Let’s Say Happy

We are big Halloween decorators and moderate Christmas decorators, but we have no Thanksgiving home décor. June took it upon herself to fill that gap this year. She cut out a paper turkey, colored it with crayons and hung it on our front gate, and taped paper tables and cornucopias to the front door and porch pillars. But her Thanksgiving masterpiece was the banner she painted for the porch. Between two turkeys, it reads, “Happy thanksgiving Happy thanksgiving let’s say Happy.”

“I can’t wait for Thanksgiving,” she kept saying in the days leading up to the holiday. We were going to my mom and stepfather’s house and while the nine people there would not be quite the crowd they had last Christmas (“Occupy Christmas” 12/29/11), it was going to be hopping with Mom and Jim, our family, my sister Sara, my cousin Emily and her son Josiah, who’s June’s age. June enjoys these family gatherings. And Beth’s birthday was the day after Thanksgiving so there was plenty to celebrate.

We arrived at Mom and Jim’s house around noon on Thanksgiving, after a three-hour drive. Emily and Josiah came shortly after we did and we took the three kids, who had all spent the morning cooped up either in a car or a train, for a walk down to the creek. They ran around and hung from exposed tree roots at the creek’s edge and clambered on the big rocks. Soon it turned into a game that had something to do with a battle between the Mongolian and New Hampshire armies (June’s been on a Mulan kick recently, which accounts for the first army). Then Noah decided he wanted to script and film the story and Josiah, who is sometimes camera-shy, didn’t want to be filmed, and drifted away to climb some rocks.  As we were leaving, Noah was making plans to return with multiple cameras to film a leaf floating down the creek from different angles. It was supposed to illustrate the king’s speech about not sinking into hardship like a stone but floating over it, like a stick or a leaf.

Back at the house, I showed the kids how to make turkey centerpieces for the kids’ table out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, and green olives. Josiah chose to put just a few raisins on each tail feather, for a spare, minimalist look that let the different colors of the toothpicks show, while Noah packed his raisins on densely and placed the toothpicks very close together to create a solid fan of raisins. June’s design was somewhere in the middle.

Shortly before dinner, June seemed to be flagging. We thought it might be the excitement of the day plus the Dramamine she’d taken for the car ride, but after taking only a few bites of Mom’s delicious stuffing, mashed potatoes, broccoli, and cranberry sauce, she said she didn’t feel well and wanted to go to bed. Between 5:30 and 7:30 we put her to bed three times because she would decide she felt better, get up, eat a little, feel worse and go back to bed. When it was time for desert she declared that because she’d been sick she was only going to have one dessert and not two.  (There was pumpkin pie and apple-cranberry crisp.)   She ended up eating her whole dinner and dessert and going to bed for the last time only a little before her normal bed time. She did feel warm so we gave her some Tylenol and hoped for the best.

She did seem to get a good night’s sleep, but when she woke shortly before 7:00, she was still ill, worse in fact, and she threw up almost right away. She was lethargic and feverish all morning, though she was finished throwing up by 8:00 a.m. I stayed in bed with her most of the morning, reading to her or reading my own magazine (Brain, Child) while she slept. Beth had been planning to go picket at Wal-Mart to show support for the strikers. She was unsure if she should go with June sick, but I told her to go ahead because it was important to her and there were plenty of adults in the house if I needed back up (and in fact I did call Emily to come sit with June after I cleaned up from the final vomiting incident).

Beth returned late in the morning, by which point June was somewhat improved. I’d finally gotten some more Tylenol into her (she’d been too sick to keep in down earlier in the morning) and she’d stopped sobbing from the pain of her headache.

Beth and Noah took a walk to CVS to get more Tylenol for June and then he accompanied Beth on a birthday lunch at the Regency Café.  (She and I had been thinking of going out together but we didn’t want to leave June without either mother so Noah pinch-hit for me.)  By 1:00 pm., June wanted to get up, get dressed and eat something.  I made her a piece of toast. She only ate half of it, but it seemed to perk her up considerably. She wanted to play with Josiah, who had been sad to be shooed away from her sick room earlier in the day, but he was on the verge of leaving with Mom, Sara and Emily to visit a museum of medical oddities.  I think June would have been game to go, too, if we’d let her, but it was just too soon to chance it, everyone agreed.

Instead, Beth, Noah and I took her back to the creek to finish filming their movie. It was a lovely day, sunny and warm. We shuffled through the yellow and brown leaves on the ground and admired the tiny, lacy red leaves still on the Japanese maples. Even Noah, who is often so in his own head he fails to notice his surroundings, had commented on these leaves the day before.

We had pizza for dinner and an ice cream cake from Cold Stone. I’d ordered it about a week before and then called to change the flavor when Beth saw the Holly Jolly Peppermint Cake advertised in the Sunday circulars the weekend before her birthday and said it looked good. When Mom and Sara were a half hour late coming back with the cake, I told myself they were probably just stuck in Black Friday traffic but I was secretly worried something had gone wrong with the cake. Things often seem to go wrong around Beth’s birthday, a gallbladder attack and a family lice infestation, being two of the more notable examples (“Giving Thanks: Food, Water, and Love” 11/23/07 & “A Lousy Birthday” 11/23/11.)

Nothing was wrong with the cake. It was delicious—red velvet cake layers alternating with dark chocolate peppermint ice cream topped with chocolate ganache and crushed candy canes and holly leaves made of chocolate. Beth seemed pleased with her gifts—a box of pastries from Zingerman’s, a box of Godiva chocolates, a DVD of episodes of the Carol Burnett Show (a childhood favorite of hers) and several books. And she really loved the cake.

June asked to go to bed early again. She felt slightly warm but by the next morning she’d made a complete recovery. One thing Beth wanted to do on her birthday that we didn’t get to do because of June’s illness, was to go to the Tyler Arboretum, which we’d visited two years earlier  (“Everything We Have” 11/29/10).  It’s full of tree houses and whimsical cabins on the ground and play spaces made of natural materials (like logs and tree stumps) and less natural big fiberglass frogs.  On Saturday morning we headed out there with Emily and Josiah. It was much colder than the day before but we still had fun wandering down the paths, finding the tree houses and climbing up into them. There was a cabin built to the exact dimensions of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond with a bookcase filled with children’s books.  Josiah’s favorite was a tree full of wind chimes that also had a circular bench around it and ropes you could pull to ring cowbells. Let’s just say that melodious tree got a lot noisier when our party arrived and started pulling on those ropes.

We didn’t see all the tree houses—not even in two visits have we seen them all—but it was cold and everyone was getting hungry for lunch, so we left a little before noon.

Emily and Josiah left for New York that afternoon and the visit started to wind down from there.  Sara and I went out for coffee, Noah started working on long-delayed homework, and we had a spaghetti dinner with leftover birthday cake and apple-cranberry crisp.  After June went to bed we watched a documentary about Machu Picchu, which Mom and Jim will visit this winter, fulfilling a long-time dream of my mother’s.

But before June went to bed, we played a round of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Cat.  (Mom and June made the cat and the tails earlier in the day.)  Then Mom had everyone go around and say what our favorite parts of the weekend had been.  A lot of people said the tree houses. Thanksgiving dinner and Beth’s birthday celebration were also mentioned.

When I was getting June ready for bed she wanted to hear the flip side. What was the worst part of the weekend? Her getting sick, of course, but I told her I was also sad about Mom and Jim moving to Oregon in January (they finally sold their house) and it being our last holiday in the house where they’ve lived the past twenty years. The kids and I may come for a couple days after Christmas, but we’re spending Christmas in Wheeling and even if we weren’t, Mom and Jim would be too busy packing to host another holiday. Mom is in fact very stressed about everything she has to do between now and mid-January when they close on the house, so Sara may be coming out after New Year’s to help them wrap up the loose ends.

On the drive home from the arboretum, I was struck by how perfectly the Philadelphia suburbs resemble themselves, all those gray stone walls and houses, those winding little creeks, that autumnal sky spitting little flurries of snow. I’d lived in four states by the time I was five and a half years old, and though we stuck to the Philadelphia area after that, we still moved around a lot, albeit in a smaller radius.  I used to say because of those frequent moves that I wasn’t really from anywhere.  But once I was an adult and I settled into another place, first in and then near the city where I’ve lived for over twenty years, I finally knew that even though I’ve lived in the Washington metropolitan area the longest, I am not from Washington, I have roots elsewhere.  It’s making me sad at the moment, because I won’t have much reason to visit Philadelphia any more, but Beth did point out to me that I am not exiled from it.  And having roots is good thing, a grounding thing.

So, let’s say happy.

To the Place She Belongs

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, Mountain Mama
Take me home, country roads

From “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, Taffy Nivert, and Bill Danoff

Sunday:

We crossed the West Virginia border at 4:20.  I kissed Beth, as is our custom when we cross state lines, and I read from the billboard.  “Are you feeling wild and wonderful?” She gave a wry laugh.  “More wild than wonderful?” I surmised.

We were leaving a day later than planned for Beth’s family reunion because of some unexpected and mysterious medical problems she was experiencing. Early Wednesday morning she’d woken with her face all swollen, especially around her mouth. It looked like a severe allergic reaction but she had no history of allergies. After a few hours she decided to go to the hospital. She was there for two days and a night. The culprit, the doctors decided, was her blood pressure medication. The switched her to a new one but that one came with its own side effects, including intense itching and some chest pain. By Saturday morning she was in the hospital again, this time just for a few hours.  Sunday morning her face was swollen again, though not as badly as the first time.

By this time Beth was wondering if it was the medication at all, but perhaps a food allergy.  She’d had two whole tomatoes the day before the first attack and a smaller amount on Saturday. We waited a few hours to see if the swelling would go down. It did and she decided not to seek further medical attention and to hit the road instead. She resolved to stop taking her blood pressure medication (her blood pressure was only moderately elevated in the first place), to go easy on tomatoes and to make an appointment with an allergist when we got home.

We met up with Beth’s mother in Morgantown around five and stopped at an Arby’s for a snack before the last leg of the drive. We arrived at the cabin in Oglebay around seven and ate pizza with the assembled relatives. June had time to perform “Maybe” before bedtime. Noah was feeling poorly so he went to bed when she did while the adults stayed up and chatted.  (Noah and June were the only kids staying at the cabin not counting Eanna, who’s seventeen).

One of the reasons for the reunion was Beth’s aunt Carole’s seventy-fifth birthday so her branch of the family was well represented. People came and went throughout the week but on the first night her son Sean and her grandsons Michael, Eanna and Kawika were there. Her granddaughter Rebecca arrived in the middle of the night. At first I had trouble telling the four men with Irish accents apart, but I had them all straight by the next day.

I’ve been to the cabins at Oglebay twice before.  The first time, in the very same cabin, was at the last reunion ten years ago. There was a herd of kids at that one, Noah being the youngest at fifteen months. The other time was three years ago when we shared a smaller cabin with two of Beth’s friends from high school and their kids (http://allfortheloveofyou.com/the-first-day-in-august, http://allfortheloveofyou.com/the-first-week-in-august-a-week-in-pictures)

Beth went to bed with some trepidation because her symptoms always seemed to emerge around 4:30 in the morning, but she slept fine.

Monday:

In the morning (a morning so cool I wore jeans) Beth’s mom came to collect June for her swim lesson. We’d signed her up for five lessons at Wheeling Park. June’s been right on the verge of swimming for a while and we thought several consecutive days of lessons might be more effective than the same number spread out over weeks or months.

A little later a music teacher friend of Beth’s aunt Jenny delivered a keyboard he was renting us for the week so Eanna, who wants to study music in college, could play. Beth and I listened as Jenny’s friend refused payment over and over until she practically begged him to take it.  “It’s good to be home,” Beth commented, smiling.

Beth had a work-related call to make so she went to her mother’s house where the cell reception was better. Then YaYa, Beth and June ran errands. Every one else spun off in various directions so Noah and I were alone in the cabin for most of the morning. We settled on the deck to read and watch the ever-present parade of deer amble by the cabin.  I finished Pym, which I’ve been reading for at least two months, and Noah finished The Mysterious Benedict Society around the same time, so I just took his book and started it. Noah had dragged his chair out onto the grass and while he was reading he was stung by a bee. I couldn’t believe that after all the time I spend encouraging him to go outside he got stung sitting still on the grass.

I extracted the stinger and made him an ice pack, made lunch for both of us and then took a nap. Catching up on reading and sleep were high on my list of priorities for the vacation and so far it was going well. I read for much of the day with breaks for meals and chatting with Beth’s relatives. Noah apparently decided the outdoors was too dangerous and retreated to his room to read for much of the afternoon.

