August and Everything After

In August and everything after/I’m after everything
From “August and Everything After,” by Counting Crows

Sunday: Camp and Cousins 

“I’m ready if you are,” I said to Beth around 9:30 on Sunday morning. We were packing up the car for a four-day trip during which we’d pick North up at camp, spend a little time in Ithaca together as a family, and then drop Noah off at college. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered if I really was ready for this trip, but ready or not, it was time.

We arrived at Camp Highlight around 12:30. Beth and Noah packed North’s things into the already full car while North drifted around the crowd saying goodbye to campers and counselors. It wasn’t goodbye for long, though, as we saw some of them again almost immediately. A bunch of campers and their families were meeting up at diner for lunch and North successfully lobbied us to join them. Beth, Noah, and I got our own table, while North went to sit with a big group of campers. Camp Highlight is a camp for kids of LGBT+ parents, which made me wonder if the staff noticed the sudden influx of middle-aged gay and lesbian couples along with their eight-to-fifteen-year-old kids in red t-shirts, but maybe it happens every year. It was difficult to peel North away and get back on the road, but eventually we did.

Our next stop was a few hours north at my cousin Holly and her daughter Annie’s house, near Wilkes-Barre. Holly grew up out West, but in the four years she’d been living in Pennsylvania, we hadn’t seen each other. In fact, we hadn’t seen each other in twenty-one years. I’m sorry about that, as I never got to meet her husband Mark, who died last November of cancer.

Holly’s house is a charming old farmhouse painted pale yellow and filled with old furniture and eclectic decorations, including her own paintings. We had what Holly called “a quick but lovely visit.” We chatted and ate. Holly set out a huge spread—cheese, olives, fruit, green beans, hummus, chips and salsa, and chocolate. We hardly needed dinner that night. And that was a good thing because we got to our Air BnB outside Ithaca later than expected. There was food provided for guests in the fridge, so North had eggs and potatoes, Noah made a baked potato, and I just had a bowl of cereal and we all went to bed.

Monday: Lake Cayuga

The next day we explored our surroundings. The house had a big yard with a hot tub (broken, sadly), a koi pond with goldfish and frogs, and a hammock. There was also a garden with vegetables you could pick and an apple tree with a couple of ripe apples and many unripe ones. There was a meditation room with a curved glass wall and ceiling overlooking the nearby hills, which you could also see from the porch. It was really delightful. We are already thinking about staying there again.

We were about a half hour from Ithaca and we drove into town to have breakfast at the famous Ithaca Bakery, which we hadn’t managed to hit on our previous two trips there. Beth got the rosemary-salt bagel on the recommendation of friend whose kid is a sophomore at Ithaca and she didn’t regret it. Next we hit Wegman’s for groceries and some prescriptions for Noah that Beth had ordered to arrive there. And sure enough, they were waiting for us.

We went back to the house, where we relaxed (the kids watched an episode of Dr. Who, finishing a season they’d been watching for months). Then we packed a picnic lunch and went swimming at Cayuga Lake. Shortly after we arrived, Noah, who’s not exactly the outdoorsy type, asked “What is the goal of this activity?” He did wade a little and throw rocks in the water, which he always enjoyed as a little boy. Mostly, though, he sat in the shade and looked at his phone while the rest of us swam. We stayed until late afternoon and then returned to the house.

Noah and I finished up Pet Semetary, the last book in our mother-and-son book club, at least for a while, and then Beth fried some green tomatoes from the garden and we had green beans (also from the garden) and deli macaroni and cheese with it. We ate out on the porch, enjoying the view and the pleasant temperatures. It had been quite hot and humid at home, so Western New York was a welcome change. After dinner, we drove into Ithaca to have dessert at Purity Ice Cream.

That night we had our last family poetry reading, a bedtime tradition we’ve had since Noah was in first grade. I don’t know why this was harder for me that finishing our book, maybe it was because the end of Pet Semetary isn’t all that suited to melancholy nostalgia, what with all the violent death and ill-fated resurrections. Or maybe finishing our last summer novel (of seven) and our last poetry book on the same day was just too much. The book was Honeybee, by Naomi Shihab Nye, and the last poem we read (out of order because it was seven pages long and we’d skipped it the night before when we were pressed for time) was called “Last Day of School.” It’s about a woman revisiting her old elementary school and it ends, “there will never, never be a last day of school.” After Noah finished reading the poem, I dissolved into tears and Noah gave me a long hug.  I know most fifty-something moms’ and teens’ reading lives are not as entwined as mine and Noah’s have been, and it could seem odd, but for me it’s been a beautiful gift.

Tuesday: Move-In Day and Robert H. Treman State Park

The next day Noah packed up all his belongings and we drove up to the college, with a pit stop for breakfast at Waffle Frolic on Ithaca Commons. Noah stood in lines to get his i.d. and his dorm room key and then we moved him into his room. It was a very smooth process and there were a lot of orientation staff there for the express purpose of helping carry things up to the rooms. We met his roommate and the roommate’s brother and mother, but only briefly because you’re only allowed to park in the small lot for fifteen minutes so we had to leave pretty soon after they arrived. We did some on-campus errands, including getting a photo by the famous fountain and buying a lot of Ithaca College swag at the campus store: a t-shirt for Beth’s mom and sweatshirts for me and North; I also felt I needed a mug, pencils, and a car magnet. We went to Student Health to see about the process for having Noah’s ADHD meds shipped to campus and visited the mail room for small packages and the other mail room for large packages—he had both. The large package was a box fan for his window.

Later on the Ithaca parents’ Facebook page we heard people complaining about the heat on move-in day, which made us shake our heads and decide that these people were definitely not from the Washington, D.C. area. It was a little warm in Noah’s third-floor room, but I didn’t even break a sweat carrying things up there. The roommate brought a narrow, vertical fan that stands in the middle of the room and Noah had his fan, so I think they’ll be fine until it gets cool, which I hear happens pretty quickly. (We almost returned Noah’s fan because he and his roommate initially couldn’t fit it into the window, but the next day they moved some furniture so it could tilt it into the window frame.)

Noah didn’t want lunch—we’d had a late breakfast and his was a waffle sundae that to his regret he couldn’t finish, so we left him there to unpack and attend a hall meeting and a dorm cluster meeting. Left to our own devices for the rest of the day, we ate lunch at the house (North opted for Taco Bell drive-through) and then went to Robert H. Treman State Park where you can swim in a bitter-cold swimming hole with a waterfall at one end. We’d been there last year on our visit to Ithaca but North wasn’t with us then and we thought they’d enjoy it. Well, they enjoyed it, to put it mildly. They swam for two hours in the 64-degree water, swam against the current to the waterfall and back three times, and did countless handstands. It was good to see them so active in the water and it made me hopeful about their aqua therapy, which was set to start later that week.

While we were discussing dinner plans, North pointed out we’d eaten at the house two nights in a row and we were on vacation. Beth asked what they’d like to eat and North found a sushi place on the Commons where we had a feast of bubble tea, hot and sour soup, seaweed salad, edamame, agedashi tofu, and of course, sushi. We got cucumber rolls because they’re North’s favorite and a kind that had thinly sliced mango and avocado on the outside and sweet potato inside. We walked to Sweet Melissa’s for ice cream afterward, though I skipped dessert because the bubble tea had been pretty sweet and there was leftover mochi at home.

Wednesday: On Our Way Back Home

There were events for parents most of the next day, but we decided we’d attend a couple before lunch and be on our way. Breakfast was provided, so we ate in the gym and Noah joined us after he’d had breakfast in the dining hall. We listened to some speeches from college administrators together and then the students were divided into small groups and left while we listened to more speeches—mostly about how not to be helicopter parents— and then we ate a buffet lunch. I’m not quite sure what the students did in their groups because we didn’t get a chance to talk to Noah much after that. He had a pretty tight schedule. We were initially hoping to go back to his room so we could drop off some clothes he’d left at the Air BnB (he’d put a few things into the week’s worth of camp laundry I did for North on arriving there and I hadn’t taken the clothes out of the dryer). Anyway, there was never time for that, so we brought the bag of clothes to give him as he was entering a session for new students of the School of Communications. We said goodbye quickly in the hallway outside the auditorium.

In the weeks and months before Noah left for college I’d imagined that moment of parting many times and it wasn’t anything like I expected, rushed and without tears. For a while it looked like we might not be able to find him at all and we’d have to leave without saying goodbye. He might have preferred that—he tried to say goodbye via text—but that would have been more than I could have borne.

After

Leaving a kid at college is hard to describe, such a mix of happiness and sadness. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced. We had two days at home as the threesome we’ll be most of the time for the next five years. North went to their first aqua therapy session, finished their summer reading homework, and made soft pretzels. Beth and I worked, North and I walked to Little Caesars and brought home a pizza (something they’ve been wanting to do all summer) and we all watched a movie called Lemonade Mouth. Then yesterday morning, Beth drove North to Wheeling, where they’ll spend the last week of their summer vacation with Beth’s mom. I stayed behind, alone in the house, which was sometimes lonely and sometimes restorative. I read the newspaper, had lunch out, mowed the lawn, cleaned the kitchen, went to the farmers’ market, and wrote this. Beth got home this afternoon and she and I will practice being empty nesters for a work week, until we leave on Saturday to spend Labor Day weekend in Wheeling and collect North.

I miss Noah terribly. How could I not? But I’m also proud and excited for him as he steps away from us and finds out what August and everything after will look like.

Party of Nine

We just returned from our traditional extended family beach week in Rehoboth on Friday afternoon. I haven’t gone back to check old blog posts, but this might have been our largest group ever with nine people in the beach house: my family of four, Beth’s mom, my mom, my sister Sara, her fiancé Dave, and their daughter Lily-Mei. We ranged in age from six to almost seventy-six and we were spread out over a big house with a little cottage on the property. We’ve had the house before, but never the cottage. All week people were telling me how perfect the setup was. YaYa had her own space and Sara and Dave had a room that adjoined Lily-Mei’s. It was just right for our group. Not to mention it was a half block from the beach. Here’s how we spent the week:

Friday 

“This is awesome! This is the dream of my life!” Lily-Mei exclaimed. She had just been informed it was ten o’clock. Being up that late is heady stuff when your bedtime is seven-thirty. What she didn’t know was that her body was still on West Coast time and her folks were intending to keep her up late all week in hopes she’d sleep later in the mornings.

With the arrival of my mother, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei, our crew was complete. YaYa and Noah had returned from his two-week visit to Wheeling the previous day and we’d driven to Rehoboth, while the West Coast contingent had made brief visits to friends and relatives in the Philadelphia and Scranton areas before meeting us at the beach.  They hit bad traffic and by the time they arrived, North and I had already been wading at the beach, and the five of us had pizza at Grotto.

Lily-Mei’s exuberance could have been due to getting out of the car after being cooped up a long time or to seeing her cousins for the first time in two years, or just her big personality, but whatever the reason, soon she was joyfully and noisily tearing around the house, with North and Noah trailing her.

Saturday

The next day started earlier than I would have preferred, but not because of the smallest child in the house. The sun from an eastern window woke me before six. I tried to go back to sleep for a long time without success, but the good part was that North and I were on the beach before 8:30 and before most of the house was even awake. (The next night we hung a wool blanket over that window, and an eastern window in Noah’s room, which helped a little.) It was somewhat difficult for North to walk on the sandy path down to the beach with their crutches and they required help getting in and out of the water, but once they were in deep enough to be buoyant, they had no problems in the water. This was a relief because I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to swim this year, but they swam for hours most days. It may have helped that the water was very calm, with only very small waves.

We swam together for an hour and they stayed in the water another half hour, when we returned to the house so I could help menu plan and make a grocery list for Beth and Mom, who were going shopping later in the day. When we arrived, we were met by Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei, who were headed out to the beach. Lily-Mei was put out to have missed us there.

Once the swimmers and shoppers had left, I had some leftover pizza for lunch, and read the first chapter of The Bad Seed to both my kids. We’re experimenting with reading together for the first time in years, but it’s hard to find a good book for everyone. (We only managed two chapters during the whole week and none in the two days we’ve been home, so I’m not sure it’s working.) After Lily-Mei got back from the beach, North went to play with her and Noah and I switched over a book of Shirley Jackson short stories.

I tried to nap in the mid-afternoon, but couldn’t get to sleep. When I got up, Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei had gone to the beach, so North and I followed. It was a beautiful day, warm but not hot and not too humid. The water was still calm. We swam and sat on the beach in varying combinations and Dave and I got to chat and know each other a little better.

Mom went back to the house first and made dinner, tortellini with a tomato-sour cream sauce. After dinner, Sara, Dave, and the kids (including Noah) watched part of Cars. It was his favorite movie back in the day. In fact, he was kind of obsessed with it. They stopped the movie frequently to explain what was going on to Lily-Mei. When I asked him later if it held up, he said yes and he’s a film buff, so that’s saying something, but I suppose nostalgia played a role.

Meanwhile, Beth and YaYa walked to the boardwalk, where they got ice cream and saw dolphins. They returned about the same time the kids stopped watching the movie because the fireflies had come out and Lily-Mei wanted to chase them. Did you know they don’t have fireflies west of the Rockies? So this was a rare treat for Lily-Mei, who was remarkably good at catching them one-handed. But she didn’t always need to because sometimes they just landed on her hand. She was like a little insect whisperer. Noah shot a movie of Lily-Mei holding one on his phone in between catching a few of his own. We were all standing in the gravel driveway of the house, watching the glowing insects on the ground, in the air, high up in the branches of an evergreen, and temporarily in our hands and a glass jar. It was kind of magic.

While Lily-Mei was getting ready for bed, North and I walked down to the beach and looked at the stars.

Sunday 

When I got up (early again), Noah, North, and Lily-Mei were all in the kitchen. My kids were making breakfast to eat in front of Dr. Who, a Sunday morning tradition. I asked Lily-Mei if she’d eaten and she said no, so I made her a bowl of cereal and some vegetarian bacon. She ate half the cereal and a bite or two of the bacon and then parked herself and her stuffed bunny in front of the closed door behind which Noah and North had sequestered themselves. This was such a pitiful sight that once I’d finished my own omelet, I asked her if she had any books she’d like me to read to her. I read her a Thomas book and The Carrot Seed, books she found on a shelf. Sara got up and North emerged from the den just as we were finishing up, so they played zookeeper’s keys and Rat-Tat-Cat, a card game we’d brought from home because North really liked it when they were six, and then they played some pretend game involving leprechauns fending off encroaching bad guys.

Around eleven, Sara, Lily-Mei, North, and I went to the beach. We spent a couple hours, swimming, making sand castles, taking walks, and hanging out on our towels. Lily-Mei was pretty fearless in the water. Whenever she got knocked over, she just got right back up. And she wanted to swim far out in the ocean. In fact, at one point, North asked if she wanted to swim all the way to Portugal (the country directly across the ocean from Delaware) and Lily-Mei said yes, looking over her shoulder and saying, “Bye, Mama!”

