Queer, Queer Fun

On Wednesday morning, the morning of the twentieth anniversary of our commitment ceremony, June crawled into bed with us at 6:40 a.m.  We all dozed a bit longer and around 7:00 Beth got out of bed and was walking around my side of the bed on her way out of the bedroom when I put my arms up for a hug.  The cue reminded her. “Happy anniversary,” she said.

The kids went to school and Beth went to work and the day unfolded like a normal weekday.  I read a few chapters of Catch-22, which I’m reading for my book club, and I exercised and cleaned the refrigerator.  I worked on a set of instructions for growing hydroponic green beans, cucumbers and lettuce.  I found out I’d landed a job writing three grants for a group of D.C. public charter schools. Okay, that last part was not so routine.  I haven’t written a grant since 1994, when I worked for Project Vote, so I greeted this development with a mix of excitement and trepidation.  But I can’t even start until I attend a series of meetings with school officials in early February so I can put it out my mind for now.

That morning Beth posted a picture of the two of us at our commitment ceremony on Facebook, along with a copy of a newspaper story from the Philadelphia Gay News, about how our commitment ceremony announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer was the first one ever for a gay or lesbian couple.  (At the time my father was the managing editor of the Inquirer. He did not participate in the discussions about whether to publish the announcement but I imagine the fact that I was his daughter must have been a factor in people’s minds.  If nepotism did help break down the door for other people behind us, I have no problem with that.)

One of the things I love about Facebook is all the positive feedback you get on milestone posts.  All day long the congratulations poured in on both posts.  It made me cheerful every time I checked it and gave the day a festive feel, even if I was at home alone, writing or doing chores for much of it.

Shortly after June got home I started cooking dinner.  I wanted to get an early start on the eggplant-bulgur casserole because I was also making a cake, the spice cake with lemon glaze I make almost every year on our anniversary. It was our wedding cake.  June helped pour the ingredients in the bowl, mix the batter, consulted with me on what shade of pink to dye the glaze (it was a very deep pink, almost red) and helped spread the glaze on the cake.

While we ate dinner, we listened to one of the three mix tapes we made for our ceremony.  (Our ceremony was a very low-budget, DIY affair so we provided our own music.) I haven’t attempted the play the tapes in years and I wasn’t even sure if the one I’d selected would still play or if it would be warped, but it sounded fine after two decades (or almost two decades- a notation on the case indicated we’d re-made it in 1994. I don’t remember why).  It was the one we played last, the most upbeat one.  It starts with Prince’s “Let Pretend We’re Married” and the Eurhythmics “Would I Lie to You?” and goes on in that vein.  It’s a fun tape and I only had to rush to the tape player to turn down the volume once so the kids would miss some not quite age-appropriate lyrics.

The music, familiar and yet from such a different time in our lives, and the photo of Beth with her early 90s trademark flattop really took me back. Sometimes it seems like it hasn’t been that long since we were in our mid-twenties and childless and new to living in the big city, and sometimes it seems like another life entirely.

After dinner and before cake, we exchanged gifts. Beth got me Stephen King’s latest—11/22/63— and I got her a gift certificate for Giovanni’s Room, a gay bookstore in Philadelphia.  And why would I get her such a thing when we live in suburban Maryland?  We had a kid-free weekend in Philly ahead of us, that’s why.

We drove everyone up to Mom and Jim’s house on Saturday afternoon after June’s basketball game, dropped the kids off and enjoyed two nights and one day to ourselves in the City of Brotherly Love.  We had two very nice dinners at the Kyber Pass Pub and Cuba Libre. If you go to the first, the vegetarian meats (BBQ and fried chicken Po Boys) and the fried vegetables (okra and sweet potato fries) are very good. If you go to the second, you must order the buñuelos con espinaca. We visited Reading Terminal Market and had lunch there.  I got a vegetarian cheesesteak at a stand where the service was so bad it crossed over from aggravating to comic, but the cheesesteak was not half bad once I finally got it. We browsed at Giovanni’s Room and came out with a few books. We spent a lot of time in our hotel room and in a local coffee shop reading. We saw a non-animated, R-rated movie, the lesbian coming-of-age film The Pariah, which was well acted and a good story, though there were some odd things going on with the camera work, probably meant to indicate the protagonist’s emotional state.  Our room had a gas fireplace and a Jacuzzi and we employed them both.

We walked a lot on Sunday and made some serendipitous discoveries, stumbling upon the President’s House where the first two Presidents lived while the Capitol moved to Washington. The building is no longer there, but they have rebuilt parts of it, with low brick walls to show where walls went and some chimneys and doorways recreated.  You can also look down into the ground to see the actual excavated foundations through glass.  There is a lot of information posted on signs about the house and its inhabitants, including the nine slaves who lived there. It seemed a fitting place to visit during MLK weekend and we would have lingered longer and read more if it had not been so very cold (in the twenties most of the day and quite windy).

We also found the block where I lived from the ages of five and half to almost nine, quite by accident, and from there I remembered how to walk to my elementary school a few blocks away, so we did.  I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1976 but other than new playground equipment (and what I believe to be an addition) the soaring one-hundred-year-old red brick building looks just as I remember it.  It was odd, but not unpleasant to be walking around our old neighborhood on Sunday, because it was the second anniversary of my father’s death. As we walked along the blocks where he must have walked so many times, I imagined him in his thirties walking with a little-girl version of me, maybe headed to the playground, maybe going for ice cream or to peek inside antique stores.

On Monday morning we picked up the kids and heard all about their trip to the Franklin Institute. June loved the giant heart and veins you can tour (what kid doesn’t?) and the movie they saw in the planetarium about black holes and Noah liked the city that changed colors depending on environmental choices the citizens made.  June left Mom and Jim’s house laden with necklaces, a jewelry box and a wicker doll high chair.  (Mom is downsizing in preparation for her move).  On our way out of the Philadelphia area, we made one last stop, for soft pretzels, and then we were homeward bound, arriving mid-afternoon, in time for undone homework and weekend chores.  Our anniversary celebration was over.

But I still have one song from the commitment ceremony tape running through my head. It’s “The Queer Song,” by Two Nice Girls.  It makes me think how much has changed, not just over the past twenty years, but maybe the past thirty.  The speaker is re-assuring her love interest, who is still insecure in her sexual identity:

I’m gonna take you to queer bars
I’m gonna drive you in queer cars
You’re gonna meet all my queer friends
Our queer, queer fun it never ends
We’re gonna have a happy life
Both of us are gonna be the wife
I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
It’s queer queer fun for you and me

(If you don’t know this song, it’s worth knowing that it’s sung partially to the tune of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”)  I have to reach far back into my life to remember a time when the idea of my own happiness being possible would have produced a subversive, defiant thrill, but I do remember.  I do.  I would not say my life is a never-ending parade of queer, queer fun—it has as many disappointments and sorrows as anyone else’s—but there is happiness in it, too.

As the Presidential election will no doubt remind me on a more regular basis than I’d like, my family’s happiness is still a hard pill for some people to swallow. That’s why this was a commitment ceremony anniversary and not a wedding anniversary we just celebrated. I have faith we’ll get there, maybe soon. Gay marriage will be on the table again in Maryland this year, as it was last year and a few years before that. I try not to get my hopes up.  I do want to be legally married for both symbolic and practical reasons, but on the deepest level, both of us already are the wife and we have been since that mid-January afternoon when we were twenty-four and twenty-five and stood before our friends and family and dared to imagine living a happy life together.

My Father’s Office

A guest blog entry by Beth.

My father died unexpectedly earlier this month. There is so much to say about his life and the complex feelings that his death brings that it is impossible to say it. My brother’s eulogy was just about right: He wasn’t the best dad and he wasn’t the worst dad. He was our dad. We will miss him.

My father and his work were somewhat inseparable. He practiced law with the same firm for over 40 years. He would bring home stacks of used paper so we could draw on the blank sides. Sometimes he’d bring home his Dictaphone with its state-of-the-art cassette tape technology and let my brother and me record our voices. It was awesome when he did that.

When I arrived in my home town after learning of dad’s death, I had a strong urge to see his office. He’d sometimes take my brother or me in with him on a Saturday when we were young and I loved going there. I hadn’t been there for ages. I finally had time to go the day after the memorial service.

The law library, with its smell of old books and tobacco, was now a conference room but otherwise not much about the building had changed. Dad’s actual office space had moved a few times over the years, from an upstairs room to the first floor then closer to the front of the building. One of his law partners showed us into his office, which was filled with the things you’d expect to see if someone left work thinking they’d be back the next day – a table piled with files and maps of a local mine he was working with, a jacket draped over a chair, umbrellas in the closet.

There were two things there I was particularly glad to see. The first was a letter opener, shaped like a sword, that rested in a crystalline glass base, Excalibur-like. I was fascinated by it as a child, watching dad as he sliced open the mail we had picked up from the firm’s post office box, thinking it sharp and dangerous and, perhaps, a little magical.

The other item was a clock, an odd clock, really, though it had never seemed odd to me. It was made of a square wooden plaque with coins embedded in it to mark the hours. The coins were from 1964, two years before I was born and the last year that U.S. dimes, quarters and half dollars were made primarily of silver.