Dinner was a cookout—burgers, hot dogs, corn, potato salad, green salad, watermelon and ice cream. June provided the after-dinner entertainment, singing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Then YaYa, who’d kept June most of the day (which is how I got to read so much) took her back to her house for a sleepover.  We’d agreed June would stay with her for three days as a mini-version of the week Noah had with her in June.

We were out on the deck talking about American politics with the Irish contingent of the family when Noah started to feel sick again and as he had the night before, went to bed early. Beth, Jenny and Rebecca worked on a one-thousand-piece puzzle (a collage of images from the 1960s) while Eanna played the keyboard.  When we went to bed Beth had been feeling healthy all day.

Tuesday:

In the morning Noah felt better. He and Beth worked on the puzzle and played gin rummy and went for a walk to the lodge. June was still over at YaYa’s so I read all morning and into the afternoon. By lunchtime I was starting to feel some cabin fever and was thinking I should take a walk or a swim, but Noah had a stomachache again so I stayed with him when Beth went to her mother’s to do some laundry and help her with some computer issues.

Meanwhile, Noah recovered and when Beth and June returned we decided we’d all go for a swim. We walked along a wooded path and ran into Jenny, who was out taking a walk of her own. In the pool, June demonstrated the results of two days’ swimming lessons. She put her face in the water without goggles and showed us how she could tread water. I swam laps, although not for as long as I would have liked because there was no dedicated lap lane.  Still, it felt good to stretch my muscles and feel the sun shine on my back. I love swimming outdoors but I rarely do it.

As we left we saw Rebecca emerging from the pool locker room carrying a tennis racket. The Irish relatives were an active lot, always off for a run, a bike ride, a swim or a game of tennis.

YaYa made a pan of delicious spinach lasagna with garlic bread, salad and chocolate chip cookies. Beth and I offered to cook one night but there were too many people and not enough nights so we were forced to let other people cook for us all week, not just dinners either, but a succession of desserts—homemade cookies, peach cobbler and coffee cake kept appearing like magic.

After dinner, Eanna played “Hard-Knock Life” on the keyboard (I think he found and printed the music especially for June) while we tried to coax June to sing with him but she wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I think the slightly unfamiliar version of the music threw her. It was sweet of him to try, though. June was also exhausted from a day that featured three trips to the pool (once with YaYa, her lesson and one with us).  Beth drove her over to her mother’s house and put her to bed so YaYa could stay at the cabin and socialize a little. A friend and old teaching colleague of Beth’s mom had come to the cabin to visit and a comparative discussion of standardized tests in the United States and Ireland ensued. Eanna played some more and then headed over to the lodge to print more sheet music (and to email his girlfriend, according to his teasing older siblings).

Later Carole, Jenny, Sean, Michael, Rebecca, Noah and I played Quiddler, a card game that’s best described as a cross between Scrabble and gin rummy. Sean, an English professor, had the Oxford English Dictionary on his phone, which was handy for word challenges (and there were a few). You have to admire a man who carries the OED in his pocket. The rules for accepting help from other players and passersby became the subject of good-natured dispute. Occasionally people drifted away from the game to work on the puzzle, which was gradually taking shape.  When I was up to use the bathroom at 12:30, Michael was still working on it.

Wednesday:

In the morning Noah wanted to ride the paddleboats and we invited Eanna to come, too. He and I shared a boat and Beth and Noah had another one. Just as I was thinking was a pleasant day it was—sunny and around eighty degrees—Eanna said he wasn’t used to exercising in such heat. (He meant his tennis game the day before and tennis does require more exertion than paddleboats, but it wasn’t the first time the Americans were commenting on the pleasant temperatures while the Irish found it hot.)

Eanna went off with Carole to help her with her Meals on Wheels delivery while we picked up YaYa and Carole and went to lunch at the Silver Chopsticks.  Earlier I’d mentioned how I’d heard how people who win bronze metals feel better about them than people who win silver ones (because it’s hard to come so close to gold and not win it).  As we approached the restaurant, Noah said maybe we’d feel better about lunch at the Bronze Chopsticks.  Beth was quite taken with this joke.

After lunch I took June to the pool again. After three lessons she could put her whole head underwater and swim underwater, but oddly not dog paddle. When she tried she’d just tread water and not be able to propel herself forward. Some of the Irish arrived while we were in the water and after saying hello, went to the deep end to race each other. We were in the water a long time, but June didn’t want to get out, insisting, “I’m not cold!” as she hugged her arms around her chest. She would not leave until I got Sean, Michael and Rebecca to come over and watch her tricks.

Dinner was homemade pierogies, green beans, roasted vegetables, and chicken for the meat-eaters, plus a peach cobbler Jenny made. Noah walked up the to lodge to use the Wifi, and Carole and I followed a little while later.  She wanted to check her email and make some phone calls and I wanted to buy a t-shirt at the gift shop and use the computers in the business center, but as it turned out the computers all had Net Nanny installed.  Did you know many of your blogs—and I mean you, Allison, Swistle, and Tracey—are considered Adult/Mature by Net Nanny?  So I couldn’t read everything I wanted. Interestingly enough, my own blog was accessible, despite having the word “lesbian” in the subtitle. It’s nice to know Net Nanny isn’t homophobic, just irrational and random. (Though the next day it warned me away from my own blog, to which no new content had been added, because it contained images of people in “intimate apparel or swimwear.”  Beach pictures of the kids, I swear, Net Nanny!)

Back at the cabin, it was Scrabble and the puzzle and our nightly concert by Eanna.

Thursday:

Carole’s daughter Meg arrived on a flight from Ireland during the night and the next morning she had presents and treats to distribute—a box of Irish crème and Irish whiskey flavored truffles for the house, lollipops with leprechauns on them for the kids. Plus Noah got a braided wristband in the colors of the Irish flag, and keychain with a Celtic N on it. June got a necklace and a bracelet with dolphin charms.  Carole got a set of brightly colored dipping bowls that fit into a basket and two mugs for her birthday, and Jenny who recently retired, got a magnetic Scrabble kit, “not for your retirement because I know you aren’t accepting retirement gifts, but just because I was thinking of you.”

Meg asked to see Noah’s West Virginia Monopoly board he made for the State Fair project. It has fame extending beyond the Atlantic apparently. It also has a blog. He brought it over and she admired all the properties and card and players’ pieces.  We’d learned earlier in the week how Meg and Sean made their own Monopoly board from memory when they moved to Ireland as teenagers and couldn’t find one to buy there. Meg promised to play the game with Noah before we left.

In the afternoon we went to a Pirates game. We drove to Pittsburgh and then took a ferry down the river from remote parking to the stadium. Scattered afternoon and evening thunderstorms were predicted but the skies looked clear. As soon as the game started Beth and I were both busy explaining the rules of baseball to the kids.

In the restroom right before it started, I asked June, “Do you remember the rules of t-ball?” thinking I could go from there.

“No,” she said. “That was a long time ago I played.” (It was last summer.) I tried to explain it as best I could but I’m not sure she ever understood what was going on.  She did cheer, when everyone else did, but she was a little concerned no one was cheering for the opposing team.  I reassured her they have half their games at home with their own fans, too.  Part of June’s vision for the ball game involved getting food from a strolling vendor so when the cotton candy seller came by and I bought some for her, she was pretty well satisfied with the whole experience.  Noah was interested in the statistics about each player that flashed on the screen when he came up to bat. Beth tried texting a message to June to be displayed on the screen but either it never appeared or we weren’t looking when it did. I got Cracker Jacks because it was a ball game and pierogies because it was Pittsburgh and I settled in to watch the game, something I haven’t done in years, well decades actually in a stadium. I’d been thinking of the game mainly in terms of logistics and I’d forgotten I like baseball.

Arizona scored two runs almost immediately and then Pittsburgh got two in the second inning. Scoring slowed down after that. By the time we got up to go home in the seventh inning stretch, the score was 6-3 Arizona and that ended up being the final score. “Why do we have to leave so soon?” June asked so I guess she had a good time at her first Major League baseball game.

Friday:

In the morning, Beth, Noah and I accompanied YaYa and June to June’s last swimming lesson. It was drizzling on and off so we stood poolside with our raincoats and umbrellas watching as June held to the side and kicked, dived for plastic rings, and swam with a noodle under her arms or twisted around her torso.  She jumped into the pool (the instructor caught her) and at the very end of the lesson she swam a few feet unaided. Any longer and she wanted to put her feet on the bottom. Everyone agreed it was good progress for a week and the teacher kept telling her she “did awesome.”

After the lesson, we went to YaYa’s house where June had a warm bath (she was shivering in the pool and insisting she wasn’t cold). We did laundry, watched some Olympics (synchronized swimming and kayaking) and ran errands. Then Beth and her mom took the kids swimming at the lodge’s indoor pool.

Carole’s seventy-fifth birthday party was that evening.  Wonderful smells drifted from the kitchen all afternoon as Sean and Meg cooked an Indian dinner, complete with four different curries, raita, basmati rice and naan. Beth contributed a pitcher of mango lassi. There was also a buffet of American food- chicken, ham, potato salad, and crudités with dip.

In addition to the cabin crew, at least another ten people came, friends and more extended family.  One of these was an almost five-year-old little girl named Hannah, who is my kids’ third cousin.  June sized up the girl, dressed in a purple, sequined leotard and launched into an explanation about why she was in her pajamas.  It was close to June’s bedtime when the Hannah and her family arrived, but June clearly felt underdressed in her hand-me-down shark pajamas. Once that explanation was out of the way, June settled in on the couch next to Hannah, who was carsick from her drive from Ohio, and a little overwhelmed by June’s steady stream of chatter.  When it became clear the conversation was going to be one-sided, June decided to sing Annie songs to Hannah.  Eventually, Hannah recovered enough to eat and talk to June. She even followed her to the bathroom while June was brushing her teeth and informed her that she didn’t have to go to bed until ten-thirty.

I put June to bed ten minutes after bedtime, but before the cake was served, telling her I’d save her a piece, because I wasn’t sure what time the cake would be cut.  When it was, there were sparkler candles in the shapes of the numerals seven and five Meg had brought all the way from Ireland. Sean made a lovely toast to his mother and to Jenny on the occasion of her retirement. Carole opened presents: a scarf, a shawl, some thimbles (she collects them), a Kindle, and two books, the last two in the Hunger Games trilogy.  She’d read the first one for her book club and liked it better than she expected so I suggested to Beth she buy them for her birthday. I stayed up a bit past my own bedtime, listening to Carole and YaYa and Jenny reminisce about their youth. It was a very nice party.  “I don’t want to leave,” Beth confided to me, as we sat together on the couch.

Saturday:

We were planning to leave in the early afternoon, so the next morning we got up and packed.  Around ten-thirty, Jenny, who loves to play games, noted there were enough people sitting around the table to play a game and I swooped in, suggesting Noah’s West Virginia Monopoly game. Jenny, her daughter Laura, Michael, Rebecca, Meg, Noah and I played it for two hours. The game wasn’t even close to over when we quit, but we needed to hit the road and Jenny and Laura, who were playing as a team, were clearly in the lead so we declared them the winners. I think I was in second place.

After the game we got a picture of June with all of the living female relatives who have the middle name June (YaYa, Beth, Meg and Laura.)  They are all named after Beth’s grandmother Ida June, the family matriarch. We pulled out of the cabin’s driveway at one o’clock. Beth said she felt sad to leave.  We’d had a nice week in Oglebay Park in the cabin full of family and it’s always hard to leave the place where you belong.

We’ve been home for a week, a stressful and busy week. Beth had to work late twice and I failed to take the kids’ pediatrician appointments and Noah’s middle school orientation (the first of two) into account when I mapped out my work hours. Noah had a lot of summer homework assignments to complete because he has camp next week and the week after that school starts. But my work and his homework got (mostly) done. And June had a good time at basketball camp. We’ve settled back into our home life, but every now and then I think of that cabin in the woods and wonder if we might all gather there again, and maybe next time in less than ten years.

Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

by e.e. cummings

Day 1: Saturday

“If I lived here I’d go to the beach every day,” June declared as she and I walked from the rental house to the beach late Saturday afternoon.  Beth was picking up a few groceries and Noah had volunteered to be the welcoming committee and wait at the house for my Mom and sister to arrive.

“Me, too,” I said.

“We’re the real beach lovers,” June concluded.

We only stayed a half hour.  The water was pleasantly cool on another miserably hot day. June could not stop laughing as she jumped in the waves, but she kept a grip on my hand.

Back at the house, we greeted Mom and Sara and I helped Noah cook the dinner he’d planned—tortellini. I intended to let June stay up a bit because she’d napped in the car but she was wiped out and asked to go to bed while we were still eating dinner. Soon afterwards, though, she was back downstairs.  She was lonely in the attic bedroom she and Noah had begged to share.  I agreed to read Watership Down to Noah in the next room and that was enough for her to fall asleep.

