December Sunsets

Friday

Beth worked from home Friday morning and took the afternoon off, so we could leave for our annual Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth when the kids got home from school. After she drove Noah to school she swung by Starbucks and returned with a peppermint mocha, which she delivered to me at the bus stop where I was waiting with June. I knew then it was going to be a good day.

It was, even though we got to the beach later than expected. There was traffic around Annapolis and a detour toward the end of the drive. But we made the best of it, singing along with our Christmas music and admiring people’s lights as well as what we could glimpse of the light display at Sandy Point State Park from the highway. By the time we got to our dinner destination of Grotto Pizza it was 7:40, which is quite late for us to eat, and everyone was so tired and hungry we all just sat around the table silently until the food came and then we perked up a bit.

After dinner Beth drove the kids to the condo we’d rented. I walked there because it was just off the boardwalk and I wanted to see the ocean. It was a clear night, so as soon as I left the lighted portion of the boardwalk I could see a lot of stars, though the only ones I could identify were in Orion’s belt. I think if I lived at the beach, I’d learn all the constellations. I walked down onto the sand for several minutes and got close enough to the water so it almost touched my feet, yet somehow I managed not to get my Birkenstocks and socks soaked. I had the briefest flash of feeling the bigness and beauty of the world before I turned back to land.

I walked the block to the condo where Beth and the kids had been searching its somewhat confusing floor plan for our unit. They met me at the corner, coming down to get the luggage from the car, and cheerfully told me the building was “creepy” and “like a horror movie.”

It was a concrete building, with approximately thirty units in two levels over a parking garage, with balconies connecting the units like a motel. It was completely deserted—we never saw another soul coming or going or another lit window the whole weekend. It was also a bit down at the heel; there were rust stains on some of the outside walls, and cobwebs in the lobby. Also, the pool had been left uncovered and was full of dirty rainwater. Inside our unit was clean and comfortable, however. Our biggest complaint was a lack of blankets—we had to turn up the heat higher than we otherwise would have—and a lack of WiFi. But the location couldn’t be beat and there was a partial ocean view from two rooms, so I was satisfied. We did call it “the creepy condo” the whole time we were there, though, because that sort of thing amuses us.

Saturday

7:30 Saturday morning found me on the beach. The last golden-pink light of the sunrise was still lingering when I arrived. One of the nice things about being at the beach in December is I can see the sunrise over the ocean without getting up any earlier than I usually do.

I watched the daylight get brighter and clearer. I walked north and noticed a big deposit of shells on the sand I thought June might like to see and I stood on wooden jetty (on one of the few pilings not covered with slick, wet moss) and watched the water rush in and out under my feet. After an hour, I returned to the house, hungry for the oatmeal Beth had made and left on the stove for me.

“How was the beach?” Beth said.

“Invigorating. I am full of vigor. I have the vigor of ten Stephs plus one. Or is it two?” I struggled to remember the line from the Grinch. I think it’s the strength of ten Grinches, plus two. We’ll see when we watch it this year.

After eating my oatmeal, I settled down on the couch to read June from a book about a zombie stuffed animal that wreaks havoc in an elementary school, suitable reading material for a creepy condo, I suppose.

Sometime around ten, Beth, June and I left to start our Christmas shopping, while Noah stayed at the condo to work. He was collaborating on a group presentation about contemporary drama with the members of his group contributing to a document in real time. They do this kind of thing a lot, the young people.

We started with a pit stop at Café a-Go-Go, where we’ve been getting coffee and pastries for ten years, and learned they were closing the next week, as the owners are moving to Texas. Maria was saying goodbyes and hugging customers and posing for pictures the whole time we were there. She and her husband Jesús will be missed. They’ve seen Noah grow up from a preschooler and June from an infant and they always remember us, even though we’re only in town two or three times a year. I was sad to hear the news, but Beth, who has spent many hours reading and drinking coffee there while I was at the beach, seemed stricken.

