July Harvest

Beth got home from her travels two days after North and I did. In her absence we did a small grocery run just to tide us over and got gelato one day and Starbucks the other. I watered the thirsty garden, which had not thrived in our absence, but had not died either.  It has recovered somewhat. The herbs are all doing pretty well, particularly the basil; the cherry tomatoes are producing fruit, but slowly; the kale is fine; the lettuce was starting to bolt (so I harvested it all); the zinnias and sunflowers are healthy-looking but growing more slowly than the neighbors’; and the cucumbers are struggling. There’s only one of five that’s flowering and may produce cukes, but I give it about a 50/50 chance because it’s very small for late July.

I also mowed the front and side lawn, dealt with a maggot infestation in the compost bucket, and weeded along the fence on the sidewalk side. That’s what I was doing when Beth showed up in the front yard Friday afternoon, luggage in hand, and kissed me over the fence. It was good to see her. That night we ate homemade pizza all around the same table and played Love Letters.

Weekend 1

Saturday was Beth’s and my anniversary—the summer one. This one marked thirty-six years since our first date, back when we were impossibly young, two years younger than Noah is now and three years older than North. It was a low-key observation. We didn’t exchange presents, just cards, because we’re going to see Willie Nelson at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday as our presents to each other.

That morning we had an all-family check-in with North’s individual therapist and then dropped North off at Brookside Gardens, where they were meeting Sol and some of their friends for a walk in the botanical garden, followed by a late lunch at IHOP. Beth and I had a chance to catch up at home until it was time to pick them up. We all had dinner out at Cielo Rojo, followed by more gelato at Dolci Gelati. I had the mushroom and bean enchiladas, and half a scoop of red velvet with half of scoop of almond praline, all of which I recommend if you’re local.

On Sunday we went berry-picking at Butler’s Orchard. We got almost five pounds of blueberries and five pounds of blackberries. We quit a little short of filling the blueberry bucket because it was a muggy day, and we didn’t want North to overheat in the compression suit they were wearing under their clothes. The good news about the suit is that North says after wearing it for a few weeks, it has reduced their back pain.

 Beth and I independently of each other sent Noah photos (she of the tractor that pulls the wagon of berry pickers to the field and me of the sign you see when you leave that wishes you “a berry good day”) and asked him to guess where we were. This is a game we play when we’re apart. Just as when we were there picking strawberries right after he left in late May, we were missing him. But unlike then, we know when we’ll see him next. His internship ends at the end of this week and then he’s spending a week with my mom and sister in Davis, and then he’s coming home to conduct his job search from here.

As always, in the berry fields we listened to parents instruct their children only to pick ripe berries and fondly remembered when we were the ones saying that to our little ones. My favorite iteration was “Remember to only pick the blue ones. That’s why they’re called blueberries.” North repeated back to me when we started to pick blackberries, “Remember to only pick the black ones,” they said. “That’s why they’re called blackberries.”

We visited the snack bar where North got a pretzel, and the farm market where we got pasta, cheeses, peaches, nectarines, a slushy, various baked goods, and caramels. At home I froze about half the berries and made a blueberry kuchen. The crust burned around the edges and on the bottom, which was surprising as I’ve been using the same recipe once a summer for more than twenty years. Nevertheless, it was a berry good day.

The Week In Between

Monday Beth and I were back at work. (I had not worked the previous Thursday or Friday because I was badly jet-lagged, Sara didn’t send any work, and I didn’t particularly want to work on any of the low-priority tasks I had on my list.) Beth, who usually works at home, had to go into the office four days out of five last week, so that was odd, not to have her around.

I wasn’t around either on Tuesday because I had jury duty. I took my laptop, three sections of the Post, and a book with me, but I hardly needed any of it because I was called to voir dire almost immediately. Whenever I have jury duty, I think it would be interesting to serve someday (I did get on a jury for a drug case once in the 90s and it was interesting) but not this time because it never seems to be a convenient time. When I learned this trial was for a child sex abuse case, my stomach dropped a little. It sounded like it would be wrenching.

During questioning, I didn’t deliberately try to get off the jury with my answers, but I wasn’t chosen. I don’t remember this from previous times I’ve had jury duty so maybe different judges do things differently, but this time you got to hear which attorney struck you. I was eliminated by the defense. By one o’clock I was free to go. I had lunch at a Chinese place and made the long journey home on the Metro, going almost from one end of the red line to the other, and arriving home after three-thirty.

I worked a little when I got home, but not much, as the day had been surprisingly tiring. Part of it might have been traveling in the heat. We had an unusually cool June and then we were gone for almost the first two weeks of July, so when we got back to typically hot, muggy D.C. area weather, there was no easing into it and the first week at home was kind of a shock.

Weekend 2

The next weekend we had two family outings. We saw Barbie on Saturday afternoon and went to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on Sunday morning. Beth and North went to Silver Spring ahead of me, North to go to therapy and Beth to go to the Silver Spring farmers’ market. The two of them had lunch at Cava, and I was supposed to meet them in the theater lobby. But I missed my bus running back into the house for my headphones and then I took a less familiar bus route and went too far, so I got there almost fifteen minutes late. They’d gone into the theater, where I met them, but the previews were far from over, so it didn’t matter.

I had read quite mixed reviews of the movie ahead of time, but I really enjoyed it. Beth has been very stressed at work and we have both been feeling a little heavy-hearted for reasons I’m not going to get into, and Oppenheimer seemed out of the question, though we did consider it, as well as Elemental and Joy Ride. Something kind of light-hearted and fun but not without substance turned out to be just right.

Sunday morning, we went to see the lotuses and water lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. The lilies are in bloom from late spring to early fall, but the lotuses have a much shorter bloom period. Each individual flower lasts five days before it falls off leaving a seed pod behind—they look just like those weird pods from Teletubbies—and there’s only two or three weeks a year you can see them blooming. The lily and lotus festival had just ended the day before, but there were plenty of flowers left.

We haven’t been to see the lotus flowers for thirteen years and I almost didn’t suggest it for the same reason I often don’t when I think to go—it’s hot and the bloom period often coincides with blueberry season and if we only have the stamina for one outdoor activity, the one in which you bring home many pounds of berries seems preferable. But I did suggest it and I’m glad we went because it’s lovely. We also saw some tiny turtles in the water and two Great White Herons in the water and a tree, plus a red-winged blackbird, and we heard some frogs croaking, and apparently from what the people ahead of us said, just missed seeing a muskrat.

We’ve been home now almost as long as we were gone. Our harvest includes:

  1. Cherry tomatoes, lettuce, kale, basil, chives, and mint from the garden
  2. Thirty-six years of togetherness
  3. Tickets to see Willie Nelson
  4. Two buckets of berries
  5. Partial pain relief for North
  6. An almost completed internship
  7. The opportunity to serve the people of Montgomery County just by showing up if not serving on a jury—that’s what they tell you anyway when you’re excused

We did not harvest:

  1. The experience of serving on this particular jury
  2. Any water lilies or lotuses because that would be wrong

What have you reaped this July?

February Faces

Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

I saved a blue conversation heart from Valentine’s Day and put it on my desk, next to the erasers. It says, “Be Happy.” Some days it seems like a cheerful encouragement and I think, “Okay, I’ll try that.”  Other days it, and the thick brown mug I often use that says, “Do what you like/Like what you do” just seem to be taunting me.

February is such a challenge some years. It started with strawberries, I think.  On the first day of February, after a basketball game, Beth and June and I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things, and June was hungry so Beth got her a fruit cup consisting of blueberries and strawberries. She ate all the blueberries but didn’t want the strawberries.

I love strawberries, but real ones, not pale winter imitations of strawberries. In our area real, ripe, juicy red strawberries are available for about a month, which can start anywhere from late April to late May, depending on weather conditions. I probably hadn’t eaten one since some time last summer, but now last spring seemed like a distant memory and next spring like it might not ever come, so I ate the strawberries.