Day 2: Sunday

Not to stay asleep, though. At three a.m. she was in our room. After sending her back a few times over the next hour, Beth relented and went up to spend the rest of the night in June’s twin bed with her. I wondered if we’d gotten into a bad habit of co-sleeping during the power outage. But waking us was not enough.  We learned later she’d woken Noah and asked him to play (he declined) and at 6:25, she was back in my room, even though she already had Beth in her bed.

In the morning we all collaborated on a shopping list and then the adults went their separate ways.  Sara needed to work (as she did every day of the vacation), Beth made a second grocery run and Mom played with the kids while I went to the beach.

It was still hot—the sand was scorching—but it was less humid and the water was blessedly cool. I swam and sat on my towel and swam some more and came back to the house just in time to help unpack groceries and make lunch for the kids and myself.  After lunch, the kids performed a short play they’d written that morning about a woman who needed a ghost removed from her house. The performance took place on the deck, fulfilling a vision Noah had when we selected the house in April.  (Earlier in the day they’d had a tea party on the wrought iron lawn furniture, fulfilling a vision of June’s.)

Mom and Sara and the kids and I hit the beach again in the late afternoon while Beth made a delicious dinner of gazpacho and potatoes with cilantro pesto.  Between the four adults and Noah and eating out twice everyone only had to cook once, which would have felt downright luxurious even if everyone hadn’t made such lovely dinners.

Day 3: Monday

June slept better the next night and Beth was so happy she promised her a trip to Candy Kitchen (noting this wouldn’t happen every time she slept through the night) and after breakfast I played three hands of Sleeping Queens with her and read her a chapter of Ramona The Brave while snuggling on the couch on the screened porch, observing pointedly that rested parents are happier, more fun parents.

Later that morning, Sara and I took the kids downtown on the promised outing to Candy Kitchen, where June chose cherry and bubblegum-flavored rock candy and Noah, after Sara helped him divide all the candy in the store into ever narrowing categories he could eliminate, selected fruit runts.  He noticed some new gummy flavors, including chicken feet, and said, “Who’d want to eat that?” (This from the boy who used to devour gummy brains.) I got chocolate licorice for myself and fudge for the house. Then we moved on to our next stops, Café a Go-Go for café con leche and the bike rental place on the boardwalk where Sara and I rented bikes.  (Our beach house, though charming, was in a more remote location than usual.) I hadn’t been on a bike for seventeen years and for a few wobbly moments I thought you can forget how to ride one, but then I got my bearings. Our errands completed, Sara headed back to the house while the kids and I played on the beach until lunchtime.

It was overcast and much cooler, after an early morning thunderstorm.  We saw dolphins in the ocean almost as soon as we got there.  The kids were in their suits but I was in dry clothes so I couldn’t go in the water with June. This ended up being just the nudge we both needed.  I’d been noticing the day before kids her age and younger playing in the water by themselves, but June had never felt confident enough to do this. Given the alternative of playing at the water’s edge or wading in alone (Noah was further out), she waded in up to her waist. I watched from the sand but I was too far away to do anything when a wave did knock her over. She got right back up again and kept playing, though she did tell me later, “Sometimes it’s scary.”

That afternoon, Mom took the kids to Funland. When they got home, June told me, “Grandmom lets me do things you don’t.” But it turned out she just let her ride the Freefall, which I didn’t let her do last year but I would have allowed this year.  She also bought them some popcorn. All in all, I think June thought she got away with more than she really did.

I rode my bike down to the beach, surprised to remember how much fun it is to ride a bike, and had a quick dip before coming back to the house and making dinner.  Most of us played a hand of Sleeping Queens before June went to bed and Noah and I settled in for our nightly Watership Down reading.

Day 4: Tuesday

Beth, Sara and the kids and I took a morning constitutional down the boardwalk—three of us on bikes, one on a scooter and Sara jogging—which ended up with a stop for coffee, bagels and a breakfast crepe.

Mom took me out for lunch and then we took a stroll down the boardwalk. I got a frozen custard and she got a sunhat. While we were out, Beth took June to the playground to try riding her bike without the training wheels. Beth said it was a good first try though she thought June was discouraged because it was harder than she thought it would be. Beth put the training wheels back on so June could use the bike for transportation.

I took the kids to the beach in the mid-afternoon. The outing did not have a promising beginning. The kids were squabbling as I collected towels and sand toys and water and sun block but matters improved at the beach. The kids ran down to the water as I was still spreading out the towels and June went right in without me. I realized then she’d crossed the Rubicon.  The three of us were in the water together, eventually joined by Sara, for an hour and forty-five minutes, splashing, diving and watching pelicans soar above us. June realized there are a lot more things you can do in the water when you’re not holding someone’s hand. She started diving into the water, parallel to the shore, (a “dolphin dive” she called it) and by watching and copying Noah, learned to body surf. Then she started singing a song of her own composition called “I Can Ride the Waves.”  (Those are also the complete lyrics.)  She was knocked down a few times and lost her fear of it.  “I didn’t scream or cry,” she noted later. Noah was delighted to have June come deeper into the water with him, and I was delighted to be able to swim a few yards past them, still watching but semi-independent of them.  By the time the lifeguard blew the five o’clock whistle not only my fingers and toes but my lips were wrinkly with salt water.

June dug in the sand and lost her shovel to a wave and then Noah buried her in the sand while they waited for the lifeguard to go off duty and then they headed straight back into the water.  I stayed on my towel with Mom and Sara because I’d had a long enough swim.  I cannot remember the last time that happened.  A half hour later when it was time to go, the kids were lying on their backs on the wet sand, with the waves rushing over their feet. They’d even found the lost shovel bobbing in the waves and retrieved it, which seemed like another small miracle in an already wondrous day.

Day 5: Wednesday

Wednesday morning Beth took the kids to Jungle Jim’s Water Park. Due to a miscommunication, June went down the biggest slide there without Beth or Noah. It was scarier for Beth than for June because June never emerged at the bottom of the slide where Beth was awaiting her, but eventually Noah found her and they were all reunited. June was thrilled with the whole experience.

Meanwhile, I spent the morning with my mom.  We went to Browseabout where she picked out two novels and I bought them for her upcoming birthday. I also bought myself a t-shirt with a seagull on it at the T-shirt Factory and we stopped at Café a Go-Go for a mocha (me) and a smoothie (her).

When the kids got home, I gave June a bath and read to Noah and joined Mom and Sara at the beach.  (The kids stayed home to work on another play—this one based on an Amelia Bedelia book.)  Sara and I had a nice swim in waves bigger than we’d had all week. Mom and Sara left the beach early because they were taking the kids out to dinner so Beth and I could have an early anniversary dinner date.

We went to Planet X, a favorite restaurant of our pre-kids days.  I got a virgin peach margarita, and a polenta appetizer with wild mushrooms, peas and cherries.  It sounds strange, but it was really good.  For dinner I had fettuccine.  Beth had an eggplant appetizer and barbequed tofu.  We spoke without interruption or having to arbitrate arguments and did not have to search the menu for items the children might possibly eat.  (Mom and Sara had a harder time at the Japanese restaurant where they took the kids, I heard later.)  We picked up dessert at Gallery Espresso and took it to the boardwalk.  It was a lovely evening, in the mid-seventies and clear with just enough clouds to stain the sky pink as the sun set.  I even coaxed Beth onto the sand for a few minutes, before we biked back to the house.

Mom and Sara were just putting June to bed so she got her usual bedtime snuggle with me.  She was back downstairs a few minutes later because although she wants to ride her bike without training wheels and she’s not afraid of the Freefall or ocean waves or water slides, she was afraid to sleep alone in the attic bedroom. She was imagining an invisible man who could turn nice people evil. We all have our limits, I suppose, and being turned evil is beyond June’s.

Day 6: Thursday

Thursday was a day of family togetherness. Beth and the kids and I went out for a breakfast of crepes and bagels (crossing paths with Sara on her way to a drop-in zumba class) and then we went to the beach. The surf was still rough so June wasn’t able to demonstrate her body surfing for Beth, but she did play fearlessly in the water. Several times she addressed the waves, saying, “I’m not afraid of you.”  Then she told me, “I faced my fear.” Indeed you did, June Bug.

I was half-sorry about the big waves and half not because the ocean was just about perfect for me to swim. The waves were big and breaking in just the right place for me to stand with my feet on the sand and push off into the rising curve of an oncoming wave so it swept me up and over and dropped me on the other side. This is my very favorite thing to do in the ocean.  There was a strong northward tug in the water so I had to keep getting out as I approached the red flag at the end of the lifeguard’s territory and walk back to the other side.  She only had to blow her whistle at me once.  After several circuits I was tired and collapsed to read in one of the beach chairs Beth had rented.  When I went back to the bike rack to fetch the sand toys and an extra towel from my bike basket a stranger complimented me on my “impressive” swimming. I am seldom admired for my athletic prowess so it was startling, and I will admit, satisfying.

After lunch at home, Beth and I took the kids on a return trip to Funland. I got to see June ride the Freefall and the fast racecars as well as some of the tamer kiddie rides she’s enjoyed for years.  Her stuffed monkey Muffin rode, too.  Several ride attendants helped buckle him in without blinking an eye, though I did catch one smiling. (This was Muffin’s second trip to Funland—he came last year, too.)

Toward the end of our excursion, June was begging to ride the Teacups. I’d been on them, much to my regret, when Noah was little so I know how fast they spin. I made her watch first to see if she really wanted to go. She said yes so I went with her because I didn’t want to send her alone. The attendant explained that you control the speed by moving together (making the cup more unbalanced and faster) or apart.  I doubted it would make much difference as June is small for her age and I am big for mine. Nevertheless, she kept moving closer to me and further apart, grinning all the while. I was more than a little queasy when we got off.  “That was fun!” she declared. We only had one ticket left so she picked the mermaid boats, a sedate, sentimental favorite.

After the kids were in bed that night, Sara and I biked down to the beach. When I told Beth where we were going she said, “How teenage of you.” While I do still enjoy the beach at night, she’s right it’s something we did more as teens.  Maybe that’s why I asked Sara. I felt just slightly transgressive leaving the house at 9:30, biking down quiet streets in the cool night air.  As we pedaled, a fox crossed the road right in front of Sara.

The beach was dark and deserted because we were staying far from the boardwalk. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been on the beach in Rehoboth and not seen another soul—not at one a.m. on summer nights in my twenties, not on sleety February afternoons.  There was a balmy breeze off the ocean and lights at sea.  The water was warm and foamy around our ankles and I was with someone I’ve known nearly all my life.  I was glad we came.

Day 7: Friday

In the morning after a quick beach trip, we’d planned a bike ride to the creek with the turtles Beth and the kids discovered in April. But just as Beth, Sara, June and I were getting ready to set out we found that June’s bike lock was broken and wouldn’t open.  We decided to leave it for the moment and drive instead. Once we’d had our fill of watching turtles and geese, June went to play in the playground while the adults took turns patronizing her imaginary Chinese restaurant where they were served tofu with vanilla frappuchino sauce. Eventually she found a child to play this game and we sat on a bench and watched all the kids on the playground and discussed Sara’s frustration with the delays of the adoptive process and her options (including fostering kids).

At home I made lunch for the kids while Beth went to buy a bolt cutter to free June’s bike. Sara asked to go along, which seemed strange until I found out she wanted Beth to help her choose some books (Zone One and The Map of Time) for my belated birthday present.

After lunch, Sara and I took the kids to the beach.  We had another nice swim while the kids played in shallower water or up on the sand. I read for a while and Beth came to join us briefly and get her feet wet.  She left first, followed by Noah and when Sara, June and I got to the bike rack, we discovered Noah had left June’s bike (previously locked to his) locked to the rack with his lock, to which none of us knew the combination. The repetition of this morning’s dilemma would have been funny, if it had not been so frustrating. We made some guesses, none correct, called home, and got no answer.  Sara biked home, leaving me with her phone so she could call back with combination. Finally we all got home and showered and headed over for a farewell dinner at Grotto’s Pizza before Mom and Sara drove back to Mom’s house (Sara had a morning flight back to Oregon the next day.)

Day 8: Saturday

After we packed and checked out of the house, Beth took the kids to Browseabout because Noah wanted to go book shopping and I returned the rental bikes by riding them one at a time back to the boardwalk.  I gave Noah some money and let him go to the T-Shirt Factory to pick out this year’s shirt.  (He enjoys being able to run errands like this independently.) The kids and I had a quick, final trip to the beach. Toward the end, June got knocked down by a wave and water went up her nose for the first time and she did not like it one bit.  She cried hard for a long time. I picked her up and held her and then wrapped her up in a towel.  Once she’d stopped crying I wondered if I should encourage her to go back into the water so that experience was not her last memory of ocean swimming until next summer.  While I was contemplating this, Noah got knocked down and partially ripped the scab off a week-old scrape on his knee.  Fresh blood was running all the way down his shin. I sent him back into the water to rinse it off and decided it was a good time to head for the crepe stand where we were meeting Beth for lunch.