My brother and I spent several hours in dad’s office that afternoon as his colleague went through my father’s personal effects so we could decide what to do with them. He’d gone to law school with dad and was instrumental in bringing him to the firm. I think it was hard for him to believe that my father was suddenly no longer there.

Some things we looked at were mundane, like car repair receipts for vehicles dad hadn’t owned for years. Some came with great stories, like the certificate of admission to the bar of the Supreme Court that he had obtained early in his career when he had a conscientious objector case that might have gone that far (though it ultimately didn’t). Some were mysterious, like the dozens of empty cigarette lighters that he kept in drawers at the office and at the house. They were bits and pieces of my dad’s life but, like my words, the picture they create is incomplete.

Dad’s clock is now in my office. My kids will see it there when they come in with me on a snow day or a weekend. It’s not always easy or convenient to bring them to work with me. But when they ask, I often say yes, remembering how special it felt whenever I got a glimpse of my dad’s work world, where he spent so many hours, with his clock of silver and the sword in the stone.

Anniversaries, Part 2

When my father died it was like a whole library
Had burned down. World without end remember me.

From “World Without End” by Laurie Anderson

This is a picture of my father and me at a block party in Brooklyn during the summer of 1971 or 1972. I was four or five. He was twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I think he looks a little like Cat Stevens and that I look a lot like a certain almost-five year old I know. I have a foggy memory of this party. I remember running around in the street with my friend, a neighbor boy whose father took the picture (and sent it to me last summer) and I remember thinking it was very funny that we were all in the middle of the street because under normal circumstances that’s exactly where your parents are always telling you not to be when you are a small child. It felt delightfully transgressive. I also remember drinking a can of grape soda and just being able to handle the full can by myself and feeling very grown up holding it. Undoubtedly if my father was alive and I could ask him what he remembered about this party, he would have an entirely different set of associations. I wish I knew what they were.

Our memories of the dead are how they live on, but those memories are so frustratingly partial and particular to our own point of view. I asked Noah what he remembered about Dad the other day and he said, “Going out to dinner.” It wasn’t a surprising response. Dad loved good food and he loved going out to eat. I asked Noah whether he remembered going out to eat in New York, when we were visiting Dad or in Maryland, when he was visiting us. He said in New York, which made sense because that was the last time Noah saw Dad, in New York when Noah was six and a half. The last time Dad came to see us was in May 2006, when Noah was five and Dad and my stepmother Ann had come to meet the new granddaughter.

The second picture is from that visit. It was taken in Downtown Silver Spring. I don’t remember precisely what we were doing there. It’s possible we went to get a picture of the silver turtle. There were turtle statues all over suburban Maryland that spring and summer as a public art project. (The terrapin is the mascot of the University of Maryland.) Noah loved them and we took his photograph with around twenty of them. So maybe we went to get the picture, but more likely we were going out to eat and we happened upon it.

I like these pictures together not only because Noah and I are close to the same age in them, but because they were taken in my father’s twenties and sixties, the bookends of his adult life. So much happened in between: most of my life and my sister’s, much of his first and second marriages, the births of his two grandchildren, his whole tenure at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time and its associated magazines and the website Campaign Desk. That list of relationships and jobs is one way to fill in the middle. Another is to consider how even though he’s gone, in the year since his death there has been a lot in our everyday life that would be familiar to him:

He loved old houses.

And ice cream.

And vacationing at the beach.

And walking in the woods.

He was funny.

And well read.

For a while I was dreading today, the first anniversary of his death, and as it got closer I found I was impatient for it to come, so I could get past it. But a few days ago I decided I could try to make the day a testament to him. Beth joked we should go to the track because that was one of my father’s passions and I actually did some research and found that Laurel Park (http://www.laurelpark.com/) is open this time of year, but on thinking it over I decided an experience that would be new for the kids and possibly over-stimulating wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a quiet, reflexive day. I thought it should include reading, writing, some alone time for me, coffee,chocolate and a meal out. So that’s what we did.

In the morning I read to both kids (nothing unusual there) and I took a solitary walk by Long Branch creek. We’ve had an unusually cold week and the creek is covered in places with a layer of ice that looks a half-inch thick. The path was snowy and there were brown leaves on the ground. It was suitable locale for elegiac thoughts. It also reminded me of the landscape around the vacation cottage Dad and Ann had on French Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania when I was in my teens and twenties. From there I went to Starbucks and read the Washington Post magazine while I sipped my latte. (The barista wanted to know where my “little one” was. I am so seldom out and about without her.) We had lunch at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/) and I got a big slice of chocolate cake for dessert. After lunch, I finished writing this.

I am going to give my sister Sara the last word in this post, or close to it. This is an excerpt from eulogy she gave at his memorial service in April. It was in the section about how he showed his love for us:

You could tell he loved us by his use of pet names. He called me princess. He called my sister angel. I don’t think he ever knew how special that made us feel.

You could tell by the ridiculous little jig he used to perform for Steph and me every other weekend after not having seen us for two weeks. As we descended from the train into the lobby of 30th Street Station, he’d do a funny little dance where he’d shuffle his feet and occasionally kick out his leg, maintaining a completely serious look on his face. When we’d cry “Dad!” in mock embarrassment, he’d look puzzled, and say “What? It’s my happy-to-see-you dance.”

You could tell by the masterful rainbow he painted on the wall of the bedroom that I shared with Steph. As any child knows, you don’t paint a rainbow on a wall for someone unless you love them very, very much.

We loved him, too. And we remember him, each in our own partial and particular way, but no less for that.

Fear Not

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Luke 2:10

On Saturday afternoon, around 3:45, Beth and I were walking along the boardwalk; Noah and June raced ahead. Every now and then he would tug on her arm or grab her coat to slow her down, telling her she couldn’t go inside Santa’s house until the adults caught up with them.

“Let go of her hood,” I yelled as Beth yelled almost identical words. It’s not like she’d actually go inside without any of us, we joked to each other. June’s always been shy around Santa. In years past it has taken all the courage she can muster to walk into the little house with Noah at her side and stand in Santa’s general proximity while Noah relays her requests. We weren’t expecting anything different this year.

But before we got to the house, a woman dressed as an elf peered around the corner and asked if it was okay for the kids to come in. We indicated it was and hurried up a little.

When we got to the doorway, June was already sitting on Santa’s lap and he was asking her what she wanted for Christmas. She had her answer all ready: “A princess book and a princess doll.” Santa told her to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so he would have time to deliver her gifts. We barely had time to snap a picture before it was Noah’s turn. As the kids came out, admiring their flashing necklaces–hers was in the shape of a stocking and his was a Christmas tree- Beth and kept looking at each other and exclaiming over June’s unexpected bravery.

I’ve been somewhat afraid of Christmas this year, or rather I’ve been afraid of the emotions it might stir up, as my father died in mid-January last year and my last visit to him started on the day after Christmas. But so far, it hasn’t been too bad. I mean, I’m thinking about him a lot, and I even had a dream recently about going to visit him but being unable to find him because I was supposed to meet him at his new office, which was on a street with completely random street numbers. But Christmas music and decorations and sweets seem the same as ever, more comforting than sad. When I am hit with sadness it comes unexpectedly. A few weeks ago the kids and I went to a marionette show at a nearby community college with the Toad and her mother. One of the puppeteers looked a bit like my father. It wasn’t even a very close resemblance, but it was still hard to watch him up there on stage. I think grief is like that–you don’t get to decide or even predict when it will come to you. So I’ve realized it does me no good to go in fear of eggnog lattes or Christmas carols.

And the Christmas story itself is, at least in part, about overcoming fear. How would the shepherds have felt, seeing the angels swoop down on their field at night? How would Mary have received the news about her impending unwed motherhood? I imagine they all would have been sore afraid indeed, at least at first.

After we left Santa, we did some Christmas shopping (this being the ostensible reason for our annual December weekend in Rehoboth—but if you know me at all you know the real reason). Beth and I split up and bought many of June’s Christmas gifts right under her nose, including a princess book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paper_Bag_Princess) and a princess doll. I will not say what, if anything, we bought for Noah because he reads my blog now. Sorry, Noah Bear.

Then we headed to Grotto’s to order a pizza to take back to our hotel room. June had slept poorly the night before and then skipped her nap that afternoon and she was clearly exhausted so our evening plan was pizza and a movie in the room. I was expecting her to conk out on the bed pretty early in the feature presentation so we bathed both kids and got them into their pajamas before starting the movie.

We were watching Christmas Is Here Again (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUpxgaH4F4g&feature=related), which is one of the stranger Christmas films I’ve ever seen. We found it at a video store two Christmases ago and it’s become one of the movies in our regular Christmas rotation. It’s a rather dark tale about an orphan girl who sets out to find Santa’s stolen sack, which has been missing for over thirty years and without which Christmas can no longer celebrated. The girl is accompanied by an elf, a baby reindeer, a polar bear and a fox, one of whom is a double agent, but I won’t give away that part. They have to journey down into the mines of the devilish villain where child slaves toil to extract coal and precious stones. And it goes on like that. The villain, Crad, is very creepy, a shrouded fellow with crooked teeth and red eyes. He scares the pants off June every time. In fact, sometimes Noah only has to sing “I stole Santa’s sack/The sack he carried on his back./I stole Santa’s sack/And I’ll never give it back!” to send June running out of the room.

