The Deep Blue Sea

Day 1

The logistics of getting everyone to the Delaware shore were complicated. Members of our party were coming from Oregon (Mom), Idaho (my aunt Peggy and her ten-year-old grandson Josiah), West Virginia (Beth’s mom and Noah who had just spent a week with her), and Maryland (Beth, June, and me). To make matters more complex, Noah is taking a (mostly) online computer science class this summer and its introductory meeting was Saturday morning in Gaithersburg and the rental period started on Friday, so we’d be arriving in shifts.

The West Coast contingent flew out on Thursday and stayed the night in Arlington, Virginia. Peggy and Josiah arrived first and had time to tour Arlington National Cemetery. Beth drove June and me on Friday morning to meet up with Mom, Peggy, and Josiah so they could drive us to the beach, while she stayed behind with her mom and Noah. They’d follow us to the beach the next day.

Arriving at the motel, we saw Josiah first, walking toward the office. We yelled hi to him from the car and he yelled back, “We’re locked out of our room!”

Sure enough, we found Mom and Peggy outside their room. It took a while and many key cards to sort it out but eventually we got inside so they could collect their belongings and check out. We had to go to the car rental place next because they wanted to change the terms of the car rental. Finally, we hit the road, with Beth leading us through the challenging D.C. traffic. Once she got us safely on the other side she turned around and returned to the airport area, so she could meet her mom and Noah’s plane from Pittsburgh.

When we were on Route 50 and driving at highway speed, Peggy noticed something moving on the hood of the car. It was her sunglasses, an expensive prescription pair. They were partially sunk into the cavity in front of the windshield wipers so they hadn’t fallen off the car the whole hour we’d been navigating stop-and-go city traffic. It was nerve-wracking watching the case jiggle as Peggy searched for an exit, but luckily, they stayed put until she was able to stop the car.

Once stopped, she noticed an Afro-Caribbean restaurant. We’d planned to have lunch near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but we’d gotten off to a slow start, so it was already lunchtime and she was intrigued. I was wary—would there be anything vegetarian? Anything June would eat? The answers were no, but they were flexible about accommodating us, and yes. June and I got beans and rice and vegetables, with curry sauce (me) and without (June). It was tasty and inexpensive. The only downside was that the service was rather leisurely, but we were ordering off menu, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain.

Between the printed directions Beth provided and help from Siri, we managed to reach Rehoboth. My mother, my aunt, and I are all what you’d call directionally challenged, so it was an accomplishment.  And even though I’ve been going to Rehoboth for twenty-five years, sometimes as often as two or three times a year, I don’t have the route completely memorized. I was able to provide useful input of the “this doesn’t look right” variety a few times and that’s when we’d turn on Siri.

We got to the house around 5:30, unpacked, and went out for pizza at Grotto. We shared the upstairs with a baseball team, which seemed to be having an end-of-season banquet. It was so noisy they gave us 10 percent off our bill.

When we left June and Josiah got three balloons between them (Josiah lost his first one almost immediately) and all three had popped or escaped within minutes of leaving. I was thinking we’d get frozen custard but it was cloudy and windy and so cool no one but June wanted any. Peggy opted for hot coffee instead. Mom went back to the house, saying she could be cold at the beach in Oregon, but Peggy, the kids and I ventured out onto the beach where June waded in the surf and Josiah dove right in, clothes and all.

After fifteen minutes we went back to the house and put the kids to bed. Mom and Peggy went out to get a few groceries for breakfast and ended up doing a more substantial shopping than they planned. It was 11:30 by the time they returned and I’d long ago gone to bed.

Day 2

On Saturday morning June and I got coffee and juice at Café a-Go-Go and then we went to Browseabout, where I picked up an order I’d made online—Stephen King’s latest for me and two summer reading list books for Noah. I paid for them using gift certificates my sister got for our birthdays. June didn’t want to be left out so I got her a book, too.

Next we visited a candy store and I got some licorice for my friend Allison. The store wouldn’t ship to Canada, so I took it to the post office, but I discovered there I’d left her address back at the house so I took June home, went to rent a bike, and rode it back to the post office. Did you know you have to fill out a customs form in triplicate to send a bag of licorice to Canada? Now you do. I got myself some lunch while I was out and then I came home and socialized with my relatives while they ate their lunches.

Next, we all headed out to Funland. Josiah was impatient to go back to the beach and not too keen on the idea of going anywhere else, but once we got there he was as happy as June to ride the Freefall, the Sea Dragon, the Paratrooper, and all June’s favorite rides.

It was four-thirty by the time the kids and I got to the beach, and Mom and Peggy didn’t get there until almost five. Josiah wanted to swim out deep so I took him out through the crash zone, through the big waves, out to where the waves were just little swells. My kids have always been cautions ocean swimmers—June only learned to dive under waves last summer and Noah rarely wants to go out deep—so it was quite different, in a fun way, to swim with a kid who seems to have no fear. June watched and said if she had face mask to cover her eyes and nose she might be able to do it.

When we returned to the house, around 5:30, Beth, YaYa, and Noah had arrived. I hadn’t seen Noah for eight days and he gave me a nice, long hug. Peggy made a tasty stir-fry for dinner and finally our whole party was gathered to eat it. Noah and June listened with fascinated expressions to a friendly debate Mom and Peggy had on the topic: “Is Linda sneaky?” Peggy argued pro and Mom argued con; but I think Peggy won the debate with examples of forbidden lipstick worn and movies attended when Mom was a teenager. (They had very strict, religious parents, and Peggy, who is nine years younger than Mom was apparently watching her older sister carefully.) Possibly the kids were wondering if they’d be arguing about their own childhood and adolescence when they’re in their sixties and seventies.