My main problem is that we have had too many snow days this winter, seven to be precise and three of them in February.  They fell during a period when I was swamped with work and have caused me a lot of stress.  One day—Valentine’s Day actually—when we’d had two snow days in a row and I had a noon deadline, the morning play date I’d scheduled for June fell through because the mother of the child woke up sick and I almost cried when I read her message.

In addition to the snow days and the late openings (too numerous to count), our heat has gone out three times this winter. We always got it fixed the next day but not before the temperature in the house dropped into the forties. Our oil company has not been as interested in the question of why it keeps going out as we are.

The last time it snowed (ten inches, about a week and a half ago), I hurt my back and aggravated the ongoing tendonitis I have in my right forearm shoveling snow and chipping ice off the sidewalk. Both are better now, but it has not helped me feel positive about winter.

Sometimes I do like winter, at the beginning of it usually. The cold temperatures are novel and invigorating and the snow is undeniably pretty. It’s fun getting out the flannel sheets and my sweaters and warm socks and making warm, cozy meals. Most importantly, it makes Beth happy, because winter is her season, and until we’ve had several snow days, I’m on board. Eventually, though, we get to the point where what makes her happy (a big snow) makes me unhappy, and what makes me happy (cold rain, sleet, anything that does not result in the kids staying home yet again) makes her unhappy. It’s an uncomfortable state of affairs sometimes.

I’m also sad for Noah right now, because despite a month of weekends (not to mention quite a few snow days) he spent glued to the computer working on his documentary for National History Day he didn’t make the cut to advance to the county level. He’s not very competitive and is generally very easy-going about grades and the like, but he wanted this, and although he took the bad news graciously, I still wish there was something I could do to make it better, other than offer sympathy. But sometimes that’s all there is.

So, what went right in February?

Well, we all got nice Valentines presents for each other. We bought books for the kids (one about fonts for Noah and the fourth book in the Edgar and Ellen series, Pet’s Revenge, for June). I got fancy cheese and chocolate for Beth and she bought me a Starbucks card. Beth brought home a half-dozen red roses and the kids selected chocolate truffles and chocolate-cherry bread for the whole family. And that evening we went out for heart-shaped pizza at Zpizza, which according to Noah “tastes like love.” The day that started with me nearly weeping ended sweetly.

Also, the Pandas had a few games. After the one I already blogged about, they played a double game the next weekend.  They lost the game June played in 24-18, but it was an exciting game and both teams played well. The other game might have been a win or a tie. There’s no official scorekeeping and I heard conflicting reports. Either way, it was close.

The best thing about June’s game, though, from our perspective, was that for the first time ever in three seasons of playing basketball, June took a shot at the hoop. Being the shortest player on her team, she has often lacked the confidence to try to score and instead passes to other players. She often gets assists and up to now seemed content with that role, but at practice the day before something clicked and she told us she just felt like she could do it.  So she took a shot and it almost went in, too. After the game, she told us that trying to make the basket was her favorite part of the game.

So it’s not that surprising that she tried again at the next Pandas’ game. More on that in a little bit…She and I have been playing Horse at our neighbor’s hoop once or twice a week ever since basketball started. I have a height advantage obviously and I’ve offered to handicap myself by shooting from further away or giving her two shots for every one of mine, but she has rejected these offers. As a result, I always win. There would be no point in letting her win. She’d know and she’d be mad. (The fact that I always win does not stop her from critiquing my form, however. It’s all wrong apparently.)

So on Thursday we were shooting baskets with a wet, dirty basketball (the street was slushy). My hands were gritty and tingling with cold; I was wishing I’d worn gloves and thinking I’d like to go home, but she kept asking for one more game. The scores were closer than usual and I realized we weren’t going home until she won. She finally did, on the fifth game. “We can go home now,” she said casually, after the winning basket. Later she mentioned to Beth that all four games she’d lost, she’d only lost by one point, but when she won, she won by two points.

At the game on Saturday, June took another shot at the basket. It wasn’t as close at last time, but they were playing on ten-foot hoops again and she was completely surrounded, so it was not an easy shot. I was proud of her just for trying.

It was an amazing game overall. It started off slow—both teams were handicapped by using the taller hoops.  It was not clear to any of the parents why were we using the ten-foot hoops, as we switched gyms to get one with eight-foot hoops. Maybe it was the other coach’s preference or maybe it was because we were short a player at the beginning of the game and a full-court game made more sense than two half-court games.  Anyway, at the end of the first quarter the purple team was ahead 0-2 and at halftime the score was unchanged. Then at the beginning of the third quarter the Pandas’ offense just snapped into place. They were seeing who was open and passing strategically and shooting over and over. It was a thing of beauty to watch. At first the other team seemed a bit startled and intimidated, but then they stepped up their game too. By my reckoning, the final score was 8-6, Pandas.

After the game, Beth and June and I went straight to the hardware store where we took a workshop on starting seeds. We’ve been gardening for years, mostly from seed, but we often have to start over with new seeds because they don’t germinate or the seedlings get eaten by slugs—so we thought we could use some pointers. What I took from it was that we haven’t been using a light enough grade of soil for germinating and that we might have better luck with slugs if we started seeds earlier inside, rather than waiting for warmer temperatures and starting them outside.  There was an amusing moment when I asked about slugs because the earth mother-type instructor clearly did not want to give advice about how to kill living creatures. She opined that all insects have their place in the universe and then quickly mentioned beer and eggshells, both of which we already use. June wanted to know how to grow potatoes, which is a gardening goal of hers for this year. The instructor said using seed potatoes was probably the best bet. Then we all planted tomato seeds. We choose Brandywine and Marvel Stripe. We’ve grown Brandywines before (from plant starts rather than seed) but I had never heard of the other kind.

It was an unseasonably warm day. Beth and June went on to further Saturday afternoon adventures, ice skating on slushy ice at the outdoor rink in Silver Spring and playing at a muddy, slushy playground. I mostly stayed home, supervising Noah’s homework, and reading the Washington Post magazine on the porch in shirtsleeves, then going for a short walk before dinner. It’s going to get cold again later in the week, and it might snow Wednesday and again on Friday, but today we have two pots with tomato seeds in them sitting near the study window, cheering me up more effectively than that bossy candy heart.

Sometimes February faces grimace at another snowstorm or put on an intimidating game face, but others watch attentively from the sideline at scoring teammates, or bend over a small pot, full of soil and hope.

Rock Around the Clock, Revisited

Five years ago I wrote a blog post in which I related what I was doing every hour on the hour during the first day of July (“Rock Around the Clock” 7/1/08). Noah had just finished first grade and was attending day camp at his old nursery school that week. Given that June has just finished first grade and is attending day camp at the Purple School this week, I thought it might be fun to repeat the exercise, to see what’s the same and what’s changed in our lives in the past five years.

Some of what’s changed is obvious. In the past five years the country elected and re-elected America’s first African-American president, we got married, and both of our fathers died. (Today would have been my father’s seventieth birthday, so that’s on my mind more than usual.) But I’m actually most interested in the little things, rather than these political and personal milestones. How does day-to-day life feel the same and how is it different?

I was half-tempted to shift it one day forward because the first time I did this, Noah had an after-camp play date with another camper and former nursery school classmate, and today, June’s doing the same (it’s in progress as I write). But I decided I didn’t want to force the similarities; I’d just let the chips fall where they may and so I stuck to the first of July, five years later.

So, here’s how yesterday went, hour by hour.

June no longer wakes me in the middle of the night on a regular basis so when the day began at midnight and every hour from then until 6:00, we were all asleep. June did make an unauthorized entry into our room at 6:20 a.m. to report a dispute over computer access, but as I am not my very best when first woken, Beth resolved it.

7:00 a.m. Per the agreement Beth had brokered, Noah was eating breakfast and June was watching something on the computer. I was at the other computer, checking the blogs I read first thing most mornings.