After lunch, Beth, my kids, Dave, Lily-Mei and I set out on an expedition to Candy Kitchen and once we’d walked that far it seemed to make sense to just keep going to Funland, so Dave and I took North and Lily-Mei, while Beth and Noah peeled off to run errands and go back to the house. At Funland, North and Lily-Mei rode the teacups, the Freefall, and the Graviton (one of those horrible centrifuge rides), most of them multiple times.  Nothing was too scary, except the automatic flush toilets in the restroom. Next the kids and Dave played carnival games and Lily-Mei won a stuffed ladybug and Dave won a stuffed panda.

By the time we got home, it was time for me to start dinner, a lentil stew and salad. Beth was kind enough to do some k.p. for me while I was still at Funland. After dinner, the kids finished Cars. Then Mom and I took North and Lily-Mei on an evening walk to the beach, where we spied dolphins almost as soon as we arrived. It was sunset and the beach was awash in pink. The sky was pink, the water was pink, the wet sand was pink. When we got home, Mom read  part of the first chapter of Beezus and Ramona to Lily-Mei. I love those books so much—both from my own childhood and from reading them to my kids—that I found myself listening from the porch. I don’t have it memorized word for word, but I always knew what was going to happen next.  Later when Mom and Lily-Mei came out to the porch, and Lily-Mei discovered she had two new mosquito bites, she wailed, “I don’t like this world!” It can be a short distance from the dream of your life to not liking the world when you’re six.

Monday

My shoulders had gotten a little pink from being in the sun at midday the day before, so I got to the beach early and had some solo beach time in the morning, then came back around 10:20 to do laundry and read with Noah, while North played with Lily-Mei. Sara had engaged her for three mornings of babysitting (but of course they played with her at other times, too). Once North was off duty, I took my kids to Grandpa Mac’s for lunch.

In the mid-afternoon, Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei, North, and I headed down to the beach where we swam and made sand castles. Well, Sara and her family were the main builders, but North and I contributed a little dribble village outside the castle gates.

Before dinner, people worked on a puzzle of Arcadia National Park. Most people helped, but Dave and Noah were principal contributors and Lily-Mei found the last piece on the floor and fitted it in.  Then we had YaYa’s delicious spinach lasagna—a regular one and a gluten-free one. Next there was an expedition to the boardwalk for dessert. Between us all, we got ice cream, frozen custard, and gelati (a parfait of frozen custard and water ice—that’s Italian ice to you if you’re not from the Philadelphia area). North and I got the gelati and it melted so fast so we were both sticky and colorful messes by the time we were done.

Tuesday

North was sitting Lily-Mei again in the morning. I heard North ask what she wanted for breakfast and Lily-Mei said, “Candy!” When North said she couldn’t have candy for breakfast, she said, “But I know where it is.” After they ate something a little healthier than that, I took them both down to the beach, where there was more swimming and digging in the sand. At one point, a wave knocked Lily-Mei down and she said, “That was no problem at all!”

We came home and Mom and I went to a boardwalk restaurant for lunch. Then I read for a while with Noah before going back to the beach with Mom and North. Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei had gone back to Funland. They returned with five new stuffed animals (including a sloth she seemed quite taken with) and two decorative pillows. Mom came into the water to get her legs wet before she went back to her chair to read while North and I swam. But there were biting flies that day and she quickly retreated to the house. Once I was out of the water, I didn’t want to stay long either. The flies even got under the towel I used to wrap up my legs.

Dinner was Beth’s signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with garlic-cilantro sauce, and fancy cheeses with bread and crackers. Sara says this meal alone is worth a flight from the West Coast.

After dinner, Beth, Sara, Dave, Lily-Mei, and I went for a bike ride along Gordon’s Pond Trail, which goes through a salt marsh and down to a cliff that overlooks the ocean. Beth often takes solo bike rides when we’re in Rehoboth and this is one of her routes. Sara’s walked or biked it a few time and as a bird-lover, she always enjoys it. This time we saw egrets and red-winged blackbirds and clouds of dragonflies hovering over our heads as we biked. I’ve never seen so many in one place. We stopped at a marsh overlook and at Herring Point, where we saw a large pod of dolphins hunting for their dinner. Sara was excited, having not seen dolphins yet on this trip, but Lily-Mei had seen some that morning on the beach and was not as impressed. (Also the flies were biting here, too, so she wanted to get moving again.)

As we biked, Sara told Lily-Mei how two years ago she’d been in a baby seat on Sara’s bike instead of pedaling on an attachment that turned Dave’s bike into a bicycle built for two, and how two years before that, when she was still in China, Sara had decided on her name while walking on this very trail.

We left Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei back at the house and continued into town, where we made a quick Whoopie pie run. We brought the dessert back home to share with YaYa and my kids, but Noah was asleep, having gone to bed early with a headache.

Wednesday 

He was recovered in the morning, which was good because Mom, Beth, my kids, Sara, Lily-Mei and I were going to have breakfast at Egg, at his request. From Noah’s point of view, eating out is the main point of a beach vacation. Mom and Sara were charmed by the farmhouse décor and we all enjoyed our meals. (Noah and I got crepes with lemon curd and blueberries.)

Next on the agenda was Jungle Jim’s. Everyone but the grandmothers and me went. I always say going to waterparks at the beach is against my religion. I used the time to catch up on writing this blog post at Café-a-Go-Go with an iced café con leche and then to go to BrowseAbout to get a book for Noah. We’d finished The Lottery and Other Stories the day before and I thought I should use the time I still had the bike to run errands. (I’d rented it for one day only because we were so close to the beach.)

Mom and I had lunch at the house. We were the only ones there because YaYa was having lunch with a friend who lives in the area and everyone else was still at the water park. Apparently, Jungle Jim’s was a big hit with Dave and Lily-Mei because they stayed after the rest of the party left, getting home shortly before dinner.  Mom and I went to the beach after lunch, hoping to avoid the biting flies by varying our arrival time. Sure enough, it was a very nice day, sunny with no flies and the sea continued to be very calm. This was the first day I was starting to get frustrated by the lack of waves, because swimming in big waves is such a joy to me. But I swam a couple times anyway and had a nice talk with Mom in between, sometimes standing in the water, and sometimes sitting on the sand.

We had to leave the beach around four because we had five o’clock reservations at a Japanese restaurant. It turns out when you call the same day for a party of nine, you are either going to eat pretty early or pretty late. But service was leisurely,  so the timing actually worked out well, as it was 6:15 before we had our entrees. It was a pleasant place to wait. We were seated on the roof, in our own gazebo, with curtains to draw against the sun. The tables were on wooden platforms over a series of interconnected koi ponds. We dined on seaweed salad, sushi, udon bowls, and seafood pasta. My kids introduced Lily-Mei to a kind of melon-flavored Japanese soda that comes in a bottle with a glass pearl suspended inside and when she got bored she had fun walking back and forth between our table and the downstairs hostess stand to fetch mints for various members of our party, one at a time.

After dinner we broke into groups, seeking candy from Candy Kitchen and ice cream. Noah, North, and I went to Funland where North and I went into the Haunted Mansion and both kids rode the Freefall and the Paratrooper. We only used up thirty of the seventy-six tickets we came with, mainly because the lines were so long, but North had more rides they wanted to go on, so I promised we could come back.

Back at the house, various people were watching the first night of Democratic debates—I decided to wait until the field was more winnowed— or listening to a live broadcast of the Accidental Tech Podcast, or reading Beezus and Ramona aloud to Lily-Mei, who had managed to stay on West Coast time (two years ago when Sara tried this it didn’t work). As a result, the youngest member of the party was often up later than North, Beth, and me.

Thursday 

It was our last full day in Rehoboth. I managed to get down to the beach by 8:45. I took a walk north and found a big sand sculpture someone had made in the shape of an animal with powerful back legs. The upper part of the body was worn away so it was hard to tell if it was a rabbit or a kangaroo. Then I swam. There were no real waves and it was looking like there wouldn’t be any on the trip. I was sad about this, but I made an effort to appreciate what I did have, a sunny day with pleasant air and water temperatures, instead of dwelling on what I didn’t have. That’s tricky sometimes, though, isn’t it? Almost as if the universe wanted to reward my efforts, I saw a pod of dolphins, including a baby dolphin swimming with its mama, which is something I’ve never seen before in all my years of going to the beach. It was jumping a little higher out of the water than its elders and occasionally wandering out of their straight path.

I returned to the house mid-morning to do laundry and read Noah’s new book—An Absolutely Remarkable Thing—until lunchtime. Nicola’s was next on Noah’s list of restaurants to visit because he wanted baked ziti. Dave, North, and I accompanied him. Afterward the kids and I went to Funland, where we used all but fourteen of the one hundred tickets I’d originally purchased and North checked every ride they wanted off their list. And they did it just in time to get down to the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel where they were going to high tea with YaYa. It’s a tradition for them. When North was younger it was a dress up occasion, but now they just go in whatever they’re wearing. From there, North went earring shopping with my mom. They were so booked they didn’t get to the beach that day.

While North was off with the grandmothers, I came home and napped, then went to the beach for an hour before dinner. As I walked down the sandy path, I heard someone say, “It’s so level. It’s like a pool” and it was. The light was really beautiful, though, making the yellow-green water underneath glow and the silvery-blue water on the surface gleam.  Every little ripple and swell was clearly delineated. It looked like the water in Moana. After my swim I lay on my towel. I had a book but I felt too tired to read, so I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to a harmonica someone was playing nearby, which reminds me—one time when North and I were at the beach early in the morning, there was a man walking up and down the beach playing bagpipes. You never know what will happen at the beach.

Sara and Dave made black bean quesadillas, corn on the cob, and kale salad for dinner. Afterward, my kids went down to the closed snack bar on the path to the beach for a photo shoot. They’d been thinking of making a music video on the beach like they did last year, but they didn’t get around to it in time, and North thought they could use some still photos in a video someday and they liked the retro metal Pepsi and cheeseburger signs and thought it would make a good backdrop. So Noah took some pictures of them around the snack bar and then the kids and I walked out to the beach and got our feet wet and climbed the mound of sand the lifeguards pile around their chairs during the day. Then while Noah had his camera and tripod out, we went home and assembled everyone for a group shot on the porch stairs. While we waited for him to set up the shot, North and Lily-Mei chased fireflies. (This never got old for Lily-Mei. I think she did it every night.)

Friday 

This was checkout day. After the last puzzle of the week was finished (at the very last minute) and the house was packed up and locked, and Beth, Noah, and YaYa were headed back to the realty to return the keys, the rest of us stood in the yard and talked for a while, prolonging our goodbyes. But finally, Mom, Sara, Dave, and Lily-Mei piled into their car to drive back to Philadelphia where they’d visit friends again before flying out west. North and I walked down to the beach, got a half hour swim, and then met up with the rest of the East Coast contingent for lunch. There was a last trip to Candy Kitchen, a last few minutes on the beach to say goodbye to the ocean. North and I were still in our suits, so we dived in; Noah was dressed and was only going to get his feet wet, but he got most of his front wet. As we walked down the sidewalk away from the ocean and toward our car, parked on a distant side street, I glanced over my shoulder at the boardwalk and the dunes, feeling a bit like Lot’s wife. But I didn’t turn to a pillar of salt, and I kept walking.

You’re Done

Noah graduated from high school on Friday morning. In case there was any chance we’d forget, there were plenty of reminders in the week before. He had to go to school to pick up his cap and gown and tickets on Tuesday afternoon and then on Thursday there were not one but two rehearsals, one for graduating seniors in the morning and one for the members of the band and orchestra who’d volunteered to play at graduation in the afternoon. (He also registered for his college classes on Monday, the day registration opened.) 

In between these tasks, he helped me make baked ziti and clean fans, mowed the lawn, and started editing interviews he conducted in October for a podcast he’s been making for the kids’ preschool. Last summer and fall he interviewed a bunch of alumni and their parents about their experiences at the school as a volunteer project. He produced a few episodes from his summer interviews before school started in September, but other than taping a few more interviews, he hasn’t worked on it since then. Working on this and volunteering for two weeks at a film-making camp for middle schoolers are going to be his main summer occupations. But he also had enough down time to watch the livestream of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote and to watch a half dozen episodes of Orphan Black with me over the course of several days.

Beth’s mom flew in for Noah’s graduation, arriving Thursday afternoon. Beth picked her up at the airport, but no one else could come to meet her because Noah was at the band rehearsal and I was taking North to a physical therapy appointment.  Beth and YaYa got caught in rush hour traffic and it was two hours before Beth had dropped her off at her hotel to check in and swung around to get Noah, North, and me so we could all meet for dinner. Noah and I read from The Lottery and Other Stories while we waited.

Once we were all together, we had dinner at a tapas restaurant in Silver Spring. We got a selection of olives, pan a la Catalana, a cheese plate, mushrooms sautéed in garlic, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and patatas bravas.  They have a nice dessert sampler there, with churros, flan, tres leches cake, and sopapillas, but Noah wanted ice cream and it was his occasion, so we went to Ben and Jerry’s instead. Kung Fu tea is next door and North wanted bubble tea so we split up temporarily, though eventually we all ended up seated at Ben and Jerry’s.

As everyone was finishing up their desserts, North experienced another flare up in their leg (the third in a week). I was afraid we’d all be stuck there until it passed, but Beth brought the car around and I encouraged North to power through enough to stand up and walk to the car. (My back up plan was to see if Noah could carry them. I know I can’t.) Fortunately, they were able to walk across the street and get into the car, where we had some painkiller in the glove compartment. That night they slept on some cushions on the floor of their room because they couldn’t get up to the ladder to their loft bed.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one evening, after North was settled into bed, Beth noticed something was amiss with our cat Matthew’s paw. There was matted fur with something bright red in the center. From a distance, it looked like he was badly hurt and I was imagining a late night trip to an all-night vet, when we got closer and saw he had something clear and sticky all over that paw and a scrap of red paper had stuck to it. So we all got to go to bed, which was good because the next day we were all had to get up early.

Graduation was taking place at the basketball stadium at the University of Maryland and there were at least two graduations taking place there that day. Noah’s was at 9:00 a.m. and the musicians had to be at school to help move instruments into the van that was transporting instruments to the stadium at 6:15. He set an alarm for 4:45, slept through it, and Beth woke him at 5:05. She dropped him off at school came back to shower and eat, and Beth, North, and I headed over to YaYa’s hotel a little before 7:30. He texted Beth to tell her that the U-Haul’s parking brake was stuck and it looked like they might not be able to get any of the percussion instruments to College Park.

In further misadventures, as we got into the car North noticed Noah’s white, purple, and black cord lying in the driveway, where it must have fallen while he was getting into the car at the crack of dawn. It was for completing the Communications Arts Program and he was supposed to wear it around his neck. Beth scooped it up, in hopes of getting it to him.

We got to the stadium around 8:10 so there was ample parking and we could have sat anywhere we wanted, but North didn’t want to navigate the steep steps, so we stayed up in the nosebleed seats near the entrance. The band was practicing on the court, with all their percussion instruments (someone had fixed the van’s brake), so Beth walked down to the lowest seats, called his name and tossed the cord to him. It was lucky he was playing with the band because otherwise he would have been sequestered wherever the rest of the graduates were and it was unclear if she would have been allowed back there.

