All the Good Things

Christmas Eve

We drove to Blackwater a day later than planned on a frigid morning. It was eighteen degrees when we left Takoma, and the temperature rose and fell between ten and fourteen for most of the trip. Beth thought the traffic would be bad because, like us, others would have delayed their travel and there would be two days’ worth of travelers on the road, but for whatever reason, we didn’t run into traffic at all. Maybe everyone who could drove early rather than late.

About an hour and a half into the trip we started seeing patches of snow on the ground and by the end when we climbed up into the hills, there was a several-inch layer, and high winds blowing it all around and the temperature fell to minus two. Negative numbers on a thermometer are a novel sight for us Marylanders, so that was exciting. There was also a bit of tricky driving for Beth.

We arrived at the lodge a little after three and I was glad to get out of the car because the leg cramps that were bothering me around Thanksgiving had returned on this trip and it helps to walk when I get them. We learned the power was out at the lodge and some of the cabins, but not the ones in our section of the park so we got the keys, drove there, and unpacked the car. I tried to shovel the porch steps before Beth’s mom arrived, but the snow was too hard packed to get off the risers.

Setting up the tree that had been tied up in our garage for weeks and then on top of the car for hours was a high priority. We wanted to give the limbs a few hours to fall so we could decorate it. Once I’d unpacked the food, North took over the kitchen, making chocolate-peppermint cookies, and Beth decorated the mantle with evergreen boughs she’d cut from the bottom of the tree, adding a string of lights and our figurines of characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and then the house was nearly Christmas-ready.

Beth’s mom, brother John, and sister-in-law Abby arrived an hour or so after we did, after a more challenging drive than ours, because they came from the opposite direction. We sat and talked until dinnertime. Beth heated up chili from cans (blending three different brands) and made almond flour cornbread and salad.

After dinner, Beth strung the lights around the tree, and the kids and I put up the ornaments. John and Abby had their own place in a nearby resort, and they left to go get settled in before we’d finished the tree. We watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns before bed. I skipped part of the latter one because I don’t consider it essential, and it was late, and I wanted to get a shower and go to bed.

In our rush that night, we inadvertently skipped our yearly reading of “A Visit with St. Nicholas,” which we all regretted when we remembered the next day. We also failed to put out cookies for Santa (which North often wants to do, even though it’s been a long time since any of us have believed in Santa) or to open one early present each. I have no strong attachment or objection to this last practice—it’s one we adopted only several years ago. Noah doesn’t like change, so he doesn’t like it and it often leads to sibling strife anyway, so that might have been just as well that we forgot.

Christmas Day

I was the first one up on Christmas morning, which wasn’t really a surprise. I’m sleeping better than I was a month ago, but it’s rare for me to sleep past 6:30 and that’s about when I woke. (Note: every other morning in Blackwater I slept past seven.) I went out to the living room to enjoy the tree lights and look at all your Christmas Eve Facebook posts. One by one, people got up and opened their stocking gifts.

North was responsible for Christmas brunch, so they set to work making scrambled eggs, various vegetarian breakfast meats, sliced fruit, and chocolate-peppermint muffins. Noah and I read while North cooked. John and Abby came over around ten and we ate. Everything was delicious.

Next it was time for presents. This year more presents than usual couldn’t be wrapped either because they were subscriptions—I renewed Beth’s to the New Yorker and we upgraded North’s to the Donor Sibling Registry to lifetime membership—or they had already been received—when my Fitbit broke in November, Beth got me a new one as an early Christmas present. But there was still plenty under the tree. Books, soap, socks and other clothing, tea, chocolate and other treats were popular. Plus, Noah got an extension kit for Settlers of Catan and YaYa got new earbuds.

After presents, John, Abby, and YaYa went for a drive to look at the snow. By early afternoon the temperature had risen into the double digits, if just barely, and Beth and I were both eager to get outside, so we went for a walk. The kids gave this activity a hard pass. At first, we thought we’d just go as far as the canyon overlook, but when we got there, we decided to keep going to the frozen lake, ringed with towering evergreen trees. As we walked over the dam, Beth turned to me and grinned.

I said, “This makes you happy.”

“It does,” she replied. “Look at this! It’s snowy, it’s cold—all the good things.”

We were out almost an hour and when we returned, the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough I’d made at home and decorated them with colored sugar, raisins, dried cranberries, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and pecans. They came out just right and I reflected that it’s easier not to burn some when the kids are old enough to heed my directions to roll them all out to the same thickness. After gingerbread, North and I read a few cantos of the Inferno.

Just before dinner, North felt a headache coming on. They’d saved a dose of their rescue medicine for Christmas, just in case, so they were able to join us for Christmas dinner. YaYa made her famous spinach lasagna and afterward we sampled a chocolate Pandoro. None of us were familiar with this traditional Italian Christmas cake, and we found it a little dry, but it’s always good to try new things. John and Abby went back to their place and after a struggle to download it—the Wi-Fi was awful in the cabin—we watched Christmas is Here Again.

Speaking of the Wi-Fi, earlier in the day I’d had a difficult time getting my day’s photos onto Facebook, but I finally succeeded. I found myself surprised at how much this mattered to me. I had an even worse time the next day, but it seemed to matter more that I have a nice post for Christmas, partly because I enjoy the communal nature of holidays on Facebook, when many people are experiencing and sharing similar things, but also because I knew I’d like to see the photos pop up in my memories on future Christmas days. Ah, modern life…

Second Day of Christmas

John and Abby came over in the morning for breakfast and to say goodbye, as they were headed back to Wheeling. We were considering hiking down to the bottom of Blackwater’s eponymous falls, but John thought it was too cold—it was only ten degrees. He seemed torn and I think Beth could have used her older sister powers to sway him, but she didn’t.

I read with both kids in the morning and in the early afternoon, Beth and I set out to hike the Balanced Rock trail. It took about an hour and a half. We crossed a footbridge over a half-frozen creek lined with impressive icicles, traversed fields of little snow-covered evergreen trees and rhododendron bushes with their leaves curled against the cold, and finally climbed up to the two boulders that give the trail its name. About halfway there, Beth said, “Look at the wintry woods. Isn’t it the best?”

Answering automatically at first, I said, “Yes…well, no.” Beth made an indignant sound before I could explain. “The ocean is best,” I said, “but this is very, very nice.” And it was. In the whole walk, the only people we saw were two snowplow drivers when the trail crossed a park road. They were witness to the only time I slipped and fell.

We visited the lodge before going back home to see if its power was restored, because I was interested in swimming later if the pool was open and Beth thought people might want to go to the gift shop, but there was a sign on the door saying there was still no power.

Back at home, Beth heated up the Spanish drinking chocolate North got her for her birthday, and we enjoyed it with cookies. It was very rich and luxurious. I alternated between trying to get Facebook to agree to post my photos of the hike, with only partial success, and folding the last of three loads of laundry I’d done that day. (This is less than it sounds like—the washer and dryer were tiny.) Noah and I watched two episodes of What We Do in the Shadows and then I made dinner—cauliflower with cheese sauce and vegetarian Italian sausage.

North had a migraine and had hit the limit for their medication, so they went to bed in the late afternoon, and we didn’t see them until after nine. We’d planned to watch Glass Onion, but since North wanted to see it, we decided to wait. We tried to download The Fabelmans but it took so long we didn’t have time to watch it. This gave me a chance to read a few stray sections of the Post I’d brought and wanted to read before starting any of my Christmas books and to get this account of our adventures caught up. Just before bed, Beth wrangled the Wi-Fi into letting her post the rest of my hike photos.

Third Day of Christmas

Beth had to work in the morning, preparing for a press release for a video game workers’ unionization drive. I went back to bed after breakfast and started to read The Daughter of Dr. Moreau, which was one of three books I got for Christmas.

After a while I roused myself to do some dishes and from the kitchen window, I saw a young buck foraging for grass under the snow in the circular driveway in front of the cabin. It caused me to reflect that over the past couple days, I’d probably seen more deer than people. We were always seeing them in front of and behind the house. The snow behind the house was pocked with their hoofprints. One day when Noah was photographing a half-grown fawn, it came toward him up onto the back deck. This made me think people feed them, and eventually North and YaYa were feeding them Pandoro and apple.

When Beth finished her tasks, Noah wasn’t up yet, so the rest of us went to the upper overlook to see the falls around eleven-thirty. It’s a short, level trail, good for YaYa and North. It was lovely, as always. The falls were mostly frozen with two cataracts running down the icy surface. The nearby trees were all frosted with frozen spray and there were huge icicles, stained gold with tannin, on the rockface nearby.

We came home for lunch and Noah got up, so we did the other trail to the falls, the one that goes lower and closer. You descend a wooden staircase with viewing platforms at two different levels. The staircase was covered with packed snow, but that’s better than slush or ice, and we made it down to the bottom without much trouble. From that better vantage point, I could see big spheres of ice swirling around in the water at the base of the waterfall. The larger ones were big enough that if they were rocks, you’d call them boulders.

We visited the falls gift shop and dropped Noah back at the house before Beth and I set off on our longest hike of the day, along the ridge behind Pendleton Lake to the Pase Point overview. The trail has occasional views of the canyon and crosses little creeks, but mostly goes through woods and groves of rhododendron. It took about an hour to get from the cabin to Pase Point, where we emerged from the woods to stand on a ledge between boulders and take in a full view of the snow-covered canyon below.

We were wiped out from almost three hours of hiking, so Beth and I took a little nap before I got up to help Noah make soba noodle soup for dinner. Afterward we watched Glass Onion, which is fun film, especially if like me you went through an Agatha Christie phase in middle and high school.

Fourth Day of Christmas

Beth and I went on separate walks in the morning. Every day we were there it was a little warmer and that day it was just over freezing when I left the cabin, less bundled up than previously. I returned to the falls, finding them with slightly less ice and slightly more water tumbling over the ice, and quite a few more people on the staircase. I guess the warmer temperatures brought folks outside.

I climbed back up the staircase and continued up the park road to the bridge that crosses the Blackwater River, and stood on the span, looking down at the smooth ice with a current of open water wending through the middle. On the way back, I admired a decorated evergreen in a median I hadn’t spotted the first time I passed it.

When I got back to the cabin, I noticed Beth had managed to clear the porch stairs of snow as it had finally softened. She’d also taken some evergreen branches we had piled on a chair and woven them into the railing. It was a festive touch I hoped the park staff would leave up for the next people. I told her she’d spruced up the porch and she laughed at the unintended pun.

In a happy turn of events, the power came back on at the lodge and the pool was open. The sled run was open, too, but tickets were sold out, as were tickets for tubing. In the early afternoon, Beth took YaYa and me to the lodge, so I could swim and YaYa could use the exercise room. Beth floated and stretched in the pool while I swam sixty laps in the tiny pool. It’s in a pleasant, airy room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on evergreen trees. It’s nice to swim in a warm room and be able to see tiny icicles hanging from the gutters of the building and a dusting of snow on tree branches during the backstroke laps. After my swim, we soaked in the hot tub.

When we got back, North was excited to report they had hand-fed a deer an apple and even petted its head. I was surprised. The deer at Blackwater are very tame, but none of us had ever touched one

After a late lunch for me and an even later breakfast for him, Noah and I read and then watched a couple episodes of What We Do in the Shadows. Next in various combinations, we took ornaments and lights off the tree and dragged it into the woods behind the house, worked on the puzzle of movie posters (finishing it despite YaYa’s prediction that it wasn’t possible in the time left), and folded the last of the trip laundry.

We ate leftovers for dinner and afterward, Noah hooked his laptop up to the computer screen so he could show us a slideshow of the over six hundred pictures he took at Blackwater and people could select the ones they wanted. Then we spun off into different groups to read and watch television—North and I read a couple cantos of the Inferno. We got to the eighth circle of hell (of nine), but that’s not as far as it sounds because more than a third of the poem takes place in that circle. Beth and Noah watched Andor, and YaYa watched as much of Great Expectations as she could before the Wi-Fi gave out.

Fifth Day of Christmas

Beth and I both took early morning walks. For me, this meant leaving the house at 7:55—Beth was out earlier than me and came back later. I decided on the canyon overlook as my destination as I’d already been to the falls and the lake twice each and other than those, the overlook is best short walk from the cabin. When I got there the sun was just rising over the top of the ridge and touching the top of the canyon with light.

I was back at the house a half hour later, ate breakfast, and started packing up the cabin. We checked out at ten and after about a half hour of driving, we passed the crest lined with windmills and crossed the Eastern Continental Divide, where we left the snow and our holiday behind.

Oregon Equinox

Two days ago, I got back from a week in Oregon, where I was staying at my mom’s house as she recovered from knee surgery. While I was gone, North had their own medical adventure.

Friday: Arrival

The alarm went off at 5:30 so I could catch an 8:30 flight. Medford is small airport, so it always takes two or three flights to get there. I was lucky to only have one layover, in Denver. As I mentioned earlier it was my first flight since covid. The last time was in February 2019, when Noah and I flew to Boston to tour Boston University.

The flights were uneventful. The most notable thing about the first one was that there was a passenger dressed as a jester, complete with the stick with ribbons on it (but no hat) and the most notable thing about the second flight was that I spilled half a can of seltzer all over myself. I also managed to read about a third of Stephen King’s latest, Fairy Tale, which was a nice way to pass the time. There was a tight connection between the two flights, but I made it and arrived in Medford early in the afternoon local time.

My sister Sara, who had been looking after my mom the previous week, picked me up at the airport and took me on a series of errands. We went to Home Depot for mulch because, though she lives in Davis, California now, she and her husband haven’t sold their Ashland house yet, and they’re trying to keep the property looking spruced up. We spread the mulch and she got the sprinklers watering the lawn and fruit trees and then we tried to go to Trader Joe’s, but it was closed because of a power outage.

We went to Mom’s house and socialized for a while. Sara had more errands to do and while she was gone, I took an hour-and-fifteen-minute nap—I’d been up since what would have been 2:30 a.m. in Oregon and I was exhausted. I woke around seven and I could have easily gone back to sleep for the night, but I needed to adjust to Pacific time, plus Sara had made pizza from a kit, so I got up and had dinner with Mom and Sara.

Starting when I was in my early teens, Mom, Sara, and I had pizza every Friday night. My mom was a single working mom, and she was in grad school to boot so she was busy. I’m surprised we didn’t eat takeout more than once a week honestly. The Friday night pizza tradition lived on after my mom married my stepfather and then in my adult family, but it’s been a long, long time (maybe almost forty years?) since it was just me, my sister, and my mother around the table eating pizza on a Friday night. It was nice, like old times, except completely different.

Sara showed me how to help Mom with her PT exercises and how to massage her leg and where things were in the house and then they watched a movie, but they started it at 9:30, and I was considering it an accomplishment to stay awake until ten, so I had a shower and went to bed.