8:00 a.m. I was noticing how quiet the house was now that Noah had left five minutes earlier. He’s volunteering at the Purple School this week for student service learning hours, helping Lesley organize her photo archives and she wanted him to report at 8:15, forty-five minutes before camp begins so she could get him started on the project. This leads us to one of the biggest differences between the two days. Dropping the seven year old off at camp and spending the day with the two year old is not very much like having the twelve year old leave on his own, and then dropping the seven year old off at camp and being alone for two and a half hours. Noah would be home before June, but I still had some alone time and I was pondering how to spend it. Would I work the whole time? Or go to Starbucks and read the novel I hadn’t touched since Noah got back from YaYa’s house (and I started reading a lot to him) a week earlier? Go ahead, guess. You know the answer.

9:00 a.m. June and I climbed the steps of the Purple School and left our bag of plastics in a box on the porch. It’s a tinkering camp, which means they build things, and Lesley is focusing on plastics and environmental awareness this summer. She read to them from Moby Duck on the first day and they talked about the long journey plastics make between manufacture and use, and then again after use. I said goodbye to June, waved to Noah, who was ensconced at a computer in the main classroom, chatted with a few parents I know, and returned home.

10:00 a.m. After hanging the first load of laundry of the day on the line and starting the second in the washer, I was headed out the door with my novel, Last Man in Tower and my wallet, when I decided to grab an umbrella. It was getting increasingly cloudy and I thought if I took an umbrella, it might not rain and the laundry could dry. (Oh come on, like you never engage in magical thinking.) When I opened the door, I noticed with some dismay that the sidewalk was wet. Should I take the laundry down? It was only misting and maybe the sun would come out later, I reasoned. Besides, it wasn’t like the clothes were dry and needed to be rescued from the damp. I left.

11:00 a.m. I was returning from Starbucks under a heavier rainfall than before. I decided I’d take the clothes down once June got home and put them in the dryer then. I didn’t want to squander any more work time.

12:00 p.m. I was on the porch, reading and highlighting a study about the bioavailability of curcumin. Noah had arrived home around 11:30 and was now on the phone with YaYa and her sister Jenny, discussing a personal Monopoly board he’s designing for them, based on their life experiences.

1:00 p.m. I glanced at the time, and realizing I needed to leave in fifteen minutes to get June, I went to the kitchen and ate some Indian leftovers from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival we’d attended the day before. I ate straight from the takeout container, standing at the kitchen counter to save time. Out the kitchen window I noticed the clothesline, which had been fraying for some time, had broken and half the clothes on it were now lying on the wet grass. No time to do anything about it now.

2:00 p.m. June and I had returned, she was playing on the porch, re-decorating a little house she’d built for a tiny stuffed bunny at Tink Camp last summer (or maybe it was the summer before that). I was sending Beth a message about how Noah was still talking to YaYa and Jenny about their game, now via Face Time, and what a good grandson he is. I also said he should go into business providing tech support to women over fifty because that was basically what he’d been doing all day.

3:00 p.m. June was now playing in the yard, running around and imagining something that involved a lot of urgent talking between characters. I’d just finished planting two cucumber vines in a newly dug plot—these were the last two out of seven we planted this season after many trials with slugs and a mysterious fungal disease. I was peering into the hatch of the car, looking for the new clothesline Beth had bought a few weeks ago when I first noticed the old one was fraying. I’d already taken the clothes off the line and put them in the dryer. I was intending to string up the new line, but I couldn’t find it, gave up on the project, and decided to ride the exercise bike instead. Noah’s marathon collaborative game board construction project was still underway.

4:00 p.m. June was watching Phineas and Ferb, The Movie and I was reading Rip Tide to Noah.

5:00 p.m. Noah and I had finished our book, and while he headed down to the basement to play his drums and June had moved on from Phineas and Ferb to Mulan, I went to the computer to check the library hours and bus schedules, trying to decide if a trip to the library before dinner was feasible. He wanted to go back to the Shadow Children series we’d started this spring. The library has the series but I decided it would delay dinner too much. I thought I’d ask Beth for a ride to the library if she got home early enough.

6:00 p.m. Noah was downstairs jumping on the mini-trampoline and June was back outside. I’d almost finished dinner for the adults (quinoa, snow peas, and broccoli with a peanut-coconut milk sauce) and was wondering what to give the kids for protein as they had both tasted and declined the sauce. I probably fall back on mozzarella string cheese too often when faced with this question, but that’s what I did. They both ate the quinoa and vegetables, so I’m calling it a win. I even tossed in some peas from June’s garden plot. They’re almost finished but every now and then June finds a few pods and picks them. While I was cooking, she’d handed me these three pods so reverently, I knew they needed to go into that very meal. I put the biggest, roundest two peas on her plate, on top of the rest of her dinner.

7:00 p.m. June had asked me to read to her from an abridged version of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew around 6:45 and I’d told her I was going to clean up from dinner first, but to alert me if it was 7:00 and I wasn’t reading to her yet. She did and I left the rest of the dishes on the counter and read the last few chapters of the book to her. “That was a good book,” she declared. I’d mentioned to her previously we have the unabridged version as well, but she thought this one was “long enough.”

8:00 p.m. Because Beth didn’t get home until almost 7:30 and June goes to bed at 7:45, we couldn’t go to the library together so she’d offered to take Noah and leave me at home. I considered what to do with my unexpectedly quiet house and snuck in a little of the work I didn’t do in the morning. (When they came back they had the next three books in Noah’s series and gelato to boot.)

9:00 p.m. I was reading my original hourly blog post and planning out this one.

10:00 p.m. Beth and I were in bed, lights out, talking politics (specifically DOMA, civil rights, and reproductive rights).

11:00 p.m. Everyone was asleep.

Looking at these two timelines together I see some differences that are hardly surprising. I have more time to work than I did when I was a stay-at-home mom with a toddler. I also sleep better, and no one clings to my legs and screams when I try to cook. I don’t have to change any diapers. These are all improvements, even if I don’t get to read on my bed, while a small child sleeps in the crook of my arm any more. Instead I have older, more capable children, one of whom played independently most of the afternoon and another who was knowledgeable, co-operative, and patient enough to be a real help to three adults over the course of the day.

But the Purple School is still a place we go to learn, play, and work, two years after our youngest child moved on to elementary school. I still read to the kids and read my own books whenever I can, and we still go to the library a lot. Lest we seem too virtuously bookish, I should add that the kids still usually watch as much media as we let them (two hours a day each at present). We still garden every summer. Beth and I still go to bed early and talk in the dark before sleeping. Much has changed, but that much is still the same, and I hope we’re still tending plants, reading books, and talking together five years from now.

Now some questions for you: How has your life changed in the past five years? How do you think it will change in the next five? What do you hope stays the same?


Before the Blackout

My friend Megan and I had a conversation last week we have multiple times every summer, about how complicated and crazy-making summer is for at-home parents. The main difficulty is that every day is different; there’s no routine. Megan said she recently spent two hours putting together a calendar of day camps and babysitting and appointments just so she could have it all straight. I have a calendar like that, too, just for summer, and even so I still get confused sometimes.

Last week was particularly logistically challenging, or it seemed that way at the time, because June had her first day camp. It was the shortest camp she’s attending this year, at three hours a day, and also the most inconveniently located.  But I signed her up because it was an art camp and she loves art, and because Megan’s daughter Talia was attending, and as June says, “Talia is one of my good friends.” It was fun for her seeing Talia every day and they also had two after-camp play dates, one at Megan’s house and one at a nearby playground. Both girls seemed pretty happy with the arrangements.

Beth drove June to camp three mornings out of five, and Megan pitched in with some rides home and one ride to camp so I only had to take June once and fetch her twice.  I’m grateful to both Beth and Megan for making it possible for me to spend some time with Noah and get a little work done while June was gone in the mornings. If I’d had to take her and bring her home every day I would have spent so much time on buses and at bus stops there would have been no point in my even going home. But with every single day a different transportation plan, I craved consistency.

Adding to this, Beth has also been out of town on business a lot recently, with a four-day trip earlier in the month and a two-day trip last week. These trips are easier than they were when the kids were younger, but of course, we miss her when she’s gone.

So I was feeling unsettled even before the heat wave cum four-day power outage we just experienced.  And I wasn’t the only one. When school let out, June was positively mournful.  She wrote in her diary, “I do not want summer break to be a real ting.” And she drew up a set of instructions she called, “Infermashan you need to be a good student.”  (See photo.) The day we got her summer math packet she completed half of it. I secured five play dates for her in the first few weeks after school ended, but she still missed her friends, especially before she started to go to camp last week.

