Underneath the Sycamore

We are the same
We are both safe
Underneath the sycamore

From “Underneath the Sycamore” by Death Cab for Cutie

What it Means to Be Brave: Saturday to Monday

Sunday morning I was settling into the wrought iron chair and arranging my cell phone, reading glasses and a copy of How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword so I could begin to read it to June. But June was looking upward into the branches of the sycamore. It looked like a good climbing tree, she observed. Could she try it?  Yes, after we read, I said.

For my birthday back in May I asked for a summer weekend in Rehoboth. Our big trip this summer is to Oregon in August so we weren’t planning a Rehoboth trip at all. Beth surprised me with an offer of a few days instead, midweek, when it would be less crowded. But it was hard finding lodging for a few days and we ended up booking a whole week at a condo on the outskirts of town. It was different from the places we usually stay, not a classic beach cottage, but it had its perqs: price, access to a pool, and a big lawn no one but people walking their dogs or feeding the resident stray cats ever seemed to use. June enjoyed watching the cats as well as deer from our veranda.

The lawn also had a huge sycamore with four chairs underneath. The kids and I quickly fell into a pattern of reading under the tree in the morning while Beth biked or grocery shopped or worked. It was Hiccup’s adventures for June, and Katniss’s for Noah. June and I were up to #9 in the How to Train Your Dragon series and Noah and I were up reading the last book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Early in the week, in the afternoons Beth took the kids to the pool (Sunday) or the water park (Monday) while I had some solo time at the beach. We arrived in Rehoboth on Saturday afternoon and it was Tuesday afternoon before anyone but me set foot on the beach. Pretty much the first thing I did on Saturday after we’d unpacked was to have Beth drive me to the boardwalk so I could rent a bike and be able to make the trek back and forth myself.

After two chapters I asked June if she wanted another. She usually does but she was impatient to climb the tree. She needed a boost to get into the lowest branches and I needed to stand on one of the chairs to give it to her, but then she scrambled along the length of a couple of them. She didn’t go too far up it.  I suggested she wait until another day to go higher. She seemed to like both the idea of going higher and the idea of not doing it right then. She’d been happy but also nervous in the tree. She’s like that, not naturally fearless like some kids, but always pushing her own boundaries. Later in the day I told her that’s what it really means to be brave.

Meanwhile, Noah had come outside. June was standing on a branch a couple feet over his head. “I’m taller than you,” she observed. He reached up and jiggled the branch a little. June told him to stop, lest she “plummet” to the ground and then they started to argue over the exact definition of the word “plummet” and whether she was high up enough to “plummet.”  He always has to try to burst her bubble. I guess it’s an older sibling thing. Earlier in the day when she came into the room with a phone on which she’d been playing Bejewelled and said, “I beat your high score,” he responded with something about different scoring algorithms on different versions of the game, which was probably true, but it served to deflate her.

But June had plenty of opportunities to prove herself that day. She swam deep underwater in the pool diving for pennies and that evening she rode the Paratrooper, a fast, tilting, sometimes backwards-travelling kind of Ferris Wheel at Funland. It was her first time on it and she was just barely tall enough at forty-six inches. She loved it. Noah loves it, too, so it was fun to watch them high in the air together, all smiles, their bare feet dangling high above us.

But part of the reason June was smiling was that we’d just gotten out of the Haunted Mansion. June’s been asking to go on this ride for years and years ago I said she could do it when she was eight. I based this on the fact that when Noah first rode it at the age of ten (which was the first year he asked) he was only mildly scared and I remember thinking he could have done it a couple years earlier. But what I failed to take into account in this calculation, and realized as we were standing in line and June pressed her body against mine at the sight of the hanging corpse outside the mansion, was that as a younger child, Noah was always more scared of stories (the Cloud Men in James and the Giant Peach terrified him) while June has always been more spooked by visual frights (think any Disney witch, but especially Maleficent).