Soon we were fed and on the road.  It was a good week.  The time off helps us all reconnect to each other, find long-lost parts of ourselves while wheeling down dark roads at night, and uncover courage we didn’t know we had in the amusement park, the ocean and the water park.

It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

p.s. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Derecho

Before the Blackout

My friend Megan and I had a conversation last week we have multiple times every summer, about how complicated and crazy-making summer is for at-home parents. The main difficulty is that every day is different; there’s no routine. Megan said she recently spent two hours putting together a calendar of day camps and babysitting and appointments just so she could have it all straight. I have a calendar like that, too, just for summer, and even so I still get confused sometimes.

Last week was particularly logistically challenging, or it seemed that way at the time, because June had her first day camp. It was the shortest camp she’s attending this year, at three hours a day, and also the most inconveniently located.  But I signed her up because it was an art camp and she loves art, and because Megan’s daughter Talia was attending, and as June says, “Talia is one of my good friends.” It was fun for her seeing Talia every day and they also had two after-camp play dates, one at Megan’s house and one at a nearby playground. Both girls seemed pretty happy with the arrangements.

Beth drove June to camp three mornings out of five, and Megan pitched in with some rides home and one ride to camp so I only had to take June once and fetch her twice.  I’m grateful to both Beth and Megan for making it possible for me to spend some time with Noah and get a little work done while June was gone in the mornings. If I’d had to take her and bring her home every day I would have spent so much time on buses and at bus stops there would have been no point in my even going home. But with every single day a different transportation plan, I craved consistency.

Adding to this, Beth has also been out of town on business a lot recently, with a four-day trip earlier in the month and a two-day trip last week. These trips are easier than they were when the kids were younger, but of course, we miss her when she’s gone.

So I was feeling unsettled even before the heat wave cum four-day power outage we just experienced.  And I wasn’t the only one. When school let out, June was positively mournful.  She wrote in her diary, “I do not want summer break to be a real ting.” And she drew up a set of instructions she called, “Infermashan you need to be a good student.”  (See photo.) The day we got her summer math packet she completed half of it. I secured five play dates for her in the first few weeks after school ended, but she still missed her friends, especially before she started to go to camp last week.

As for Noah, after a fun week at YaYa’s house, he was casting around trying to remember how to amuse himself when he’s not at school or doing homework all the time. He said he was bored frequently, but he had some interesting projects going: a web site about his travels around West Virginia with YaYa  (they took a lot of road trips), a CD he and June are making of themselves singing, a mystery story they’re writing together along with the script for a movie that’s going to star the Playmobil castle people. I reminded him he has a lot of toys and kits from his birthday and even Christmas he’s never opened so last week  he spent a good bit of one afternoon on the porch breaking open geodes with a hammer.  He spent last Friday at Beth’s office doing data entry for her. (His summer drum lessons started today. It will be good for him to have at least that much structure.)

We also went on couple short family road trips.  Beth and June spent a weekend camping in Western Maryland after they delivered Noah to YaYa. I stayed at home. It was the first time I’d been apart from Beth and the kids overnight since I went to visit my father when he was dying two and a half years ago and the only time I’ve been alone in my own house overnight since Noah was born. I read and gardened and cleaned the house and had dinner at a restaurant alone.  It was a strange feeling, good and bad at the same time.  The next weekend, Beth, and June and I met YaYa and Noah near Blackwater Falls and spent the night.  We stayed at a lodge, and enjoyed one of the hiking trails, and the swimming pool and the falls themselves.

The garden became more established shortly before the power outage, which ended up being a good thing when the power went out because we could eat out of it, at least a little—tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and broccoli are all edible.  We finally planted lettuce and carrots several weeks ago and they are coming up, though too small to pick. There’s also a cute little yellow pumpkin the size of an apricot. We’re having more trouble with flowers than we usually do.  The sunflowers and zinnias for the most part either didn’t germinate or were eaten by slugs or died after being transplanted to the garden right before the first heat wave of the summer a couple week ago.  Not a single sunflower and only two zinnias survived out of around forty seeds planted. We do have some black-eyed Susans and bachelor buttons in the flower bed.

We are either going to have a really good year for tomatoes or a really bad one.  We triumphed over the white flies and the plants are laden with more green and yellow and orange fruit than we usually have this time of year, but all four of them have early blight.  I’ve been pruning the diseased branches but it’s not clear if I can get all the fungus before the plants die from excessive foliage loss.  Oh, and the squirrels are eating the tomatoes, too. I picked what I thought were around ten almost ripe cherry tomatoes last week to save them from the thieving rodents. They were so soft I tried one, and it was perfect– sweet, tart and juicy, so now I think we may have planted an orange variety and not a red one.  We had them on pasta salad that night and when Beth tried her first one she gasped a little. They were that good.

Blackout

It was Friday night that the power went out. Fierce storms were predicted, a kind of storm I’d never heard of, actually, a derecho. The name comes from the Spanish word that means straight, because it travels in a straight line. This seems ironic to me because what it did was take our routine, which already felt wobbly, and throw it into crazy loops, nothing straight about it.

The D.C. region is served by a power company with a truly wretched reliability record so I had reason to expect we’d lose power that night. I didn’t expect it to be out for four days. The really fun part was that the power outage coincided with a heat wave, our second one in two weeks.  Friday was a steamy and record-breaking 104 degrees.  Saturday was only a few degrees cooler and it’s continued in the mid to high nineties ever since. In fact, we are poised to break the record for most consecutive days with a high temperature of 95 or higher in Washington, DC tomorrow.

Sleeping was a challenge.  We put a futon on the floor for Noah so he wouldn’t have to sleep on his top bunk and we eschewed pajamas.  (June was so entranced by the idea she could sleep in just her underpants that she may never wear pajamas again.)  The first night was just awful, none of us got much sleep at all, but even though it was only a little cooler the next night, we either adjusted or were too tired to stay awake and we slept better.  June did wake up in the middle of the night every night, though, and we let her sleep in our bed with Beth (I went to sleep in hers) when she did.

Eating was a challenge, too.  We had to throw out most of what we had in the refrigerator and freezer. The first two nights we ate dinner out, but Monday I made pasta (we have a gas stove) and served it with garden produce. Then on Tuesday, Beth picked up peach gazpacho at Souper Girl on her way home from work, and the kids and I visited the Latino market near our house where we bought an avocado, some mangoes and frozen pupusas and a bag of ice, which I used to fashion a makeshift icebox out of our biggest cooler. Beth went to the 7-11 for milk Monday and Tuesday morning and we went to Starbucks every day, not only for the chance to drink an iced beverage, but to sit in the air conditioning for a while. We’d camp there, playing cards and reading.

We also enjoyed the air-conditioning at the community center on Saturday morning when we all went to watch June test for her white belt in Kung Fu.  I was concerned her fatigue might affect her performance, especially when she had trouble with the concentration exercise at the beginning of class.  The students sit on the floor with their eyes closed while the instructor drops two coins near them and they have to reach out and find them. Once she was warmed up, though, she was fine.  There was a boy from her class also testing for his white belt and he went first, and passed, and it was June’s turn. She demonstrated the first four forms and the teacher tied the sash around her waist and they bowed to one another.  She looked radiantly happy.  The instructor said he knew she’d do well because “this is business to you,” approving words from a rather stern teacher.

Then it was time to watch a teenage boy from the advanced class test for his green belt.  At this level the moves are much faster.  The boy was nervous but he was also quick, flexible and strong. I was sitting behind June but I could see her face in the mirror as she watched him with rapt attention. Her mouth hung open a few times in pure admiration. I think one of the things June likes about Kung Fu is the orderly progression of the belts and that you have to earn them. It isn’t like soccer where everyone gets a medal at the end of the season.  You don’t test for a belt until the instructor thinks you’re ready and not everyone passes.  June saw a boy test for his yellow belt and fail in the spring. (He passed the next week.)

I was unable to work Monday or Tuesday because the power was out at June’s old preschool where she was supposed to attend camp. They re-opened on Tuesday morning but we still didn’t have power and the notebook computer Beth generously lent me wasn’t getting a good Internet connection.  Even though I didn’t work it was nice to have some semblance of routine on Tuesday and June was delighted to go to camp with more than a third of her old class (even though I did misremember the opening time and drop her off a half hour late). I am a creature of habit. That’s why summer, even under normal circumstances is difficult for me and that’s why I turned down my mother’s kind invitation to come up to Pennsylvania and stay with them. We didn’t know when the power would come back and I wanted to everyone to get back to camp and work and normalcy as soon as we could.

The power outage wasn’t all bad, though, especially the first two days. We spent a little more time than usual together, seeking air-conditioned places and eating out. Partially deprived of television and the computer—we do have some battery operated electronic devices—the kids were forced to find other ways to amuse themselves. They designed and played a series of board games (we took June’s first one to Starbucks to play it and I was impressed that it does in fact work, even though it’s very simple).

After the Blackout

Then Tuesday night the power finally came back and we could do dishes and laundry and turn on the fans and the air-conditioning and drink ice water and life was better. Wednesday was the fourth of July.  In the morning we attended Takoma’s quirky little parade and in the afternoon Beth went grocery shopping and I worked for a couple hours before our backyard picnic of veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and limeade.

That night Beth and Noah went to the fireworks.  Because I am the strictest mother on the planet when it comes to bedtime, it’s the first time Noah’s ever seen fireworks. But I had to let him stay up past his bedtime sometime and it seemed like the right year.  When he came home he said it was louder than he expected and that he didn’t realize the fireworks would “light everything up” the way they did.  Beth snapped a picture of his illuminated face, watching his first firework display. I think she was as happy to go as he was.  I suppose a little deviation from the routine isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Maybe that’s the lesson of the derecho.  Let it be said, though, it’s not a lesson I want to review any time soon.

Back in Time

Back, baby, back in time
I wanna go back when you were mine.

From “Wayside/Back in Time” by Gillian Welch

On a hot Sunday afternoon, we were walking down Delancey Street in Philadelphia with my mom, admiring the stately red brick row houses.  We were on our way to the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Rosenbach Musuem.  June was eating cherry tomatoes out of a plastic baggie, Mom was pointing out architectural features of the houses, and I was wondering how an enormous, gnarled wisteria vine that grew up the side of a house had emerged from the crack between the sidewalk and the house.

We were visiting my mother and stepfather for the Memorial Day weekend and spending an afternoon in the city. Mom thought the kids might enjoy seeing the exhibit of Maurice Sendak’s art, so we’d planned the day around that, with some of my childhood and teenage haunts included. The exhibit was centered on three of Sendak’s books: The Note on Rosie’s Door, Outside Over There and Brundibar. We’ve had the first two out of the library but I’d never read the last one.  There were illustrations, notes, mock-ups, and handwritten drafts–all kinds of  interesting materials from the making of the books.  The books themselves were also there, on a low shelf, and June made a beeline for them. She sat on the floor and read the first chapter of The Note on Rosie’s Door while the rest of the rest of us browsed the two-room exhibit and then I read Outside Over There to her and I showed her alternate versions of the illustrations and we admired the mural Sendak had painted for the children of friends of his (the wall had been relocated to the museum).

From the museum we went to the Seger Park playground.  I’d asked Mom if there were any parks or playgrounds near the museum and she said there was one in our old neighborhood, the one where we lived from the time I was in kindergarten to third grade. I thought I knew the one she meant. In fact, I thought Beth and I had walked past it while we were in Philadelphia for a romantic getaway last January (“Queer, Queer Fun” 1/16/12).  We decided to walk from the museum as it was only eight blocks and parking is at premium in that part of the city.  We went by our old house, so I could show it to the kids, and Mom and I reminisced about living there.

The playground was the one I had in mind, though the big grassy hill has shrunk considerably in the thirty-nine years since I was in kindergarten. I think I might call it a rise now.  The fountain where Mom used to let Sara and me splash in our underwear was where I remembered it, but the paint was chipping and it wasn’t running.  (I’ve learned since there’s a neighborhood non-profit dedicated to restoring the playground and the fountain.)   June scrambled on the equipment, climbing and swinging and sliding. She demonstrated her pumping skills for Grandmom, running back to us to make sure she’d been seen and admired, and she asked Beth to help her across the monkey bars, which were somewhat more widely spaced than the ones she plays on at school. Noah mostly sat on the bench with the grown-ups (he’s getting old for playgrounds) but he did climb for a little while. When I mentioned there used to be water in the fountain he said he wished we could go back in time.

