sara, and the kids joined me. The ocean was very calm so I thought it was a good opportunity to get the kids to venture deeper into the water than they usually go. June agreed to try it when I offered to hold her on my hip. The water made her buoyant enough for this to be a feasible plan. Sara and I passed her back and forth a couple times and then she said, “Let me go” and she was swimming in ocean water over her head for the first time ever. She’d tread water for a while and then she’d hang onto me again and back and forth. When I got out of the water, she stayed in, not as deep, but deeper than she normally would. When it was time to leave the beach, she didn’t want to go and the promise of frozen custard on the boardwalk after dinner lessened but didn’t eliminate her disappointment.

Tuesday

June was eager to go back to the beach the next day but she had to wait until mid-afternoon because she had a full day planned. In the morning she went on an early morning bike ride with Beth. I met them at Café a Go-Go for coffee, juice, and cake and then we all rode our bikes home.

It was a hot day—it had reached 90 degrees by 9:20, according to the thermometer on Rehoboth Avenue and I was trying to be responsible about the sun, so I stayed in the house, reading to both kids, hanging out with Sara and Mom, and doing laundry.

By 2:30, though, June and I were at the beach. We got snacks—potato chips for her and cherry water ice for me—at the snack hut. I settled on the towel to eat my water ice while June splashed in the shallow water. If I’d realized it would be the only rest I’d have for almost two and half hours, I might have savored it more.

The waves were a little rougher than the day before, at least at first, so when I came into the water, June did more clinging to me than swimming. But the water calmed a little and she got a little more daring and soon she was swimming again. I suggested she try diving under the waves because it’s really something you need to do when you swim in deeper water, but she said no and I said okay. Then about an hour later, without warning, she dove under a wave. I applauded and she looked surprised at herself and said, “It’s that simple?” I said it was and that now she had more choices for each wave—dive under it, jump up into it, or ride it toward the shore. She did all three repeatedly.

We were in the water until just before five without a break. I ended up mildly sunburned on my shoulders because we didn’t even get out long enough to re-apply our sunblock. She was so excited and pleased with herself that it was almost—but not quite—anticlimactic when I took the kids to the Haunted Mansion at Funland that evening and June kept her eyes open for the whole ride for the first time.

When we came home, Sara was eager to show us two short videos she’d just received of her soon-to-be adopted two-year-old daughter playing on a playground in China. I can’t wait to see Lily-Mei splash in the ocean and rides the kiddie rides at Funland.

Wednesday

In the morning the whole crew—all seven of us—took at walk on the Gordon’s Pond trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. As you might guess from the name, the trail goes around a marshy pond and you can see all kinds of water birds. We saw gulls, snowy egrets, great egrets and red-winged blackbirds. There’s a wooden platform that gives you a good view of the pond and there was a nice breeze, too, so we stayed there a long time.

The kids had considered filming part of their movie in the park (it’s the same park where they made a movie about a haunted watch tower during Noah’s twelfth birthday weekend) but artistic differences scuttled filming that day and in the heat of their arguing Noah almost didn’t come. But somehow the outing was salvaged and everyone seemed to have a good time once we got there. There had been a thunderstorm the night before so it was cooler than the day before, a beautiful morning really. The only sour note was when a man sped by us on his bike, yelling, “Get out of the way, ladies,” and knocked my mother’s walking sticks out of her hands. I guess there were no orphans or kittens for him to hit that day, so he had to settle for a senior citizen with bad hips.

Beth took the kids to Jungle Jim’s later that morning, where they had fun going down water slides and playing bumper boats. Beth and Noah came back slightly sunburned, though, and June had a really painful burn on her shoulders. We applied copious aloe, but that night she had to sleep in pajama bottoms only because she couldn’t tolerate her top. (We’ve been home several days now and it’s peeling, which is a new experience for her.)

While Beth and the kids were gone, I had some solo time on the beach and then Sara joined me at the end. I went in the water a few times, but mostly I read because I hadn’t had much time for that.

Mom and Sara made a lentil-sweet potato soup for dinner and afterward I read the Gollum chapter of The Hobbit to June while YaYa and Noah went out for frozen custard and to Candy Kitchen. After June went to bed and YaYa and Noah returned, I read Inkheart to Noah until bedtime. Beth and Sara made their own Candy Kitchen run while we read so after Noah went to bed, I sampled the chocolate-peanut butter and the chocolate-cheesecake fudge.

Thursday

In the morning Beth and Sara took a bike ride and when they came home Sara made almond flour pancakes, her specialty. Since we were all gathered together, we watched some movies the kids made—a mystery called Clara Green and the Missing Diamond and some of Noah’s school documentaries, the F-CON project on banking crises of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, and the one they shot in in New York City last fall about a Grammy and Tony-winning composer.

We split off into different directions for lunch. Beth and YaYa had lunch with a family friend who lives in Rehoboth. Mom and I had lunch at a boardwalk restaurant and the kids took their first-ever sans adults trip to the boardwalk, where they had pizza and ice cream. (Mom and I actually crossed paths with them and they both looked pleased to be out and about on their own.)