Weekend: Settling In

The next morning, I woke a little after five, which was earlier than I would have liked, but not surprising. I stayed in bed until almost eight, first trying to get back to sleep, then looking at Facebook and blogs and texting with Noah. He’d sent me two dozen pictures he took at a wildlife sanctuary he’d visited with Ida, the other boarder at his house, and some of her friends. There were koalas, kangaroos, capybaras, an ostrich, a lemur, a red panda, a Komodo dragon, a crocodile, and other animals, and the photos were gorgeous. It made me happy he’s getting out and doing things besides going to class and hanging out at his house because he tends to be a homebody.

Sara got up around eight and once we’d both eaten breakfast and talked some she went grocery shopping for me and Mom before heading back to Davis. I went for a walk and got a latte and a small chocolate cookie from a nearby coffeeshop and picked up some things Mom needed from the drug store all the while admiring the mountains that ring Ashland. There’s one arid ridge and one covered with evergreen trees. I knew there were wild blackberry canes all over Ashland from previous visits, but I was surprised to learn they’re still producing edible (and quite tasty) berries in mid-September. I sampled them all week during my rambles.

Over the course of the day, I helped Mom with her exercises twice, massaged her leg, folded laundry, swept the leaves off her porch and driveway, and walked with her to her mailbox (which is in a bank of them a short block from her house). She also folded some laundry and said with satisfaction, “We’re getting things done today.”

It rained a little in the afternoon, which is not so common in Ashland until the fall, but it was almost fall. The equinox was my second to last day there. Fall did seem closer in Ashland than at home anyway. It was cool enough for long sleeves most days and a few vanguard trees were already turning red or orange. Mom and I settled down with our books in the living room and read while the dryer hummed, and rain ran down the windows that look out on her back patio. It was very cozy, and she even dozed in her chair for a bit.

I made chili for dinner, and we watched State of Play, which was the movie Mom and Sara had started but not finished the night before while I was in bed. (Mom wanted to see how it ended so we started it over from the beginning.) It’s a twisty journalistic thriller, good but not great. Because it takes place in D.C. I was occasionally forced to say things like “No one calls it the subway, it’s the Metro.”

Sunday was similar. I did little chores around the house, read, and took a longer walk. I wandered through a cemetery, walked along the railroad tracks, saw a community garden, and ended up near the same coffeehouse where I’d been the day before. This time I got chocolate ice cream with slivered almonds and whipped cream. I made a cream of mushroom soup and salad for dinner, and we watched the first episode of Ken Burns’ The U.S. and the Holocaust. I so seldom watch broadcast tv it felt strange to have to be ready at a specific time. Mom had been experimenting with different levels and timing of her painkillers, trying to balance pain relief and side effects, but as a result of skimping on it, she had some pretty bad pain that evening.

Monday to Thursday: A New Routine

Monday was the first morning I managed to sleep until a time that started with 6, which correlated to feeling rested for the first time, and that was convenient as I started working that day. There was no reason not to, as I had my laptop, a little office with a door that closes (which is more than I have at home) and enough time. Sara left an extra monitor for me, but I found I missed having a mouse. It also would have been nice to be able to figure out how to get my laptop to communicate with Mom’s printer because I am the sort of old school person who likes reading things on paper and marking them up with a pencil.

Monday morning while I was out on an errand to drop off an application for a handicapped parking permit at the DMV (a failed mission, as it turns out that location is closed due to staffing shortages), Mom went for twenty-five-minute walk with her walker alone. One the one hand, I was encouraged she was able to do it, but on the other I wished she’d waited for me to come home so I could accompany her, just in case.

Mom had a physical therapy appointment that day and the good news was her pain and mobility were improving and the swelling in her leg was completely gone. The bad news was she and the therapist thought she wasn’t getting enough flexion in her knee and that scar tissue might be the culprit. They decided to reduce the frequency of PT appointments until she can get a doctor’s opinion about whether she needs a manipulation (or worse, more surgery) so as to save some of the appointments her insurance covers for after further treatment, if needed.

That night I made a stir-fry for dinner, and we watched a PBS show called Animals with Cameras, which is just what it sounds like. We saw footage from cameras mounted on cheetahs’ heads, seals’ backs, and baboons’ necks. The point is to learn something about the animals’ behavior, sometimes just for the sake of science, but sometimes to learn how to possibly alter it (as with baboons who raid farmers’ squash fields and who are in danger of being shot if the scientists can’t get them to stop).

The days rolled on. I worked two or three hours a day and took walks, short ones with Mom, and longer ones alone. I got coffee or tea most days, sometimes at the coffeehouse, once at a Dutch Brothers kiosk in a parking lot because I understand that’s a quintessential Oregon experience, and sometimes at a Starbucks inside a supermarket because it was the closest coffee-selling establishment to Mom’s house. I made a homemade tomato sauce with garden tomatoes a neighbor brought by to eat on whole-wheat spaghetti Tuesday, burgers with side dish of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots with cheese sauce on Wednesday, and a curried zucchini soup Thursday night. We finished watching the Holocaust documentary series and watched some more Animals with Cameras. Whenever Mom introduced me to anyone (a friend from Peace Choir who came by, a neighbor we encountered on a walk, her housecleaner) she told the person I was her daughter who came “all the way from Maryland” to stay with her. She raved about my cooking, even though it seemed pretty run of the mill to me.

By the end of the week, Mom was walking much better, not using her walker at all and only using her cane on walks outside the house, but she was still concerned that if she did need a manipulation, it would set her recovery back.

Meanwhile, At Home

Things were more eventful… Beth and North got the new covid booster on Saturday, the day after I left, and North was tired and achy for days afterward. On Saturday they made a plum pie for the Takoma Park farmers’ market annual pie contest (held for the first time since covid), but by the next day they were feeling too unwell to attend, so Beth delivered it for them. It didn’t win but it was delicious—Beth bought and froze a slice for me so I could have it when I got home. North missed school Monday and Tuesday, mostly because of lower back pain. Then late Tuesday afternoon, North lost the ability to urinate.

If you’ve been reading this blog at least two years, you probably remember this affliction. We still have catheter supplies, but they had expired, I suppose because they can’t guarantee sterility beyond a certain point. Beth and North went to the emergency room, where they had an excruciatingly long wait to be seen. They had an ultrasound in the evening and an MRI the following morning to rule out physical causes. As expected, there was nothing. They arrived in the late afternoon, and it was the middle of the night before anyone would use a catheter to empty North’s bladder so they were quite uncomfortable.

Both Beth and North brought phone chargers to the hospital because this was not their first rodeo in the ER. At first, they couldn’t find an outlet but then North did so I was able to communicate with them throughout the evening and the next day. I felt a little guilty going to bed that night when I knew Beth was likely going to be up all night in the ER (and she was) but not as much as I would have in the past. We learned two years ago how to spell each other by taking turns on hospital nights and while I expected and hoped North would be at home when I got home three days later, I knew there was a small but non-zero chance that I’d be taking a turn sleeping (or not sleeping) in their hospital room at some point.

What I didn’t expect was that Beth and North would be in the ER, not admitted, from Tuesday afternoon until the wee hours of Thursday morning. Apparently, one of the doctors thought they could not be sent home with catheter supplies without retraining both Beth and North on the procedure and this could not happen unless they were admitted. And they could not be admitted because the hospital was over capacity. By the second night, I was starting to feel guilty I wasn’t there. North managed to get several hours sleep here and there but Beth didn’t sleep for forty-three hours, when they were finally trained (without being admitted after all) and sent home with supplies.

North slept most of Thursday and stayed home Friday as well. Beth made arrangements with the school for them to be able to use the nurse’s bathroom when they return next week.

Friday was North’s half-birthday. We always celebrate the kids’ half-birthday with cupcakes, and this year was no exception. Early in the week I asked North to save me one and they said I had to eat one on the right day, so I got an almond flour cupcake with rose frosting from the natural foods store near Mom’s house and sent North a picture of it, as proof I’d honored the day that they tipped closer to seventeen than sixteen. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that their birthdays and half-birthdays occur on or near the equinoxes as the Earth is making a similar transition.

Thursday to Friday: Departure

Thursday evening Sara returned to Ashland, with Dave and Lily-Mei. They were all attending a wedding on Saturday, so they were staying the weekend with Mom (who was also going). Sara drove me to the airport Friday morning. My flight was delayed by twenty minutes, then forty minutes, and finally an hour and twenty minutes, which was concerning because my layover in Denver was exactly that long.

There was plenty of time to observe my fellow travelers before we boarded the plane. I think the prize for most interesting went to the young man wearing a graphic t-shirt with a plague mask (but no mask for our current plague), a necklace with a plastic bird skull, leather bracelets with hardware, and knee-high leather boots with a spider design embossed on them. He was painting with watercolors in a tiny leather-bound book.

I had a window seat and the flight from Medford to Denver was beautiful, with many mountains and canyons. I didn’t read at all and just looked at the landscape unfold beneath me. As the plane approached Denver and then as we sat on the tarmac waiting for an open gate, various passengers with tight connections commiserated about their chances of making their flights. Mine was scheduled to take off about ten minutes after my seatmate’s, so I don’t know if she made her flight to Wisconsin, but I did make mine to Baltimore, even after getting turned around in the airport and having to figure out how to take a train from one concourse to another.

I wasn’t the only passenger with a late flight (or even the last one to arrive) and they held the plane for us. I got to the gate about ten or fifteen minutes after the plane was supposed to have taken off. Then there was a lot of confusion about seat assignments, with someone in my assigned seat and someone else in the next seat the flight attendant thought should be empty. I ended up seated between a woman in a Mennonite-style prayer cap and a man in a ball cap who was cursing and loudly protesting the delays and who later tried to order more than one alcoholic drink (you can only have one). Once the plane took off, he was calm and friendly, but I was nervous about him for a while.

We ended up sitting on the ground for an hour after I was seated because another passenger had to be removed from the plane under mysterious circumstances. Rumor was spreading through the plane that he was on the wrong plane—but how could that even happen? At any rate, he wasn’t belligerent, but he did appear impaired in some way, possibly sick, drunk, or on drugs. I saw him while the flight attendant was taking me all over the plane trying to find a seat for me and his seatmate piped up that she thought he was in the wrong seat. Another mystery—why would you even look at anyone else’s boarding pass—but she said she had.

But the happy ending was my second plane landed around 11:45 p.m. in Baltimore, only about thirty-five minutes late, and even though she was still dragging from having missed a whole night of sleep a few days earlier and I told her I could take a Lyft home, Beth was there to pick me up. Our family may have been scattered between Australia, Oregon, and Maryland on the day the light and dark were equal but being with Beth always helps me feel balanced.

Take the Win

Saturday

Around quarter to five in the afternoon, I settled myself on the damp sand, close to where the last little edges of the waves were reaching. My mom, sister, brother-in-law Dave, and niece Lily-Mei were in route from Philadelphia where they’d flown in the day before, Beth was out getting some groceries, and North had started making dinner. I don’t remember what Noah was doing, but he didn’t want to come with me.

I was wearing my swim bottoms and a t-shirt. I didn’t intend to go in the water because I wasn’t staying long—though if the waves looked good I probably would have, bathing suit or no bathing suit. As it was, the water was pretty calm. I sat and stared at it for a solid half hour and managed to get my mind nearly empty of thought. I think that might what it’s like to meditate, though I’ve never tried.

I walked in the front door just behind Sara and the others, having timed my exit from the beach just right. We showed them around the house and since there was a ping pong table in the basement and we had a nine year old who’d been cooped on planes and the car for much of the past two days, we had to play right away. While Lily-Mei was playing with my mom, she said, “You realize I’m going easy on you,” even though Sara had come up with a co-operative way to play. Rather than trying to score points against each other, each pair tried to keep a volley going as long as it could.  The room also had a dart board, which North used throughout the week. They liked it so much they want one for Christmas.

North served a casual feast: veggie cheeseburgers, corn on the cob, watermelon, and a tomato-mozzarella salad with pesto. They also made a pitcher of watermelon agua fresca. We ate at the long dining room table, which was in a room with a soaring wooden ceiling and a wall of windows overlooking a narrow finger of Silver Lake. Throughout the week we’d see herons, geese, ducks, turtles, dragonflies, and enormous fish that swam with their backs sticking out of the water (looking like small eerie alligators) either from the dining room windows, or the lawn behind the house.

Once it was dark, Beth, North, Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei and I went for a short walk on the beach. There was a group of teenage girls standing in a circle near the water singing Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” with surprising enthusiasm. I wondered they were buoying one of their number whose boyfriend had recently cheated. I also wondered why girls so young even knew this song, but Beth speculated that maybe someone has remade it recently.

Back at the house, Noah and Sara’s family started a game of Sorry, but Beth and I were ready for bed, being an early-to-bed-early-to-rise sort of people. Sara and Dave were keeping Lily-Mei on West Coast time, so she was up later than us every night.

Sunday

Beth went kayaking in the morning. She’d rented a kayak for the week and this day she explored the waters right outside our house. I organized people into putting items on a grocery list and helped Mom brainstorm ideas for her meal for our party which included four vegetarians, one person with diabetes, one person with a gluten sensitivity, and at least the requisite amount of likes and dislikes in a large group (only the diabetes is new since the last time she cooked for all of us but it seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back because she was stumped). Then Sara and Dave went out to buy the groceries. Mom and I took a walk to the tea and spice store to get a tea ball to infuse herbs and Parmesan rind into a soup Noah and I would be making later in the day.

Mom, who is going to get a knee replaced soon, needed a lot of stops to rest, but that wasn’t a problem as there were benches and shaded pavilions all along the boardwalk and it gave us a chance to talk. She picked up a strawberry-banana smoothie to sip as we rested at one of them.

When we got back Noah and I read a little and then Beth, North, and I went to the beach. I couldn’t stay long because it was my night to cook, but we all waded together for a little while and then North and I went out deeper for a bit. The water was still on the calm side, but it was nice to be in the water on a hot day. I walked home on my own, leaving Beth and North at the beach.

Back at the house, Noah and I made minestrone. When Beth and North got home, Beth settled into the hammock we’d brought from home and set up near the water. She stayed there until dinner. The after-dinner entertainment was a screening of North’s drama camp performance of Pippin and a slideshow of Mom’s pictures from her trip to Morocco this spring. It looks like a very beautiful country.  After that, Sara and Dave and Lily-Mei made a Candy Kitchen run. Beth and I were in bed before they returned.

Monday

Beth left to go kayaking in the canal in Lewes (having decided Rehoboth Bay was too rough) before anyone but me was up. Around 10:35, Lily-Mei and Dave decided it was the day for the water park and they wanted to go right away, but North wasn’t even awake yet and it’s possible Sara wasn’t either. In any case, they both needed to eat breakfast and get ready, so the actual departure was around 12:15.  While they waited, Noah pushed Lily-Mei in the hammock like it was a swing. She kept saying, “higher” and he said, “I don’t want you to fall out,” and she replied, “higher!”