Nevertheless, she insists on watching this movie, and we let her. I struggle a lot with what’s too scary for the kids to watch, especially June because she’s both younger and more sensitive to on-screen scariness than Noah was at her age. (Interestingly, some of the books that spooked him when he was a preschooler do nothing for her.) But if it’s rated G, I will usually let her watch it, as long as we’re not at a movie theater where the screens are bigger and her habit of running of the room at the scary parts would be more inconvenient for everyone involved.

And she did run out of the room at least twice, even though she declared several times before we started watching that “This is not a scary movie for me.” I accompanied her to the bathroom and we waited for her to be ready to come back. After a while she decided she could just hide under the covers whenever Crad came on screen, and that’s what she did. Much to my surprise, she did not fall asleep during the hour and fifteen minute film, though when I put her to bed soon after, she fell asleep quickly and slept an impressive ten fours and forty minutes (from 8:05 to 6:45). She may not have made it through the entire movie without hiding, but some year she will. She’d already overcome one long-standing fear and that’s plenty for one day.

Once June was asleep, I took Noah down to the hotel lobby where we could read and then I brought him back up and put him to bed at 8:45. Beth had gone to bed herself and seemed to be asleep. I sat on the bathroom floor with the light on and read for twenty minutes until Noah was asleep and then I got into my warm socks, rubber boots, coat and woolen scarf. It was raining out but it’s not every evening I have the chance to walk on the beach and I’m not afraid of a little rain.

Days of the Dead

Halloween has come and gone. Today is the Day of the Dead, and I am thinking more about the dead than usual, for obvious reasons. I’m wondering if Halloween will be the last of the fall and winter holidays I really enjoy this year since the closer we get to winter, the more I feel my grief for my father returning. My mom and I were talking about this on Saturday. I told her how I feel it approaching, a presentiment of sorrow.

She’d come to visit for the weekend. When she arrived on Saturday afternoon, Beth, Noah and June were at a potluck for the two fourth-grade gifted classes at his school so Mom and I went to Capital Cheesecake (http://www.capitalcitycheesecakes.com/) where she had lunch and I had iced tea and a mini pumpkin cheesecake. We got to have a more leisurely conversation than is usually possible with the kids vying for her attention. She brought me up to date on relatives and told me about the European river tour she and my stepfather are planning. I told her it was good she was doing the things she wanted to do. I was thinking of my father, who surely had things he wanted to do before cancer took him so ferociously and so suddenly last winter.

Mom and I came back to the house and we got the kids into their costumes for the Halloween parade. I thought June would protest against having to wear leggings and a long-sleeve t-shirt under her sleeveless Tiana gown, plus a cardigan over it, but she didn’t. Mom snapped pictures of Tiana and the question mark and we were off.

As we had last year, we ran into the White-Tailed Deer, who was dressed like a witch, and we marched with her in the first short loop of the parade, when the judging takes place. I took a picture of the two girls together and the Deer’s mom said she could tell this was going to be a Halloween tradition for them. There was a big turnout from June’s class. Over the course of the evening we also saw the Red Fox (dressed as a bat), the Racoon (dressed very creatively as a S’more) and the Field Cricket (dressed as a police officer). This last one was no surprise as there were several months last year when the Cricket came to school dressed as a police officer every day. He even had a set of handcuffs he wore at his waist. I used to joke it was like going to preschool with the Village People. This year his mom got into the spirit and was also dressed as a police officer and his baby sister was a Hell’s Angel.

After the 3-4 year olds had marched the judging route but before the 8-10 year olds did, June announced, “I have to go potty,” so we ducked into a nearby video store. June’s doing really well on the potty recently. As of about a week and a half ago, she’s completely trained for pee. She’s still having a lot of the other kind of accident, but we are using so few diapers, I thought it made sense to use the few cloth diapers we bought for night use when Noah was at this stage, wash them myself and cancel the service. So today, I did just that.

Along the long part of the route, from downtown to the elementary school where the party is held, other marchers and people on the sidelines kept calling out to Noah, saying either, “What’s the question?” or “What’s the answer?” My favorite question, though, came from the mom of one of his old nursery school classmates: “Are you questioning authority?” The reasoning behind his costume, by the way, is that the unknown is the scariest thing. The question mark is “the scariest punctuation,” he told us earnestly.

There was a vivid, deep pink sunset as we approached the school. Once inside, we ate cookies and drank apple juice and listened to Noah’s favorite local band, The Grandsons (http://www.grandsons.com/gigs/), play live. He saw them at the folk festival in September and liked them so much that Beth bought their CD. We talked to more people we knew and finally, the kids collected their goody bags and we got into the car to drive home.

When June came into our room at 5:55 a.m. the next morning I thought she was too excited about it being Halloween to sleep, as she usually sleeps until 6:30 or later. I sent her back to her room, but she was back at 6:05 and I let her crawl into bed with us. She didn’t go back to sleep and neither did I, what with all the tossing and turning, but she was quiet at least. When Beth woke around seven, and said, “Happy Halloween!” June sucked in her breath and exclaimed, “It’s Halloween!” So, I guess I was wrong about the reason for the early wake-up.

June wanted to go trick-or-treating right away, but Beth explained she had to wait until dark or people would not be ready with their candy. This argument seemed to work, as it had about a week ago when June said she had “made a plan” to be “the Halloween maker” so she could decide for herself when Halloween would be. The specter of closed doors and empty candy bowls was effective in putting the kibosh on that plan.

June’s impatience was soon forgotten, though, because she had Grandmom’s undivided attention for much of the morning. They played out in the backyard—tag, soccer, imaginative games about going to the beach and berry-picking. June made a bouquet of fall leaves and brought it inside. Then Mom took both kids to the playground (after a long and convoluted negotiation about which playground). I love grandmother visits.

Sunday afternoon, after Mom had left, we ate popcorn as we watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and carved replacement pumpkins. We’d had unusually warm weather the past week, with highs in the seventies three days, and one by one, our pumpkins succumbed to mold and began to collapse. When I carried the last of them out to the compost on the afternoon of Halloween, they were soft and dripping and a beetle even scuttled out of one of them when I lifted it. We couldn’t be without jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, so Beth bought pumpkins we made two more. June wanted a cat, and Noah did a face. He designed it himself. Instead of carving out the eyes, he carved the outline of them. “Instead of carving the eyes out, I carved them in!” he declared. June reminded everyone that when it got dark and “creepy” out (here she held out her hands and wiggled her fingers), it would be time for trick-or-treating. She mentioned this in case anyone was tempted to leave before then, I suppose.

Beth made chili for the grownups’ dinner and noodles and broccoli and cheese for the kids and then we put the finishing touches on our porch and yard. Beth lit the pumpkins, and then placed another votive candle in front of the cement gargoyle to illuminate it. She turned on the light in the skull of the skeleton and hung the ghost lights over the door and got the coffin-fog machine running. Noah set the cawing, red-eyed raven on the porch column opposite the gargoyle and June filled the Frankenstein’s monster head bowl with candy.

Finally, it was time to go. June was in her costume in no time, and kept haranguing Noah to get into his. Since I’ve gone out trick or treating with the kids the past couple years, I offered to stay home and give out candy instead so Beth could go. I was busier re-lighting candles and refilling the fog machine with water than handing out treats. We got about a half dozen groups over the course of the evening, but most of them came after the kids returned at 8:00. We rarely get big crowds coming to the door, but we’re always prepared.

It’s a good thing, too. As we walked through our neighborhood this week, on our way to school or the library or drama class, June would appraise each house. “Those people are ready for Halloween,” she would say approvingly at the more decorated ones. “Those people are not ready for Halloween,” she’d declare scornfully at the undecorated ones. If there was some token effort, say an uncarved pumpkin or a wreath of fall leaves, she’d say, “Those people are almost ready for Halloween” in the tone of one attempting to be generous and encouraging. Lucky for us, we were among the ready.

Beth and the kids got back after an hour of trick-or-treating. They covered more ground than they usually do, including our block and two nearby streets that intersect it. Several people remembered Noah, commenting on his creativity with costumes. (Some even recalled his rain cloud costume of three years ago.) Beth said June skipped along the sidewalk between each house saying, ‘I’m trick-or-treating!” or “Let’s go to the next house!” At the houses where people opened the door but had no candy, she exclaimed loudly, “I don’t know that could have happened!” At one house they told Noah to take two candies and then told June to take three because she was “so cute.” Even our easy-going boy was annoyed by that, although he didn’t grumble until the door was closed. Beth said both kids were polite and said thank you at each house.

We let the kids choose three candies each to eat and got them off to bed. We continued to watch for trick-or-treaters and to check on the water level in the coffin and the flames on all of our candles until around 9:35, when we brought in the candy and called it a night.

Underneath the black turtleneck I wore on Halloween, I wore a t-shirt from a restaurant in Key West. It used to belong to my father. I’m not Mexican, so I don’t celebrate the Day of the Dead by visiting cemeteries or eating sugar skulls to honor my deceased relatives. I’m not a pagan or a Wiccan either. I don’t believe the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is any thinner in these few days when the lingering warmth of October slips away into November’s chill. Sometimes, though, I wish I did.