After lunch the kids filmed a couple scenes for their movie after I helped them negotiate some of their differences and get back on track. In the late afternoon, June and I went to the beach and Mom and Sara joined us. June delighted in showing them her new ocean swimming prowess and they were suitably impressed. She couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder to make sure they were still watching.

For dinner Beth made her signature beach week meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, and Manchego cheese with bread. Then we all took a walk on the boardwalk and got ice cream. We stopped at the kite shop on the way home and June picked out a ladybug kite.

Friday: Court Ruling

Beth, YaYa, the kids and I went out for breakfast at Noah’s favorite place to get crepes, which has now moved from a prime spot on Rehoboth Ave to an office park in Lewes. This makes it less attractive to me, but I went anyway, to be a good sport and because the crepes are pretty good. Beth checked her phone while we were all getting buckled into the car to go back home and that’s when we discovered the Supreme Court had ruled and gay marriage was now legal in the whole country.

“Yah!” June said.

“Great,” Noah said.

“Do you know the good thing about having two moms?” June asked and when we asked what, she said, “I know more about marriage laws than most kids my age.”

I spent more time on Facebook that day than I probably should have on our last full day at the beach—I didn’t get to the beach until after three, but everyone was so joyful, I couldn’t help it. Beth posted a picture of the guesthouse where I proposed to her in 1991. We’ve had a lot of important family moments in this town—from my proposal, to Noah’s first steps in a rental house just next door that guesthouse in 2002 to buying our wedding rings shortly after Maryland legalized gay marriage in 2012. It seemed fitting we should be in Rehoboth when we learned that couples in the last holdout states across the South and Midwest could now start shopping for their own rings.

In addition to reading Facebook, I also needed to act in Noah and June’s movie, which they ended up managing to film in two days, after having worked out the script earlier in the week. Everyone in the house had a part. YaYa and I were ghosts. We dressed in white clothes (I wore Beth’s bathrobe) and whitened our faces with zinc oxide. The play is about a woman, played by June, who receives a mysterious note from her ancestors and then travels across the sea to free their spirits, only to have them attack her before she wakes and finds it is all a dream. During the sailing song—filmed in a wood-paneled room that resembles a ship’s cabin—the sailor and her crew (Beth and Sara) sing an original song called “The Ocean Life’s For Me” and there’s a dance, too.

After filming was finished, Beth, YaYa, June and I went to the beach. They flew the ladybug kite and then June wanted to show off her ocean swimming for them, but the water was much rougher than it had been earlier in the week and she couldn’t do it, so she settled for doing cartwheels in the shallow water. I’d had a fun, if challenging swim right before they arrived, with wave after perfect wave and more rainbows in the sea spray. Call it the pathetic fallacy if you will, but nature seemed to be celebrating, too.

Beth, YaYa, the kids and I had pizza and gelato for dinner and then we made a final trip to Candy Kitchen. At home Noah finished editing the movie. He’d wanted to challenge himself to finish editing it while still at the beach and he succeeded. All the adults watched it before bed, as soon as Sara got back from a sunset bike ride in Cape Henlopen State Park. Everyone was impressed with June’s song writing and with the technical effects Noah used, especially how he made the ghost semi-transparent.

Saturday

In the morning, we packed up the house and said our goodbyes to Mom, Sara, and YaYa. Beth, the kids and I stayed in Rehoboth for a few hours. It was cold, drizzly, and windy, so I sheltered in a boardwalk gazebo for a while. I didn’t want to go in the water too soon and get chilled in my wet suit. I finally got in the water around 11:15, after checking with a lifeguard to make sure it was allowed because the surf was high and no one else was swimming. I soon found out why. The waves were big—scary big—and really close together. I only lasted five minutes before giving up and getting out. I was getting pulled close to a jetty and I was afraid I might not be able to get out before without drifting too close to it, but I did.

We had more crepes and orangeade for lunch at an outdoor stand in town—the rain had stopped but we would have eaten there even if it hadn’t because Noah insisted, pointing out there are umbrellas on the tables—and then went back to the boardwalk for fries and to say goodbye to the ocean. I was still cheerful from the marriage decision and not too melancholy about leaving. We’ll be back in November or December and our families will be back some time in the next couple years, and when they do, there will be a new cousin to share the ocean life with us.

Southland in the Springtime: Part III, Williamsburg, VA and Washington, DC

We arrived in Williamsburg on Friday evening after an afternoon of driving in and out of rain. Beth had found us a suite, which meant we weren’t all crowded into the same hotel room, quite the luxury. There was a living room area between the kids and us, so we stood a chance of sleeping past six. We even had a king bed.

There was a kitchen, too, but no time to cook. It took a long time to check in and we wanted somewhere quick to eat so we were happy to find a Noodles & Company nearby. This is one of the kids’ favorite chains and it’s somewhere they’d both get vegetables and protein. We’d opted to visit Busch Gardens on Saturday instead of Friday because of the weather and sure enough we could see the rain coursing down the windows as we ate, but we were lucky to get out of and back into the car during breaks in the storm. We went back to the hotel and everyone went to bed. The kids did let us sleep until around seven. There was a breakfast bar downstairs, so we ate and headed for the park.