We hit our favorite stores: the book store, the seashell shop, the tea and spice shop, and the candy store. As we were exiting Candy Kitchen, we noticed Santa was in his little house on the boardwalk and was open for business, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there until three. June, who had been debating whether to ask for a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again or new ice skates, decided she’d visit Santa right then and ask for the hair dye. Santa commented he’d never had that request before but he’d see what he could do.

With that accomplished, it was time to think about lunch. We split up, with Beth and June going to a new build-your-own pasta bowl restaurant and me going to the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the ocean view, though I do like the apple-pecan salad. We invited Noah to join us, but he stayed at the condo and heated up leftover pizza.

Beth had developed a bad headache so after lunch she took to her bed and stayed there until dinnertime. I took June to the beach to collect shells, which she needed for someone’s gift. Never mind whose, it could be yours.

We went back to the condo where I was hoping to pick Noah up and take him Christmas shopping but he was still working on his drama presentation so I went alone. Before hitting the stores, though, I lingered on the boardwalk, watching the sky turn pinker and pinker. Late afternoon sunsets are another bonus of December beach weekends.

By the time I returned, Beth was well enough to get out of bed so all four of us went to admire the boardwalk lights and the kids posed for pictures with them. Then we got takeout (Thai and more Grandpa Mac) to eat in front of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

After June was in bed I quizzed Noah for a test on the Spanish-American War and WWI, using a very helpful collaborative study guide he and his classmates made.

Sunday

We were packed and out of the creepy condo by a little after nine. We drove out to Lewes to have crepes at our other favorite coffee shop in Rehoboth, which is no longer in Rehoboth, having inconveniently moved up the highway last year. But when we got there, after a twenty-minute drive, it was dark and the furniture was all gone so I guess it didn’t survive the move and its name change, from Gallery Espresso to Paradigm. I ask you, is that an improvement? I think not. In fact, we kept calling it Paradox and Parabola and Parasail and Noah’s favorite, Parasite. Silly name or not, I was sad to see it closed. I really liked the pumpkin crepes there and it’s another place they always recognized us.

So we found somewhere else to eat, and then Beth took Noah Christmas shopping while June and I went to the Victorian-themed Boardwalk Plaza Hotel to look at their Christmas decorations. Next we took a walk on the beach, stopping at one of the rock-and-concrete jetties to observe the flock of seagulls that was perched there.

June was exuberant, singing Christmas songs and doing cartwheels and back bends on the sand. A passerby pointed out a white smudge on the ocean to the north of us and said it was a flock of thousands of snow geese. It wasn’t much to look at from that distance but maybe ten minutes later June noticed they had taken to the sky and we could see the air full of the migrating white birds. It was a beautiful sight.

We met up with Beth and Noah for Thrasher’s fries on the boardwalk and then we switched kids and I took Noah shopping. He was pretty efficient and between Beth’s trip with him and mine he got almost all his shopping finished by early afternoon. The kids and I went to say goodbye to the ocean, by putting our feet in for fifteen waves (it’s a tradition). June and I were wearing rain boots but Noah was barefoot. He didn’t start screaming from the cold until the eighth wave.

I was downcast on the drive home, even as I scolded myself for feeling that way. It had been a good trip. I got in some beach time and did a good bit of my shopping and helped both the kids nearly finish theirs. But for whatever reason, the weekend felt too short, like I wasn’t finished with it. Maybe I was wishing Beth hadn’t been feeling ill most of Saturday or that Noah hadn’t spent his second weekend in a row on the road, mostly doing homework in a hotel room or rented condo. Or maybe I just wanted to see another December sunset stain the sand in apricot tones before going back to my regular routine.

A Fine Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Keep packing! And don’t take out your phone!” It wasn’t Beth or me urging Noah to stay on task. It was June. We’d been planning to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving that night but not before everyone was packed for our drive to Wheeling the next day. Everyone but Noah was packed.

“But I need to check the weather to pack,” he protested.

“Sure you do,” said June dismissively.

Despite her best efforts to crack the whip, by the time Noah was packed, it was her bedtime so we decided to download the movie to the laptop and take it with us.