Day 3

On Sunday morning I took the younger kids to the beach to hunt for shells before the sun got too strong. It was a lovely day—with the exception of one cloudy day every day we were there was a lovely day—sunny, and with highs near eighty. We walked as far as the boardwalk where we got a face mask for June and goggles for Josiah. We looked for a boogie board leash for June’s board but we couldn’t find one. Once Josiah had his goggles, there was no keeping him out of the water, so I didn’t try and he got a second outfit in less than twenty-four hours soaking wet. I made a mental note to stop bringing him to the beach in clothes.

We went back to the house and I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to the Js. (He’s only read the first one but was game to jump into the fifth book. We stopped to explain things as necessary.) Next I read The Ask and the Answer to Noah, while the younger kids made things with melty beads—you know those multicolor beads you form into designs and then iron? The Js were playing with these all week. June made a smiley face, Santa Claus, an abstract design, and a princess while Josiah made a huge pile of people and skeletons, mostly heavily armed. The house was well stocked with toys and Josiah also built elaborate train tracks in their room that climbed up onto an unused bed and out into the hall until June told him she needed to be able to close the door.

After lunch I took the Js to the beach. June was excited to try to go deep in the water but the waves were bigger than they’d been the day before and both kids decided to ride the waves on their boards close to shore instead, while I went further out. While they were riding, the foam core of June’s board snapped. The fabric enclosing it held it together but it gave a wobbly ride now, so she wanted a new one. Mom and Peggy had been looking for materials to make her board a leash but they didn’t find exactly what they needed and we ended up buying her a bigger board with a leash, like Josiah’s.

After an hour, the waves had gotten smaller so we decided to give going out deep another try. We left the boards behind for easier entry. June was slow to enter the water. Her mask kept getting fogged up and she was continually taking it off to clear it and adjust the straps. While all this was going on, Josiah was jumping up and down in his excitement, saying, “Let’s go!”

June is not naturally fearless. She can seem like the daredevil in the family but it often takes a lot of effort for her to screw up her courage and try something hard. The remarkable thing about her is she so often makes that effort. In fact, when she agonizes, Beth and I are often telling her it’s okay to wait to do something, there’s always next year, etc. But you know how this story ends, right? She was visibly scared and I was scared for her and wondering if it was a good idea, but after a lot of wading in and running back while Josiah honestly didn’t seem to understand why she wasn’t going in already, we were past the point where we could avoid the waves and I started giving her curt, tense instructions, like “Dive! Dive now!” and she did it. When she came up from under the first really big wave, I said anxiously, “Are you okay” and she exploded into words.

“It was awesome! It was so fun! I love this!” So, she was okay.

I could touch bottom about three-quarters of the time but the kids couldn’t at all, so when she got tired or to needed to clear her mask, June clung to my side and once Josiah realized this was an option he occasionally clung to my other side. We dove under some waves and jumped into others. June loved it when a wave pulled her up its side and dropped her down its other side. “That’s my favorite, too,” I told her.

Sometimes it’s as hard to get out of rough surf as it is to get in, but we were lucky in this respect. A wave carried us gently to shore not once but over and over and we kept going back in for two straight hours. Once toward the end June was tired and I was holding her in both arms and she was sort of slumped down and a lifeguard waded out to make sure we were okay. It’s reassuring to know they watch that closely.

Meanwhile Peggy had arrived and was watching from the shore. We got out to say hi. I was pretty tired so I offered the kids ice cream, partly to get a rest. We went up the sandy path to the snack shack and ate our cones in the shade of the little building among the scrub pines. When I said I wasn’t going back in the water, Josiah decided to go back up to the house with Peggy while June and I went to sit with Mom. June sprawled out on her towel with her eyes shut. She was done in, but happy.

Back at the house, June and I sat on the side stoop, among the blooming hydrangea bushes, waiting for Mom to finish in the outdoor shower. We shared the Sunday comics and listened to Cat Stevens drifting from the screen porch of the cottage next door.  I sang along “Don’t be shy. Just let your feelings roll on by/Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there.”

June said in surprise, “You seem to know this song.” I should, I was a big fan of Cat Stevens and Harold and Maude in my youth. Mom left the shower in a different direction than I anticipated so we waited longer than we needed to but I didn’t care—it was such a perfect moment. And once we were clean and dry and inside, Mom’s delicious fettuccine with asparagus in lemon cream sauce was almost ready.

Day 4

Monday morning Beth took the Js out and bought a long-handled shovel for Josiah and a new board with a leash for June and rented a bike for Josiah. They were planning to ride bikes to a pond where there are a lot of turtles, but now that Josiah had a shovel he wanted to dig right then and June wanted to go see the turtles, but he was overruled. YaYa set off on foot before they left and Peggy drove to join them. Surprisingly, they all managed to find each other and the turtles. The Js also climbed a big tree and when June’s croc floated away in the pond, Josiah helpfully fished it out with a stick.

I rode my own bike to the boardwalk where I sat in the shade of a gazebo within sight of the ocean and spent most of the morning chronicling our adventures thus far, by hand in a composition book.