The ceremony started promptly at nine. The band played a tribute to John Williams, which began with the Star Wars theme and then some processional music by Wagner, “Pomp and Circumstance,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as the 718 seniors (minus members of the band, orchestra and chorus) filed onto the court in two lines, one in red robes and one in white. Until several years ago, boys wore red and girls wore white, but now it’s gender-neutral. You can choose whatever color you want. Red is slightly more popular.  Once everyone was seated, there was a red rectangle on the left, a smaller white rectangle on the right, filled in with more red at the bottom, plus the black robes of faculty down the outer sides, along the aisle between the rectangles, and in the back. It was kind of a cool, watching this design take shape.

It was also a treat to be able to see Noah playing, as percussion is usually in the back at concerts. It was in the back here, too, but because of the stadium seating we could see everyone on the court. Even as high as we were, I could still sometimes hear him on the snare drum and the bells, though sometimes the bass drum drowned him out.

I haven’t been to a high school graduation since my own (as I was in Iowa, taking a grad school summer school course when my younger sister graduated from high school in Pennsylvania).  But it was about what you’d expect. A lot of speeches, interspersed with a chorus performance, a band and orchestra performance of the school’s alma mater, and then after about an hour, the names. It takes a long time to read 718 names, almost another hour. And, to my surprise (and apparently Noah’s, too) the musicians were all called first, so he walked across the stage, shook his principal’s hand and received his diploma case (the actual diplomas were distributed later) quite early in the proceedings. I’m not sure why he didn’t know this was going to happen, as he’d been to two rehearsals the day before, but it went smoothly enough. It looked like everyone knew what they were doing.

Listening to the rest of the names and watching kids on the Jumbotron was full of sentimental moments as Noah’s classmates from preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school went by. Because Blair is such a big school and Noah’s been something of a lone wolf the past several years, I didn’t even realize some of them went to his school. A few names I was waiting for, but it was hard to know exactly when they’d be called because the graduates went up in alternating groups of red and white so alphabetization was only approximate. Finally, all the names, from Abarca to Zimand, had been called, the students turned their tassels and they were graduates. They weren’t supposed to toss their caps, but of course, some of them, including my usually rule-bound son, did. North asked later, how you got your own cap back if you did that and he said if you were in the main area , you probably didn’t, but if you were only graduate sitting with the band in the percussion section, it wasn’t that hard. The band played a recessional from Aida, and everyone filed out.

We expected a long wait for Noah because he had to help pack up the percussion instruments and go get his diploma. As we lingered outside the building, on a pretty early June day, we chatted with the mother of Jazmín, one of his preschool classmates, and the father of Ruby, his best friend for most of kindergarten. We talked about where the kids are going to college and later Beth reminisced about how once when Noah fell and was hurt on a kindergarten field trip to a grocery store a few blocks from the school, Ruby’s dad was chaperoning and carried him all the way back to school. Noah came out earlier than we expected. Apparently, as he was helping with the instruments, the band teacher told him, “Go on. You’re done.” We took pictures of him with YaYa, with North, with Beth and me, and with Beth and YaYa. Then we dropped North off at school for their afternoon classes and went out to lunch. Told he could have lunch anywhere he wanted, he chose Noodles and Company. He’s a man of simple tastes.

We went back to YaYa’s hotel so she could change clothes and then back to our house, where we hung out, napped, and read. When North got home from school, Noah opened graduation cards and presents. He got a t-shirt for tech podcast he listens to, a pair of cordless headphones, a teleprompter, and a lot of checks, cash, and gift cards. North’s present to him was a series of five paintings. The captions read: What I love about you (an amusement park scene)…Is that even on the scariest of rides… (a roller coaster)…You’ll always hold my hand (two clasped hands)… And let me know that I am safe (closeup of an eye)…and I will always believe it (heart).

Noah wanted to deposit his check, so Beth ran him up the credit union, and then YaYa, Beth, North, and I went for a stroll around the neighborhood before a pizza dinner. Then we came home and Noah packed for an almost two-week visit with YaYa. In the morning, we all had breakfast together at Panera before Beth drove YaYa and Noah to the airport.

He’s done. Now it’s time for him to go on, to West Virginia for some grandmotherly spoiling, then a week at the beach with more family, then a month and a half at home making podcasts and teaching kids to make movies, and then on to the great adventure of college. 

Little Cabin in the Big Woods

Saturday: Arrival

We arrived at the cabin at Blackwater Falls State Park around five, after a drive that featured heavy traffic at the beginning and driving through snow on untreated roads with very little visibility at the end. YaYa was already there. She’d laid out crackers and cheese with a little container of honey mustard as a welcome. We snacked and rested a little between unpacking and setting up the Christmas tree that had made the journey from Maryland with us on top of our car.

This was our third Christmas in a row at Blackwater, but the first one (at least with the kids) in one of more rustic cabins that Beth and her family stayed in when she was a child and where Beth and I spent a Christmas with her family a couple years before Noah was born. The older cabins are a little smaller, wood-paneled, and quite charming.

YaYa wanted to hear the recording of Noah’s winter band concert, so we played the three Wind Ensemble’s three songs, while Noah pantomimed playing the different percussion instruments he’d played in the concert so she could hear which sounds he’d made.

North and I started dinner—grilled cheese and soup—and almost immediately North cut their finger badly on a soup lid. It looked deep and Beth and I were afraid we were going to be heading back out into the snow to drive to the nearest urgent care, which is forty-five minutes away in good weather. But ice, pressure, and elevation stopped the bleeding, so I resumed cooking and we ate dinner, watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and called it a night.

Sunday: Settling In

In the morning Beth strung the lights on the tree and we hung ornaments on it. We had brunch at the lodge, and browsed the gift shop, where YaYa bought me a Blackwater Falls State Park windbreaker as an early Christmas gift. Back at the cabin we collected sticks for kindling so we could have a fire later and the kids explored the teepee previous guests had left in the woods behind the cabin. Later I kept seeing these all through the park and I wondered if there had been a teepee making tutorial at the nature center recently.

Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping and the kids and I made gingerbread cookies with dough I’d made at home on Friday. I was using my mom’s gingerbread recipe, the same one I use every year. In fact, when I’d called her on Friday to thank her for the Christmas gifts we’d opened early to lighten our load in the car and to celebrate the solstice, she was in the thick of making gingerbread cookies with my five-year-old niece, Lily-Mei. They seemed to be having fun but also “’xasperating” each other in Lily-Mei’s words.

When Beth and YaYa got back from the grocery store, the gingerbread was done and the kids were watching an episode of Dr. Who. North then launched into a solo baking project, chocolate-peppermint cookies, while Beth and I took a short walk through the snowy woods to the top of the sled run. There wasn’t anyone sledding—it must have been between sessions—and there was a truck grooming the snow.

After we returned from our walk, YaYa got out the tinsel and she and North put the finishing touches on the tree, while YaYa reminisced about hanging tinsel on the Christmas trees of her youth and how her father insisted on all the tinsel being perfectly straight. North listened with interest and said they were glad YaYa was more relaxed about it. Then they sang a song from Peter and the Starcatcher at YaYa’s request.

People split up to read, commune with their electronic devices, and nap for the rest of the afternoon. The kids collaborated on dinner—fettucine with tomato sauce, broccoli, and Greek olives. The olive were among the treats my mom bought us on her travels in Greece this fall. When the kids started cooking I wondered why I’d never given them joint responsibility for a meal before. Then they started squabbling about whether the water was boiling sufficiently to add the pasta and whether it was “naughty” to sample more pasta than strictly necessary to test for doneness… and then I remembered. But they did put a decent meal on the table, with no adult help, so perhaps we’ll try it again someday.

After the dinner dishes were done, we watched Christmas is Here Again, which was longer than I remembered so North was up late, but Beth reminded me, “It’s vacation,” and so it was.

Monday: Christmas Eve

It snowed overnight and in the morning there was seven to eight inches accumulated on the picnic table behind the house and our bedroom window was fringed with icicles. The longest one was probably eighteen inches long.  There were even bigger ones out the kitchen window. I asked Beth what she wanted to do that day and she said she hoped to read, make a pot of black bean soup, work on a puzzle with Noah, and not leave the house except maybe to take a walk. That sounded pretty good to me, though North opined “that doesn’t sound very exciting.” I think that was the point, actually.

And that’s basically how the day went. Beth didn’t leave the house, even to go for a walk, though North and I took a walk down the park road to the end of the cabins. Beth made soup, which simmered in the crock pot for most of the day, and she worked on the puzzle with Noah. It was a jumble of different images of Santa Claus. Beth, Noah, and YaYa watched The Last Jedi. I finished a Joni Mitchell biography I’ve been reading since October and listened to David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries.” We had the NORAD Santa tracker (muted) on the television screen most of the day. Every now and then someone would glance at it and comment on Santa’s location and the number of gifts delivered. In the evening we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns.

After that, North wanted to open one present each. This is a tradition Beth had growing up and I didn’t. North likes it and Noah doesn’t, so we made it opt-in. I decided to sit it out with Noah as I’d already opened my gifts from my mom on the solstice and then I’d received the jacket from YaYa early, too. YaYa opened a calendar Beth made with pictures of the kids (always a popular grandmother gift). Beth opened a fleece jacket and North got a t-shirt that said, “Stay Bold.”

It was a nice, low-key day, except for the fact that the cat sitter called to tell us the heat was out at our house and Beth had to make and receive a lot of calls, as she tried to coordinate a time when the cat sitter could let the heating company technician into the house. And then the tech called the house phone instead of Beth’s cell or the sitter’s to say he was coming, so of course he was locked out and he left. When he came back he needed a part and left without fixing the furnace. The sitter set up a space heater in our bedroom, the cats’ favorite hangout spot. It wasn’t too cold outside, mostly in the forties, and the house has thick walls and holds its heat for a couple days, which is good because the heat was still out when we got home three days later, despite Beth’s persistent efforts to convince the oil company to send someone to the house.

Tuesday: Christmas Day

By eight a.m., everyone was awake and ready to open presents. Most of us had already opened our stockings. A great many gifts were exchanged while we ate clementines, nuts, and candy and Noah took pictures. Noah got camera equipment, including a new lens and a camera bag. North got a certificate to get their hair dyed and a weighted throw blanket with cats on it. Everyone got at least several of these things: books, socks and other clothes, tea, mugs, soap, scented candles, Amazon gift cards, and tiles.

I knew this ahead of time because I saw it unfold during our Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth, but Beth and North got each other the same pair of fuzzy blue socks because when North was showing them to Beth to gauge if she liked them, Beth thought North was dropping hints that they wanted them. Not exactly a “Gift of the Magi” situation because nobody sold their feet to buy the socks, but still a bit of Yuletide irony.

North made breakfast, a skillet pancake with lemon curd and homemade cranberry syrup. But before we ate Noah wanted to try out his TARDIS mug. When you fill it with warm liquid, the image of the TARDIS fades from one side and appears on the other. It’s a pretty cool effect. One of Noah’s other gifts was Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows, which we’d just finished on Christmas Eve, in a serendipitous bit of timing. So we read the first two chapters of that.

When we’d finished, Beth and I hiked the Balanced Rock trail. The trail was covered with snow, but well-marked with orange blazes. We had to step carefully because you couldn’t tell what was under the snow. It could be rock, a spongy layer of wet leaves, mud, or an inch of ice covering another inch of water. It was a lovely walk, though, with evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves covered in snow. We had the trail nearly to ourselves—there were no footprints other than ours, except near a place where the trail crossed another trail—and just once, I glimpsed another person ahead of us on the trail. We had to scramble and crawl at the end when it got steep near the two boulders, one atop the other, that give the trail its name. When we got up there it was so quiet we could actually hear the snow creaking as it shifted on branches and showered to the ground. That was the only sound, other than the occasional cawing of a crow.

Beth and I had leftover black bean soup for lunch with crackers, cheese, and olives, and the cranberry sauce that was the byproduct of the syrup North made. Beth, North, and YaYa went swimming at the lodge after lunch. I would have gone, too, but I’d forgotten to pack my suit. I was sorry to miss it because the pool is in a room with big windows and I enjoy being in the pool or hot tub, looking out at the snow.

But having the afternoon free in the cabin meant I could read Elevation, one of my Christmas presents, in one sitting (it’s only 146 pages and they are small pages) and make a batch of peanut butter-chocolate kiss cookies. They were just going in the oven when the swimmers came home. Beth made a fire and I relaxed in front of it while YaYa made her signature spinach lasagna for Christmas dinner. After dinner, we all watched a Dr. Who Christmas special from a few years back.

Wednesday: Boxing Day

The next day was our last full day at Blackwater and there were a lot of things we hadn’t done yet that people wanted to do. In the late morning we went to the sled run and the adults watched the kids sled. North had neglected to bring their waterproof gloves (purchased last year at the sled run gift shop/snack bar) or any gloves at all, so the adults all lent them our cotton or fleece gloves in turn, each pair getting soaked as they used their hands to brake. After three runs, they were out of gloves, so they quit. Noah did a fourth run and then the session was closed. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the snow was sparkly, and there was a bonfire going at the foot of the hill (behind a barrier so no one can sled into it).

From the sled run we drove to the White Grass Café where we had lunch. On the drive there and back the kids were alternating songs from North’s favorite musical, Dear Evan Hansen, and Noah’s, Hamilton, while North expounded on plot and characterization in Dear Evan Hansen for YaYa, who hadn’t heard of it. We dropped YaYa off at the cabin and then the four of us were going to hike down to see Blackwater Falls, but halfway down the series of stairs and platforms, they were closed due to packed snow and ice. Beth was disappointed because the falls are special to her, especially in winter when they’re partially frozen. We could still see them, but we weren’t right up next to them. It looked like there was just a little ice on the falls, with water pouring around it. We drove to the other side of the canyon to take a different trail that affords another, more distant, but less obstructed view, and took some pictures. Watching the falls made me think about the last waterfalls we visited, in Ithaca, and wondered if we’ll be making regular visits to any of them in the next several years.

North would have liked to go to the pool again but the roads were slushy and Beth was afraid they’d ice up as afternoon temperatures fell, so we settled into the cabin to read and work on the puzzle, which Beth and Noah finished. This turned my mind to college, too, because Noah wrote his main Common App essay on puzzles, how he likes to do real ones, and also enjoys the puzzle-like aspects of film editing and computer programming. I was glad to see writing and re-writing that essay several times has not ruined puzzles for him.

Noah’s also become more interested in still photography lately and he’d taken a lot of pictures on this trip. Using his laptop to project them on the television screen, he showed them to YaYa so she could pick the ones she wanted. Then he set up her new tiles on her purse, phone, and wallet.

Beth made one last fire, we had a supper of leftovers, and set to work taking decorations off the tree and packing. We had a discussion about whether to rent a modern or rustic cabin next year. Beth voted for rustic, because they remind her of her childhood, the kids voted for modern, I abstained because I prefer the look of the old cabins, but I missed having a washer/dryer. YaYa cast the deciding vote for modern because it’s more convenient to have two bathrooms.