Mom and I took a walk to the turtle bridge, so called because turtles congregate in the water below. It was within sight of our house, so a very short walk. (Mom though she might have overdone it the day before.) We saw a lot of turtles, but also ducks and geese. One had a quarter of its shell that was a completely different, more colorful, pattern than the rest. I wasn’t sure if it was molting—do turtles molt?—or if the shell was broken and that’s what was underneath or if it that patch was just cleaner than the rest. The turtles, especially the bigger and presumably older ones, were all covered with muck and algae.

After the water park party departed, I headed to a pavilion on the boardwalk to blog in a scenic, shaded, breezy place. Once I got caught up I went back to the house to change into my suit. When I got back to the house, Beth had returned from kayaking and was eating lunch out back by our little sliver of lake.

I returned to the beach and stayed from three to six. I swam for about an hour. The waves were a little bigger than the day before and close together so it was hard to get in, but once I did it was nice. After my swim, I got a pistachio gelato on the boardwalk and sat on a bench looking at the ocean to eat it. As I did I encountered my inner child in the form of a three or four-year-old boy who was explaining to his parents, “We should build a house here so whenever we come to Delaware, we don’t have to leave” in the tone of one explaining the obvious solution to people who are slightly dim-witted. When I got back to my towel, I started Piranesi, which is the first book I’ve read on my own since the last time we were at the beach in early July. It’s short, so I read about a third of it and then it was time to head back for dinner.

Dinner was Beth’s traditional beach meal: gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, olives, baguette, and a cheese plate. It’s always much anticipated. After dinner, we split up. Sara’s family played ping pong, while Beth and my kids went to the boardwalk for ice cream. I stayed behind because I’d already had a boardwalk treat and it was my turn to do the dishes.

I watched Sara, Dave, Mom, and Lily-Mei play Pictionary, then took Mom’s place when she’d had enough, then Noah took mine when my family got back from the boardwalk. Dave said he wasn’t sure what it meant that he was “burning through partners.”

Tuesday

Beth, Noah, and I took a long walk the next morning. It was already very hot and humid when we set out around nine a.m., but we were undaunted. We hit Café a Go-Go, where I got an iced latte, Beth got a chocolate chip cookie, and Noah got a cranberry-orange muffin. Next we went to BrowseAbout, where I picked up a couple books I’d ordered and Beth tried to decide how to spend the gift certificate I got her for our anniversary and decided to hold onto it for now, and Noah got the third book in the Game of Thrones series and looked at an extension kit for Settlers of Catan he’s had his eye on for a while. (They’re surprisingly expensive.) Finally, we went to the farmers’ market and got some excellent raspberries and two giant soft pretzels, one for Noah and one to take home to North. I was intending to get the blueberry doughnuts I resisted in July since there were more people in the house this time to eat them up, but they didn’t have them that day.

Back at home we had lunch, I folded laundry on the ping pong table, which I recommend if you find yourself with a ping pong table and laundry to fold—it’s just the right height and it’s divided into neat quadrants. Noah and Dave finished the puzzle, which consisted of images from Funland. It must have been an easy one because we’d only started it that same day. I put in three pieces and fitted two together outside the puzzle, which is more than I generally do, which may also be an indication that the puzzle was easier than usual.

In the mid-afternoon  I went to the beach, joining North, who was already there. We swam about an hour in small to moderate waves, then North went up to the boardwalk to wait for Beth to come pick them up and drive them back to the house. I went up to the boardwalk a little later to read another forty pages of Piranesi on a bench in the shade.

When I got home, Lily-Mei was showing off the impressive haul of stuffed animals she won at Funland, almost more than she could hold. Mom made fruit salad and three asparagus quiches for dinner and we ate two of them. (The other one disappeared over the course of the next couple days.) North had gone to bed with a headache and didn’t come to dinner. After dinner, Beth went for a walk, Noah and I watched Only Murders in the Building, and Sara’s family played a board game called Outburst and went to the boardwalk. After we’d gone to bed I could hear Sara animatedly reading a Harry Potter book to Lily-Mei. I couldn’t make out any of the words, except “Gryffindor” and “Slytherin” over and over so I’m guessing it might have been about a Quidditch match.

Wednesday

In the morning Beth went kayaking on the lake outside the house again. This time Noah walked along the shore, following her and taking pictures and drone footage. It was good she got some time in nature because she had to spend a lot of the afternoon and evening ferrying people around. She drove my mom and me to our traditional lunch spot because the walk would have been too much for Mom. After lunch all eight of us met up for ice cream and funnel cake on the boardwalk and she drove our kids there. Then everyone but Beth and me went to the movies—they saw Marcel the Shell—but even though she didn’t go to the movies Beth drove our kids because Sara and Dave’s rental car wouldn’t fit six. She dropped North’s required covid test for sleepaway camp in the mail, and then she picked up the kids at the movies and me at the house and drove us to dinner at a make-your-own-bowl place out on the highway, and drove us all plus my mom to Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt and then home. On that drive, we all admired the gorgeous moon, huge, golden, and nearly full, hanging low in the sky.

Earlier that day, while most of our party was at the movies, I went to the beach. It had been sprinkling a little while Mom and I were walking and it started again while I was in the water. It was such a light rain it was hard to tell it even was raining, since I was wet already, but I could see the rings forming and spreading on the surface of the slate gray water. Parts of the sky were blue, with puffy white clouds, but most of it was full of dark clouds. The water was very still, with the smallest swells. I floated on my back and studied the cloudbanks. When the lifeguards blew the five o’ clock whistle, I got out of the water and started to read on my towel, but the sprinkles turned to drizzle and I sought refuge in a pavilion one block down the boardwalk. After I spread out my towel along the back of the bench and got my book out, I looked up and noticed a huge rainbow over the beach. It was a day of beauty in the sky.

Thursday

We had bad news from my cousin Holly in the morning. Her fourteen-year-old daughter Annabelle, who has multiple disabilities and is medically fragile, was in the hospital with unexplained breathing problems. (It turned out to be septic pneumonia.) The hospital was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, only three hours away, and Holly’s a single mom without a lot of support in the area, so Sara was thinking of leaving the beach to go be with her, but then she found out Holly’s adult stepdaughter was going to come out, so she didn’t.

Meanwhile, Mom took my kids out to breakfast at Egg. When they got back Beth took North to an urgent care to get a camp physical because despite weeks of trying to get the required health form signed and faxed to camp, we’d found out from the camp nurse the day before that it never arrived. The short version of this story is that our pediatrician is on leave and her substitute had promised to send the form but never did, despite multiple calls. The week before we left for the beach, when the form was already overdue, Beth even dropped into the office, unannounced, and tried to stage a sit-in, but she left when assured the form would be sent. Anyway, it never was.

This urgent care did not take appointments, so Beth and North had to sign in and then sit in a hot car for almost three hours until they were called in and told the doctor could not sign the form because of North’s complex medical history and multiple prescriptions. They came home very discouraged as camp was starting in three days and it was seeming as if they might not be able to go.

While they were gone I walked to Café a Go-Go, got myself a latte and brought one home for North. I also had half a piece of coffee cake and saved the other half for Beth, who was having a rough day, for reasons beyond what I’ve mentioned.

Mom, Sara’s family, and I went to the beach. Sara and I had a nice talk, mostly about our kids, while in the ocean, and then she read a Harry Potter book to Lily-Mei, and then she and Dave and Lily-Mei made a sand castle with dribble towers and series of pools and canals and walls that captured water to use for the dribbles. Mom and I read our books and I texted back and forth with Beth about the camp problem and other problems and then I went for a walk along the shore and back down the boardwalk.

When we returned from the beach, Beth was on the phone with the camp nurse. She’d explained that her next step was to drive back to D.C. and attempt another sit-in at the doctor’s office when the nurse said if she could just see some kind of official record of North’s prescriptions, they could waive the form. Within seconds Beth was on the Children’s National Medical Center portal and making a PDF of the records and sending to the nurse. The nurse texted her “See you on Sunday” and there was much rejoicing in the house.

Sara and Dave set up a make-your-own spring roll station for dinner, which was fun. I actually skipped the wrapper and ate only the fillings and sauce because we were having S’mores after dinner and I came into dinner with higher blood sugar than I anticipated, due to a poorly timed afternoon snack.

We made the S’mores over the backyard propane fire pit filled with volcanic rook and blue glass pebbles. It was very pretty with the flames dancing among the colored glass and reflected in them and it was peaceful to sit by the water, surrounded by tall oak trees. However, those trees were blocking our view of the sky, and North wanted to see the moon because it was full that night and a super moon to boot. So Noah and North walked to the turtle bridge to see if they could see it from there, but it wasn’t high enough yet.

People peeled off gradually. Mom went inside to call her gentleman friend Jon who was recovering from his last radiation treatment and wasn’t doing well. Sara, Lily-Mei, and Noah went inside to watch a Harry Potter movie (#3). Beth called her brother. North and I went back to the turtle bridge and this time we could see the moon and it was lovely. Finally, North went back inside and Beth came out for a little bit, and then she and I went to bed, and Dave was the last one lingering by the fire.

In bed Beth was speculating about why the camp nurse had agreed to waive the signature on the form, when there was more on it besides the prescriptions, then she decided not to think about it, saying she’d “take the win.”

Friday

Friday morning Beth went kayaking on the lake one last time and then Noah helped her get the kayak up on top of the car so she could return it. I caught up on my blog, and then everyone but Mom and Sara went out for crepes or pizza for lunch.

After lunch, we dropped by Candy Kitchen to buy taffy and truffles and then Beth left and Dave and I accompanied the younger generation to Funland. We rode the Haunted Mansion twice in a row because both Lily-Mei and North wanted to sit with me. I could let you think I’m that popular, but it was because I was wearing my glow-in-the-dark Haunted Mansion t-shirt and they wanted to see what it looked like inside the Mansion, even though there’s black light in there so North’s whole white shirt glowed, as did the white trim on Lily-Mei’s shorts. She yelped when the big bat swooped down at us and at some of the other jump scares, and afterward she said it was scarier than she remembered from last year. She’d been telling us before we went in that it was “tame.” In my experience, eight to ten is the perfect age for the Haunted Mansion, and she’s nine.

The kids did some more rides (the Paratrooper and the Freespin) and then we took a break for games, because apparently Lily-Mei hadn’t won enough stuffed animals yet. (She came home with two more.) At that point, Noah and I walked home and read, while Lily-Mei and North went on more rides and then North called for Beth to give them a ride home, leaving Dave and Lily-Mei there. When Beth and North got back, my family of four plus Sara all went for a quick trip to the beach. Steps from the boardwalk, we ran into Dave and Lily-Mei who were returning home from Funland, so Lily-Mei switched parents and came to the beach with us.

It was almost five when we got there and we were going out to dinner so we only stayed a little over an hour, but it was a nice time. The weather was lovely—the heat having let up a couple days earlier—and Sara and Lily-Mei discovered a set of large, interconnected holes (big enough to climb into) with walls that rose a little above ground level that someone had dug and they set to work decorating the walls with dribbles. North and I got into the water and enjoyed the best waves of the trip. I got out just in time to read the last fifteen pages of Piranesi, which was gratifying, while Sara and Lily-Mei splashed in the water.

Earlier that afternoon Noah had reminded us that we hadn’t taken the family portrait yet, so after everyone was home and showered, he set up his tripod behind the house and we took it.

Sara and Dave went on a dinner date by themselves, while the rest of us had pizza and stromboli on the patio of Grotto. It was pleasant out there, with strings of white lights crisscrossed over the tables. Some people got dessert on the boardwalk and then Noah and I walked home, while everyone else drove. Noah and I stopped at the turtle bridge on the way home to look at the now-full moon.

Back at home Mom was trying to get information about Jon, who was now was in the hospital with a bacterial infection, probably due to the radiation suppressing his immune system. She was talking to the neighbor who she’d asked to check in on him and his daughter throughout the afternoon and evening. It was a hard week on people we care about.

We set to work folding laundry (on the ping pong table again) and packing, but we finished in time to show Mom the movie Noah made in his Advanced Cinema Production class last spring. In the middle, Sara and Dave came home so we started it over. Once everyone had seen it, Beth and I went to bed, around the same time Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei were leaving for one last trip to Funland. They managed to stay on West Coast time the whole trip, but this meant we’d be checking out of the house the next day at what would feel like seven a.m. to them. I wondered how that would work out.

Saturday 

Despite this obstacle and the usual chaos packing up and emptying the fridge, we did manage to get out of the house only fifteen minutes late. We said our goodbyes on the front lawn and went our separate ways. The West Coast folks were going to Philadelphia where they’d visit the Harry Potter exhibit at the Franklin Institute, stay overnight then fly home on Sunday, all except Sara who was going to visit Holly. (This was planned before Annie got sick.)  We were headed for Maryland, at least until today, when Beth is taking North to camp and then driving to Wheeling, where she will stay with her mom for a week while attending a conference in Pittsburgh.

Speaking of Beth’s mom, we were all sorry she wasn’t able to join us this year and it wasn’t the most relaxing vacation with all the stress about North’s camp and worry about Annie and John and others, but it was also the first time I’d seen my mom, sister, brother-in-law, and niece in over a year, and that time is always precious. And I got to go to the beach every day and Beth kayaked most days, so even though we didn’t build a house so we wouldn’t have to leave, I count that as a win.

Going West: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 70

Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.

Attributed to Horace Greeley, New-York Daily Tribune,  July 13, 1865

I actually think Washington and its surroundings are a very fine place to live, but we like other places, too, and spring break is a good time to visit them. Often we go east, to Delaware or Maryland beaches, but we have gone as far north as Vermont and as far south as North Carolina. This year we went west, for three reasons: to visit Beth’s mom in Wheeling; for North’s first college tour at Beth’s and my alma mater, Oberlin; and to visit North’s half-sibling Avery in Ypsilanti.

Before I write about the trip, though, a word about the mourning dove chicks. Sunday afternoon, just one day after my last blog post, I went out on the porch and noticed the nest was empty. I am really not sure what to think about this. There were no signs of struggle, no blood or feathers on the porch floor, but I didn’t think they were quite ready to fledge. I hadn’t seen any of the hesitant initial flights to the floor and back to the nest I often see, but on the other hand they weren’t tiny and helpless any more. In my mind, it could have gone either way. It could even be that the smaller one got snatched and the bigger one flew away from the scene of the crime. Since I’ll never know, I am hoping for the best.

Monday: Takoma Park, MD to Wheeling, WV (via Morgantown, WV)

Back to our travels: we hit the road around 10:30 and immediately turned around because a block or two from the house North and I realized we had not packed any masks. We were the only people wearing masks when we stopped at The Blue Goose Fruit Market and Bakery for treats and I was one of two masked customers when I went into Taco Bell to pick up our lunch order.