Thanksgiving Day

We arrived in Wheeling a little past two, after an uneventful five-hour drive. The day was warm and clear, good driving weather, though Beth might have preferred some white and drifted snow. The closest we got was some big icicles in a road cut at one of the higher elevations.

We went straight to Beth’s mom’s house. Noah wanted to take video of himself walking up to her door and then text it to her and June just wanted to run up to the door in the more traditional way. We said he could do it, but just this once because it seemed like a cumbersome tradition to start.

Inside we socialized with YaYa and Ron. Beth and June gave her a basket they bought for her birthday and Noah gave her a DVD with the last two movies the kids made, including the one in which she played a ghost last summer in Rehoboth. Then Noah showed everyone a video clip of the student-anchored newscast at his school from the morning when they announced the winners of the school-wide Halloween costume contest. Kids submitted photos and they picked three winners—third prize was a witch, second was a pirate lass, and first prize was….a Fiji Water bottle.

“We both won a contest,” June said, in case anyone had forgotten her triumph. “I won the parade contest and Noah won his school contest.”

Next we checked into our hotel to change for dinner. The room had a nice view. You could see the church where Beth’s parents were married and the school she attended from fourth to sixth grade. It made me think how much more rooted a childhood Beth had, compared to mine. I’m honestly not even sure what state my parents were married in, and I went to four different elementary schools to Beth’s two.

June was eager to get into her Thanksgiving outfit, dress with a tight black sequined bodice and a full, gauzy red and black skirt, a white cardigan, white tights, and black shoes with a moderate heel. The rest of us weren’t so fancy, but we cleaned up okay. In the lobby on our way out, Beth had the idea to take some pictures in front of the Christmas tree for our Christmas card, as everyone was already dressed up.

There were sixteen people at Beth’s Aunt Sue’s house—all from Carole’s, Sue’s and YaYa’s branches of the family. (The fourth sister, Jenny, had Thanksgiving at home with her daughter, who’s due with her first child very soon.)

“I am the matriarch,” Carole, the eldest sister, announced. She’s about to become a great grandmother and is pleased as punch about it. Her daughter Meg and twenty-something grandson Kawika were also those who had travelled furthest, all the way from Ireland and Austin, TX, to be in Wheeling for Thanksgiving.

There were two other kids there—Sue’s granddaughters Lily (who’s June’s age) and Tessa, who at six was the youngest person present. The three girls picked up right where they left off when they last saw each other two years ago.

Sue put a lot of care into the cooking and decorations. She’d collected and preserved red maple and Japanese maple leaves in wet paper towels in her fridge to keep them fresh and arranged them on the tables. There were bowls of appetizers out and she had set up a cookie decorating station for the four kids, with sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies, and little pots of frosting, sprinkles, and M&Ms. She asked ahead of time to make sure Noah wasn’t too old for this activity. He most certainly was not, though he used a different technique than the girls, who carefully used the provided paintbrushes to apply a light glaze of frosting. He spackled his on with the spoon.

Though he decorated cookies with the kids, he ate at the adult table, or one of them—there were two. When everyone had their fill of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy (the mushroom gravy was our contribution), sweet potatoes, green beans with almonds, rice pilaf, succotash, nut patties, cucumber salad, cranberry sauce and rolls—out came the pies—pumpkin, apple, and pecan. I failed to take any of the advice I’ve been dishing out recently in ghostwritten blog posts about eating moderately at Thanksgiving. I had seconds on mashed potatoes. I sampled all three kinds of pies, and I don’t believe they were low-sugar versions. Everything was delicious.

After the adults had conversed and told stories and laughed a while and the three girls watched part of Swiss Family Robinson, Lily, who’s just started playing violin, gave a little concert in a side room. I knew she was going to play and intended to go watch, but I thought she was just warming up in there and would come out to the living room to play for a bigger audience, so I missed it. Then I heard June playing. I knew it was June because it was Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which she goes around singing every day and has recently figured out how to play by ear. I got there just as she was finishing.

Soon after it was time to go back to the hotel room. It’s nice not having the youngest kid at a family gathering because it’s easier to leave when you can use someone else’s departure to segue into your own. And by the time Lily and Tessa’s family left, June was leaning against me and saying she wanted to go to bed.