Later Peggy, Josiah, June, Noah and I went to the beach, in groups. When Noah and I arrived, June was riding her board and Josiah was digging. She said he’d been doing that for an hour and a half.  Noah got his legs wet and then retreated back up to the towel while June and I went into the water. There was a strong northward tug so we’d gotten close to the red flag that marks the swim area and we needed to exit more hurriedly than I would have liked, rather than waiting for a good wave, but June handled it well. Later she wiped out and got the wind knocked out of her. She started crying once she could breathe and we went to sit on the sand. I was wondering if this was a get-back-on-the-horse situation or time to call it a day so I just kept quiet and waited until she said, “Let’s go back in” and we did.

I was getting tired of trying to stay in the area between the flags so we took an ice cream break with Noah. I abstained because I knew Beth was back at the house making her signature beach house meal of gazpacho, salt-crusted potatoes with cilantro-garlic sauce, and Spanish cheeses and I wanted to be hungry for that. Peggy and Josiah had left by that point, but Mom had arrived just as we were getting back to the towels.

June rode her board while Noah and I stood in the surf, talking about books and movies and his computer science class. It’s too easy for him, but it meets a tech credit he needs. It’s silly that the media classes he takes for his program don’t count, but they don’t, and no one can test out, so he’s studying Scratch, which he taught himself how to use when he was seven or eight.

Noah left the beach around 4:20 and June wanted to go soon after because her suit was full of sand but she couldn’t find her crocs. (It was a bad day for those crocs.) We thought maybe Peggy accidentally swept them up with her things so June wore Mom’s sandals to the house and of course, when I returned I forgot to bring them with me and Mom refused to let me go back and get them so she had to walk back to the house barefoot. And it turned out June’s crocs were on the beach after all. Peggy gave me directions to where they’d originally been sitting and there they were. I stayed at the beach past six. It was nice to have some solo time there.

Dinner was fabulous, as I knew it would be. Beth even put on some flamenco music for atmosphere. Peggy said she’d won the beach house cooking competition so far. Even Noah, who wasn’t sure if he like gazpacho, had seconds. We had some lemon curd in the house we’d been eating on short bread and pizelles and Mom and Peggy went out to see if they could find cake for it.

Shortly before bedtime, June, who was sunburned, said it was bothering her. Her face was red and hot to the touch. Her arms and legs were red, too, and the back of her legs looked particularly angry. We had no aloe in the house, so Beth and YaYa left just as Mom and Peggy returned with a lemon cake. They came back with some Solarcaine and I applied it to all June’s red places. Then just as if she was in a commercial, she said, “It is instant relief!” After a few minutes it wore off so we re-applied and then she was comfortable enough to go to bed.

I ate lemon cake with lemon curd on the porch with Beth and YaYa and then we went to bed, full of good food and satisfied.

Day 5

Tuesday we woke to the cozy sound of rain pattering on the roof. June came into our room around seven with the news that her burn felt better. We had breakfast and I was thinking of reading to the Js on the porch but Josiah was getting ready to make pancakes with Peggy and June was busy with a melty beads project. I considered doing laundry but Noah was still sleeping and he was wearing a pair of pajama bottoms he’d had on since Saturday night and my mom’s room was right off the laundry room and she was still asleep, so I decided to wait.

I thought I might take a rainy walk on the beach but the rain stopped as I was getting ready so it was more of a cloudy walk. The sand was only a little damp so I was able to sit on it and read and write. Later I walked pretty far north up the beach where a group of condos sets out free beach chairs for people staying there. As none were in use, I didn’t think it would be much of a transgression to occupy one.

The sea was calm, with moderate waves, widely spaced. It was a leaden color where it was flat, with just the tips of the tallest ways a translucent green-gray. I was on the beach four hours, since I didn’t need to avoid the sun, and I saw two big pods of dolphins, one traveling south and one north, plus plenty more travelling in smaller groups. There were crabs on the sand, not the tiny gray, bullet-shaped ones that burrow in the wet sand, but classic crab-shaped, sand-colored ones, that dart out of holes in the dry sand and scuttle sideways to the next one. I also found two horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach. I thought they were dead, but when I nudged them with my toe they wiggled their legs, one weakly, the other vigorously. I took them back to the water and watched as the waves took them back into the sea.

I came back and had a pleasant lunch of dinner leftovers with Beth. The house was mostly empty as Peggy, Mom, and Josiah had gone on a day trip to Dover to see a plantation and YaYa had taken June to lunch, and Noah was holed up in his room. When June came home she had a bag of gummy butterflies, a new dress, and reservations for high tea at the fanciest hotel in Rehoboth. By the time I’d read to both kids it was late afternoon, but June and I snuck in a quick swim before dinner.

This was our designated eat-out night. The older generation was going out for seafood. Beth and I were taking all three kids to Grotto because Noah hadn’t been there yet and it’s his favorite. June had an attack of reflux during dinner and didn’t eat much. She was quiet and looked unhappy in the way she often does before a migraine so Beth and I kept pestering her with questions about how she felt and asking if she wanted to go home, but she said no, it was just her throat. We were headed for Funland, specifically the Haunted Mansion, which seemed like just about the worst place for a migraine. But we were getting frozen custard and there was the walk to Funland, and no doubt a long wait in line, so there was plenty of time to watch her. And she did start to perk up as we approached Funland, and was fine after that.

There was a long line—when Noah saw it he considered bailing—but the Js were determined, so we got into it. June then had a half hour to listen to the talking corpse on the wall and get nervous. She’d only been in there twice and it still spooks her. After a while, Josiah, concerned, asked, “Is it really scary?”

“Yes!” said June emphatically.