We strolled back to the car, stopping for cold beverages at Starbucks, and then we drove to West Philadelphia right up to the border of the Main Line suburbs where I lived from the time I was in eighth grade until I graduated from high school.  Our destination was a Chinese restaurant where my stepfather would meet us for dinner.  This was the main Chinese restaurant of my teen years. I wasn’t a vegetarian then and it’s probably been well over twenty years since I’ve been there so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the veggie menu was decent and there were versions of my old favorites—hot and sour soup, dumplings, and moo shu, so I was happy.  The food was good, the place looked about as I remembered it, though Mom and Jim thought it looked a bit down at the heel. It was a very satisfactory end to a pleasant, if bittersweet, day.

Mom and Jim put the house in Lansdowne where they’ve lived for the past twenty years on the market in March and when it sells my mom will retire and they’re moving to Ashland, Oregon where my sister lives.  This is sad for me because they’ll be much further away and we won’t be able to travel to see them as easily as we do now.

It’s also sad because it will essentially cut my last link to the Philadelphia area. My parents and sister and I moved there from Brooklyn in December 1972 when I was five and a half year old. I grew up in the city and its suburbs, but neither my sister nor I came back after college and my father moved away in the nineties and lived the rest of his life in New York.

Because we moved around the area a lot (out to Bucks County when I was in third grade and then back in to Montgomery County when I was in eighth grade), I used to think I didn’t have deep roots in Philadelphia. At some point in my thirties, once I’d been away long enough to gain some perspective, I realized I did.  I will probably never live there again because I’ve also sunk roots in the Washington area. It’s where my kids were born and have lived all their lives and it’s home for me, too. I don’t really want to go back in time, other than for the occasional sentimental visit.

But I no longer claim I’m “not really from anywhere.” I am from Philadelphia. It’s home, too, and in a way Washington never will be.  On Saturday when we were driving to Mom and Jim’s house from Takoma I felt we’d arrived when I saw a truck selling what I now call Italian ice, because painted on the side of the truck were the words “water ice.” That’s what I grew up calling that dessert.  It’s what I think it should be called, even though I realize it makes no sense whatsoever. If you are from Philadelphia, too, you know what I mean.

Making the Crossing

The Beach, Continued:

Tuesday

The next day was calmer. Despite the fact that she’d gone to bed speculating exactly where in her room at home she’d lost her pacifier, June slept through the night and made it until 7:00 without waking us (a first for the trip and in fact it only happened one other time). We visited the Crocs outlet in the morning and everyone got a new pair for summer. Beth took the kids for bike and scooter ride and this time she was on her own bike so she could keep pace with them. I stayed behind to do laundry and then I got myself a café con leche and drank it on the boardwalk, reading The Washington Post Magazine until I looked up and was alarmed to see Noah and June go zipping by, apparently without Beth, but she was actually close behind.  We all went home and I made lunch for the kids while Beth got a massage. June and I napped (her first non-pacifier-assisted, non-car-assisted nap). When Beth returned she took June on a scouting mission to see which restaurants were open for dinner during the off-season.

While they were gone, Noah and I started Something Wicked This Way Comes.  This is more of an adult book than we usually read but he’ll be reading grown-up books in his English class next fall so I thought it might be a good idea to ease him in with some Bradbury. We’re reading my father’s college copy, a paperback with age-softened pages that cost him 60 cents in 1963. It has his pencil underlining and marginal comments.  Reading it to Noah makes me feel like I’m giving him a little piece of Dad.

I went for a walk on the beach once we’d finished reading. I meant to go further but I found the ridge where the kids had played two days before and it was such a nice place to sit I stayed there.  It was still long, but not as tall now and closer to the water. The tides and children with shovels had carved coves and channels all over it.  I settled right above the biggest cove, a shallow crescent big enough to park two cars. It was alternately a flat expanse of wet sand and a whirling mass of water. It was mesmerizing to watch, so I stayed a half hour as the late afternoon light grew golden and the damp sand into which I’d sunk my bare feet grew cold.

I met up with everyone back at the house. We’d told June she could pick a restaurant for dinner because she was doing such a great job sleeping without a pacifier. And so it was that in a town known for its fine dining, we ended up at IHOP.

After dinner, we played four rounds of Splash. June won the second round and announced she was keeping the scorecard. Later I found her winning Rat-a-Tat-Cat scorecard in her bed. She’s not a sore loser, but she is an enthusiastic winner.

Wednesday

It was time for another day trip. We took the 9:15 ferry from Lewes, Delaware to Cape May, New Jersey. Noah hadn’t been on a ferryboat in years and it’s possible June never has so this was the better part of the adventure. We experienced it largely separately, however, because I am prone to motion sickness and wanted to stay out on the deck, breathing fresh air, watching the seabirds soar and admiring the beauty of the Delaware Bay on a mild, sunny day.  The kids wanted to sit inside, eat snacks from the café and cruise the gift shop instead.  June made her big purchase of the trip, a set of plastic mermaids with accessories; she chose it over a model lighthouse embedded with shells and a sparkly dolphin magnet.

Our first stop in Cape May was the lighthouse. When Noah was little (around three to six years old) he loved lighthouses so we were constantly visiting them. We haven’t climbed one in years; in fact this was June’s first lighthouse.  She took the challenge very seriously, charging up the stairs, not wanting to stop at the landings where her mothers wanted to rest and examine the historical photographs and illustrations of Cape May.  Once we got to the top, however, she was very nervous on the observation deck and wanted to go right back down.

We went to see the shipwreck on Sunset Beach next. Noah read the informational sign about the sunken concrete ship and gave us the highlights, but the big attraction was the jetty. It was a perfect jetty, made of big black rocks, just challenging enough for climbing, with only a few off-limits algae-covered rocks at the end, and a “secret hideout” where you could climb down between the rocks, and watch the waves through a window-like gap. There were barnacles on the rocks and June found a sand crab when she dug in the sand near the water’s edge.  June made friends with a girl her age and that girl’s mother found a jellyfish and everyone had a lovely time. Noah made a game of racing down the jetty, bounding from rock to rock with Beth timing him and then June wanted in on the action to see if she could beat his times (she couldn’t).

It was hard to tear them away for lunch, but we did and after lunch we went to an old-fashioned soda fountain for milkshakes.  We strolled through the streets of Cape May, admiring the Victorian architectural confections—all the turrets and fancy woodwork and intricately painted trim. We had to hurry back to the ferry terminal to catch the 2:30 ferry back to Delaware where reading and bath and dinner awaited us. That night June went to sleep sucking on an ice cube so she could have something in her mouth.

Thursday

It should come as no surprise to anyone that my day started at 5:05 a.m., with June informing me that her ice had melted. Later in the day she mentioned in casual, matter-of-fact tone that she could choke on an ice cube, or on the melting water, but people couldn’t choke on pacifiers because they’re made for sucking. Then she resumed wondering where hers might be, under the toy box perhaps? Beth patted her arm, told her she was doing great, and said she thought she was all done with pacifiers.  June chose not to acknowledge this remark.

Cape May was our last big adventure. We went out to breakfast and then Beth and June biked to the playground. Noah wanted to go with them but he and Beth misunderstood each other so they left without him and was put out. He had his helmet on and was insisting he was going to find them even though I wasn’t sure where they’d gone and Beth wasn’t answering her phone. He was looking at maps of Rehoboth and various playground locations as I tried to dissuade him. Sometimes when we travel and he’s out of his routine, it brings out the Asperger-like qualities of his personality.  (Note: we had Noah tested for Aspergers a couple years back.  He doesn’t have it but he faces some of the same challenges as kids who do, albeit in a milder form.)

I finally convinced him to come to the beach with me instead. We packed a picnic lunch of an apple, carrot rounds, cheese and water and supplemented it with boardwalk fries.  Next we visited one of the ridges. This one was down to a few mounds of sand, a short cliff and a shallow cove. Noah and I made the cliff crumble by standing at the very edge, thus demonstrating the effect of human activity on erosion, he said. He leapt off the edge, soaking his pants around the knees (he was wearing rubber boots). He found something that looked like a rain gutter and a few feet away a narrow metal pipe with bolts at the end sticking out of the sand. He tried to dig the pipe out, but the sand rushed back into the hole with each wave.

Later that afternoon while Beth and the kids went in search of turtles in a nearby pond, I went back to the beach by myself. I walked north for forty-five minutes until I came to a jetty and found a rock flat and high enough to stand without fear of getting drenched, even as water swirled around me on three sides. It was cold and windy, but I stayed about twenty minutes, until I saw a wave of such size and power and perfect proportions that I knew it was time to leave—it wasn’t going to get better than that—and then I saw a rainbow in its retreating spray.

Friday

I wanted the kids to come to the beach with me the next morning because I’d seen pools of water perfect for wading around that time the morning before, but they didn’t want to come, so I went alone.  The pools didn’t appear that day, though, and it was cold and windy; the wind was plucking bits of sea foam off the water and sending them flying through the air.

Later that morning the kids and I met a realtor and toured houses we were considering renting for our beach week in July.  (Beth elected to stay home.) Looking at properties online, we’d narrowed it down to two.  Both were further from the beach than I’d like but one was close to downtown shops and restaurants. We were leaning toward that one, but when we saw them in person, both kids fell head over heels in love with the more remote house. Interestingly, they both said right away it reminded them of YaYa’s house, even though they meant different houses (current and former–houses that have very little in common in my mind). Anyway, the house is a charming, old-fashioned beach cottage, with a deck that made Noah say, “A stage!” and white, painted wrought iron patio furniture that made June say, “A place for tea parties!” and two attic bedrooms with sloping ceilings and a walk-through closet that connects them. The kids’ enthusiasm swayed me and we booked it.

I took June to the beach in the afternoon.  It was still cool and windy but it was sunny so we were warm enough for shell hunting and sand castle making. She enjoyed jumping off the sand cliff without her persnickety older brother yelling at her for climbing in the designated jumping area and jumping in the climbing area.

That night we made our final pilgrimage to Candy Kitchen and had pizza at Grotto’s and our last full day at the beach came to a close.

Saturday

The next morning we packed up the house and went to the realty to turn in our keys and sign papers for the next house. Then we returned to town, Beth got coffee and ran some Easter-Bunny related errands, while I took the kids to the beach.  The kite shop on the boardwalk was having a customer appreciation day and there were giant fabric balloons on the beach, a caterpillar the size of a school bus and a puffer fish about half that big, tethered to the sand and inflated solely by the wind. A few kids were diving into the sand under the balloons as they bobbed around and soon Noah and June joined in.  There was some kind of narrative about the caterpillar exerting evil power over June and Noah trying to save her, but I wasn’t paying very close attention, preferring to watch the waves.  The Easter Bunny was strolling around the boardwalk, and I pointed him out to June but she wasn’t interested. Beth said earlier in the week June had been showing her toys she might like in her Easter basket “in case the Easter Bunny is listening.” This made Beth think June has the Bunny’s number, or at least suspects the truth.

Around 10:55 a woman with a microphone announced there would be races and an egg toss for kids starting at eleven and June wanted to participate but we were supposed to meet Beth at a gazebo about two blocks away right then so I told June we’d come back.  Beth still had some more errands to complete, so I took the kids back to the kite store but when we got there I didn’t see Noah.  June accepted a piece of candy from the Easter Bunny and we turned back to find her brother, who had just taken such a long time to get his shoes on he was lagging far behind us.  We returned and June decided she wanted one of the free bagels so I got one for her and when I came back, Noah was gone again. I was more exasperated than scared.  He and I had just been discussing the fact that he’d left his bike lock at the gazebo so I figured he’d gone back for it.  I dragged June away from the games for the third time, but when I got to the pavilion, I found Noah’s lock, but not Noah.  I was more concerned now and asked the man who was now at the microphone at the kite store to page him.  He did, with no result.  By the third time Noah was paged, this time with a more detailed physical description, I was crying.  Apparently, I can only lose my kids once in a week without losing my cool. A little while later, Beth and Noah came riding and scooting up to the kite store.

“Where were you?” I yelled at him.

“It was my fault,” Beth said, putting her arms around me as I started to cry harder.  She’d found him while I was in the bagel line and taken him for a bike and scooter ride out to the summer house, so she could see it.  This had been the plan all along so she thought I’d know where he’d gone, but it didn’t occur to me she’d take him when I wasn’t looking so I had no idea.  Beth guessed what had happened, though, as soon as a stranger approached them and asked, “Are you Noah?”

By this time, the games were over and June never got to play, so we strolled down the boardwalk, had lunch and drove back to Takoma, even managing to dye our Easter eggs after the unpacking and laundry and dinner and before bedtime.  That night June went to bed without asking for her pacifier. We never even looked for it.