If you’re not from the East Coast, Busch Gardens may require a little explanation. It takes the theme in theme park seriously and the theme is Western Europe—specifically the British Isles, Italy, France, and Germany. (There’s also an area devoted to New France, or French Canada. Beth guesses they needed somewhere to put the frontier-themed rides all amusement parks seem to have.) The park is quite pretty. It’s no Cedar Point, of course, as it lacks Lake Erie, but it does have a lot of trees and flowers. Daffodils and tulips were everywhere. And the admirable adherence to the theme means there’s a lot of hokey scenery. Classical architecture and statues in Italy, big beer barrels marked Oktoberfest in Germany. You get the picture. We took a lot of cheesy photos, especially in Italy because my sister has spent of a lot of time there (in the real Italy) and I thought she might get a kick out of it. I liked the little touches—graffiti in Latin on the walls near the food court, fake ironwork on the bathroom stalls in Germany, etc.

No one but June had a strong opinion about what to do first, so after we entered the park, in England, which was strung end to end in Union Jacks, we headed for Germany and the Curse of the DarKastle ride, pausing only to get a dolphin painted on her face. The artist used a stencil and spray paint, which I’d never seen before. I thought $10 was a bit steep for face paint but it really lasted. It was still there three days later when June finally asked me to scrub it off because it was a little smudgy.

When we got to the castle it wasn’t open yet, so after admiring the icicles that hung from it and other details, the kids and I went and rode the swings twice and then it was open. The DarKastle, as you might guess, is Busch Gardens’ version of a haunted house. You wear 3D glasses and the effects are all computer-generated. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer a haunted house with actors or material props and scenery. June, however loved it and wanted to go right back on as soon as we got off, so I took her on again while Beth and Noah waited for us.

Next, after a long line that wound through what looked like a stone passageway in an Irish castle, we rode Europe in the Air, a flight simulator, with views of various icons of Western Europe (Stonehenge, the Coliseum, etc). It’s similar to an IMAX film, except the seats tilt and shake as if you were flying. It made both Beth and me a little ill.

We had lunch in shifts, Beth and Noah and I had crepes in France before Europe in the Air, and then June and Noah had pasta in Italy after it (yes, he did have lunch twice) while Beth and I got gelato.

The kids also rode a ride that looked like a gondola in Italy and that was about all we did, other than buy a t-shirt for Noah (who has outgrown most of his from last year) and ride the sky ride to get from one place to another. We would have liked to try one of the water rides (Escape from Pompeii looks fun) but it wasn’t quite warm enough to get soaked. We also considered riding the sightseeing train that circles the park, but there wasn’t time as we had a long drive back to Maryland and we needed to leave mid-afternoon.

We enjoyed our trip to Busch Gardens but part of day seemed almost long enough. We all agreed it’s not as good an amusement park for us as Cedar Point or Hershey Park. What we all missed was any moderate coasters. There were kiddie rides and big thrill rides, but nothing that fit our niche. I am not the daredevil I was (briefly) in my teens and early twenties, but I do still enjoy a classic roller coaster and there was nothing like that. I thought Noah, who’s a little braver than me, could probably handle Loch Ness Monster, but he took a look at it and said no.

So, we bid adieu to Europe and drove back to Maryland. We almost always go out for Indian when we return home from vacation, so we did that. We weren’t quite finished being tourists, though, because the cherry blossoms were in bloom and we went to see them the next morning.

We were lucky to catch the peak this year, as it only lasts several days, and we’d been gone over a week. It was the latest peak since 1993, according to the National Park Service, occurring about a week past the average date.

It was also a beautiful Sunday morning, in the low seventies and sunny, so we expected crowds, both for the blossoms and for a ten-mile race that was taking place along the Tidal Basin. Our friend Tom (June’s friend Talia’s dad) was running and we looked for him as we watched the race go by, but we didn’t see him. Getting across 15th Street to get from the Metro stop to the blossoms turned out to be quite the challenge, with the race going down it. We waited around ten minutes for a break in the race and were just about to sit down on the curb and eat our picnic breakfast right there when suddenly a bunch of other people who were also waiting to cross the street made a break for it and we all dashed through the middle of the race.

We walked the whole perimeter of the Tidal Basin, something I almost but not quite take for granted now, after years of having kids too little for that hike. Anyway, it was lovely. And June had fun climbing the rocks at the FDR Memorial, as always.

We’ve been home almost a week now and are well into the routine of work and school. The cherry trees along the streets in Takoma Park are well past their peak. We keep seeing the white petals blowing through the air (the other day Noah came home from school with his curls full of them) and little green leaves are replacing the flowers. Our dogwood is budding, the daffodils are almost finished, and there are tulips in our back yard. The flowers and flowering trees of home are sweet reminders of the flowers of the road—at the altar at YaYa’s church on Easter morning and in the gardens of the Biltmore and along the highway in North Carolina and in the plantings of a theme park version of Europe.

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!