“Moderately,” I said, after some thought.

“Not at all,” Noah said, with teenage nonchalance.

So Josiah had to draw his own conclusions.

Afterward he said he wasn’t scared at all, but the souvenir photo of him and Noah told a different story. I didn’t buy any as we already have a souvenir photo of June looking scared at the Haunted Mansion from two years ago (bought at her own insistence) and I didn’t think Josiah wanted a photo of himself looking scared at the Haunted Mansion.

June needed to use the bathroom afterward so I told Noah and Josiah to go meet Beth who was waiting on a bench on the boardwalk, but somehow they lost each other. “I thought he was following me,” Noah said and I was going to be annoyed with him until I remembered I lost Josiah on the very first night when I thought he was following me to the outside shower and he’d run off to chase a firefly.

It so happened that Mom, Peggy, and YaYa were having a post-dinner stroll on the boardwalk at just that moment and they found Josiah. Eventually everyone was reunited. Having everyone in one place, I was tempted to go home, but the Js wanted to ride the Freefall, so we let them have one ride before going home.

Day 6

In the morning Beth took all three kids to Jungle Jim’s waterpark and I enjoyed more solo beach time. While I was in the water, I saw a perfect V of geese fly above me flying north and quite large pod of dolphins.

Mom and I went out for lunch at our traditional beach lunch spot. Mom asked me if I was sad to be leaving in two days and I said, no, I was still in the moment and enjoying being at the beach. She looked surprised, not without reason. Often I am sad in advance to leave.

Beth and the kids had returned from the water park when we arrived so Peggy took Josiah to the boardwalk and Mom took June on a series of adventures. They went to Funland where she won a stuffed cow at an arcade game, to Candy Kitchen where she got a big lollipop, and the seashell shop where she got a necklace with a seahorse encased in plastic.

I read with Noah and then went back to the beach in the late afternoon. I was thirsty as I was walking down the sandy path to the beach and suddenly a cherry snow cone seemed appealing so I bought one at the snack shack. I walked down to the water’s edge to eat it. The sun was warming the back of my legs and the sea breeze was cooling my face. The shadow of a gull passed over the sand just over my shadow’s head and it was one of those moments you want to seal in your mind and remember forever.

Later Beth and June came down to the beach, followed by Peggy and Josiah. There was time for June and me to have a brief swim and for Josiah to fly his new kite.

YaYa made a scrumptious spinach lasagna, garlic bread, and salad for dinner, which everyone appreciated.  June had such a busy day we hadn’t had a chance to read so we slipped out to the porch to read another chapter before bedtime.

Day 7

On Thursday morning we split into two groups. Peggy, Mom, and Josiah went to tour a light boat while YaYa, Beth, and our kids had a breakfast at a boardwalk crepe stand and then spent most of the morning wandering around town. June got a pair of yellow flowered flip-flops, required for the showers at Girl Scout camp, and mooned over the hermit crabs we’d staunchly refused to buy her all week. The day before, she’d told me, “Grandmom says if I keep asking, eventually you’ll get me a hermit crab”—a statement my mother flatly denies making, so I’m not sure exactly what went down between them.

Both the snails we got for June’s birthday died within six weeks, along with the last surviving one she brought home from school last fall. We promised to replace the snails but I am over shelled creatures with short life spans. I also don’t like the idea of taking a sea creature away from the sea or the unnatural designs they paint on their shells. When I told June pestering wouldn’t work, she asked what would and I said growing up and buying her own in eight years.

We hit Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the soap shop, and Browseabout books where June bought Harry Potter glasses with three weeks’ allowance and Noah got a book with the rest of his birthday money from Auntie Sara. Finally, we recovered from all this shopping with coffee, juice, and frozen hot chocolate at Café a-Go-Go.

Back home, I read to June, then Beth took her on a bike ride and picnic at Gordon’s Pond and YaYa took her out to tea. I did laundry and hit the beach until it was time to come back and make dinner—veggie burgers with corn, a tomato and mozzarella salad and various leftovers because it was the last night.

We all took a final evening walk on the boardwalk, got ice cream and frozen custard, and Mom bought June a stuffed cat that walks and meows from a boardwalk toy store. June’s been admiring this particular cat for years. Then Mom took Noah to Browseabout to get another book. We split off into various groups and returned to the house in pairs and trios, packed, and went to bed. It was bittersweet as the week and the company were so lovely…

Day 8

Mom, Peggy, and Josiah left the next morning around 8:45. They had timed tickets to Mount Vernon at 1:55.  We finished packing and June and I returned my and Josiah’s bikes to the bike rental place. Then YaYa, Beth, and Noah spent the rest of the morning in a coffee shop while June and I swam for over an hour. By this point June wanted to get right into the waves, no easing in and getting used to the cool water. “Mommy, are you coming?” she kept saying as she strode deeper into the ocean.

We met up with the rest of our party for lunch—boardwalk fries and crepes from a stand in a little alley off Rehoboth Avenue.  Noah said “crepes in the alley” made it sound like they had cocaine in them, but mine was just Swiss cheese and walnuts. I cannot speak for the others.

The kids and I went back to the beach to put our feet in the water one last time. Well, Noah and I put our feet in the water. It was more of a whole body experience for June, but she was still in her bathing suit, so it was okay.

We strolled down to Funland to use up our tickets. June played arcade games and both kids rode the Paratrooper as I watched their bare feet soar high above me, right before we left the deep blue sea behind until our next visit.