As we drove west, Trump signs got more common and spring seemed to rewind a bit. When we stopped in Morgantown to visit Stephanie, a friend of ours from college who teaches at WVU now, she had crocuses in front of her house and there were cherry trees in bloom nearby. It was nice to see them again as their bloom is so fleeting and our cherry trees were done. It was also nice to see Stephanie and drink peppermint tea and eat crumbly cheddar and talk about the books she’s teaching and her students and climate change (she teaches Environmental Humanities) and North’s thoughts about college.

We arrived in Wheeling around 6:30. YaYa had prepared a nice dinner for us, a vegetable-white bean soup, salad, and bread. We’d brought some leftover banana pudding cake North and their friend Ranvita had made on Sunday and when Beth’s aunt Carole came over after dinner, we all had some.

Tuesday: Wheeling

In the morning I read my book club book (Palace Walk) and Beth and YaYa went for a walk in Wheeling Park. Carole came over a little after noon to dye Easter eggs with us. North made the trans flag on one and got tie dye and batik effects on a few more. Beth made the Ukrainian flag with a heart sticker. I made very busy yellow and green one covered with spring-themed stickers. I initially put on just a few then decided more is more. Our collection of little felt hats was pressed into service, as it is every year. YaYa chose a green beret with a pipe cleaner spiral on top. Carole went with a more classic, unadorned look for her pink and half-green, half-blue eggs.

Later in the afternoon, YaYa, Beth and I went to Oglebay park to walk among the daffodils and tulips and around the little lake with its swan boats and ducks and a turtle sunning itself on a log. Beth’s aunt Jenny came by for a fly-by visit  and then we had dinner at Carole’s house, which is two doors down from YaYa’s. She made spinach ravioli with sauteed vegetables and a salad and then she put out ice cream and gingersnaps. We lingered at the table for an hour or so after we’d finished and the two members of the older generation asked the lone representative of the younger one about high school and North was quite expansive about the classes they liked and the ones they didn’t and everything else they were asked about. We went back to YaYa’s house and Beth’s friend Michelle from her own high school days came over and we had a wide-ranging discussion about everyone’s health issues and life changes and work and relationships, in other words all the important things.

Wednesday: Wheeling to Oberlin, OH

Beth’s aunt Susan came by the next morning, full of news about her great grandchildren. And with that visit we’d seen all three of YaYa’s sisters in the space of two days. After Susan left, Beth and YaYa went back to Oglebay because YaYa had wanted to go to the gift shop the day before and it had been closed. While they were gone, I took a long walk in Wheeling Park and the adjacent cemetery.

After lunch, we hit the road for Oberlin. With pit stops so Beth could take a work call and so North and I could get coffee and use a restroom it took three and a half hours to get to our AirBnB. Beth went out for some groceries and I made egg salad out of some of our Easter eggs for dinner. I served it on toast with broccoli on the side.

We took an after-dinner stroll through Oberlin, traversing Tappan Square and walking through town. I felt right at home when I saw a short-haired young woman in Birkenstocks with a guitar slung over her back. Beth told North about three separate times that she thought they could be happy in Oberlin because “it’s a happy place.” We pointed out the movie theater where we had our second date (in July 1987) because every trip to Oberlin is a trip down memory lane for us and the kids just know to expect that.

We got back to the house just in time for me to log onto my book club meeting. It’s hybrid now and it’s not ideal because there are almost always technical snafus at the beginning and it’s hard to hear the people who are in person when you’re remote and I haven’t gotten the hang of how to jump into the conversation when I’m not in the room, so I just settled in to listen. Even with all the drawbacks I was glad to be able to do it. It’s better than missing it entirely. While I was in book club, Beth worked a little and then she and North played Battleship on their phones.

Thursday: Oberlin

In the morning Beth took a walk around campus and I read until North got up and then we went to the campus art museum. I had a strong desire to take North there because I visited it when I was a prospective at Oberlin and I was really taken with it. I remember thinking if I went to Oberlin I’d go there all the time, and while I didn’t go as often as I anticipated, I did go often enough to have favorite pieces. I showed North St. Sebastian Tended by Irene which I wrote an essay about for an art history class and this sculpture I really loved. Beth showed North her favorite painting and we browsed the rest of the eclectic collection.

From the museum we went to the campus bookstore, where North selected Wilder Girls, which is a book I’ve considered reading and now that it’s going to be in the house, I probably will. North says it’s horror with lesbian characters—“What more could you want?”

We were wandering around looking for somewhere to eat lunch (almost none of the haunts of our college days are still open, so there was no obvious choice) when I noticed North was slowing down and limping and in the interest of letting them get some rest before the walking tour, we decided to eat at a nearby Mexican place, rather than continuing to compare menus. I had a spinach quesadilla with a side order of refried beans. I wasn’t sure how the white flour tortilla would affect my blood sugar and I still don’t know because my sensor had just expired and I didn’t have a new one on yet.

We attended an information session held in a lecture hall where I had an intro Psychology class my first year. The presenter talked really fast for an hour, talking about the things every college touts at these things—student faculty ratio, the abundance of clubs and cultural events, how environmentally friendly the school is, although Oberlin’s goal to be carbon neutral in the next few years goes above and beyond. He also covered the Experimental College with its student-taught classes, the student-run co-op housing and dining halls, and opportunities to work closely with faculty. I never took an ExCo class but I knew people who did and I did eat and live in co-ops and my senior year I helped a professor teach literary translation workshop I took as a sophomore, so it all rang pretty true for me.

The walking tour was next. Beth asked the guide if he could go a little slow so North could keep up and he did. The tour didn’t take any longer than advertised, though, so either he cut some of his normal stops or he always walks pretty slowly. Oberlin is a smaller campus than many we toured with Noah, so maybe the guides don’t have to rush as much. We went from North quad to South quad, stopped at the library and saw a model dorm room. I peeled off from the group at the library because the id card office is there and I wanted to get an alumni id so I could use the pool later. The tour left before I finished and I had to catch up with it following Beth’s texted directions.

After the tour, I asked North if the presentation and tour made them more or less interested in Oberlin and they said they said about the same. What’s drawing them to it is the pre-law program, which I don’t think even existed when Beth and I were students. As North and I walked to the house, Beth went back to the library and got her own id card.

After a short rest, we went to the gym and Beth rode an exercise bike while I swam in the pool where I used to swim laps in college. The locker rooms have been renovated beyond recognition, but the pool looks pretty much the same. I looked at the board of swim team records and noticed a few date back to the early nineties, just after I graduated. It pleased me to think of someone just a couple years younger than me still holding a pool record. It was not a record day for me. The pool in Takoma where I swam closed at the beginning of the pandemic and never re-opened so I have only swum laps a handful of times in the past two years and I could feel it. I did about two-thirds of my usual routine and called it quits. My time wasn’t bad, but I was tired and Beth was finished so I didn’t want to make her wait.

While I am normally not at all self-conscious in changing rooms, I discovered I am when the average age of women in the room is about twenty (and most of them are members of the swim team, which had just finished practicing). I considered the irony of the fact that when I was that age (but not on the swim team) I actually wrote a poem called “In the Women’s Locker Room at Carr Pool” which was about all the different types of bodies in the locker room, students and faculty and little kids, all ages and shapes, and how they were all beautiful. I need to try to see myself with my younger self’s eyes.

Back at the house, we got excellent Thai takeout and watched an episode of The Gilmore Girls and then the second half of Being the Ricardos (which we’d started about a week earlier).

Friday: Oberlin to Ypsilanti, MI (via Lake Erie)

We lingered in bed that morning, and before we left Oberlin, we went out for coffee at a place called Slow Train Café, which might have been named for how long it takes to get your coffee. It wasn’t the baristas’ fault by any means. They were swamped. The coffee was good when we got it. We also checked out another bookstore, where we got a couple Oberlin t-shirts, one for Beth and one for my niece. (My sister also went to Oberlin.) Lily-Mei’s shirt had a squirrel on it because the squirrel is the unofficial mascot of the college. It’s because there are albino squirrels you can occasionally glimpse on campus. (We didn’t see it any on this trip.)

We hit the road, had lunch at Panera, and stopped at Maumee Bay State Park on Lake Erie, where North sat on swing with a view of the water and then collected little shells on the beach, while Beth and I took a short walk along the shore.

We got to our AirBnB in Ypsilanti a little after four. We unpacked a bit and I set out a variety of snacks from our store of food—garlic cheddar, olives, smoked almonds—and some raspberry lemonade we found in the fridge because North’s half sibling Avery and one of their moms was coming over.

We sat in the living room and got to know each other. As you can see, there is definitely a physical resemblance between the kids, which I knew ahead of time from pictures, but it seemed stronger in person, probably because Avery’s intonation and hand gestures are similar to North’s. When you see the whole package it’s kind of eerie. Besides having lesbian moms (not so surprising for donor-conceived kids) they have more in common. Avery is non-binary, into theater and likes to bake. Like North and the donor, they had red hair as a baby that changed to light blonde and then darkened as they got older. They also have joint issues and migraines.

Avery has met several of the group of fourteen known half-siblings, so I imagine it was less novel for their mom than it was for us, but it was a pleasant chat. Everyone got along and we all met up with Avery’s other mom at a pizza place for dinner. The kids had plans to spend all of the next day together, but North came back to the AirBnB with us for the night, where we watched an episode of Gilmore Girls before bed.

It was a very Good Friday.

Saturday: Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, MI

Avery came by the next morning to pick up North. It was the first time I’ve watched North leave in a car driven by a peer, as none of their friends drive yet.

North and Avery spent the day wandering around Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, shopping for books and crystals. They had lunch in a diner and then went back to Avery’s house where they had takeout pasta for dinner and watched a horror movie. North slept over at their house.

Left to our own devices for twenty-four hours, we got a leisurely start to the day. Beth took a walk. I did laundry, messaged back and forth with my friend Megan about meeting Avery, and read my book club book. After lunch, we went on our own little adventure. We visited the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and explored a small area of Ann Arbor. At the botanical gardens we walked through the conservatory, looking at cacti, a lemon tree, and other plants. Beth was quite taken with a kaleidoscope that’s aimed at a planter full of succulents. The images of the plants make the design when you spin it. Outside in the formal gardens, the daffodils were just getting started, but not much else was blooming, so we didn’t spend long there and took a walk on a wooded path that passed by a creek and some ponds. We saw geese and turkey.

In Ann Arbor, we picked up some groceries at a food co-op, got coffee (me) and drinking chocolate (Beth) at an upscale chocolate shop, where I also got myself a tiny dark chocolate Easter bunny and some toffee-almond eggs, and we made a pilgrimage to Zingerman’s deli, where we walked out with fancy bread, cheese, olive oil, potato chips, pastries, chocolate bars and a lighter wallet. Are you familiar with Zingerman’s? We’ve never been in person but we are fans of the catalog, and apparently so are a lot people on my Facebook page, based on the response to the pictures I posted there. I got Noah something for his birthday which I will not reveal here because he often reads my blog.

Back at the house, I blogged and then made dinner—sherry-cream mushrooms on toast, salad, and some leftovers (sautéed Brussels sprouts and an Easter egg). Beth and I watched the season finale of Abbott Elementary and the first episode of Severance.

Easter Sunday: Ypsilanti to Somerset, PA

In the morning, North came back from Avery’s house as we were packing up the house. Beth told them the Easter Bunny had left a basket in their room and after a brief search North found their basket of candy, bee socks from the botanical gardens, and dill pickle potato chips from Zingerman’s in the under-bed storage drawer.

It turned out we’d had a misunderstanding because we thought the visit with Avery was over and we were about to leave town and North thought they were going to see Avery again and have lunch before we left, so there was some texting between Avery’s mom and me and North and Avery and it was decided we’d swing by their house so the kids could have a proper goodbye. We all went inside and chatted for a while and my eyes were drawn to a picture of Avery in elementary school that looked a lot like North at that age. Then they showed us their garden and we piled back into the car.

We drove out of Michigan and all the way through Ohio and into Southwestern Pennsylvania, where we arrived at our third and final AirBnB around dinnertime. We picked up some canned soup at a Dollar General (no grocery stores were open on Easter) and Beth and North collaborated to make mushroom melts and soup. Afterward we watched two episodes of the Gilmore Girls and ate Easter candy. We watched four episodes on the trip, satisfying progress toward my recently announced goal of finishing the series before North leave for college so we don’t end up in a Buffy situation like we have with Noah now. (Not starting that show earlier in the pandemic was a strategic mistake.)

Monday: Somerset, PA to Takoma Park

We had to be out of the house by eleven, which meant rousing North from bed at ten. It was quite a chilly day in the Laurel Highlands with snow predicted. Beth and I both got in our morning walks before it started to precipitate. The house was in a neighborhood set on a very steep hill, terrace style. On my walk I found a path that went through the woods on the back side of the hill and then past a barn with horses in a corral and a pond. Spring seemed to have the weakest hold here of all the places we’d been, with forsythia just get started and daffodils and hyacinth the only flowers.

As if to emphasize this, by the time we left, freezing rain had set in. Eventually it changed over to snow and for a while it was like driving through a snow globe, with big fat flakes, sticking to the ground and the trees. Beth enjoyed it, as she never seems to get enough of winter weather. About a half hour after our stop for a late lunch it changed back to rain.

When we got home, we discovered spring in Takoma has advanced. Many more trees have leaves than when we left and there are azaleas and dogwoods in bloom.

“It was a good trip,” Beth said as we ate Indian takeout for dinner, and it was. I think it was one we’ll remember for a long time.

On the Horizon: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 66

Spring is on the horizon. There are crocuses and snowdrops in abundance down by the creek and elsewhere and I’ve seen aconite, winter jasmine, and one clump of daffodils in neighbors’ yards. Our own daffodils poked their heads out of the ground a few weeks ago, but have yet to open. The cherry tree at the end of the block that always wants to get the party started well before the other two dozen or so nearby trees are even thinking about it has swelling buds.

I moved the rosemary and parsley plants that have been living in a sunny spot in Noah’s room/Beth’s office back outside this weekend because I think they need the sun more than protection from the cold at this point. It still goes below freezing most nights, but not by much and they’re hardy enough for that. I’ll move them back inside if we have a cold snap.

The spring musical opens in a few weeks and North is costumes manager again, so they have rehearsal most days after school. It’s also the time of year when we start making plans for spring break and summer.

Travel News

The school district announced its snow day makeup plan and they scrounged up the necessary days by turning a teacher planning day in April into a half day and by adding two days to the end of the year. This is the very outcome I was hoping for because it leaves spring break intact. Now we just need to keep our fingers crossed it doesn’t snow again, but even if it does MCPS’s message implied any further snow days will be either remote instruction days or the district will apply to the state for a waiver.

It gave us enough certainty to plan our April trip to Michigan to meet one of North’s half-siblings from their donor’s side. The kids have been in touch since we got North a membership to the Donor Sibling Registry for their birthday last spring. Avery is a senior in high school, has two moms, and like North, identifies as non-binary. On the way to Ypsilanti we’re going to stop in Wheeling to see Beth’s mom, and then in Oberlin for North’s first college tour. It should be a fun trip.