In retrospect we should have recognized that as a sign of an incipient migraine and not lingered for another five minutes as we did. June was quiet on the ride back to the hotel but when Beth pulled up into the lot, she started crying and saying she had an upset stomach. She seemed in quite a bad way all of a sudden and I asked if she’d like to go straight to the restrooms off the lobby, but she wanted to go up to our fifth floor room. She almost made it, too, but she was sick in the hallway about halfway between the elevator and our door.

Then we were busy calling the front desk and washing her face and Beth’s jacket June had had draped around herself in the car and her sweater and tights and my shoes (her dress was miraculously spared), and changing her into pajamas and making up the foldout couch for her and looking for children’s painkiller, because the headache had come now. Once she was in bed, she fell asleep almost immediately and slept all night. I made sure the menagerie of stuffed animals she’d brought with her was at a slight distance from her, but it turned out to be an unnecessary precaution.

(Not So Black) Friday

She woke the next morning recovered, early (about 5:30), and hungry, as she effectively hadn’t eaten dinner. I heard her walking around the room, but she eventually went back to bed and stayed there until 6:20, at which point I gave her a Clementine and Beth offered to take her down to breakfast. Noah and I followed once he was dressed.

As the weekend was going to be something of a busman’s holiday for both Beth and Noah, the plan for the morning was for them to work in the room while I took June to the pool. Beth was still working on the project from the previous weekend. There had been some registration glitches on a rather large scale in a union election and she was directing efforts to sort it all out and make sure everyone who was eligible could vote. Noah was working on a paper and PowerPoint about El Greco.

I started off reading Daniel Deronda in a lounge chair by the pool and then swam sixty or sixty-five laps in the tiny pool. It was so small it was hard to keep track. I was mostly pushing off the side and turning around, but it felt good to be moving through the water. Afterward, I sat in the hot tub and went back to the chairs to read some more. YaYa came to watch June swim and the three of us were there for a good chunk of the morning, almost two and half hours.

We had lunch at Panera and then YaYa took the kids to see the Peanuts movie. Noah wanted to go but was undecided because he’d spent the morning researching El Greco, but he only had a half a slide to show for it. We convinced him to take a break and go.

Beth and I repaired to the hotel room. She had to work and I read some more Daniel Deronda and we shared some orange-cranberry dark chocolate I had been saving for after Thanksgiving. It was quite a pleasant day for an introvert the day after a big family gathering, plus I was starting to believe I’d actually finish Daniel Deronda by the last book club meeting on it the following Wednesday. (I did, too, with a day to spare.)

Dinner was pizza at YaYa’s. Afterward June played her entire repertoire of orchestra songs, which took about ten minutes. Then YaYa thought June might like to hear some David Garrett and June thought YaYa might like to see a video by her own favorite pop violinist Linsdey Stirling. I find this video somewhat less disturbing than I did the first time I saw it, now that I know how it ends. We left June at YaYa’s for a sleepover and headed back to the hotel.

Saturday

Saturday morning Beth and Noah continued to work while June and YaYa entertained each other at her house. They made bird’s nest cookies, then went over to Sue’s house where Lily and June played a duet of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was duly videotaped and sent to us.

We met YaYa for lunch at a crepes place and visited the talking Christmas tree of Beth’s youth, though she wasn’t conversing with passersby until the first week of December. Still, Beth said, it “warmed [her] heart” to see her.

Beth and June went skating after lunch and then over to Carole’s while Noah and I stayed at the hotel. He’d switched to a Citizen Kane paper since it was due sooner. This was slow going, too, and he didn’t want any help, so I was starting to wish I’d gone to Carole’s as I was now feeling a little cooped up and ready to socialize, but I wanted to stay near Noah, just in case. I knew it was going to be challenging day for him as he had a lot of work and not much mental speed. He’s not on his new medication yet as we’re having some insurance trouble with it. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I hope so.

At breakfast I’d asked Beth for advice about how not to be dragged down by Noah’s situation myself and she suggested, “Pretend to be a different person.” Later she told me this was how she got through the last couple weeks at work, so I think it was sincere advice. That’s a hard thing to do, though and I had mixed success at best.