As for Noah, after a fun week at YaYa’s house, he was casting around trying to remember how to amuse himself when he’s not at school or doing homework all the time. He said he was bored frequently, but he had some interesting projects going: a web site about his travels around West Virginia with YaYa  (they took a lot of road trips), a CD he and June are making of themselves singing, a mystery story they’re writing together along with the script for a movie that’s going to star the Playmobil castle people. I reminded him he has a lot of toys and kits from his birthday and even Christmas he’s never opened so last week  he spent a good bit of one afternoon on the porch breaking open geodes with a hammer.  He spent last Friday at Beth’s office doing data entry for her. (His summer drum lessons started today. It will be good for him to have at least that much structure.)

We also went on couple short family road trips.  Beth and June spent a weekend camping in Western Maryland after they delivered Noah to YaYa. I stayed at home. It was the first time I’d been apart from Beth and the kids overnight since I went to visit my father when he was dying two and a half years ago and the only time I’ve been alone in my own house overnight since Noah was born. I read and gardened and cleaned the house and had dinner at a restaurant alone.  It was a strange feeling, good and bad at the same time.  The next weekend, Beth, and June and I met YaYa and Noah near Blackwater Falls and spent the night.  We stayed at a lodge, and enjoyed one of the hiking trails, and the swimming pool and the falls themselves.

The garden became more established shortly before the power outage, which ended up being a good thing when the power went out because we could eat out of it, at least a little—tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and broccoli are all edible.  We finally planted lettuce and carrots several weeks ago and they are coming up, though too small to pick. There’s also a cute little yellow pumpkin the size of an apricot. We’re having more trouble with flowers than we usually do.  The sunflowers and zinnias for the most part either didn’t germinate or were eaten by slugs or died after being transplanted to the garden right before the first heat wave of the summer a couple week ago.  Not a single sunflower and only two zinnias survived out of around forty seeds planted. We do have some black-eyed Susans and bachelor buttons in the flower bed.

We are either going to have a really good year for tomatoes or a really bad one.  We triumphed over the white flies and the plants are laden with more green and yellow and orange fruit than we usually have this time of year, but all four of them have early blight.  I’ve been pruning the diseased branches but it’s not clear if I can get all the fungus before the plants die from excessive foliage loss.  Oh, and the squirrels are eating the tomatoes, too. I picked what I thought were around ten almost ripe cherry tomatoes last week to save them from the thieving rodents. They were so soft I tried one, and it was perfect– sweet, tart and juicy, so now I think we may have planted an orange variety and not a red one.  We had them on pasta salad that night and when Beth tried her first one she gasped a little. They were that good.


It was Friday night that the power went out. Fierce storms were predicted, a kind of storm I’d never heard of, actually, a derecho. The name comes from the Spanish word that means straight, because it travels in a straight line. This seems ironic to me because what it did was take our routine, which already felt wobbly, and throw it into crazy loops, nothing straight about it.

The D.C. region is served by a power company with a truly wretched reliability record so I had reason to expect we’d lose power that night. I didn’t expect it to be out for four days. The really fun part was that the power outage coincided with a heat wave, our second one in two weeks.  Friday was a steamy and record-breaking 104 degrees.  Saturday was only a few degrees cooler and it’s continued in the mid to high nineties ever since. In fact, we are poised to break the record for most consecutive days with a high temperature of 95 or higher in Washington, DC tomorrow.

Sleeping was a challenge.  We put a futon on the floor for Noah so he wouldn’t have to sleep on his top bunk and we eschewed pajamas.  (June was so entranced by the idea she could sleep in just her underpants that she may never wear pajamas again.)  The first night was just awful, none of us got much sleep at all, but even though it was only a little cooler the next night, we either adjusted or were too tired to stay awake and we slept better.  June did wake up in the middle of the night every night, though, and we let her sleep in our bed with Beth (I went to sleep in hers) when she did.

Eating was a challenge, too.  We had to throw out most of what we had in the refrigerator and freezer. The first two nights we ate dinner out, but Monday I made pasta (we have a gas stove) and served it with garden produce. Then on Tuesday, Beth picked up peach gazpacho at Souper Girl on her way home from work, and the kids and I visited the Latino market near our house where we bought an avocado, some mangoes and frozen pupusas and a bag of ice, which I used to fashion a makeshift icebox out of our biggest cooler. Beth went to the 7-11 for milk Monday and Tuesday morning and we went to Starbucks every day, not only for the chance to drink an iced beverage, but to sit in the air conditioning for a while. We’d camp there, playing cards and reading.

We also enjoyed the air-conditioning at the community center on Saturday morning when we all went to watch June test for her white belt in Kung Fu.  I was concerned her fatigue might affect her performance, especially when she had trouble with the concentration exercise at the beginning of class.  The students sit on the floor with their eyes closed while the instructor drops two coins near them and they have to reach out and find them. Once she was warmed up, though, she was fine.  There was a boy from her class also testing for his white belt and he went first, and passed, and it was June’s turn. She demonstrated the first four forms and the teacher tied the sash around her waist and they bowed to one another.  She looked radiantly happy.  The instructor said he knew she’d do well because “this is business to you,” approving words from a rather stern teacher.

Then it was time to watch a teenage boy from the advanced class test for his green belt.  At this level the moves are much faster.  The boy was nervous but he was also quick, flexible and strong. I was sitting behind June but I could see her face in the mirror as she watched him with rapt attention. Her mouth hung open a few times in pure admiration. I think one of the things June likes about Kung Fu is the orderly progression of the belts and that you have to earn them. It isn’t like soccer where everyone gets a medal at the end of the season.  You don’t test for a belt until the instructor thinks you’re ready and not everyone passes.  June saw a boy test for his yellow belt and fail in the spring. (He passed the next week.)

I was unable to work Monday or Tuesday because the power was out at June’s old preschool where she was supposed to attend camp. They re-opened on Tuesday morning but we still didn’t have power and the notebook computer Beth generously lent me wasn’t getting a good Internet connection.  Even though I didn’t work it was nice to have some semblance of routine on Tuesday and June was delighted to go to camp with more than a third of her old class (even though I did misremember the opening time and drop her off a half hour late). I am a creature of habit. That’s why summer, even under normal circumstances is difficult for me and that’s why I turned down my mother’s kind invitation to come up to Pennsylvania and stay with them. We didn’t know when the power would come back and I wanted to everyone to get back to camp and work and normalcy as soon as we could.

The power outage wasn’t all bad, though, especially the first two days. We spent a little more time than usual together, seeking air-conditioned places and eating out. Partially deprived of television and the computer—we do have some battery operated electronic devices—the kids were forced to find other ways to amuse themselves. They designed and played a series of board games (we took June’s first one to Starbucks to play it and I was impressed that it does in fact work, even though it’s very simple).

After the Blackout

Then Tuesday night the power finally came back and we could do dishes and laundry and turn on the fans and the air-conditioning and drink ice water and life was better. Wednesday was the fourth of July.  In the morning we attended Takoma’s quirky little parade and in the afternoon Beth went grocery shopping and I worked for a couple hours before our backyard picnic of veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and limeade.

That night Beth and Noah went to the fireworks.  Because I am the strictest mother on the planet when it comes to bedtime, it’s the first time Noah’s ever seen fireworks. But I had to let him stay up past his bedtime sometime and it seemed like the right year.  When he came home he said it was louder than he expected and that he didn’t realize the fireworks would “light everything up” the way they did.  Beth snapped a picture of his illuminated face, watching his first firework display. I think she was as happy to go as he was.  I suppose a little deviation from the routine isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Maybe that’s the lesson of the derecho.  Let it be said, though, it’s not a lesson I want to review any time soon.

Back to the Garden

We are late getting our garden into the ground, despite having had a warmer than average spring.  Actually, it’s because we had a warmer than average spring, and more importantly an exceptionally mild winter, with no hard frost. The problem is slugs. Well, they’re one of the problems anyway.