And then this summer we’re going to the beach twice. Noah doesn’t know how long he’ll be home because he’s planning to spend the fall semester abroad and some of the programs he’s considering are summer-and-fall programs (or actually winter and spring since it’s Australia). This means he could be leaving any time between mid-July and late August.  We need to go to the beach early in the summer if we want him to come. But my sister’s family is moving from Ashland, Oregon to Davis, California in June or July and they can’t come until the move is complete, so we need to go late in the summer if we want them (and my mother, who is still recovering from her broken neck and will travel with them) to come. I still have some of the long-belated inheritance money I got from my father last summer, after putting most of it away for retirement and giving some away, so my elegant solution was two beach trips, one with me, Beth, and the kids the week of July 4th, and one with extended family in early August. We booked houses in Oberlin, Ypsilanti, and Rehoboth just this week. Having this settled is a relief because it was all up in the air for a while and I was anxious about it.

The one thing I wish I knew about the near future that I don’t know 100% for sure is whether Noah is coming home for all, part, or none of his spring break, which is in just two weeks. He’s directing a film for his advanced cinema production class and he was hoping if he could get a crew and actors to agree to stay on campus, filming during break would give them a solid block of time when no one has class. This made perfect sense and part of me hoped it would work out for him, but there’s no denying I would have been sad not to see him until May if that’s how it shook out, and the uncertainty was driving me more than a little crazy. Just this morning when Beth texted him about buying a bus ticket to come home, he said he probably would.

Medical News

In other news, I recently finished a program for newly diagnosed diabetics, consisting of two calls with a nurse and six Zoom sessions with a coach spread out over four months. Afterward I went in for bloodwork, and my A1C, a measure of average blood sugar from the past three months, is at the bottom of the prediabetic range, just a tad over normal. That’s with medication, of course. It doesn’t mean I don’t have diabetes any more but that between diet and the meds, my blood sugar has improved well beyond my primary care provider’s goal for me, not quite six months after diagnosis.

I’m still not happy with the reliability of the sensors I wear on my arm, which I sometimes test against a glucometer with finger pricks, and I go back and forth about whether I should give up on them and just use the blood method. The sensors, when they’re working, have two advantages, though. You don’t have to stab yourself with a sharp object several times a day and the app creates a graph that shows you when your blood sugar peaked and approximately how high. When you use finger pricks you have more accurate data points, but without much idea how they connect. I am trying to be at peace with the sensors’ erratic performance and not give up on them and take them off so soon. When it all starts to stress me out, sometimes I take a day off checking either way, and just try to eat intuitively.

Another piece of good news is that the hives I’ve had since last summer seems to be tapering off. On the allergist’s suggestion I started taking the antihistamines every other day (instead of every day) in mid-January and I noticed I wasn’t getting hives too often, so I stopped entirely the first week of February. Now I just take one when I have a breakout, which has only happened four times this month. The last time was in mid-February and three of the four times, the hives were very faint and not too itchy. Fingers crossed, maybe it’s over. We never did figure out what was triggering them.

Speaking of skin, Xander’s skin infection is back. It’s confined to a small patch on his stomach and because we caught it early, the medicated wipes seem to be stopping it from spreading, though it’s been a few weeks and it’s not getting better either. It doesn’t seem to be bothering him much, but he’s a good-natured cat, arthritis, deafness, irritated skin and all, so it can be hard to tell. He turned nineteen the week of Valentine’s Day, and after his health scares last summer, we’re all happy for all the time we have to cuddle on the couch and bed with him (and to give him a small fraction of the cat treats he requests).

One last medical update—as I mentioned above, my mom is still recovering from breaking her neck in October. She got her brace off in mid-January and is in physical therapy. She has some lingering pain, especially late in the day, and she has a limited range of motion in her neck, which impedes her ability to drive. That’s why she needs to travel with Sara and Dave.

It feels odd to have a roundup of medical issues and not mention North, but they’re pretty stable right now. They still have pain, but they’re able to get around where they need to with their cane most days. The pain psychologist they were seeing ended up not being a good fit, so after a few sessions, we decided not to continue. They’re happy about this, because they’d rather just get on with their life, without talking so much about this aspect of it.

And there’s a lot for them to get on with, the play, their birthday next month, a road trip to meet a new relative, and two beach weeks with kin they’ve known all or much of their life.

The Party House: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 61

Thursday: Arrival

We arrived at the cabin in Blackwater Falls State Park around quarter to four, almost exactly the same time Beth’s mom and aunt Carole did. As we were driving into the park YaYa texted to say they were at the lodge picking up the keys, so we drove straight to the cabin and started unloading our copious luggage onto the porch while we waited for them.

By quarter to five Beth and Noah had the tree in its stand, North had decorated the mantle, YaYa and I had put food into the fridge and cabinets and we were pretty well settled in, so everyone but North went for a walk up the park road. Carole and YaYa were ready to turn back before Beth, Noah, and I were, so we continued to the Pendleton Overlook where we took in the lovely view of the canyon and a vivid sunset.  As we walked there, Beth noted that although our cabin seemed to be the only one occupied in its cluster of five, the next two groups of cabins seemed more have cars parked in front of most of them.

“No one wants to be near us,” Beth observed.

“It’s because we’re so loud,” I said. “The party house.”

Back at said house, Beth defrosted the frozen chili we’d brought from home and made a pan of cornbread. After I’d done the dinner dishes, we all watched The Year Without a Santa Claus and I risked a few bites of white chocolate Chex mix. (After I checked my bedtime blood sugar, I told Beth, “I could have had more Chex mix,” which made her laugh. Healthy eating seems to come more easily to her than to me.) North, Beth and I were all in bed by 10:30 because as Carole said, we “retire early.” Not such a party house after all, but Noah and the elders stayed up for a while after that and he answered their questions about drones and other things.

Friday: Christmas Eve

Beth went for a walk in the woods, then went shopping and came home with many bags of groceries and cautionary tales of a supermarket in which she was the only person masked. Everyone else stuck to the house. Noah and I read a couple chapters of The Space Between Worlds and watched a couple episodes of What We Do in the Shadows. North was still reading The Shining. Beth strung lights on the tree. After lunch, YaYa and Carole left for a walk and the kids and I made gingerbread cookies.

I’d forgotten to bring cookie cutters and whenever I do this (no, it’s not the first time) they are surprisingly hard to find in stores. Beth looked when she went shopping but didn’t see any. So we cut the dough into circles with glasses and shaped the rest by hand. We decorated with dried cranberries, nuts, and bits of broken candy cane and made six in the shapes of everyone’s first initials.  As soon as we’d baked four trays of gingerbread, North got to work on a batch of chocolate-peppermint cookies. I went for a walk along the path behind the cabins and then circled back to the park road while North was baking.

Next it was time to decorate the tree. Carole exclaimed over our extensive collection of ornaments, to which she’d just contributed two pretty wooden snowflakes. North seemed especially pleased to see the ones they’d picked over the years—the passport from the year they went to Colombia, the theater masks, etc. With everyone pitching in it only took about a half hour to finish and there was some spirited singing along to “Feliz Navidad” which took me back to when the kids were in elementary school in a Spanish immersion program and how that number was always on the programs of the Holiday Sing.

I was the designated Christmas Eve cook and I made salad and two pizzas (with grocery store dough). One had mushrooms, garlic, rosemary, and vegetarian Canadian bacon. The other one had the same toppings on one half and the other half left plain. The evening’s entertainment was Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. YaYa and Carole, who are not in the habit of watching the same 1970s stop-motion Christmas specials every year, tried to remember if they’d seen it when their kids were small, and expressed delight at the voice acting cast, which includes Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney (as they had for Shirley Booth in The Year Without a Santa Claus the previous night). The kids, who do watch these shows every year, sang along with several of the songs with great brio. They know every word.

After the show, everyone but Noah (who objects to this practice) opened one gift and when we’d finished our illicitly premature gift opening, he read “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” to us. Carole said he has such a nice reading voice he should record audiobooks.

Saturday: Christmas

Beth and I were the first two awake on Christmas morning, before seven, but North was up soon after, and they got busy in the kitchen, making our Christmas breakfast of scrambled eggs, vegetarian Canadian bacon and sausage, a fruit plate, and a delicious lemon-cranberry loaf. Noah was the last to rise, shortly before nine, and when he did we opened our stockings. We’d brought a stocking for Carole and she said she hadn’t had one in since the last time she’d spent Christmas with her daughter and granddaughter and she seemed pleased to have candy and little gifts to open.

After breakfast we opened the presents under the tree. Many books, socks, clothes, candles, packages of tea and flavored sugars, jars of jam, bars of soap, and Amazon gift cards were exchanged. Plus Noah got extra propellors and filters for his drone and North got an air fryer (or rather the news that one had been purchased and left at home because it was too big to fit in the car).

After presents were opened, people scattered to take walks, read, nap, and work on the puzzle Carole had brought. It’s a map of West Virginia with illustrations of various attractions and Beth and Noah got to work on it in earnest that afternoon. I’d been intending to take a walk after lunch, but the steady drizzle we’d been having all day had turned to a hard rain and I thought I’d wait to see if it let up a bit.

Yes, it was raining on Christmas in a place where we can usually count on, if not a fresh snowfall, at least some snow on the ground, enough to say it was a white Christmas. But on the drive to Blackwater when we got to the elevation where there’s almost always snow, there were just a few melting patches here and there and a little ice on the roadcuts. I thought that was bad sign and when we got to the cabin, while there was snow on the deck—which I should have photographed because it melted that night—there wasn’t much anywhere else, and no snow fell during our stay. In Ashland, Oregon, where my mom, sister, brother-in-law, and niece live, and where snow is pretty rare, they did have a white Christmas, so I guess they got ours. I’m glad for Sara because she’d been hoping for this for years. And while Beth does love snow, she said it was fine, as long as she was in the hills among the evergreens and rhododendrons, and I will take her at her word.

I decided to brave the rain around 3:30 and I picked a good time to leave because while I was walking, the drizzle petered out and then stopped altogether. I walked down to Pendleton Lake, first to the beach and then over the dam. The day was gray and misty, and the silver, rippling waters of the lake and tall, dark trees were pretty in an austere way. I walked for an hour and didn’t see another soul until I returned to the house and saw YaYa and Carole setting out for their own walk.

When I got home I curled up in bed with a book, not one of my many Christmas books, but one of the last ones I had in my to-read pile before Christmas, The Pull of the Stars, and read almost a third of it before dinner. It felt quite luxurious to read that long. (I finished it two days later.)

YaYa and Carole made YaYa’s famous spinach lasagna for dinner and we all re-grouped to eat that with salad and vegetarian sausage. We toasted to a merry Christmas with wine and sparkling cider or white grape juice. Somehow we got to talking about college—mostly North’s future plans (they want to go to culinary school) and YaYa and Carole’s reminisces about what college was like in the fifties and early sixties, with dorm curfews and dress codes and such. The current college student had the least to say about college of anyone. Then we watched Christmas is Here Again, the last Christmas movie in our regular rotation (though not the last Christmas movie we’d watch at the cabin).

Sunday to Wednesday: A Blur of Days After Christmas

The day after Christmas was the only day we were at the park that rain wasn’t forecast, so we made the most of it. In the morning Beth, Noah, and I hiked down to the bottom of Blackwater Falls. It was beautiful, as always, but there were none of the interesting ice formations we often see along the rockface of the gorge or on the rocks at the edge of the water. I do have to say it’s a much easier descent when the wooden staircase isn’t encased in ice, though. We lingered a while on the lowest platform so Noah could take pictures. When we’d climbed back up, he tried to launch his drone but the wind was too high. (He wouldn’t be able to fly the whole time we were there because of weather conditions and technical difficulties.)  Later on, all six of us took the accessible trail to view the falls from the other side of the canyon and Noah used his tripod to get a group shot.

After lunch, Beth and I headed out for the third and longest hike of the day, up to Balanced Rock. As you may guess from the name, it’s one boulder balanced on another at the top of  a ridge. We started at the lodge and hiked past Elakala Falls and through the forest of towering rhododendron bushes, hemlock and spruce—their needles are what stains all the waters in the park gold to reddish brown. The trail was lined with ferns and moss and lichen-covered rocks.

Like the falls trail, it was also an easier climb than when the trail is covered with slick, packed snow, or obscured by deep, powdery snow, or covered in ice with water running underneath and a camouflaging layer of leaves on top, which are just a few of the conditions in which we’ve hiked it. It was quite muddy, though, so we had to watch our step. It took almost two hours to get to the top and back down. The day was quite pleasant, sunny and in the mid-forties, just about the right temperature for a moderately strenuous hike. Unlike on my solitary walk the day before, everywhere we hiked that day we encountered people and dogs, all taking advantage of the clear day, I guess. (And I made a discovery that day, which is that if you hike for more than two and a half hours, you can eat cookies with almost no impact on your blood sugar. I had a gingerbread cookie at the bottom of the falls and a chocolate-peppermint cookie after we finished our descent from Balanced Rock and they barely showed up on the graph on my diabetes app.)

I spent the late afternoon and early evening reading and folding laundry and reading some more. North made a very elaborate and tasty mushroom Wellington for dinner and we watched the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol because YaYa had fond memories of it. Noah was impressed with the transparent Jacob Marley and wasn’t sure how they did with the technology of the time.

On Tuesday Beth went for a three and a half hour walk on top of the ridge by the lake in the morning and in the afternoon she and YaYa and Carole went for a drive. I took a shorter walk, back to Blackwater Falls, but this time I only went about halfway down the stairs, to the first platform, for another look at the rushing, amber waters. The rest of the day I spent in the cabin, reading and watching tv. I finished three books (two I had in progress and this Frog and Toad parody I recommend if you read Frog and Toad as a child or as a parent of a small child and you’re curious how the amphibian friends have been getting along during the pandemic). Beth bought it as a gift for me and the kids. To top it off all this completion, Noah and I watched the last two episodes of season three of What We Do in the Shadows. Meanwhile, people were working on the puzzle on and off all day.

Noah and I made baked cauliflower with cheese sauce for dinner and afterward we watched two short films, one he helped shoot and edit while he was home last year (because Carole hadn’t seen it) and his final project for his Cinema Production II class this past semester, for which he’d been the audio and color editor. This led to questions about how color grading works and he explained by showing us another school project on that topic. Then we all looked at all the photos he’d taken during our week at the cabin and split into groups to watch an episode of Dickinson or work on the puzzle.

YaYa and Carole left in the early afternoon on Tuesday, after a concerted and successful effort by the sisters, Beth, and Noah to finish the puzzle. (At YaYa’s insistence, North and I each put one piece in so we could say everyone helped.) There were two reasons to finish it before they left. First because YaYa and Carole had been working on it all along and wanted to see it done, but also because the card table we were using as a puzzle table was YaYa’s and she would be taking it back to Wheeling with her.