Thursday: Departure

In the morning, there was the usual end-of-vacation scramble to clean out the fridge and pack the car. Actually, more than the usual scramble. We are still discovering things we may have left there—a thermos of Beth’s, a shirt of Noah’s, an almost full box of Greek pastries and candy. But we were on the road by ten thirty and home by three. When we got home we found the house cool but habitable. It really hadn’t been that cold outside and with the space heater going our bedroom was sixty-two degrees, with the other rooms maybe ten degrees cooler.

Sorting through the mail we found many Christmas cards and another merit scholarship offer, (from UMBC) and a somewhat disappointing statement from Ithaca about Noah’s total aid package there. We went out for Chinese food, after having decided we’d rather eat in a heated restaurant than have take-out in our unheated dining room. After dinner, Beth dropped us off at the house and went to the hardware store for another space heater to put in North’s room that night.

Friday and Saturday: Home

Over the past couple days Beth succeeded in getting someone to come fix the furnace and ran errands, I did an endless stream of laundry (five loads so far) and blogged. Noah applied to RIT—his last application—and did some homework, but only for an hour on Friday and a few hours on Saturday. One nice thing about our vacation was that Noah didn’t have to work at all while we were gone. North met up with a friend from Peter and the Starcatcher Saturday morning and in the afternoon we went to see Mary Poppins Returns and then went out for tapas. We’ve got few more days to ease into our normal routine, and while there’s an orthodontist appointment, a visit to the MVA, and a mammogram on the agenda on Monday, I hope we’ll find time for fun as well.

The Whole Sand Castle

Day 1: Saturday 

“This was a nice way to start the holiday. Tacos and ice cream. We’re really kicking back,” Beth’s aunt Carole said. We were at the Dairy Queen near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, after having lunch at Taco Bell. Noah, YaYa, and Carole had flown to D.C. from Pittsburgh the night before and we were all driving to Rehoboth Beach, where we were spending the second week of the kids’ summer break.

Noah spent the first week in Wheeling with YaYa, swimming in the pool at Carole’s condo, attending a showing of Charlie Chaplin films and watching movies at home. North spent it at home with me. They didn’t have camp, so they lazed in the hammock and played the ukulele, practiced dance moves from My Fair Lady in the yard, and binge-watched Fuller House while I worked. Three evenings they had My Fair Lady rehearsals. They are playing Jamie, one of Eliza’s father’s drinking buddies. I gave them a chore every day but we also had an outing almost every day—to the Long Branch pool, to the farmers’ market to get pupusas for lunch, out to lunch with family friends Becky (North’s old music teacher) and Eleanor (Becky’s daughter and North’s old babysitter), and to visit Lesely, their old preschool teacher, who was at school because she’s running at half-day camp at the school and it had just finished for the day. I felt like I managed a pretty good mix of work and fun for both of us, though exercise and reading for pleasure kind of fell by the wayside for me, except for the day we went to the pool, when I did both.

We arrived at the beach house a little after four. After we unpacked, Beth went to get groceries and I took a quick walk down to the beach and got my feet wet. When I got back to the house, my mom had arrived from Philadelphia where she’d spent a couple days visiting with friends on her way from Oregon and our party was complete.

We socialized and Beth made dinner—ravioli and salad—then after we ate we listened to North sing an original song, plus one from Dear Evan Hansen, plus “Hallelujah,” while accompanying themselves on the ukulele. Beth and Noah drifted to the porch where they started the 1,000-piece puzzle (a village scene) they would work on for most of the week, (along with YaYa and Carole).

Meanwhile the seniors played a Broadway-themed board game North got for their birthday from Megan. It was then I learned all three of them know the words to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, because suddenly they were all singing it with North, while Mom danced around the living room. (The game requires you to do things like this.)

Day 2: Sunday

North and I didn’t go down to the beach until noon because I was reading with Noah, chatting with various relatives, and helping Beth make a grocery list. This often happens on the first day—the morning is busy and I just can’t wait until mid-afternoon when the sun is less strong. But we were restrained and didn’t stay long, just an hour and fifteen minutes. We were in the water most of the time, with a brief break to sit on our towels to eat cherries and a plum and re-apply sunblock.

After a late lunch at the house, Mom and I went back to the beach for a short walk, then we set out on a series of errands, one of which was to rent a bike for me, but I failed in that because Mom dropped me off at the bike shop at 5:02 and they’d closed at 5:00. Gazing sadly through the window at the employee inside did not yield results, so I texted Mom and she picked me up.

When I returned to the house Noah and North seemed to be engaging in some preparatory work for music video North wanted to film at the beach. I thought I heard them approach and then back away from an argument on the following topic: Should Noah add instrumental tracks beyond North singing and playing the ukulele? (Noah pro, North con.) I was pleased at their restraint and civility because while they’ve collaborated on several films, the process is sometimes messy and fraught.

Mom and I made dinner—veggie burgers and dogs, really excellent corn on the cob we got at a farm stand on the drive down, and a tomato and mozzarella salad with basil I brought from the garden at home.

After dinner Noah asked if we had any dessert in the house and we didn’t, so everyone walked down to the board walk (about a half hour away) and got ice cream, frozen custard, and water ice. That last one was mine and I was happy to be close enough to Philadelphia to call this treat by its nonsensical but rightful name and be understood. If you’re not from Philadelphia you probably call it Italian ice. Rehoboth establishments, being frequented by vacationers from the DC area and Philadelphia, use both terms and North noticed one place covered all the bases by advertising “Italian water ice.” I take even more pleasure in saying “water ice” than in calling sprinkles “jimmies,” though I had occasion on this trip to do that, too. We ate our frozen treats on a boardwalk bench under a gorgeous pinkish sky, full of sharply defined clouds. They were beautiful. Everything was beautiful.

Day 3: Monday

I resolved to stay off the beach until mid-afternoon because despite diligent application of sunblock I had gotten a mild burn on my shoulders as a result of being out in the noontime sun. I went to town instead where I successfully rented a bike. When the house is a twenty-minute walk from the beach and the boardwalk and downtown are a half hour and you don’t drive and parking’s impossible anyway, it’s really handy to have one. I used said bike to cruise around town, acquiring and iced café con leche, a couple books from the Books of Elsewhere series I’d pre-ordered for North, and some fudge. It was a very satisfactory outing.

I returned to the house, made myself a cucumber and mozzarella salad for lunch, sampled the strawberry cheesecake fudge I’d bought, and hung out with the older generation on the screened porch because Beth and the kids were at Jungle Jim’s water park, where they spent most of the day going down slides, riding the bumper boats, and playing mini golf. This is a beach week tradition of theirs, but I’ve never set foot in the place. I tell them it’s against my religion. They regard this statement with some skepticism.

I made it down to the beach just before three and Mom joined me shortly after that. I had a long swim—the waves were a little calmer than I’d like but it was still nice—and when I got out we had a long talk, mostly about various relatives and what they’re up to these days. Beth dropped North off at the beach (directly from the water park) around four-thirty. Apparently they hadn’t had enough of water for the day because they made a beeline for the ocean.  I stayed up on the sand with Mom until she left and then I joined North in the water. When it got to be around six I thought we should leave so we could get home and shower for dinner, but I had some difficulty coaxing my merchild out of the water.  At one point I was on the shore motioning them to come out and they held up five fingers. I wasn’t sure if that meant five minutes or five waves, but I held up one finger. As they stayed in for more than one wave, it must have meant minutes. And then, instead of walking to the towel, they cartwheeled.

Carole was the cook that night and she made a pasta salad with feta, tomatoes, and green beans. Although we did have dessert in the house, Beth, the kids, and I made a whoopie pie run into town anyway because sometimes you just need a whoopie pie.

Day 4

The following day Mom, YaYa, and Carole took the ferry to Cape May for a day trip. As she had been the day before, Beth was glued to the computer, waiting for a decision in the Janus case because when it was decided she would need to direct her union’s online response. That one didn’t come that day, just the awful decision on the Muslim ban. It was just the first of many wrenching political things that happened that week, as you know by now. Every 5-4 decision that goes the wrong way (for instance the Texas gerrymandering case the week before) just fills me with rage about the Supreme Court seat Mitch McConnell stole from President Obama. But this is a vacation post, so I won’t dwell on that.

Anyway, no decision meant Beth was free for the day, so she took North to the farmers’ market to get ingredients and then the four of us went to Grotto for lunch. The main reason for this expedition was so Noah could have baked ziti and much to his dismay it wasn’t on the menu, which he considered “a betrayal.” The boy is serious about pasta.

Because we had lunch on the late side and we stopped a couple places on the way home, including Candy Kitchen, it was 3:45 by the time North and I made it to the beach, but we were in the water almost constantly until almost six.

While we out of the water briefly, we came across three big mounds of sand someone else had made near the waterline and we decorated one of them with dribble castles. It was a good place to do this because there was plenty of wet sand available, but it was a bad place to do this because the relentless assault of the waves was eroding the base we were trying to build on and taking down other people’s work and ours, too. This was fun until it started to seem like a political metaphor, and then it was less fun. Whoops, there I go again.

We took another short break to eat the picnic of fruit, mushroom focaccia, and pretzels with cheese dip North had packed. I ate sparingly because I knew Beth was making her signature beach dinner of gazpacho, potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, bread, and a cheese plate. This is definitely a meal you want to save room for.

That night Noah, Beth, YaYa, and Carole worked on the puzzle and made significant progress on it.

Day 5: Wednesday

The Janus decision was announced Wednesday. That’s the one that put another nail in the coffin of public sector unions, though I suspect that’s not how Beth was supposed to spin it. While Beth worked on the union’s response, the kids watched Dr. Who. Mom took them out to lunch at Grandpa Mac’s and then to Funland while YaYa and Carole had lunch with a friend of YaYa’s who lives nearby.

It was an overcast day so I felt safe enough swimming in the late morning. With the clouds and the wind, the day was almost chilly so there weren’t many people in the water, but people were on the beach playing with all sorts of balls—footballs, baseballs, lacrosse, and paddle balls—which gave the beach a kind of festive atmosphere.

I hadn’t read on the beach yet so I read a Washington Post Magazine and tried to read the Sunday Arts and Style section I’d brought from home, but reading the paper on the beach on windy day isn’t the best idea, so I had to put it away. I took a walk instead, in a loop, first north to a jetty of barnacle and algae-covered rocks and watched the water crash against them and make little whirlpools and channels between them. Then I turned around and backtracked to my towel and beyond it to another jetty. The lifeguard there blew his whistle at me for standing too close to the rocks.  I was annoyed because I wasn’t swimming near the rocks, which I understand is dangerous. I wasn’t even climbing on slippery rocks. I was standing on the sand next to them. I’m fifty-one years old for crying out loud. I think that’s old enough to stand next to rocks.

Anyway, I was hungry for lunch so I biked back to the house and had leftovers of Beth’s delicious dinner. She was on a work call while I ate, but I sat with her on the deck once she was finished and had her own lunch. We learned shortly afterward that Justice Kennedy had retired and that’s when it started to feel as if the whole damn sand castle had been swept to sea.

Noah came home from Funland ahead of Mom and North so instead of dwelling on our real imperiled world, he and visited another imperiled, fictional one, via Song of Susannah. We’ve been reading the Dark Tower series since last summer and we were nearing the end of book six of seven.

When North got home we went to the beach. When we first went into the water it was choppy and rough, so when the lifeguards called everyone in at five, I decided to rest a bit while North waited impatiently in the shallow water. North only started swimming past where the waves break last summer but now it’s all they want to do. The current rule is they have to be with me when there’s no lifeguard on duty and they have a hard time understanding why I’d want to do anything but swim at the beach, thus my limited reading time on this trip.

When I went back into the water the waves were bigger and more spread out, perfect really. I taught North how to ride up the underside of a swelling wave and glide up over the top, catching air on the other side. They caught on right away and loved it.

Back at the house we had YaYa’s famous spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad for dinner. It was the night the kids had chosen to film North’s video. Everyone came down to the beach to watch. We were on the beach about an hour, mostly waiting for the light to change  to the level of darkness North wanted for the second scene. North also had a costume change, which was effected behind the closed snack bar tucked back in the dunes. Beth and I held up a blanket to make a little tent against its back wall and they changed in there. It was a beautiful twilight with an all-but-full pale orange moon rising over the sea. The kids worked together well and everything went smoothly.

That is, it did until everyone had left in the car and I couldn’t find my bike key. I searched all over the beach and the parking lot with the flashlight on my cell phone (it was full dark now) but finally I had to call Beth and ask her to come get me. I left the bike chained to the rack. I was kind of dejected about it, but almost everyone was eating watermelon on the screened porch when I got back and that was cheering.

Day 6

The next morning I returned to the area and searched it thoroughly in daylight. I kept seeing yellow things—vegetation in the dunes, a Ricola wrapper on the sand, but none of them were the bright yellow fob on the key. I also made inquiries with the chair rental guy, the tennis court attendant, and the parking lot attendant but no one had turned in a key. (The lifeguards and snack bar employees weren’t on duty yet.) I decided to kill a little time in town on the slim chance a Good Samaritan would turn it into the bike shop (the address was on the keychain). But after going to the bookstore and a coffeehouse and browsing in a t-shirt shop, I went to the bike shop to make arrangements to get a new key. They didn’t have a record of the number on my lock and I hadn’t thought to check it, so they needed to send someone to the rack to find out and then they needed to send someone to the off-site location where they keep extra keys.

By this time it was almost noon and I was meeting Mom on the boardwalk for lunch, so I said I’d come back. By the time we’d finished our lunch—Mom got crab cakes and I got nachos—the key had arrived and to my surprise, there was no fee for the lost key. Atlantic Cycle now has a customer for life in me.

When I returned to the house, the kids were watching Dr. Who again and no one wanted to go to the beach, so I went alone. Beth had rented an umbrella and a chair earlier in the day (it was the only day she went to the beach in the daytime, having taken pity on North while I was off dealing with the bike key situation) and the chair and umbrella were still there, empty, so I sat in the shade and read two short stories from a collection of classic horror stories before I swam.

As I was standing in the water, I saw a pelican (the first of four) fly by and it reminded me that while I’d seen countless ospreys, most with fish in their talons and a couple horseshoe crabs, I hadn’t seen any dolphins all week and I’d been looking for them. As the sea was calm and flat and there was no one else in it to block my view—I was even further north than where I’d been swimming most of the week—I decided to just stand still and watch the horizon and then almost immediately I saw a fin, then three, and then one more. They didn’t jump out of the water, but it was eerie, as if something had told me just when to look.

I got into the water and swam. The waves were good, but I had to leave soon after the lifeguards blew the five o’clock whistle because we had 6:15 dinner reservations and I needed to get home and shower. Carole was treating us all to Japanese. I got seaweed salad and vegetable tempura, and we all shared a couple orders of edamame. It’s a pretty restaurant with bamboo strung with white lights and several koi ponds both inside and out. Everyone enjoyed their meals.