The Birthday Girl

I entered my mid-forties yesterday on a cold, drizzly Tuesday. It was Beth’s day to co-op at June’s school, which is my very favorite kind of weekday. I’m on my own from the time Noah’s bus comes at 8:20 until around noon when Beth and June return, and then Beth usually works from home in the afternoon. There was work I could have done, but it was my birthday so I decided to read instead. A couple years ago I asked Beth to look for a social history of the beach for some gift-giving occasion and she bought me The Beach: A History of Paradise on Earth (http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-5584915_ITM). It looked really interesting and I never read it. While it’s definitely popular history and not an academic tome, it’s still a bit denser than what I usually read these days (causing me to fret about what has happened to my mind in my five years as a stay-at-home mom). But more importantly, the chapters are discouragingly long. I can read the longest books—twelve hundred page novels don’t faze me—but only if the chapters are short. I like to feel confident I’m going be able to finish a chapter before I’m willing to start one. So anyway, with the end of June’s school year rapidly approaching, I thought I should seize the day and the book. I started reading on the porch, decided it was too cold and moved to the bed, decided I should really be getting some exercise if I was going to read inside and moved to the exercise bike. I spent over two hours reading and went from less than a quarter of the way through the book to almost halfway done. The book is full of interesting tidbits (I liked learning more about Victorian bathing machines—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bathing_machine) but spending over two hours reading about the beach did cause me to wonder why it was again I was not there right then.

After lunch and June’s nap, we all headed over to Noah’s school for our meeting with Señor S because a parent-teacher meeting is what every middle-aged mom wants to do on her birthday. No, really we did it because Beth was home for the afternoon and it was convenient. It was a challenging meeting because time was short and what Señor S wanted to talk about was not exactly what we wanted to talk about, but we did learn some valuable things. First, that he’s not as strict about the papers on the desk as Noah thought he was. He said he only discards student work if he finds it on the floor with no name and then he said Noah’s been better about turning in his papers this week. Of course, Noah has his focused days and his unfocused days—like everyone, but more so—so I wasn’t sure a few days of remembering meant much. Anyway, he didn’t seem as concerned as we thought he would be, so we were able to tell Noah later it was important to keep trying to remember to turn in his work, but not to be anxious about it if he didn’t. I suggested taping a checklist to Noah’s desk to remind him of what he needed to do, but Señor S seemed to think it would make Noah feel singled out, so I don’t know if he’ll do it. When we turned the conversation to the aggressive behavior we found out he did mean Noah bumping into people and stepping on their feet. I tried to explain he probably didn’t mean to do it, but I’m not sure Señor S believed me. I’m not sure I’d believe myself in his shoes—I thought I sounded like one of those parents who think their kids can do no wrong. But we did suggest that pointing his behavior out to him, “You are leaning on So-and-So,” or “You have stepped on So-and-So’s feet,” and asking him to apologize might help make him more aware of his impact on others and help him become more considerate of their feelings. Señor S agreed to try it.

What Señor S mostly wanted to talk about is how brilliant Noah is. I think he used that word at least three times. We learned Noah actually figured out the formula for the area of a right triangle all by himself last week, which Noah failed to mention when he was telling us about it, and that now he’s eager to learn how to calculate the area of a cylinder. Now any parent would like to bask in these kinds of anecdotes, and I will admit they were nice to hear, but knowing our son, we know that being smart won’t necessarily help him to act in socially acceptable ways and remember to turn in his schoolwork. I think I was more satisfied with the meeting than Beth was, but in any event we did get some take-home messages for Noah on both issues and I felt that was important.

We got home and I opened my presents—a gift card to Border’s, a t-shirt and a book, a new backpack and metal water bottle, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled, candy and a framed picture of June frowning (she selected the photo herself). My sister’s presents came in a box addressed to The Birthday Girl, which I found amusing because her business —Word Girl—has the same name as the PBS cartoon (http://pbskids.org/wordgirl/) and The Birthday Girl is a character on the show, but I don’t think Sara actually knows this. Or I hope not, because the Birthday Girl is one of the villains. She insists every day is her birthday and expects to get her way all the time because of this. When she’s crossed, she turns green and grows as big as a house and starts trashing things. In one of my favorite Birthday Girl episodes she is upset about having to share her so-called birthday with the Earth on Earth Day and starts uprooting trees. Sometimes when the children are being too insistent on getting their own way or refusing to share, I tell them not to be like The Birthday Girl. Here’s a clip from the show if you want to see her in action. It’s five minutes long, but the first scene, the one in the park, is all you really need to watch– http://kidstube.com/play.php?vid=5008.

After presents, I got Noah started on his homework. My aunt Peggy, my mother’s youngest sister, had a conference in D.C. and we were meeting her for dinner at America (http://photohome.com/photos/washington-dc-pictures/america-restaurant-dc-1.html) in Union Station. This meant leaving the house at 5:00 and it was 3:20. Noah managed to read the last three chapters of The Westing Game, play “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” on the recorder five times and do three long division problems in an hour and five minutes. I was impressed and relieved he was so quick. There would have been more math, he said, but the copier was broken. Normally, I feel for the teachers who have been struggling with this balky copier for years, but for once I thought it was just as well. Noah was able to have a little downtime—he watched Word Girl—and we left.

I don’t know if it was because we skipped the kids’ normal outside playtime so Noah could finish his homework early or what, but both kids were really badly behaved just before we left. They were fighting over a toy and when we hustled them into the car they were both sobbing. I wondered how long they would keep it up but the answer was not long. We passed a graveyard on the drive over and June wanted to know what it was, which led Beth and Noah into a long conversation about burial versus cremation. I almost put in that Grandpa Steve was cremated, but then I decided against it, not sure I wanted to deal with the inevitable follow up questions.

At the restaurant, the kids were both a bit antsy and needed to be taken away from the table for walks twice, but we had time to eat—I got baked macaroni and cheese with some steamed vegetables to dip in the sauce—and time to chat with my aunt and for her to update us on her daughter Emily, son Blake and grandson Josiah. She said June and Josiah could be siblings, they looked so much alike. We hadn’t seen Peggy in a couple of years so it was nice to catch up.

At home we had cake and ice cream and put the kids to bed. When we went to bed, Beth asked me if I had a good birthday. I said yes, but I was also a little sad because I’d moved on, gotten a year older, and my Dad never will. I thought about this on the kids’ birthdays, too, but their excitement about turning four and nine pretty much swept me along and overrode any melancholy. I guess forty-three is not as thrilling.

So, I’m still sad today, but I’m not planning to rage against the universe, demand special treatment or uproot any trees. Yesterday I had some time to myself, a good book, a good meal, time with family including a visit with a member of my far-flung extended family. Life goes on; we all get older. That’s how it should be. It’s better than the alternative anyway.

Tho’ Much is Taken, Much Abides

And did you get what
You wanted from life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

These are the poems I read at my father’s memorial service on Sunday. I put off practicing them for the longest time, mainly because I didn’t want to think about the service. I did buy some new clothes for myself and for Noah in various shades of gray and blue, after Beth researched the question of what to wear to a memorial service (black or muted colors is the answer if you need to go to one yourself). Still, I resisted even looking at the poems until a few days before the service. The grief I felt after Dad’s death in January had faded more quickly than I thought it would, probably because I saw him so infrequently—he just wasn’t part of my day-to-day life. I knew this was going to bring it all back and make it real again and I wasn’t relishing that. My sister said she’d been putting off writing her speech, presumably for the same reason.

But she wrote the speech and I practiced the poems and two o’ clock Sunday found us seated in the journalism building at Columbia University waiting to begin. It had been something of a wild ride getting there.

We woke that morning at my mom’s house outside Philadelphia. We’d driven up Saturday and were planning to leave June with my mom and stepfather. As we were sorting items to take with us to New York and those to leave at Mom’s house, I discovered we didn’t have Noah’s nice shoes. I could remember getting them out of his closet, but I had no clear memory of putting them in his suitcase. It looked like Noah would be wearing his crocs to the service unless we stumbled across a shoe store en route between Penn Station, the guesthouse and Columbia because we didn’t have time for a detour. At least he’d be wearing underwear, though, because when we realized we hadn’t packed any for him the night before, my mom had run out to Target to buy some. If you’re scratching your head and remembering the times last summer when we left his pajamas at home (West Virginia trip) or his whole suitcase (North Carolina trip) and wondering why we can’t pack for Noah—I have no idea.

But as I was considering Noah’s shoes, Beth told me, “We have a bigger problem.” She couldn’t find the folder with the addresses of everywhere we needed to go, the maps she’d printed and our train tickets.

“It’s okay,” she said, not sounding at all okay. “We can buy new tickets.” I agreed, though we were both nervous on the way to the station. I wondered, would there be time? Would there be seats left on the train? But there was no way to find out, other than to go. I didn’t even tell my mom as we left her house, because I didn’t want her to fret. Beth and I had that covered. To take my mind off the tickets, I read the poems aloud to Beth and Noah as we waited for a SEPTA train to take us to 30th Street Station. I explained the Tennyson one to Noah after I’d finished. He said he’d understood “about 50%” of it.