After we’d all said our goodbyes, North set to work taking ornaments off the tree and there was laundry and some initial packing and more reading. Noah and I started one of his Christmas books, King of Scars, and then I started Nothing to See Here, which promises to be interesting. I took all the decorations off the mantle and carried the evergreen boughs out to the woods behind the house and swept up the needles. Beth unwound the lights from the tree and she and Noah carried it out back. Taking the decorations down is always less fun than putting them up, but it’s part of the holiday cycle.

That evening we had a fend-for-yourself dinner. I had a salad and some leftover pizza. Then we rounded out the evening with a Dickinson-Encanto double feature.

The next day we packed up and drove home and unpacked and I had a nap because I hadn’t slept well the night before. I was feeling down and unenthused about getting back into my usual routine, but we got Chinese takeout and on the drizzly drive to go get it, we saw some Christmas lights in yards I hadn’t seen yet this year and that perked me up a bit. I always like to imagine what kind of festivities other people are having in their party houses.

Twenty Halloweens: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 55

You’ve probably guessed I’m here to tell you about Halloween and I am, but first a few non-Halloween-related items. 

Assorted October News

Noah’s fall break was a little two weeks ago. It was just a four-day weekend, too short to justify his spending two of those four days in transit to come home and go back to school, so he stayed put. Two years ago we all met up in Hershey, which is in between Takoma Park and Ithaca and we went to Hershey Park in the Dark, which was a lot of fun, but that wasn’t feasible this year because Beth’s union’s online convention was the week after his break and Beth was absolutely swamped with work. But a candy-themed amusement park would be a diabetic challenge, I suppose, so maybe it was for the best.

The week after his break I finally stripped off the sheets that had been on Noah’s bed since he left in August and washed them. I thought replacing them with flannel sheets for when he comes home at Thanksgiving would cheer me up, but in mid-October Thanksgiving was still seeming pretty far off, so it didn’t. Now that it’s November, it’s seeming less impossibly far away.

Around the same time, the skin infection on Xander’s stomach came back, though this time it was not as extensive as it was in the summer. He has a bald spot there that was bright red a couple weeks ago. We’ve been treating it twice a day with leftover medicated wipes and it’s gotten much better, a very pale pink that might be his natural skin color. It’s hard to say as under ideal circumstances, you don’t see a cat’s skin.

In more serious medical news, my mom had a bad fall almost two weeks ago. She was hiking in Olympic peninsula with her gentleman friend Jon, and while climbing up a staircase to see a waterfall, she slipped off it, and tumbled fifty feet down a hill until she ran into a tree, which broke her fall. It also broke her neck. She fractured five vertebrae. She had to be airlifted to Seattle, where she’s been in the hospital ever since. Apparently when the EMTs told Mom they were going to put her in a basket to get her into the helicopter she said, “Does this mean I’m a basket case?”

She had surgery the next day to fuse three of the vertebrae and she’s in a neck collar. Jon stayed as long as he could, but he has health issues of his own and he had some medical appointments he couldn’t miss, so he had to travel back to Oregon alone. My sister flew out to Seattle to take his place and when Mom is discharged, which is supposed to happen tomorrow, she’ll drive her back to Ashland. Jon’s going to move in to Mom’s house for a while, and her friends have organized a meal train, and she’s found a home health care worker, so the pieces seem to be falling into place for her recovery, which is supposed to last two or three months. It’s times like this I wish we all lived closer to each other.

Halloween #20

Back in Maryland, on the second to last Saturday in October, we went to the farm stand in Northern Virginia where we always get our pumpkins. We’ve been going there since some time in the 1990s because it’s run by the family of a friend of ours from college. There was bad traffic on the way there so the drive was over an hour and we arrived three minutes before the stand closed at four o’clock. But the woman staffing it seemed laid back and didn’t hurry us. In fact, she took another customer who arrived after we did. We didn’t linger, though, as we picked out pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns, a pie pumpkin for soup, decorative gourds, cider, salsa, and some produce.

We usually have Chinese food after this outing, but it was early for dinner, so we had a walk in Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, where there were quite a few different groups having professional photos done, families, and a group of teenagers. Beth thought the teen group might have been having  homecoming pictures taken, but is that even a thing, homecoming photos? It’s not like a wedding, or even prom. Anyway, some of the girls were in heels so high and dresses so short walking over a short bridge was a serious challenge. It was kind of nerve-wracking to watch. I was afraid one of them would fall.

Eventually, we got takeout and ate it at another park. Eating Chinese when you can’t eat soy may be an even more serious challenge than walking outside in stiletto heels. (I couldn’t say for sure, as I’ve never tried the heels.) I had to skip all the fun fake meat I like at this particular restaurant—the shrimp is really good—and I decided for this evening only I’d have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for soy sauce. Based on taste, I think the spring rolls and seaweed-mushroom soup didn’t have it anyway, but the sauce on my eggplant dish probably did.

On the way home, we stopped for frozen yogurt. North wanted dessert and I suggested Sweet Frog since it’s serve yourself, and I could choose the original tart flavor and get a small portion. I did try some sugary toppings, mostly brownie bits and crushed Oreos, and I added whipped cream. It didn’t feel too austere and my blood sugar didn’t go out of range, so I think it was a successful dessert experience.

The next night we carved our pumpkins. Beth did the gargoyle, I did the spider, and North did the face with the knife. I had some tricky moments with mine, but I think they all came out well and North’s was particularly impressive. After carving, we watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It felt odd to do these things without Noah, as we watched the show with him every year before college, and in Hershey two years ago, and a year ago he was home to watch it and carve a pumpkin. Of course, I’m glad and grateful he’s at school and having an almost normal semester, but it’s still hard to have him gone sometimes.

Three days before Halloween, I led my book club’s discussion on The Haunting of Hill House. I used to teach this book in class on genre fiction, so you think it would be pretty easy to pull together a presentation. But I haven’t taught it since 2004 and while I did find my teaching notes, they were pretty cryptic, as I wrote them a few days before teaching, not expecting to need to make sense of them seventeen years later. So I was very stressed for a while because I love this book and I wanted to do a good job and I was worried I’d forgotten everything I used to know or think about it. But I re-read a Shirley Jackson biography and I had extensive underlining in the novel and my teaching notes did remind me there’s some criticism of Hill House in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which I had on hand, so I was able to cobble together an outline of what I wanted to discuss. 

And… it wasn’t a disaster. It actually went really well. Book club only recently started meeting in person again this month and attendance has been sparse. Five people came, which is about how many came for the last session (on Vanity Fair) but people were engaged and I had just about the right amount of material and I came home so buzzed I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time. In fact, though earlier in the day I’d been thinking I will never volunteer to do this again, on the drive home I was wondering how it would be to do Frankenstein or Dracula.

North went to school in costume on Friday. They went as a drowned person this year, with pale green face paint, and seaweed and skeleton hands on their shirt (which are supposed to be pulling them down). The GSA had a party after school they called Homo Hoco, a sort of alternative homecoming, so North got to wear their costume to that, too.

They actually designed the costume with Takoma’s Halloween parade and costume contest in mind, but they found out just a few days ahead of time that Saturday afternoon’s parade conflicted with a mandatory play rehearsal, so they had to miss it. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you know how important this contest has been to both of my kids since they were little, so that was a blow.

I was sad for North but also myself because I love the parade contest and we’ve had kids in it eighteen of the twenty Halloweens we’ve lived in Takoma (the exceptions being the first year when it was cancelled because of the DC snipers and last year when it was cancelled by covid). Even when the parade was rained out, the contest always went on, inside an elementary school gym, and we were always there. Before my mom moved out West, she often came for a Halloween weekend visit and marched in the parade with us.

And then I realized we could go, even without North. I proposed it to Beth and she seemed a little surprised, but then she agreed. We walked down to the community center, which was the end point of the parade, so we could watch it go by and then stay for the judging. The parade was cancelled last year so it’s been a couple years and what struck me was how few people we know were there. Noah’s peers are off at college and North’s have either decided they’re too old for the parade or, like North, have extracurricular obligations. Even Keira, who’s a year older than North, a many-time contest winner, and the only teen I know to take the contest as seriously as my kids, wasn’t there.

I saw only two adults I knew– a member of my book club who was there with his elementary-age sons, and the mother of three boys, the older two of whom used to wait at elementary and middle school bus stops with my kids, who was there with her youngest (who marched in his soccer uniform). When she saw us, she said she’d been looking all over for North because she wanted to see their costume and she was sad to hear North wasn’t there.

There were a lot of nice costumes, as always. I especially liked the toddler in a homemade owl costume with many felt feathers, the tiny boy dressed as the Swedish chef from the Muppets, the boy dressed as a gumball machine, the girl who was a bookshelf, and the two wizards pulling a papier-mâché dragon on wheels.  The owl, Swedish chef, and the dragon won prizes in their age groups, but the gumball machine and the bookshelf didn’t. Beth also thought the woman who walked the parade route dressed as a scarecrow on stilts deserved a prize for her efforts. We paid careful attention to the scariest prize for teen and adult, because that would have been North’s competition. Beth correctly guessed it would go to the boy in the red-splattered t-shirt, gloves, and hockey mask.

As the winners were announced, Beth took their pictures and texted them to Noah so the two of them could judge the judging. This is also a family tradition. Beth and I have often thought that since we have such firmly held opinions about costumes, we should volunteer to be judges once our kids are finished participating in it. If we’d known North wasn’t going to be in it earlier, I would have volunteered this year. I have a vision of us being old women who’ve been judging the contest for decades, but Beth thinks they might not let us do it after the first year because of the intensity of our opinions.

As we left, Beth mentioned that Noah did not even ask why we were even watching the costume contest judging if North wasn’t in it. In our family, it’s not a question that needed to be asked.

On Halloween proper, North made baked apples and we ate them while we watched The Bad Seed, or North and I did—Beth got her fill of mildly scary movies when the three of us watched Nightbooks earlier in the weekend. While we were watching the movie, Beth was putting the finishing touches on the yard. Here’s a video she took once it got dark:

After the movie, North heated up and ate a frozen burrito for dinner, applied their makeup for just the right deathly pallor, put on their costume and left for Zoë’s neighborhood where a big group of friends and friends of friends were going trick-or-treating. The group included Zoë (who went as Mr. Clean), Norma (grim reaper), and North’s elementary school best friend Megan (witch).

[Aside: It makes me glad North is able to socialize more. I remember last fall them saying all they wanted was to go to a movie with Zoë and Norma, “and have them tell me why it was bad even though I liked it.” And two weekends ago, they did just that, meeting up in Silver Spring to see The Addams Family 2, and then Beth picked them up and brought home two pizzas from Little Caesar’s and they stayed for a couple hours. I don’t know if Zoë and Norma ragged on the movie or not, but the whole event left North almost radiantly happy.]

Staring just before six, when two boys dressed as praying mantises came up to our porch, Beth and I took turns sitting on the porch and handing out candy. We bought less candy than usual so not to have a lot of leftovers and—wouldn’t you know it?—we had more trick-or-treaters than usual. After a half hour or so, I started emptying the festive gift bags Beth had assembled into the bowl and telling kids to take just one piece each, as we were running low. Most of them listened so we didn’t run out and we finished the night a little after nine o’clock with one last duo of un-costumed preteens and just six pieces of candy left.

As always, we got many compliments on our decorations. Our around-the-corner neighbor said it was “the best house in the neighborhood” and one kid said, “I like your decorations… No, I love your decorations.” One parent commented, “I guess you guys are really into this holiday.”

Yes, we are. We’ve enjoyed our twenty Halloweens in this house and look forward to all the ones to come, whether we’re judging the contest or marching with our grandkids in the parade.

Good News, Bad News: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 52

Good News

Something happened about a month ago I never mentioned because it involves money and it’s often hard and awkward to talk about money. It does start with an amusing story, though, so here goes. I got phone message asking me for my bank information so a transfer could be made to my account. I figured it was a scam. I mean, you would think it was a scam, right? It wasn’t from a Nigerian prince (rather a woman with a distinct Jersey accent), but it was close. Then I got the message again and something about the way the message was worded seemed the tiniest bit more credible. I still didn’t take it seriously and I didn’t call back. Then I got a call from my sister, asking if I’d gotten these messages and I said yes. Well, dear readers, it wasn’t a scam. It was an inheritance from my father, who died in January 2010.

Shortly before he died of throat and lung cancer, my dad told me he was leaving me a good deal of money, enough to put both kids through college. But after he died, my stepmother informed my sister and me that he had left their finances in a mess, there were large unpaid tax bills, and there would be no inheritance for either of us. Flash forward eleven and a half years. My stepmother finally untangled the finances and paid off the debts and there was some left after all. Not nearly enough to put two kids through college, but enough to feel like a windfall.

Luckily, after Sara got her second call from the transfer company, she called them back, and then she called my stepmother, who had not mentioned anything to either of us, and it was all true. My half of the money’s been sitting in my checking account while we wait for our financial advisor to get back from a long vacation, but the rough plans are to give some away, to take an extra trip to the beach this year, and to put the bulk of it toward retirement.

My father was a newspaper editor with a passion for investigative journalism and the two stories I remember him being most zealous about during my youth were the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979 and the MOVE bombing in 1985, so I thought an environmental cause and a racial justice one would be appropriate, but I haven’t picked organizations yet. I am also interested in Afghan refugee resettlement either in the U.S. or abroad because I can’t help but be deeply saddened by what’s happened there and I think he would be, too. Feel free to make suggestions if you have a favorite non-profit working on these issues. For the environment, I am inclined to go with climate change because if that isn’t halted, no other environmental issue is going to matter.

It’s nice to have this money, both for what we can do with it, but also to know that my father’s wishes in his final days were honored.

Bad News

As you probably guessed from the title, I have bad news, too. I was diagnosed with diabetes ten days ago. I found out as a result of a routine physical. I didn’t have any of what you’d think of as the classic early symptoms like excessive thirst, urination, or fatigue. But despite this, it wasn’t a huge surprise. I had gestational diabetes when I was pregnant with North and that puts you at greater risk. I may have had it for a while because it’s too far advanced to address with diet alone. So I’m taking medication and waiting for a session with a diabetes coach. As part of my treatment, I may also be getting a continuous glucose monitor.

I am feeling sad and grumpy about this. The other day I found myself eating a salad for lunch and resenting the salad, even though it’s not like I never ate (and enjoyed!) salad for lunch before. Maybe it was the salad—the dressing seemed like a mismatch for the greens—but more likely it was just me. I guess I need some more time to adjust to this reality.

Beth and I went kayaking two days after I got the news. She goes almost every weekend and I often go with her. I didn’t want to go—I just wanted to hole up at home—but the reasonable part of my mind told me I was unlikely to feel worse for being out in nature and getting some exercise and I might even feel better. Well, it didn’t make me feel any better, but it didn’t make me feel worse and I got some exercise, so there’s that. The next day we went for a drizzly walk at Brookside Gardens, which is pretty any time of year, but just now it’s full of late summer flowers, mostly roses and zinnias, so that was nice.