I asked her gently if she wanted to get out of line and said it was okay if she did. No, she said, sounding grimly resolved.  I waited a few minutes.  Maybe she’d like to rethink her decision to sit with Noah and sit with me instead, I suggested.  Yes, she said, sounding relieved, she’d like that. Noah protested; he didn’t want to sit with a stranger. But it turned out the three of us fit in the car, just barely, as I am not exactly svelte, and in we went.

June snuggled up against me and I slipped an arm around her. It was dark inside and there was black light so June’s white t-shirt glowed. She liked that. I’m not sure exactly what else June saw in the Haunted Mansion because by her own account her eyes were closed about half the time and sometimes she had her hands over her ears as well. She did not see the giant spider, but she saw the room full of tiny skulls because Noah persuaded her to open her eyes in there. “It’s cool,” he promised her. The effect is made with mirrors and it’s one of his favorite parts. She did keep her eyes open for the zombie, she wanted us to know, even though she “desperately wanted” to close them. I asked her afterward if the ride was just the right amount of scary or too much. Just right, she said. She was proud and elated on exiting, so much so that we had to buy the souvenir photo. She does not mind that she is cowering in it. She says she will show it to her friends and they will be amazed at her bravery.

Meanwhile, Back at the Beach…

I went to the beach every day. On Saturday just for a ten-minute dip in the ocean when I got the bike, Sunday and Monday for most of the afternoon. I swam and took a walk, watched lifeguards train and teenagers on skim boards and the foamy water swirling around mossy rocks of my favorite jetty (yes, I have one) and found a little ruffled clear jellyfish washed up on the sand. I read and wrote and dozed under the shade of an umbrella someone donated to me when she left before her rental period had ended. I had fries and iced tea on the boardwalk and people-watched on the beach.

I think I saw my future self on Sunday afternoon. She was probably in her seventies, with long gray hair, unstyled, and wearing a simple black one piece. She was full of grandmotherly enthusiasm for her grandchildren’s swimming ability and their (really very impressive) deep hole ringed with dribble castles. But when they interrupted her praise to say they wanted to go back to the house, her face fell. “But I thought we’d stay…a lot longer,” she said. She didn’t really look happy again until some other relative agreed to take them and she settled back into her chair to stare at the ocean.

While alone I went to town long enough to do a little shopping, buying some hazelnut-Ceylon tea at the tea and spice shop for myself and looking for an anniversary present for Beth and a birthday present for my mom.

Star of the Sea: Tuesday to Thursday

Tuesday afternoon we all made it down to the beach. The kids and I biked (or scooted in Noah’s case). Part of the ride is along Rehoboth Avenue, a very busy street, so I decided the safest formation would be me in front, since I knew the way, with June in the middle and Noah bringing up the rear. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but all the way to the beach I could hear June yelling, “Get behind me” (though she never added, “Satan”) and Noah yelling “Get in front of me” and I’m pretty sure the distraction of their constantly switching places must have cancelled out any temporary gain in safety.

We hit Candy Kitchen first and then Funland, where Beth met up with us.  She’d been at the Farmers’ market. It was about 2:30 when we settled our towels on the beach, in front of Funland, just north of the Star of the Sea condominiums. June dashed off for the water before I could re-apply the sunblock we’d put on hours ago, she was that eager. She stayed in the water two and a half hours, pausing only a few minutes when I insisted on the sunblock, and then only getting out because the lifeguard had blown the 5 o’clock whistle when everyone has to get out of the water (at least temporarily).

Noah thought he wanted to swim in the deeper water with me, but changed his mind when he decided the waves were too big. June didn’t want to go in the deeper water either that day even though I told her it’s gentler there. I was getting tired of being buffeted by breaking waves so I left them to swim further out and then came back to the towel to read. June complained initially about having to play alone, after Beth and Noah left to go to the cheese monger (sadly closed) and to start dinner, but she reconciled herself to it, and we had a much more peaceful ride home.  “Let’s go, star of the sea,” I said as we began to pedal up Maryland Avenue.

“I’m not the star of the sea, Mommy,” she said, but she was laughing.