Once in the station we found a ticket kiosk and purchased new tickets. There was time. There was room on the train. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in New York. We took the subway to our guesthouse. Our lodging had also been the source of a little anxiety because my uncle David had found it and the price seemed just too good to be true. Would the neighborhood be dicey, would it be a roach-infested dump? Online reviews proved positive, though, so we’d made the reservations. And it was fine. The neighborhood felt safe and it was clean and quiet inside. It had a shabby, eccentric charm. Space was at a premium and used creatively. Our shower was not in the bathroom, but in a closet down the hall. There was a pretty pressed tin ceiling in our room and the bed was comfortable. Now the front door of the building was hard to unlock and it was a little tricky to track down the manager so we could pay and then when we found out it had to be cash, we had to go searching for an ATM, and getting the cot we’d requested for Noah and sheets for it was another adventure, but we paid $72 for three people to stay in New York so I am most definitely not complaining. I will take David’s advice on lodging any day.

We ate lunch at a pizzeria around the corner (where we found the ATM we needed). It was greasy and delicious. I really liked the garlic rolls and wrapped the leftovers in foil to take with me. After a quick and fruitless search for boys’ dress shoes in some neighborhood shops, we met up with David and walked to the service.

David is my father’s brother, two years younger. I hadn’t seen him since my father’s fiftieth birthday party in 1993, but I’d seen some recent pictures on his wife’s Facebook page just a few weeks ago and I’d been surprised by how much more he looks like Dad as he’s aged. My first sight of those familiar features online hurt and delighted me at same time. So I was even more surprised to see him face to face and to discover he’s shaved his head. I was a tiny bit disappointed because it definitely reduced the resemblance. Soon I was seeing it again, though. He has the same eyes, not just the dark coffee-brown color, but also something in the expression and the way the skin wrinkles around them. David’s nose is similar, too, but it was his eyes that felt comforting.

David lives in Costa Rica, so he and Noah spoke a little in Spanish as we walked to the university and he told a story of how when they were six and eight, Dad made him pick a library book to take home before he could read because Dad “wasn’t going to have a brother who didn’t read.” David says he learned quickly, partly out of intimidation on my father’s part and partly out of a desire to emulate his older brother and parents, all of whom gathered in the living room to read each evening.

There were at least one hundred and fifty people at the service and at times it felt like I spoke with most of them, either beforehand or afterwards, at the reception. It was overwhelming for me so I can’t imagine how it must have been for Ann. A lot of the people attending I’d never met, but they wanted to extend their condolences. Others remembered me from when I was “this high.” They all held their hands at about June-height. Apparently, a hand held thirty six and a half inches from the floor is the universal symbol for “small child.” A lot of them I did remember, though. I saw Ann’s brother Peter and her aunt Doris and uncle Art for the first time in decades. Lee, the trainer for the racehorses Dad used to own, was there. There were old neighbors, too, but mostly there were Dad’s colleagues. It was a writer’s send-off and you could tell. There were ten eulogies.

We sat in the front row, which was reserved for family and speakers, close enough to smell the big bouquet of pink and white lilies and carnation onstage. Noah was the only child in the room and he did a reasonably good job sitting still through a lot of long, grown-up speeches. When he started to kick his legs too vigorously, Beth would lay a hand on his thighs and he’d stop.

I won’t try to summarize the eulogies. When a wordsmith dies, it’s amazing how much text is generated in the form of public obituaries and blog posts and private emails, letters and cards. My stepmother has been forwarding all the emails and links she receives to me and to my sister and I have read it all. I think the most important thing I have learned from reading and listening to all these memories and observations of my father is what a valued mentor he was to other writers. Countless people have said he gave them confidence in themselves and made them better writers.

Two of the eulogies were more personal. Sara spoke movingly about Dad as a father—the eccentric ways in which he showed his love for us. Dad’s friend Bob Schwabach talked about their friendship and how he introduced my father to the racetrack. It was a long, rambling and funny speech that ended, “He was the smartest guy I knew and I loved him.” What more needed to be said? I concluded with the poems and that was the end of the program.

At the reception, Sara taped Schwabach and Lee telling more stories about Dad and we ate tiny cupcakes, cheesecakes and brownies. My dad had a wicked sweet tooth and he loved coffee so I thought it was fitting that at the reception they served nothing but coffee and dessert.

Sara had been to Dad and Ann’s apartment earlier in the day and sorted through some things. She brought me the following mementos: a yellow metal toy car, a wooden elephant wearing a beaded harness, a watch, a leather shoulder bag, some family photos and a t-shirt from the Green Parrot Bar in Key West. The back says “No Sniveling Since 1890.” It was originally printed “Snivelling” but Dad had used White Out to correct the spelling. I love this. She also gave me a bag full of sympathy cards on loan from Ann.

We ate dinner at The Deluxe Diner (http://www.deluxenyc.com/) near Columbia. My plan was to order a chocolate malted because Dad loved them. Sara was going to get one, too, and when the waitress told us they were out of malt powder such a gasp went out around the table that the poor woman was taken aback.

Despite the lack of malteds, it was a good meal, with good company. David and Sara and I laughed about how many people spoke or wrote about Dad’s humility or lack of ego, because that was not at all how we had known him. (I should say this comment was almost always in a professional context, usually about how he made sure his writers got credit and never tried to steal their glory when they won prizes. Under his stewardship there were a lot of prizes for writers at The Inquirer.) David said when I was reading the poems he didn’t want me to finish because it would mean the service was over and we would all need to move on.

Monday morning, we said our goodbyes to David, visited the New York Hall of Science (http://www.nysci.org/) in Queens and made our long journey home (three trains, then a three-hour drive). While June was at school this morning, I read through the stack of sympathy cards. They were different than the ones I received, more detailed, because they came, for the most part, from people who knew Dad. They also came from a generation of people who own dark-bordered stationary for writing letters to the bereaved. A couple of the letters were typed on actual typewriters. Somehow, this really brought home that when my father’s peers follow him in death, it will be the end of an entirely different era from the one in which we live, and that made me sad all over.

But as so many people have pointed out, the dead live on in the lives of those they’ve touched. Much abides.

I’ve been tagged to do the Ten Things You Might Not Know About Me meme by not one but two bloggers, Tara of 040508 (http://www.040508.blogspot.com/) and Tyffany of Come What May (http://btmommy.blogspot.com/). I think the name is self-explanatory, but I can never do these memes straight. I always have to find an angle that turns it into something I really want to write about at that moment, so here are ten things about me that come from my father (some of which you probably already do know if you read here regularly, but bear with me.) I see some of them reflected in his brother and my sister and my kids, too, because we’re all part of what abides, along with the mark he left on the writers with whom he worked and on American journalism as a whole. Here’s the list:

1. My brown eyes
2. My high forehead
3. My sweet tooth
4. My stubborn streak
5. My pedagogical bent
6. My love of the written word
7. My love of narrative
8. My love of newspapers
9. The most excellent last name a lesbian could want
10. My children with their high foreheads, stubborn streaks and love of words and stories.

When I was pregnant with Noah I visited Dad and showed him the ultrasound picture. “He has the Lovelady forehead,” Dad commented. I agreed and ventured that I thought he had the Higgins nose, too. “Baby noses mean nothing,” he said in his exasperatingly imperious way. While they are also Higginses, and Allens and Niehauses and, genetically at least, parts of families we don’t know, they are most definitely Lovelady children.

Inside the Snow Globe: A Countdown to Normal

Friday: Normal Minus Five

On Friday, Beth went back to work, after four days at home. The kids were still home and June’s drama class was cancelled, but I was determined to attempt something close to our normal routine. Our old Friday morning routine before drama class started up was a leisurely morning at home, laundry and Sesame Street, followed by a walk to Starbucks. I knew the walk would be a challenge and Beth thought we should take a bus, but I walk a lot and this snow will be weeks melting so I wanted to get a lay of the land, on a low pressure outing without needing to arrive anywhere at any specific time.

With June in the stroller it’s fifteen minutes to Starbucks and fifteen minutes back, making it a forty-five to sixty-minute outing, depending on time spent inside. If she rides her tricycle or scooter it’s more like an hour and a half. So taking that into account, I think the fact that we walked there — sometimes on neatly shoveled walks, sometimes on narrow paths pedestrians had packed down on unshoveled walks, sometimes on the street, sometimes scaling the glacier-like peaks at intersections– in two hours and five minutes is not so bad. And we even stopped at the grocery store on the way home. I intended to pick up some Valentine candy for everyone to share, but somehow we ended up leaving with a heart-shaped box of candy, a heart-shaped balloon, a vase filled with candy and a tiny balloon and one Valentine card (for June—she picked it out herself, being a little unclear on the concept of Valentines). And June was crying at the register because I drew the line there.

Of course, we lost the balloon on the way home. It was a Mylar helium-filled balloon, the kind that comes with a weight on the end of the ribbon. I figured if June let go, it would be too weighed down to escape. But after a while she got tired of carrying it and handed it to me. As I walked under some low-hanging branches, it got entangled and the ribbon came untied. I turned to find it about a foot above my reach. A tall man or a very tall woman could have easily rescued it. But there were no tall men or very tall women in evidence. As I considered my options a breeze parted the branches and the balloon drifted up into the wild blue yonder. June started to cry, a keening sob, occasionally punctuated with the single word “Balloon!” She kept it up all the way home, even as I lifted her over snow banks and backtracked a quarter of a block to retrieve a lost mitten. It was the low point of the trip, worse than when the man who was shoveling out his driveway yelled at us for walking by him too slowly and delaying his ability to dump snow onto the street. So, I’d have to say it was only a partially successful outing. I did get a latte and we all got some sunshine and exercise. Beth spent two hours on a windy Metro platform that morning as train after overloaded train went by, so that puts things in perspective.