Just before five when Noah had finished the first section and it was a half page too long, he asked for suggestions for cuts and I gave some. Just around the time he finished editing that section, Beth and June came to pick us up and take us to drive through the light display at Oglebay Park. We do this every year, either during Thanksgiving weekend or around Christmas. The kids enjoy seeing their favorite displays and someone always points out the one that says “JOY” and says, “Look, it says ‘June’” because when she was two she thought every word that started with J was her name and wouldn’t hear otherwise.

We were playing Christmas music for the first time this season, and as I listened to all the songs about peace on earth, the kids were squabbling in the back seat, about various things, but mostly about the light tunnels. When Beth was a kid she and her brother used to try to hold their breath in tunnels and now the kids like to do it, too. But the first two tunnels are long and traffic was slow and I thought they’d pass out if they tried to hold their breath through them, so I advised against it. Noah tried anyway, without success, but June declined. A long argument about whether or not this constituted her “forfeiting” and him “winning” ensued and was repeated at the next tunnel. At this one, Noah tried again and June started breathing loudly to taunt him. I asked her why she was doing it and she said, “Because I like to.”

By the time we got to the third tunnel, the snowflake one, traffic was lighter and this is the shortest one, so they both tried, and succeeded in holding their breath the whole time. I was surprised they did not seem to be exhaling even after we were out of the tunnel. They were playing chicken, as it turns out. June breathed first, Noah was a little too exuberant in saying he won, and June, who was worn out, got teary, but she recovered as soon as she saw the Twelve Days of Christmas display. Or maybe it was Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football. She likes that one, too.

After the lights, we returned to YaYa’s house for a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers that had migrated over from Sue’s house. Then we watched another Peanuts Thanksgiving special—the one in which they are characters on the Mayflower. Have you ever seen it? It was made in the 80s, past my time, but it came bundled with the older one, so now we watch it, too. We left Noah at YaYa’s for his sleepover (which June noted with satisfaction would be shorter than hers) and went back to the hotel, where June crashed.

Sunday

The next morning, Beth worked some more, while I read a couple chapters of The Magician’s Nephew to June and then we went to collect Noah at YaYa’s house, say our goodbyes, and hit the road.

As we drove, fog wreathed around the bare branches of the trees and nestled in the clefts of the hills. At higher elevations we were driving right through it. Sometimes we could only see a car or two ahead of us and the headlights of the oncoming cars. But Beth steered us safely home.

“How was your weekend?” I asked Beth, early in drive.

“It was fine,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to work on this assignment.”

“I wish you and Noah were both more free,” I said. But it was a good visit nonetheless. We got to see family, swim, skate, and visit familiar holiday sights in the form of a tree with a human face and lights spelling “Joy.” It was a fine Thanksgiving.

Monday

And then on Monday afternoon, as I was settling into a seat at Starbucks with an eggnog latte and a Cranberry Bliss bar, my phone beeped and I saw the following message from Beth: “Contract passed, huge yes vote. My work was worth it. Very happy and very tired.”

Summer’s End

1. Before Hershey

It was a long summer break, eleven weeks instead of the normal ten; this was because Labor Day falls late this year and our schools always start a week before Labor Day. Despite this, about two weeks ago I told Beth I wasn’t as impatient for the beginning of the school year as I usually am by mid-August. She predicted being at home with both kids who had no camp for two weeks might take care of that.

The first Monday morning it looked as if it certainly would. The kids argued ceaselessly. Then I took June to go see Shaun the Sheep (Noah declined to come) after lunch and came home and made a cake and the separation, the outing, and the sugar seemed to cheer everyone. The cake was an un-birthday cake, because it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, or rather it was the exact midpoint between my and Beth’s birthdays, which is the longest stretch we have without one. The cake was chocolate chip, with chocolate frosting, and it was delicious. And I feel I should note that after that first wretched morning, the kids’ fighting died down to a bearable level. Some days they hardly fought at all.