From there we wandered into town where Beth and Noah got ice cream, North got an açai bowl and I got a ginger lemonade. We split up and Mom, the kids, and I walked home the long way, along the boardwalk. That night YaYa, Carole, and Noah finished the puzzle. This was also the day we learned with a heavy heart about the five journalists who were killed at the Capital Gazette. The news would just not let up this week.

Day 7: Friday

Everyone spent the morning at the house—I was reading with Noah, doing laundry, and hanging out with my mom, who was packing. She had a flight out of Philadelphia the next day and was leaving to stay overnight with another friend. Mom and I ate leftovers for lunch and then watched about a half hour of Into the Woods with North, who was watching it in preparation for drama camp. They were thinking of trying out for Little Red or Rapunzel. After Mom left, I was sad because she lives on the other side of the country, and it could be a year before I see her again.

Noah cheered me up by coming to the beach with me. Like Beth, he had not been to the beach in daylight all week. (I don’t know how I convince so many people who aren’t beach-lovers to come to the beach with me for a week every year, but I appreciate the fact that they do.) We had a dip and relaxed on the sand. Eventually North joined us and we all went back into the water in various combinations. At the end it was just me and North. Our last wave knocked us both over (something similar happened to Noah earlier). I never like the last wave to be a bad one, but the lifeguards were blowing the whistle and to get in again we’d need to wait for them to drag their chairs up the beach and leave, and we needed to get home to shower for dinner, so that was it for the day.

We had pizza at Grotto and then some people got dessert and North and I split off to go to Funland, where we rode the Haunted Mansion, which is still a little scary for North. When we checked the screen with the souvenir photos they try to sell you afterward they said we couldn’t buy it because “it makes me look bad,” by which they meant slightly spooked in contrast to my calm face. I thought about how when they were eight, they wanted a picture of themselves cowering into me with their eyes shut tight and their arms thrown protectively over their face because it proved they’d been inside.

The Haunted Mansion cars have two routes, the only difference being sometimes they go out onto a balcony where you can briefly see the boardwalk and the ocean and people on the boardwalk can see you. This is the less common route, so we were both happy when the car went out there and people on the boardwalk waved. We had enough tickets left for North to ride the Free Fall and the Viking ship and then we walked on the beach. When I warned North not to let their phone get wet as they waded in the water, they felt for it in their pocket and couldn’t find it. It was in the sand, not far away, but I think that was a bigger scare for them the anything in the Haunted Mansion.

As we walked home on the boardwalk they were considering the pros and cons of the two parts they wanted (Rapunzel: better singing, Little Red: better acting). Then they sang part of a song and an older woman stopped us to compliment North’s voice.

Day 8: Saturday Again

Saturday morning was the usual scramble to pack and get out of the house, then I returned the bike and sat for a while in the shade of a boardwalk gazebo, admiring the sea and spotting more dolphins, while the rest of the crew sought air-conditioning. Next I went to buy myself a long-sleeved Rehoboth Beach t-shirt, because my old one has holes in both elbows. I found one that has a beach scene with horizontal stripes of color in the sunset, the ocean, the sand, and the dunes, in a pattern that kind of resembles a rainbow flag. (It’s sad I will probably never wear long sleeves again, though, since it’s crazy hot back here in the DC area and it’s hard to believe it will ever be cool again.)

I had a short swim, about a half hour, which was as long as I dared to stay in the sun so near noon. I was in the most crowded part of the beach, right in front of Rehoboth Avenue, and it was a hot, sunny Saturday morning, and the water was calm, almost like a wave pool, so the ocean was packed with people. This was quite a contrast to the beach where we’d been swimming all week, which always had people on it but never crowds.

Still, I was feeling a kinship with everyone standing around in the water together—the little black girl with the adorable Afro puffs, the people tossing footballs back and forth in the water, the middle-aged couple and their college-age daughter who just seemed really happy to be spending a weekend together and were all wondering if the daughter could get another one off work so they could do it again. The wildlife was different here, too. Instead of the countless ospreys with fish in their talons I’d been seeing all week, there was a gull with a French fry flying over our heads instead. I wouldn’t want to spend most of my beach time in the more populous part of the beach, but it has its charms, too.

Once I’d torn myself away from my last ocean swim, I got a bucket of fries and brought them to the alley of shops and stalls where we were all meeting for lunch. I bought orangeade for everyone, actually finished up a punch card and got a free drink, which was satisfying after Smoothie King refused to honor my punch card back in May. (I am still bitter about this.) After lunch the kids and I made our final purchases from Candy Kitchen and we went to put our feet in the water probably for the last time until we return in November for our annual Thanksgiving weekend trip. I’m hoping (though not necessarily expecting) that we will be celebrating happier political developments in the midterm elections that will take place a couple weeks before that. That would truly be a reason to give thanks.

White Christmas

Solstice

Thursday after school North went to AFI with their new friend Xavier and one of his moms to see A Muppet Christmas Carol and Noah came home still wearing a party hat from a party in his calculus class and no homework due the next day. He was quite chipper—drumming and reading Wizard and Glass ensued. Beth got home late—she was out getting a Christmas tree—but we had enough time to open presents from my mom and sister and eat gingerbread cookies. We were opening some of our presents early so we wouldn’t have to pack them all and I’d made gingerbread dough so we could take it with us to bake at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we were spending Christmas again. When I’d finished the dough, I baked about a dozen cookies for our Solstice celebration—a mix of snowmen, stars, and Christmas trees. After we’d opened the books, essential oils, a narwhal puppet, a cookbook, and spices and other goodies from my mom’s recent trip to Asia, North went to bed. When, later that evening, I found Noah up past his bedtime and told him to go to bed, he seemed genuinely surprised. He felt so unencumbered he’d forgotten it was a school night. (He’d been drumming on things other than his drums all afternoon and evening, which is often how I know he’s happy.)

Rain to Snow

After everyone had finished another day of work and school and errands and packing, we left Saturday morning a little after ten-thirty and drove to Blackwater. It was raining on and off the whole way and the temperature dropped from the high fifties to the high forties. (I know this because we have a new—to us—car we bought just last week and it has a screen on the dashboard that tells you things like that. It also tells you the name and artist of songs when you play music, which is educational for people like me with poor recognition of currently popular artists.)

About twenty minutes into the drive I told Beth it was good it was raining because it would make her happy when it changed to snow. Although the week overall was very cold, it didn’t get cold enough for snow during the drive, though we did see ice in the road cuts and patches of old snow here and there at the higher elevations.

On the way, we sang along with Christmas music and the kids had a spirited discussion about mistletoe and consent. Noah finds the whole concept of mistletoe problematic while North thinks it’s not that hard to ask before you kiss someone and he should just lighten up. Another topic of conversation: are all songs that portray Santa in a sexual or romantic light—e.g. “Santa Baby,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus”—automatically creepy? North is a definite yes on this one.

We got to the cabin just before three, where we found YaYa and a pot of delicious homemade vegetable soup, which we enjoyed between putting up and decorating the tree and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as a light snow fell.

Christmas Eve

We woke to a pretty dusting of snow on the ground and all over the tree branches outside the window and spent a cozy and relaxing day. North and I made hash browns to eat with breakfast. Then the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough and decorated them with colored sugar and dried cranberries. In the afternoon YaYa took North to the pool up at the lodge—they stayed for hours—while Beth and I took a walk down some muddy trails to the partially frozen pond and on from there to the edge of the gorge where we admired the deep slopes of snow-frosted evergreens and the Elakala waterfall on the far side.

When we got back Beth and Noah watched Rogue One while I read. I was trying to finish a book I got last Christmas in time to start a new stack. (I didn’t quite manage it by Christmas but I did finish it while we were there.) I recommend it if a true crime-based, Appalachian Gothic novel that inspired a classic noir film sounds like your thing.

I made kale and potato soup for dinner with North’s help, while singing Christmas music together. I thought we harmonized particularly well on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” After dinner, we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns and just before North went to bed, Noah gave a very dramatic (and slightly menacing) reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for some reason in an English accent.

Christmas Day

Santa’s first gift to Beth was seven inches of fluffy white snow that fell overnight. I’d given North instructions not to get out of bed until six at which point they could look in their stocking, and to be very quiet, as the fireplace was right outside the adults’ rooms. However, it was Noah who was up first, at 6:30, and he decided to wait for North to wake before they opened their stockings together at 7:10. Beth and I were up soon after that, and then YaYa soon after us. 

Everyone gathered around the tree with chocolate and clementines from our stockings to eat while we opened presents. (Did you know they call clementines “Christmas oranges” in Canada? I just found this out this year and now I want to call them that, except I’d feel like a poseur, since I’m not Canadian.) There was a great quantity of books, socks, soap, jam, tea, mugs, pajamas and clothes exchanged in all directions.  Noah’s big present was a new video camera and he also got three bags of pasta, while North got new headphones, an essential oil dispenser, and the promise of a hair dye job. Noah helped set up the oil dispenser and soon North’s room smelled pleasantly of peppermint.

Beth and North made a cranberry cake for breakfast and we ate it spread with lemon curd, along with eggs and veggie bacon. While we were looking out at the snow, I made an idle comment that someone should decorate the tiny evergreen tree in front of our cluster of cabins. Well, North was right on that, choosing several ornaments from our tree and adorning the little one.

While everyone else read, YaYa helped North run through their lines for the school play. It’s not Romeo and Juliet after all, but The Canterbury Tales. North is playing the Pardoner, which seems like a pretty good part, even though they were hoping for the Wife of Bath.

Noah worked on a puzzle of famous book covers he and YaYa had started earlier and everyone else went for a walk. We went back to the gorge overlook, but this time we took a more direct route, walking along the park road instead of the trails, because of the trails were covered with snow and it was quite cold. It was twelve degrees, three with the wind chill, which is about how cold it was most of our stay. Even so, it was good to be outside and moving in the fresh air and peaceful scenery. (Somewhat less peaceful while we were singing “Frosty the Snowman” and North was trying to make snowballs out of the powdery snow and throwing them at trees.) As we did many times during the trip, we saw deer with big fluffy white tails bounding across the road and into the woods.

When we got back to the cabin, Beth and North stayed outside to dig out the cars (Beth) and make a snow angel and a snowman (North). YaYa and I went inside and I made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up soup for everyone’s lunch.

That evening we watched The Polar Express and most of us watched a Dr. Who Christmas special, which centered around the WWI Christmas truce. I knew that story but I wasn’t sure if it was real, apocryphal, or from a work of fiction. But then my friend Regina posted this on Facebook so now I know. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the eighties, so I didn’t have the whole backstory, but I could follow well enough. The kids are both fans, especially Noah.

Post-Christmas

We spent three more days at Blackwater. Sadly, after taking the first three days of break off homework, Noah had to start working the day after Christmas—he had considerable homework, some of it due during break. There was a paper revision to submit online the day after Christmas and a history quiz (on two chapters of new reading) to take on New Year’s Eve. And that was just a small part of it. Homework over break is nothing new, but homework due during break is. I blame Governor Hogan, for compressing the school year and making us start a week late, even though the dates of the AP tests didn’t change.

Part of what Noah had to do was read in a four hundred-page book about how high-achieving high school students are overworked. I am finding this bitterly ironic, even though the book’s interesting. (I’m reading it, too.) He was working the rest of the time we were at Blackwater, though he took occasional breaks to work on the puzzle or read with me or go on outings. (Once we were home he worked straight through the last three days.)

The rest of us spent a lot of time reading our new books and we went to the pool two more times. I swam about sixty laps in the tiny pool each time, spending almost as much time turning around as swimming, but it was still good to be in the water and moving. North and I had it to ourselves the first time I was there and most of the second time. The pool was in a very pleasant room with a lot of natural light and windows looking out on snow-covered trees. And there was a hot tub, which Beth, North, and I all enjoyed the last time we were there.

We got three more inches of snow a couple days after Christmas and the kids tried out the park’s sled run. There’s a track that conveys your sled—with you on it—up the hill and then you sled down. They did three rides each, two together and one separately, after much negotiation about that ratio. The adults stood by the bonfire at the bottom of the hill or watched from inside the snack bar, which had a nice view of the hill.

Our last full day we all went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Davis, the nearest town. Afterwards Beth and I left everyone at the cabin and ventured slowly and carefully down a series of snow-covered wooden staircases that lead to Blackwater Falls. We’d all seen them the day before from an overview on the other side of the gorge, but they are lovely and close to Beth’s heart, so she wanted to see them up close, even in nine-degree weather. It didn’t feel quite that cold because it was a sunny day and we were exercising, climbing up and down all those stairs. (I did feel my nose hairs freeze, though.)

The falls were half-frozen, with water stained gold from the tannin in the hemlock and spruce trees tumbling over the bulging layers of ice. There were impressive icicles as well, of varying colors, from white to gold to brown, hanging from the rocks near the falls.

Later that day we watched as four well-fed looking deer pawed at the snow in front of the cabin, uncovering grass to eat. Earlier in the week I’d spent a long, fascinating time watching a woodpecker hollowing out a hole in the dead tree branch from the comfort of the cabin’s couch. I couldn’t tell it had just found a particularly tasty cache of bugs of it was making a shelter, but it kept climbing most of the way into the hole it was making, with just its tail sticking out and then getting back outside to make it bigger.

On Thursday, our last day at Blackwater, Beth and YaYa took the ornaments off the tree and dragged it out behind the cabin. North also removed the ornaments from the outside tree and then we all started to pack. As we sat around the table eating YaYa’s homemade cheesecake that night, Beth said, “I don’t want to go home.” I knew how she felt. It’s how I often feel when we leave the beach. But it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next year. On Friday morning as we were checking out, YaYa made reservations for another cabin, for Christmas 2018.

Year’s End

We’ve had a few days at home before work and school resume tomorrow. I’ve been extraordinarily social. On Saturday morning, I had coffee with a close friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce now lives in Indiana but was in Maryland visiting family. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was nice to catch up with each other. That afternoon we drove out to Northern Virginia to visit a high school friend of Beth’s who was having a small get-together with us, her son, nephew, and a co-worker. Heather put out quite a spread, including a homemade apple tart and a cheese pie made with puff pastry. We contributed pizzelles Beth and North made. (Later I made buckeyes and we continued taking sweets to everyone who invited us anywhere.)

On Sunday evening, we went to a New Year’s Eve party at our neighbors’ house, where Beth learned to play a card game called Hand and Foot. I don’t pick up games easily so I watched. I still have no idea how this game works, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Meanwhile North and the other kids jumped on the backyard trampoline in the dark. The kids had glow sticks so it was very pretty to watch from inside, but apparently, it was less harmonious out there because they all came inside with different versions of an argument the adults seemed uninterested in getting to the bottom of.

Back at home, we set the kids up with two bottles of sparkling cider and a wide array of salty snacks so they could welcome in the new year without us, as we preferred to go to bed. It was a big deal for North who had never stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve before. It’s possible Noah never has either but he was unimpressed with the television coverage of Times Square. “So we’re going to watch this for two hours?” he said after a few minutes and then it seemed like he might bail and North was upset because they didn’t want to be all alone at midnight, but a compromise was reached and he stayed in the living room along with some electronics to entertain himself. The kids were very quiet and we actually got to sleep before eleven and everyone got the New Year’s Eve they wanted.