The first puzzling thing that happened was that a lot of the seeds we planted in little pots in early April never sprouted.  And they weren’t finicky or unfamiliar plants.  They were old standbys for us—cucumbers, watermelon, sunflowers, and zinnias, plus some experiments like Echinacea and other flowers.  We replanted cukes and watermelon, and then practically overnight, slugs decimated the basil and the broccoli and most of the flowers, basically all the seedlings that were doing well.  The pots had all been off the ground for weeks, but I’d moved them in the garden plot to keep them out of the way of the landscaping crew that was doing a spring cleanup in the yard and the slugs found them and went to town.

This took us by surprise, as we’ve never had a slug problem before.  I’d see them occasionally in the spring, stuck to the newspaper sleeves on dewy mornings, but they’d never destroyed any of our garden crops. I’d heard it was going to be a bad year for bugs because the warm winter meant more of their eggs survived. Now I believed it. (Later I heard from a friend she lost her entire crop of pepper seedlings to slugs in one night.  As Beth pointed out, the word “sluggish” may be something of a misnomer.)

Shortly afterward the cucumbers and watermelons sprouted (both the first set we planted and the second planting) and the slugs got a whole tray of cucumbers even though they were off the ground. We filled all the seedling pots with broken eggshells and the slug damage abated considerably, though one evening I did find three of them snacking on the cilantro which had leaves hanging over the edge of the pot, allowing access without crossing the eggshell fortifications in the soil below.

Our normal gardening philosophy is low-maintenance.  We plant what we know works for us, add a few experiments every year and give up pretty easily on those crops that don’t work.  Spinach doesn’t thrive in our soil, for example, and rather than try to change the soil, we changed crops and found that lettuce grows fine. Also, we’re not planting corn this year because the squirrels always eat it the instant it’s ripe (or sometimes earlier). Clearly this is not going to be a normal year, however.  I knew this when I saw the whiteflies on the tomatoes.

I would not have even known what they were if not for the gardening guides I’ve been editing, but I recognized them from the photograph and then I remembered there was something like that on the broccoli last year.  I went to the Internet to learn more and the first thing I found was that all the queries people posted about them seemed to be about tomatoes, basil or marijuana.  Fortunately, we’re not growing marijuana or we’d have hit the trifecta.

In small numbers whiteflies are harmless but they carry plant viruses and the holes they leave in the plant make it vulnerable to blight and other diseases. As it’s also supposed to be a bad year for fungal diseases like blight, it seemed like a good idea to be proactive.

Whitefly larvae are so tiny they’re just little white lines on the leaves, with no visible features like face or legs.  This made it easier to spend an hour with Noah on Saturday sitting in the garden, picking them off our four tomato plants and drowning them in little cups of water. (The tomatoes are the only crop we have in the ground.) Noah was a real trouper.  I told him he could quit after twenty minutes but he kept right at it. And he doesn’t even like tomatoes!  I removed some of the most compromised leaves from the plants and let Noah spray the plants with the hose to knock off some of the ones we’d missed and then the next day, I applied a horticultural oil to smother the rest.

The same day I noticed the whiteflies, I also found evidence of leaf miners on an ornamental plant but we decided to let them have it.  It’s far from the main garden and you’ve got to pick your battles.

Despite all our gardening woes, we still had more cucumber and watermelon seedlings that we could reasonably plant, so we took eight watermelon sprouts and four cucumber sprouts to June’s old preschool to donate to the plant sale that was going on during the annual garden party.  I heard they all sold, which made me happy. (While we were there we bought some basil plants Riana’s family had grown.) Our remaining seedlings Beth transplanted into bigger pots rather than putting them in the ground, which is what we’d normally do when they get to this size.  We want to let them get bigger and stronger before we put them in the slug-infested ground. When we do, we’ll put down eggshells and coffee grounds and beer and everything else we’ve heard helps.  I decided to replant sunflowers and zinnia seeds, too, because I’m fond of them and they bring pollinators to the garden.

Today Beth and I spent a good bit of the afternoon in the garden, removing the newspaper and mulch from what’s going to be the watermelon and pumpkin patch (pumpkins are our experimental crop this year), digging up the weeds that struggled through the winter covering, and weeding along the outside of the plot so we can put down newspaper to keep weeds from encroaching from the sides.  It was a pleasant day to work, around eighty degrees with little humidity.  The garden smelled of newly turned earth and the honeysuckle that tumbles over the back fence this time of year.

I didn’t see very many slugs as I was digging in the ground, which surprised me.  Then it occurred to me to lift up the logs and old fence posts we use to mark the plot borders and there they were.  It was like a slug convention. There were dozens all nestled in a heap under one log. Up to then I’d been tossing the stray slugs I found over the fence and onto the weeds at the edge of the driveway, figuring it would be hard to return to the garden from there.  After slaughtering numberless whitefly larvae the day before, I wanted to give them a sporting chance at survival somewhere far away from my watermelons and pumpkins.  But under the log I found more slugs than I could reasonably relocate, so I plucked them up one by one and dropped them into a beach pail and let Beth take care of them. She said something about salt.  I felt a little sick about it and I was relieved when a bumblebee tumbled into a bucket of water and I got to rescue it. I’d been killing things all weekend and it didn’t sit well.

We’ll be away next weekend so it might be two weeks before we plant the seedlings and sow lettuce and carrot seeds.  I think whatever we get out of the garden this year will be more hard-won than usual, but it was still good to get ourselves back to the garden.

Spring Forward, Postscript

The real test of our new morning rules came this past weekend.  All last week, June came into our room at 6:30 or later; one morning she even alarmed me by waking me and saying, “It’s 7:55,” when it was in fact 6:55, a perfectly reasonable time to wake given when we need to be out the door.  But keeping herself quiet until 7:00 on weekend mornings proved more challenging than 6:30 on weekdays. On Saturday she was in our room twice between 6:00 and 6:30 and I had to go into the kids’ room another two times during that time period to tell them to quiet down.  Finally, they went into the living room and read to each other, alternating pages from a Mercy Watson book (http://www.mercywatson.com/#books).  At breakfast, after a stern review of the rules, I praised the kids for deciding to go into the living room, because it had gotten much quieter after that.

“That was Beth’s idea. You should be complimenting her,” Noah admitted.  (She must have given them this advice while I was in the bathroom.) So much for leavening the criticism with praise, I thought.

Sunday morning wasn’t ideal either, as once both kids were awake at 6:15 they couldn’t resist talking to each other, and they only occasionally remembered to whisper.  Under the old system, June was coming to our room and Noah was reading so they rarely encountered each other, but now that she’s staying in the room with him, they interact with each other and their interactions are rarely quiet.  So we still have to figure out how to make the weekends work, but it’s early in the transition and I am not giving up on my vision of sleeping uninterrupted until 7:00 some Saturday or Sunday morning in the near future. I am ready to offer bribes, if necessary.

And speaking of transitions, the garden in the back yard has basically started without us. We have a cluster of daffodils there, an oddly frilly variety, which appeared for the first time several years ago, presumably planted by a squirrel. I’ve relocated some of the bulbs to the front yard, but I never manage to find them all. In fact it seems there are more of them there every year as I manage to separate the ones I find from too close neighbors, which makes them proliferate.

We also have broccoli and lettuce, both remnants of last year’s garden and the lemon balm and black-eyed Susan are starting to come back, too. The lettuce just sprung up on its own.  While lemon balm is known for its hardy and even invasive qualities and we’ve occasionally had black-eyed Susan come back, I don’t think of lettuce as a perennial; we’ve been growing it for years without ever seeing this happen. It must have been that the exceptionally mild winter spared the roots of a couple of the plants.