The next morning we were on the boardwalk before 8 a.m., breakfasting at the Dolles crepe stand. This lead to June playing in the ocean from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. I wasn’t in my suit and hadn’t intended to stay more than a half hour, but it’s hard for me to make anyone leave the beach.  When we finally left it was because I wanted to avoid the strongest sun of the day.

That day would have been my dad’s seventy-first birthday. I marked it as I often do, with food. He loved coffee and nice restaurants and chocolate ice cream so I had an iced café con leche that morning and for dinner we went to Planet X, Beth’s and my favorite restaurant in Rehoboth, and one we usually only visit when we’re staying with relatives and have babysitting. June liked the funky-fancy décor and by being flexible (sharing entrees so everyone could eat just the parts they wanted) both kids managed to eat. If you go there this summer, I recommend the seitan dishes. We had two of them and they were scrumptious. We followed it up with ice cream and frozen custard on the boardwalk. I had chocolate-peanut butter custard with chocolate jimmies.

Earlier in the day while I returned to the beach, June made her third trip to Funland, this time with Beth. She rode the Sea Dragon, one of those rocking Viking ship ride, for the first time. She liked it, but it made Beth sick. June also added to her stuffed animal winnings. So far she had two medium turtles, a mini rainbow-colored dolphin, and three mini beach balls. She’d been gunning for a large all week.

Thursday was my longest day at the beach. Ironically, this was because rain was predicted in the afternoon. After her morning bike ride, Beth found Noah and me reading under the sycamore and suggested we all hit the beach earlier than usual to beat the rain. We were by a little after ten.  Beth and the kids left three hours later to go home for lunch, but there was no sign of rain so I stayed until 4:45 when I left to meet them at Funland. June had won a small stuffed turtle and both kids had ridden the Graviton, one of those rides where you stand against a wall and centrifugal force pins you to it. I’d spent the day swimming, reading, and finally I saw dolphins and pelicans, for the first time that week. I also got my first sunburn in years on my arms and shoulders an on the part in my hair, even though Beth rented an umbrella. I guess I didn’t notice and move quickly enough when the sun shifted. Still, it was a very nice day.

The Rockets’ Red Glare: Friday to Saturday

Hurricane Arthur finally brought us some rain on the Fourth.  It started around 6:10 a.m. After a round of Sleeping Queens (we’d all been playing a lot of games—Quirkle, Uno, Roundabouts and Sleeping Queens), June and I read on the sheltered veranda, but by the time we’d finished and eaten breakfast the rain was blowing onto it, so I couldn’t read to Noah there and we had to do it inside. June amused herself listening to songs from Cats she needed to memorize for her musical drama camp the next week, playing with her menagerie of new animals, and practicing her violin.

Around 10:20 Beth and June left to go to the movies, a promised rainy day activity. They wanted to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, because June and I have been reading the series since Christmas and we’d just rented the first movie from a Red Box earlier in the week. (We also watched The Dark Crystal, which we found in the house’s stash of movies.) However, their first choice was sold out and they watched Maleficent. June is now completely unfazed by the witch who was terrorized her and caused her to run out of the room every time she tried to watch Sleeping Beauty as a preschooler.

Noah and I headed out to Starbucks while they were gone, braving ankle-deep water in the condo parking lot to get coffee and milk and pastries and sit and read for an hour and a half. Half of Rehoboth had the same idea apparently, so the lines for ordering and pickup were long, but orderly and cheerful, as everyone was on vacation. We did get a seat, too, and could have had the comfy armchairs, but sweetly Noah wanted a table so we could sit closer to each other.

After lunch, Beth drove me down to the beach and parked so the car would be handy after the fireworks. The rain had stopped by then but the surf was high and the lifeguards weren’t letting anyone in the water. They had a job of it, too, keeping people on shore. The atmosphere of the beach was odd—there were many more people than you’d expect on a cloudy afternoon when swimming was prohibited. The umbrella and chair rental stands were closed, too, so a lot of people who might have been swimming or sitting were just milling around. I read on the beach and then went into town to do some more birthday and anniversary shopping. The shops weren’t too bad, but Candy Kitchen, where I was forced to buy some chocolate-walnut fudge so I could break a twenty for bus fare, was mobbed.