Wintry Mix

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, or anywhere in the country where the temperature hovers right around freezing for much of the winter, you’re familiar with wintry mix, precipitation that switches back and forth between rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow. We had a whole day of that on Tuesday. I think we had all four kinds of precipitation over the course of the day. Because we were right on the rain-snow line, forecasts for the day varied wildly. We might get ten inches of snow! Or nothing! There ended up being a dusting of snow in the morning that melted by noon with no more accumulation, even though it kept snowing (and sleeting and raining) throughout the day. The afternoon snow squalls, while pretty, didn’t stick.

This post will be wintry mix as well, a mélange of four things that happened over the course of the last week and a half.

I. Thursday to Saturday: Visit with Uncle Johnny

Beth’s brother Johnny, who lives in Seattle, was swinging through the East Coast on a trip that would include New York City, the DC area, Wheeling, WV, and Kentucky. He arrived in DC from New York on Thursday night. Beth met him for dinner after work and they had dinner at a teahouse in the city. Friday she worked a half-day and then they went to the Building Museum before meeting me for lunch at District Taco. (I was already in the city because I had a dentist appointment to get a temporary crown applied.)

From there we went to the Portrait Gallery, where we took in paintings, drawings, sculptures and, in the most interesting interpretation of “portrait,” a short animated film, set to John Lennon’s song “O Yoko.” The film was continuously playing on a small screen mounted on the wall between two paintings. I heard a guard confess it was driving him crazy listening to it all day. I liked it, but I didn’t have to listen to it any longer than I wanted to, so I saw his point. We made sure to show Johnny the portrait of John Brown, which is now a favorite of ours because when June was in preschool she was fascinated with it and always insisted on coming to see it whenever we came to the portrait gallery. (She has no memory of this now, but we are still charmed.)

I peeled off early, leaving Beth and Johnny at the museum, because I wanted to be home when June got home. She had left her violin at school two days running and I wanted her to be able to practice for her upcoming orchestra concert over the weekend, so I’d told her if she forgot again, we’d be heading to school to get it, getting a custodian to unlock the classroom door if need be. It didn’t come to that, as she remembered to bring the violin home. Perhaps this was because I got down on my knees on the wet pavement of her bus stop that morning and begged her to bring it home. That’s the kind of maternal behavior a nine year old will strive to prevent from occurring again.

So Johnny got to listen to June practice the violin when he and Beth arrived at the house, and then he wanted to see Noah’s drum kit, and Noah practiced, too. (I had them do it sequentially to spare Johnny the experience of listening to both at once.) We went out for pizza in Silver Spring and left Johnny at his hotel.

Saturday Beth and June went to meet him so June could swim in the hotel pool, but it was closed until ten and June had gymnastics in College Park at eleven, so they hung out in his room instead and June watched the Disney channel. After watching June’s gymnastics class and eating lunch with her in the University food court, they all returned home just long enough for June to change into her basketball clothes and to pick me up so we could go to the Pandas’ game.

Going into this game, the Pandas had lost a game and won two. It was a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost every game last season. “It’s like they just realized how to play basketball,” another parent said to me. Well, they didn’t forget, winning the game 8-4, against the Warriors, a team I remember beating them twice last year. The Pandas’ offense was apparently not as strong as in the game we’d missed the week before but their defense was great and they caught a lot of rebounds and that was enough to do the trick. It’s so fun to watch them win and Johnny was a good fan, cheering and taking a lot of pictures.

June still wanted to swim in the hotel pool, even after gymnastics and basketball, so we left her there with Johnny and headed home until it was time for dinner. Noah had been working all day but he took a break to go out for Burmese with us. Johnny had never had Burmese before and enjoyed it. He came home with us for a little while and then we said goodbye because he was leaving for Wheeling early the next morning. It was a nice visit, but too short. June had hoped to take Johnny ice-skating and shoot baskets with him at the hoop near the end of our block. But there’s always next time. 

II. Tuesday: Two-Hour Delay

Monday night, considering the forecast and the fact that he had a long history reading on WWII with two dozen questions due Wednesday and only about a third done, Noah said, “I need a snow day.”

“You don’t always get what you need,” I responded, thinking one of us wasn’t going to get that, though at the moment I didn’t know who it was.

But there was a two-hour delay, which was a nice compromise, long enough for Noah to get make some progress on the assignment and for June to practice her violin, make a card for Megan (whose grandmother just died) and for the two of us to take a walk to Starbucks where she had a slice of lemon pound cake and I sipped a green tea latte while I read to her. “That was nice,” she said as we headed for home shortly before her bus was due. And it was.

III. Thursday: Band and Orchestra Concert

The band and orchestra concert delayed during the snow week finally happened on Thursday and it was worth the wait. As Beth came in the door around 5:45, I was exhorting June to change into her concert clothes and find her music. This must have sounded pretty familiar from all Noah’s years of concerts.

I’d laid out a variety of white tops and dark bottoms on my bed so June could mix and match. She chose a white cardigan and a black pleated skirt, with black leggings. But she hadn’t changed out of the socks she’d been wearing that day—they were turquoise with pink hearts.

“What socks are you going to wear to the concert?” I asked, thinking surely not those.

“I am wearing socks,” June said, matter-of-factly.

We looked at each other silently. I almost opened my mouth and said you can’t wear those socks to an orchestra concert, but then I decided why not and said if her dress shoes fit over them it was fine. They did.

June was sure her sheet music was tucked into her music book, but when she looked, she couldn’t find it. So we left without it, telling her she’d have to share with someone.