On New Year’s Day, North and I met up at the U.S. Botanic Garden with one of my oldest friends, Brian, and his wife Jann who were in town for a wedding.  (I met Brian when I was twelve and he was twenty-four and renting the apartment on the third floor of our house and he used to babysit my sister and me if my mom was out at night or out of town overnight). The gardens are all inside a big greenhouse. We wandered from room to room admiring desert, tropical, Mediterranean, and medicinal plants and then we climbed up on the catwalk to see the plants in the atrium from a higher perspective. There are models of iconic D.C. buildings (the Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments, etc.) all made of natural materials in the lobby and Brian really got a kick out of these. Finally, we toured the model train display. The tracks go through elaborate landscapes that change from year to year. This year the theme was Roadside Attractions, so there were models of Mount Rushmore and other less well known sights such as the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the world’s largest statue of a pistachio, etc. It was a nice place to stroll and talk for an hour and a half on a bitterly cold day.

Beth picked us up at the Metro and we dropped North off at Xavier’s. His moms invited us to come in and socialize later when we picked them up. They were having another lesbian couple with kids over for dinner. It so happens we know this couple. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours, though in different years. So, we ended our holiday with a brief, impromptu three lesbian couple get-together over tea and cranberry cake.

2017 was not an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I doubt 2018 will be either, but I hope the combination of nature, family, and friends we enjoyed over the past ten days will help give us the strength to face whatever’s coming our way in the months ahead.

They’re in the Band (and the Chorus)

Overture

North’s play, School of Rock, is in the middle of its run right now and the past couple weeks have been intense. We’ve all been at the theater a lot, though no one more than North, of course. There were some pre-show events earlier this month—a combination talent show/preview of scenes from the show and a cocktail hour for parents of the actors which also featured a preview of more of the songs.

As opening night approached, rehearsals got closer together and ran longer.  During tech week, or the week before the show opened, there were three school-night rehearsals that ran until ten p.m. For context, North’s regular school night bedtime is eight-thirty. (We are an early-to-bed and early-to-rise family. Even Beth and I are generally abed by ten at the latest.) But we did know what we were getting into when we signed North up for the play, so we can’t complain too much. Okay, we can and have, but I won’t right now.

As a result of this unusual schedule, we learned North can sleep until eight a.m., which I don’t think has ever happened in their whole life, but it did a few times after these late nights (though not consistently). We let them sleep as late as they could and they went to school about an hour late two days during Tech Week. They also missed the whole day Monday for reasons completely unrelated to the play.  They got a very big, deep splinter in their foot Sunday night, which Beth couldn’t completely remove, and they couldn’t walk on it.

North didn’t sleep well that night and didn’t want to do anything but rest Monday morning, so they slept on and off all morning and I worked and after lunch I took them to urgent care, where a doctor removed the splinter with a scalpel after numbing their foot. Then I took them to Starbucks nearby where they had a restorative cup of mint tea and we made a pit stop at home so they could grab something to eat, pack their theater bag, and head to rehearsal. We were on six buses that day over the course of five and a half hours.

Act I: Chorus Concert

Tuesday there was no rehearsal but there was an orchestra and chorus concert. Beth’s mom and her aunt Carole came from Wheeling for a four-day visit to see the concert and the opening night of the play on Friday. Unfortunately, Noah was swamped with homework that night (he had a history test the next day and he hadn’t finished reading the chapter) so he couldn’t go to the concert. We were all disappointed about that.

The concert was at the high school because North’s school has no auditorium. Noah’s middle school didn’t either but they had their concerts in the cafeteria or gym and everyone sat on folding chairs. This new arrangement was much more comfortable and the acoustics were better, too.

The orchestra was on first. They started with the “William Tell Overture” and played several songs, ending with an arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” One of the nice things about having musical kids and attending a lot of concerts is that the musicians get better as they get older and the difference between this orchestra and North’s elementary school orchestra was pronounced.

The a capella club sang a few numbers next, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I guess the idea was to appeal to both parents and kids. They also did “Só Danço Samba,” which was fun to hear, although it bothered me that there was instrumental accompaniment in this song. Singing without instruments is what a cappella means, after all. (Beth thinks I am being pedantic here.) All three singing groups had at least one song in another language. It was all very international, which makes sense since the word “International” is part of the name of the school.

After intermission, the sixth-grade chorus came on. North was using a cane to walk (after having been on crutches at school—due to their troubles last year we have a wide variety of orthopedic devices at the ready) so the chorus director had them sit in a chair in front of the risers. Beth was worried it would hurt their projection, but they projected just fine. I swear I could pick their voice out not only when they sang with the smaller sixth-grade group, but also when sixth-grade and advanced choruses (about eighty kids total) sang together.

The sixth-graders started with “Sing a Jubilant Song” and they did sound jubilant. Next was “De Colores,” which having had two kids in an elementary school Spanish immersion program is very familiar to us, in a nice, nostalgic way. “Dansi Na Kuimba” (“Dance and Sing” in Swahili) was next and they ended with “Peaceful Silent Night.” This song is “Silent Night” with some additional lyrics woven into it.

The advanced chorus sang a few songs next and then the two choruses sang together along with a several fifth-graders from the elementary school that shares a building with North’s middle school. (The new chorus teacher is cultivating ties with this conveniently located feeder school.) My favorite of the joint songs was “Carol of the Bells.” It was very complicated and intricate and they sounded great. They ended with “America the Beautiful.”

Intermission

Wednesday North went to school on time, still using the cane, because their foot was still sore. Beth and I both worried it wouldn’t be better by Friday night when they had to stand (and jump) onstage, but there was nothing to do about it. North had another rehearsal that night, I went to book club (where we discussed Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre) while YaYa, Carole, Beth, and Noah went out for Lebanese. After the history test, Noah had surprisingly little homework the rest of the week and was able to socialize with his grandmother and great aunt. Ironically, North saw very little of them because they were in school or rehearsal pretty much all the time they weren’t performing. This caused a little jealousy, even though (or perhaps because) North was the principal reason for the visit.

Thursday North was walking unassisted. Beth took the day off work and went with her mom and Carole into the city where they went to see an exhibit about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Gallery and took in the Christmas decorations at Union Station. That evening all the adults and Noah went out for tapas and then to see Lady Bird (which you should see if you haven’t yet). Seeing a movie on a weeknight is highly unusual for us but Beth had to be up late to get North from rehearsal anyway so we made a night of it.

Friday I took the day off, too, and joined Beth, YaYa and Carole on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opened over a year ago but we hadn’t been yet—we were hoping eventually the crowds would diminish, but it’s still a pretty hot ticket. It’s free, but you need to get timed tickets either months ahead of time or very early on the morning of the day you want to go. Beth secured these by getting online at 6:30 a.m.

We had eleven a.m. tickets and needed to get back by mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have time to take in the whole museum. It’s divided into a history section and a culture section. I was the slowest in our party, only making it to 1968 in the history section before we needed to meet up for a late lunch in the café, and even so, I missed some parts of that (such as the whole room with Emmett Till’s coffin).

I was prepared for the child-sized shackles, or as prepared as you can be. What really did me in was a white cotton sack a woman had given her nine-year-old daughter when the child was sold away from her. At the time, it contained pecans and a lock of the mother’s hair. The bag was handed down through the generations and in the early twentieth century one of the child’s descendants embroidered the story on the bag. On the wall, all around the bag’s glass case were many published descriptions of people to be sold at auction—name, age, special skills and any physical defects, which really drove in the point that the nine-year-old girl sold away from her mother was one of countless others torn from their families. I think it might have been heartening to visit the culture section, after all that, but even the music I could hear drifting from other rooms—Billie Holiday, Sweet Honey in the Rock—lifted the spirit.

Act II: School of Rock

North’s call time was 5 p.m., which left the rest of us with three hours to kill before the show. We had leisurely dinner at Pacci’s, which is just around the corner from the theater. Standing in line, I saw parents with bouquets and remembered much to my chagrin that last summer when North was the beast in Beauty and the Beast at drama camp, I’d resolved to get them flowers at their next performance. Oh well.

Entering the little black box theater, we were alarmed to see a sign that said the running time of the show was two hours, forty-five minutes. This was going to be an even later night than we’d realized. We got settled into seats in the last and highest row, which offered a good view. The beginning of the show establishes the main character Dewey’s tribulations, both musical (he’s been thrown out of his band) and personal (he owes his roommates for the rent and is in danger of being thrown out of his apartment) so the early scenes are all between the adult characters, who are played by seventh to twelfth graders. Patty, one of Dewey’s roommates and his best friend’s girlfriend, is played by North’s friend Anna from drama camp. (Anna played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast last summer for those of you who watched the video.) When she came onstage in a power suit Beth exclaimed, “Anna looks like a grownup!” And she did, even though she’s only fifteen months older than North.

The fifth-grade students at the swanky private school where Dewey ends up working as a substitute teacher are played by second to sixth graders. North is playing Billy, an effeminate boy who hides his copies of Vogue behind a Sports Illustrated while at home with his football-loving father. When Dewey organizes the class into a band, Billy is their costume designer.

The first song the kids sing is their school’s alma mater, and as at the chorus concert I could pick out North’s voice. One thing they have learned from seven years of musical drama camp is how to project. Some of their other numbers were “You’re in the Band,” in which Billy is assigned to design costumes and gives a little leap of joy and “If Only You Would Listen” in which four students, including Billy, are shown with parents who misunderstand them and they all sing about it. North had a solo in this song and was very plaintive.

The whole cast was great and we all enjoyed the show. Beth (who did theater tech in high school) was impressed with improvements in lighting technology since her day. Andrea loved the red sparkly cap Billy wore in the final scene and at breakfast the next morning she pressed North to explain what the phrase “stick it to the man” meant to them.

After the show the actors stood near the doors in costume to greet the exiting audience. After that, the concessions booth was still selling treats and North wanted ice cream but like all the other parents I heard, I pointed out it was quite late—something like 11:15—and we needed to get home and go to bed. (North wishes it to be known that some parents did let their kids eat ice cream at that late hour.)

The next morning, we all slept in (for us anyway—we were all up between 7:45 and 8:30) and then we met YaYa and Carole at the restaurant of the hotel where they were staying in Silver Spring and ate a hearty breakfast as the first snow of the year fell outside. Shortly after, YaYa and Carole hit the road.

North performed again on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. She had friends in the audience of both those shows. We’re in a three-day no-rehearsal, no-show lull right now. There will be a brush-up rehearsal Thursday night and then four more shows from Friday to Sunday. Beth and I will be attending the closing night performance, maybe with flowers if I get my act together.

You may not be surprised to learn there are more performances in our near future. North will be singing in the Montgomery County Honors chorus this winter. They were the only sixth grader from their school selected to participate. (It took a lot of self-restraint not to brag about that on Facebook but I am slipping it in here.) That concert is in early March. North is also going to try out for the spring play, Romeo and Juliet, at their school. If they get a part, it will be their first experience with Shakespeare, but possibly not their last because for North, all the world’s a stage.

Update, 12/13: Read a review of the show here: http://www.theatrebloom.com/2017/12/school-rock-students-theatre-highwood-theatre/

 

Sea Dreams

He stakes all his silver
On a promise to be free
Mermaids live in colonies
All his sea dreams come to me

From “Dawntreader,” by Joni Mitchell

Saturday 

For the first time in nearly two decades of extended family vacations in Rehoboth, we arrived before check-in time. This must have been satisfying for Beth because she comes from a family of early arrivers and I come from a family of late arrivers and in general, when you mix these groups the late arrivers prevail.

But we managed to leave the house earlier than planned and there was surprisingly little traffic on the Bay Bridge, so even with a lunch stop our family of four plus Beth’s mom Andrea arrived in Rehoboth at 2:15. We had some time to kill before we could get into the house at three. I went to the beach and put my feet in the water while everyone else went into town for cool drinks.

Eventually we settled into the house and Beth went out for starter groceries and the West Coast contingent—my mother, sister Sara, and four-year-old niece Lan-Lan—all of whom had just spent two days in Philadelphia visiting with old friends—arrived and we socialized and Noah and I made a dinner of burgers, hot dogs, corn, fruit salad, and potato salad.

Sara tried to keep Lan-Lan from adjusting completely to East Coast time so the girls had the same bedtime much of the week (until biology eventually took over). After they were in bed and Beth and Noah were settled in front of an episode of Dr. Who, Mom and I walked down to the beach and I got my feet wet again. 

Sunday

June and Andrea went for an early morning walk and were back before the late risers were awake. Much of the morning was occupied with menu planning and grocery list making and grocery shopping. June played with Lan-Lan much of the morning while Beth, Noah, and Andrea started a thousand-piece lighthouse puzzle. I made the girls lunch and took them to the beach so Sara could work. The whole week was something of a busman’s holiday for her—she’s self-employed and this often happens.

The weather at the beach was perfect—low eighties, sunny, and not too humid, with cumulus and cirrus clouds scattered across a deep blue sky. We were there four hours and for most of that time, June was swimming in the ocean by herself while I stayed on shore with Lan-Lan, who was alternating between jumping happily in the surf and digging in the sand.

She was talking the whole time, sometimes to me, but often to herself, saying the waves were “awesome” and reassuring herself, “Okay, Lan-Lan, okay,” when the water got rough.  Most of what she said, she said over and over, but this exchange took place just once:

“I love this ocean.”

“I do, too.”

“It fun. It always fun.”

Lan-Lan’s main construction project was to build a hole so big “there’s no sand left” and I was kept busy filling her pail with water to fill the hole. At one point, she befriended a teenage girl who was digging her own hole and she started to help. The girl’s friend came by and seeing Lan-Lan dig with her hand and her foot said, “That’s impressive.” For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Lan-Lan was digging. Kids dig at the beach. Then I remembered she has just one arm and it is novel to see her do thing with her foot until you get used to it. (I saw her use her foot to press down on a knife she was using to slice cheese later in the week.)

We left the beach at 5:30, all three of us somewhat reluctant to go, but it was getting on dinnertime. No one had chosen this day to cook for the group, so some people cooked for themselves and others ordered takeout and we all ate a makeshift meal together.

I might have been wrong about the weather being perfect. A few more clouds might have helped. Despite being conscientious about re-applying sunblock, June’s face, neck, shoulders and back were badly burned and my shoulders burned, too. June’s ear, now exposed by her brand new asymmetrical hair cut was the worst casualty. Fortunately, Lan-Lan didn’t burn at all.

Monday

We decided to keep June off the beach entirely for a day, to buy her a rash guard to go over her suit, and enforce a no sleeveless tops rule for the rest of the week, to give her burned areas a chance to heal. That made Funland an appealing choice for Monday afternoon. Lan-Lan spent the morning at Kids’ Cottage, a drop-in daycare so Sara could work. When Lan-Lan got home, Mom, Sara, and I took all three kids. (I’d offered to take them by myself so Sara could get more work done but she said, “I don’t want to miss this.”)