The broccoli I planted in late October.  I bought six plants on a whim when I saw them at the hardware store. I knew broccoli can be a fall crop and I was sad about the garden being almost over and thought it would be fun to extend our growing season. When I got home, I looked up some information about growing broccoli and discovered it was really too late to plant it in our area, but the plants looked sad and droopy and root-bound in their little pots and I thought they’d be happier in the ground, so I planted them, expecting they’d die before they produced any florets.  They grew a little in the next month or so, and then they stopped, going into a holding pattern for much of the late fall and winter. They didn’t get any bigger and they didn’t die (except for one that gave up the ghost in January or February).  And then they started to grow again, and all five remaining plants have produced florets.  The biggest, most vigorous plant started to flower the other day so I harvested from it and the next two biggest.  We’ll eat homegrown broccoli on spinach tortellini tomorrow night to celebrate the first day of spring.

As we change seasons, I want to celebrate it all, the transitions we work to make happen and the ones that emerge unbidden, but no less welcome.

How Does Your Garden Grow

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

English nursery rhyme

June was lucky I discovered the decapitated tiger lilies when I did. I was on my way out the gate to pick her up at school on Wednesday morning when I glanced over in their direction and realized with a sick feeling exactly what that little pile of buds I’d seen in front of the house earlier that day had been. I hadn’t given the buds much thought. June is constantly picking flowers and leaves and collecting pebbles and acorns. The whole outdoors is her garden and she is always harvesting.

I had the whole fifteen-minute walk to swallow my fury and get it under control. It wasn’t her fault, I told myself. She didn’t know those stalks weren’t weeds. She didn’t know she shouldn’t pick them. She didn’t know that after the daffodils, the tiger lilies are my very favorite flower in our front yard. She’d left half of them intact, but that was small comfort. I didn’t say anything to her about the tiger lilies at pickup, or as we walked home. We stopped at her favorite acorn-collecting place and while we were there the Yellow Tulip and her mom and little brother caught up with us. They walked the rest of the way home with us, and when we got home I ran up to the porch to fetch a cucumber seedling I’d promised her mother. We’d started our garden in pots back in mid-April and I ended up with nine healthy cucumber vines and ten watermelon vines; I gave away eight of the watermelons and four of the cucumbers so we would not be over-run with more produce than we can consume this summer. I had a better idea of how many cucumber vines to keep, as the watermelons are an experiment. Every year our garden gets a little bigger. This year our new crops are blackberries, cherry tomatoes, corn, okra and watermelon.

As soon as the Yellow Tulip and her family were out of earshot I led June over to the tiger lilies. “Do you see these?” I pointed to nearly a dozen broken stalks.

“Yes, I picked a lot of those!” she said cheerfully.

I explained patiently that she should not pick any more, that the remaining ones will turn into beautiful orange flowers but the ones she broke off will not. She theorized that they could grow back. I said I didn’t think so and I told her from now on she should check with me or with Beth before picking anything other than dandelions in the yard. I collected the buds and put them in water on the kitchen windowsill in hopes that at least a few would bloom that way. Noah saw them when he got home from school and asked what they were. I told him. Maybe she should ask before she picked anything in the yard, he suggested. Later that evening Beth tried to reinforce the same message. June must have gotten tired of hearing it because she was not receptive. “This is how it is,” she said. “I will do what I want.” Four can be a very trying age. So far I haven’t ended up sitting down on a sidewalk in public and crying as I once did when Noah was four, but it may just be a matter of time.

Thursday June brought Beth and I bouquets of authorized flowers from the yard—white clovers and purple thistles. I put them in water next to the tiger lily buds. I’d like to think it was an act of contrition, but that might be overly optimistic.

Yesterday we picked mulberries. June had noticed the mulberries ripening on a walk to Starbucks two weeks ago and had been planning this outing ever since, waiting for the berries to reach the proper level of ripeness and deliberating over which basket she would take. After Sesame Street was over, we left the house, June swinging the multi-colored paper towel-lined Easter basket and chattering excitedly. On the way to the appointed trees, she wondered, should we pick berries before or after our visit to Starbucks? (I wasn’t going to get that close without a cappuccino.) Maybe after, I suggested, so we wouldn’t have to carry the berries as long. No, before, she said. I wondered why she’d asked in the first place, but I went along with it.

About a block before we reached the trees, which grow right outside the brick wall surrounding the Langely Park shopping center, we saw another mulberry tree on the lawn of an apartment building. June considered it, but I said no. There were men pruning bushes and trees nearby and I didn’t want to get in their way. She asked if she could have just one berry so I picked one for her.

Finally we arrived at the official mulberry-picking trees. There were a few branches low enough for her to reach or for me to tug gently down to her level, but mostly I had to hold her up. Soon the basket was lined with berries and her face was smeared purple. We went to Starbucks, came back and as we passed the trees again she suggested we pick some more, so we did. Then we passed the apartment building and one of the men who had been pruning saw her basket and said she could pick some berries from their tree if she wanted. I thanked him and said we had enough. Come back anytime he offered and identified himself as the owner of the building.

That night at dinner, I sprinkled mulberries on Beth’s and my salads and put a little pile next to June’s cucumbers and carrots. She didn’t eat any of them, but the next morning she was begging to go pick mulberries again. I told her we needed to finish the ones we’d picked before we went for more.

Later in the day June went looking for mushrooms in the yard. She likes to cut the stems off and leave the caps on colored paper overnight so she can see the delicate gill patterns the fallen spores leave on it. There were no mushrooms to be found today, though.

I did pick some lemon balm and cilantro. We planted these herbs last year and we have some volunteers in the garden, a little bit of cilantro and a lot of lemon balm. Ironically, I never picked the lemon balm last year, which is probably why it’s back and so profuse. I had no idea what to do with it so I let it go to seed. I picked about a half dozen leaves and tried them in iced green tea this afternoon but it didn’t change the taste of the tea perceptibly. I need to do some more research on it. Cilantro is less puzzling. It topped our black bean chili tonight.

We also have lettuce ready to pick. It has looked edible for a couple weeks but we decided to let it get well established before we picked any. I think this is the week we’ll stop buying lettuce at the farmers’ market and start eating our own.

It’s exciting to be able to pick a few things from the garden, though right now mostly it’s a locus of futurity. We have sunflowers about half as tall as June, zinnias starting to shoot up, tomatoes flowering, and cucumber, watermelon, okra and green been seedlings all looking healthy and hopeful. And just tonight Beth, Noah and June planted corn while I did the dinner dishes. There’s also second bed of lettuce and cilantro planted and basil, just starting to poke out of its pot as well as some cleome and delphiniums struggling in theirs. It’s unclear how well they will do as we planted those flowers a long time ago and most of them didn’t germinate. The edamame and broccoli we planted in April never sprouted either, but that’s okay. We’re amateurs and the garden is one big experiment. Some plants die; some flourish; some meet untimely ends at the hands of a little girl quite contrary. And as Beth reminded me as I was moping about my poor tiger lilies, there’s always next year.

Dandelions Gold

We should not mind so small a flower—
Except it quiet bring
Our little garden that we lost
Back to the lawn again.

So spicy her carnations nod—
So drunken reel her Bees—
So silver steal a hundred flutes
From out a hundred trees—

That whoso sees this little flower
By Faith may clear behold
The Bobolinks around the throne
And Dandelions Gold.

By Emily Dickinson

“holy mother, now you smile on your love, your world is born anew, children run naked in the field spotted with dandelions”

From “Kaddish,” by Allen Ginsburg

Spring is losing its tentative edge. We’ve had a lot of rain recently and finally some warmer temperatures. The dogwood in our front yard is blooming and the neighbor’s azaleas are just starting to show some pink. The sunflowers and zinnias we planted in pots two weeks ago and brought in on cold nights are sending leaves up through the dirt. The cucumbers and beans are not doing as well. Beth thinks I didn’t aerate the soil well enough when I planted them, but the good news is we started so early there’s time to start over with new seeds. Beth just put lettuce and spinach in the ground today and she’s been industrious about tearing down and uprooting the vines that tend to take over the edge of our back yard.