Coda: Sunday and Monday

The kids hunted for their Easter baskets in the morning and found them full of chocolate and jellybeans.  June got stuffed red monkey that looks like one she once lost (and mourned for years) and Noah got a t-shirt from Grotto’s.  Beth went grocery shopping and I did mounds of laundry.  Beth and June started flower, vegetable and watermelon seeds in pots and then Beth raised the training wheels on June’s bike and we stood in the driveway watching her make her wobbly way around it.  It was a pleasant way to ease back into our home routine, without the pressures of work or school.

Going to bed, I had no idea what awaited us.  June wandered into our room around 10:15, sleepy and disoriented, saying she couldn’t sleep. I’d sent her back to her room two or three times by 10:40 when I heard her sobbing and Beth and I both went into her room.  Even when I got into bed with her and held her she couldn’t stop crying.  I asked her if she wanted me to sing the songs I used to sing to put her to sleep when she was younger and she said yes so I sang them for an hour until she finally drifted to sleep.  At one point while she was in the bathroom I pried up her mattress and found two pacifiers in between the bed and the wall.  I took them to Beth and we quietly discussed whether or not to give her one. We didn’t, but I came pretty close.

Beth took the kids to Round House in the morning. It was June’s first-ever experience with a full-day camp and she was excited, and a little nervous, to be joining Noah in the fun. When I picked them up, after a day of trying to write about memory and cognition through a brain-fog of fatigue, I learned the theme of the day had been the ocean.  The kids were divided into younger and older groups and they performed for each other at the end of the day.  June was a crab being interviewed on a talk show.  Noah was full of praise for her performance and one of the counselors told me she was “a good little actress.”  Noah was the Carpenter in a puppet show version of  “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and another counselor said it was always good to see him.  Noah said he couldn’t wait for summer vacation so he could go back to Round House, and June said it was fun, but after lunch and the play period, she’d been tired and wanted to go home.  On the bus, I wondered why the kids had fallen silent and looked back to see June asleep, leaning against Noah.

We’ve made the crossing out of the territory of Spring Break. Beth went back to work on Monday and the kids returned to school yesterday.  I’m not making any predictions about how long it will take June to go to sleep easily and consistently without her pacifier but the last two nights have gone well so I’m crossing my fingers for tonight.

Wild, Wild Horses

Prelude: Thursday and Friday

The kids’ last day of school before Spring Break was a Thursday. As Noah had no pressing homework and we were leaving for the beach on Saturday, I pounced on him as soon as he got home and set him to work, vacuuming, practicing percussion, cleaning his room.  I asked June to help with the last project and when Beth got home around 6:30 the kids were arguing about whether June was being “lazy” and I was at the stove, ignoring the row and stirring risotto.  I left the rice long enough to put my arms around Beth’s neck and say, “Thank you for taking us to the beach so the whole break won’t be like this.”

We had spring break all mapped out: Friday June would spend part of the day at Beth’s office, from the first Saturday to the second Saturday we’d be at the beach, Easter Sunday we’d catch up on chores and errands and on the second Monday, the last day of break, the kids would attend a one-day session at Round House Theatre.  Theoretically, I was going to work on the first and last day and be on vacation in between, but Friday was a fragmented kind of day, so other than some accounting, I didn’t work.

On Friday Beth took June to the office with her for two and a half hours. June helped her recycle some papers and open envelopes and then she drew pictures and read. I read to Noah and puttered around the house until 10:15 when I left to go fetch June, and  after enjoying some time with the newspaper at Firehook Bakery near Beth’s office, I met them in the lobby at 11:30 and we went out to lunch together at Meatballs, where Beth and I ate meatball subs made with lentil balls and June contented herself with tater tots.

Noah had a productive morning at home, doing math and English homework, and practicing his drums again.  In the afternoon, we were visited by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal who’s writing a story about kids’ allowances and who interviewed Noah about how he uses Quicken to track his money.  While she was at our house, she got locked out of her laptop and Noah fixed it for her, by suggesting she shut it down and restart it (always a good first step but it didn’t occur to me—Beth has trained him well).

Maggie came by for a play date soon after the reporter left, and that evening we had frozen pizza and various leftovers for dinner, Beth and I filled out our absentee ballots and we started packing.

The Beach: 

Saturday 

Less than half hour into the drive to Rehoboth I realized I had not looked for, found or packed June’s pacifier, which she’d lost the night before.  Beth and I had a whispered conversation in which we agreed not to go back for it. This would be our opportunity to wean her from her nap and nighttime dependence on it.

During a pit stop, June mentioned she was tired. I suggested she have a little nap because we were at least a half hour from our designated lunch stop. She agreed happily and as she climbed into her car seat, she asked for her pacifier. Somehow I’d failed to anticipate this. I broke the bad news.  She looked stricken, but she didn’t cry. Noah unhelpfully began to intone in a dramatic announcer-type voice, “Will June survive a week without her pacifier?”

“No, she won’t,” June muttered.

Beth sternly told Noah this was going to be hard for June and we needed to be kind to her.

I suggested he stop sucking his thumb for a week in solidarity, tapping his arm to remind him his thumb was in his mouth at that very moment. Noah did not to agree to this, so I offered not to bite my nails for a week. (I did it, too!)

June fell asleep shortly after this conversation but I warned Beth not to consider it a good sign, as the car is a powerful soporific.

We arrived at the house, unpacked and June and I hit the boardwalk while Beth went to buy food for dinner and breakfast.  I was on foot and June was on her bike, ringing the bell every few minutes.  “When I ring the bell it means I’m having a good time,” she said. As she pedaled toward Candy Kitchen, June commented, “I’ve had lunch,” in an offhand way. It was late afternoon, close to dinnertime, but I told her she could get something for later. She selected gummy teeth and perused the stuffed animals. She wanted to buy a giraffe, with her own money—despite my broad hints about the Easter Bunny’s propensity to bring stuffed animals.  I didn’t have enough cash on me, so it was a moot point and she reluctantly agreed to wait until later in the week, to see if she saw something she liked better.

It was cold, in the high forties, overcast and windy, so windy that the wind was propelling the bike forward as much as June was, and when we turned around she couldn’t pedal at all and I had to push the bike home.

That night we settled June into bed without a pacifier but with a stuffed rabbit, a stuffed cat and a baby doll.  We tucked her under her Cinderella blanket and put on her favorite bedtime CD—Peter and the Wolf.  “I have to do this all week,” she said.  It didn’t seem like a good time to tell her if all went well, she was saying goodbye to the pacifier forever.  As I left the room, she was moaning.

She couldn’t sleep. For an hour, I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret to Noah while Beth received repeated visits from June. She wanted the CD turned off, and then turned on again. Beth suggested she try counting backwards and then June came back for more explicit instructions. Finally, around 9:20, we realized she hadn’t been out of bed for ten minutes or so and I peeked in on her. She was asleep. She slept until 3:20 when I woke to her sobs.  She was standing in the hall outside the bathroom. She said she was thirsty and couldn’t find a cup for water.  I didn’t think this was her whole reason for crying, but I got her a drink and sent her back to bed.  Despite being up late and in the middle of the night, June was up at 5:45 and came into our room repeatedly until 7:00 a.m., with newsflashes like this one that woke me for good at 6:10—“I’m bored. I don’t want to play with my toys.”

Sunday

Beth and I were pretty wiped out so I went and got take-out coffee to give us the mental focus for planning and list making.  We made lists of dinner menus, a grocery list and a list of possible day trips for the week.  We thought a low-key day would be best as three of us were sleep-deprived.  Plus Beth needed to grocery shop and she had some work to do, too.

Once our week was planned, I played two games of Hex with June and took the kids to the beach. Noah, irritated that I’d taken June to Candy Kitchen without him, got his turn. He chose raspberry gummy rings while June re-assessed her stuffed animal options. She left thinking she might want Ruby, of Max and Ruby. I thought a bunny might be appropriate for Easter.

It was still cool, but sunny and windless.  The sea was calm and sparkly. We found a big plowed ridge of sand, part of a beach replenishment project. It was about ten feet high and at least fifty yards long and it gave the kids’ play a focal point.  They slid down it and leapt off it, marking their record jumps with driftwood.  June leaned against the base while Noah buried her up to her chin and they pretended she was a mummy coming back to life and breaking free of her bandages (the blanket of sand). They built sand temples and sand volcanoes.  We were there almost two hours.

I thought with her poor night’s sleep, biking to the beach and back and an active morning of running and jumping, June might be exhausted enough to nap sans pacifier, but she just couldn’t.  About fifteen minutes into her attempt, she started to cry.  Noah came into her room to see what was wrong, but she told him, “There’s nothing you can do.”  So she didn’t sleep, and I didn’t either.  I even offered to let her sleep with me, but that didn’t work either.  Beth finished her work and took June to the playground while Noah and I read on the porch.

We had an early dinner and walked down to the boardwalk for dessert. Ice cream was the original idea but the wind had picked up again and it wasn’t feeling much like ice cream weather.  Beth got some anyway (she’s dedicated to ice cream); the rest of us opted for fudge. I would have gotten funnel cake if I could have gotten someone to agree to go halfsies with me.

The kids had time for a round of Rat-a-Tat-Cat before June’s bedtime. When I left her room less than five minutes after lights out, she was nearly asleep.

Monday

Monday was one of our scheduled side trips.  We spent the day at Assateague Island National Seashore and on the boardwalk at Ocean City.

As we drove into the park, Noah asserted that we’d been there before (true) and that we didn’t see any horses (false).  Beth and I had just been reminiscing about our last trip to Assateague during Noah’s kindergarten spring break and his challenging behavior during that outing (Postcards from Spring Break, 4/9/07). “It’s like the ghost of grumpy Noah came back,” I said.

But, other than occasionally insisting we’d never seen horses before and we wouldn’t see them today either, he was in a pretty good mood. Both kids ran down the sandy path of the Life of the Dunes trail, pretending to the superheroes, avoiding the villains (us) spying on them (taking pictures).  We all enjoyed the trail, but we didn’t see hide nor hair of the wild horses (only their abundant poop). I wondered if we should have pulled over when we saw people stopping by the side of the road, photographing distant horses.

We were near the beach so the kids played in the sand before we hit the Life of the Marsh trail.  On the drive there we hit pay dirt.  By the side of the road, just off the parking lot there were three horses, a brown stallion, a brown and white mare and an almost all white foal. The baby was snoozing on the grass. Not only did we see horses, but we saw a baby horse. This was a major parenting score.

We hoped to see water birds on the marsh trail, and there were ducks and quite a few snowy egrets flying, landing and standing elegantly in the water, but there were also horses.  Horses on distant spits of land, and then a shaggy brown horse right off the boardwalk trail.  We’d have to get closer than the recommended ten feet away to pass it. We edged by slowly. “I wish I could pet it,” June said wistfully.  She was sternly instructed not to do so. When we got to the parking lot, there were five or six more horses, all reddish brown, with manes ranging from tan to black.

“No-one’s going to say we didn’t see horses today,” I predicted back in the car on our way to the last trail, the Life of the Forest trail.  We had lunch at a boardwalk restaurant in Ocean City. Noah spied the carousel horses that decorated the place and said it was a day of horses and that’s when we saw the mounted police officer out the window.

After lunch, June rode her bike and Noah rode his scooter down the boardwalk. Noah wanted to go to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, so we did, with some trepidation about its appropriateness for a sensitive six year old. It was the kind of day when we just didn’t want to say no. I steered June away from videos of people who’d survived horrible accidents (shark attacks, etc.) and was relieved when she didn’t ask about the foot-binding exhibit or the Iron Maiden. What really caught her attention was the room of statues of the tallest person ever and the fattest, and the man with extreme body modification (green scale tattoos, filed teeth, surgically forked tongue).  She was talking about that lizard man for days.  The children got their fortunes told by a mechanical Gypsy and had their portrait sketched by a computer—Noah chose the style of Raphael and June went with Rembrandt.

After we’d had our fill of oddities and careful conversations about them, we sampled the boardwalk’s treats. Beth got a shake, I got a dipped cone, Noah got a chocolate-covered frozen banana and June got a cloud of blue cotton candy considerably bigger than her head. We sat on a bench to eat and soon the kids were playing in the sand. I joined them and we made our way down the broad beach to the water. We rolled up our pants and dipped our feet into the water.  At 3:50, I glanced at my watch and decided it was time to head back.

“This was a really fun day,” I told Beth as we walked up the boardwalk watching the kids riding ahead of us. It was about to get a lot less fun.