I must admit I was hoping Lan-Lan would spend more time in the little kids’ rides because all week I was feeling a little nostalgic for when my kids were her age (especially when I’d see her in June’s hand-me-down pajamas or shorts or when I’d read Where the Wild Things Are to her). But Lan-Lan is more of a daredevil than either of my kids were at four and after a trip on the sedate airplanes, she wanted to go on faster rides. The race cars were a big hit—she did these three times and she also tried the little Ferris wheel, the helicopters, and the Freefall, which my kids didn’t ride until they were ten and six, respectively. She looked a little nervous on it but said she liked it. Next, she wanted to go on the swinging Viking boat. This was also scary, more so than the Freefall, and June had to put her arm around her when it got to be too much.

Both Sara and I thought the netted climbing structure would be a good way to calm down after all those exciting rides. There are two entrances—one for little kids and one for big kids. Lan-Lan did the little kid course while June did the big kid course. But then we discovered Lan-Lan was in the height overlap so she went through the big kid course, too, but she got stuck at the top, twenty or thirty feet above the ground, couldn’t figure out the way down, and started to cry, so we sent June in after her. Lan-Lan found her way down before June reached her but she was shaken up, so we tried the swings as the final ride. That helped some, but Sara says she was still upset in the car.

Noah, June, and I walked home, stopping at Candy Kitchen, and then taking the scenic route along the beach. We were walking along the waterline for twenty minutes and no one got soaking wet. That never happens with preschoolers. There are advantages to having older kids, even if I sometimes miss my little ones.

Mom was making a black bean-sweet potato stew when we got home, so I helped her finish it while we listened to a fifties music Pandora station. After dinner, Lan-Lan had her first taste of fudge—Sara is strict about sugar—and it was a hit. Often when Lan-Lan was allowed a small treat later in the week, she chose the strawberry fudge (we had four flavors in the house).

Tuesday

Andrea, Beth, the kids and I went out to get bagels and crepes on the boardwalk Tuesday morning. While we were there June and I ducked into a shop and got June a peach-colored rash guard that coordinated with her suit, so she could swim that afternoon. When we met back up with Andrea, Beth, and Noah we learned the cook at the crepe stand had undercooked the eggs in Beth’s crepe and then did the same to Andrea’s, so they got a refund and went elsewhere. My crepe and Noah’s were safe, being fruit-based, so we ate them. Noah finished before I did and he went with Beth and Andrea to get a second breakfast. Once they were gone, I heard another customer complaining about uncooked eggs.  I thought the employee should just start telling people she was out of eggs until someone could retrain her.

Late that morning, Mom took June to get pedicures and lunch at a Mexican restaurant. They both came home with dark purple toenails, in slightly different shades.

In the afternoon, we drifted down to the beach in groups. Andrea stayed behind to make dinner. Beth, Noah, and I got to the beach first and we all went into the water, which was very calm and in Noah’s rather vocal opinion, too cold, but he stayed in a half hour until he and Beth returned to the sand and I stayed a little longer, first alone, then with June when Mom, Sara, June, and Lan-Lan arrived.

Sara and Lan-Lan dug a complicated set of pools with connecting canals and I helped a little. I reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I used to recite to June when she was little and dug at the beach:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
Our holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.

We’d all left the beach by six, then we showered and devoured a whole pan of Andrea’s spinach lasagna as well as half of another pan of the gluten-free version she made for Sara.

After dinner, Noah and June settled in with a bowl of popcorn and an episode of Dr. Who, while Beth and I left for a dessert date. We rode our bikes into town in the twilight and got a milkshake for her and a whoopie pie for me and ate on the boardwalk. It was short, but it felt romantic. Then bringing home a brownie and a cookie for our mothers, we biked home and stayed up late talking with Andrea, Mom, and Sara on the screened porch. Sara marveled that we’d left our kids to put themselves to bed, trying to see her own future in this. 

Wednesday

The next morning Mom and Andrea went to see an art exhibit and a historic property while Beth and Sara took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s water park. I did not attend, as going to water parks at the beach is against my religion. (In fact, it’s one of the only tenets.) Instead I biked into town and picked up a book I’d ordered from Browse About and then hung out on the boardwalk for a while until it was time to meet Mom for lunch at a boardwalk restaurant.

I went to the beach in the late afternoon, alone because Andrea was taking June to high tea at a hotel, Sara was working, Lan-Lan was at Kids’ Cottage, Beth was cooking, and Mom and Noah felt like relaxing at the house. The day was beautiful again—we had an almost unbroken string of beautiful days. It was in the high seventies and sunny. The sea was calm and I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get to swim in waves this week.

That evening Beth served her signature beach meal—gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro sauce and fancy cheeses. Then Beth and I made another dessert run, this one more hurried because we wanted to get June her cinnamon bears before bedtime, though we ended up letting her stay up past bedtime anyway, because she and Grandmom were deep in conversation. Meanwhile, Beth, Andrea, and Noah worked on the nearly completed puzzle.

Thursday

Sara had been working all week and Thursday morning I finally broke down and asked if I could help with anything, but she said no because what was left was editing my work from the previous week and a project for a new client and it would take too long to bring me up to speed for that.

Noah and June played with Lan-Lan a long time that morning, pretending to be a family of performing octopi (they hummed different songs) and making cards for Sara and me with stickers. I was still trying to keep out of the sun until mid-afternoon, so once the kids were finished playing with Lan-Lan, we read the books we’d been reading all week, New Lands from the Chronicles of Egg with June and The Other Wind, the last book in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle with Noah. We finished it that day.

Sara did manage to get to the beach in the late afternoon. She came with Lan-Lan, who had spent a few hours at Kids’ Cottage, and Grandmom and June, who had been resting at the house. Andrea came down just a little before they did. Beth had been reading on the beach and I’d been swimming around an hour in better waves. They were still smaller than I like and a bit closer together, but it was a good swim. When June got to the beach we swam some more, but eventually I left her alone in the water and sat in Sara’s beach tent with Sara, where we sheltered from the sun and blowing sand and let Lan-Lan bury our feet in the sand. Then she’d pour water on them. Once when she did this, my big toe was exposed.

“Oh no!” I said, “A toe came out.”

“That’s just how life goes,” Lan-Lan told me.

While thus engaged, I realized I no longer watch June every minute when she’s in the water alone (though I think Beth does). She’s gotten to be a pretty strong ocean swimmer. Everyone noticed how confident and comfortable she seemed in the water.

Sara made eggplant parmesan that night and then we went to the boardwalk for dessert. We split up and there was a mix-up with June’s mermaid shake. It comes with a cloud of cotton candy and Swedish fish and a strip of rainbow-striped candy on top and I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost because it’s a ridiculous amount to pay for a milkshake. Anyway, Beth and Mom both bought one not realizing the other was doing the same. We’d told June we were going to buy her shake when she left the house in Sara’s rental car with Mom, so Beth was irritated.

While June and I were on the beach, leaving the rest of the party on the boardwalk, I told June she should probably apologize to Beth because she was supposed to pass the message on to Grandmom about not buying the expensive shake. She told me she already had and offered to pay for the extra shake out of her allowance. I told her that was very mature of her, even though Beth said she didn’t have to do that. Sometimes kids grow up when you aren’t expecting it.

Friday

Friday Sara didn’t work and she went to rent a bike so we could go on a bike ride on the Gordon’s Pond trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. While she was doing that I took the kids to Browse-About because Mom had given Noah some money to buy a book. He selected The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a YA horror novel. I’ve read some of the author’s middle grade books with both kids, but this one looks considerably darker. June wanted to tag along and when she found there’s a new book in the Serafina series she wanted it, so I bought it for her. It was a hot day, the first real hot one since we’d been at the beach so we got smoothies for the walk home.

Beth, Sara, and I set out for our bike ride shortly after lunch, with Lan-Lan riding on the child seat of Sara’s bike. This was a new experience for Lan-Lan and she was enthusiastic about it. We biked about an hour, most of it through a pretty salt marsh full of water birds, including a few egrets, which are Sara’s favorite bird. Lan-Lan didn’t like the smell of the mud, but Sara said it reminded her of catching salamanders in puddles near the lake in the Berkshires where we vacationed as kids.

When we got to the ocean, we were hot and ready to get wet. The waves were about the same as they had been the day before during my first swim, but the second time I went in they’d gotten bigger and spaced out and I had the best swim of the week, including two waves I sailed up and over, dropping down the other side after just a moment with the top half of my body airborne.

Lan-Lan was getting hungry and Sara had forgotten snacks, so she approached a mom with a large group of kids and asked if she had anything and she came back with a feast of goldfish, cheese sticks, and watermelon. That’s something I could never do, but it’s the kind of thing that often works for Sara.

Meanwhile, Beth spied a water ice truck parked up near the jetty and she and I snuck off to get a sugary treat Lan-Lan wasn’t allowed. I could have been smoother, though, as I came back with vivid blue stains on my shirt, arm, teeth, and lips.

“Why your mouth blue?” Lan-Lan wanted to know. I told her I drank something that made it blue and that seemed to satisfy her.

On the ride home, Lan-Lan fell asleep. She’d been up past her bedtime on the boardwalk the night before and she was tuckered out.

But we still had a big night ahead of us. We were going out to dinner—Mom and Sara split off and went to a seafood place while the rest of us went out for pizza and Stromboli and gelato at Grotto. Lan-Lan was beside herself about the pizza, the gelato, and the balloon they give kids as you leave. It was a completely satisfactory dining experience in her opinion.

From there, Beth, Andrea and Noah went home and I took the girls to Funland where we met up with Mom. June and I were going to the Haunted Mansion and Mom was going to take Lan-Lan to revisit some of her favorite rides while Sara read a magazine on the boardwalk. While we were in the Haunted Mansion, our car went out on the balcony and we got a glimpse of the boardwalk and the ocean. This only happens once in a blue moon and I always hope it will. June didn’t even know it was a possibility as it’s never happened in the three previous times she’s been on this ride.

After the mansion, June went on the Graviton and the Free Fall, and we found Grandmom and Lan-Lan. June and Lan-Lan went on the teacups together, which Lan-Lan loved, though they scared Noah when he was in preschool. She was laughing the whole time. Based on her other favorites, I think fast but low to the ground is what she likes right now. Everything that spooked her went too high.

Everyone else drove home, but I decided to walk because the night was so lovely. The sky was still pinkish orange from the sunset and the wet sand was silvery and reflective.

Saturday

Saturday was the usual rush of cleaning out the fridge and packing the cars and saying goodbye. We had to return the keys by ten, so we left before Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan were out of the house and on their way to Philadelphia where they’d fly to Oregon the next day. We were planning to linger in Rehoboth a few hours. Beth, Andrea, and June went to town to get henna tattoos for June—a treble clef on her hand and a moon and stars just above her ankle.

Noah and I went to the beach and I was pleased that he came in with me again for fifteen minutes or so. Then he went to relax on the towel while I swam for another fifteen minutes. I had only changed into my swim bottoms and a t-shirt at the house, thinking I might just wade, or we’d walk up to the boardwalk and change in the restrooms there, but I had developed some painful blisters on my toes and breaking up the walk was appealing and once I was in the water, so was diving under the waves, so I just did it in my clothes.

Around eleven we started walking toward our meeting place on the boardwalk. We got lunch at a crepe stand, ran some errands, and drove out of town, around two-thirty. We stopped at home furnishing store where Mom had pointed out some birdcages she liked to June (Mom collects them) because June thought they would be a good birthday present for her, but it turned out they were store decorations and not for sale.

Around quarter to five, we got to the Bay Bridge, where the sky got suddenly ominous. Then as we reached the middle of the bridge, it was just like driving into a high-domed cave. The clouds were that defined, and they had clearly visible projections like stalactites hanging from the bottom. Once we were completely under the cloud cover, it began to pour rain, which lasted for just a few minutes before petering out to light rain and pale gray skies.

On one side was vacation; on the other was the rest of the summer with all its chaos and camps and performances, and music lessons, and driving school, and whatever else awaits us in the next nine weeks.

Goodbyes

Friday

Getting to Ashland is always an adventure. This journey, to attend my stepfather’s memorial service and spend time with family, required three flights and took about fifteen hours, door to door. If Beth hadn’t remembered the night before we left that she’d left the car at the Metro station in the morning and accidentally taken a bus home from work that night in time to retrieve it, we might not have even made the first flight. The second one was nearly cancelled because the crew was close to timing out and then on boarding it Beth discovered another passenger in her seat whose boarding pass had the same seat assignment as hers printed on it. Luckily, they found another seat for her and we didn’t have to decide whether to all get off the plane or to split up and proceed from St. Louis to Portland without her. (She says that’s what we should have done.) After the third flight, to Medford, Oregon, we discovered both Noah’s and June’s luggage had gone astray and in different ways. Noah’s got left in Portland and June’s went to Chicago instead of St. Louis. But on the bright side, no one got a migraine or threw up (despite some sickening turbulence on the second flight). Mom picked us up at the airport and after saying a brief hello to my sister Sara and her boyfriend Dave at her house, we crashed.

Saturday

In the morning, we socialized with the many relatives who had come to town for the service. All my mother’s four siblings and their spouses, plus her cousin Sue, and my cousins Blake and Emily and Emily’s almost-eleven-year-old son Josiah were there. Some of them were camping at nearby Emigrant Lake and others were staying with mom’s friends, so no one had to spring for a hotel, even though my family was taking up all of Mom’s guest space. Whenever we all got together it was a big crowd, and deeply divided one, politically speaking, so I was grateful that everyone kept quiet on that topic. It’s not always that way with my mom’s family so I didn’t take it for granted.

The airline delivered our wayward luggage in the afternoon, after many phone calls from Beth, and June was reunited with her stuffed monkey Muffin. (His absence troubled her more than that of her clothes.)

We had a family birthday party for Sara’s daughter Lan-Lan who just turned four (she’d have a party with friends the next day). There were many presents—art supplies were a popular choice—all received with enthusiasm. “Oh, my goodness!” Lan-Lan exclaimed with each new package.  The two big gifts were two light green, kid-sized, metal patio chairs and a red wagon. Lan-Lan wanted a ride in the wagon right away so Sara took her around the block and June and I tagged along. Then we had cake and ice cream.

The whole crowd went out for pizza and we took over a long row of tables. Beth and I split one with mushrooms, truffle oil, and microgreens. Lan-Lan got restless during a longish wait for food, and Sara, Dave, June, and Josiah (in varying combinations) took turns taking her out on the patio to play hide and seek. While we were eating, Sara asked me if we had any plans for the next day and I said, “Other than your daughter’s birthday party and our stepfather’s memorial service?” and she said, “Yeah, other than that.” So we made plans to go to the playground in Lithia Park in between those events.