In addition to things we’ve planted on purpose and the weeds we are trying to eradicate, we have our volunteers, plants we didn’t plant but which aren’t exactly unwelcome either. There’s a stand of daffodils that’s come up in the back yard two years running and is now finished blooming. I suspect a squirrel transplanted the bulbs from someone else’s yard. Last year I meant to move them to the front yard where more people can see them but I forgot to mark the spot and lost track of where they’d been after the greens had been mowed down. This year we have a yellow fish on a stick to let us know where the daffodils are, once it’s safe to dig up the bulbs. And of course, we have dandelions. Their little golden heads are popping up all over. We have a dandelion-neutral gardening policy. We don’t plant them, of course, but we don’t try to get rid of them either and I’ve been known to let the kids blow the seeds across the yard. I think that’s a basic childhood right.

As I walked to Noah’s school yesterday morning, I noticed the trees along the creek are all covered with their new, delicate leaves. They look like tall women in pale green dresses. I am not tutoring on Friday mornings any more. I gave it up as a lost cause after no one came to three sessions in a row. I decided my time would be better spent in Noah’s classroom, so I asked Señora C if she could use a hand and she said come on over. When I arrived at the classroom at 9:30, she looked frustrated. She’d been planning to have me make a lot of photocopies, she told me, but the copier was broken again. This reminded me that Noah’s afternoon teacher had mentioned the photocopier is constantly breaking down and I’d promised her I’d email the principal about it and express my concern but I had not yet done so. I filed that thought away for later. Señora C set me to work punching holes in handouts and putting them in a binder. She told the students who were finished their work to turn it and go to play in centers and she told everyone else to keep working. About a quarter of the class, including Noah, stayed seated or lying on the carpet filling out worksheets and the rest of them wandered over to play different math and science games with each other.

Señora C asked if I could tackle an organization project. There were piles of handouts all over a long table against the wall and half-filled cardboard boxes on and under the table. I tried to grasp the system but as I went through the contents of each box I couldn’t figure out the theme and what else what might go in the boxes. I was afraid of making it harder rather than easier for her to find what she wanted so after a while, I begged off.

She handed me an instruction sheet for the children’s science homework for the weekend and asked me to go to the office and see if they would let me use the administrative copier. I took it downstairs and asked. The answer was no, but the secretary said the machine was being repaired right then and should be working in an hour or so. I brought the message back. Señora C glanced at the clock. It was 9:50. I was leaving at 11:00. It didn’t look good. She vented a little about how frustrating the copier problem is. I completely understand how she feels. If I’d had this problem when I was teaching it would have driven me crazy, never knowing when I could give homework. I noticed the computer on the table and asked if she had access to a printer and she said yes. Then handout was pretty short so I offered to type it for her. Her version of Word was so old I needed to ask how to do the accents and tildes, but it didn’t take me long. She instructed me to send enough copies for her morning class to the printer in the library. I had no idea we might be doing anything illicit until I returned and she asked if anyone saw me take the copies from the printer. I said no one seemed to notice. She grinned and said, “Send the rest,” so I did.

After I distributed the homework papers, I circulated through the classroom watching the kids at the various centers. There was a grocery store where children bought empty food boxes with play money. The clerk had to make change. Two boys and a girl were playing a game with multiplication and division problems on flashcards. They were all lightning fast, especially Noah’s friend Sean. They were giving their answers in English and I asked if they were supposed to be doing this in Spanish. They switched over and it didn’t seem to slow them down at all. Noah was over at a table full of test tubes filled with different colored liquids. One child held a sheet of paper that said what each was. She had to make a pair that were similar in some way then the others had to guess both what the liquids were and why there were similar. The kids kept joking and laughing between guesses but every now and then the hilarity would get out of control. While I was over there I had to break up some roughhousing between Noah and Sasha twice (and Señora C did it once while I wasn’t there). As I made my way through the classroom I watched and praised, asked how the games were played, made suggestions about how to use the fraction flashcards, reminded kids to speak in Spanish, and opined that surely Señora C must have a rule against telling classmates to “shut up.”

“We say it all the time,” the girl responded.

“Well, only the girls,” said another.

It was an enlightening morning. I’m sorry Señora C (and all the teachers) have to deal with the balky copier, but overall the kids seemed engaged and happy. I didn’t know they were so likely to lapse into English, but I suppose that’s natural during the more unstructured center time. I told Señora C I’d be back in two weeks. As I left I touched Noah on the shoulder and said, “Me voy” (ìI’m leaving.î)

“Awww,” he said. That alone would have made it worth coming.

This morning we were all out in the back yard. Beth was weeding, I was mowing and the kids were playing with the hose and sprinkler. Or rather, Noah was. June was so busy getting adults to change her into her bathing suit and then back into her clothes that there really wasn’t much time for water play. I think what Noah was doing looked like fun to her, but when she’d actually try it she’d get cold and want back into her dry clothes. So back and forth she went. One of the times I was indulging her, she brought me her suit and a swim diaper. I sat down on the grass next to the mower and helped her undress. For a moment I looked at her little naked body, winter-pale in the strong sunshine, and I thought of that line from “Kaddish”: “children run naked in fields spotted with dandelions.” It’s a beautiful image in an otherwise bleak poem.

Maybe I’m like the volunteer daffodils in the back yard. I just needed to transplant myself to a different place where I could be of more use. Or maybe I’m like a dandelion, a bit of gold that bloomed where it fell and watches the children dashing wildly around it.

Spring Cleaning – Postscript

The rivers are full of crocodile nasties
and He who made kittens put snakes in the grass.
He’s a lover of life but a player of pawns —
yes, the King on His sunset lies waiting for dawn
to light up His Jungle
as play is resumed.
The monkeys seem willing to strike up the tune.

From “Bungle in the Jungle” by Jethro Tull

We had our jungle cut down today. Five years ago, the second summer we lived here, we decided to stop cutting the grass at the back of our back yard. It’s the most fertile part of the yard; the grass grows there much faster than anywhere else and we got tired of trying to keep up with it. We let the grass grow tall and soon we had a little jungle playground for Noah. That fall, he was two and a half years old and going through his Mr. Tiger phase. He’d been a tiger for Halloween and afterward he wore the costume as everyday attire. He liked to be addressed as Mr. Tiger and he growled a lot. He loved crawling through the tall grass and pretending to be a tiger. Once he’d gotten far enough into the grass I couldn’t see him at all, just the grass swaying as he moved through it.

Every summer we cleared a small patch of earth to plant tomatoes and a path that led to it. Without the paths, it would have been hard to get back there. With each passing year, the jungle got more entrenched. Weed trees shot up to heights of at least ten feet. The grass got tangled and hard to walk through. When June played back there she was always getting her feet stuck and I’d have to come rescue her. Eventually, the only one who spent much time back there was Xander, the more adventurous of our two cats. Then last summer a neighbor complained about the poison ivy that was creeping through our fence out to the sidewalk. And one day early this spring I found a tick on June’s hair after she’d been playing in the jungle. I started to come to the conclusion that Beth was right and we should have it taken out.

Today the Takoma Mowers, a group of enterprising local teenage boys (http://www.bulletinboards.com/v2.cfm?comcode=takoma&loginpswd=yes&stm=yes&bypass=yes&msgid=1419966&fm=1&nw=x) came to pull up the trees and tear down the vines growing over the fence and hack the grass down to a length short enough to mow. They will be back to mow the grass and dig up a garden plot later.

We’re planning a modest garden, but a bigger one than we usually have: tomatoes, sunflowers, lettuce and spinach. Beth suggested we plant some kind of native grass around it, something we wouldn’t have to mow and that might give the back part of the yard that slightly wild look the jungle had the first few summers.

It’s a good idea, but I still feel a little melancholy for the jungle. I don’t know if it’s my hippie streak, but I like things slightly unkempt and I just can’t stand to cut any living thing. I can bring myself to mow the rest of the lawn and weed the tomatoes but I was physically sick when we had to have an ailing tree cut down a year and a half ago. Noah was three years old and sporting curls down to his shoulders before I let Beth take him for a haircut. Even now, I always think his hair is getting cute right before she decides to have it cut. In exchange, I am in charge of June’s hair and I am intending to grow it long, at least until she states a contrary opinion.

Noah says he misses the jungle, too. Maybe on some unconscious level he remembers those long-ago romps in it, back when he was a kitten and there were no snakes in the grass.