When we got to the school gym, scores of young musicians and their families were milling around, finding their seats and tuning their instruments. There are one hundred and sixty kids in the band and orchestra, so you can imagine how many people were in the room. And while most kids at the concert were in white and black concert garb, a number of them were in street clothes, so I guess colored socks weren’t really a big deal. And they were packed together pretty tightly so sharing music wasn’t either.

It was a while before the concert got started, so there was time for socializing. We waved from our seats at parents of June’s classmates and fifth-graders we know from the bus stop and elsewhere. The mother of a fifth grade trumpet player came over to ask about the Communication Arts Program at Noah’s high school because her eighth grade daughter just got into it.

After a fanfare by the advanced brass, the whole orchestra played a medley of fiddle tunes. June had a duet with the first violin from the advanced string ensemble. This was originally going to be a solo, because no one but June volunteered, but then the first violin changed her mind. June was a little peeved about this, but I’m pretty sure she’ll get a solo in a concert some day if she sticks with it. I got a little teary while the two girls played. It happens to me at least once at every concert.

Although that was the highlight for us, it was just the beginning of the concert. The beginning band played a series of songs meant to evoke different parts of the country (this part of the program was called “Road Trip”) and the orchestra did a series of songs representing different animals from the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the water and wind.

There were movie themes, from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, which was preceded by two boys acting out the “I am your father, Luke” scene and there was an audience sing-along to “Hey Jude” and later we all stood to do the chicken dance with accompaniment from the advanced clarinets. (“I wasn’t told I would have to dance,” Noah commented afterward, but dance he did.) A girl who attended June’s preschool in the class one year ahead of her played her own original composition on the flute. The advanced clarinets and flutes played “Silent Night,” which seemed little out of place in February, and because there’s a little-known law that at least half of all elementary and middle school band and orchestra concerts should feature a jazz tune during which the musicians don sunglasses, they did that, too.

At one point, the bridge popped out of June’s violin but she ran over to the director between songs and he fixed it for her.

It was a fun evening. I am really in awe of elementary school music band and orchestra teachers. Imagine if your job was to teach a few hundred mostly inexperienced nine-to-eleven-year-old musicians from two different schools enough music to pull off two concerts at each school every year. Because he also works the elementary school where Noah attended fourth and fifth grade, Mr. G was Noah’s first band teacher, too, and he does a wonderful job.

IV. Friday to Sunday: Valentines’ Day Weekend

Friday morning, about twenty minutes before June’s bus was due, she decided she wanted valentines for her class. This happened after weeks of insisting that no, she didn’t want to buy or make any valentines this year. She just wanted to give a few friends some big Hershey’s kisses privately. I never thought June would lose interest in class valentines exchanges at a younger age than Noah did, but apparently she had.

Her last-minute change of heart was partly motivated by the fact that she wanted to bring the candy to school and couldn’t unless she had something for everyone. So I found a bunch of printable valentines online and she selected a page with cartoon animals and robots she liked. Then I printed them and she cut them out and signed them. She thought she had a class list but she couldn’t find it so she left them unaddressed, saying “They will know who they are for because they will be on their desks.” I couldn’t argue with that. Three minutes before we needed to leave for the bus, the valentines were sealed in a plastic bag tucked into her backpack. Sometimes I feel like I’ve really got this elementary school mom thing down.

That afternoon Megan came over. We’d been planning to take both girls on a field trip to a high school girls’ basketball game, an annual tradition for the Pandas, but snow was predicted so the game was cancelled and we decided to switch plans to a play date. June gave Megan a big chocolate kiss and Megan gave June a card with a drawing of bees that says, “We were meant to bee,” with a chocolate kiss taped to it. While they were playing, I swiped a conversation heart from the stash of candy June brought home from school and I broke my temporary crown on it. Karma, I suppose.

On Saturday, Noah wanted to make something heart-shaped for dinner. I was thinking grilled cheese sandwiches we could cut into hearts but he had more ambitious plans: heart-shaped slices of lasagna. So we made spinach lasagna and used a cookie cutter to cut four little hearts out of it. (The rest we ate in more traditional slices.)

On Valentines Day proper, Beth made heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and we all exchanged gifts, mostly chocolate and books, but I also got a Starbucks gift card.

The kids have Monday off for Presidents’ Day and we’re supposed to get more wintry mix Monday through Tuesday—snow, freezing rain, and rain, with an ice storm thrown in for good measure. I guess that’s how we know it’s winter here.

Cool Yule

Christmas Eve

We flew to Oregon on Christmas Eve. It was a long day of travel (three flights in total) and I had a bad head cold that caused me some ear pain that got worse every time we landed. It would have been a trying trip even if on the longest flight I hadn’t been seated next to a woman who was so determined to discuss God’s role in her reproductive life that when I rebuffed her attempts at conversation (as politely as I could), she just had the conversation with the poor couple in the row in front of us. Beth and Noah were seated a few rows ahead and they watched Star Wars and part of The Empire Strikes Back because he’s recently gotten interested in watching these films, what with all the attention the new one is receiving.

We did get to visit with Beth’s brother in Seattle, in between the first and second flights, as we had a long layover. We left the airport, saw his house, and had lunch with him. We don’t see enough of Johnny, so that was nice. His wife Abby was out of town but she thoughtfully left us a tin of pinwheels and soft ginger cookies.