Noah spent a lot of time outdoors that day, exploring the wild new terrain of our yard and working on reconstructing his sled run. In the afternoon, he made Valentines for his classmates and helped June make Valentines for hers. He actually did most of the lettering on her cards (I did a few) and he drew all the hearts for June to color in and he was much more patient than I would have been with her often unclear instructions and teary recriminations when these instructions were not followed to the last detail. I feel he should be awarded some kind of medal for his participation in the project. He’s such a good brother sometimes. So when they disagreed about dinner music—he wanted Blue Moo (http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Blue-Moo/Sandra-Boynton/e/9780761147756) and she wanted Wheels Go ‘Round (http://www.kindermusik.com/shop/product.aspx?pid=3-10-90040&cid=1100)—I went with his choice.

Saturday: Normal Minus Four

On Saturday morning, the Valentine-making bug had not left June. But she did not want to make them herself and she had run out of people willing to help her. This resulted in crying. I muttered something about never celebrating another holiday again. June heard me and was stricken. She has a birthday coming up next month. I had to promise her that yes she would indeed have cake and presents and a party for her birthday.

Clearly it was time for me to get out of the house without children. Fortunately, Beth and I had a date scheduled, our second in the space of about a month. We’d been unable to get a sitter for Valentine’s Day and decided the day before was just as good. We were planning to leave at three for a movie (Crazy Heart), coffee and dinner at Mandalay (http://www.mandalayrestaurantcafe.com/), a Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring and one of our favorites. Since June usually wakes from her nap between two-thirty and three I expected a nice long mental break. Her nap started early though and was quite short. The disproportionate depth of my despair when she woke at one-thirty and I found myself alone with her and needing to fill an hour and a half (Beth had taken Noah to his swim lesson, which—hooray!—was not cancelled) was instructive. Since becoming a stay-at-home mom, I never get enough time alone, but I am operating on a much thinner margin right now. And what I miss just as much, if not more, is time alone with Beth, which is always in short supply.

So the date was fun. The movie was reasonably good and dinner was delicious. We ran into another lesbian couple we know at the movie and then again at coffee portion of the date. Their older son was in Noah’s class at the Purple School and their younger son just finished preschool last year. We didn’t talk long, but it was nice to get a dispatch from the outside world, to be reminded that the world has not shrunk to our little family of four.

Sunday: Normal Minus Three

“Is today a regular day?” June wanted to know when she woke up. Beth wasn’t sure what she meant and said yes. June was exasperated, “But it’s the day after yesterday!” she said. We told her the day before that the next day would be Valentine’s Day. Once that was cleared up she had me dress her in her “holiday dress,” the green velvet jumper with rosebuds on the bodice. We took to calling it that so she would wear it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and not require separate dresses for separate holidays, but now she will use any semblance of a holiday as an excuse to wear it. She wore it to school on the Red Gingko’s birthday because birthdays are holidays. And Valentine’s Day is a holiday, too, she reasoned. I’ve never considered Valentine’s Day a dress-up occasion, especially if you intend to spend it entirely at home and at the grocery store, but apparently June does.

At breakfast the kids discussed their favorite holidays. Noah said he liked his birthday best. June said she liked them all. I felt a little guilty for my anti-holiday tirade the day before, but I was still unable to maintain a spirit of cheerfulness as the morning wore on.

“I need another date,” I told Beth after she found me crying in the study around ten in the morning. She was getting ready to take the kids grocery shopping and Noah had been looking for his boots for a long while. Every time I suggested a new place to look, he asked, “Have you seen them there?” in a snotty tone until I snapped and yelled, “Noah, stop saying that!” I hate it when I yell at them, but I do sometimes and more often now than when Noah was little. I just run out of patience more quickly these days.

Beth pointed out that Noah didn’t seem to have suffered any lasting damage. It’s actually pretty hard to hurt his feelings, while it’s quite easy to hurt June’s. She had spent much of the morning whimpering about some mysterious slight she refused to divulge. Beth also said, by way of cheering me up, “You get to go to the dentist on Tuesday.” She was only partly kidding. These days a dentist visit to get an impression taken for a crown qualifies as me time.

Eventually, Beth found Noah’s boots (they were in the study with me ironically) and they left. While they were gone I cleaned house and wrapped the kids’ Valentines presents and arranged the wrapped presents, cards and candy on the dining room table. They returned shortly before noon with a pink, heart-shaped Hello Kitty balloon and heart-shaped shortbread cookies with pink and red sprinkles. And while this was not strictly speaking a Valentine’s present, Beth bought a Pepperidge Farm lemon cake because she knew I’ve had a hankering for one for several weeks and she saw one at the grocery store for the first time since I mentioned it. I put it in the freezer for after the Valentine’s treats are gone.

June was simply delighted with everything. She loved her card (the one she picked out herself); she loved her books (Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse! and Maisy’s Valentine Sticker Book) and thanked me multiple times. She wanted to try all the treats. She had made Valentines for all of us. She had drawn a box of Mike and Ikes on Beth’s because Beth often buys them for her; mine had a heart colored blue, because blue is my favorite color; and Noah’s had a stick figure carrying a bouquet. June’s drawing has recently and suddenly become representative and all she wants to do some days is draw and paint. I have a thick folder of her drawings just from the past few weeks. I’ve been meaning to sort through them and pick a few to save, but I’m pretty sure the blue heart is a keeper, even though there are a lot of them in there that are more detailed or technically adept. It’s the first Valentine she ever made for me.

Noah seemed indifferent to his book, Magic Treehouse #43 Leprechauns in Late Winter, which was a surprise. I’m no fan of this series, but he has loved it since he was five. (He started listening to it on tape before he could read.) Even more puzzlingly, as they are well below his reading level, he then said that he never understands them. I wrote it off to the crankiness that is slowly enveloping all of us with each passing day of cabin fever. Later he went to bed and tried to take a nap, which made me wonder if he was sick, but he said he was just tired.

After June’s nap, the kids were tearing around the house, playing with the Hello Kitty balloon. Beth warned them several times, but they chose to ignore her words of wisdom and soon June was crying because the balloon had a big gash in the front and the helium was all out of it. I taped it up so it wouldn’t rip more, but it no longer floats.

Suddenly turning on the Olympics seemed like a good idea. And that’s pretty much what the kids did for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Noah’s interest in the Games is largely technical– how do the cameras follow a skier down the hill, he wants to know—and personal—he likes the features about the athletes, particularly if there’s discussion of gruesome accidents in the athlete’s past (and no, he has not seen the footage of the luger who died). June just likes to watch people swooshing down snow-covered hills and jumping and twirling on the ice. Most of the figure skating is on past the kids’ bedtimes, but the one pair she saw skating riveted her.

Monday: Normal Minus Two

I woke thinking about my father. It was the one-month anniversary of his death and according to my original travel plans, I was supposed to be visiting him over President’s Day weekend. I’m pretty sure that part of my inability to cope with the disruption of this storm comes from feeling emotionally wrung out and near the edge already.

Right before breakfast June finally told us why she’d been crying on and off for hours the day before. Recently, Beth and I have been trying to cut back a little on Noah’s monster breakfasts. He has always woken hungry and eaten his biggest meal of the day then, but because of his sensory issues he’s not always aware of when he’s not hungry anymore and we suspected he was only eating so much out of habit, especially on the weekends when he’ll eat two waffles and then ask for a bowl of cereal and then another. Anyway, he’s been complaining in a joking sort of way that we want him to shrivel up and die and sometimes we joke back that yes, that’s our evil plot. Anyway, June heard this and took it seriously and was convinced we wanted Noah to die. She was relieved to hear this was not the case. Poor June! She’s not even four and often seems to have the weight of the world on her little shoulders. I worry about that.

“Today is going to be boring,” Noah declared soon after that was cleared up.

Beth surprised him and me by saying, “Do you want to come to work with me?” (She would normally have President’s Day off, but because her office was closed four days last week, they cancelled the day off.) It took him a while to answer, but he decided to go. I wasn’t sure whether this would make my day easier or harder. It would be quieter certainly, but as much as they bicker, the children do play together a lot and now I’d have to entertain June by myself all day long. It was different, though, and we all could use a change of pace.

Faced with a different day than the one I thought I was having, I wondered what to do with June. I’d been thinking of just staying home all day, but without Noah, this no longer seemed like a good idea. And while I have standing emergency back-up plans for some days of the week, Monday is not one of them. Before June was in school, I used to take her to the Community Playtime sponsored by the rec center on Mondays, but I never really liked it much. It’s noisy and chaotic and I’m too shy to talk much to other parents without a more organized activity going on. Plus I had no idea what the sidewalks are like on the long, steep hill we’d have to climb to get there.