We were almost to the intersection where we’d leave the boardwalk and we couldn’t see the kids.  They had gotten out of our sight before briefly and we’d always caught sight of them, but not this time.  We stopped at the intersection and looked all around, but they were nowhere to be seen. Beth said a bad word or rather she spelled it, as if the kids were still there and still small enough for that to work.  We conferred hurriedly. Beth would stay in front of the restaurant where we ate lunch, in case they thought to go there.  I would go down the boardwalk after them. I jogged and walked and jogged and walked for twelve blocks.  Once I saw a little girl on a white bike and I yelled, “June!” but before the word was even out of my mouth, I saw it wasn’t her.  I heard the distinctive sound of scooter wheels coming from a side street and I looked but it wasn’t Noah. Finally I came to a barrier.  The boardwalk was undergoing repairs on the other side. They wouldn’t have crossed it. Part of my mind was relieved because the Ocean City boardwalk is not like Rehoboth’s little one-mile boardwalk. It goes on and on and on for dozens of blocks. I was glad to have the search area confined to a twelve block-stretch. But another part of my mind thought I should have seen them coming back unless…I didn’t listen and searched the area all around the barrier in case they were waiting somewhere nearby, on the beach or a restaurant patio. I yelled, “Noah!” over and over. No answer.

I turned back. I was no longer hurrying, but lingering now, looking all around me. When I got back to Beth, we’d have to call the police, I decided. And then about halfway back, I saw Noah, just Noah. This could be very good or very bad. “Where’s June?” I yelled, before saying anything else.

She was with Beth. The kids had been waiting by the car, where neither Beth nor I had seen them even though we both, independently of each other, peered down that street. They’d argued about whether to remain there, June remembering advice to stay put if you were lost, and Noah thinking we might be just around the corner. He did not leave her and finally he convinced her to come and they were re-united with Beth, who was in fact just around the corner and who sent Noah on his scooter to find me. I’d left my backpack with my cell phone behind with Beth and they had no way to call me.

In case you’re wondering if I’ve learned anything since the last time I lost Noah in a public place (Lost and Found, 7/17/10), I’ve learned this: even though I’d never deliberately leave Noah in charge of June in a crowded public place for upwards of a half hour, I now know they’ll stick together and discuss their options thoughtfully. I know that when it mattered, he had her back. That’s no small thing.

The kids seemed no worse for the wear, though Noah admitted the next day to having been “a little worried.”  Beth and I were wrung out. Back at the house, Beth made matzoh ball soup, we made the kids eat their carrots and drink their milk; I bathed June and read to Noah. Beth shepherded a pacifier-deprived June back to bed several times and finally they were fed and clean and safe in their beds and so was I, hunkered down with the only one in the world who loves them as much as I do.

Our spring break adventures continue in the next post…

Queer, Queer Fun

On Wednesday morning, the morning of the twentieth anniversary of our commitment ceremony, June crawled into bed with us at 6:40 a.m.  We all dozed a bit longer and around 7:00 Beth got out of bed and was walking around my side of the bed on her way out of the bedroom when I put my arms up for a hug.  The cue reminded her. “Happy anniversary,” she said.

The kids went to school and Beth went to work and the day unfolded like a normal weekday.  I read a few chapters of Catch-22, which I’m reading for my book club, and I exercised and cleaned the refrigerator.  I worked on a set of instructions for growing hydroponic green beans, cucumbers and lettuce.  I found out I’d landed a job writing three grants for a group of D.C. public charter schools. Okay, that last part was not so routine.  I haven’t written a grant since 1994, when I worked for Project Vote, so I greeted this development with a mix of excitement and trepidation.  But I can’t even start until I attend a series of meetings with school officials in early February so I can put it out my mind for now.

That morning Beth posted a picture of the two of us at our commitment ceremony on Facebook, along with a copy of a newspaper story from the Philadelphia Gay News, about how our commitment ceremony announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer was the first one ever for a gay or lesbian couple.  (At the time my father was the managing editor of the Inquirer. He did not participate in the discussions about whether to publish the announcement but I imagine the fact that I was his daughter must have been a factor in people’s minds.  If nepotism did help break down the door for other people behind us, I have no problem with that.)

One of the things I love about Facebook is all the positive feedback you get on milestone posts.  All day long the congratulations poured in on both posts.  It made me cheerful every time I checked it and gave the day a festive feel, even if I was at home alone, writing or doing chores for much of it.

Shortly after June got home I started cooking dinner.  I wanted to get an early start on the eggplant-bulgur casserole because I was also making a cake, the spice cake with lemon glaze I make almost every year on our anniversary. It was our wedding cake.  June helped pour the ingredients in the bowl, mix the batter, consulted with me on what shade of pink to dye the glaze (it was a very deep pink, almost red) and helped spread the glaze on the cake.

While we ate dinner, we listened to one of the three mix tapes we made for our ceremony.  (Our ceremony was a very low-budget, DIY affair so we provided our own music.) I haven’t attempted the play the tapes in years and I wasn’t even sure if the one I’d selected would still play or if it would be warped, but it sounded fine after two decades (or almost two decades- a notation on the case indicated we’d re-made it in 1994. I don’t remember why).  It was the one we played last, the most upbeat one.  It starts with Prince’s “Let Pretend We’re Married” and the Eurhythmics “Would I Lie to You?” and goes on in that vein.  It’s a fun tape and I only had to rush to the tape player to turn down the volume once so the kids would miss some not quite age-appropriate lyrics.

The music, familiar and yet from such a different time in our lives, and the photo of Beth with her early 90s trademark flattop really took me back. Sometimes it seems like it hasn’t been that long since we were in our mid-twenties and childless and new to living in the big city, and sometimes it seems like another life entirely.

After dinner and before cake, we exchanged gifts. Beth got me Stephen King’s latest—11/22/63— and I got her a gift certificate for Giovanni’s Room, a gay bookstore in Philadelphia.  And why would I get her such a thing when we live in suburban Maryland?  We had a kid-free weekend in Philly ahead of us, that’s why.

We drove everyone up to Mom and Jim’s house on Saturday afternoon after June’s basketball game, dropped the kids off and enjoyed two nights and one day to ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love.  We had two very nice dinners at the Kyber Pass Pub and Cuba Libre. If you go to the first, the vegetarian meats (BBQ and fried chicken Po Boys) and the fried vegetables (okra and sweet potato fries) are very good. If you go to the second, you must order the buñuelos con espinaca. We visited Reading Terminal Market and had lunch there.  I got a vegetarian cheesesteak at a stand where the service was so bad it crossed over from aggravating to comic, but the cheesesteak was not half bad once I finally got it. We browsed at Giovanni’s Room and came out with a few books. We spent a lot of time in our hotel room and in a local coffee shop reading. We saw a non-animated, R-rated movie, the lesbian coming-of-age film The Pariah, which was well acted and a good story, though there were some odd things going on with the camera work, probably meant to indicate the protagonist’s emotional state.  Our room had a gas fireplace and a Jacuzzi and we employed them both.

We walked a lot on Sunday and made some serendipitous discoveries, stumbling upon the President’s House where the first two Presidents lived while the Capitol moved to Washington. The building is no longer there, but they have rebuilt parts of it, with low brick walls to show where walls went and some chimneys and doorways recreated.  You can also look down into the ground to see the actual excavated foundations through glass.  There is a lot of information posted on signs about the house and its inhabitants, including the nine slaves who lived there. It seemed a fitting place to visit during MLK weekend and we would have lingered longer and read more if it had not been so very cold (in the twenties most of the day and quite windy).

We also found the block where I lived from the ages of five and half to almost nine, quite by accident, and from there I remembered how to walk to my elementary school a few blocks away, so we did.  I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1976 but other than new playground equipment (and what I believe to be an addition) the soaring one-hundred-year-old red brick building looks just as I remember it.  It was odd, but not unpleasant to be walking around our old neighborhood on Sunday, because it was the second anniversary of my father’s death. As we walked along the blocks where he must have walked so many times, I imagined him in his thirties walking with a little-girl version of me, maybe headed to the playground, maybe going for ice cream or to peek inside antique stores.

On Monday morning we picked up the kids and heard all about their trip to the Franklin Institute. June loved the giant heart and veins you can tour (what kid doesn’t?) and the movie they saw in the planetarium about black holes and Noah liked the city that changed colors depending on environmental choices the citizens made.  June left Mom and Jim’s house laden with necklaces, a jewelry box and a wicker doll high chair.  (Mom is downsizing in preparation for her move).  On our way out of the Philadelphia area, we made one last stop, for soft pretzels, and then we were homeward bound, arriving mid-afternoon, in time for undone homework and weekend chores.  Our anniversary celebration was over.

But I still have one song from the commitment ceremony tape running through my head. It’s “The Queer Song,” by Two Nice Girls.  It makes me think how much has changed, not just over the past twenty years, but maybe the past thirty.  The speaker is re-assuring her love interest, who is still insecure in her sexual identity:

I’m gonna take you to queer bars
I’m gonna drive you in queer cars
You’re gonna meet all my queer friends
Our queer, queer fun it never ends
We’re gonna have a happy life
Both of us are gonna be the wife
I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
It’s queer queer fun for you and me

(If you don’t know this song, it’s worth knowing that it’s sung partially to the tune of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”)  I have to reach far back into my life to remember a time when the idea of my own happiness being possible would have produced a subversive, defiant thrill, but I do remember.  I do.  I would not say my life is a never-ending parade of queer, queer fun—it has as many disappointments and sorrows as anyone else’s—but there is happiness in it, too.

As the Presidential election will no doubt remind me on a more regular basis than I’d like, my family’s happiness is still a hard pill for some people to swallow. That’s why this was a commitment ceremony anniversary and not a wedding anniversary we just celebrated. I have faith we’ll get there, maybe soon. Gay marriage will be on the table again in Maryland this year, as it was last year and a few years before that. I try not to get my hopes up.  I do want to be legally married for both symbolic and practical reasons, but on the deepest level, both of us already are the wife and we have been since that mid-January afternoon when we were twenty-four and twenty-five and stood before our friends and family and dared to imagine living a happy life together.

Occupy Christmas

Day 1: Christmas Eve

My mom had a full house for Christmas—she and my stepfather, our family of four, my sister Sara, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl, their twenty-something kids Emily and Blake, Emily’s five-year-old son Josiah and her friend Sir. We were nearly the last ones there, arriving in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve day. Everyone was there but Sir, who was taking an evening train, so things were hopping right from the beginning. Peggy and Darryl live in Idaho and Emily, Blake and Josiah recently moved from Boise to Brooklyn so I don’t see them often. Right after we walked in the door I tried to introduce June to everyone, and, despite having seen recent pictures of him, I misidentified my cousin Blake. In my defense, his hair is much shorter than in the pictures. Later I told Beth I was glad to have gotten the most embarrassing moment over right out of the gate. And then my uncle got me and Beth mixed up, so maybe we’re even.

Mom and Jim’s house was beautifully decorated for Christmas, as it always is. There were evergreen garlands and big ribbons on the porch railing and the stairway and mantel. Mom had poinsettias on either side of the fireplace and her Dickens village (http://www.department56.com/content.aspx?cid=VLDV&ms=PRD&msi=58999) was on display, as was her Santa collection. Because she and my stepfather are planning to move to Oregon some time in the next year and she wants to lighten her load, she let Sara and the kids pick a few Santas to take home when we left. (June, who knows a thing or two about grandmothers, talked Mom up from two to four. Noah initially declined the offer and then changed his mind and picked two.)

We spent the afternoon getting re-acquainted (or in some cases acquainted). The adults talked and wrapped presents. June and Josiah drew on a big tablet Mom gave them (a superhero for him, a nutcracker and elephant and assorted other things for her). Then they chased each other around the house pretending to be zombies, because nothing says Christmas like five year olds shouting, “I’ve already eaten your brain!” and “No, you haven’t!” June showed off for Emily and Blake by counting to one hundred in Spanish. (There was a repeat performance for a larger audience on Christmas day and then Sara counted to twenty in Italian.) Sara asked if Noah was too old for her to read to him and he said no and produced a 39 Clues book. At one point I rounded up the kids and we rolled out the gingerbread dough we’d brought and cut cookies. Josiah was quite skilled at it and turned out perfect cookie after perfect cookie. I didn’t cut too many cookies myself because the kids kept me busy with requests for greased cookie sheets and more dough and help transferring cookies to sheets. I credit Lesley with giving me the confidence to take on a messy project with my kids plus a boy I’d just met.

We had chili for dinner (Sir arrived while we were eating) and put a very tired June to bed. Then after more wrapping, stocking stuffing and note-from-Santa writing (Noah helped me with this chore) we went to bed, too, a bit past our bedtimes.