The next day we met with an educational psychologist who had evaluated Noah earlier in the summer. We are trying to get a 504 plan for his ADHD. We tried four years ago and were denied, but it seemed like time to give it another go, as he’s starting high school this year. We’re also going to talk to a psychiatrist about what medications might be useful for him. The last two years have just been too much, for him and for the whole family, so we’re hoping to find a way he can be challenged but not overwhelmed by school. It will be a while before all the pieces are in place, but we’ve made a start and I feel good about that. His diagnosis has been bumped up from ADHD-NOS (basically ADHD-lite) to ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive, so that might help.

The kids hung out in the waiting room during most of the two-hour meeting (Noah was called in at the very end). We would have left June at home except Beth had taken the afternoon off so we could go see Inside Out after the meeting. The movie was fun and we went out for Burmese afterward.

In the interest of getting some work done, I scheduled overlapping play dates for June the next day, with one girl from 9:30 to 2:00 and with another from 1:00 to 5:00. During the morning, June and her friend were playing with dolls and blocks and singing some pop song I didn’t know. As I worked in the next room, it felt like I was listening to them snap back and forth between being little girls and tweens. They are right on the brink. When the second friend arrived, the all acted out scenes from Inside Out. June was delighted to finally have seen the big kid-movie of the summer and to be able to talk about it with her friends. We are sometimes a little slow to provide her with these experiences. (It came out months ago, I think.)

We continued to march forward with appointments for the kids. Thursday they went to the dentist and Friday to the pediatrician. The previous weekend they both got their hair cut. It was June’s second hair cut of the summer. She had eight inches taken off right before Girl Scout camp, just in time to be brushing it herself, but she decided she wanted it even shorter and to have about a quarter of it dyed blue, purple, and magenta. It’s her new look for starting fourth grade. She is well satisfied with it.

We were a long time at the pediatrician’s office and we were near Dupont Circle, where Beth and I lived from our mid-twenties to our mid-thirties, so we decided to have dinner at Pizza Paradiso, an old favorite of ours. A few things have changed in the interim. The restaurant moved a block down P St; I now need reading glasses to read the menu; and instead of a baby, Beth and I have a teenager who is five inches taller than me and daughter who is looking older with her multicolored hair. The Genovese (potato-pesto) pizza is just as delicious as it ever was, however.

My big accomplishment of the week, or so I thought at the time, was to get Noah’s schedule re-arranged so he could take band. I’d been communicating for weeks with the director of the music department, the CAP (Communications Arts Program) director, his counselor and an assistant principal, trying to find out where the conflict was in his schedule and if it could be changed. The kids were at the dentist with Beth when I found out so I called both Beth and Noah. When Noah got home, he gave me a big hug and said, “I’m in band!”

The weekend was uneventful. I indulged Noah by agreeing to make lemon bars with him and he indulged me by agreeing to listen to Willie Nelson while we did it.

The next Monday, I took the kids on a creek walk, which is something we do every summer. But because neither of them had asked all summer, I started to wonder if they’d outgrown this activity. I needn’t have worried. The kids splashed each other and we found a huge crawfish, deer prints in the mud, and many spider webs. We stood under our own street in the tunnel where the bridge goes over the creek and listened to the cars rumble above us and then we clambered out, with wet bathing suits and wet and sandy crocs to walk home.

2. Hershey: The Sweetest Place on Earth

Tuesday and Wednesday we took an impromptu get-away to Hershey Park. (I know they spell as one word, but I just can’t do it, so I won’t.) Beth had recently found out she had more vacation time than she thought and she needed to use it by year’s end or lose it, so off we went. We had just been to the county fair a week and a half earlier but summer would be over soon, so we seized the day.

The funny thing about this was that when I suggested to Noah he might want to go a little further in his summer homework than he’d planned the weekend before “in case something comes up” he looked at me and said, “Are we going to Hershey Park?” So much for being sneaky.

Noah had an orthodontist appointment in the morning, so we all went there first, and then we hit the road. We arrived at the park around lunchtime, had lunch and hit the rides.