Sunday

While Sara, Dave, Lan-Lan, and her friends were hunting Easter eggs and playing pin the tail on the bunny at her party, the rest of the group went out for brunch, and after that Sara, Lan-Lan, June, and I went to the playground. When I saw the big rope climbing structure June has enjoyed on previous trips to Ashland, I said, “It’s a shame you can’t climb that now,” because she’s still in a lace-up ankle brace on one foot and an orthopedic shoe on the other. Can you guess how this story ends? With June at the very top, while Lan-Lan circled the perimeter at the bottom, wanting to go higher and having to content herself with waiting until she’s older.

Sara, June, and Lan-Lan also played Switch, a game they invented then last time we were in Ashland, two Christmases ago. Sara and June push Lan-Lan on the swings from behind and in front and then someone says, “Switch!” and they change places. Sometimes one of them will say, “I feel a switch coming on,” to build the suspense. It’s as hilarious now as it was when Lan-Lan was two and a half, even with June walking instead of running to her new place. And now Lan-Lan will say, “I feel a switch!” to get them to do it.

The memorial service was in the evening. It was held in the tasting room of a winery, surrounded by pear orchards in bloom and mountains. There were beautiful views from every window in the room. The room sat sixty at tables of various sizes and several more people sat at the bar. There were spring flowers, daffodils and tulips my aunt Peggy had arranged, on all the tables. She also designed the program and helped Mom with a lot of details of the ceremony (she arrived a couple days before we did). Josiah greeted people at the door and asked them to sign the guest book. There was a slideshow of photos of Jim and a blown-up photo of him on an easel near the bar. Peggy distributed blank cards and markers so people could share memories of Jim for Mom to paste into the guest book. I settled on a story about how when Sara and I were teens we used to keep a tally of how many of his corny jokes were actually funny, complete with fractions for partial credit, and how he was always a good sport about this ribbing from his new stepdaughters.

My uncle Doug made the opening remarks and introduced speakers. He’s a retired minister so officiating comes naturally to him. He spoke about Jim as a brother-in-law (he’s married to my mother’s sister Diane) and as a friend. Then Sara gave the eulogy, which began with a line she ran by me at the playground earlier in the day, “Jim M. could be a real pain in the butt.” (I’d approved it, but suggested she soften the wording from “ass.”) She then described how a simple question like “Should I get snow tires?” could lead to a dissertation on the history of rubber. She went on to describe his helpful, friendly, outgoing nature, noting that it was impossible to get anywhere on time with him because he always wanted to talk to everyone he met.

I was up next. Because one thing Jim and I had in common, besides a love for my mother was a love for the ocean, so I read this poem, by Pablo Neruda. I chose it for it mostly for the first two stanzas:

Ocean, if you were to give, a measure, a ferment, a fruit
of your gifts and destructions, into my hand,
I would choose your far-off repose, your contour of steel,
your vigilant spaces of air and darkness,
and the power of your white tongue,
that shatters and overthrows columns,
breaking them down to your proper purity.

Not the final breaker, heavy with brine,
that thunders onshore, and creates
the silence of sand, that encircles the world,
but the inner spaces of force,
the naked power of the waters,
the immoveable solitude, brimming with lives.
It is Time perhaps, or the vessel filled
with all motion, pure Oneness,
that death cannot touch, the visceral green
of consuming totality.

Next June spoke about Jim and sang this song. The chorus goes:

Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Dig deep and don’t be afraid
Dig deep and live
Everyday

The song seemed appropriate because at Peggy’s suggestion, my mom had deemed the service “a celebration of life” and asked people to wear spring colors instead of black. Six years of musical theater camp and a few months of voice lessons paid off here. People kept coming up to June and us afterward to tell us how impressed they were with her voice and her poise, because at the beginning she was a little teary but then she centered herself and threw herself into the song.

After June sang, my aunt Peggy and Uncle Darryl read original poetry, “Words from Jim,” and “Our Love is Not Transcendental.” Darryl’s poem was about memories of Jim during good times and during his last days, and Peggy’s was about love over long years of marriage. (My mom’s siblings have a lot of experience with this. Mom and Jim were married almost thirty-three years and being a second marriage it was the shortest of the bunch. My uncle Larry and Aunt Berni have been married fifty-five years.)

Several more friends and family members, including Mom’s brothers Steve and Larry, and Jim’s nephew Chuck, spoke.  The service ended with six members of Mom’s peace choir singing a Nigerian folk song about sending the dead on their way. It was lovely.

There was a dinner buffet with lasagna, chicken cacciatore, salad, bread, and three kinds of dessert (cupcakes, brownies, and baklava). I made sure to get a picture of Mom with all her siblings, because they aren’t all together very often. Mom said it went just as she wanted.

Monday

The next day was hard for Mom as her siblings, brothers and sisters-in-law, niece, nephew, and grandnephew all left after a short morning visit and she no longer had ceremony preparations to occupy her. Before Jim had his stroke, she used to watch Lan-Lan on Monday and Friday afternoons and she’d decided to resume after the ceremony, but it turned out she didn’t have to do much other than pick her up from preschool because June entertained Lan-Lan for four hours straight. When it was over June said it was “exhausting” and that she never wanted to hear the word “why” again. But thanks to June, Mom and I could hole up in her room and have a long talk.

June and I went with Mom to get Lan-Lan from her school and I enjoyed seeing it. I have such fond memories of my kids’ preschool and it had a similar vibe. When we arrived, the kids were sitting at an outside table finishing up a lunch of chicken, broccoli, and rice from wooden bowls. Then they got out their cloth napkins and sang a napkin song, designed to get them to wipe their faces.

The yard was small and mostly covered in mulch, with a little garden plot with lettuce growing in it, and a tree house. It’s a Waldorf school, so it’s just a little further down the crunchy scale than the Purple School, if one can judge from so brief a glimpse. (One detail in support of this thesis: one of the one younger siblings at pick-up was named Magic.)

It was Dave’s last day in town (after a two-month stay with Sara helping out during Jim’s health crisis and in the aftermath of his death and with the rental cottage Sara was having built in her yard) so I suggested we have dinner with Sara, Dave, and Lan-Lan. We went out for Chinese. Lan-Lan was overcome with excitement at the prospect of dumplings and she let everyone, including the waitress, know it. Sara and Dave have been dating for almost two years, but we’d never met him before this trip so it was good to have a chance to spend a little time with him in a somewhat smaller group.

Tuesday

We thought we’d said goodbye to Dave, but he delayed his departure by a day to put some finishing touches on the cottage. Jim, Sara, and Dave worked on it for months and it’s turned out nicely. It’s an airy little two-bedroom house painted a cheery yellow. The idea is Sara will rent it until Mom needs to be closer to her, and then Mom will move into it.

So the day after our goodbye-to-Dave dinner, we had a goodbye-to-Dave lunch, where June opened her birthday presents of clothes from Sara, and then Sara and Dave went back to her house, while Mom, Beth, the kids and I proceeded to a tea house so June could have bubble tea. Mom was taking her out shopping for a birthday present and June loves bubble tea so it made sense to start there. She got a hibiscus-mango tea that was quite tasty, but everyone else was too full from lunch to order anything. There was a branch of the tea and spice shop I frequent in Rehoboth across the street and I spoiled Beth’s plan to sneak in and get me some loose hazelnut and chocolate tea for my upcoming birthday by getting the idea first and buying it for myself.

Then we went browsing for Mom’s present for June. She settled on a Harry Potter cookbook. We were going to get hair dye, too, so Sara could dye June’s hair the next day but we didn’t have time, because we were going to Beauty and the Beast. Other than the central problem of any version of this story—which Noah identified as the fact that Belle suffers from Stockholm syndrome—I thought it was well done. Emma Watson was well cast, the other actors and the effects were good and they didn’t mess much with the music.

On the way home, June endured a lecture from both moms about how you shouldn’t get into a relationship with someone who mistreats you in hopes that your love can change him. When that was finished, we discussed which part she might try out for this summer at musical theater camp when they do the play. The beast? That would be casting against type as she’s usually one of the smallest kids at camp. (The director keeps shifting the age range up so it’s largely the same group of kids, which includes the director’s two daughters and June’s always at the young end). Mrs. Potts? Chip? Lumière? Something that utilizes her gift for comic timing would be good, the adults agreed. Once home, she shut herself up in her room and sang songs from the movie for a long time.

That evening Sara threw an impromptu party in the cottage to christen it before renters move in this weekend. Mom, June, and I went, met some of Sara’s friends and neighbors and said a third goodbye to Dave.

Wednesday

In the morning, Beth and June took a walk so Beth could admire the mountains that ring Ashland. We’d hoped to make it up to Crater Lake on this trip, but it was overcast and Mom says it’s prettier on sunny days when you can really see the blue of the water, so we didn’t go.

One thing we did do was see a play. Ashland’s a theater town and though this was our third trip, this was the first time we’d been to the theater there. We’d hoped to see Julius Caesar because Noah just read it for school, but it wasn’t playing any of the days we were free, so went to Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. It’s about Korean and Korean-American identity, and barriers between people, generations, countries, myth and reality, and the living and the dead. I recommend it if you’re going to be in Ashland any time between now and October.

Sara came over to Mom’s house later in the afternoon to dye June’s hair (we picked up the dye before we went to the play). She gave her mermaid green streaks in front and red ones on the sides of her head. There was blue in the back, too, but it came out fainter than they intended and it’s hard to see what with the fading dye that was already there. I think the red streaks looks nice, though, and it’s a new color for her.

We went over to Sara’s house after the dye job and made tacos. Lan-Lan’s babysitter was there giving her a bath as we arrive and soon there was a tiny streaker in the house. She did consent to put on underpants to dine. While we ate, she kept up a running commentary about how she is bigger than baby but June is bigger than her. She’s very chatty and even more full of energy than my kids at that age, though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a four year old, so maybe I just don’t remember. We said our goodbyes to Lan-Lan with a big group hug and then went back to Mom’s house where Mom, June and I watched a PBS documentary about wildlife conservation in Puerto Rico after Beth fixed a glitch with the television. (Earlier in the day she fixed Mom’s lazy Susan, too.) As we watched it, Sara called to see if she’d said goodbye, because she couldn’t remember if she had said it when we left. Beth joked that she must want as many goodbyes as Dave got.

Thursday

Mom drove us to the Medford airport in the morning and we said our curbside goodbyes, but not for too long, because Mom, Sara, and Lan-Lan are all coming to Rehoboth Beach to spend a week with us in late June. I’m looking forward to it. Time with family is always precious, but even more so right now while we’re all especially aware of how unpredictable life is.

A Death in the Family

My stepfather Jim died yesterday morning. He’d had a massive hemorrhagic stroke about a week and a half earlier, but he seemed stable and to be gradually recovering so it was a shock for everyone.

The day Jim had the stroke, before I knew, before it happened, I was walking home and I passed by Long Branch creek, where every year some time in February or March the woods explode in pale purple crocuses. This sight is one of my favorite heralds of spring, so I detoured to walk along the dirt path along the creek, with crocuses growing all around me. I found one that had snapped off at the bottom of its stem and was lying on the ground. I picked it up, took it home, and put it in a little paper cup of water on my desk. By evening, after it had happened, after I knew, I saw the flower had already wilted, causing me to think about how fragile life and health are. Jim had gone from seeming perfectly healthy to being partly paralyzed and deeply disoriented in a heartbeat.

Jim had the stroke at my sister Sara’s house. He had been helping her build a tiny house she intends to use as a rental property in her yard and the cabinets had arrived. He collapsed and couldn’t get up. Sara called an ambulance and followed in her car after it. Luckily, her long-distance boyfriend Dave happened to be in town and could look after her almost four-year-old daughter. She called me en route to the hospital.

Jim was intensive care for the whole time he was in the hospital. They were thinking they might be able move him to a regular unit several days ago but he still needed the tube draining fluid out of his head so they were waiting. He had limited mobility and some numbness on the right side of his body, though my mom says he had gotten some of the feeling back in his face and could move his leg a little. He could carry on a conversation, but he was still confused much of the time, he couldn’t read, and he slept a lot. After a week or so, he could say when he was born, which was progress, but whenever they asked him what year it is, he guessed something different, often in the 1960s but once in the 30s, which is actually before he was born.

Jim couldn’t have too many visitors in the ICU, but some friends were able to see him and my Aunt Peggy, Uncle Darryl, and cousin Blake were passing through Oregon anyway so they detoured for a weekend visit to offer their support.

As I said, everyone thought he was going to make it. The doctors even said a full recovery might be possible, though it wasn’t certain and it would be at least a year. My mother was hoping that when he was ready to transfer out of the ICU he could go to the hospital’s rehabilitation center and she’d already toured it. But on Thursday he was having trouble breathing and he deteriorated from that point. The doctors think he might have had a pulmonary embolism but it was too dangerous to give him blood thinners because he still had blood on his brain.

I got the news about a half hour before June was due home from school. The kids had an early dismissal that day and she was bringing a friend home for an almost five-hour play date. I decided not to tell her or Noah until her friend had left. I made the girls some quesadillas and left them to their own devices. They played with June’s American Girl doll. June was the doll’s mother. Zoë was her kidnapper. They made an improvised soup with water, lime juice, raw celery, and fake chicken. They watched Word Girl and Maya and Miguel, while I listened to their play with a heavy heart.

An hour or so before Zoë’s mom was due to come get her, June asked if she could sleep over. I told her it wasn’t a good night and she wanted to know why. I told her I’d tell her later. She kept pestering me to know why, which was a bit awkward, but once Zoë was gone I called the kids together and told them.

June burst into tears. Noah looked stoic but sad. It was about what I expected from each of them. I hugged June first and then Noah. She cried, “All my grandfathers are dead!” It’s true. Both my dad and Beth’s dad died while she was in preschool. I told her Jim had lived long enough for her to “remember him forever” because she doesn’t really remember either of the other two grandfathers. She nodded. Noah was silent but gave me a hard hug back when I hugged him.

We had pizza, a little late, because I was distracted and forgot to order it. Friday is normally family movie night, a newly instituted tradition, and after some discussion we decided to go through with it, but just as Beth was finding Time Bandits, June announced she had a headache and wanted to go to bed early and Noah didn’t want to have family movie night without her, so Beth and I watched Spotlight and went to bed.

Because Jim wanted to be cremated instead of buried, there’s no rush to have a funeral. My mom is going to scatter his ashes at one of their favorite spots on the Oregon coast and she’s thinking of a memorial service in April. She’d like to have it at the church where her peace choir sings. She doesn’t attend this church, but it’s pretty and she’d like the choir to sing at the service.

Mom and Jim started dating when I was in tenth grade and they got married in the spring of my junior year of high school. It was a second marriage for them both. For twenty years of their almost thirty-four-year marriage they lived in a big old house in the Philadelphia suburbs, in Delaware County. He was renovating it the entire time because restoring houses was both his work and his passion.

Four years ago, they moved to Oregon. Their house there was newer and less in need of work, but in between their frequent camping trips and visits to Mom’s family in Idaho, Jim still spent a lot of time doing work on my sister’s house. So, it’s fitting that’s what he was doing when he fell ill. Helping people was second nature to him.

Our family has lost a husband to one, stepfather to two, and grandfather to three. He will be missed.