My mother and stepfather picked us up at the last airport and as rain changed over to snow, drove us through downtown Ashland to see the Christmas lights in the business district, which were quite lovely, though I had to strain to keep my eyes open to see them. Then we had a dinner of Mom’s delicious homemade minestrone after which Beth, June, and I all crashed. Noah, who is apparently made of sterner stuff than us, wanted to adjust to West Coast time in one fell swoop and stayed up until his actual bedtime.

Christmas

I told the kids if they woke before five (and I thought it was a pretty sure bet they would) to try to go back to sleep, but that at five they could read or entertain themselves with electronics until six, when they could come out their rooms and open their stockings. I left a couple oranges in June’s room to tide her over until six and hoped for the best.

I was awake for the day at 4:05 but I followed my own rules and didn’t look at my phone until five. At six sharp I heard June leave her room so Beth and I got out of bed. I inadvertently woke Noah by going into his room to see why an alarm was going off in there. He’d set it but slept through it though the door opening woke him. We all opened our stockings and then Beth and June and I went outside to play in the snow, because there was snow, about an inch or so, but that was enough for June to make not one but two little snowmen, one on Mom and Jim’s deck and another in a small park just across the street. We haven’t had any snow at home so she wasn’t going to let it go to waste and it was a good thing she acted quickly because later in the day it melted almost completely.

When Mom and Jim got up we had breakfast—French toast casserole, scrambled eggs, and veggie sausage. Sara and our new niece and cousin, Lily-Mei (also known as Lan-Lan) whom Sara adopted from China just two months ago, arrived around ten. I opened the door when they rang the bell and Lan-Lan was clearly surprised and somewhat dismayed not to see her familiar grandmother. She hid briefly behind Sara’s legs, but she acclimated to us pretty quickly. June in particular was very good with her and by the end of the day they were fast friends. Lan-Lan called her “Goo” and wanted to hold her hand all the time (going down slides, in the car, walking around the house, etc.)

As she warmed up to us, Lan-Lan enjoyed playing a game with our Christmas card. Sara had been using it to help her recognize us before we arrived. Sara would point to someone on the card and say, “Who’s that?” and Lan-Lan would (usually) point to the right person. This never got old. She was fetching the card so we could do this for days.

The rest of the morning was dedicated to opening presents. There was a great quantity of books, soap, tea, socks, and cashmere scarves exchanged. Sara and I got each other peppermint soap and I got Sara the exact same brand of chocolate tea Mom got for me. In addition, Beth got a big stack of books, mostly about women in rock, I got a camera and a teapot and tea cups from China, Noah got a bunch of Amazon gift certificates he’s already used to purchase a new monitor and other computer equipment, and June got ice skates, a gift certificate to get her hair dyed again and some jewelry.

But it was Lan-Lan who really cleaned up (because so many of Sara’s friends gave her gifts). The big hits were a rocking horse and a set of little bean bags. Noah decided to put reindeer antlers on the rocking horse and to make a red nose out of a barely-inflated red balloon and soon it was a rocking reindeer. Lan-Lan rode it and delighted in the neighing noise it makes when you press a button and all three kids played for a long time tossing the bean bags into empty boxes. Every time Lan-Lan got one in everyone would applaud and then she would sit down so she could clap, too. She does it with her one hand and the opposite foot. Lan-Lan also found time to scribble with her new crayons and play with her egg shakers.

Sara and Lan-Lan went home for her rest time and while they were gone I had a nap. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and slept deeply for nearly an hour, which helped me stay up until 9:30 that night. When Sara and Lan-Lan came back June and I went to the playground with them. Once we were there the simple scene seemed momentous to me and I said to Sara, “We’re at the playground with our kids.”

“We are,” she said simply.

This was a long time coming. I didn’t have kids until my mid-thirties and Sara not until her mid-forties, both after long waits, but here we were watching our kids tear around the snowy mulch (June yelling “I’m going to get you” and Lan-Lan shrieking happily) like sisters who’d been watching their kids play together for years.

The girls held hands going down the slide and Sara made a video of it. Lan-Lan wanted to watch over and over and over again. Later June helped push Lan-Lan on the swing. Sara stood behind her and June in front and they pushed her back and forth saying, “She’s mine! No, she’s mine!” while Lan-Lan laughed. (This kid has the cutest laugh you can imagine.) Things only got more hilarious when they invented the game “Switch.” Either Sara or June would yell “One, two, three. Switch!” or to make it more suspenseful, “I feel a switch coming on” and then they would run and switch places. This was funny for a long time. I’ve found you’re never as good a comedian as when you have babies or toddlers.

We came back to Mom’s house and changed clothes for Christmas dinner. Lan-Lan wore a black and gold dress that used to belong to June. (The whole time we were there I took a lot of pleasure in seeing her in Noah and June’s old things—pants, socks, barrettes.)

We ate our dinner—chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, rolls, and a gluten-free chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. (Sara’s gluten-intolerant.) We ate on the early side so Lan-Lan, who has an early bedtime, could get to bed. As a result, after Sara and Lan-Lan left, we had time to watch A Christmas Story, which we’d never seen before. Mom and Jim enjoyed the nostalgia factor, as they were kids in the 1940s, when it’s set, and June appreciated the broad humor.