Spring Cleaning

Oh, right, Arbor Day, I thought when June and I stepped off the bus in front of the library yesterday morning and I saw all the little saplings in buckets of water and a small crowd milling around in front of them. Once a year you can get free trees at Takoma Park’s Arbor Day celebration. They set them up on the lawn of the library and anyone can come and take up to five. Last year, we got a black cherry tree to replace a tree we had to have cut down (its roots had been severed during some road work and it was listing dangerously close to the house). Then we hired someone to mow the lawn, as we do most springs for the first mowing of the year, to get it short enough for our push-mower to handle. I forgot to tell the mower that the bare little stick poking up out of the ground in the side yard wasn’t a weed tree and that was the end of the cherry tree.

I wondered if we should try again. The logistics of carrying June, her folded up stroller, the diaper bag and a small tree on the bus home seemed a bit daunting, but still, free trees are hard to pass up. I led June into the library, undecided. There was a storyteller just about to start up in the children’s room. All this and I’d just come to collect a book I’d placed a hold on. The original plan was to dash in, get the book, walk over to our local coffeehouse and post a sign advertising myself as a writing tutor, maybe linger over a cup of chai for myself and a fruit cup for June, then catch a bus home. I started revising in my head. If we stayed for the storyteller (and it seemed mean not to as June craned her head curiously in that direction) it would be too late to go to Savory. I didn’t want to endanger June’s afternoon nap by keeping her out so late she’d fall asleep in transit. If we didn’t go to Savory, we could walk home with the little tree sticking out of the basket under the stroller. It was still risky, from a nap perspective, but I decided to try it.

Luck was with me and she didn’t fall asleep. After lunch and nap, I took June outside to play while I engaged in some spring-cleaning in the yard. The grass is getting long and lush, especially in the side yard, which has always been the dampest part of the yard. The idea was to pick up all the trash that has been blowing in over our fence all winter, gather the wide assortment of toys scattered hither and yon and stash them on the porch, in the sandbox or under the eaves, and pick up all the sticks that would catch in the mower blades so I could mow the lawn the next day. I consulted with Noah, who was sitting at the computer, before I went out. Would he help me with this job for a little extra cash? How much? Two dollars if he stuck with it until the job was finished. How much if he didn’t? It would depend on how much work he did. He was undecided. Beth reminded him his Club Penguin (http://www.clubpenguin.com/) membership is about to expire and he doesn’t have the six dollars he needs to renew it. Noah spends most of his allowance these days on computer games. He made no move to get up. I took his sister outside and began to pick up trash.

After just a few minutes, Noah came out and wanted to help. I sent him back inside in search of garbage bags, one for trash and one for recyclables. He consulted with Beth, who thought I must want yard waste bags for sticks. It took a long while of sending him back and forth to straighten this out. I suspected he might have gotten distracted on some of the trips because he was gone an awfully long time. Once I had my bags, I kept on with the trash while Noah put a few toys on the porch, occasionally wandering off or forgetting what he was supposed to be doing. I cleared the front and side yards and moved onto the back. Meanwhile, June started to melt down and Beth took her back inside to read books and do puzzles.

Shortly after they went inside, I pushed the deflated bouncy castle under the eaves and exposed the bare dirt underneath. Noah spied a worm wriggling there.

“It’s Lowly Worm,” I joked and Noah laughed. The last time we moved the castle, June saw all the worms underneath and insisted they were Lowly Worm, the character from the Richard Scarry books (http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519EHMJMTNL.jpg). June loves Lowly Worm. It didn’t seem to bother her that these worms did not have faces and were not wearing any clothes, let alone dashing little Tyrolean hats.

Noah crouched down to watch the worm. Then he picked it up on a stick and moved it to another part of the yard. “This is a smart worm,” he exclaimed as it kept escaping from him. I considered telling him to get back to work, but this was exactly the kind of thing I think he needs to do more. We spend about approximately forty-five minutes outside when he gets off the school bus on all but the coldest and wettest days, but I don’t think he focuses on nature much. He runs around and bounces on his castle or his hopping ball. We draw with sidewalk chalk, blow bubbles, swing in the sky chair, pretend to menaced by giant snakes and think of ways to trap them. Then it’s television, homework and computer games until dinner. I rarely see him really looking at bugs and plants and animals like I used to when I was a kid, which seems odd to me, since he’s so interested in science.

One of the pegs used to secure the edges of the castle was driven deep into the ground and I couldn’t pull it out. I asked Noah, who wanted to play with the hose, to soak the ground around it to see if that would loosen it up. It took a lot of wiggling, but I finally coaxed it out. Noah then lay on his stomach next to the hole in the ground, watching how the mud was slowly filling it up. He asked where the dirt went when you made a hole like that. I explained that the dirt around it gets more compacted. Then we talked about how worms aerate the soil and whether or not their poop serves as fertilizer.

Noah picked up a few sticks, and then he declared picking up sticks was boring. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that some parts of life are boring, that grownups do boring things all the time. I had a few examples in mind: laundry, washing dishes, etc. But I stopped myself because he knows already; kids do boring things all the time, too. Writing out his list of spelling words four times a week is boring. Feeding the cats every morning is boring. There was no need to lecture him on the virtues of boredom. Instead I asked if he’d like to hose down the dirt and dust off the plastic sleds, then scrub them dry so I could put them in the basement. This was more enthusiastically received.

I kept on with the sticks. There were a lot of them under the silver maple. I fell into a pleasant, mindless sort of rhythm. It was hot, at least eighty degrees. I’m sick, with a nasty cold, and the heat felt like a mild fever, baking the infection out of me. When I was a kid, my mom often told me to go outside and sit in the sun when I was sick so I developed a strong belief that this was a healthy thing to do. As part of the research I do for my sister I’ve been reading a lot about Vitamin D recently, about how many people may be deficient in it because we don’t spend enough time outside and when we are outside, we cover ourselves in sunscreen (http://www.NaturalNews.com/022889.html). It seems like the question is up for debate in scientific circles, but I know it felt healing to me to be moving around slowly in the yard on a hot spring day, getting rid of the clutter.

Beth brought a more cheerful June back outside. When June saw Noah cleaning the sleds with the hose she got very excited and wanted him to spray her with it. Beth took her back inside to change her into her bathing suit. (She tried to get away with just putting her in a swim diaper, but June, never one to do things halfway, insisted on the suit.) The two kids played with the water until June got cold and I needed to take her back inside and get her toweled off and dressed. When I returned, Noah was hosing off the chalk marks we’d made on the fence (a target and a scoreboard for a ball-throwing game we invented for the five to ten minutes of extra math practice Noah is supposed to do every day for Maryland Math Month). I surveyed the lawn one last time and came to the reluctant conclusion that the grass was really too long for me to mow. We’d have to hire it out again. There was more I could do in terms of cleanup, but it was 5:45 and time to start dinner, and the yard really did look a lot better. Noah wanted to know how much money he’d earned. A dollar, I said.

Once in the kitchen, I turned on the radio. It being the first night of Passover, there was a story on NPR about making gefilte fish. I got to thinking about the concentration of spring holidays this week: Passover starting that night, Earth Day on Tuesday, Arbor Day on Friday. All at least in part about rebirth and renewal: finding out you’ve been spared, healing, growing. (Easter would normally be in the mix here but it came early this year.) Prairie Home Companion (http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/) came on the radio at six, as I was boiling linguine and sautéing vegetarian Italian sausage. Garrison Keillor sang:
Oh my sweet, sweet old someone,
comin’ through that door.
It’s Saturday. The band is playin’.
Honey, could we ask for more?

Well, yes. We are so rarely completely satisfied and I am sick and I never get enough sleep, and I can’t figure out how much and what kind of paying work I want to be doing, and so on and so on. But I had a new book to read, a cherry tree sitting in a pitcher of water in the kitchen sink, a pleasant hour with my son and a relatively tidy yard and all it cost me was a dollar.

And that night, for the fifth time in her life and the third time this month, June slept through the night in her own bed. Sometimes you really can’t ask for more.