Day 2: Christmas Day

It’s hard to sleep in a house with thirteen people. There were people still up and conversing at 1:20 a.m. and people up for the day at 5:30 a.m. (that would be our crew). There were people sleeping on under-inflated air mattresses and sofa cushions on the floor. I actually slept in a bed so it would be churlish to complain about my night’s sleep, but it was an awfully early start to the day. Noah crept downstairs at 6:00 a.m. (when he was allowed out of bed) and came back up to report Blake was sleeping on the living room floor, at which point we realized we’d need to wait for him to wake up before the kids could open their stockings. Sara was sleeping in the sunroom, which was separated from our room only by a pair of French doors so we needed to keep the kids both quiet and in the dark. There was nowhere we could speak above a whisper or turn on a light. People were sleeping everywhere. Technology, in the form of Beth’s iPhone and Noah’s iPod, came to the rescue and the kids were amazingly quiet until we heard Josiah downstairs at 7:30 and present-opening commenced.

Mom and I had talked ahead of time about how to open presents. We usually open gifts one at a time, taking turns in a pre-set order, youngest to oldest. I’ve always liked the ceremonial aspect of this, and being able to see people’s responses to gifts. But with so many people and so many presents we knew it wouldn’t work this year. This pleased Beth because her family has a more free-for-all style and our way sometimes makes her antsy. We put Noah in charge of handing out presents and people opened them as they got them and mine all piled up at my feet as I tried not to miss anything, but of course I did and for days afterward I was still finding out what people got from each other. (This in my mind illustrates the superiority of the traditional method.) But even in the accelerated version, it still took until nine a.m. to finish. The kids got too many gifts to list, but Santa came through with the mermaid doll for June and Noah got the headphones he wanted. I got a refurbished iPod nano, some Starbucks gift cards and candy and a book (http://classiclit.about.com/od/poeedgarallan/fr/aa_poeshadow.htm) and other nice things. Beth and I got and a mixer and a cutting board and I got her a shoe rack because the shoes that are always in a jumbled heap in the hallway get on her nerves. At one point during the present opening, Mom looked out the window and noticed frost on the grass. “It’s a white Christmas,” she concluded, but Beth said frost didn’t count.

We had brunch around ten—scrambled eggs, English muffins, bacon, veggie sausage and grapefruit. Mom and Jim’s dining room gets a lot of late morning light in the winter, and during the meal, she leaned back in her chair and said, “I’m feeling happy now in the sun with all you here and my dining room walls.” (They are newly painted gold.) The rest of the day passed pleasantly. June got a lot of art kits for Christmas. She assembled the picture of the princess and the winged unicorn you construct out of glittery puffy stickers on a wooden frame. Sara helped her with the magnetic mosaic kit while I cracked hazelnuts for Christmas dinner stuffing. Then Beth, Emily, Noah and I played Forbidden Island (http://gamewright.com/gamewright/index.php?section=games&page=game&show=245), one of Noah’s gifts from Mom, a very fun and complicated co-operative game. Afterward June and I took a much-needed nap, and then I read You Have to Stop This (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10757817-you-have-to-stop-this) to Noah. (This was one of his gifts from me). He was starting to feel sick and about forty minutes into the book he went to the bathroom and threw up. He spent the rest of the day in bed, listening to an audio book, and falling asleep early. He missed Christmas dinner, but we saved him some cranberry sauce and a roll, since those are his favorite parts of the meal. We listened to some of Sir’s original music and had pie (two kinds- apple and mixed berry) before Sir had to catch a train back to New York. And then we were twelve.

Day 3

The next morning Noah had made a complete recovery. He ate a big breakfast and before he was finished, June was hard at work on more art kits. She painted the paint-by-numbers butterfly (eschewing the numbers and making her own design). Before some of the late risers we up, she’d finished this and started on a mask from the mask kit—a queen, with red glasses, blond hair, red hair ribbons and a gold crown with green jewels (she used up almost all the jewels on her first mask).

As Peggy, Darryl, Emily and I sat at the breakfast table in the next room, Darryl looked up from the newspaper and asked the table at large to guess the official word of the year. We all stared back at him silently. “If you think about it you’ll guess,” he predicted encouragingly.

Suddenly it came to me. “Occupy,” I answered, knowing I was right and I was. We’d been discussing the Occupy movement the night before so it was in the front of my mind, but I think spending Christmas in such a fully occupied house might have helped, too.

The house gradually emptied. The day after Christmas was quieter because people spun off on separate expeditions. Mom and Peggy took June and Josiah to the Please Touch Museum (http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/), where it was reported they had fun and got along very well. Beth and Noah went out to lunch, as did Sara with a friend from high school and her husband, leaving me to read one hundred pages of my new book in a single day (something which would not have been unusual, say eleven years ago, but is now). When Sara returned, she and I went for a walk down by the creek and through Mom’s neighborhood, talking about work, and life in general. I haven’t seen her in a year and a half so it was really nice to have a long chat with her. When we got back to the house, Noah, Blake and Beth were playing another game of Forbidden Island and then Beth, Emily and Blake played Q-bitz (http://www.mindware.com/p/Q-bitz/44002), another Christmas present. Noah elected to play with own side game with the pieces because he didn’t want the time pressure of needing to race against other players.

We all came back together for a stir-fry dinner. While Mom and her helpers were cooking, I gave June a bath and Josiah made a mask for June, “a girl mask,” he specified. As I set the table, I kept inventing errands for June (take this toy upstairs, find out what people want to drink) because I was trying to keep her out of the family room, where a war movie was playing on television. Finally I ran out of ideas and had to tell her to stay out of the room. She was not pleased, and neither was Josiah when Emily took similar action shortly afterward. Fortunately, dinner was ready soon after and then it was June’s bedtime.

Day 4

Two days after Christmas, Sara and Peggy’s branch of the family left for parts North and West. That morning was nearly as challenging as Christmas morning, though without the need to distract children awaiting presents. They woke nearly as early as they did on Christmas and other people slept later, so I was shushing them from 6:00 a.m. until 8:45 when Beth and I gave up on keeping them quiet and went out breakfast, leaving the kids in Emily’s capable hands. Shortly before we left, I put my hand on Noah’s back and said, “A little quieter, please.”

“Sorry,” he answered. “I’m not a quiet person.”

While June and Josiah made yet more masks, Beth and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and a nice talk at the Regency Café (http://www.regencycafe.com/). One of the advantages of a houseful of relatives is abundant babysitting.

When we returned the kids were playing June’s new Cat in the Hat game (http://www.icandothatgames.com/cat/), which segued into Hexbugs (http://www.hexbug.com/). When Peggy’s crew left, the house felt strangely quiet and empty, considering there were still seven of us in it. Mom sank into a chair, looking done in and said, “It was a good Christmas.” Sara gave June a parting gift of French braids and left for the airport. And then we were six.

We spent a quiet afternoon and evening. While June and I napped, Mom played Forbidden Island with Noah (I’m thinking he likes this game) and afterward we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns on Mom and Jim’s big-screen television, which gave us the opportunity to compare the detail work on the animation (the older one is better, especially the snowflake effects). The irony of watching programs about snow while rain pelted the roof was not lost on me.

Day 5

Three days after Christmas the last of the occupiers left Mom and Jim’s house, leaving it calmer, quieter, and tidier no doubt, but perhaps a bit lonelier. Mom has always told me she’s dreamed about having a full house at Christmas (often in the context of wanting more grandchildren) so I’m glad she got her wish. I think it was a Christmas we’ll all remember.

p.s. If you were at my Mom’s house and you’re reading this, please feel free to Occupy the comments section. I would love to hear from you (and also those of you who weren’t there).

The June Club

On Saturday morning we were having breakfast at the Galleria Espresso in Rehoboth Beach. There’s a place in the restaurant where two mirrored walls come together. The kids love this corner because if you sit there you can see multiple images of yourself. They call these assemblies of images, “The Noah Club” and “The June Club.” Noah had his turn first and June was impatient for hers, so she ended up with a much longer turn while the rest of us ate our pancakes and crepes. At one point all the members of the June Club were exclaiming over how funny it was that they all looked exactly alike. June’s self-amusing like that.

We were in Rehoboth for our annual Christmas shopping weekend, a family tradition that has multiple benefits: we get away from the distractions of home and chores and focus on our shopping while supporting actual brick and mortar stores and a local economy (if not our own), June gets to visit the one true Santa in his house on the boardwalk, and I get a little much needed off-season beach time to tide me over until spring break.

So I walked on the beach at night and the kids and I built whole villages of sand castles during the cold, windy days. June decorated hers with carefully chosen pebbles and shells and Noah smashed his with the bottom of his bucket as soon as they were built. When they tired of this, they buried treasure (more shells and pebbles) and marked the spot with an X. June cried when Noah buried what she claims were prettier shells than she’ll ever be able to find again and they couldn’t find them, but then she got over it and they were burying treasure again. On Saturday June and I were on the beach at 7:35 with the last pink of the sunrise and both kids and I were there at 4:25 with the first pink of the sunset. We got a good bit of shopping done, too.

The weekend was pleasant, but unremarkable to the point that I don’t have much more to say about it. I think this has a lot to do with June being in the Santa sweet spot. She’s old enough not to be afraid to sit in his lap any more (having conquered that fear last year) and too young to be skeptical and full of angst about it like Noah was in first grade (see 12/10/07). So there wasn’t much Santa-related drama. After breakfast on Saturday June found a mermaid doll at Browse About Books (http://www.browseaboutbooks.com/), fell in love with it and insisted Beth take a picture on her phone in case Santa needed photographic evidence, but he didn’t. That afternoon, she clambered happily into his lap and told him she wanted the “McKenna Mermaid doll” (http://www.amazon.com/Groovy-Girl-122080-MacKenna-Mermaid/dp/B001R59PX0) and he seemed to know what she meant. It was all very satisfactory.

Life is pretty satisfactory for June these days. She loves kindergarten, loves riding the bus, loves the rhythms and routines of school. She looks forward to her turns as line leader and door closer, and keeps careful count of her tiger paws. She’s learning to read and working very hard at it. Because Spanish is more phonetic than English she can sound words out better in Spanish, but she’s more likely to know what they mean in English. I’ve watched her switching back and forth from English to Spanish books and back again as she struggles to find something she can read by herself. She is this close, able to read quite of a lot of words, but not quite fluent enough to sit down and really read a book. The contrast with Noah at this age is striking. He learned to read in kindergarten, too, a little later in the year, but seemingly without effort. One day he couldn’t read and the next day he could. June’s more of a step-by-step learner. That’s why Noah was a sight words reader and she’s a phonics-based reader. Either way, it’s a joy to watch, even if we do have to read a lot of words as she points to them, over and over and asks what they say. Do you know how many words there are out there in the world? There never seem to be quite as many as when you have a child who’s on the verge of reading.

I volunteered in June’s class on Tuesday. When I came in the door her face lit up and for a while she had trouble concentrating on her work because she kept glancing up at me, at the table where I sat date-stamping homework papers and putting them in the kids’ folders and cubbies and folding and stapling coloring sheets into little booklets. Of course that’s why I go, to see her excitement at having me there, and also for the chance to spy on a bit of her school day as I relieve the teacher of some of her clerical duties. Señora T read two books, and gave a short lesson on ordinal numbers (the kids had to line up, five to a line and then the remaining children had to say who was primero, segundo, tercero—first, second, third, etc.) First they did it in order, and then she started mixing it up. There was also a short grammar lesson on the topic of “¿Que es una oración?” (“What is a sentence?”) and a free play period. June was at the stencil table, filling in a sprinkling of stars at the top of her page for a night scene. Other kids drew (one of June’s friends presented her with a drawing of a Christmas tree) or painted, or did puzzles, or played with blocks or toy cars or pretend food in the supermarket area. There was an injury when food went flying and I had to escort a girl to the nurse’s office with a scratch on her nose.

When school let out June asked if we could play on the playground before walking home and she showed me how she can go all the way across the monkey bars now. She’s been working on this all year, devoting many of her recess periods to mastering this particular piece of playground equipment. At the beginning of the year she tried the bigger set (the one she fell off) but she has since switched over to the smaller set, which is more her size, and she can indeed go all the way across. I watched her do it again and again.

It reminded me of something that happened over Thanksgiving weekend. We were at a playground in Wheeling, with Beth’s mom, three of her aunts and two of her cousins. This playground is well known to both kids, but they had a new piece of equipment June had never encountered before. It consisted of four chains, strung on a wooden frame. There were plastic handles on the sides, but June wanted to walk all the way across without falling and without holding on. Over and over she tried, and over and over she fell.

“I am going to keep on doing this until I don’t fall,” she told me, and I thought, oh no, how are we going to leave this playground because I didn’t think she could really do it. Well, you know how this story ends, right? She kept on doing it until she didn’t fall, and then she did it a few more times for good measure.

Five pushing six is a magical age, full of challenges to master, words to read and monkey bar and chain bridges to cross. It’s a good time to be a member of the June Club.