Then I decided I would try to catch up on the newsletter clipping I do for Sara while June watched Sesame Street and then we could build an outing around going to the post office to mail the packet. Mayorga (www.mayorgacoffee.com) has re-opened at a location in that direction so I was pleased with this plan. Then a few minutes into my work, I realized—President’s Day. The post office would be closed. It’s so hard to keep track of why the children are not at school when they never go. I went ahead and finished the work, getting everything into an envelope, addressed and ready to go so I could take it with me and mail it on my way to the dentist.

When June’s show was over, she came into the study. I told her I thought we should go somewhere. She brightened. Then I told her I wasn’t sure where to go and asked if she had any ideas. She piped right up, “Starbucks!” For once, I didn’t particularly want to go there. I asked her if she remembered how long it took to walk there on Friday and if she was really sure. Yes! Yes! She was sure. She wanted to go. Could we go now?

So without a stop at the grocery store, this outing takes an hour and forty-five minutes. It would probably go more quickly if June would walk on the sidewalks that are cleared, but she prefers to trudge through the snow. We stopped at the bridge over Long Branch creek and threw snowballs into the coffee-colored water. June was chatty. She asked if I thought the Yellow Gingko has ever watched Sesame Street. I said I bet she had. “Yellow Gingko is cool,” June said. “You are not cool. You are interesting.” Then she paused and asked, “Are cool and interesting the same thing?” Not exactly, I allowed. But even though I am not as cool as her friend, she did tell me at two different points in the walk, “Mommy, I like being with you,” so that was nice. On the way home, she kept falling backwards into snow banks, seemingly on purpose, and closing her eyes.

“Are you tired?” I asked. She said yes. I suggested that home might be a better place for a nap and tugged her gently to her feet, only to watch her do it a few yards later. Finally, we got home, ate lunch, read a book and I put June down for her nap.

All the while I was keeping my eyes on the sky. Slow, sleet and rain were forecast, but when we’d set out on our walk at 10:45, the sky was mostly blue. It clouded over as we walked. And sometime between two and two-thirty, as June slept, it started to snow. I remembered something Beth said after the last snow. She said it was like being inside a snow globe that a giant child will not stop shaking. I even felt a little queasy watching it come down. Within an hour, even though the snow wasn’t even sticking to the streets or the sidewalks (and it never did), Montgomery County Public Schools announced a two-hour delayed opening. This meant Noah would go to school, but June would not. Normal had been pushed back another day.

Tuesday: Normal Minus One

I left for my 11:30 dentist appointment at 8:50. I did not really expect it to take me over two and a half hours to travel from Takoma to my Dupont Circle area dentist, but I simply could not wait to get out of the house. Public transportation is still sluggish, especially the buses, but by 10:15 I’d mailed my packages and was ensconced with a mocha, the Health and Science section of the Post and a collection of Alice Munro stories. Life was good for an hour or so.

I was home with my temporary crown applied and my mouth half numbed by 1:30. I was trying to decide whether to nap in my room or June’s when she met me at the door. “June, you’re still up!” I said. No, Beth informed me, the nap was over. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t seem right to complain, after having cut out so early on a day when Beth was trying to get some work done at home.

We muddled through the afternoon. I read to June and helped her make meals for the castle people out of modeling clay. While the kids watched television, I got back on the exercise bike for the first time in longer than I want to admit. I made cauliflower-cabbage soup. I defrosted the lemon cake and we ate most of it, even though the Valentine’s sweets are not completely gone. I was in a celebratory mood. It was the eve of normalcy.

Wednesday: Normal!

Noah went to school. June went to school. I exhaled.

It was not exactly a normal day. Noah had after-school science, and then we had dinner at El Golfo (http://elgolforestaurant.com/Home_Page.php) with several nursery school families in honor of the boy formerly known as the Grasshopper and his family (they moved to Seattle and were back East for a visit) and after that Beth had a nursery school board meeting. June and I walked a lot. As the sidewalks are not passable by stroller yet, June had to walk to and from her school and then to and from Noah’s school for a total of almost two and a half hours walking in one day. The day was stuffed full, so full that Noah had to do his language arts homework at the restaurant. But it was better than the alternative. We are out of the snow globe, for now.

That evening, I gathered up all the sympathy cards I’ve received, read them one more time and put most of them in the recycling. I put the rest, along with the blue heart, in a box of special papers.

Meteorology is not at its most accurate this far out, but they are anticipating several more storms this winter, including one on Monday, June’s next day of school and the day before the newly re-scheduled Geo-Bowl. If that happens, I am thinking of hopping a freight train south.

In Memoriam

My father died at 4:15 on Friday afternoon. He passed peacefully in his sleep at his vacation home in Key West. His wife and two close friends were in the room with him. My sister and I did not make it down to Florida in time to see him before he died. I wish we had, but I am relieved that he died without pain, in a place he loved, and surrounded by people who loved him.

I am not going to write an obituary. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked as an editor from 1972 to 1996, published a fine one (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/obituaries/20100116_Steven_Lovelady__ex-Inquirer_editor__dies.html). It’s mostly about his professional achievements, which were many and far-reaching. But of course, when I think of him, I don’t think of him primarily as a brilliant editor—I think of him as my father.

One of the difficult things about his death is that it happened so fast. He was only diagnosed with cancer last summer and after a seven-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy that ended in early October, it seemed he was in the clear. He died about four weeks after finding out the cancer was back in mid-December.

When I went to see him in New York right after Christmas we talked about the fact that we had not been close. We exchanged apologies and I told him I wanted him to know the kids better. The last time he saw them was over two years ago and he only met June twice—once at two months and once at twenty-one months. (I wrote about that last visit in my 12//27/07 entry.) He said he wanted that too and he invited us to come visit him in Key West, but then his condition deteriorated with such astonishing rapidity that he never did see them. When I was planning my trip to Florida, I kept changing the dates in my mind, pushing them forward from late February to late January to this week and
I considered various groups of us going—all of us, just Noah and me, just Beth and me, and just me. In the end we settled on just me. He wasn’t going to get to know the kids better and they wouldn’t get to know him. It was too late. He was too sick. It just wasn’t going to happen. Even my last-minute plans to have Noah interview Dad about his life or at least to write him a letter never came to fruition. This is the part that really tears me up.

“He got out of the god-damned ice cream line again. That’s what he did,” I told Beth on Friday evening after the kids were finally in bed. My father loved ice cream and I have many fond memories of him taking my sister and me out for ice cream. On one occasion, however—I don’t have any idea how old we were—he got impatient in a long, slow-moving line for soft-serve and we got out of the line and went home. I made a solemn vow to myself at the time that if I ever had kids I would never, ever get out of an ice cream line. I just wouldn’t do it. And I never do. I even use the phrase as shorthand when I’ve made a promise to the kids and something arises to make that promise inconvenient and I fulfill it anyway. To do otherwise would be to get out of the ice cream line. But this time, he didn’t decide to walk away. He was pushed out of that line.

I do find myself angry at times. Why did he smoke for forty-seven years, I wonder? Why didn’t he quit when my sister was seven and left collages of photographs of healthy and diseased lung tissue lying around the house and made him a offer that she’d stop sucking her thumb if he would quit smoking? (I feel compelled to note that she held up her end of the bargain.) And then I find myself irrationally angry at anyone over the age of sixty-six, anyone who has had cancer and beaten it, anyone who smoked and never got cancer. While I was feeling this way on Friday night, I made Noah promise me he would never take up smoking. I didn’t do it in a dramatic way. I just said to him as I was tucking him into bed, “Don’t ever smoke. Just don’t ever do it.” He gave me a solemn, wide-eyed nod.

But these angry feelings are short-lived flashes. Mostly I feel sad. And I have the most unoriginal thoughts sometimes. I eat something, or read a newspaper story and I think he’s never going to eat anything again. He’s never going to read the newspaper again. But why should I have original thoughts about death? Isn’t death the great universal?

So I find myself wondering what it’s okay to do. I was planning to bake a cake on Saturday morning—the spice cake from the recipe we used for our wedding cake. I make it on or around our anniversary every year. But should I? And Beth and I had a date scheduled for Saturday afternoon, our first date in almost a year. Was it wrong to go out and see a movie the day after my father died?

I thought about it and I made the cake. It could even be a sort of tribute to him because of all of our parents, he was the one who was most on board with Beth’s and my relationship in the beginning. His support around the time of the commitment ceremony marked a high point in our relationship. And we went to the movie, too. A few hours away from the kids and alone with Beth seemed like just what I needed. We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and then grabbed a quick dinner at an eco-friendly combination salad bar/frozen yogurt place in Bethesda (http://www.sweetgreen.com/). It might seem like seeing a movie about a father-daughter relationship on the day after one’s father has died might be a spectacularly bad idea, but it wasn’t. Parnassus and Valentina did not remind me much of my father or myself. My father never, for instance, made a deal with the devil regarding my soul.

And he left me with some good memories. One of the best ones I already shared on this blog last summer. It was in one of those long beach entries you may just skim through because who but me could possibly want to read so much about the beach? Here it is: “I remember being small, older than June but not by much, riding on my father’s shoulders in the ocean, so deep in that the water sometimes went over his head. He was holding on tight, though, and it never occurred to me to be afraid.”