This weekend all three of us kayaked, at Quiet Waters Park in Anne Arundel County. We’d discovered it two springs ago when we were looking for places for Noah to fly his drone, but we’d never kayaked there. This was the first time North has come with us. They hadn’t been in a kayak since Girl Scout camp the summers they were nine, ten, and eleven, but they remembered what to do. We didn’t see as much wildlife as usual, but there were gulls, cormorants, and a lot of dragonflies and it was nice to be out on the water.

More Good News

Noah’s been back at school for three weeks and North for two. They are both settling into the new school year well. Noah is editing two shows for ICTV, one sketch comedy show and another one he described as “about students who plan a heist to get money for their thesis film.” He’s also applied for membership in the drone club. He still has no roommate—and this late in the semester I doubt he’ll get one—but he is socializing. He had a friend over to his place last night to watch New Rose Hotel. He says the basil plant is still alive.

North tried out for the school play and also applied to be stage manager. They can’t do both, but they were interested in both so they thought they’d apply and then make a choice if needed. Callbacks for actors are next week. I’m glad they’re getting involved in theater again. Not counting drama camp, it’s been a while. They’ve made a couple new friends and they’re enjoying their theater and English classes. Most days they come home cheerful. On Friday, they had a tally of compliments they’d received (four on their earrings, one on their shoes, one on the color of their eyes).

A day with six compliments seems like a pretty good day. I’m hoping for more good days for both kids as the school year progresses.

There and Back Again: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 50

Thursday: Goodbye, House

“Goodbye, house,” Noah said as he walked down the porch steps on Thursday morning. The car was packed and we were ready to hit the road for Ithaca. It hardly seemed possible that he was going back to school after all this time (seventeen and a half months!) at home, but he was.

We left around ten, passing the time with podcasts, and at lunchtime we pulled off onto a dirt road near a boat dock on the Susquehanna River where we ate a picnic lunch in the car, consisting of food we brought from home and acquired at a Sheetz.  We got back on the road and arrived at our AirBnB around six.

We got settled in and headed to downtown Ithaca for dinner. There was an hour wait at our restaurant of choice, so we ordered to go. Even so we had a forty-five minute wait, but it was a beautiful evening, much cooler and less humid than at home—I’d actually changed into a long-sleeved t-shirt when we arrived—so we didn’t mind much. We found a table on the Commons, a pedestrian mall downtown, and ate our Bahn Mi sandwich, spring rolls, sweet potato and kale taco, and Gouda mac-n-cheese. We got two cookie dough-stuffed brownies and each of us had half of one (and saved the last half for later).

Back at the AirBnB we watched This is Spinal Tap because North had recently vetoed it as a family movie night choice (we’d watched The Vast of Night the week previous while North was at camp for the same reason). I hadn’t seen Spinal Tap since the 80s and I think it holds up reasonably well.

Friday: Moving In, Hiking, Shopping

Noah’s move-in time was eleven, but he’d heard this wasn’t being strictly enforced, so after breakfast at Waffle Frolic, he went to check in and receive the key to his on-campus apartment. These are like dorm rooms, but bigger and with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a little balcony. Later we saw someone complaining on the Facebook IC parents’ group that the apartments were small and dingy, but we thought it was pretty nice. Perhaps our expectations of what college-run apartments would look like were lower more realistic. Noah’s roommate hadn’t arrived, so he picked a bed and a desk and started to unpack. Beth and I left him to that and went to the campus store where I restocked my supply of Ithaca College pencils and bought a Park School of Communications t-shirt. We all had salads for lunch at the food court. There were little signs you could put on the tables that said either “Join Us” or “Prefer to Eat Alone.” Beth was quite taken with those.

After lunch we went to Cayuga Lake so Noah could fly his drone over it, while Beth and I strolled along the shore. He says there’s a drone club and he’s thinking of joining it. I hope he does, because it would offer him the opportunity to meet other students who share his interests, the chance to fly different kinds of drones, and transportation to places he could fly. He could also get FAA-certified, which would be a good credential to have, and he could possibly pick up some photo shoot jobs.

Next we went for a hike along the gorge trail to Taughannock Falls. It’s a nice flat trail that leads to a 215-foot waterfall. We’ve done it a couple of times before, but it’s a really spectacular sight. We’d been to this park the day North lost function in their legs last summer (though it didn’t happen there—it happened in Cayuga Lake), so that was on our minds as we walked along the wooded trail.

Wegman’s was our next stop. We filled a grocery cart full of food to stock Noah’s kitchen, mostly frozen food and non-perishables because he’s still on the meal plan, so he won’t be cooking for himself full time. In the checkout line I saw a box of chocolate-covered sea salt caramels and asked him, “Do you need these?”

“I don’t know. Do I?” he said, with a half-smile.

“I think you do,” I said, and added them to the conveyor belt. I can’t be with him every day now, but I can make sure he has caramels, pretzel chips, cashews, pasta, his favorite cereals, and frozen pizza. (He also let me put some frozen broccoli in the cart.)

We ordered pizza and ate it in the AirBnB. While we waited for Beth to bring it back, we read A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, which, as I predicted we hadn’t quite finished when we left home. I checked my Goodreads page and it was the thirtieth book we read together during the pandemic, mostly fantasy and science fiction because that’s what he likes best. I feel tremendously lucky to have been able to share that many books with him during this strange time.

We’ve always gone out for ice cream the night before school starts, but since we wouldn’t be there the night before classes, Noah said any time that weekend would be okay and we went to Purity Ice Cream that night. I got a hot fudge sundae with black cherry ice cream, Beth got coffee, and Noah got raspberry chocolate chip. It was very good. There was a sign on the wall saying the place is for sale. I asked Beth if she’d like to run an ice cream parlor in Ithaca and she said yes. I imagine a lot of people who go in there enjoy that fantasy.

Saturday: More Hiking, Kayaking, More Shopping, and Goodbye

Beth and I were leaving early Sunday morning so Saturday was our last day with Noah, and like the day before, it was a busy one. Noah had to wait for delivery of the belongings he had in storage, so Beth and left him there to go on some adventures. Interestingly, his roommate still had not arrived even though the move-in days were Thursday and Friday. So he checked his assignment online and he no longer had a roommate. So now he’s waiting to see if he will be assigned a new one or if he’ll have the apartment to himself.

While Noah was waiting for his boxes, Beth and I hiked to bottom of Buttermilk Falls then back up again. We went down a steep, muddy path through woods, with occasional glimpses of the creek and its many falls and we went back up the other side, up stone stairs closer to the water. It was a challenging hike both ways. By the time we’d descended three-quarters of a mile, my legs were shaking with the effort of not slipping and falling. But then we were rewarded with some really beautiful scenery. The climb up was hard, but not as hard as I feared when we were going down. It was steeper at the beginning, with a lot of steps, then more flat stretches between the steps in the middle and at the end.

Before returning to Noah’s apartment, we ran some errands. We visited the farmers’ market to get some produce to bring home with us and I got Noah a basil plant to put on his balcony. He had not asked for a basil plant, but it’s his favorite herb and he accepted it with what I think was fond amusement. We also got some more groceries at the food co-op for him and some breakfast items for ourselves at Ithaca bakery to help facilitate a quick departure the next day.

The three of us returned to Cayuga Lake to kayak. Noah wanted to stay on shore and send his drone over us before joining us in the water, but it was too windy to fly. (The drone is finicky about weather and will not take off if it does not like the wind speed or temperature.) I don’t know if it was the wind or the fact that there had been a lot of rain recently so the lake was overflowing its normal banks, but the water was quite choppy, more so than the Chesapeake Bay when we kayaked there in July. We turned around and explored an inlet where the water was calmer. It was nice to be on the water one last time together this summer.

While we were kayaking Beth got a call from Moosewood, where we were supposed to have dinner. Someone on staff had tested positive for covid so the restaurant was closing down for a few days. We ended up getting Thai instead. (While we were waiting for it, Noah and I finished our book in his apartment.) We ate our spring rolls, noodles, veggies, and fake meat at a picnic table by the lake, near a stand of huge willow trees. I was thinking we should have had ice cream that night instead of the night before and then I remembered there is another ice cream place Noah and I had not tried, though Beth and North did on a previous trip, so I suggested a repeat of end-of-summer ice cream and no one objected. We went to Sweet Melissa, where we all got soft serve. (Mine was a pineapple sundae.) There was no seating so we went to sit on the steps of a nearby church to eat.

We took Noah back to his apartment. At that point, lingering would have been painful, so we made our goodbyes quick. Beth and I got back to the AirBnB around eight, which gave me enough time to do some packing up and to fall apart a little and for Beth to put me back together before bedtime. I recommend marrying someone who can do that for you sometimes.

Sunday: Home Again

We were out of the AirBnB by 7:30 the next morning, on the road to my cousin Holly’s house near Wilkes-Barre. We needed to pick North up at camp between 12:30 and 1:30, so we were on a tight schedule, but we had a nice visit with Holly and her daughter Annie. Holly put out a lovely spread of fruit, yogurt, smoked almonds, and muffins. A lot has gone on in our lives in the two years since I’ve seen Holly, so an hour didn’t feel long enough, but it was good to talk to her, especially since she may be moving back to California soon.

Once we arrived at Camp Highlight, we found North and heard from friends and counselors that they are “smart and witty” and “have leadership skills.” North served as head of house (the camp is divided into four houses, like Hogwarts) and North was in charge of leading house meetings and their house’s efforts in the lantern games, which is inspired by the Olympics but involves non-athletic competitions as well. North’s house came in second overall and they were proud that it was first in making bags out of t-shirts that will be filled with items to be donated to homeless people. They said they liked arts and crafts best and they had a handmade candle, a bar of soap, a circular collage, and a dreamcatcher to show for it, plus many friendship bracelets we didn’t see because they’d given them away. The zipper on their swim top broke so they didn’t get to swim all week, which is too bad, because they love to swim.

We stopped at Panera for a late lunch, which we ate outside, after wiping the morning’s rain off the benches. We got home in the late afternoon. “Home again,” North commented when the car pulled into the driveway.

We’ve been home three days. Unsurprisingly, I miss Noah intensely, enough to make it hard to concentrate on work, but it’s not as bad as the first time he left, perhaps because it’s tempered by my gratitude that he’s in the place he chose for this part of his life after an interruption of almost a year and a half.

I’m hopeful about the school year for both kids. I’ve texted a little with Noah and he says his initial class meetings were good. He’s taking a class on Media Law, one on utopias and dystopias, Cinema Production II, and band. North found out yesterday they got their preferred electives (Psychology and Theater). They go back to school, in person, on Monday. Fingers crossed both kids get to stay in the classroom, and yours do, too.

Secrets of the Sea: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 47

Who can guess the secret of the sea?
Who can guess the secret of the sea?
If you can guess the secret of my love for you
Then we both could know the secret of the sea

From “Secrets of the Sea,” by Billy Bragg and Wilco

Saturday

On the morning of our first day at the beach, while Beth went for her walk, I corralled people into putting food on the grocery list so she could grocery shop when she got back. While she was shopping, Sara, North, Lily-Mei and I went to the beach. (Noah stayed at home because he was editing the film he’d helped shoot the previous week. He ended up working on it from just after breakfast until dinnertime, when he finished it, so he was free the rest of vacation.)

Sara had decided it was the year for Lily-Mei to learn to dive under waves. Their home ocean is the Pacific, and while they have a vacation house on the coast, the water is so cold neither Sara nor Dave ever want to take her past wading depth, so she’d never done it. Lily-Mei was quite enthusiastic about this project and kept yelling “This is amazing!” after diving under each wave. We were all having a good time jumping in the waves and spotting the occasional dolphin or osprey circling above with fish in their talons.

The waves were moderate-sized for the most part but after Dave came to join us and he was with Lily-Mei a big wave knocked them both over and separated them. From where Sara and I were in the water, too far away to help, we could see the panic on his face. They both got up, though, not much worse for the wear, though Lily-Mei did talk a lot later about the wave that was “like a tsunami.”  After a while, everyone got out of the water and Lily-Mei started to dig a hole with my kids’ old shovel I’d brought for her.

After lunch I went into town to get a gift certificate to Browseabout Books for my mom’s birthday, which was the next day. On the way home, I got myself an iced café con leche at Café A-Go-Go, as it’s not really a beach trip without at least one, and I ran into Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei outside Candy Kitchen. Lily-Mei had a spiral lollipop in her mouth. They’d just rented bikes, so we made our separate ways home.

When I got home, Beth, North, Lily-Mei and I headed to the beach. Beth got her legs wet and then retreated to her towel while the rest of us got in the water. The surf was rougher than it had been in the morning, the waves about the same size but closer together, so there wasn’t much time to rest. Lily-Mei was not as ebullient as she’d been in the morning, instead she looked very serious and focused as we ducked under and jumped into waves. We were getting tugged northward out of the lifeguards’ range, so after the second time we’d gotten out and re-entered the water further south, I told Lily-Mei the next time we got near the red flag, we’d get out of the water for good. In response she started swimming south against the current so we’d never reach the flag. “She’s a problem solver,” I said and North agreed. Around this time, Dave and Mom arrived, so Dave took my place in the water and I went to rest and talk to my mom.

When the lifeguards blew the 5:30 whistle signaling they were going off duty, Dave and Lily-Mei got out of the water. When the guards dragged their chair away Lily-Mei was drawn to the big pile of sand it left behind and decided she wanted to eradicate it by stomping and pouring water on it out of her watering can. This project occupied her and Dave for some time.

Mom and North were on dinner duty that night and they made a nice pasta salad with mozzarella, a tomato-cucumber salad with feta, and corn on the cob. Dave had put on a yacht rock station, partly to rib Sara, I think, but it lead to a spirited discussion of what constitutes yacht rock. Beth had listened to an episode of Hit Parade about this and was particularly well informed.

Noah and I cracked open a new book, The Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is about a young woman who accidentally brings a Mayan god back to life and joins him on a quest. It seemed like it would be a fun read. I just counted on Goodreads and we’ve read twenty-eight books together since he came home in March of 2020. This one won’t be the last, but whenever we start a new one now I wonder how many more we’ll finish. My guess is two or three (counting the current one). It feels strange for this number to be so finite and so small.

Secret of the Sea #1: It’s good to have multiple ways to deal with each wave as it comes at you.

Sunday

In the morning I hung around the house talking with people and then went to the boardwalk where I settled into the shade of one of the gazebos and starting blogging until it was time to go pick up my mom’s birthday cake at the bakery. When we got back North was teaching Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei to play Sleeping Queens, a card game my kids loved in elementary school (and that we played a lot last summer when North was in the hospital, maybe for its comforting nostalgia factor).

I took my mom out for a birthday lunch at a boardwalk restaurant where we often go. We were seated inside at the back of the restaurant, where the tables are on a platform so you can look right out over the rest of the tables out to the sea. I got steamed clams in one of my very occasional beachside departures from vegetarianism and she got a crab cake sandwich and we had a nice conversation.