Boxing Day

The big activity the next day was a trip to Jacksonville, a nineteenth-century mining town that has a lot of its original Old West architecture. This was almost a trip to Crater Lake, which Mom really wanted us to see in the snow. But the snow up in the mountains posed a problem. Most of the roads there were closed. Only one entrance was open. Various routes were considered and debated and when we left the house, we were actually intending to go there but then we saw a sign for a closed road ahead and we gave up and went to Jacksonville instead. There we browsed in the shops and Lan-Lan stopped to pet the many dogs of Jacksonville, and we had coffee and pastries in a nice coffee shop Beth found, where I got a hazelnut mocha breve and Sara and I shared a gluten-free crème de menthe brownie. Sara said it was the best brownie she ever had and I said, except for Mom’s crème de menthe brownies and she solemnly said, yes, of course.

Mom and Beth were both disappointed not to make it further up into the mountains, but there were lovely mountain views along the drive and there was a spectacular sunset as we drove home.

We went our separate ways for the day then. Sara and Lan-Lan went home and the rest of us went back to Mom’s house where we watched a DVD of pictures from Mom, Sara, and Sara’s boyfriend Dave’s trip to China. (We didn’t get to meet Dave on this trip, as he was with family in Arizona.) Then we went out for pizza. June and I were done in by this point. She was resting her head on the table as we waited for our food and I might have done the same if it were socially acceptable adult behavior—I could have used another nap that day. But the pizza came quickly and we got home in time to put June to bed by her (new, West Coast) bedtime.

Sunday

I slept until 6:15 the next morning and as a result it was the first day I wasn’t feeling jet-lagged. We had brunch at Sara’s house—her famous almond pancakes. Noah and June kept Lan-Lan occupied while Sara cooked, mostly by tossing dishtowels to each other in the living room. Did you know this is the best game ever? Now you do.

We devoured a huge stack of pancakes, a quadruple batch. Noah alone had fourteen. (They’re pretty small, but still…) Sara said it was her first time having people over to eat since Lan-Lan came home and she seemed pretty pleased with how it went. Soon it was time for Lan-Lan to rest so we cleared out.

In the afternoon Mom, Beth, Sara, June, Lan-Lan and I went to a different playground and there was more sliding and swinging and games of Switch. When we got cold we went back to Mom’s house. Sara swung by the food co-op while toddler-free and then we had a big late afternoon snack of chips, crudités, dips, cheese, summer sausage, lentil and green bean salads and spiced nuts. This plus an eggroll was dinner for Sara and Lan-Lan, but after they left, we had baked macaroni and cheese and Christmas dinner leftovers. Needless to say, we were all very full after that. That night Beth and Noah finished Return of the Jedi, which they’d been watching little by little.

June lost a tooth that day and she was hoping the Tooth Fairy would find her. We’d been having snow flurries on and off all day and she also was hoping it would stick overnight and there would be snow in the morning.

Monday

The next morning there was a dollar under June’s bed (it fell off in the night and took some finding) and there was snow, a wet, heavy snow that clung to the tree branches and then fell in clumps. But apparently the second snow of the year is not as exciting as the first snow because June didn’t go out and play in it until Sara and Lan-Lan arrived mid-morning. Instead we read a couple of chapters of Harry Potter (the Platform 9 ¾ chapter and the Sorting Hat one). Beth went for a walk to the UPS store to mail home a package of presents that wouldn’t fit in our luggage and then Sara and I walked to Dutch Brothers to get eggnog lattes, while Mom, June, and Lan-Lan went on their own walk and made a third snowman. It was harder to make a snowman with a two year old than June anticipated. “I don’t think she understands the words ‘Don’t kick the snowman,’” she later told us ruefully. But it was still standing when Sara and I got home after a pleasant walk and conversation.

In the afternoon we made gingerbread cookies. Mom couldn’t find her recipe so I was going to look for a similar one online when Beth told me she’d scanned some important recipes onto her phone a while back and sure enough, she had it. We had to tinker with the recipe, using gluten-free flour and butter instead of shortening (because of trans fats). This is what happens when you try to make gingerbread with a nutrition writer, but at least we used real sugar and not stevia or something like that. (I love you, Sara, really I do.)

Mom mixed the ingredients, letting Lan-Lan dump in the pre-measured baking soda and spices. We decided to have separate workstations on the kitchen counter for Sara and Lan-Lan and for Noah, June, and me. Lan-Lan mostly played with the dough while the rest of us rolled out dough, cut it and put raisins on it. When my kids started to bicker over access to the most desired cookie cutters and over who squashed whose cookie, I told them not to act like toddlers, as that job was taken and then they got along a little better. Even cutting the recipe in half we made three trays of cookies and frosted some of them with leftover frosting from the cake.

We finished in time for an early dinner at a Chinese restaurant and then Sara and Lan-Lan went home and Mom and Jim went to a violin and piano concert while Beth, the kids and I settled in to watch Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.

Tuesday

In the morning we had time for a visit at Sara’s house before we left for the airport. Lan-Lan got us to dance by playing one of her musical toys and as that was a hit, she got a great quantity of other toys (mostly dolls and stuffed animals) from her room to see if we’d like those as well. We could only stay about an hour. When we left, Sara and Lan-Lan watched us from the living room window as we got into Mom’s minivan and began our journey away from snowy mountains, my mom’s house, and our first visit with the newest member of our family.

A Fine Thanksgiving

Wednesday

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

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

“Sure you do,” said June dismissively.

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

Thanksgiving Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not So Black) Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

The Ocean Life’s For Me

The Week Before the Beach

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

Getting to the Beach: Friday and Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

Friday: Court Ruling

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

“Yah!” June said.

“Great,” Noah said.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

Southland in the Springtime: Part I, Ashville, NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more spring break adventures.

A Merry Little Christmas

Christmas Eve

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

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

Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

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

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

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