So now he’s gone, and the condolences are pouring in, and whatever remained undone between us will remain that way forever. I am very glad I got to see him in New York, though, and that we got to make our peace. He told my sister you really find out who loves you when you have cancer and on questioning him further, she found he meant me, among others. It’s something. It has to be enough.

A House Without Heat

This wasn’t going to be another post about my father. It was going to be a post about Beth’s and my anniversary and I guess it is, but it’s about my father, too. That’s just how it turned out.

On Sunday night, as I was getting ready for bed, and Beth was lying in bed with her eyes closed, I slipped an anniversary card into a zippered compartment on the front of her suitcase. She was leaving for Sacramento in the morning on a three-day business trip, the first day of which was the eighteenth anniversary of our commitment ceremony.

“I’m not as grumpy about it as I was the last time this happened,” I’d told her at dinner. I was referring to the fact that she’d been out of town on the twentieth anniversary of our first date. We have two anniversaries and she travels a lot, so it happens. Although possibly I shouldn’t have let on that I didn’t mind so much because the last time she took me to the beach for the weekend to make up for being gone on the actual day. Anyway, we decided to celebrate the following weekend. I got a babysitter for four hours on Saturday, enough time for a movie and dinner out. It was what I meant to do for her birthday back in November.

June woke me around two in the morning and I noticed it seemed cold in the house. I was too sleepy to give it much thought, however. When she woke me again around five, though, I realized it really was quite cold. I put my hand on the radiator in our room and found it stone cold. I decided I’d tell Beth about it when she woke, but she got up and checked the furnace before her usual 6:30 wake-up time and before I was awake enough to tell her. She placed a phone call to the emergency number for our heating oil company and was told the message would be forwarded to the local office when it opened at 7:30. Beth and I conferred about what to do if the heat could not be restored quickly. We’ve been having unusually cold weather for the past week or two. It’s in the twenties at night, with daytime temperatures in the thirties. (The snow that fell in mid-December is still lingering in patches here and there on our lawn. It’s still deep enough in places to make snowballs, which we do on occasion.) I thought with the use of a space heater in the kids’ bedroom we could probably stay in the house for at least another night. The house has thick walls and holds its heat pretty well. Beth was out the door on her way to the airport by 7:20, agitated about leaving us behind with no heat. I put my arms around her shortly before she left and joked, “An anniversary without you is like a house without heat.”

I took advantage of the fact that Monday is the one day of the week I pick June’s clothes to bundle her into corduroys over her pajama bottoms and a heavy sweater over a turtleneck. She’d been spending the morning at school but I wanted her to be prepared for a chilly afternoon. I decided if we had no heat tomorrow, I’d institute a no-short-dresses-with-tights rule until the heat was back on, but I didn’t tell her. No point in having an argument before its time.

I carried my cell phone with me (which I almost never do) on our way to school. Usually Beth waits for Noah’s 8:20 bus with him while I take June to school since she needs to be there at 8:30 and it’s a fifteen to twenty minute walk depending on how many acorns need to be picked up or how many frozen puddles need to be slid across. When Beth is out of town, Noah walks with us and we try to catch his bus as it passes a different stop. This usually works, and it did this day, too, but just barely. As we were approaching the busy street where the bus stops, nearly a block away, I saw it pulling up. “Run, but don’t cross the street!” I yelled to Noah, hoping the bus driver would see him waiting on the wrong side of the street. I grabbed June off the ground and ran with her. I don’t think we would have made it if it hadn’t been for other bus stop parents who saw us coming and asked the bus driver to wait. I thought that was nice of them, given that it’s not our normal stop and they don’t know us. By the time the bus pulled away, with Noah on it, I was coughing hard and struggling for breath. It turns out running uphill while sick and carrying a three year old winds me pretty quickly. I didn’t mention I’m sick on top of all this? Well, I am. I’ve had this cold for close to two weeks, and it’s moved down into my chest. It seems to happen all the time now when I get sick. It’s a disturbing pattern.

Anyway, my cell phone didn’t ring on the way to school or on the way back home. The message somehow got lost between the answering service and the local office so it was 1:00 p.m. before I was able to get anyone to tell me when someone would be coming to look at the furnace. Fortunately, they acted quickly once that was straightened out and the repairperson arrived at 2:30 and at 2:50 the furnace roared back to life. By this time the temperature in the house had dropped to 53 degrees. (We usually keep it at 64 degrees.) But soon it was climbing again and I thought the day was finally looking up.

Noah came home from school. We played out in the yard, and then he came in to do his daily reading. He’s reading my old copies of mysteries by Wylly Folk St. John. I got the idea to introduce him to them because he liked the A-Z mystery series so much and those are really formulaic and much too easy for him. I wanted to provide him with some better written mysteries. He started with The Christmas Tree Mystery last month, since it was seasonal and from then on he was hooked. He’s on his fifth one now. He watched some television and snacked and did some homework (more than half his math packet for the week actually). My only clue that something was wrong with him came right before he started to read. He and June were playing with Lincoln Logs and he was trying to make a large house with an unstable floor plan. It kept falling over. Then one of the little houses I made for June got knocked over and both kids were crying, Noah as hard as June.

I shrugged it off, since he does get like that sometimes and he calmed down pretty quickly, but when it was time for dinner he said he didn’t feel well. I was surprised because he’d seemed fine up to then. He wasn’t feverish, but he said he had a headache and a stomachache and he didn’t know if he should eat. I’d made macaroni and cheese with broccoli, a standard Beth’s-out-of-town dinner and one of the kids’ favorites. I said it was up to him. He should do what felt right. He wondered if he was hungry or sick. Or maybe he needed to go to the bathroom. (All these states can feel very similar to him because of his sensory confusion.) So he tried going to the bathroom and then he ate a little of his dinner. Go slowly, I advised him and see if it makes you feel better or worse. Worse was the answer. He left the table, went to rest in my room and was asleep on my bed by 7:00. I tried to rouse him so I could move him to his own bed and maybe get him into pajamas, but after opening his eyes, he just closed them and rolled away from me so I decided to leave him there.

Now June does not like to go to sleep in a room by herself, so she wanted to sleep in the toddler bed that’s still in the corner of our room and I let her. Then I had to decide where I would sleep. There was room in my bed, since Beth was gone, but I thought if he’s contagious maybe I’d be better off in the kids’ room. It seemed like a different illness than what I have and I didn’t want two illnesses at once, so I slept in June’s bunk.

Beth and I had been exchanging phone calls and emails all day, about the heat situation and Noah’s illness. I’d told her to look in her suitcase for her card and she couldn’t find it. Eventually, we realized I’d put it in the wrong suitcase. I checked and there it was still in her closet. “This day just keeps getting crappier,” I wrote her, before turning in.

June woke me at 2:00 and again at 3:30, and then Noah was up at 4:30, feeling fine and wanting to know if he could get up for the day. The answer was no. So I was completely exhausted when I got up for the day and read my stepmother’s email.

Once I did, none of it mattered, not missing our anniversary, not the cold house, not Noah’s passing illness. My father’s cancer is progressing much more quickly than we thought it would. He’s close to the end. It could be in as little as a month.

It was my morning to co-op at June’s school. I’d put out a call for a substitute on the class listserv the night before but it since no-one was able to sub on short notice and Noah was feeling better, I put him on a bus and hoped for the best. He does bounce back from illness with amazing rapidity most of the time and he wanted to go. He was even mad at me for not taking him to the before-school Geo-Bowl practice. (He’s participating in a geography contest for third to fifth graders next month. It’s a big deal at his school.) I didn’t think we could make it to the 8:00 a.m. practice in time, though.

I drifted through my co-oping duties, not feeling entirely there. I didn’t want to co-op that day, but once I was there it felt like a good thing to be in a busy, cheerful place full of three and four year olds. When June and I came home, we ate lunch and napped. I fell asleep quickly and slept deeply.

June’s school provided our dinner that night. It was something the membership co-ordinator had been meaning to do for us sometime to thank Beth for her work on the board and the fundraising committee, but when she’d heard about our heat troubles and Noah being sick she decided this was the day. She didn’t even know anything about my father. I can’t even really call it dinner, it was a feast: a baguette, a salad, two kinds of pasta salad, kale, beets, green beans, three kinds of candy, including a big dark chocolate bar with almonds. We could eat off this for days, and I think we will. Thanks, Jill!

That night was tidying up a little while Noah was in the bath and I realized I hadn’t gotten past the front page of the newspaper and I hadn’t ridden the exercise bike that day. It wasn’t that I hadn’t gotten around to those things or I’d decided I was too overwhelmed to do them. I’d just forgotten two of the most ingrained parts of my weekday routine. I decided I needed to be finished with this day, so soon after both kids were asleep, around 9:35, I was in bed myself. June let me sleep until almost six, for which I was deeply grateful.

I think I’m going to Florida soon. I’ve been exchanging email with my sister and stepmother about it, but I need to wait until I can talk to Beth in person to figure out what makes the most sense. And depending on when I go and for how long, she’ll need to make arrangements for childcare, either taking time off work or inviting her mother to come stay and watch the kids while I’m gone. It’s all up in the air right now. I can’t wait for her to get home this afternoon so I talk to her in person and not be alone with this grief.

But I’m also wishing I could go back to Monday when my biggest problems were a sick child and a house without heat.