After lunch we met up with the rest of our party on the boardwalk and got ice cream because Beth had mentioned several times in a casual sort of way that Sunday was National Ice Cream Day and I got the idea she’d like to celebrate this fine holiday. She did an excellent job herding six people to the boardwalk on short notice when I texted her. Beth told me I was living dangerously eating ice cream in a white polo and sure enough it soon had a pistachio green stain on the front. While we were eating our ice cream I remembered I’d forgotten to give my mom her birthday card and the gift certificate at lunch, so I gave it to her then.

Sara, Noah, and Lily-Mei went to the beach straight from the boardwalk, changing in the restrooms near Funland. Mom and I went back to the house to change and eventually joined them. When we arrived they were on the sand after a swim and Lily-Mei was making repairs to a pool she’d dug in the sand and was hoping the ocean would fill, but she’d dug it when the tide was going out and she was glum that no waves were reaching it, until suddenly a rogue wave did and she was jubilant.

Everyone but Mom went (back) into the water. The waves were breaking closer to shore than the day before, which made for a rough entry, but overall the water was calmer than the day before. While we were in the water, Lily-Mei started to experience a stinging sensation Sara had noticed the day before and they found tiny gray creatures on her skin. Research revealed they were jellyfish larvae, which can get caught in tight-fitting bathing suits and sting when that happens. (Later Sara and Dave got Lily-Mei a rash guard and some board shorts, which mostly solved the problem.)

I stayed longer than anyone else and I only got out of the water because I thought the lifeguards had blown the 5:30 whistle, but it was just for someone out of bounds. It was 5:20 by then and I didn’t want to get in just to have to get out again in ten minutes so I stayed on my towel. Sara, Noah, and Lily-Mei were packing up to leave, but Mom and I stayed almost another hour. It was that beautiful golden early evening time at the beach when the light is just lovely and the day was warm but not hot and it was actually kind of hard to convince ourselves to leave, but we did.

Sara and Dave made tofu and veggie-filled lettuce wraps for dinner and they were a big hit, as was the chocolate cake with raspberry puree and custard between the layers. That night my kids and Lily-Mei had a sleepover in the room with two bunk beds. They stayed up late (for Lily-Mei) and watched a movie and played Truth or Dare. In Lily-Mei’s version of this game, if you chose truth, instead of having to answer a question, someone tells you a truth about yourself.

Meanwhile, all the adults except Beth and me watched a different movie, while we elected to take a walk on the boardwalk and beach and watch the heat lighting. It felt like a little date.

Secret of the Sea #2:  The celebrations you plan are important, but the little, spontaneous ones are, too. 

Monday

I slept in the next morning, which for me means I was asleep until almost eight. North was still asleep but Noah and Lily-Mei were snuggled on the couch, playing Truth or Dare. He chose truth every time but from the bedroom I couldn’t quite hear what truths he was receiving, so I asked him later and he said that his nails are long, his arms are big, his pajama top is funny looking, and that if he shaved off all his hair it would be enough to cover his face. Next Lily-Mei wanted to look at his phone and they had the following exchange:

“What’s the bird?”
“Twitter.”
“What’s Twitter?”
“People talking to each other.”
“What’s this?”
“Reddit?”
“What’s Reddit?”
“Also people taking to each other.”
“Your phone is boring.”

So he found her some cat videos and she was happy.

The kids wanted Grandpa Mac for lunch, but the original, walkable location is closed, so we ordered it to the house from the location up on Route 1. While we were waiting for the food to arrive, I went to the boardwalk gazebo closest to our house to read The Secret to Superhuman Strength.

Mom and I went to the beach in the mid-afternoon. The ocean was very calm. I swam twice and in between Mom and I had a long talk and read and ate plums and watched a school of bluefish swim up the coast. They made a dark band in the water and you could see the fish jump out of the water occasionally and the seagulls following the school. The lifeguards cleared the water to let it pass.

We got Japanese for dinner, again ordered to the house. We’d hoped to go and eat on the beautiful rooftop deck of the Cultured Pearl, but we couldn’t get a reservation. We needed to eat in the house or outdoors because Lily-Mei is not vaccinated yet and I guess a lot of people with under twelves are in the same boat because outdoor reservations are tough to get.

Secret of the Sea #3: If you seek the truth, you must accept it.

Tuesday

The much anticipated kayak trip was Tuesday morning. Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei, Beth, and I all got up early. My kids were going to come, but opted out when they found out we were leaving the house at 7:30. Something went wrong with our reservations for the dolphin tour, so we ended up renting kayaks and going out on the Bay without a guide. There were small waves, so small Sara called them “undulations,” so it was almost as calm as kayaking in a lake, and I’d learned enough on my two practice trips not to embarrass myself. Sara said, “I wouldn’t call your kayaking bad,” but she went overboard at one point, so I’m not sure how high her bar was.

We paddled toward a lighthouse on a seawall because the young man who rented us the kayaks thought that was our best bet if we wanted to see dolphins. He was hesitant for us to go around the wall because no one from shore would be able to see us, but Sara convinced him we’d be okay. The Bay was very pretty and we saw horseshoe crabs in the shallows, and jellyfish and a variety of sea birds nesting on the seawall. We did see dolphin fins near a fishing boat (I imagine they were after the same fish), but it was pretty far in the distance, no closer than I saw from the ocean most days. It was still a nice excursion, though I think Lily-Mei liked the ice cream she got at the snack bar afterward best.

In the early afternoon, Noah, Lily-Mei and I went to the beach. We swam and then we took a walk up the beach. Lily-Mei was stamping her footprints into the damp sand, circling them and adding her initials all the way from lifeguard stand 15 to 19. She was hoping to see some of them on the way back but the ocean had erased them all, much to her dismay. When we got back to our towel she started to build an elaborate village of sand castles, crisscrossed and surrounded by moats and walls. She’d been working on this for about forty minutes, while I alternately read and watched her, when a boy a little older than her accidentally trampled part of it and then he and his mother helped repair it. Soon, the kids were deep in conversation about how to improve the village. It’s so interesting the way kids will lose themselves in a project like this. They played together a long time and I don’t think they even introduced themselves. (They did establish their ages, however. He’s nine and she’s eight.)

Sara worked at least a little every day and when she finished for the day, she came down to the beach, and Noah and I left to make a quick stop at Candy Kitchen to get fudge for the house. Then we went home. I needed to get back early to help Beth make her signature beach dinner—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, bread, a plate of fancy cheese, and olives. She makes it every year and all the adults, including me, look forward to it. We were cooking in pairs all week and in addition to anticipating the meal, I was also glad not to have to plan any meals and to just have a set of discrete tasks like picking cilantro leaves off the stems, cutting slices of cheese, etc.

Shortly before dinner Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei came back from Funland and Lily-Mei was saying she’d seen Frankenstein and it took me a while to put two and two together to and realize she’d been in the Haunted Mansion. It was her first time.

Noah and I read for forty-five minutes after dinner and then there was an expedition to the boardwalk for ice cream and frozen custard. We left while Sara and Dave were putting Lily-Mei to bed, and I thought Sara, who tries not to eat much sugar, would be glad to be spared the temptation, but it turned out she was disappointed to miss the outing. On the way home we saw several boys in the street riding contraptions they had rigged up by attaching beach chairs to skateboards. I ended up seeing them several times during the week and they always drew a lot of attention. (One day I saw a police officer direct them off the boardwalk—where skateboards are not allowed—and then as soon as she was out of sight they went right back.)  I also saw a little frog in the grass by the sidewalk and when I got too close it jumped into the street and then I had to catch it and return it to the grass because I was afraid it would get hit by a car. The eventually successful rescue effort also drew an audience.

When we got back everyone hung out in the living room and talked until late in the night. Well, late for us. I went to bed around eleven and it was past twelve before Beth came to bed.

Secret of the Sea #4: Lose yourself in exploration and play.

Wednesday

Wednesday morning my mom went to have coffee with my stepfather’s cousin who lives nearby and Beth and Dave took my kids and Lily-Mei to the water park. I headed out to a boardwalk gazebo to blog again.

When Lily-Mei asked if I was going to Jungle Jim’s, I told her it was against my religion. “She likes the real water,” Lily-Mei concluded, correctly, and Sara said yes, that was it, and Lily-Mei, said, “Well, she’s missing out.” Maybe I was, but before we all went our separate ways I didn’t miss out on seeing Sara, Noah, and Lily-Mei play zoo. Sara played the zookeeper, Lily-Mei’s ever-growing collection of stuffed animals from Funland were zoo animals, Lily-Mei was a vicious cheetah who was prone to escape from her cage and Noah was a series of five hapless zoo visitors slaughtered by the cheetah. (The cheetah also captured and devoured many of the other zoo animals.)

While I was at the gazebo, my mom passed by on her way home from the coffeeshop. Jim’s cousin hadn’t showed (she wasn’t sure he was going to because their communication had been confusing). She stopped for a while to sit with me and then went back to the house. I followed eventually and had lunch.

In the afternoon while I was at the beach, swimming and finishing The Secret to Superhuman Strength, the annual beach week puzzle was finished, only a day after it was started. This one had a design of postage stamps. YaYa fitted in the last piece, though it was Noah and Dave who had put most of it together, with some assists from YaYa, North, and Lily-Mei.

YaYa and Noah made linguine for dinner, but it was a small crowd because North was in bed with a headache (they came down and ate later) and Sara and Dave were out on a dinner date. Right before they left Lily-Mei was begging to go to the Haunted Mansion while they were gone and her wish was granted. Sara said yes and North and I took her.

The whole walk there she was chanting, “Haunted Mansion,” alternating with “Frankenstein,” which was clearly the monster that resonated most with her. I’d heard her say to Sara earlier in the day, “Mama, Frankenstein doesn’t have a square head. You know how our heads have no corners? His has two at the top, but not four.” When North was that age, it was the zombie that impressed them most, and Noah has always been fond of the room full of tiny floating skulls because he realized early that the trick was done with mirrors and he liked that idea. As you can see, the Mansion is an important rite of passage in our family and I was glad to be there for Lily-Mei’s second trip through it.

Funland was crowded and we had to wait in line for tickets and then for the mansion itself, but finally it was time to board. I wasn’t sure if the three of us (plus North’s crutch) would fit into one car, but we did. It was the same as it always is, the room of spiders, the skeletons holding a hose that seems like it will spray you but doesn’t, the devil launching into a real estate pitch for hell, the truck that suddenly appears, horn blaring. (Lily-Mei said later she didn’t like that.)

The doors that sometimes open to let you see out of the ride and onto the boardwalk opened this time. Lily-Mei was uncharacteristically quiet for most of the ride, but every now and then she’d squeak when something spooked her. Afterward she was on that joyful and proud post-Mansion high I remember well from when my kids were eight to ten or so.

Secret of the Sea #5: Face your fears.

Thursday

Mom and Sara’s family were leaving a day early because they had an early afternoon flight out of Philadelphia on Friday (all except Sara who was driving up to Northeastern Pennsylvania to visit our cousin) and they were worried about getting caught in traffic on the way there. I realized I hadn’t had any time alone with Sara all week, so I invited her out for coffee, and even though she was busy with packing and hoping to get some work time in, she said yes. We went to Café-a-Go-Go and had a long talk, mostly about parenting.

Afterward, I read to Lily-Mei, about half of a chapter book about a girl who is trying to track down both a vampire and a werewolf in her house, which must be about par for the course when you live in a place called “Spookie House.” It was the fourth book in series and I was reading a big chunk out of the middle, but it was still fun, as it was the kind of book I used to read to my kids, though we hadn’t read this particular series.

Right after that, Beth managed to wrap up some work (I was the only non-retired adult who did not work on this vacation) and we left for a late lunch, a belated anniversary celebration. We went to Green Man and got juice from the juice bar—she got the cantaloupe kiss and I got the love potion (peach-strawberry-orange). She also got a sandwich and I got a piece of quiche and salad. We took it to the boardwalk to eat and then we got ice cream cones from Royal Treat. It was fun to get away with her, even for a short while.

Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei hit the road around five-thirty. Noah and I read for about an hour, then we had a makeshift dinner of leftovers, and Beth, YaYa, North, and I went for an evening swim. Well, North and I swam, while Beth and YaYa watched from the sand. When we turned to the shore we could see the sun going down behind Funland and the orange-gold light was really beautiful on the water. There were other people in the ocean but it was less crowded than in the daytime and it felt kind of magical to be swimming at sundown. YaYa went home after we got out of the water, and Beth and I took North to Funland for one last time. They went on the Freefall, the Sea Dragon, and the Graviton. They probably would have gone on the Paratrooper, but the line was insane.

It was quite crowded there, even more so than the night before, and I wished I’d brought a mask, even though I never wear one outside any more. After wearing one to go up to the counter at Dairy Queen on the drive to the beach, I hadn’t even been wearing one inside. I think being on vacation made me relaxed, also there was no visual cue, as hardly anyone was wearing one anywhere, even in line for the Haunted Mansion where there were a lot of under-twelves standing right up next to each other for upwards of twenty minutes. (Lily-Mei was masked.) I’m going to get back in the habit of always wearing a mask inside public places, though, because of the delta variant and because North’s sleepaway camp is urging caution and I want to be a team player.

After Funland, we went to Candy Kitchen and North got a funnel cake with Nutella and strawberries and whipped cream on it. It was something else. I helped them finish it and then Beth and North played Skee-Ball at an arcade, which we chose because there was less of a line there than at Funland, but it was also considerably more expensive, because you have to buy a twenty-five dollar swipe card. With luck, we’ll remember to bring it to the beach next year, though it could take a few years to use up that much arcade money, as no one plays anything but Skee-Ball.

The moon was almost full and very beautiful as we walked home. It was nice to spend some two-mom, one-kid time with North. We haven’t been doing that much, with Noah at home. It was almost ten when we got home, which is quite a late night on the town for us.

Secret of the Sea #6: Be a responsible citizen. 

Friday

Friday we packed up the house and it seemed to be going more smoothly than usual, with less angst about what food will fit in the cooler and what has to be thrown out, but then the cleaners showed up at ten on the dot while we were still scrambling to get the last few things out of the house, so I didn’t make my last-minute check of all of the rooms for stray items and I ended up leaving my laptop charger in our bedroom.

Beth, YaYa, and Noah went to the Verizon store to go phone shopping for YaYa, while North and I made one last stop at Café a-Go-Go, where we each got a cold drink and split a piece of coffeecake. Then we went for one last swim and met up with the rest of our party on the boardwalk and got our traditional last day lunch of fries, crepes, and orangeade. While Noah was waiting in the crepe line, I made a quick stop at the tea and spice shop to get enough of my two favorite teas to last until Thanksgiving.

We’ll be back then, with a smaller group, to discover more of the secrets of the sea.

Secret of the Sea #7: It’s easier to leave when you’ve made a plan to come back.