I was home briefly and then we all set out for our Fourth of July festivities, dinner at Grotto followed by fireworks on the beach. This would be the first time June had ever seen fireworks. I am so crazy strict about bedtime that Noah had to wait until he was eleven, so I guess I must be loosening up a bit. It’s also possible that the idea of seeing them on the beach swayed me, as I have not seen fireworks since Noah was an infant and doing on the beach seemed really cool.

We’d finished our dinner by 6:15 so we had a three-hour wait until the fireworks were scheduled to start.  Beth and Noah started by reading on the boardwalk while June and I staked out a place on the beach. I got out my book and she was running around singing songs from Cats and practicing her cat moves. Then I got cold and went to buy a long-sleeved t-shirt and Beth and Noah came down to join June on the towel.  We read and played some more. Noah wanted to go buy popcorn and June wanted to go play in the arcade, so I stayed with the towel while everyone else went up to the boardwalk.  Finally it was almost show time.  June bought a glow stick from a vendor at dusk and around nine we could see the fireworks from Dewey (to the south) and Lewes (to the north), which was a surprise because we’d heard all the neighboring towns had postponed theirs, due to Arthur, but I guess they changed their minds.  June kept marveling that she was at the beach, at night, past her bedtime!  And Noah kept her excited by continually announcing the time: it was 9:04, 9:07, 9:10, 9:12 and then exactly on time, the fireworks started.

My favorites were the coordinated ones that seemed to spin in the sky like a Ferris wheel, but I also liked the squiggly, fizzy-sounding ones. We went to the fireworks in D.C. for many years before Noah was born and the year he was two months old (and too young to have a bedtime) so I’ve seen fancier fireworks, but never in a more beautiful setting and never with a more appreciative audience.  June could not pick a favorite. She loved them all and leaned happily against me for the whole show.

We were all happy and feeling as if the outing had been a success as we headed for the car. We had considered walking or biking home, to avoid the traffic, but we were afraid June would be too tired to walk a half an hour starting an hour and half past her bedtime, thus the car.  We’d have been better off with any other plan, including taking a bus, which we didn’t consider. Many streets, including Rehoboth Avenue, the main drag, were closed off and we got stuck almost immediately. Around 10:30, after forty minutes in the car and twenty minutes on the same block, Noah and I bailed and walked home.  June was asleep in her car seat, or we would have taken her, too. I was afraid to call Beth too often because I didn’t want to wake June, but I called once we got home and I offered to come back and get June when Beth said she’d woken and had been crying at being left behind, but she was asleep again, so I didn’t. It was 12:30 before they got home. I’d gone to bed but I couldn’t sleep until they were back.

The next day we were all short two to three hours sleep (June was the only one able to sleep in) and I felt weepy with exhaustion as we packed up the house. I don’t deal well with sleep deprivation and I had more than my share of it raising two children who were both very poor sleepers until they were five or so. (Remember they are five years apart and consider the implications.) I think this is the reason I’m so tightly wound when it comes to any sleep-related issue. So it was ironic that this was how I was rewarded for relaxing and acting like a normal American parent on the Fourth. I think I have to keep doing it, though, because you can’t put that cat back in the bag. I will just have to be brave enough to try it again. In a way, it’s good for just what you fear to happen because then you can see it’s not the worst thing in the world after all.

We got out of the house on time the next morning, though, enjoyed an hour or so on the beach, had lunch, paid one last visit to Funland, where June exchanged two of her medium stuffed animals for the much desired large and we hit the road. As we walked to the car, she told me cheerfully, “Next year I’m going for a giant.” Somehow, I think we might have to start making room in the toy box.

  • Jimmy Bell

    Beautiful prose.

  • Steph

    Thanks for reading, Jim.

  • I love this so much! Sounds so wonderful, and I can just picture it in my mind, you write so beautifully. I’m still smiling about June and her possible “plummet” to the ground 🙂