Over the course of the two days we were there June was about as likely as Noah to want to go on rides that made everyone else say “No!” But the difference was when it was Noah, we’d say, “Go for it” but when it was June we’d look at each other and decide who was going, or make her skip it. So she never got to ride the biggest log flume and had to settle for a smaller one.

But she did get to ride the Laff Trakk, which is new this year. It’s an enclosed coaster in a big metal building. There are glow-in-the-dark decorations with a funhouse theme and black light. The cars spin around and go backward about half the time, which is why I wouldn’t ride it. I can’t even ride backward on the Metro. It wasn’t really Beth’s cup of tea either but since Noah wasn’t interested and Beth thought she could get through the ride without vomiting, she went with June. I told her later it was nice of her to go and she said, “Yes, it was,” especially considering there was a forty-five minute wait.

The Wild Mouse, pictured above, became a family favorite this year. It’s a little coaster with a lot of sharp turns but no big drops. We rode that one twice. Believe it or not I was making a worse face the first time.

In the late afternoon we hit the water park where June and did the Whirlwind, one of the bigger water slides. It dumps you into a big sideways funnel at the end and you go whirling all around the sides. (Thus the name.) It was fun but I wasn’t up to lugging a cumbersome double-seated tube up several flights of stairs to do it again so we stuck to smaller slides after that.

After the water park, we rode the Ferris wheel, went through the simulated chocolate factory tour at Chocolate World (both kids absolutely love this for some reason—I think it’s the singing cows), had a late dinner and went back to our hotel. As we were standing at the reception desk to check in, June whispered to me in a stricken voice, “Mommy, I forgot Muffin.” Muffin is June’s stuffed monkey and bosom buddy. He always comes with her when she sleeps away from home.

I pointed out it was lucky she had another monkey. June won Banana Monkey, as she named her, at a whack-a-snake game that very day. She’s no Muffin, but it turned out she was a decent pinch hitter. June had no trouble going to sleep.

In the morning we had some time before the park opened so we went to Hershey Gardens, a botanical garden near the park, which I highly recommend if you’re ever in Hershey and feeling over-stimulated. We enjoyed the rose gardens and the metal sculptures of insects and other animals. We probably spent the most time in the butterfly house and the children’s garden, where we found this cool musical space:

Back at the park, we went straight for the Great Bear, Noah’s favorite coaster because June had gotten to do her top choice ride the day before. The Great Bear is full of crazy twists and inversions. The cars start out hanging below the track but several times you are upside-down on top of the track. If you look up its description, you see a lot of words like “helix” and “corkscrew.” Needless to say, he rode that one alone, as the three of us stood on the ground below and tried to glimpse his green crocs flying through the air high above us. (I was the only one who saw them.) He says it’s so fast there’s no time to be scared but I will have to take his word for it because I am never trying it.

But the kids and I did the sooperdooperLooper and we all rode the Coal Cracker and the Trail Blazer—all of these are tamer rides, even if the sooperdooperLooper does go upside down once. Next I wanted to ride a wooden coaster, because I’ve always loved these best.

After some consideration, Noah and I chose the Comet. I almost gave up when I saw the line, but we decided to stay. Then as we were getting buckled in I almost wished we had given up because as I get older the fear to fun ratio of amusement park rides is definitely shifting and I was thinking, “I am too old for this!” It ended up being perfect, though, just scary enough. I probably would have gotten right back in line if it hadn’t been a half hour wait.

Before we left the park, June got a lock of her hair wrapped in multicolored threads to complete her back-to-school look. It cost her about a month’s allowance.

We stopped at Chocolate World to buy some treats to take home and then around four we started the drive home. The kids still had a few days of break left, but in some way it felt as if we left summer behind when we drove out of that parking lot.

The Ocean Life’s For Me

The Week Before the Beach

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

Getting to the Beach: Friday and Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

Friday: Court Ruling

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

“Yah!” June said.

“Great,” Noah said.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next installment: Bush Gardens and cherry blossoms.

Southland in the Springtime: Part I, Ashville, NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more spring break adventures.

A Merry Little Christmas

Christmas Eve

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

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

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

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

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